By Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez
I begin this essay on brown skin color and color consciousness with memories of my early childhood when I would sit on the porch step of my house in an alley on Whittier Boulevard in East LA and absorb the rays of the blazing hot sun. When I did this, I was constantly warned to stay out of the sun lest I get darker. I never paid any heed because I was already dark, and my body craved the rays of the sun. It was the heat I wanted; it made me feel good. It brought comfort to me, and sitting out in the hot sun (or when I grew older, playing basketball shirtless for hours on end) had nothing to do with my skin color, or so I thought. In one sense, whoever was giving me those admonitions was preoccupied not so much with the sun, but with my skin color—this in a society that has always favored light-skin.
New Mexico poet Demetria Martinez once described me in a poem on racial profiling, “Driving While Brown,” as unable to hide my Indian blood. “He is as dark as chocolate,” she writes (2005, 122). I always felt that was my skin color, except in Arizona where I feel it changes to red-brown.
I remember many years ago, an elder, Ernie Longwalker Peters, told me that when you mix the colors of maíz: red, white, yellow and blue—which represent all the peoples of the world—you get the color brown. I wish I had heard those words when I was growing up because most of my early memories in regards to skin color are negative. For example, I remember walking home from junior high school in the 1960s and one of my friends telling me: “Mexicans are the color of dirt!” I remember not knowing how to respond because he meant it as an insult, and at that time, I didn’t relate dirt with the Earth. That’s where the subtitle for this essay comes from, Gente de Bronce: People the Color of the Earth. Society taught me at a very young age that dirt was a bad thing and that it was an ugly color.
The issue of color isn’t simply something external; color, even when unstated, is also an internal issue among Mexicans and other people of the Americas.1 This is true even in the home. Whether verbalized or not, color consciousness is omnipresent and is directly linked to issues of indigeneity. In other words, these communities tend to show a preference for light skin that is not necessarily related to the black-white racial paradigm in the United States. It actually goes back to the era of Spanish colonization when deep anti-Indigenous attitudes first developed.
This work is part of an ongoing long-term project exploring colonially inflected color consciousness and bias. The preliminary thoughts here are based on work that I have undertaken the past several years, and they. This work compels me to acknowledge that the issue of skin color requires more than collecting data and research in cultural, sociological, and psychological studies or otherwise. Instinctively, most people know that in this society being white or light-skinned generally affords one privileges, and the reverse is true if one is dark—and in this case, brown. The objective of this work is to expose people to powerful narratives which have been suppressed for perhaps some 500 years. In one sense, this is an issue that cannot be resolved simply in the public arena because, often, a large component of it involves issues within families or among close friends, neighbors, and schoolmates. This has to be resolved in peoples’ homes, in their kitchens, dining rooms, or living rooms.2 They are difficult conversations to have. Conversations about the dehumanizing effects of light-skin preference are akin to conversations about incest; it is not something that is spoken about openly and publicly. The primary reason is that those who engage in such bias appear to be clueless that it constitutes a specifically racial bias and instead perpetuates destructive effects. Just as they are unaware of their prejudice, they are seemingly oblivious of the damage done to those who are closest to them. Because of this oppressive normalization of light-skin preference, speaking out against it has long-been taboo (perhaps because no one wants to admit to those biases and inferiority complexes).
That being the case, the approach here is to bring the conversations out into the open via testimonios as unfiltered and as unedited as possible. The testimonios are raw and, for many, still very painful. For the reader, I hope these views are insightful. They are painful and penetrating because these conversations have, in effect, not yet taken place as light-skin preference continues to be normalized among peoples of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage. For many, the pain is so intense that, even after fifty years in some cases, the negative associations with these memories have not gone away. Some of the people who provided their testimonios here did so on condition of not being identified. What could be so painful that, even after all these years, there is trauma associated with these memories? Of those who have responded thus far, beyond recognizing that it is a time to finally be heard, they recognize this to be a long-awaited, cathartic, healing opportunity. It isn’t that brown skin color is special (all colors are special), but that it represents a silenced color and silenced, often invisibilized, peoples.
This color is repeatedly associated not simply with Mexicans and Central and South Americans here in the United States, but with Indigenous peoples of this continent, which constitutes a large part of this story. This experience can be told in different ways, but after years of dealing with this topic, including reading academic literature, I believe that testimonio is the best-suited method for bringing these long suppressed narratives to the foreground. Relative to African Americans, there are fewer studies on this topic in regards to brown peoples in the United States. However, enough have been undertaken for most people to know the obvious; light-skin preference is favored in these communities with many negative consequences. Yet, what is missing from these studies is not the theoretical voice on this topic, but rather the actual voices of those who are subjected to these biases, voices that go to the root of what I deem to be anti-Indigenous attitudes. This is the reason for choosing testimonios and personal narratives to bring this issue into the light.
This project seeks to examine issues of memory and voice. While there is a myriad of issues associated with this topic, what is unique in this undertaking is that I give primacy to the voices of those who have lived these experiences, particularly to their childhood memories. Providing these testimonios liberates those subsumed or suppressed voices. The primary voices I have collected are from people with identifiably red-brown skin, but the voices of family members are also a part of this project, not all of whom have “dark” skin. What I have collected thus far affirms that these kinds of stories have rarely made it into the public consciousness, something that needs to happen even before a healing can take place.
What the voices reveal is a rich, deep and often traumatic narrative, in effect, the open veins—or flayed skin—of the narrators’ cultures. It is an incredible hidden narrative that has probably existed since the arrival of Europeans to this continent.
The thesis of this project is simply that, culturally, these voices have historically been suppressed, both intentionally and unintentionally. It is my hope that merely airing these voices will contribute to understanding a larger narrative of this continent, one which I believe is a suppressed Indigenous narrative, perhaps a de-colonial narrative.
