"El tabaco se ha mulato": Globalizing Race, Viruses, and Scientific Observation in the Late Nineteenth Century

Jih-Fei Cheng


This article traces the earliest identified recorded descriptor for viral infection: the racialized Spanish expression "el tabaco se ha mulato" ("the tobacco has become mulatto"). The phrase appears in the late nineteenth-century travel writing of French colonial scientist Jules Crevaux, written as he journeyed through post-Spanish Independence Colombia and observed the demise of the once-thriving tobacco industry. I theorize the literary translations and visualizations, or what I call "visual translations," of the phrase across scientific and historical texts that cite Crevaux to track the refraction of racial, gender, and sexual discourses in virology. I argue that the phrase refers to the historically dispossessed Indigenous and Black subjects of the nascent Colombian republic and their resistance to subjection when forced to work the tobacco fields.  The article historicizes virus discovery at the juncture between science, nation-building, global industrialization, and the disciplining of race and sex under the long shadow of Euro-American empire.  Drawing upon Ed Cohen's concept of "viral paradox," Nayan Shah's notion of "strangerhood," and Mel Y.  Chen's framework for thinking about "queer animacies," I deconstruct the visual, conceptual, and etymological roots of the phrase "el tabaco se ha mulato" to argue that the expression renders the virus as both "queer" and "strange" to the nation. The virus signifies the mulato subject as a stubborn challenge to racial hierarchies and to the host-guest-parasite relation, both of which are foundational to the social organization of the nation and polis. This signification insistently refuses the human/non-human binary that undergirds racial regimes and biological conceptions of life. In turn, I expand historical thinking about race, submit that pandemics result from global industrial resource extraction rather than merely poor hygiene, and offer a framework for "queer decolonizing."


science, mulatto, mulata, mulato, tabacco, el tabaco se ha mulato, agricultural industrialization, virus, tobacco mosaic virus, queer, stranger

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v1i1.31


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