Saturday, 25 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Smiling Brown: People the Color of the Earth

Tuesday, 09 July 2013 10:28 By Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, SpeakOut | News Analysis

I begin this essay on brown skin color and color consciousness with the words of a young warrior woman, Leilani Clark, who is both Native 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.

Kun'da wo-ha,

Leilani Clark

5/1/12

… 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." (Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana, p. 122). I always felt that was my skin color, but when I first moved to Arizona in 1979, under the hot-blazing sun, I felt my skin color changed to red-brown.(1)

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 that explanation when I was a kid because most of my early memories in regard to my skin color are negative. That was due, not to a series of incidents, but an overall oppressive environment that I lived under. For example, I remember one of my friends in junior high school in the 1960s telling me: "Mexicans are the color of dirt!" I remember not knowing how to respond. I couldn't come up with a satisfactory comeback response because he, being a white kid, did mean 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. Apparently, society had taught me at a very young age that dirt was a bad thing and that it was an ugly color. Not until a few years later did I come to see myself as the color of the Earth and to see that as a good thing. But as I was in junior high then and since I hadn't quite learned that concept just yet, I just unleashed a fusillade of expletives in Spanish, most of them starting with the letters p and c.

The issue of color isn't simply something external; color, even when unstated, is also an internal issue among Mexicans/Chicanos, Central Americans and other peoples from the Americas.[1] This is true even inside the home. Whether verbalized or not, it is omnipresent in these communities, and I believe it is directly linked to issues of indigeneity. I know it was always a big issue in my life, growing up in East Los Angeles.

A friend of mine once 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," I responded. "It's the world that obsesses over it." The term "racial profiling" hadn't come into vogue just yet, but I knew the concept fairly well; in those days we knew it as "driving while Mexican." But even long before I drove, I was very familiar with the concept of "breathing while brown," though all through the 1960s and the 1970s, I probably identified that phenomenon simply with extreme anti-Mexican attitudes in the United States. In those days, I used to be called a "mojado," a "wetback" or a "dirty Mexican," seemingly every day.

She was a light-skinned Chicana, but her sister also had chocolate brown skin. My friend told me that she and her family had not grown up thinking about skin color and that it was not an issue for them. She told me to ask her sister, if I didn't believe her. Shortly thereafter, I did.(2)

Her sister was also taken aback by my question. She relayed to me that she was constantly referred to as a "nigger," and that she was constantly demeaned precisely because of her skin color, adding that her environment growing up had been extremely oppressive. 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 ago this idea for this essay/project has germinated in my consciousness.(3)

Prior to now, I had never stopped to think whether my own family was aware of how I lived (bombarded by ideas of white superiority, via light-skin preference, especially in school), or how I perceived life, as most of my family was lighter than me.

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:

I remember - as a young woman coming home to my reserve from a short stay in the USA where I worked in the orchards and got a nice tan, and an older male cousin said to me "you burned dark like a black woman" in our Blackfoot language. He couldn't just say you tanned real good. But he put down my tan along with putting down a whole group of people, in particular the women. 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.

In her further thoughts on the topic, she sent in another vignette, a most powerful explanation that is not about words, but about what children observe and what they feel, when they are 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. For the first time in my life, I felt this strange sensation! I became familiar with this separating feeling time and again whenever I sense a person dislikes or rejects me because I am brown. 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. Soon she would strike out! All of these signs and actions suggested she didn't like us brown babies especially those of us who were more brown. I knew it at that young age. I knew just by watching her action. She was kinder to the light-skinned children. I didn't have to learn to speak English to know it. I was only five years old! Breathing brown – two appropriate words, long last found, words of liberation. Now I can breathe brown more easily and more freely, I can breathe brown gracefully and with strength in my Blackfoot language.

"BREATHING WHILE BROWN"

The issue of "breathing while brown," when one becomes older, is closely related to driving while brown. However, because the issue of color is also an internal matter (within the home), it goes deeper than issues of societal discrimination and often, on this topic, home – or the barrio – is not sanctuary. There is little doubt that light skin generally has always been favored within Mexican/Mexican American and U.S.-Latino/Hispanic cultures and the rest of the Americas where it has generally been associated with beauty.(4) One sees this most clearly in Spanish-language media where blondes predominate. But this project is not focused on or limited to the media because if anything, on this topic, this is the one area that has been [somewhat] examined.

Here, I am interested in more than quantitative data regarding attitudes or opinions about skin color; I doubt there would be any surprises on this topic. What I have long-been more interested in are first memories of color consciousness among these populations. I have this interest for several reasons; I suspect that when these encounters first took place during our formative years, they were probably confusing and probably traumatic. Here is a vignette from a friend, Alfonso Morales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, that conveys that idea or feeling that is difficult to express in words, much less quantify.

He describes his memory, having to do with his mother who was descended from a European émigré. He describes himself as having inherited his father's color, "the color of the river-soaked earth of my family's farm in west Texas following irrigation from the Rio Grande." Here are his thoughts:

…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, and with the simple innocence of youth, I asked her why I was so dark. I remember her eyes and the complex 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. A complex of emotions that I have interpreted in different ways over the years...