While some people might think that the issue of color is no longer relevant in these “post-racial” times, for those who are brown or who visually appear to be “Mexican” or Indigenous of different shades of brown, these issues do not reside in the past. Among those within the Mexican American community who adhere to the idea that color has ceased to be an issue is former assistant superintendent, Lupita Cavazos Garcia. Facing high school students who had walked out of school due to the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, Garcia asserted that racism is not related to color, stating:
But I’m an exact example of the fact that racism as much as you want to say is about your color. It’s not now. It’s about the level of your education. That’s where a lot of the prejudice is coming. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, Hispanic, Asian… if you’re highly educated you’re going to be highly respected. (“TUSD’s Lupita Garcia” 2012)
As a light-skinned, blonde, Latina, that may be her experience and/or perception; however, virtually all the students rejected her and her message that if they wanted to learn about Mexican history, Mexico is where they could learn it, not the United States.3 Her statement at minimum shows a huge disconnect in terms of racial perceptions between herself and the Mexican American students she was addressing. Perhaps she was not discriminated against in her life—because of her light skin—but the students she was addressing felt not simply discriminated against, but, in this situation, attacked by her.
I first became interested in this topic when a friend of mine asked me in the 1970s why I obsessed over my skin color. I was taken aback by her question. “It’s not me that obsesses over my skin color; it’s the world that obsesses over it,” I responded. I was very familiar with the concept of “breathing while brown,” though all through the 1960s, I probably identified it simply with anti-Mexicanism. In those days, I used to be called a mojado, wetback or dirty Mexican seemingly every day.
My friend is a light-skinned Chicana, but her sister also had chocolate brown skin. She told me that she and her family had not grown up thinking about skin color and that if I didn’t believe her, to ask her sister. Shortly thereafter, I did.
Her sister was also taken aback by my question. She relayed to me that as a child, she was constantly referred to as a “nigger,” and that she was demeaned precisely because of her skin color. I never brought up the issue with them again, but it gave me food for thought. They had lived under the same roof their entire lives, and yet, the lighter-skinned sister was apparently unaware of her sister’s daily reality. For me, that’s how long this idea for this essay and project has germinated.4 Their reality is very revealing. Many of those who do not wear brown skin appear to be unaware of what it is to live in a society that racially profiles brown peoples as illegal, views them as less than human, and views whiteness as the standard of beauty.
In the testimonios below, the reader will see many such related issues. But for this project, none is more important than the topic of indigeneity, de-Indigenization and the de-colonization of that de-indigenized identity. At the root of this complex and multilayered issue is its relationship to Indigenous consciousness or the lack thereof, including the need to address those deep-seated anti-Indigenous attitudes within Mexican, Latin American, Latina/o, and other Amerindigenous communities.
One example of the pervasiveness and early education in such attitudes comes from Tucson educator Norma Gonzalez, who explains here an exercise she does with her kindergarten students:
As an identity pre-assessment…I will invite students in the creation of a self -portrait…. About ten minutes into the activity, I will start to see them add hair and eye color. Sadly most of the brown female students will add yellow hair color even though they have dark brown hair color. They will color blue eyes instead of their multiple shades of brown and black colored eyes. As I inquire about their choice of hair and eye color, I find out through our conversations that yellow (blonde) and blue are beautiful and pretty; brown and black are ugly:
Gonzalez: “why did you color your hair yellow? You have beautiful brown hair?” “And why did you color your eyes blue? You have beautiful brown eyes.”
Female student: “That’s because blonde is prettier and the people on TV have blonde hair and blue eyes.”
These children appear to have already normalized these attitudes before their pre-K school years. Gonzalez’s work with children on these topics is reminiscent of the Clark Doll Experiment in which Black children prefer the white dolls, a phenomenon that the researchers labeled as stigmatic injury (Clark and Clark, 1950).
The testimonios I have gathered demonstrate that the kinds of admonitions I received for bathing in the sun and, more importantly, the sentiments behind them, are endemic in our cultures. Their effects continue to be felt among our youth, affecting their public lives, even though we typically only tell these stories in private. Because these issues are so widespread, entire communities may in fact be suffering from what some scholars, such as M.Y.H. Brave Heart, refer to as historical trauma (1998: 287-305).
The association between brown skin color and indigeneity is key to this understanding. The connection seems obvious, but it is not necessarily because most Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas are either de-Indigenized or Indigenous-based “mestizos” (racially mixed). Part of de-Indigenization often involves shame and denial related to things Indigenous, which includes skin color, and an acceptance of those sometimes complex identities which in the United States can also involve other mixtures.5 What is often unspoken is that the rejection of brown skin color is part of a colonial residue or imprint, a rejection of things Indigenous. This internalized oppression seems to be the subtext for virtually all the stories I have gathered (Padilla 2001).6
In terms of my academic identity, I am a life-long journalist/columnist, though writer/storyteller also could describe me just as well. For this project, the methodology is story or more precisely, testimonio. This is the method that I have chosen to elicit stories—in peoples’ own words—from those who have lived or still live the reality of color bias. When this issue has previously been addressed, it has been addressed primarily as a media or beauty issue (Johnson and Huey-Ohlisson 2003: 167), usually ignoring issues of indigeneity. When the voices of those affected are present, they are usually subsumed (Hunter 2002) or reflect the researcher’s emphasis as opposed to the memories of the respondents, resulting in little or no discussion of indigeneity (Stephens and Fernandez 2012). This is not to suggest that the work of other researchers is less valid, rather, that most seek explanations as to why light skin offers privileges or confirmation that the privilege does exist. In this work, by contrast, I seek the origins of such privilege, and, equally as important, the voices of those who live the negative consequences of that bias and privilege. In the work here, light-skin preference is treated as part of a more totalizing cultural trait, arguably traced to the era of Spanish colonialism.
In conducting this initial work, I contacted friends, colleagues and acquaintances through various means to request testimonies/vignettes regarding their memories and experiences of skin color bias or privilege.7 In this essay, I have integrated excerpts from their testimonios. Initially, I was more interested in vignettes from peoples’ formative years to see how those memories continue to affect attitudes in later life. But as I began to have conversations, I realized that this issue is not something that goes away during childhood. In fact, for many of us, it is the reverse. As adults, many of us live it harshly and brutally in relationship to encounters with law enforcement, including the migra.8
This brings us to the backstory behind this project: that there is a perception by some/many with brown skin that there are others who do not want this subject broached, or want to make sure the views of peoples with light skin are also included (which they are). There is not just one concept of what constitutes brown skin or people the color of the earth, or what that means. For instance, some scholars correctly note that “dark brown” can have a different meaning to African Americans as compared to Mexican Americans and Indigenous peoples (Hunter 2002: 188). Similarly, Latinas/os can be racialized as brown by their language, accent, even by their surname regardless of their actual self-image or skin color.
