Cuban Color Classification and Identity Negotiation: Old Terms in a New World

Cuban Color Classification and Identity Negotiation: Old Terms in a New World

University of Pittsburgh
246 pages

Shawn Alfonso Wells

Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of The University of Pittsburgh in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

This thesis analyzes how the Cuban Revolution’s transnational discourse on blackness positively affected social attitudes, allowing color identity to be negotiated using color classification terms previously devalued.

In the Caribbean and Latin America, most systems of social stratification based on color privilege “whiteness” both socially and culturally; therefore, individuals negotiate their identities with whiteness as the core element to be expressed. This dissertation examines how this paradigm has been overturned in Cuba so that “blackness” is now the featured aspect of identity. This is due in part to the popular response to the government’s rhetoric which engages in an international political discourse of national identity designed to situate Cuba contextually in opposition to the United States in the global politics of color. This shift has occurred in a dialectic environment of continued negative essentialized images of Blacks although blackness itself is now en vogue. The dialogue that exists between state and popular forms of racial categorization serves to recontextualize the meanings of “blackness” and the values attached to it so that color classification terms which indicate blackness are assumed with facility in identity negotiation.

In the past, the concepts of whitening and mestizaje (race mixture) were employed by the state with the goal of whitening the Cuban population so that Cuba would be perceived as a majority white country. Since the 1959 Revolution, however, the state has publicly claimed that Cuba is an Afro-Latin nation. This pronouncement has resulted in brown/mestizo/mulatto and not white as being the national ideal. The symbolic use of mestizaje in Cuban society and the fluidity inherent in the color classification system leaves space for manipulation from both ends of the color spectrum and permits Cubans from disparate groups to come together under a shared sense of identity. The ideology of the state and the popular perceptions of the symbolism that the mulatto represents were mediated by a color continuum, which in turn was used both by the state and the populace to construct, negotiate, maintain, and manipulate color identities. This study demonstrates that although color classification was not targeted by the government as an agent to convey blackness, it nevertheless does, and the shift in how identity is negotiated using racial categories can be viewed as the response of the populace to the state’s otherwise silent dialogue on “race” and identity.


  • Introduction: Mulatas del Caribe
  • Chapter One: The problem of race
    • Problematizing Race
    • Field Setting
    • Conducting Fieldwork in Cuba
    • Methodology
  • Chapter Two: Historical Context of Color Classification in Latin America and the Caribbean
    • History of racial/color categorization in Cuba
    • The Era of Conquest and Colonization
    • The Plantation Era
      • Color classes
      • Pigmentocracy/Whitening
    • The Era of Capitalism
    • The Era of Socialism and Castro
  • Chapter Three: Terms of Classification
    • Settings
      • The Census
      • The Carnet
      • The Medical Establishment
    • Cognitive Categories of Color Classification
    • Features of Classification
    • Constructing Identity
      • Blancos
      • Mestizos, Mulatos and Mestizaje
      • Negros
      • Chinos
  • Chapter Four: The social significance of classification
    • Contested classifications
    • Stereotypes and Social Status
    • Shifts in meaning and preference of terms
  • Chapter Five: Mulatizaje and Cubanidad
    • Mestizaje, Mulattoization and Cubanidad
      • The typical Cuban
    • Claiming Identity and Negotiating Mulatizaje
      • Extended Case Study #1
      • Case study #2
      • Case study #3
      • Case study #4
      • Case study #5
      • Case study #6
      • Case study #7
      • Case study #8
      • Case study #9
      • Case study #10
      • Case study #11
  • Conclusions
  • Appendices
    • Appendix A: Glosses of Color Terms.
    • Appendix B: Census Enumeration of Writs of Freedom
    • Appendix C: Racial Categories of 1827 and 1841 Censuses
    • Appendix D: Census with Conflicting Terminology
  • Bibliography


  • Table 1: Chronological Table of Data Collection Techniques
  • Table 2: Census Terms.
  • Table 3: Formal Labels on Documents
  • Table 4: Descriptive Color Terms
  • Table 5: Cognitive Map of Terminology
  • Table 6: Labels of Pilesorting Groups.
  • Table 7: Percentages of Informants Employing Particular Classification Terms
  • Table 8: Johnson’s Hierarchial Clustering.
  • Table 9: Color Continuum.
  • Table 10: Informal Descriptors
  • Table 11: Common Descriptors for Hair Texture
  • Table 12: Common Descriptors for Facial Features.
  • Table 13: Common Modifying Descriptors
  • Table 14: Common Compound Terms
  • Table 15: Descriptive Labels

Read the entire dissertation here.

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