Everyone knows homegrown racism has occasionally been directed at Hispanics in the United States. But here's a question too seldom asked: Is the United States importing Hispanic racism directed at other Hispanics?

The phenomenon is a fascinating twist on the traditional discussion about race in America, long known as "the American dilemma." But it has arisen so often while talking with fellow Hispanics recently that I'm surprised it has not come up in public more often than it has. That needs to change.

Sadly, the racism exhibited by some Hispanics against other Hispanics is at times more virulent than that directed at Hispanics by European Americans. Hispanics imbued with racism are coming to America every day. Unaware that however imperfect this country may be when it comes to its ideals, they need to know what those ideals are and recognize how imperative it is to try to live up to them.

The continuing debate in the Hispanic community about Spanish-language soap operas starring blonde, blue-eyed actors and actresses -- as if they were representative of the Hispanic population from Tampa to Tierra del Fuego -- is but the best-known example of this controversy. But Hispanic television's exaltation of cream-colored skin over shades of chocolate and cinnamon is hardly the entire issue.

A few years ago I was talking to a friend, a woman who happens to be a beautiful Cuban emigre with European features. Having just returned from Havana, I was regaling her with stories about my visit when she interrupted me with a question that discomfited me deeply.

Wasn't it true that so many of the better class of people had abandoned the island that Cuba had become very black? She asked the question with obvious disapproval on her face.

She was right in her belief that Cubans of African descent are now more visible in the society than in the years preceding Fidel Castro's revolution. But her unmistakable implication that Cuba's African-origin population is undesirable left me speechless.

A couple of months ago, a colleague of mine was reminiscing about the time he was in his office in Washington, D.C., and tried to introduce a Peruvian-born woman of European origin to a Peruvian-born man of Andean Indian background. According to my friend, the differences of race (and class) were so great that she refused to shake the man's hand, and turned her back on him. "Can't you see he's an Indian?" she asked my friend.

And I hardly have to remind my fellow Mexican Americans about the racism that exists in our national subgroup, especially when perpetrated by Mexicans of Spanish or other European origin against Spanish-Indian mixed bloods -- or by both those groups against indigenous peoples with no European background. "Little Indians," they are called.

The issue of sensitivity in discussions about intragroup Hispanic racism should not be all that surprising. One has only to consider the tension that attends African American dialogues about two-way racism between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.

But there is a major difference between the American black phenomenon of intragroup racism and the Hispanic variation. Hispanics can be of any race or national origins group: Just think of President Alberto Fujimori of Peru; the Veracruz, Mexico, native Salma Hayek; the Puerto Rican boxer Felix Trinidad; the Chilean revolutionary leader Bernardo O'Higgins; or the Argentine president Carlos Menem. And within each Latin American nation, social history plays a major role in tolerance or intolerance of different races and nationalities.

Not for its extreme sensitivity should this complicated issue be ignored. First of all, Hispanics and all other groups in this country will best defend their own interests by exalting their U.S. citizenship above their ethnic origin. Clinging to national origins and old blood ties is a sure way of inviting others in the United States to play a game of racism that Hispanics are likely to lose.

That leads to the second point. To the degree that Hispanics are already victimized by prejudice and discrimination from other groups, they will maximize their credibility in challenging that situation by contesting the racism that arises within their own community.

Yes, there is a long history of prejudice and discrimination perpetrated on Hispanics by what is loosely termed the "Anglo" community. But non-Hispanic Europeans are certainly not at the root of all prejudice and discrimination against Hispanics. It may not be politically correct to say so, but Hispanics should remind themselves that racial justice, like charity, begins at home.