A survey of Raza literature reveals that there is a plethora of works related to culture, history, identity, language, education, politics, race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, and even indigeneity, yet relatively little emphasis on skin color, particularly its internal dimension. What I am positing here is that these other discussions tend to substitute for discussions on skin color. Better yet, discussions on skin color are silenced or subsumed in the public sphere. This project does not assume that the concepts—skin color and the cultural traits traditionally emphasized in Chicana/o studies—are synonymous. This may sound counter-intuitive as the color brown in this country was/is associated with Chicanos/Chicanas. In reality, the association, too, is with indigeneity, though usually unstated. But “Brown Power” and “Brown is beautiful” are powerful political slogans that emanated from el movimiento chicano. They were liberating, unifying and even de-colonial, but one rarely hears much about those concepts today—though it is not uncommon to hear or read about the “browning of America” or the Hispanicization or Latinization of the nation.9 While many of these references associate the “browning of America” with culture, the testimonios below reveal the cultural, familial, and political/de-colonial implications of skin color consciousness.
Obsessing Over Color
Here is a story from a friend, a First Nations woman from Canada, Martha Many Grey Horses, shedding light on the internal nature of this reality, invoking the black/dark skin is bad narrative. After having worked in the orchards in the United States, she describes coming back with a tan:
…an older male cousin said to me “you burned dark like a black woman” in our Blackfoot language. Years later, as I got older and more consciously aware of the forces of internalized racism, I mentioned not only what he did to me but what happens to people who are oppressed and how they themselves become the oppressor. . . . He listened and he apologized.
As part of her testimonio, she also sent in another powerful vignette about what children observe and what they feel, when exposed to such hate:
Breathing brown! Powerful words that trigger memories of my childhood in a Canadian residential school! As a child I didn’t speak English—Blackfoot was my own language. Breathing brown at this young age in that situation meant that I was afraid! Breathing and holding my breath as I—a brown girl—would silently watch the kindergarten teacher—an elderly white woman—while my stomach quivered. . . . During those frightening moments I experienced in the residential school, I didn’t listen for English words but I listened—watchfully—to the teacher’s breath, her body movement, her face, her facial expressions, her hands, and her pace! If there was the slightest quickness of her breath, movement, pace and especially tension on her face, she scared me…. All of these signs and actions suggested she didn’t like us brown babies especially those of us who were more brown…. She was kinder to the light-skinned children. . . . Breathing brown—two appropriate words, long last found, words of liberation . . .
Common sense informs us that young children are probably not conscious of the deep racial implications of light-skin preference and prejudice, but here, Many Grey Horses shows otherwise. I would tend to agree that very young children may not understand complex theories, but they can easily pick up on hate and prejudice, regardless of the source.
“Breathing While Brown”
The issue of “breathing while brown,” when one becomes older, is closely related to “driving while brown.” However, the issue of color goes deeper than issues of societal discrimination. Often, home, where children should feel the most welcome and the safest, is not sanctuary. Light skin generally has been favored within Mexican/Mexican American and so-called U.S.-Latino/Hispanic cultures where it is generally associated with beauty. Long-time El Paso columnist, Joe Olvera, recalls a memory that illustrates this:
When I was in the 7th grade, at La Jeff, we held a contest to select the most beautiful girl in our class. It was a tossup between Cruz, who was a light-skinned girl, and Gloria, who was very dark-skinned. Both girls were beautiful, but, we all felt that Gloria was slightly more beautiful than Cruz. One student, however, didn’t agree with us. He ranted and raved, saying that Cruz should have won merely because of her skin color, but we shot him down…[thereafter] this guy Joe X—who was also very light-skinned, started calling me Shadow.
One sees these attitudes that Olvera recounts most clearly in Spanish-language media where blondes predominate; however, this project is not focused on the media. My interest is in peoples’ first memories of color consciousness, as opposed to quantitative data regarding the effects of color prejudice. I have this interest because I suspect that when these encounters first took place during our formative years, they were probably confusing and traumatic. Here is a vignette from a friend, Alfonso Morales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, describing his memory regarding his mother who was descended from a European émigré. He describes himself as having inherited his father’s river soaked earth color:
…The first moment I recall was when we lived in Albuquerque. I was five or six and we were at the public swimming pool. I climbed from the pool, walked to my mother laying on a towel and put my dark hand on her pale skin. With the simple innocence of youth, I asked her why I was so dark. I remember her eyes and the complexity of emotions expressed there. While not clearly something I could perceive, I saw concern, sadness, wonder, admiration, ay dios, a tangle of emotions that I still cannot fully express.
Such experiences during the early years no doubt contribute to how attitudes are shaped regarding issues of color, race, ethnicity, identity and especially indigeneity. No doubt these memories are stored away deep in the subconscious because society has not generally permitted their full expression. During the “Brown Power” era of the 1960s and 1970s, this form of expression flowered in political, artistic and poetic realms, but the full airing of this topic by those from within these communities was short-lived. The topic seemingly continues to be taboo.
As a child, I remember hearing Mexican Americans claiming to be Spanish, always insulting dark-skinned Mexicans. Yet, some of them were themselves dark and most of the insults were anti-Indigenous in nature.10 In this project, I am interested in bringing those childhood memories to the fore,11 as part of a healing process both for those sharing their suppressed memories and experiences and hopefully for those being exposed to them. Some of those who have shared their memories and experiences have done so in tears. Others simply relayed that it was too painful to recall them. One friend, Joaquin Galvan of Sacramento, California, sent me some of his early memories, but none involved color. When I informed him of this, he replied: “I think I blocked out the early memories of not being white. I might need therapy to bring them out, so I’ll have to pass for now.” He subsequently relayed that he was not kidding about this topic. Other friends also declined because they still have unresolved issues between and among family members or close friends.
