Soccer star Vagner Love surrounded by five mulatas
Last week I had a discussion about Brazil with an African-American graphic designer. He was putting together a flyer for an up-and-coming website about Afro-Brazilians so he wanted a little information. As we discussed what the flyer would look like, I shared with him a little history of Africans and blacks in Brazil. As what often happens when I have this discussion with black Americans, a look of shock came across his face when I told him that Brazil imported nearly 10 times more African slaves than the US and that today the country has the largest number of African descendants in the world after Nigeria. It’s often fascinating how little black Americans know about black Brazilians, but then, this is not surprising; little is taught in the American education system about even the history of African-Americans so why would it be expected that anyone would know the history of Afro-Brazilians or any other New World population that is descendant from African slaves? This is the void that this site sought to fill.
It is also fascinating to hear the things black Americans say when they think of Brazilians in general or black Brazilians in particular. Over the years, I think I’ve heard it all:
“Brazil has black people?” – Nope, it’s not just George W. Bush that asked this question.
“Don’t all of those people look like Mexicans?”
“They’re not black like us/They’re not really black.”
“There was slavery in Brazil too?”
There are the folks who know absolutely nothing about Brazil and then there are the folks who have only a few references like Pelé, Carnaval, Gisele Bündchen or Brazilian women in general. Speaking of Gisele Bündchen, I will never forget listening to the nationally syndicated radio program of the “Baddest Man on Radio, Michael Baisden” sometime in the spring of 2008. The discussion of the day was the infamous cover photo of Bündchen with basketball superstar LeBron James on the cover of Vogue magazine in which James was made to substitute King Kong to Bündchen’s “damsel in distress”. Although all sorts of people were sharing their opinions on the topic, it was one particular caller that grabbed my attention.
Left, LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen on the cover of Vogue; Right, King Kong
Different from other callers, this guy seemed to have a little more knowledge about Brazil than the other callers; at least it seemed that way until he made one comment. As people had spoken about the interracial mingling of James and Bündchen on the cover, the guy dropped this line. I can’t quote exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of: “Well, Michael, Gisele is from Brazil, a Latin American country, so technically, she is a woman of color.” My mouth dropped! I couldn’t believe what this man had just said. I tried frantically for ten minutes to challenge what the guy said but the phone line remained consistently busy. Although I didn’t have a chance to respond to that caller that day, let me just say this. Anyone who has seen Gisele Bündchen knows that this woman is as white or European looking as any woman in Germany. I guess this makes sense as Bündchen’s ancestry IS German! Simply out, Gisele is a Brazilian born woman of German ancestry.
In reality, this guy’s comment explained a lot about the American thought process in terms of race. Many average Americans have the idea that all persons born south of Texas are either Mexican or that they have some sort of look that is stereotypically thought to be Latino or racially indefinable. And then, if you throw in a Latino or Hispanic that “looks black”, many black Americans will get completely confused when this person starts to speak Spanish or Portuguese. Their eyes are telling them “black man/woman”, but also, “what kind of black person speaks Spanish?” I say Spanish because many people assume that Brazilians speak Spanish. Going back to the guy’s comments about Bündchen, it didn’t seem that this guy knew that Latin America had many phenotypes. There are those that “look white” due to European colonization, people who “look black” due to the importation of African slaves, people who look “Indian” as these were the people whose lands were stolen by Europeans. There are also Asians, Middle Eastern people and those people who don’t quite fit neatly into an easily classifiable category which I’ll just called “mestiços” or persons of “mixed race”. I want to also affirm that all of these terms are simply social constructions as “race” has been proven not to have any biological validity. Thus, if “race” doesn’t exist, neither does “black”, “white” or “mixed race”.
But speaking in accordance to terms accepted in the social world, in this piece I wanted to focus on one “mixed” group in particular: the mulatto, or more specifically, the mulata female. Exactly what is a “mulata” and what type of woman comes to mind when one hears the term “mulata”? I know that often times when an American thinks of a mulata, they automatically think of a very fair-skinned person of mixed African/European ancestry. But when speaking of the Brazilian context of mulata, this is not always the case. Similar to the American racial understanding of the term mulatto, the origin of many mulatas in Brazil was the rape, coercion and sexual exploitation of black women. Regardless of attempts of many Brazilian intellectuals to paint a less brutal picture of Brazil’s slavery era, the fact remains that the history of mestiçagem (race mixing) was predicated upon the unequal relationship between powerful slave owners and powerless slaves.
One of the progenitors of the mythical Brazilian “racial democracy” ideology, anthropologist Gilberto Freyre himself wrote that “it was the bodies of the black girls, sometimes 10-year old girls…that freed white women from sexual assault.”(1) Moreover, the virginity and chastity of white women during the colonization of Brazil was protected through the prostitution of the black female slave. This exploitation of the black female body is a legacy that has continued today in a few ways.
