This controversial term refers to people born of one white parent and one black parent. Mulato has a racial connotation since it derives from “mule” – a hybrid animal
The Portuguese language borrowed the Latin word mulus to form, during the 15th century, the term “mulo” – or mule. That is, a hybrid and sterile animal which is the offspring of a male donkey and a mare.
Over the years, due to an influence of the Spanish language, the term mulato started to designate a small mule.
According to the Houaiss dictionary, in the 16th century, it also became a term to describe people born to both a white and a black parent.
The racial connotation is unquestionable, especially in a racially segregated society like 16th-century Portugal. During that period, slavery was pivotal of the colonial economy.
Some linguists, however, claim that words change. While mulato has obvious racist origins, it shouldn’t be simply scrapped from the vocabulary. Said linguist Sérgio Rodrigues in a February article in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo:
“Words change. ‘Brazilian’ was already a derogatory term that Portuguese colonizers employed to describe the natives of our land. In over four centuries, the word mulato has been so present in Brazilian history that it would be impossible to eliminate it without losing part of our history.”
Several members of the Black community in Brazil disagree with that understanding. During Brazil’s carnival this year, many groups rejected a few marching songs that used the term. One of them combines both racist and sexist overtones. The song goes: “Since your color won’t rub off on me,
The song goes: “Since your color won’t rub off on me, mulata / mulata I want your love” (Mas como a cor não pega, mulata / mulata eu quero teu amor).
The bottom line is: you’d be better off not incorporating this word into your lexicon.