Of those who have responded to this call for testimonios, not surprisingly, not everyone’s perceptions or recollections are the same. Even what and who is dark is relative to one’s own upbringing. For example, author Luis Rodriguez writes that his light-skinned brother Rano had a difficult time growing up in South Central L.A., which was majority African-American. He says,
In the summer, I darkened pretty well, kind of blending in. But not Rano. While most of our black neighbors were friendly, a few kids beat Rano up. He took a lot of his hurt out on me—physically abusing me, throwing me off rooftops, tying a rope around my neck and pulling me around the yard. Rano was three years older. I was a prickly haired sensitive prietito (dark kid)
Luis related that when his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, it was he with dark brown skin who was now being chased and beat up in that white part of L.A.
What all the testimonios share in common is that the memories are powerful. Here, a friend and colleague, Karen Mary Davalos, recounts her earliest memory. She tells her story of being in kindergarten to her classes at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles as part of an icebreaker. She speaks of sitting down to watch a movie on a rug, next to two girls with blonde hair and white skin. Turning to each other, one whispered:
“You touch her skin.”
“No, you touch it.”
“No, you do it. I bet you it feels like a snake.”
Eventually one of them reached over . . . and touched my skin, you know, like they were petting a dog for the first time. . . .
She said that in the fifteen years she has told the story, only once has she not cried:
I…don’t know where it comes from. It’s obviously really, really deep…because my mother taught me to love my skin color…. I really like myself…. But it still pains me, that story. I don’t think I will ever figure it out.
This is precisely the purpose of this project: to figure it out.
People the Color of the Earth
Olga Vianey González (Otomí/Yaqui), from Denver, relates a story on this topic, of having her heart broken, though not her spirit. Similar to Davalos’ story, González speaks of deep scars, which is very common in these testimonios, though in her case, the intergenerational scars originate with her grandmother:
On my father’s side, my grandmother (Otomi/Yaqui), who had struggled with her identity and internalized oppression all of her life, took one look at me when I was born and stated, “She can’t possibly be Jaime’s daughter. She’s too dark….” I would also hear her make comments about my cousins and how pretty they were because they were so blanquitas (white). It was clear to her that lighter skin was better, more desirable and more beautiful. Many years later, when I graduated from college, her “gift” to me was a jar of bleaching cream.
Olga relayed that she felt a deep hurt for her own grandmother, knowing that when she sent her that gift, that she still lived in that place of shame, a place Olga had left behind many years ago, when she began to understand her own Indigenous identity.
As evidenced here and in all the testimonios, those presenting their testimonios generally do not speak ill of those who created those traumas because, more often than not, they are family members. Sara Haskie Mendoza, who identifies as Indigenous, relates several painful memories, including from her light-skinned grandfather in Mexico City:
So I’m walking home . . . and my grandfather, when he saw me, he starts . . . kind of, like, asking for a hug . . . and he starts yelling: “Chapopotito. Ay estas. Chapopotito.” He was calling me tar . . . I knew it wasn’t out of malice. But it was so embarrassing. . . .
She shares another memory:
I noticed how the family always used the word beautiful, for any woman that was light-skinned . . . “Oh how beautiful. She is pretty.” . . . I was told that my aunt was wishing and hoping to have a child that was blonde and blue-eyed. And when she did have this child, she felt really accomplished. . . . Oh they embraced this blond, blue-eyed child; so fantastic.
Georgie Noguera also invokes painful memories of her grandparents, who raised her in Guatemala:
My grandmother was a dark skinned woman with very curly, black, wavy hair. My grandfather would tout his European heritage and brag about it to anyone within earshot. . . . As a young child, I cursed (whatever higher power I believed in at that time) for letting my skin attain that unattractive bronze shade in the summer sun that I loathed. My grandparents tried to keep me out of the sun and wouldn’t let me play with the other little kids in the neighborhood for that reason. I would stare at my face in the little mirror I had and wished my hair would be blond and that I had blue eyes. Maybe that would enable me to gain the elusive acceptance I longed for and increase my stock in the eyes of my grandfather.
This was the same grandfather who once yanked her arm and yelled: “Don’t be an Indian!” because she was going to step aside for a pregnant Maya woman, holding an infant, walking towards them on the same side of the street. It was an experience that traumatized Georgie. Georgie, who is dark, learned from her own grandfather how she was supposed to treat Indigenous peoples. In effect, this is not an atypical story of the continent. Attitudes such as these have been transmitted across the generations, literally, for some 500 years.
Mujer con Piel Bronce
Here’s the story and testimony of another friend, Dulce Maria Juarez Aguilar, from Phoenix, Arizona. They are about how she grew up ashamed of herself. It was her story and video that was sent out as a prototype to many of those who are sharing their memories here:12
It is empowering to me to even say it, color bronce, as it is a beautiful color, but I did not always feel this way about the color of my skin.
Growing up in the U.S. watching TV shows, movies or all other media-outlets, where all the kids and characters did not look like me, made me feel that I was different and not beautiful enough, because I was not light-skinned, blue eyed, and blonde.
. . . When Disney’s 1995 movie Pocahontas came out, most of my family members and some friends called me La Pocahontas! As I had long black hair, almond shaped eyes, native facial features and of course brown skin…Pocahontas was not a nickname of endearment, but rather a term of ridicule. In my nine-year-old, U.S. white-male dominated colonized mind, being brown, meant being ugly…. I hated being called Pocahontas.
At the age of 13, my best friend had green eyes, was light skinned, and she was the most beautiful and popular girl in school. I wanted to look like her, and like many kids in the U.S., I went through an identity crisis. So I bought blue, green and even purple colored eye contacts to change my eye color, and would also, wear long-sleeved and pants or clothing that covered my skin color.
In high school . . . I had forgotten about my culture and did not want to look “brown” or be considered “Mexican.” I wanted to look white so that I would be accepted. So I wore lots of make-up, the light-toned foundation make-up, cut my hair short, and dyed it with blonde streaks. . . .”
Juarez also shared her thoughts of transformation with my students at the University of Arizona, who were enthralled by the power of her story:
All of this changed when I met Gaby, in college. She was a naturally beautiful indigenous hermana (sister), who lived her life as a ceremony…. Gaby and another indigenous sister Rosela who I love, were the first women that had ever told me how beautiful I looked without makeup on . . . They validated me and they always reminded me of how beautiful my brown skin was.