Such experiences during our early years no doubt contributed to how our attitudes were formed regarding issues of color, race, ethnicity and identity. Most of all, I suspect that many of these memories are stored away, often, deep in the subconscious because the culture has not generally permitted their full expression. During the "Brown Power" era of the 1960s-1970s, this form of expression flowered in political, artistic or poetic realms, but the full airing of this sensitive [internal] topic by those from within these communities and these cultures was short-lived. It is a topic everyone is aware of, but one that is silenced and continues to be taboo.(5)

As a child I remember hearing Mexican Americans claiming to be Spanish, complaining that they were being confused with being Mexicans. To them, this was their version of being subjected to an insulting stereotype. Many of them always seemed to be complaining, insulting dark-skinned Mexicans (read Indians), all the time. Yet, some of them were themselves dark.(6)

In this project, I am interested in bringing those childhood memories and voices to the fore.(7) I see this as part of a healing process, both for those sharing their suppressed memories/experiences, and hopefully for those being exposed to them. Some of those who have shared their stories or memories have done so in tears. Others simply relayed that it was very difficult or very painful to recall or share them. One friend, Joaquin Galvan of Sacramento, Calif., sent me some of his early childhood memories. They were powerful, 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 relayed that he was not kidding about the need for therapy if he reopened up old wounds. Other friends passed for similar reasons… not because they would need therapy or because it would reopen wounds, but because some of the issues are not in the past tense, but rather, exist or are unresolved between and among family members or friends, to this day, etc. In the external world, for many of us, they are always ever-present.

The association between brown skin color and indigeneity is key to this work. The connection seems obvious, but not necessarily, because most Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas are either de-Indigenized or Indigenous-based "mestizos" (racially mixed) or undeniably Indigenous. Part of de-Indigenization often involves shame related to things Indigenous, which includes skin color and an acceptance of that [sometimes complex] identity.(8)

I am not sure what I will find as I continue to collect these stories because I have already been surprised in just my initial excursions into their collection; not everyone's experiences, perceptions or recollections are the same and not all were negative. What and who is dark is relative to one's own life experience, one's family and community. I have come upon situations in which the question comes back: dark, compared to whom?

For example in the vignette that author Luis Rodriguez sent in, his light-skinned brother Rano had a difficult time growing up in South Central L.A., which was majority African-American.

"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 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), maybe someone to be picked on and messed with.

Luis related that when his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, it was he with dark brown skin that was now being chased and beat up in that White part of L.A.

The one thing that all those sharing their vignettes share in common thus far is that the stories and the memories are powerful.

Here is an example from a friend and colleague, Karen Mary Davalos, recounting her first memory of being aware of her "skin color being different." She tells her story to her classes at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles as part of an icebreaker. She has been telling it for 15 years, though this is about the first time she told it:

So I was in kindergarten and back then, we used to watch movies that were reel to reel and we would sit on a rug. And the teacher would put up a screen and we'd all sit on a rug, cross-legged. And I went to sit down, and two girls to my left, blonde hair, white skin, [probably] blue eyes. They turned to each other and one whispered:

"You touch her skin."

"No you touch it."

"No, you do it. I bet you it feels like snake."

And eventually one of them reached over… and touched my skin, you know, like they were petting a dog for the first time…

That's how I became aware that my skin color is not valued or somehow different. It's not what my mother taught me, a white-skinned woman. She doesn't identify as white, but is a white-skinned woman. Italian American. That's when I realized in kindergarten…

She cried telling the story and said that in the 15 years she has told the story, only once has she not cried. This is her explanation:

I … don't know where it comes from. Its obviously really, really deep… because my mother taught me to love my skin color. She was very, very clear on that. It wasn't accidental. It was deliberate. Always telling me that I was beautiful, that my skin color was so beautiful… and that she wished she had the same skin color as mine…

I'm the kind of women that doesn't wear makeup. I'm not into beautification. I really like myself. I feel like a very confident person. But it still pains me that story. I don't think I will ever… like I will ever figure it out.

In a sense, this is the purpose of this project…. hopefully to figure it out. At minimum, I was very much moved by her telling, this and several other stories. One other one involves always being treated like the "Mexican mom" to her two light-skinned children: she is often confused in public for the maid.

Here is another example from a friend in Denver who had her heart broken, though not her spirit, by her own grandmother:

People the Color of the Earth

Reflections by Olga Vianey González (Otomi/Yaqui)

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, "no ha de ser de Jaime (my father), está muy prieta!" (she can't possibly be Jaime's daughter, she's too dark). She was repeating the same hurtful words that she had been told during her whole life. 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 to me 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.

Sara HaskieMendoza, has several painful memories, including [unintentionally] from her light-skinned grandfather in Mexico City:

So I'm walking home and I'm on the sidewalk on the side of my house and from far away I think I see my dad and my grandpa… and my grandfather when he saw me, he starts kind of like kneeling down with his arms wide open… 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 because I was walking with a friend.

She shares another memory:

While growing up, I noticed how the family… how they always used the word beautiful, for any woman that was light-skinned…"O está tan bonita… bella… (Oh how beautiful she is, pretty). Soon 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. And I didn't know if I was embraced in the same way.

 

THE QUESTION

 

My supposition in regards to this project on brown skin color and color consciousness is to examine the issue of memory and voice. While there is a myriad of issues associated with this topic, what I believe to be unique in this undertaking is the giving of primacy to those voices of those who have lived these experiences, particularly childhood memories. Doing so liberates those subsumed or suppressed voices. So naturally, the primary voices I am looking for are from people with identifiably red-brown skin, such as those who have already shared their memories here. Other voices – those who have family with red-brown skin – will also be a part of this project.(9) What I have collected thus far, affirms that the stories are powerful and that these memories have rarely made it into the public consciousness (outside of the arts and political slogans), something that needs to happen even before a "healing" can take place.(10)

 

What the voices reveal is a rich, deep and often traumatic narrative(s); in effect, an open wound or the revealing of the open veins of a culture(s). While the public may assume that they know these narratives, I believe this will create a project in which the reader will become familiar with an incredible hidden narrative that has always existed, probably since the arrival of Europeans to this continent, but always just beneath the surface. The internal narrative, as opposed to the public sphere.