For example, tourist agencies targeting European male tourists who come to Brazil in search of “ethnic” prostitution and sexual commerce would promote Brazil as a tropical paradise using flyers and catalogs featuring brown-skinned, sometimes semi-nude baianas* (2). Exploitation of the black body is also apparent every year, slightly before and during the month of February, when black women that are usually largely invisible from Brazil’s major television channels throughout the year suddenly become abundant on television programs, appearing semi-nude, gyrating their hips, legs and derrieres at lightning speeds in Carnaval parades and beauty contests. In general, these women are labeled mulatas.
Lest we still have confusion as to what type of women we are speaking of when we say mulata, consider this verbal exchange between an American journalist and a Brazilian taxi driver. Speaking of his experience in Brazil, Charles Martin was riding in a cab in Rio de Janeiro when the cab driver (who was white) asked him if he’d had the chance to know Brazil’s mulatas. Martin tells the story this way:
“As I had been asked so many times by so many people about the country’s mulatas, this time I answered differently. I told him that I did know some, but that I knew some in the U.S. as well. He said the two were different. I said that the essential distinction I saw was national culture, and that in either place, the women simply were black women. The driver insisted no. I asked: what is the mulata? She is not white. She is not dark black.
“Thus, she is like many black women in the U.S. (but here, they have not been seen as a particular sexual class since the old formal balls of New Orleans where quadroons and octoroons were gathered to become long- or short-term mistresses to white men of means).
“The driver, somewhat exasperated, insisted that there was a difference and that the Brazilian women were not black. I said that surely ‘mulata’ meant something far more specific than ‘non-white.’ He wasn’t talking about Japanese women, for example, was he? No, he was talking about women who were black.
“Disgusted, the driver conceded that, yes, black blood was the special ingredient that made the mulata. He went on to say that the difference between Americans and Brazilians is that Brazilians made use of a polite term, mulata, while Americans used gross ones, such as black.” (3)
Keep in mind that for many Brazilians, defining oneself or describing someone as black (negra or preta in Portuguese) is deemed an insult. In Brazilian ideology, if a woman of visible African ancestry is considered attractive, she cannot possibly be black; she is suddenly defined with some other ambiguous racial or color-coded term like mulata or the ever popular morena. It’s clear from the opinion of the cab driver that there is a certain repugnance associated with the terms negra or preta.
Brazilian painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti gained famed for his portrayals of the mulata. In an interview he once explained his fascination with this type of woman:
“I’ve always had an immense passion for the mulatas. Her plasticity, the sensuality inherent in the black race and that sad look enchanted me.”(4)
Paintings of Emiliano Di Cavalcanti entitled
Mulata em rua vermelha, Mulata sentada na frente da mesa com pandeiro, Mulata com gato and Mulata
Thus, the term mulata is but a certain type of Afro-descendant woman. She is usually not as dark as say, Sudanese model Alek Wek, but her complexion can span from the light-brown color of actress Camila Pitanga to the medium brown complexion of singer Paula Lima. The key here is that she is considered to be sensuous and very attractive. As such, the term mulata carries a certain sexual connotation in its description of the “mixed race” or at least, not “pure” black woman: she is considered more attractive than the truly, indisputably black woman, but her status as a person of color, of African descent, marks her as socially inferior to the white woman.
Hélio Santos, professor of Economics at the University of São Paulo explained that women of African descent have always been a male sexual “fantasy”, particularly for white men. He wrote:
“(…) how to materialize this fantasy can be considered more as a kind of sexual perversion. The negro-mestiças (mixed black woman) in Brazil were dubbed “mulata”, long a source of sick poetic inspiration. It’s true that such poetry was never able to promote them to full citizens on the same level of feminine whiteness. The mulata, in popular jargon, went on be the term for black descendant woman considered beautiful, regardless of having the lightest skin (the authentic) or darker.” (5)
Actress Camila Pitanga and singer Paula Lima
In some ways, the term mulata is similar to the term “brown sugar” that has been historically applied to African-American women. Millions of music fans are no doubt familiar with the infamous Rolling Stones song of the same name, which is an ode to slavery era sexual relations. The usage of this term caused a stir in a 2004 edition of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip in which then President George W. Bush was made to call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “brown sugar”, bringing to the fore “the painful stereotype of the black woman as a hot-blooded minx.” (6)
To give a simple American example of the difference between a mulata (mixed race, or not “pure” black) woman and a preta (“pure” black or very little racial admixture) woman, consider the 1970s CBS sitcom Good Times, in which actress Ester Rolle played Florida Evans (black/preta) while Bern Nadette Stanis played daughter Thelma and Ja’Net DuBois played neighbor Willona Woods (both mulatas). All of these women are of course black, but the skin color and facial features of Stanis and DuBois are considered more subtle than the more pronounced, stereotypically West African features of Rolle.
