In a recent episodes of PBS’ Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, actress Michelle Rodriguez learned of the extreme lengths the Puerto Rican side of her family went through to remain light skinned.

To keep their family light, many relatives married first cousins rather than risk marrying someone from the outside who might produce potentially darker offspring.

Watch Michelle Rodriguez’s Puerto Rican Roots on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

From The Root:

Gates found out that Rodriguez’ light-skinned paternal ancestors married each other at a surprising rate. In fact, three of the actress’ great-great-great-grandfathers were brothers, while all of her great-great-grandfathers were first cousins.

Our genealogist who traced your family tree in Puerto Rico called your family tree ‘a beautiful depiction of the consanguinity and endogamy on 19th-century Puerto Rican families,’ ” Gates told Rodriguez, who responded, “That’s an elegant way of saying you guys loved to do it in the family.”

Rodriguez was aware of her family’s colorism, but not the extent of it. Even within her immediate family, she felt the sting of it as her father’s Puerto Rican family was critical of him marrying a darker Dominican woman, Rodriguez’s mother.

Later, Rodriguez was shocked when she learned she was 72 percent European, 21 percent black and 6 percent Native American.

For all the concerns about colorism within the African-American community, compared to what happened in many Latin American and South American cultures, the American view almost seems enlightened. While there is a lot of discussion about color preferences and the privileges afforded to those who have lighter skin, the nature of American-style racism and Jim Crow laws fostered some semblance of togetherness or, at the least, some shared sacrifice amongst black Americans of all shades. Just the fact that someone light enough to pass for white would use the word “black” to describe themselves and their family – with pride – reflects of this.

So many black Americans, who in any other country would have self-identified as white or mixed, often solely identify as black in this country.

Often to the sheer befuddlement of our South American counterparts.

It’s not that you don’t have lighter and brighter tendencies here in the states, but there’s an ongoing debate, dialogue, and conversation going on about it in black American communities. When I read about something like this, even though I know how race and color are viewed differently in places like Venezuela, Cuba, or Brazil – it’s always shocking.

A friend of mine who is black American and Puerto Rican (and light complexioned) married a woman who was also Latino. We were the same tone and had the same hair texture. She would often jokingly say we looked as if we could be sisters or mother and daughter. But when I joked about how both our hair was so prone to frizz up with straightened because of our shared African ancestry, she bristled and insisted she was not black and had no black ancestry.

She was “Spanish.”

Her husband, who solely identified as black, pointed out that she was – by his definition and most Americans definition, black or white – as black as he and I, but because of her background she didn’t talk about it. Having long hair and being a lighter shade of medium brown had somehow gotten her out of the “dreaded” black category in her native country. To her, her husband and I were the weirdoes wanting to dump our light-skin and brown-skin “privilege” to be lumped in with people several shades darker. We were crazy.

Because where she was from, that was a shudder-worthy notion.

And I thought of her when I read about Rodriguez’ incestuous family history and her own befuddled reaction to it. Of how something that was so important to those generations in the past, now seems silly. Or even uncomfortably bizarre. As if she thought, “fine. You want to be light. You want you kids to be light and retain all the privileges that come with it, but you were willing to marry your cousins just to make sure you retained lighter skinned traits? The taboo of incest meant less than the perceived “lesser” status of darker skin? That’s pretty messed up.”

Even when understanding the historical context of it, that context still involves the ignoring of the biological imperative to seek out sexual partners outside of the family tree.

And that’s what discrimination does to people. Even in places where everyone is technically of a similar background. We will, as human beings, seek for ways to divide ourselves, to show who has less and who has more. We will find a way to create an underclass, an undesirable, someone lesser than, so when they are marginalized and oppressed, we will not fight for them, but instead see them as the inhuman “other.” And that fear of becoming what you hate, of being the “other” will make you settle for a lifetime of cousin-screwing, rather than risk the loss of all the advantages afforded to you when you can say you are not of which you’ve been taught to hate.

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  • my_reply

    @Job – I couldn’t resist. Well I am aware of some of the different ways people view themselves in some Latin countries. You mentioned the Dominican Republic. That country and Brazil are good examples. They have people there who are obviously negroid. They have black skin and negroid features. They also have a large population of mulattos. Some of these people see themselves as being different and not black because they are lighter and other stuff.

    I don’t go to those people’s countries and tell these mulattos that they are black. I let them have their culture, but we are talking about these people in the US. They know what black means to us (most of us). It means people of negroid ancestry from any country in the world. That’s not people of 100% negroid ancestry. Black to us includes a wide range of skin tones and facial features. So when these people come here, they will be considered black.

    You don’t go to Rome and tell the Romans what to do and how to think. They know what we mean when we say black. Don’t act naive. Some of these mulattos see themselves as a step above regular ole’ black people and don’t want to be associated with the term. They think mixed African Americans are crazy for calling themselves black.

    I am glad that you have traveled and speak another language. I am glad you have friends in the global village. That doesn’t mean that they are the authority on their culture. It does not mean that they understand race, ethnicity, and nationality. They could be ignorant themselves. I mean you still think black and African American are the same thing.

    These people come to America and tell us that we are wrong or weird. Nope. You can explain your culture to me. I am open to learning about other cultures, but don’t try to change mine. I’m not trying to change yours. It sounds like you think these people are right and that we should change our view. Do you honestly think that the author’s “Spanish” friend didn’t understand that when the author said black ancestry she meant negroid ancestry? No. She knew exactly what she meant by black. Some of these mixed people like to act as if there are races of people from places such as Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic who have dark skin and curly hair that these people are an original race of people with these features that they are not connected to negroid people in any shape or form. I mean they know what we mean by black, but then they say “I’m not black. I’m Dominican.” You’re not a race. You’re a nationality. LOL. If they were to say “I’m not black. I’m morena.” and then go on to explain it that would be fine, but they don’t.

    If these people of negroid ancestry don’t consider themselves black but have other terms for connecting to their negroid ancestry, that’s cool. When I go these countries, I will ask them, learn about their culture, and not impose my view of black, but most of us here are Americans. We are talking about what black means in the English language to Americans. When they come here, they should learn our culture. Is that cultural imperialism? I don’t think so. They came here. Americans go to other countries all the time. They are pretty open. The learn new things and don’t enforce their American culture on people but come home and live in American culture. I’m not going to change my definition of black because people in other countries define it different ways. We have history and culture that’s just as important as those people’s. America strives to be multicultural, but I think sometimes Americans let outsiders come in and tell us that we are wrong in an arrogant manner that they themselves would find offensive in their home countries.