Gaby was also, a mentor to my best friend Silvia. Silvia and I spent endless hours discussing, not being good enough, not belonging because we did not have a “legal” immigration status. We talked about identity, capitalism, Chicanismo, language, race, conspiracies, and politics. Until finally I was full of rage….
On Saturdays, Gaby invited many students from our university to a local community indigenous center, where one of the elders shared stories and guidance about who we are, where we come from. . . . Attending ceremonies such as Temascales (sweat lodges), and continuing to learn about my indigenous part of my ancestry, connected me to Mother Earth, allowing for me to embrace my identity, my color, and understand myself. After my first temascal, I looked myself in the mirror and for once my skin color was now beautiful in my eyes.
When Juarez first shared her story, one student raised her hand to acknowledge that she still had feelings of inferiority regarding her skin color. It became an instantaneously transformative moment. That’s what gave rise to the idea that speaking publicly about these memories and presenting these testimonies would inspire others to want to do the same, and more than that, that it could perhaps also trigger a healing process.
The Role of the Media
Here, educator Nacho Quiñones of Las Cruces, New Mexico, ponders both the origins, and the role of the media in creating the kinds of discriminatory preferences evidenced in these powerful stories:
. . . the Spaniards implemented their caste system and, perhaps, this was the initiation for whiteness “being better than” brownness among many of our people—to this day. Certainly, this was later reinforced by the massive propaganda by Hollywood and Mexican movies, magazines, etc., portraying almost 100% of its positive characters as white and “others” as darker skinned.
As Quiñones notes, the correlation between white skin color and beauty continues to be prevalent amongst Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas. While the correlation between brown skin and ugliness is not stated, an anti-Indigenous message nonetheless is explicitly communicated.
Nevertheless, in this day and age, beautiful young children still feel ashamed and embarrassed of their skin color. Here are words from a beautiful young woman, Evelyne Santiago, who developed an inferiority complex as a child in Southern California:
I never felt comfortable in my skin when I was growing up. During elementary school, I always wished I could trade places with one of the white girls in my classes for a day. . . . As I grew older, I adopted a different mentality. If I couldn’t change my skin tone, then I would change everything else. . . . By the time I was fifteen, my hair was lighter; I had blue contacts; and I was smothering on layers of a lotion that guaranteed I would get lighter in just two weeks! . . . I spent high school being called a coconut—I was brown on the outside and white on the inside. I was still brown. I was tempted to call and write angry letters to the manufacturers of the lotion for their false advertisement.
This attempt at trying “to be white” or “passing” is not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States among peoples from Mexico and points south. She eventually did overcome her sense of inferiority when she went to college on the East coast:
I didn’t see a single brown face in any of my classes. Suddenly I didn’t long to be like them. . . . I started looking at myself in the mirror and admiring my own features. . . . Here, I was naturally bronze and beautiful, while white girls lined up outside of the tanning salons. . . . They could pay all they wanted, but they would never have the color that I was blessed enough to inherit from my ancestors.
Santiago’s transformation shows that shame indeed is reversible. In the United States, the government-and-media-imposed black/white paradigm generally disappears brown skin color from the critical discussion on race and color.13 This is especially important because the U.S. Census Bureau to this day appears to be clueless regarding the brown skin color of peoples from the Americas that reside within the United States. Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America are categorized by the government as Hispanics/Latinos. The government has long-presumed that when peoples from this group are discriminated against, it is because of their nationality, as opposed to their color or [Indigenous or African] race. Despite leaving it up to each individual to determine her/his own race or ethnicity, for decades the Bureau has steered Mexican peoples (and Latinos/Hispanics) into the white racial category. Rather than “state-enforced” shame, this is arguably “state-enforced” de-Indigenization14 or attempts to force-fit Mexicans into a black-white Census schema.15
Views on race in Mexico and points south are very different. Prior to the Zapatista uprising of 1994, race issues were rarely discussed; the media and popular culture always assigned issues of discrimination to class, not race or color. Such denial constitutes another form of de-Indigenization, and there, de-Indigenization is not a new phenomenon but rather the story of the continent (Bonfil Batalla 1996).
While Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America live unique experiences in the United States, it is undeniable that they often carry over attitudes, including shame, from their home countries. This is why the project can proceed with the premise that many of them have previously been unable to express their voices confidently, without being demeaned, misinterpreted or silenced.
With the airing of these voices, I believe a new narrative is rising to the fore in this country, Mexico and points south. One of the most powerful stories, for instance, comes from a friend, Estela Roman, from Cuernavaca, Mexico. She relates that she has a sister who is a little bit lighter than she is; when her daughter was born, she was born also a little light, but still dark. However, the baby was the toast of the town because she was seen as a guerita, or a light-skinned baby girl. Neighbors would come by to praise the baby. The family noticed that one particular neighbor, who was pregnant, would come by every day and rub the baby’s tummy. She was hoping that if she rubbed the baby’s tummy, perhaps her baby would also come out light.
This is part of the tragicomic legacy that has been imposed upon this continent. While the experiences are varied, the one experience shared almost universally is that of family or friends who generally associate light-skinned babies and children with beauty. For instance, despite the pervasive anti-Mexican attitudes I experienced throughout my childhood, the issue of color was most pronounced within my own home and at school. There were nine of us in my family. My father and one brother were also dark; all the rest were lighter, most with green or blue eyes. I don’t ever recall hearing anyone in my family, who all generally do “look Mexican,” comment, or refer to me derisively about my skin color. Instead, what I constantly heard was effusive praise of my lighter-skinned brothers and sister, either by my family, neighbors, or friends.
I cannot remember me ever responding to that praise publicly, but I always did respond, silently. I was keenly aware of my skin color because, being that I was always out in the sun, I learned early on that dark skin was not highly prized in this society. Sometimes, such memories are not necessarily negative, but awkward or even disorienting. But with me, they were negative.
Similarly, Sara Haskie Mendoza also shares one such story about her little sister, at her grandmother’s shoe store in Mexico City, where she was continually praised:
. . . people would always look at my sister and say, “Oh my God! She’s so pretty,” which she is; and then look at me and say: “you too.” . . . . Most of the time when the people would compliment my sister, it would never fail; they would compliment her skin color. My sister was born blond . . . with milky white skin that made me feel very self-conscious about my skin color.
