Culture and IdentityHistory and Politics

Moreno, Negro, Indio: Explained

Una fiesta de Sarandunga en Bani Circa 1960s en La Vereda, de Bani. Photo taken from book Instrumentos Dominicanos by Fradique LIzardo.

Written by: Gerald Lopez

Growing up in NYC and being in circles of proud Afro-descendant brothers and sisters, I noticed that Dominicans were seen as prime examples of self-hate, race deniers and would often go as far as calling themselves Indio (Native Americans). There is some truth to these claims and while others are simply misunderstandings, it is far more complicated than it seems. What do Dominicans of predominant African ancestry identify as? I’ve dug through history books, looked at geography, and at common language for this answer. It turns out that since very early on there were two words used to describe enslaved Africans in the Dominican Republic:

Negr@ (Black): This word was strongly associated with being enslaved and was part of the slave master’s denigrating lingo in which he reduced our humanity to a color, black. In doing this they disassociated us from our culture and history. There is no ethnic group in Africa that is called Negro. In Dominican society and history, the term Negro was associated with being property (a slave), while Moreno was associated with being a Free African. Often you will find both in Dominican history books, church baptisms, and slave transactions, the word Negro used for a slave. For example, this is from the ‘Archivos Reales de Bayaguana’ which can be found here.


Bayaguana: 1696 [Venta de Antonio Leonicio Correa, vecino de Santo Domingo, a Juan de Frías Salazar, de un negro criollo llamado Ambrosio, por 150 castellanos. Firmado por Luis Sánchez de Alemán, alcalde ordinario.]

Bayaguana 1741 [Venta de una negra llamada Magdalena, esclava de Juan Méndez y su mujer Antonia Berrasa, de esta ciudad, otorgada por éstos a José Miniel, vecino de villa de Hincha.]


Moren@ (Moor/Free Black): The Spaniards also used this word to describe Africans on the colony but would almost exclusively use it to describe freed Africans. With time, Afro-Dominicans started to call themselves Morenos. The etymology of this word is strongly associated with culture as its root word is Moor—a conglomerate ethnic group that occupied Spain for 800 years. The word Moor is also associated psychologically to the Dominicans with freedom and humanity as we graduated from being a color (black-negro) to being a people (Morenos). Here are some examples of how Moreno meant free African, from the “Archivos Reales de Bayaguana” also referenced above.


Bayaguana 1756 [ Testamento de Juan Antonio Domínguez, de esta ciudad, se casó en Santo Domingo con Francisca Eusebio, morena libre. Tuvo tres hijos. Testigos: Francisco José Rodríguez, Esteban Mártir y Francisco Fonseca.]

Bayaguana 1746: [Venta de una caballería de tierra en La Loma del Medio, otorgada por Juan Geraldo, de esta ciudad, en favor a Juan Bautista, boruco, moreno libre de Santo Domingo.]


Slavery in La Hispaniola

Slavery in La Hispaniola was actually quite unique compared to most of the New World because it was a failed colony. In the 1500s there was a gold craze and gold had just been discovered in vast quantities in Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. This meant a bulk of the colonizing Spaniards would have gone to Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela to find gold. Equally important, we had an early tendency of Maroonage that started since 1504 and continued all the way to the mid-1800s. This meant that most of us would have been born on the island and very few of us born in Africa as we had a very low mortality rate and our form of slavery consisted of mostly coffee plantations with occasional sugar cane and a few gold mines, unlike the super sugar cane and super mine projects of the rest of the Caribbean and South America. The following is a translated quote of why Spaniards left, and La Hispaniola became a colony based on cattle/coffee. “By the 2nd Half of the XVI Century, Spain found itself in conflict with other European powers; therefore King Phillip The 2nd prohibited that the colony of Santo Domingo do any business with any other foreigners. This left Santo Domingo’s principal market (Sugar Cane) in Ruins and many colonist decided to emigrate or dedicate themselves to cattle ranching.”

What this means is that we come from a society where being Maroons and free Blacks is the norm for most people of African descent. Being Maroons + free Africans translated into one positive and one negative in regards to African identity.

