Loribel Peguero, 22, a New York hairstylist, said her darker-skinned grandmother lamented that it was a "punishment."
Loribel Peguero, 22, a New York hairstylist, said her darker-skinned grandmother lamented that it was a "punishment." (Christopher Gregory for The Washington Post)

Latinos have many skin tones. Colorism means they’re treated differently.

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Growing up, Anyiné Galván-Rodríguez was not the darkest-skinned member of her part-Dominican, part-Puerto Rican family, and not the lightest.

“In every Dominican family, because you have such a melting pot of Spaniard, African and Taino origins, you always have a rainbow of colors,” she said.

Even as a child, Galván-Rodríguez noticed that her physical features shaped how she was treated. While some grandchildren were praised for their looser curls, Galván-Rodríguez was chastised for her coarse, curly hair.

“No one ever directly said, ‘Oh you have bad hair and because you have bad hair, you’re less than the other cousin,’” said Galván-Rodríguez, 40. “But it was said like microaggressions."

As she got older, Galván-Rodríguez said acquaintances would call her “Negra fina,” a Spanish idiom that literally translates to “fine Black woman” but is used to suggest that someone has more-European features.

“It was never said as an intention to offend,” said Galván-Rodríguez, who lives in Chicago. “It was intended as more of a compliment.”

Galván-Rodríguez said she internalized these comments and came to associate her “lighter” features as good. “I knew my status based on my skin color,” she said.

While Latinos in the United States are often described simply as “Brown,” that term does not capture the spectrum of skin tones and races within the country’s Hispanic population. These differences in appearance can affect how Hispanics are treated in the United States, even by other Latinos.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center asked 3,375 Hispanic adults to identify the skin color that best represented their own, based on a scale of 10 tones ranging from fair to dark. Eighty percent of Latino adults selected one of the four lighter skin tones.

Those who self-identified as having lighter skin said they experienced less discrimination than those with darker tones. About two-thirds of darker-skinned Latinos said they experienced discrimination in the past year, while 54 percent of Hispanics with lighter skin color said the same.

Alex Guzmán, 33, has seen that reality play out among his own family.

Guzmán is so light-skinned that some people don’t realize he is ethnically Latino. He said he recognizes that his skin tone has afforded him some privilege, since he has faced overt discrimination only “in relation to the other people in my life.”

That hit home for Guzmán when his family was returning to the United States after a bus trip to Niagara Falls. As they crossed the border, Guzmán said that only his father was pulled aside by border agents and questioned about his immigration status.

His father, Guzmán said, has olive skin and is the most “Latino-looking” in the family. “I remember being pretty terrified that these uniformed agents were taking my dad off the bus away from us,” Guzmán said.

For Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, being a dark-skinned Latina has meant constant questions about who she is and whether she belongs. That’s especially true in the United States, she said, where race is sometimes understood as a binary.

Llanos-Figueroa remembers being in elementary school when she came across a group of Black girls playing double Dutch. She didn’t know how to play, but she introduced herself as Dahlma.

They said, “That’s a weird name,” she recalled.

She said, “I have a Puerto Rican name.”

And they said, “We thought you were Black.”

“I’m Black and Puerto Rican,” she responded.

The girls seemed confused.

“I can see looking back on it that they were trying to fit me into a box that they were familiar with,” said Llanos-Figueroa, an author who grew up in the Bronx. “And they weren’t familiar with the notion of an Afro-Puerto Rican.”

When Llanos-Figueroa was older and started wearing her hair in an Afro, Latinas would comment on her hairstyle.

“Other Latinos would say things like: ‘You shouldn’t wear your hair in an Afro. No one will know you’re Latina,’” Llanos-Figueroa said. “Or my high school counselor, when I went to sign up for a Latino scholarship, she suggested I should apply for a scholarship through the United Negro College Fund instead.”

Llanos-Figueroa said these experiences made her feel like, “You don’t fit in, like you’re ‘the other.’”