The thesis of this project is very simple; that culturally, these voices have historically been suppressed or disappeared, both intentionally and unintentionally. Merely airing these voices will contribute to understanding that larger narrative of this continent. I believe it to be an [suppressed] Indigenous narrative; perhaps a de-colonial narrative, one that necessarily has to be aired.

For those sharing their stories, it will be and has been cathartic. For those listening to these narratives, I'm not yet quite sure the effect, though if anything, it should be a time of listening, and I write this in a form of a plea: before responding, please, just listen.

In the following section, the reader will see the many related issues. For this project, none is more important than the topic of Indigeneity, de-Indigenization and the de-colonization of that identity. Plain and simple, at the root of this issue is its relationship to Indigenous consciousness or the lack thereof. But truthfully, this topic is not plain and simple; it is very complex and multilayered.

Here is an example of the deep-seated issues present even at the youngest ages. This example comes from Tucson educator Norma Gonzalez, who explains an exercise she does with her Mexican/Mexican American students:

"As an identity pre-assessment, in working with kindergarten students, I will invite students in the creation of a self -portrait… As I wander around the classroom, I hear excitement in their conversations... Then 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. Our conversation typically goes like this:

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."

Further study will affirm that these attitudes are already normalized by children in their pre-K school years. The following section deals with the multilayered issues regarding skin color present within these communities.

 

THE ISSUES

There are many recurring themes that are revealed by the vignettes contained within this essay. The following are the principal ones:

  • Stigmatic injury/inferiority complex
  • relationship between skin color, and hair and eye color.
  • Mexicans as people of color
  • Driving while Brown
  • The color brown as "reasonable suspicion."
  • Racism/discrimination
  • "Passing for White"
  • Mexicans as Hispanics
  • Color of babies at birth
  • Color and beauty
  • Color in history, the Law and US Media
  • Color in Spanish language television, movies and advertising
  • Color in the arts
  • Color in Mexico/Americas
  • Color in the psyche
  • Color and marriage
  • Mexican as synonymous with the color brown
  • Brown Power as associated with the continent.
  • Gente de Bronce and Chicano Movement
  • Brown – does not translate (as the color of people) into Spanish
  • Mexicans as part of La Raza Cosmica in US/Mexico
  • The racialization of the Spanish-language
  • Indigeneity/phenotype
  • De-Indigenization/Mestizaje
  • Red-Brown/Indian as stereotype

In this essay, due to space limitations, it will not be possible to comment on each one of the above themes individually, though they do come to the fore in the vignettes.

While some people might think that the issue of color is minor, or no longer relevant in these "post-racial" times, for those who visually appear to be Mexican, of different shades of brown, these issues do not reside in the past. Here, I would like to illustrate one high-profile figure in Tucson, Arizona who believes that color has ceased to be an issue.

Facing a crowd of Cholla High School students who had walked out of school due to the dismantling of the Mexican American (MAS) Studies program, [former] assistant superintendent, Lupita Cavazos Garcia, asserted that racism is not related to color, that it's related to education:(11)

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.

As a light-skinned blonde Latina, that may be her reality or her perception, however, virtually all the students rejected her and her message. That may be in part because she also conveyed the message to those students defending the MAS department, that if they wanted to learn about Mexican history, Mexico is where they could learn it, not the United States. While the language is parsed, to the students, the message was perceived as: If you want to learn your culture and history, go back to Mexico.(12)

METHODOLOGY

 

The first thing I need to do is to stake out my academic identity; I am a lifelong journalist/columnist, though writer/storyteller would actually also describe me just as well. In my research/academic capacity, I have come to the conclusion that I am better suited to continue to be a storyteller. For this project, my methodology is story; the story is the methodology. No doubt there are other ways to engage this project, but I am convinced that eliciting stories – in people's own words – from those who have lived this reality, is the best way to communicate these narratives, narratives that have been silenced and repressed, arguably for hundreds of years. If a different methodology could address this reality, I would use it. After all, the topic is not new, though when it has been addressed, it has been addressed primarily as a media issue. Here I am treating it as part of a more totalizing cultural trait, arguably traced to the era of Spanish colonialism.

In preparing to do this initial essay, I have contacted friends from across the country to send me vignettes regarding this topic. In this essay, I integrate passages from selected vignettes. When this project expands, the full text of all the vignettes will be included. Initially, I was more interested in vignettes from peoples' formative years. 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 in a harsh and brutal way in relationship to encounters with law enforcement, including the migra.(13) The reason I am interested in the formative years is because I am interested to see if those memories continue to affect attitudes in later life.

This brings me to the incipient theory behind this project, that in human rights movements, in education and political circles, akin to television and Hollywood, there is a perception by those with brown skin that our voices continue to be marginalized and internally subsumed, especially on this particular topic. Not everyone will agree with this perception. Some people would rather that this subject not be broached. It may not even be a correct perception, but one that exists nonetheless.

Thus, just as I begin, it is understood that there is not just one concept of what constitutes dark-brown skin or people the color of the earth, or what it means. Just as the Spanish language in the United States racializes a person, so too just being identified as Mexican/Latino – regardless of self-image – also racializes a person as brown – as mestizo/Indigenous, often – regardless of actual skin color. Also, dark skin is both in the eye of the beholder and it is relative and even seasonally or geographically bound.