  1. By being Maroons in the past we have preserved a large amount of African cultural traits and see this, even in the name of places such as Mandinga, Los Minas, Ngombe, Loma Zarabanda, Yayas, Agu, El Congo, Cuanza. The grade of African retention is also VERY dominant in the music/dance/food. Our Palo Music has been around the island since at least the 1500s and has its origins in the various African ethnicities who banded together in Maroon camps as well as in the cities in Corfradias (Societies), these societies where based on African ethnicities. For example, the Araras (Africans from Benin/Togo) were part of a society called San Cosme y Damian in the Capital in the 16th Century. This also means that our organizations such as Convites which come from the Beninese/Togan Dokpwe system of fraternal countryside work, as well as Sanes (Esusu Economics) would have been and still are part of our society. In our food we find things such as Mangu which is pretty much the Dominican version of West-African Fufu, and retains a Bantu name in the D.R. One can also not forget the religion as Dominicans, especially on the older generations, were generally devotees or participants of the 21 divisiones which is associated with palo Music, all of the energies/divinities/luas in this Dominican religion are clearly African, although in order to fool Spaniards they syncretized them with Catholic saints.
  1. The negative is that by having few Africans come directly for Africa and rather many Criollos (Santo Domingo born slaves of African descent) created a very creole society. In other words, most of us come from a medium sized group of Africans who had a low mortality rate and mixed mostly amongst each other, and when this happens it creates a distance from the motherland (Africa). In my opinion, this distance allows for our minds to be manipulated negatively towards our motherland. This is not to say that there were no African born Dominicans into the 1800s because there were, but very few. Authors such as, Carlos Larrazabal Blanco and Carlos Deive discuss the types of Africans and the island-born blacks in their own respective books.


The Famous Term “Indio”:

The term Indio is actually quite a misunderstood term. First of all, let’s get this straight, before the U.S occupation in the 1910’s the D.R. didn’t even do racial censuses as it was too difficult to categorize races. People saw themselves in literal terms of color. The U.S, which was very segregationist/racist, came in and imposed black/white categories that were very hard to implement. We had an U.S sponsored dictator called Trujillo who tried to push the term Indio (Indian/Native American literally) as an identifier for skin color that is between light brown and dark brown. With time, this only became a term associated with skin color but NOT with Native Americans. In other words, there is no linkage between the term Indio and being Native American, or us thinking we are natives. The real term used for someone who is Native American or of partial Native-American descent in the D.R. is “Raza India” (Indian race), or “Gente India” (Indian People) which is different from indian color. In short, Dominicans do not use the term Indio to deny blackness but to more accurately describe a color which is not as light as white and not as dark as Moreno, although this largely depends on the person and there are huge overlaps between Indio and Moreno (it gets confusing). For example the use of Indio oscuro and Indio claro are very interesting, they depend entirely on the point of view of a person. For example, in a group of very pale people it is often said that someone who is caramel/light brown will be Indio claro, to distinguish them, even though to a group of Dark-skinned people the light-brown subject will be usually called “Blanco,” and conversely Indio oscuro is often used by people who are around darker people in that moment or have relatives who are darker to distinguish him or herself from the others. These terms are never solid and not used as an identifier, but rather a quick description of a person.


Overlap between indio and moren@ as color/racial identifiers:

Moreno has its racial associations, as well as, color ones and it is actually very flexible. I personally fall into this category specially when I have been in the Dominican Republic for some days and become tanned from the sun. However, when I am not in the D.R., I mostly fall into the indio category as I am not of the darkest hue on the island; but Moreno can be anyone from Will Smith’s color to a member of the Dinka ethnic group in Sudan. Indio can be anyone from Beyonce’s color to a mid-toned West African, but not a very dark one. So, as you can see, there is overlap, and I often fall into this overlap. Racial and color descriptions in D.R. vary so much that they will be described differently from person to person. I could have people call me either term.


Moren@ and its presence in our society:

Moreno is such a common term in D.R. that there are dozens if not hundreds of places named “Moreno,” there were armed groups of free-Blacks during colonial times with this name and there were African religious brotherhoods with this name (such as some of the cofrardias in Villa Mella). This continues even among youth like “Los Morenos” of San Francisco de Macoris, which are a group of Paleros (Traditional drummers). Having been in traditional drumming (Fiesta de Palo) in many parts of the island, namely Monteplata, San Francisco de Macoris, and Pimentel, there are many songs that have as a focal point the word morena or moreno. For example, “Moreno Graciano” by the Congos of Villa Mella, the Salve-Palo music of Villa mella mentions morena/Moreno in the majority of songs, a Song in my hometown of San Francisco de Macoris called “Ah Eh Ah Eh La Morena.” There are also hundreds of Palo songs that have been heard by others and myself included but have not been recorded.

In our modern music it is present in bachata, especially in the older bachata, which is closer to the roots music such as Palo, and the older merengues. A good example is the bachata by Marino Perez “Ay Morena.” After the 1970s, the term Negra, usually used in “Mi Negra” became very common, this is largely influenced by Salsa, and other Latin-American music of the time that became huge in D.R. A good example is how popular Son Became in The Capital. All the older music in our island, such as Palo, Sarandunga, Congos, Bambula, and even old boleros use the term Morena/Moreno over Negro/Negra.


Conclusion: So, where is the self-hate?

Our self-hate is VERY similar if not the same as the rest of the new world, (the U.S., the English and Spanish speaking Caribbean, South America, etc), where being darker is associated with negative connotations, and being lighter with positive ones. Hair and features also play a strong role. There is also a STRONG disassociation with Africa, and the rest of the diaspora, slowly but surely re-education is helping this disintegrate a bit, but it’s still very strong. Most people believe Africa is a mythical and crazy place, although in all honesty there are very few Black new-world societies that view Africa positively. I am hoping this changes for the better, as it is our motherland. I believe that in the Dominican Republic Africa should be seen not only as our source but also as a place with complex societies and civilizations.