Bern Nadette Stanis, Ester Rolle and Ja’Net DuBois of the TV series Good Times
Thus, as Martin pointed out in his taxi experience, there are millions of African-American women who regard themselves as black women who could be considered mulatas by Brazilian standards. In 1970s Brazilian advertisements, American singers Donna Summer and Diana Ross were often referred to as mulatas. (7) To be more specific, a mulata is an attractive woman of African descent possessing some physical markers of miscegenation, either immediate or distant. A mulata can have light to medium brown skin with shoulder length or longer hair.
The concept of hair texture and length is also an important attribute when defining whether a woman is black or mulata. Anthropologist Nilma Lino Gomes has done extensive research on the significance of hair in the construction of black identity in Brazil. She notes how a black woman can instantly become a mulata by simply changing her hairstyle. Hair weaves and extensions have become more and more popular amongst Afro-Brazilian women as the price becomes more affordable. Gomes herself notes that when she wears her own hair in its natural state or in braids, white and black men alike refer to her as crioula, negra or negona. When she wears a weave, men call her morena, morena linda (pretty brown-skinned girl) or mulata. (8)
Nilma Lino Gomes
In terms of the usage of the term mulata in the media and by Brazilians themselves, often times, the term is used interchangeably which suggests that women defined as mulatascan also be defined as black women (negras). In the first example below, one report defines actress Cris Vianna as a mulata while the other defines her as negra.
Actress Cris Vianna defined as negra on the left and as mulata on the right
Actress Taís Araújo defining herself as negra and mulata
In another example, actress Taís Araújo defined herself in different articles as both negra and mulata. In the the top article she argues that a role she played in a novela could have played by any actress and not only her simply because “I am black (porque sou negra)”. In the other article, she speaks of the need for makeup that matches the skin tones of herself and other mulatas (“Nós mulatas precisamos de uma maquiagem que combine com nossa cor/We mulatas need a makeup that matches our skin”).
Actress Juliana Alves: “People tend to think that negras and mulatas are the same”
In the third example, actress Juliana Alves shares her belief that, in general, people see negras and mulatas as equal or the same: “As pessoas tendem a achar que negras e mulatas são iguais/People tend to think that black and mulata women are the same.”
What Brazil has witnessed over the past few decades, the result of tireless campaigns and organizing by entities of the Movimento Negro, is a rise in persons who might have defined themselves as mulatos, morenos and pardos only a few decades ago, proudly defining themselves as negros and negras. Actress Cris Vianna rejects being classified as a morena, Araújo recorded a commercial encouraging more Brazilians of color to define themselves as black in the 2010 census, and actress Camila Pitanga has voiced her frustration in people always questioning her identity as a black woman. But what images and stereotypes are connected to the term mulata that it should even matter? Now that we have explained the similarities and differences of the terms negra and mulata, let’s now take a look at some of the meanings of the term mulata.
To be continued…
Updated: February 9, 2013
Pâmella Gomes, princess of Tom Maior Samba School labeled morena on R7 website
Even after declaring herself negra, the press still refers to Vianna as morena
In reference to the site Sidney Rezende referring to Vianna as a “morena”, Almir da Silva Lima posted the following comment in reference to this term.
Translation of blue highlighted area
“Before making my homage to the Queen of the Suingue (Swing) of Leopoldina, I don’t get tired of reaffirming this: This prestigious site specializing in Carnival is wrong, we say anthropologically speaking, when it comes to referring to the beautiful black woman, actress Cris Vianna, as morena.”
* – A baiana is a woman from the northeastern state of Bahia where 75% of inhabitants are Afro-Brazilian
1. Westphalen, Cecília Maria. “A Mulher no Universo de Casa-Grande & Senzala.”
2. Dias Filho, Antonio Jonas. “As Mulatas que não estão no Mapa.” Cadernos Pagu (6/7), Núcleo de Estudos de Gênero – Pagu/Unicamp, 1996
3. Martin, Charles. “Brazil: Such Nightmares, Such Dreams”. Black Renaissance. December 31, 1998. Vol. 2, Issue 1
4. City News de São Paulo from November 7, 1971, as quoted in Queiroz Júnior, Teófilo de. Preconceito de Cor e a Mulata na Literature Brasileira. Editora Ática, São Paulo. 1982
5. Santos, Hélio. A Busca de um Caminho Para o Brasil: a Trilha do Círculo Vicioso. Senac 2001
6. Bernard, Michelle D. “Brown Sugar – Its not so sweet”. Independent Women’s Forum. April 30, 2004. [Available online June 2, 2006].
7. Daniel, G. Reginald. Race and Multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging Paths? 2006 Penn State University Press.
8. Gomes, Nilma Lino. Sem perder a raiz: Corpo e cabelo como símbolos da identidade negra. Autêntica Editora, 2006.