Here, I share one of Francisco Alarcon's poems that make several of these points:

                                               

I used to be much darker

I used to be

much much darker

dark as la tierra

recién llovida

and dark was all

I ever wanted—

dark tropical

mountains

dark daring

eyes

dark tender lips

and I would sing

dark

dream dark

talk only dark

happiness

was to spend

whole

afternoons

tirado como foca

bajo el sol

"you're already

so dark

muy prieto

too indio!"

some would lask

at my happy

darkness but

I could only

smile back

now I'm not as

dark as I once was

quizás sean

los años

maybe I'm too

far up north

not enough sun

not enough time

but anyway

up here "dark"

is only for

the ashes

the stuff

lonely nights

are made of

© Francisco X. Alarcón

The following are the memories of another friend, Dulce (https://vimeo.com/39951084), from Phoenix, Arizona. They are about how she grew up ashamed of herself. Because she produced a video of her story, it was her story and video that I sent out as a prototype to many of those who are sharing their stories and memories here:

mujer con piel bronce

By Dulce Maria Juarez Aguilar 



… 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 US 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.

I remember being 9 years old 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, US 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] US, 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…"

Dulce 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 Dulce first shared her story, one student raised her hand to acknowledge that she still had feelings of inferiority regarding her skin color. The class went silent, and yet, it was an instantaneously transformative moment.

The following are further vignettes that highlight the aforementioned issues.

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 discriminatory preferences among these populations:

Mexicanos and Chicanos/Mexican Americans have an interesting relation to the issue of skin color. More specifically, 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 these populations. While the correlation between brown skin and ugliness is not stated, the message nonetheless is explicitly communicated, though rarely acknowledged.(14)

A survey of Raza literature reveals that there is a plethora of works related to culture, history, identity, language, education, politics, race, ethnicity, nationality and immigration status, and even Indigeneity, yet little emphasis on skin color, particularly its internal dimension.(15)

I posit that these discussions tend to substitute for discussions on skin color. Better yet, discussions on skin color are silenced. This project does not assume that the concepts are synonymous. What I am exploring may appear to be counter-intuitive as the color brown in this country was/is associated with Mexicans/Chicanos/Chicanas, and to a lesser extent, with peoples from Central and South America also. In reality, the association is with Indigeneity too, though usually unstated. But "Brown Power," "Brown Pride," "Brown and Proud" and "Brown is beautiful" are powerful political concepts that emanated from the civil rights era, they were liberating, and even de-colonial concepts. And at the time, they also appeared to be unifying concepts.

But years after the heyday of that movement, one rarely hears much about those concepts anymore, though it is not uncommon to hear or read about the "browning of America." So the concept of browning associated with Mexicans or Latinas/Latinos is not altogether gone, though more and more, the same concept is nowadays characterized as the Hispanicization or Latinization of the nation. Those are political concepts because the people that are referred to as taking part in that browning of the nation are actually not all [dark] brown. The majority are people of Mexican or Central American origin, but they come from all of the Americas with plenty of shades, though in relation to the white population, most definitely are [much] darker. Yet the era of Brown Pride was short-lived, except perhaps on college campuses. In this day and age, beautiful young children still feel shame and embarrassed of their skin color. Here I will give an example of a beautiful young woman who developed an inferiority complex as a child in Southern California and did not realize her own beauty until moving to the East Coast to go to college. From Evelyne Santiago:

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! However as much lotion as I applied to my face I remained different. Instead 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 during the 2000s (not the 1950s) at trying "to be white," is not an uncommon phenomenon among Mexican Americans and other people of color. Often it is an attempt to be accepted. But she did overcome her sense of inferiority:

Things changed when I arrived at college…I didn't see a single brown face in any of my classes. Suddenly I didn't long to be like them. Instead, I longed for all of the things I had spent so long running away from. I had taken my entire culture for granted, but it was so much richer and beautiful than what I was surrounded by. 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 to attempt to get on my level… They could pay all they wanted, but they would never have the color that I was blessed enough to inherit from my ancestors.

The transformation that Santiago underwent shows that shame indeed is reversible. This highlights why the need to collect these stories.

In the United States, the government- and media-imposed black/white paradigm disappears brown skin color from the critical discussion of race and color in this country. This is especially important because the US 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.(16) Despite leaving it up to each individual or each family to determine their own race or ethnicity, for decades the bureau has steered Mexican/Latino peoples into the white racial category. Aside from "state-enforced" shame, this is the definition of cognitive dissonance.(17)

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. Interestingly, even the color brown in Mexico and the Americas, is not associated with people. Bronze or bronce, as opposed to café, is the color most associated with brown or indigenous peoples.(18)

While Mexicans/Latinos live unique experiences in the United States, it is undeniable that they carry over similar attitudes from their home countries, etc. That is a large reason for shame. This is why I am proceeding 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 will rise to the fore, in this country, but also in Mexico and points south. One of the most powerful stories that I've come across on this topic, which points to the need for altering this reality, comes from a friend, Estela Roman, in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

She related that she has a sister who is a little bit lighter than her and when her daughter was born, she was born also a little bit 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. Neighbors would come by to praise the baby. The family noticed that one particular neighbor would come by every day and rub the baby's tummy. They asked her why she would do this and she responded that she too was pregnant, hoping that if she rubbed the baby's tummy, then perhaps her baby would also come out light.

It hardly seems believable, yet each story, each vignette presented here also exists in that realm. It is a tragicomic legacy that has been imposed on this continent.(19)

In my initial foray into this topic, my horizons have already broadened simply by asking people to send me vignettes. While the experiences are varied, the one experience shared almost universally is that of family or friends who generally associate light-skinned newborn babies with beauty.

Sara HaskieMendoza 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…. When I was around, they would say, yes, yes, you're pretty too, but really focus on my sister's skin color. And that made me feel very self- conscious about my skin color.

EARLIEST MEMORIES

Color has always been a part of my life, though I'm not sure when I first became conscious of the color of my skin and when I first learned that there was meaning attached to skin color. I was born in Mexico, but I wasn't there very long and I have but two memories from my four years there. Neither of them has to do with skin color. All my memories regarding skin color appear to be from the United States.