Morena Color de Llanta
Other light-skinned friends told me similar stories of the intense awareness of their own skin color in relation to their siblings’. Here, Anabel Aguayo sent in stories about the environment that led her to attempt to lighten her dark skin:
. . . No matter how hard I tried to hide my culture outside of my home, I always had this one thing that hindered me: my dark skin. I thought, “If I was as light-skinned as my sister, I could even lie and say I was white, or I could claim my family was from Spain. Why was she the lucky one?” I often felt inferior. My dark skin was a reminder that I was not good enough. My dark skin even made me feel dirty at times. Maybe if I just took a good enough shower, I could wash the color off. Needless to say that didn’t work, even after scrubbing my arms over and over with a piedra pomex (pumice stone). I was still brown.
Growing up, Anabel received mixed messages. Her mom would refer to her as morenita linda (beautiful young brown girl), but also would tell her that she could still lighten up in adulthood.
I took this as there being hope for me. I also remember being upset when one of my uncles would call me morena color de llanta and called my sister paloma blanca. I was a dark-colored tire while she was a white dove.
Things changed once she understood her indigeneity:
I relearned my culture through different eyes. I learned that I came from a beautiful and strong people. They were intellectuals and had a rich culture. Yet, my ancestors and their culture are not mythical beings from the past. My ancestry and my culture live through me, through the indigenous blood that runs through my veins and through my beautiful brown skin.
That Anabel came to know and reconnect with her Indigenous roots and culture is instructive in the realm of how to overcome imposed feelings of inferiority. That’s precisely what they are: imposed feelings, not truth.
Ruben Botello’s childhood experiences at trying to fit in are similar to Anabel’s and extremely traumatic.
I thought learning English and assimilating into the Anglo-American way of life would gain me acceptance. I worked so hard to fit in. As a last resort, I tried to make my skin white by scrubbing it with Clorox bleach and Brillo pads so my classmates would accept me.
His experiences are reminiscent of Joaquin Galvan’s admonition of the need for therapy by recalling such memories. Witness the effect of Botello’s desperate attempt to lighten up and assimilate: “The next three years of my elementary education were like a death march. . . . By junior high I not only hated school, I wanted to die.” This perhaps is not understood—that these traumas suffered in childhood haunt our children creating inferiority complexes which stay with them through adulthood, also creating feelings of worthlessness, self-hate and perhaps suicidal thoughts for some. I am not aware of studies that are specific to issues of color, low self-esteem and suicide among these populations. What is known is that since the 1990s, Latina teens have had a much higher rate of suicide attempts than whites and African Americans (Kuhlberg, Peña, and Zayas 2010). Studies would have to be done to see if there is a correlation (No data was provided for American Indians rates).
Like others, I remember taking showers or baths, washing extra hard, eyes closed, and being disappointed when I opened my eyes to discover that the soap had done no good. It seems pretty cruel that children would resort to doing this. Sadly, this is a common experience. Although this was the early 1960s, such experiences were not limited to that era.
So the advent of the Chicano Movement and the era of “brown and proud” could not have come soon enough. As a child, I did have pride in being Mexican, in being Indian, in my skin color, while developing an inferiority complex at the same time. Precisely because of that, I developed a rebelliousness. My father, who was dark, taught me early on that we were Indigenous, though I do not know whether or not that offered protection from issues of color because ,as noted, some of that hate was internal. That preference for white skin, blue/green eyes, and blonde hair was omnipresent in my East Side schools when I was growing up.
Yet, one day, when I was perhaps seven or eight years old, my nurse commented, “What a beautiful tan you have.” I remember looking at her and responding: “This is not a tan. I’m Mexican.” I knew she was giving me a compliment, but I wanted and needed her to know that it was my natural skin color and not a tan.
Over the decades, as “Brown and Proud” discourse began to fade, I recognized more of the old internalized racism. I recall, for instance, a powerful memory—not of words but of a look, or mirada in the expression of a friend—not as a child, but as an adult in the 1990s. This look is one that many will relate to. As I was talking to a friend—a light-skinned Latina—in Washington DC on a hot summer afternoon, another friend came by on her bike. Her beautiful dark brown skin was shining in the blazing sun. My other friend looked on in horror as if she were contagious. I know this because she used to tell me that her family was horrified when her milky white skin would slightly tan. They thought she was “becoming Indigenous.”
The testimonios below demonstrate the common misconceptions around what “brown” and “Indigenous” mean both externally and within our communities. Like the stories above, these last testimonios reveal a recursion between internalized oppression and an embrace of indigeneity. I have categorized these stories accordingly in addition to including the authors’ original titles.
What color is the color brown? I thought I knew the answer, but as I began to do this project, I found out that the answer is relative. The testimonio from Anna Nieto Gomez best illustrates this:
I grew up believing everyone’s skin color was some color brown. Perhaps that is because I am brown, and people in my family were either lighter or darker than I. . . . I don’t even describe what color of brown I am. I think it is because it changes from season to season, and it seems to be a different color now that I am older. But when I see a picture of myself, it is a smiling brown . . . not the color of a brown crayon.
If I were to have described her color prior to receiving her stories, I would have said chocolate brown. But now I agree with her: smiling brown.
Xicana in the South
Strangely, it seems the color brown can change even regionally within the United States. Here is a description by Monseratt Alvarez ,who grew up in the South. Though prior to her life there, she had been raised in Oxnard, California.
Growing up I always knew my skin color was different to those around me, even within my Mexican family. My mother has beautiful brown skin, black curly hair, and illuminating black eyes. My father has pale white skin, light brown hair, and brown eyes. In my family, I was known as Negra (black) or Prieta (dark) as a way of emphasizing my skin color. . . . The first memory I have as a child where my skin made me feel uncomfortable did not happen until I moved to North Carolina. I attended a majority white school [there] and that is when I realized how different my skin was.
Self-hate is what many of us develop when we are subjected to vicious hate. Here is a powerful memory by Yaotl Mazahua from the group, Aztlan Underground, regarding his parents:
My mom would get mad at my dad when he would come home drunk. . . . Although she had the same complexion as my father, she would rip into my father about how dark he was. She would yell at him and say “pinche cara de Papago!!” “Indio feo!!!” And she would crush him with the following words: “Indio Cambujo!!”16 My dad would lose his composure and begin to tremble, pout, and whimper and ultimately begin to cry in a kind of despair and self-hate. It was a sight to see him become instantly emasculated by my mother over the color of his skin . . .