“I think in general people want to keep it simple. You’re either this or that. They don’t like complications,” she said. “And the reality is that we are all complicated, we are all nuanced. And it may take a little more time to understand that this person can encompass two worlds.”

Llanos-Figueroa, 72, turned to writing to help educate others about her background. Her 2009 novel “Daughters of the Stone” centered around five generations of an Afro-Puerto Rican family.

“You can’t separate my being Puerto Rican from my being African Afro-descendant,” she said. “So eventually it led me to my writing career where everything I write has to do with the Afro-Puerto Rican world.”

Colorism can also affect how Hispanic Americans relate to one another. According to the Pew study, nearly half of Hispanic adults say they have often or sometimes heard a Hispanic friend or family member make comments about other Hispanics that might be considered racist or racially insensitive.

Tanya Katerí Hernández, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” has studied anti-Black sentiments and colorism within the Latino community.

For her book, she analyzed examples of anti-Black bias in the workplace, in schools and within families. One of her most memorable case studies, she said, was the story of a dark-skinned Dominican woman looking for housing. The woman was referred to a housing placement agency by her light-skinned relatives. But when the apartment-seeker showed up to the apartment, moving date set and money arranged, the Latina apartment owner told her, “Nope, not you. There’s been some mistake,” Hernández said.

“It’s a stark example of rejection based on racialized appearance within a Latino community,” she added.

Experts say this kind of colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone, has deep roots in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor of race, colonialism and diaspora studies at Tufts University, said that colonialism had a significant impact on how race and ethnicity are understood across Latin America.

“What you have is sort of this stratification of levels of humanities where White Spaniards were deemed as the real humans, as the only humans,” García Peña said. “And then below that were Indigenous people and then below that were African people who were brought into the country.”

García Peña said that hierarchy has echoed across generations and is still reflected in the ways many Latinos think about race and ethnicity. For example, in the Dominican Republic, mixed-race people typically do not identify as Black.

That history of colorism and discrimination plays out in the United States as well.

Latinos here have always faced discrimination and racial terror, even as non-Black Latinos experience at least some White privilege. In the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, Mexican Americans were targeted for lynchings in Texas and subjected to “Juan Crow” laws, modeled after Jim Crow laws in the South.

In 2018, Texan Patrick Crusius was accused of murdering 23 people, mostly Mexicans, at an El Paso Walmart in what was the deadliest attack against U.S. Latinos in modern history. Police said that Crusius told them he was targeting “Mexicans.”

But increasingly, Latinos in the United States are embracing their multiracial roots. In the 2020 Census, Latinos made up 17 million of the nearly 25 million more people who identified as multiracial. The number of Latinos who identified as multiracial increased from 3 million in 2010 to more than 20 million in 2020, according to the census. About a quarter of Latinos identify as Afro-Latinos.

Just this week, actress Ariana DeBose affirmed her identity during her Academy Awards acceptance speech for best actress in a supporting role as Anita in “West Side Story.”

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said.

Carolina Contreras, the owner of Miss Rizos salon in New York City, started a blog focusing on curly hair care in 2011 because she noticed a lot of women in her native Dominican Republic “weren’t rocking their curls even though the Dominican Republic is anywhere between 86 to 92 percent Afro-descendant.”

“I was a product of the society, still a product of a society that bombards us with … these ideals of beauty that don’t include women who look like me,” Contreras said.

Contreras, who is Afro-Latina, sees her hair as a way of embracing her roots, even though her family once tried to discourage her from wearing her hair natural.

“I remember telling my grandmother and my mom that I wanted to have my hair be closer to how God made it, and they’re both very religious. And that did it,” Contreras said.

Galván-Rodríguez said she is happy to see more people embracing their Afro-Latino roots on social media and in census forms.

“The Afro-Latina movement is the renaissance of our ancestors not wanting their stories to go untold,” Galván-Rodríguez said. “Our ancestors are like: ‘We didn’t go anywhere. … Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are finally claiming us.’”