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The word 'negrita' stirs debate: term of endearment or veiled racism?

The term "negrita" or "negrito," from the word "negro," or Black, is commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries. But is it just a term of endearment and who gets to use it?
Tally Joyce, a TikTok content creator, has raised the issue of who gets to call her "negrita" — and why it shouldn't apply to everyone, given the word's history and the way it can be used.
Tally Joyce, a TikTok content creator, has raised the issue of who gets to call her "negrita" — and why it shouldn't apply to everyone, given the word's history and the way it can be used.Courtesy Tally Joyce

Generations of Latinos have grown up hearing a family member call a relative or friend "negrita" or "negrito" — which translates to a diminutive of Black.

While many Latinos use the Spanish word as a term of endearment — with some even referring to white family members as "negrita" or "negrito" — in the U.S. there's an ongoing debate over who gets to use the term and to whom, and whether defending its use obscures Latin America's racist past.

Many in the Black and Afro Latino community feel offended when the term is used to describe them.

In 2020, when Jennifer Lopez sang, “Yo siempre seré tu negrita del Bronx” (I will always be your little Black girl from the Bronx), in a song with Colombia singer Maluma, she was met with pushback by some who pointed out that she has never claimed Black ancestry or identified herself as an Afro Latina, while others defended Lopez, saying it was a common term of affection used by different races.

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Joyce says when it comes to the history of the term negrita, "a lot of times these conversations where things can be racist are not really had in Latin America.”Courtesy Tally Joyce

Tally Joyce, a 27-year-old content creator on TikTok, first began making videos to share her Afro Latina experience and make others feel seen. Since moving from Honduras seven years ago, she has gained over 100,000 followers and recently went to the platform to talk about why she has a problem with other people using “negrita” and “morena” (which means brown) to replace “negra," or Black.

She believes it isn’t always necessary to make the word “cuter” or dumb down the word because the word “negra” describes a part of who she is — Black. 

In recent years, more Afro Latinos in the U.S. have embraced the Spanish word for Black, including the Afro Latina singer Amara La Negra, who takes pride in the word.

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The singer Amara La Negra, which translates to Amara the Black, has made it a point to embrace the term.Alberto E. Tamargo / Sipa USA via AP file

While Joyce will allow her family to call her “negrita,” she feels that everyone shouldn’t be able to call her that name because of the connotation that can be attached to the term. She said that while her family uses it to show love and affection, others may use it to inflict pain. 

“A lot of times these conversations where things can be racist are not really had in Latin America,” Joyce said. “When some people use the term, it’s in a hateful way and they are looking down on Black people.” 

She said she loves when Afro Latinos take pride in describing themselves as “negra” since it translates to a person saying they are Black. However, Joyce said when a person who doesn’t identify as an Afro Latino or who doesn’t have Black skin uses the term “negrita” or “negra,” it can seem as if they are trying to offend someone. 

Understanding the word's past

Tanya Katerí Hernández, author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias” and a Fordham University School of Law professor, said context is vital when the word is used, as she’s heard it used as a term of endearment and in a way that can be considered problematic — when someone who’s white presenting or identifying uses the word to belittle someone.

She said it’s important to point out the diminutive suffix attached to the word — “ita,” which translates to “little.” 

People often forget how using this term is a tie to the paternalism of slavery’s past, Hernández said, where it can feel like the person is saying “my Black person” since the “ita” creates a sense of intimacy. 

“This sense of intimacy that it’s meant to conjure pays a compliment that a person is within your networks, while at the same time, it is the only way that some people can find Blackness somewhat relational and acceptable — if it’s hierarchical,” Hernández said. 

She explained how using the word is only sometimes without harm to the person who is the target of the word.

“The problem is that this way of showing love comes with historical baggage both referencing people’s racial appearance and also putting them in their place,” Hernández said. 

The word “negrita,” Hernández points out, reflects the discomfort of Blackness often found within Latino communities. 

“It still represents the way in which, within Latin America and the Caribbean, Blackness is an issue, meaning we aren’t a sort of racial utopia free of any racial discord,” Hernández said. 

When JLo used the term in her song, Twitter users labeled the word as a derogatory term and went on to say it was a “literal slap in the face for every Black woman.” 

Joyce agreed with this sentiment, viewing the pop star's use of the term as cultural appropriation and insensitivity to the Afro Latino and Black communities.  

However, some social media users showed support for JLo.

“Everybody in Puerto Rico has been using negrita for a long time,” one user tweeted. “This cancel stuff is ridiculous. It’s never being a derogatory term for us Puerto Ricans, All Puerto Ricans come from interracial Parents.” 

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Isabel Molina-Guzman, a professor in Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the term wasn’t always necessarily directly about skin color for her family, but was frequently used as a term of endearment with people of all shades.

While Molina-Guzman knows the term can have a loving meaning, she also recognizes there is a legacy of colonization and slavery rooted in the word. She said the history of the word also shows the social value being given to people with lighter skin. 

“The fact that I was darker than the rest of my cousins meant something and not necessarily in a good way, as much as they wanted it to,” Molina-Guzman said. 

Consistently being called "negrita" also made her conscious of her skin color and she said she feels there is an underlying meaning — "You’re so cute and we love you, but at the same time, don’t get too dark," she said.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Molina-Guzmán said. “Whiteness over Indigeneity or Blackness has always been privileged. It links to class and education in pretty much all countries in Latin America and in the Caribbean.” 

Molina-Guzmán believes that although the term should mainly be used as a loving term from someone one knows or cares about, it's important to think about the critical history behind it. 

“Negrita being a term of endearment doesn’t erase the racial legacy of the word,” she said. 

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