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Representation of Mulattos during the Latin American colonial period
Representation of Mulattos during the Latin American colonial period

Mulatto (also Mulato) is a term of Spanish and/or Portuguese origin describing the offspring of African and European ancestry. The forms "mulatto/mulato" are widely used in Spanish and Portuguese. Many Americans of Hispanic and/or Latino origin identify themselves as mulatto; the term is also used in many other countries.

In colonial years the term originally referred to the children of one European and one African parent, or the children of two mulatto parents. During this era a myriad of other terms, both in Latin America and the USA, were in use to denote other individuals of African/European ancestry in ratios smaller or greater than the 50:50 of mulattos: octoroon for example. Today, mulatto refers to all people with significant amounts of both European and African ancestry.

The origin of the term is often said to derive from "mula", the Spanish word for mule, once a generic designation name for any hybrid. This is not certain but, as a result, it is considered offensive by some English-speakers, who might prefer terms like "biracial" instead. Others however insist on the use of the term mulatto because it is more precise. It must also be noted that words change their actual meaning independently from their etymological origin. Many words that are now widely used once had a negative origin. (examples are: hysterical (sexist origin), berber, slavic, hapa etc.) Spanish-speakers do not consider "mulatto" offensive. An alternate etymology traces mulatto to the Arabic muwallad, which means "a person of mixed race ancestry".

Mulatto was also used as a term for those of white and Native American ancestry during the early census years.


Hispanic America and Brazil

In Latin America, mulattos officially make up the majority of the population in the Dominican Republic1 (73%) and Cuba (51%).

In other American countries where mulattos do not constitute a majority, they can represent a significant portion of their populations; Brazil (aprox. 38%), Colombia (14%), and Panama (14%). However, these are exceptions rather than the rule.

Although mulattos, and even full-blooded Africans, did once represent a sizable portion of the population in countries such as Mexico and Honduras, they were absorbed there for the most part by the mestizo populations of mixed European and Native American descent.

United States and Puerto Rico

In the USA, one criticism made in the use of "mulatto" is that it is said to ignore the high rate of racial intermixing in North America, in which few people have African ancestry without some small traces of European ancestry. [1]

While the criticism is a valid one, it fails to take into account that in the USA the historic Anglo-American tradition of the One-Drop Rule (the custom of deeming all people with any amount of African blood to be black) prevented mulattos from becoming an independent ethnic entity, with members seeing themselves as such. The existing mulatto communities in Charlston, Richmond, New Orleans and elsewhere were torn apart by the one-drop-rule. As a result of this, most US mulattos mixed with the African population, and while they did endow many modern African-Americans with the European ancestry mulattos possessed, that ancestry is now quite diluted. This in turn conflicts with the fact that the term mulatto usually refers to people with significant amounts of both European and African ancestry.

Mulattos might also constitute a significant portion of the population of Puerto Rico2, a commonwealth territory in association with the USA. However, recent genetic research indicates that, in relation to matrilineal ancestry as revealed by mtDNA, 61% have inherited mitochondrial DNA from an Amerind female ancestor, 27% have inherited mitochondrial DNA from a female African ancestor and 12% showed to have inherited mitochondrial DNA from a female European ancestor. Conversely, patrilineal input as indicated by the Y chromosome, showed that 70% of all Puerto Rican males have inherited Y chromasome DNA from a male European ancestor, 20% have inherited Y chromasome DNA from a male African ancestor and less than 10% have inherited Y chromasome DNA from male Amerindian ancestor. Because these test measure only the DNA along the matrilineal line and patrilinel lines of inheritance, each test only measures the one individual out of thousands, perhaps millions of ancestors; they cannot tell us exactly what percentage of Puerto Ricans have African Ancestry.

Nevertheless, independent of their actual numbers, the history of the population of Puerto Rican mulattos is independent from those of the US mainland. Prior to the Spanish-American War - when Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States - Puerto Rico was an integral part of the Spanish Empire, and it still constitutes a cultural-geographic segment of Latin America, thus their history is a shared one with those from Hispanic America and Brazil.


In Haiti (formerly Saint-Domingue), a non-Hispanic country of the Caribbean, mulattos represented a smaller proportion of the population than in many hispanic countries. Today they constitute about 5% of the population.

Historically, Haitian mulattos have been looked down upon by both blacks and whites alike, and used by both when best suited. Blacks regarded them as no better or worse than their unmixed French progenitors. Mulattos made up a class of their own. They were free and usually had a preference for French rather than African culture. Often they were highly educated and wealthy. This is much in contrast to US mulattos which were often grouped together with blacks, and saw themselves as such - although in French-influenced areas of the Southern United States prior to the Civil War, particularly New Orleans, Louisiana, a number of mulattoes were also free and slave-owning3.

Being part of their time, many Haitian mulattos were also slaveholders and as such actively participated in the oppression of the black majority. However, many also actively fought for the abolition of slavery. Distinguished mulattos such as Nicolas Suard and others were prime examples of mulattoes who devoted their time, energy and financial means to this cause. Some were also members of the Les Amis des Noirs in Paris, a social club that fought for the abolition of slavery.

Nevertheless, many mulattos were slaughtered by black Haitians during the wars of independence in order to secure black political power over the island. Earlier some black volunteers had already aligned themselves with the French against the mulattos during the first and second mulatto rebellion.

In Haiti, mulattos initially possessed legal equality, which provided them with many benefits, including inheritance. In the 18th century, however, Europeans fearful of slave revolts had restricted their rights, but they were successfully reclaimed in 1791.

Contemporary Mulattos

In modern Europe, there is now an emerging community of contemporary mulattos who have nothing to do with slavery. These are the offspring of Europeans and recent African immigrants across several European countries.


  1. In the Dominican Republic, locally known as "Quisqueya" (Taíno. "The Great Island"), the mulatto population has absorbed the small number of Taíno Amerindian strains once present in that country.
  2. In Puerto Rico, locally known as "Borinquen" (Taíno. "The Land of the Mighty Lord"), a historic identifiably mestizo population absorbed most of the remaining unmixed Taíno Amerindians, these mestizos were then themselves absorbed into the general Puerto Rican population, which is heterogeneous and based on a tri-racial amalgam that may exhibit all types of phenotypes , from an "unmixed" appearance to any of the many intermediates.
  3. According to the 1860 census, there were 10,689 free "Blacks" (most often mulattos) in the city of New Orleans. John Hope Franklin, a professor at Duke University, estimates over 3,000 of these "Blacks" owned slaves.

See also

External links

Mulato is also another name for the Comecrudo language of the Comecrudan family.

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