As I've pondered my first memories, I truly cannot remember one incident that stands out more than any other. Especially as a child, it was more an overall environment that I lived under. As a child, I experienced a lot of hatred because I was Mexican and because I didn't speak English. It was very oppressive. Many of the neighbors where I grew up hurled anti-Mexican epithets at my entire family, including myself, seemingly all the time. When one is five and six years old, one does not have the capacity to comprehend or discern multi-layered hate. What I did know is that we were not liked because we were from Mexico. The issue of color at that time, in one respect, correlates to the idea of "hidden within plain sight." What was confusing initially is that many of those doing the hating looked just like me, but they had been born in this country. Thus, with Whites, it seemed we were hated for everything, especially our color. With Mexican-Americans however, it probably took a little longer to comprehend that phenomena.

Yet with all that hatred swirling about, for me the issue of color was perhaps most pronounced within my own home, and secondarily, at school. There were nine of us in the 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 (which is also my father's color). It wasn't that I heard hate hurled at me by my own family; instead what I constantly heard was praise of my lighter-skinned brothers and sister, either by my parents, their friends, or neighbors. The cues were always there; they just needed to be deciphered.

Perhaps a clarification is in order about memories. Failure to recall an incident regarding skin color does not mean that the generalized environment did not exist. I have noted this in some people who say they do not recall such memories.

As I write this, I'm not sure how to explain the feelings I felt when I heard that [constant] praise for my brothers and sister (akin to what Sara has related). The praise was effusive and it was a form of silencing; I cannot remember me ever responding to that praise publically, but I always did respond silently. I was keenly aware of my skin color because as a child, I was always out in the sun; I have many memories of always being admonished to stay out of the sun, because even beyond sports, I also used to like to sit down outside and take in the sun. I would venture to say that such memories go back to when I first arrived in this country; I learned early on that dark skin was not highly prized. Sometimes, such memories are not necessarily negative, but awkward or even disorienting. But with me, many of my initial memories indeed are negative.

When I was growing up in East L.A., the dynamic there in the realm of race or skin color was more between Whites and Mexicans. When I was age 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. Even at that age, I remember thinking that if these hateful people despised Mexicans and compared us with this other group, then this other group must be the cool people. Even to this day, I am not sure that I could understand what I was learning or perceiving about the world around me at that time, though hatred is easily understood by children of any age.

Writing on this topic more than 50 years after the fact, I am not recalling the first incident; what I am recalling is that generalized hate. A ferocious hate against Mexicans, but also a vicious hate or dislike because of my skin color. Even at that early age, I became aware of a phenomena that is even prevalent today; while White people were hating me because of my skin color, many were busy trying to get a tan.

There is much humor in all this, and much irony. One early memory that I do recall is from my nurse when I was perhaps seven-eight years old; she commented one day: "What a beautiful tan you have." I remember looking at her and responding: "This is not a tan. I'm Mexican." I had momentarily been taken aback because most comments about my skin color were usually negative. I knew she was giving me a compliment, but I wanted and needed her to know that that was my natural skin color and not a tan.

I do know that as a child, I did have pride in being Mexican, in being Indian, while at the same time being ashamed of my skin color. I do know that I developed an inferiority complex, but I simultaneously developed a rebelliousness about me. My father, who was dark, taught me early on that we were Indigenous. I grew up hearing stories from him about being Aztec-Mexica and about not having come from across the ocean. In that sense, that was protection from those that would always tell us to go back to Mexico or that we were aliens. But with so much hate swirling about, I do not know that 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. That was the standard of beauty/handsomeness; brown was ugliness. That was not always stated, but was implied. I do have to say that my father would always tell me as a small child, that more so than my brothers, I would end up with the most beautiful women. I believe he would tell me this because he was aware of the hate hurled at me.

Despite traumatic memories, there is some humor. Like others, I do remember taking showers or baths, washing extra hard, eyes closed, and being disappointed when I opened my eyes, only to discover that the soap had done no good. I don't remember when I stopped doing that: last week? I said there was humor in all this, but it seems pretty cruel that children would resort to doing this. Because I've had an interest in this topic for years, I've spoken with enough people my color, to know that that was a most common experience. This was the early 1960s, though such experience was not limited to that era. So the advent of the Chicano Movement and the era of "brown power" and "brown is beautiful" could not have come soon enough.

Here, another poem by Francisco Alarcon is appropriate:

            Prejudiced Grandma

            my grandma in                                   

            Los Angeles keeps

            on telling me                                      

            "go and wash                                                 

            those so dirty

            hands of yours"

            but only to me,

            not to my white

            skinned brother —

            at five years old

            I find out within

            my own family

            the very painful

            reality of having

            a brown skin

Right now, I am recalling a visit from my cousins from Topeka, Kansas in 1965 (Yes, there were Mexicans in Kansas in those days). I think I was traumatized already at that early age of eleven because I remember asking my older cousin Junior, who was my color, about how he was treated in Kansas relative to his color.

He related this story from his mom (my aunt Aurea). The story is about how when God first made human beings he put them in an oven. "The first ones were underdone and came out too light and the next ones were overdone and came out too dark. Finally the next ones came out just right; that's us, the Mexicans," he said.

At the time, I think it brought a smile to my face because it did in fact have the effect of making me believe that there was nothing wrong with me, that there was nothing wrong with the chocolate brown color of my skin, which I knew through my dad that it was related to being Indigenous. While it worked for me then, I do remember that a few years later, I stopped telling that story because it still contained the message that somehow, some human beings were too dark, or too light. By then, my political consciousness was forming as we were in the midst of that cultural and political revolution called the Chicano Movement.