We are not angels in the garden of racial Eden, quite the contrary we as a people have a self-hate that is evident, but it does not manifest itself in the ways most people would assume, like “not calling themselves Black.” Every one of our brothers and sisters in the diaspora is affected by deep rooted self-hate, just in different ways. This is not to say that it is not the same in many cases, it is surely a sort of Venn diagram. Colorism for example is universal across the diaspora, and the notion that blackness is a stigma. Because there was no segregation or Jim Crow-like movements in the D.R., hateful comments on both sides can be extreme but can often end in laughter or satire. I’ve seen dark skin folks get made fun of for being dark and if the offender is very light call them things like “toothpaste legs,” “sugar cane face,” etc.

Additionally I think we need to understand that there is a difference in unification of people of color depending on their circumstance. For example, in countries where afro-descendants are a minority, such as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, United States, Canada, Mexico, there tends to be unity amongst the different hue’s and features, while in places where Afro-descendants are a majority, people tend to see differences as humans naturally separate themselves into groups. For instance,  Jamaica, Haiti, and D.R. In the example of Jamaica I would not be considered Black, but a browning or maybe a coolie, in Haiti I am a Mulat, or Grimo. Re-education that would strengthen our ties to Africa is deeply missing in our society, as well as meriting and highlighting our African history in the D.R would open doors to Afro-pride and consciousness, but in the end we don’t hate each other anymore or any less than other diasporans.


[Gold Rush in the Americas, reason why many Spaniards didn’t make it to the D.R. But rather the bigger colonies.]

[Reason why not too many Africans where imported in comparison to Haiti, Cuba and other places with Sugar Cane Slavery, also discusses the small number of imported Africans on the island. ]

[Discusses The Slavery importation contracts the D.R had, and how the last one was in the 1810

Book: Los Negros Y La Esclavitud En Santo Domingo by Carlos Larrazabal Blanco Pages 43-71]

[About African Maroonage in D.R and many subjects of slavery. Book: Los Guerrilleros Negros: esclavos fugitivos y cimarrones en santo domingo: By Carlos Esteban Deive]


Note: Author’s views are their own.

I am both an immigrant and a natural citizen because I was born in the U.S but was taken back to my homeland of the Dominican Republic @ the age of 2 months. Here I experienced childhood, school and daily life up until age 7. I emigrated to the United States with my family where I experienced both warmth from cousins who where here and negativity from school friends who saw me as “inferior” for being an immigrant. But I quickly learned English and camouflaged into the system. Despite this I always had my heart with my childhood and the Maroon blood in my veins didn’t let me fully integrate. I had the urge to learn more about myself, go back, and re-live those memories. While I have been in the U.S. long enough to be one with the environment, I am also still one with my Dominican environment and I consider myself having two homes. With time my identity grew and became fertilized by very progressive Dominicans, including my parents and music groups like Palo Monte and Kalunga. Of which the latter, I later joined and have been a proud member for a few years, to seek to help others See not only who they are but who they where. The more I seek, the more I remember.




  1. I’d like to thank you for your great article. It does a good job of highlighting some nuances in word usage. I’d like to add some thoughts on the moreno/negro bit:
    The word moor (moro in spanish, maur in latin) means black. In all the romance languages which derive from latin there are many words meaning “black” or “dark” that derive from “maur”. However, “maur” was only used for several related ethnic groups in NW africa. Latin used several other words to describe blacks and blacks in general. One such word was “negritae” from which comes “negro”. It seems the tendency to use moreno for free blacks and negro for enslaved blacks is due to the “moros” being free black peoples who ruled the Iberian penn while “negro” could apply to all blacks and with the start of the atlantic slave trade those other blacks being described were often enslaved.

  2. I disagree that the self-hate in DR is the same as the rest of the new world. All the new world has self-hate among african descendants (and indians too) but it is not the same prevalence or intensity in all countries. Brazil and DR are particularly bad with the self-hate by afro-descendants. People in both these countries will be obviously of afro-descent and still deny they are so. Further, it is more acceptable in these countries to say hurtful things about even your own family members whose features are unacceptably “too african.” People from the DR who reside in the US often try to distance themselves from US blacks. While, for example, people from other non-spanish speaking caribbean islands don’t do that eventhough they uphold their cultural differences from US blacks. Many dominicans actually go out of their way to down play any blackness they or the country may have. It doesn’t matter if they answer to negro or moreno back home in DR. In the US they do not want to be associated with the equivalent english word “black” (or black people in a shared-ancestry sense) despite the fact that said word does not mean you’re literally black and covers all hues having color.

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