Get to Know the Hispanics Around You Foreign Languages Department
Salem State University

Hispanics and Race

Hispanics can be of any race

The notion of race is very controversial, but it is used popularly in the US and elsewhere, though its use varies considerably [Wikipedia: Race]. The US Census mixes racial and ethnic categories. The label Hispanic is an ethnic label, not a racial one (such as White or Black). As Census documents never tire to repeat, Hispanics can be of any race [Wikipedia: Hispanic Racial Diversity] [Wikipedia: Racial demographics of the United States]

Looked at objectively, Hispanics in this country are by and large mixtures of European, African, and Amerindian populations. What they are believed to be by the society at large or what they believe themselves to be, however, is another matter, as we will see.

Race ideas in the US and in Latin America

Cuadro de castas
Before Hispanics became such a 'noticeable' group in the U.S., the distinction between black and white was the major racial division and according to the one-drop rule adhered to by the culture at large, one drop of African ancestry usually meant that the person was Black. [Wikipedia: One-drop rule]

Naturally, other ethnic-racial categories were recognized, such as American Indian, Chinese (or Asian) etc.. Despite the popular idea of the U.S. as a melting-pot [Wikipedia: Melting pot], the idea of racial mixing has never been the norm in the U.S., a fact that only now is starting to change [Wikipedia: Multiracial].

The notion of racial continuum and a separation of race (or skin color) and ethnicity, on the other hand, is the norm in most of Latin America. In the Spanish and Portuguese empires, racial mixing or miscegenation was the norm and something that the Spanish and Portuguese had grown rather accustomed to during the hundreds of years of contact with Arabs and North Africans in the Iberian peninsula. But, demographics may have made this inevitable as well. Thus, for example, of the approximately 13.5 million people who lived in the Spanish colonies in 1800 before independence only about one fifth were white. This contrasts with the U.S., where more than four fifths were whites (out of a population of 5.3 million in 1801, 900,000 were slaves, plus approximately 60,000 free blacks). [Wikipedia: Statistics_on_indigenous_populations]

The fact of the recognition of a racial continuum in Hispanic American does not mean that there wasn't discrimination, which there was, or that there wasn't an obsession with race, or 'castes', as they were sometimes called.

Mestizos and Mulatos

In areas with large indigenous Amerindian populations, a racial mixture resulted, which is known in Spanish as mestizos [Wikipedia: Mestizo], who are a majority in Mexico, Central America and most of South America. Similarly, when African slaves were brought to the Caribbean region and Brazil, where there was very little indigenous presence left, unions between them and Spanish produced a population of mixed mulatos [Wikipedia: Mulatto], who are a majority of the population in many of those Spanish-speaking Caribbean basin countries (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Venezuela).

One should not conclude from these facts that Hispanic countries do not have any issues with race and racism. The fact that there is no clear cut color line does not mean that there isn't a color continuum and a belief embedded in the institutions of these countries and perhaps their collective psyche as well according to which "white is better" or, rather, "whiter that is, lighter is better."

Most Hispanics in the U.S. are (objectively speaking, but see below) either mestizos or mulatos and thus have some shade of noticeably brown skin, which in a way explains the popular notion in the U.S. that Hispanics are a race. The populations of Spanish speaking countries from where immigrants come to the U.S., tend to be heavily mixed. Exceptions to this are people from Spain, who are for the most part white (though in Spaniards too many have darker skin from the centuries of intermixing with North African and Arab peoples), and inhabitants of some southern cone South American countries, such as Argentina and Uruguay, where the majority of the population are descendants of European immigrants.

Racial Identification in the US Census

It is very interesting to see how Hispanics answered in the race question in the census. In 2000 the race question followed the Hispanic question. The first three choices (White, Black, and American Indian) would seem to be the main obvious choices for Hispanics and, since in this census for the first time Americans were allowed to choose more than one option, we would expect people to have chosen a combination of those three choices. However, those choices by and large were not the ones that Hispanics use for self-identification.

Actually, of those who answered Yes to the Hispanic question (question five) in the Census 2000 questionnaire, 93.7% checked only one box for the race question (question six): 47.9% checked White, 2% checked Black or African American, 1.2% checked Asian, and 6.3% checked Two or more races. However, 42.2% were not satisfied with any of these options and checked Some other race. The fill-in response for those who chose Some other race was usually something unrelated to race, but rather country of origin (Puerto Rican, Dominican, etc.). It is interesting too that of all Americans who checked the box "Some Other Race", 97 percent were Hispanic. Also, almost one third (32.4%) of the multi-race respondents were Hispanics.

It would seem from this that Hispanics do not feel comfortable with the categories offered by the Census. They may have also felt that categories such as Black or Native American, had more to do with ethnicity than with race.

It would also seem too that far too many may have checked the White box (almost half!), considering the fact that most Hispanics in the U.S. are mestizos and mulatos. Considering that there was no box in the census for mestizo or mulato, this may be due to the fact that, in Latin America's mixed race world, people with sufficient white blood can pass for whites in a binary classification system if forced into such a choice, especially since there is enough variation in physical characteristics among "white" Spaniards themselves. And, also, Hispanics are obviously aware that Blacks and Native Americans are worse off than Whites in the U.S., so it doesn't pay to identify with them.


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