And yet, I do recall a powerful memory - not of words, but of a look or mirada I saw in the expression of a friend – not as a child, but as an adult. 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] brown skin was sizzling in the blazing sun. My other friend looked on in horror as if she had the plague, as if she were contagious. I know this because she used to tell me that her family was horrified when her skin would slightly tan.

In thinking, my mind takes me back, not to my childhood, but to my college days in the 1970s when my girlfriend and I were denied a number of hotels in Mexico City. When I suspected something racial was going on (my girlfriend was a light-skinned Chicana), I went by myself to a fancy hotel, tried to get a room and was denied. Then I gave her a $100 bill and she promptly returned with keys to a hotel room. In my relationship with her, I did experience a number of incidents, but the one thing that stands out is that she used to tell me that when she was in elevators, white people would say some pretty racist things about Mexicans, not knowing was Mexican.

When I was in the 11th grade, as I waited for my cousin Margie at Washburn University in Topeka Kansas, someone approached me and spoke to me in Arabic. That was about 1970. When I moved to Washington DC, this repeated itself. People began to ask me if I was Palestinian. Latinos there would tell me that it was not possible that I was Mexican. "Mexicans aren't that dark," I was told. Amazing, I thought. How did they arrive at this belief? Hanging around diplomatic types?

No doubt, in time, I do believe that I will come to remember specific incidents from my childhood, but at the moment, not yet.

The vignettes

What follows here are a few vignettes, each under their own category. In the larger project, I will continue to collect such examples.

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. For this essay, the vignettes from Ana Nieto Gomez best illustrate this and from her, comes the title to the essay.

Piel Canela

By Anna Nieto Gomez

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. It's rather funny that of those who are some color of brown, I do not know who is darker or lighter. 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, but not the color of a brown crayon.

If I were to have described her color prior to receiving her vignettes, I would have said chocolate brown. But now that I've read her stories, I would agree: smiling brown.

The phenomenon of siblings of different colors is not unusual in Mexican/Central and South American homes.

The color brown in the Southern United States

Here is a description by a friend who grew up in the South, though prior to her life there, she had been raised in Oxnard, California.

            Xicana in the South

   Monseratt Alvarez

           

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. As a child your mind is innocent to the factors that separate us, better yet the factors that we allow to divide us.

 

A Central American experience

 

Devora is Salvadoreña and Guatemalteca, who grew up in Los Angeles. Her experiences are virtually identical to the other experiences shared above.

 

The Color of My Skin

By Devora Gonzalez

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 did not feel beautiful, even though I was told all the time by my mom that I was. 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. I would imagine how I would be when I grew up, and in my second grade imagination, I was skinny, tall, and light. 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, but his nose had gotten pointier. I did not want to look like that. I did not like the way he looked. That, ironically, gave me a little bit of pride. If I could possibly change my skin tone and look like that, then I was content the way I was. The time passed, 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 went to college and studied Central American Studies and learned about her Maya ancestry.

There I found pride, there I found myself, and 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.

Self-Hate

Self-hate is what many of us develop when we are subjected to vicious hate. Here is a powerful memory by Yaotl from Aztlan Underground.

Growing up and into adulthood I would regularly witness an act of self-hate that my mother would inflict on [my] father. My mom would get mad at my dad when he would come home drunk. She would be enraged. And 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!!" My dad would lose his composure and begin to tremble, pout, and wimper 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 although she had the same hue.

The good news is that Yaotl did not inherit this self-hate. Interestingly, Papago is the name Spaniards gave to the O'otham peoples of Northwest Mexico-Southwest United States… and Cambujo is Spanish colonial term for a person of mixed Indian-Black heritage.

 

On The Color Black

Because most people here are of Indigenous origin, the focus of most of this essay addresses the relationship between color consciousness and Indigeneity. The relationship between Mexicans/Latinos, color consciousness and African-Americans is quite complex, and perhaps will become the central focus of a different essay. A few of those that have contributed vignettes also share African blood. Here are the words of one contributor, Dionisio de la Viña of Nicaragua, 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 very dark, skinny nine-year-old boy… I will be 65 soon and 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… One thing I do understand is why my family back in the fifties called me "el negro" - "Blackie" in English. It was a term of endearment, or so I was told. In the house in Managua where I grew up, I lived with 25 other relatives – from very dark (me) to very light (my father). It's strange that I had forgotten about my place in my family's totem pole of skin color back so long ago. 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?

A Mexican/Hopi Experience

 

Dina identifies as both Hopi and Mexican, as opposed to part Hopi and part Mexican.

Vignettes of the Brown Experience

By Dina Barajas

It was "show and tell day" and it was my turn to share. So, I happily began to say, "I have a song my aunt taught me." As I began to sing, "Cucabera sits on the old gum tree . . ." A blonde White girl exclaimed, "We already know that song." I fell silent. The teacher did nothing. This would not be the last time this girl was rude to me. Soon after, she and other White children began taking pleasure in calling me a "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?" After several weeks, this name-calling began to take its toll. 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. I had enough of this cruelty. In tears, I told the principle what the boy had called me. The principle banned the boy from riding the bus for two weeks. After this, the boy never called me a nigger again.

A Secret Native Experience

It stands to reason that Raza who are brown are most likely native, though in the history of this continent, chances are that many, if not most, due to de-Indigenization, shame and/or fear, do not know their native roots. Here is one story of this hidden narrative.

