Pardo is a term used in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the Americas to refer to the triracial descendants of Europeans, Indigenous Americans, and West Africans. They are defined as neither exclusively mestizo (Indigenous American-European descent), nor mulatto (West African-European descent), nor zambo (West African-Indigenous American descent). It is highly associated with the history of slavery and colonialism. From the 18th century, the term has been used more widely to identify a brown skin colour. But in general use, the physical characteristics may include brown skin ranging from dark brown to almost white. Similarly, the person's hair could be curly, straight, or other texture, and any colour.
In Brazil, the word pardo has had a general meaning, since the beginning of the colonization. In the famous letter by Pero Vaz de Caminha, for example, in which Brazil was first described by the Portuguese, the Indigenous Americans were called "pardo": "Pardo, naked, without clothing". The word has ever since been used to cover African/European mixes, Amerindian/European mixes, and Amerindian/European/African mixes and Indigenous Americans themselves.
For example, Diogo de Vasconcelos, a widely known historian from Minas Gerais, mentions the story of Andresa de Castilhos. According to 18th-century accounts, Andresa de Castilhos was described by the following: "I declare that Andresa de Castilhos, parda woman ... has been freed ... is a descendant of the native gentiles of the land ... I declare that Andresa de Castilhos is the daughter of a white man and a (Christian) neophyte (Indigenous) woman".
The historian Maria Leônia Chaves de Resende says that the word pardo was used to classify people with partial or full Amerindian ancestry. A Manoel, natural son of Ana carijó, was baptised as 'pardo'; in Campanha several Indigenous Americans were classified as 'pardo'; the Amerindian João Ferreira, Joana Rodriges and Andreza Pedrosa, for example, were described as 'freed pardo'; a Damaso identifies as a 'freed pardo' of the 'native of the land'; etc. According to Chaves de Resende, the growth of the pardo population in Brazil includes the descendants of Amerindian and not only those of African descent: "the growth of the 'pardo' segment had not only to do with the descendants of Africans, but also with the descendants of the Amerindian, in particular the carijós and bastards, included in the condition of 'pardo'".
The American historian Muriel Nazzari in 2001 noted that the "pardo" category has absorbed those persons of Amerindian descent in the records of São Paulo: "This paper seeks to demonstrate that, though many Indians and mestizos did migrate, those who remained in São Paulo came to be classified as pardos."
Most pardos within Hispanic America historically inhabited the territories where the Spanish conquistadors imported slaves during colonial times, such as the Captaincies of Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.
In Brazil, pardo is a race/skin color category used by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in Brazilian censuses, with historic roots in the colonial period. The term "pardo" is more commonly used to refer to mixed-race Brazilians, individuals with varied racial ancestries. The other categories are branco ("White"), negro ("Black"), amarelo ("yellow", meaning East Asians), and indígena ("indigene" or "indigenous person", meaning Amerindians).
The term is still popular in Brazil. According to IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), pardo is a broad classification that encompasses Multiracial Brazilians such as mulatos and cafuzos, as well as assimilated Amerindians known as caboclos, mixed with Europeans or not. The term pardo was first used in a Brazilian census in 1872. The following census, in 1890, replaced the word pardo by mestiço (that of mixed origins). The censuses of 1900 and 1920 did not ask about race, arguing that "the answers largely hid the truth".