Mulatto (also Mulato) is a term of Spanish and/or Portuguese origin describing first-generation offspring of African and European ancestry. Formerly a feminine form, mulattress was formed on analogy with "negress." The forms "mulatta/mulata" survive in Spanish and Portuguese. Thus, though many Americans of Hispanic and/or Latino origin identify themselves as mulatto, the term is rarely used by non-Hispanic African Americans.
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 that it derives from "mula", the Spanish word for mule, once a generic designation name for any hybrid. As a result, it is considered offensive by some English-speakers, who might prefer the term "biracial" instead. Interestingly, Spanish-speakers do not consider "mulatto" offensive. An alternate etymology traces mulatto to the Arabic muwallad, which means "a person of mixed race or ancestry".
Hispanic America and Brazil
In other American countries where mulattos don't 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 portion of the population in countries such as Mexico and Honduras, they were absorbed there 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 traces of European ancestry.
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. As a result of this, most US mulattos mixed back into the African population, and while they did endow most modern African-Americans with the European ancestry mulattos possessed, that ancestry had become quite diluted. This in turn conflicts with the common interpretation of the term mulatto where it is taken to mean 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% of all Puerto Ricans possessed at least one female Amerindian ancestor, 27% showed to have at least one female African ancestor and 12% showed to have at least one female European ancestor. Conversely, patrilineal input as indicated by the Y chromosome, showed that 70% of all Puerto Ricans possessed at least one male European ancestor, 20% showed as having had at least one male African ancestor and less than 10% showed to have had a male Amerindian ancestor. This places the number of Puerto Ricans who have inherited African ancestry, in whole or as mulattos and whether through the mother or the father, at no more than the average between the two African figures (27% and 20%).
Nevertheless, independant of their actual numbers, the history of the population of Puerto Rican mulattos is independant 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 (also called affranchi) have always represented only a small proportion of the population, and today still constitute no more than 5% percent.
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. Indeed, many mulattos did align themselves and identify with the ruling French and their culture. Not only were they regarded as a class of their own, but they were also free, highly educated and wealthy. This is much in contrast to US mulattos which were 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 Black-classified mulattos were also free and slave-owning3.
Being part of their time, many Haitian mulattos were also slaveholders and often actively participated in the oppression of the black majority. It should be noted that this wasn't always the case, as many also actively fought for the abolition of slavery. Distinguished mulattos such as Nicolas Suard and others were prime examples. These were members of the Les Amis des Noirs in Paris, a social club that devoted their financial means to the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Nevertheless, many mulattos were consequently slaughtered by furious black Haitians during the wars of independence in order to secure black political power over the island. Some black volunteers had even aligned themselves with the French against the mulattos during the first mulatto rebellion.
In Haiti, mulattos initially possessed certain 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.
In modern Europe, there is now a slowly emerging community of contemporary mulattos not associated with the centuries of history of those born before them. These are the offspring of current European citizens and recent African immigrants across several European countries.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.