On the Color Black
Luckily, Yaotl did not inherit this self-hate. Because most people here are of Indigenous origin, the focus of most of this essay addresses the relationship between the color brown and indigeneity. However, a few of those that have contributed vignettes also share African blood. Here are the words of contributor Dionisio de la Viña from Nicaragua, though raised in San Francisco:
Recently, I was looking at a family picture I hadn’t seen before. The photo was 55 years old. I was stunned when I recognized myself as a very dark, skinny, nine-year-old boy . . . when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t recognize that dark little boy. I’m still a brown man, but I’m not as dark as the “me” in the photo . . . My family back in the fifties called me el negro— “Blackie” in English. . . . In the house in Managua where I grew up, I lived with 25 other relatives—from very dark (me) to very light (my father). . . . The family photo I saw recently brought back some feelings I must’ve repressed. I thought it was a term of endearment because no one called me el negro with malice. But, was it really a term of endearment?
Mugre India Fea, el negro de tu padre, el güero
Several of those that sent in their testimonios report the same thing . . . of being called derogatory names as “terms of endearment,” yet not feeling very endeared by such terms. Here is a vignette by Erica Padilla Saiz on the color black and brown, “My Grandma Jovita often recounts the times her mother would call her India fea or mugre India fea.” Growing up being labeled dirty Indian by her own mother was very traumatic, Erica relays:
. . . I have witnessed my grandmother’s internal turmoil over looking Indian. She hates it when anybody calls her India or tells her she looks India. But she knows who she is. My father is one of four, and he is the darkest of them all. That’s why she calls him el negro. I remember as a child, my brother and I often heard my father being called el negro, and, because he was significantly darker, my brother used to think my dad was black. He would ask me, “How come my dad’s black and we’re not? Are we black?” I knew we weren’t black; we are brown. We had el nopal en la mera frente (cactus on the forehead and signifier of being Indian).
Vignettes of the Brown-Black Experience
Dina Barajas is both Hopi and Mexican. Here, she describes her rude awakening on the topic of color at the hands of “white blonde kids” at her elementary school that reveled at calling her nigger:
The first time I was called this, I didn’t know how to react. I thought, “I’m not black. Why are they saying that?” . . . On one occasion, a young white boy called me a nigger as I took my seat on the bus. I immediately got up from my seat and headed straight to the principal’s office. . . . In tears I told the principal what the boy had called me. The principal banned the boy from riding the bus for two weeks.
After that, it never happened again. What is not clear in this case, and in similar situations, is whether Barajas had been insulted because it was a racial epithet, or because it was a racial epithet usually reserved for African Americans and directed at her.
When I was growing up in East LA, the dynamic in the realm of race or skin color was more between whites and Mexicans than with African Americans. At the age of six or seven, I remember a neighbor shouting at us that Mexicans were “dirty like niggers” without knowing what or who they were referring to. I remember thinking that if these hateful people despised Mexicans and compared us with this other group, then this other group must be ok. I am not sure what I perceived about the world at that time, though hatred is easily understood by children of any age.
Anything but Mexican
Writing on this topic more than fifty years later, I am only able to recall that ferocious hatred against Mexicans (akin to the current animosity against Mexicans in Arizona), but also a personal repugnance because of my skin color. In so many of the stories I’ve gathered, the memories shared convey a similar derogatory linkage between darkness and indigeneity. In the following vignettes by Emilia Garcia, the effects of this linkage are both powerful and painful:
Both my mother and sister were very light in color with somewhat blonde, reddish-brown hair. I remember feeling we were as different as night and day. As for my father, he was brown with dark hair, yet I surpassed him in color, especially in the summer. I would turn chocolate brown, and my sister and cousins would tell me to smile so they could find me in the dark. My uncle would call me Brownie, never by my name. Others would call me Prieta or Darkie. My mother would say, “Te pareces Yaqui”—that I was dark like the Indians of Mexico. I would just stand there, quietly, feeling bad for reasons I did not understand.
As I grew older, I was always asked, “Are you Indian?” I would quickly say, “No, I am Mexican.” The way in which people would say “Indian” always felt derogatory. . . . Now when I am asked I smile and answer, “I am Chicana.”
Here is one story from the 1950s of a hidden Indigenous narrative by Huitzmaitl:
In the 1950s, the make-up of our East LA community was very different than it is today. There were white people from the mid-west, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. . . . It didn’t matter where you and your family came from. If you were clearly brown, you were called a Mexican. We were called Mexican. . . . My parents were both born in the United States. My mother was so proud of this. Looking back at this time, I can see that this pride in being a U.S citizen was usually brought on by someone calling her a Mexican. Perhaps she thought that being a U.S. citizen was something you could see.
About seven years ago my mother told me for the first time that her mother was Native American. This was her deepest, darkest secret. . . . I believe her parents made her keep that secret, possibly for her own protection. She is troubled by what she is and disturbed by what she isn’t.
If someone from this generation might think that this is an exaggeration, it is true that in the history of this continent, hiding or suppressing “the Indian” was always the objective, lest they be subjected to worse forms of discrimination, including genocide, enslavement, land theft, lynching and being burned at the stake. The cultural, spiritual and political expression of Indigeneity was greatly discouraged during the Spanish colonial era of the 1500s-1800s (Bonfil Batalla, 1996). In this country, Indigenous peoples “became Mexican” to avoid forced land removals.
“Abo” in Australia
Maya Jupiter is a performing artist in Los Angeles. Her mother is Turkish and her father is Mexican. Although she was raised in Australia, her memories are similar to the testimonios found here:
I remember coming home from Primary school, probably 8 years old and crying to my older (lighter-skinned) sister. “I wish I was your colour. I hate being this colour . . .” I had been called “Abo,” a derogatory term used to describe Aboriginal people in Australia. Later, ironically, kids would ask me, “Where were you born?” After I replied “Mexico.” I was told to “go back to where I came from.”
. . . I can’t speak for my father (who denied being Indigenous), but I can imagine what he’s gone through to be someone who only identifies as being Spanish.