Her Secret

By Huitzmaitl

East Los Angeles is where I grew up - near the train tracks… 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. You were called Mexican if you were brown. 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. She would remind us of this regularly by telling my sister and me, "You are United States Citizens." Looking back at this time, I can see that this pride in being a US citizen was usually brought on by someone calling her a Mexican or another nationality. She was often mistaken for Indian (Native American, Chinese, or Japanese). This disturbed her very deeply. Perhaps she thought that being a US citizen was something you could see.

About seven years ago, my mother told me for the first time that her mother was Native American. It took weeks to get her to open up about her mother. This was her deepest, darkest secret. She never said why it was so important to keep this secret. I believe her parents made her keep that secret, possibly for her own protection.

My mother was born in Texas. Her mother was a Native American married to a white man. When my grandmother was pregnant, she spent her nine months on the reservation, and by choice would leave the reservation to have her babies in Texas. Her father had an English surname. He was part white and part brown. The white part was British and the brown part was probably Native American, Spanish, or Mexican.

She has lived her life removed from her culture. She is troubled by what she is and disturbed by what she isn't. There has always been a sadness that runs deep inside her. Many times it plays out as anger. It is anger so fiery hot that it will send you running if it is pointed at you.

CONCLUSION

 

The above vignettes have given me the confidence that this is a critical topic for these communities. My initial objective is to continue to gather these stories and bring them to light. There is no doubt that much can be learned, much can be analyzed and much can be deduced just with this initial exposure to these stories.

Finally, let me end with a few thoughts from Anaheim teacher Carolyn Torres:

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. We are curvaceous with thick arms, legs and hips, both the men and women. We are strong and noticeable. 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.

OPEN INVITE

If after reading this you would like to contribute some vignettes to this project, please send between 300-1200 words to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Questions and comments also welcome.

 

Footnotes:

1. When I moved to Wisconsin in 2003, I noticed that the extended gray winters have an effect on peoples' skin color.

2. The dynamic and discussion regarding skin color is not unfamiliar to American society, but normally, it is discussed within a black-white paradigm. Here, while the initial focus of this work is on peoples of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage, I also have gathered the views of peoples from throughout the Americas and other peoples of color.

3.To include their story in this essay, I asked both sisters for permission to be able to retell this story. Both said yes. The darker sister noted that she was also called "blackie" and "sambo" as a kid. The lighter sister said it was about time this issue was dealt with.

4. Ironically, I have rarely been privy to conversations (as opposed to being subjected to racial epithets) by Whites about light-skinned preference, though I have often heard these conversations amongst people of color. Also, In collecting these stories, I have come to realize the obvious; when one tells someone that they are beautiful because of their light or white skin color, in effect, what is unstated, is that a person with dark skin, is ugly. This often is not verbalized, but it is often and clearly communicated as these compliments often take place in front of dark-skinned children. As children, this is huge, particularly as one grows older when beauty becomes the topic of whom to date, and later, whom to marry, etc.

5.The late Gloria Anzaldua once stated that she was working on a book on skin color. To this date, it has not surfaced.

6.I have recently noted that light-skinned Mexicans derisively refer to dark-skinned Mexicans as "stereotypical Mexicans." Implicit about stereotypes is that they are false. What is communicated here is that somehow, dark Mexicans are not truly Mexican; at best, part of the past.

7. I envision this as an ongoing project in which I will continue to gather vignettes, eventually for a book, a video project and a play.

8.Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's Mexico Profundo (1995) is a classic treatise on this topic. Identity becomes even more complex in the United States because additional racial and cultural mixtures further compound it.

9.What I have found through the years is that in discussions about skin color in Mexican communities, light-skinned individuals sometimes inject their views into the discussion, not to add to it, but to negate or mute red-brown voices. At the same time, many light-skinned individuals do understand the pain involved because issues of light-skin preference often involves family.

10. The healing would have to be in both directions because the imposition of light-skin preference points to internalized racism, whereas much resentment continues to exist by those subjected to this imposition.

11.This Jan 12, 2012 exchange was captured on video by David Abie Morales (http://threesonorans.com/2012/02/22/tusds-lupita-garcia-vs-the-special-master-on-racism-in-todays-schools/)

12. 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 (Santa Barbara Independent, Brandon Fastman, Dec. 20, 2012).

13. The migra has long-used racial profiling in search for unauthorized migrants. The profile it has always sought out is Indigenous: the more Indigenous (phenotype) one looks, i.e., brown skin, etc., the more suspect one is. To the chagrin of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, he found out in 2013, via a federal court decision, that it is illegal to racially profile.

14.Speaking bluntly, these attitudes promote ideas of [white] racial superiority, though it is rare to use such terminology when speaking of these attitudes by Mexicans/Latinos in the United States or the rest of the Americas.

15.I have not surveyed African American literature in a systematic way, but as a writer for Black Issues in Higher Education throughout the 1990s, I became aware that similar [internal] color issues are part of the African American reality in the United States. I am well-read, but I have also not done a systematic survey of American Indian literature, but I believe this is also the case in these communities.

16.Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America are categorized by the government as Hispanics/Latinos. It is presumed that because they are made up of many nationalities, it is thus a "raceless" category. The government has long-presumed that when peoples from this group are discriminated against, it is because of their nationality, as opposed to their race or color.

17.The issue of race and the census relative to Mexican peoples (and now Latinos) has always been complex. More than anything, it has been anything but fixed. Since the 1930s, the bureau continues to change their working definitions. The only apparent constant is that it appears to be unfamiliar with the concept of mestizaje and de-Indigenization, thereby skewing its racial statistics. Most Mexicans consider themselves racially mixed peoples, with a primarily Indigenous base.

18.Through the years, whenever I've written the word brown/bronze in my work, translators have usually translated it into ‘pardo,' but never café.