The Color of My Skin
Devora Gonzalez is Salvadoreña and Guatemalteca and grew up in Los Angeles. Her experiences are virtually identical to many of the other experiences shared above.
I LOVE THE COLOR OF MY SKIN. It is the most beautiful thing about me, but I did not always feel this way. In elementary, I did not feel pride about my skin tone. I wanted to look like my friends who had a light skin-tone and light-brown hair. But me on the other hand, “look at me. I would be so beautiful if my skin was just a bit lighter.” . . . I remember thinking that if I could change one thing about me, it would be my skin tone. In my imagination I would be “white.”
Like the others, Devora too went through a positive transformation:
Then sometime during my middle school years, I saw Michael Jackson. His skin had magically turned white. I did not want to look like that. Soon enough, I was getting ready to attend my high school prom. And after so much saving, I went to get my make-up done at a place in the nicer, much more expensive part of Los Angeles. There, the make-up artist that was to do my make-up greets me and says “Oooohhhh, I love your tan.” I didn’t know what to say. No one before had told me they loved my skin tone. I felt good about myself that night. If people paid to look like me, it was because there was something beautiful about me.
An even greater transformation took place when she studied Central American Studies in college and learned about her Maya ancestry: “There I found all of what is beautiful about who I am, about why I look the way I do. So I repeat, I LOVE MY SKIN TONE, and I am proud to be Mujer de Bronce.
These initial stories have convinced me that this project can contribute to our communities addressing this issue of light-skin preference head on, including the deeply-held, anti-Indigenous attitudes prevalent in our communities. This can only lead in a good direction. Permit me to end with a few thoughts from Anaheim teacher Carolyn Torres, then Evita Carrasco:
I come from a family of brown skin. Dark if you are comparing us to snow; even and everywhere if you are comparing our skin to the earth’s skin. We have high cheek bones and a slant to our dark eyes. I can pass for most any brown-skinned peoples from any continent, but I am from this continent. I am Chicana, Mexican, Yaqui. My people come from this land regardless of what nationality or race anyone wants to call us this decade, this century, this millennium.
Torres states that while her family is clear on who they are, it is the government that attempts to change their identity, seemingly every 10 years. Here, Carrasco leaves us with both, a most powerful story, and then a lesson:
My paternal grandmother was not pleased about my father having married a Mexican woman, and she made it obvious. I noticed at Christmas time the difference in gifts to my white cousins and what my siblings and I received. My white cousins got beautiful dresses from my grandma, and I got socks. I asked her why and she responded, “Because they have beautiful porcelain skin and aren’t tarnished with brown like you.” I didn’t understand.
It took the birth of Evita’s blind son, who was very brown, for her grandmother to understand, “If everyone would see the world as my son does, we would be so much better off.” Indeed, if everyone were blind—or if everyone could see.
Finally, here the essay concludes with a young warrior woman, Leilani Clark, who is both a Pueblo woman and African American. Her words capture the essence of this essay:
Our colors are not our own, but the colors of the landscapes, regions and territories our ancestors stepped on before us—where they were created, where the mountains laughed life into our bodies and where the waters breathed being into our souls. We carry that map all in our skin—dark as the earth, reflecting off golden rays of kissed sunlight; complimenting our tones quite well. Quite naturally.
For me, my color is my lifeline,
my medicine, my map,
my treasure, my stories,
my voice, my words.
My greatest strength of all.
1. In the United States, the dynamic regarding skin color is generally discussed within a black-white paradigm. For this project, while the initial focus of this work is on brown peoples, of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage, I also have gathered the views of other peoples of color.
2. Although conversations need to begin in the home and within the community, both schools and the media should actively participate in doing away with light-skin bias as well.
3. In an unrelated case, a plaintiff in a California 2012 lawsuit alleges that an educator constantly referred to Mexican students as “brown faces”—students that the educator purportedly wanted ousted from the school to improve the school’s standing (Fastman, 2012).
4. In getting permission to use their story, the darker sister recently noted that she was also called “blackie” and “sambo” as a child.
5. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla’s México Profundo (1996) is a classic treatise on this topic. Also, the concept of mestizaje or racial mixture, espoused by Mexican writer, Jose Vasconcelos, in La Raza Cósmica (1925), essentially became part of state ideology in 20th century Mexico.
6. Padilla credits Kellogg Fellow trainer, Roberto Chene, with introducing the concept of internalized oppression to her in 1998, that is, when people turn on or against themselves, particularly in colonial situations.
7. For this initial phase, almost all the people I contacted I know personally. This is intentional as I wanted most of these testimonios to come from people that are or should be well-adjusted regarding this topic of childhood memories of color and color consciousness. Most are college graduates or college students or people in social or human rights movements.
8. The migra has long-used racial profiling of Indigenous phenotypes, such as brown skin, black hair, language, and accent, in their search for migrants, including mass deportation raids and campaigns.
9. In addition to numerous articles and news stories on U.S. demographic shifts favoring “Hispanic” population growth, particularly after the 2010 Census, see also Juan Gonzalez’ film and newly revised book, The Harvest of Empire (2011).
10. I’ve heard people refer to dark-skinned Mexicans as “stereotypical Mexicans.” Implicit about stereotypes is that they are false, and in this case, part of the past.
11. I envision this as an ongoing collaborative project that will result in a book, videologues, a play, and dialogue.
12. An earlier draft of this essay, featuring Juarez’ story, was posted in my regular column here.
13. The George Zimmerman trial especially complicated discussions on race because, due to his assertions that he is half-Peruvian, he was/is portrayed as a white Hispanic in the black-white media.
14. The issue of race and Mexican peoples (and now “Latinos”) has always been complex. Since the 1930s, the Census continues to change its definitions. The only constant is its silence on the concepts of mestizaje and de-Indigenization.
15. Martha Menchaca in Recovering History, Constructing Race (2002), argues that the attempts to “whiten” Mexicans goes back to the era of Spanish colonialism, not with the U.S. government and its theft/annexation of what is now the U.S. Southwest.
16. Papago is the name Spaniards imposed on the O’odham peoples of Northwest Mexico-Southwest United States. Cambujo is a Spanish colonial term for a person of mixed Indian-Black heritage.