19. Recently, I came upon a story, "Retiren a las mujeres vestidas como indias," from Mexico in which two Tztzal women in Chiapas were monitored as they shopped at an upscale mall. The reporter referred to the storekeeper as keeping an eye on their "manos morenas" or brown hands as they handled the merchandise (El Universal, May 10, Natalia Gomez Quintero).

This article is a Truthout original.

Roberto Cintli Rodriguez

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor in Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, can be reached at xcolumn@gmail.com.

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Smiling Brown: People the Color of the Earth

Tuesday, 09 July 2013 10:28 By Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, SpeakOut | News Analysis

I begin this essay on brown skin color and color consciousness with the words of a young warrior woman, Leilani Clark, who is both Native 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.

Kun'da wo-ha,

Leilani Clark

5/1/12

… 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." (Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana, p. 122). I always felt that was my skin color, but when I first moved to Arizona in 1979, under the hot-blazing sun, I felt my skin color changed to red-brown.(1)

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 that explanation when I was a kid because most of my early memories in regard to my skin color are negative. That was due, not to a series of incidents, but an overall oppressive environment that I lived under. For example, I remember one of my friends in junior high school in the 1960s telling me: "Mexicans are the color of dirt!" I remember not knowing how to respond. I couldn't come up with a satisfactory comeback response because he, being a white kid, did mean 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. Apparently, society had taught me at a very young age that dirt was a bad thing and that it was an ugly color. Not until a few years later did I come to see myself as the color of the Earth and to see that as a good thing. But as I was in junior high then and since I hadn't quite learned that concept just yet, I just unleashed a fusillade of expletives in Spanish, most of them starting with the letters p and c.

The issue of color isn't simply something external; color, even when unstated, is also an internal issue among Mexicans/Chicanos, Central Americans and other peoples from the Americas.[1] This is true even inside the home. Whether verbalized or not, it is omnipresent in these communities, and I believe it is directly linked to issues of indigeneity. I know it was always a big issue in my life, growing up in East Los Angeles.

A friend of mine once 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," I responded. "It's the world that obsesses over it." The term "racial profiling" hadn't come into vogue just yet, but I knew the concept fairly well; in those days we knew it as "driving while Mexican." But even long before I drove, I was very familiar with the concept of "breathing while brown," though all through the 1960s and the 1970s, I probably identified that phenomenon simply with extreme anti-Mexican attitudes in the United States. In those days, I used to be called a "mojado," a "wetback" or a "dirty Mexican," seemingly every day.

She was a light-skinned Chicana, but her sister also had chocolate brown skin. My friend told me that she and her family had not grown up thinking about skin color and that it was not an issue for them. She told me to ask her sister, if I didn't believe her. Shortly thereafter, I did.(2)

Her sister was also taken aback by my question. She relayed to me that she was constantly referred to as a "nigger," and that she was constantly demeaned precisely because of her skin color, adding that her environment growing up had been extremely oppressive. 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 ago this idea for this essay/project has germinated in my consciousness.(3)

Prior to now, I had never stopped to think whether my own family was aware of how I lived (bombarded by ideas of white superiority, via light-skin preference, especially in school), or how I perceived life, as most of my family was lighter than me.

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:

I remember - as a young woman coming home to my reserve from a short stay in the USA where I worked in the orchards and got a nice tan, and an older male cousin said to me "you burned dark like a black woman" in our Blackfoot language. He couldn't just say you tanned real good. But he put down my tan along with putting down a whole group of people, in particular the women. 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.

In her further thoughts on the topic, she sent in another vignette, a most powerful explanation that is not about words, but about what children observe and what they feel, when they are 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. For the first time in my life, I felt this strange sensation! I became familiar with this separating feeling time and again whenever I sense a person dislikes or rejects me because I am brown. 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. Soon she would strike out! All of these signs and actions suggested she didn't like us brown babies especially those of us who were more brown. I knew it at that young age. I knew just by watching her action. She was kinder to the light-skinned children. I didn't have to learn to speak English to know it. I was only five years old! Breathing brown – two appropriate words, long last found, words of liberation. Now I can breathe brown more easily and more freely, I can breathe brown gracefully and with strength in my Blackfoot language.

"BREATHING WHILE BROWN"

The issue of "breathing while brown," when one becomes older, is closely related to driving while brown. However, because the issue of color is also an internal matter (within the home), it goes deeper than issues of societal discrimination and often, on this topic, home – or the barrio – is not sanctuary. There is little doubt that light skin generally has always been favored within Mexican/Mexican American and U.S.-Latino/Hispanic cultures and the rest of the Americas where it has generally been associated with beauty.(4) One sees this most clearly in Spanish-language media where blondes predominate. But this project is not focused on or limited to the media because if anything, on this topic, this is the one area that has been [somewhat] examined.

Here, I am interested in more than quantitative data regarding attitudes or opinions about skin color; I doubt there would be any surprises on this topic. What I have long-been more interested in are first memories of color consciousness among these populations. I have this interest for several reasons; I suspect that when these encounters first took place during our formative years, they were probably confusing and probably traumatic. Here is a vignette from a friend, Alfonso Morales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, that conveys that idea or feeling that is difficult to express in words, much less quantify.

He describes his memory, having to do with his mother who was descended from a European émigré. He describes himself as having inherited his father's color, "the color of the river-soaked earth of my family's farm in west Texas following irrigation from the Rio Grande." Here are his thoughts:

…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, and with the simple innocence of youth, I asked her why I was so dark. I remember her eyes and the complex 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. A complex of emotions that I have interpreted in different ways over the years...

Such experiences during our early years no doubt contributed to how our attitudes were formed regarding issues of color, race, ethnicity and identity. Most of all, I suspect that many of these memories are stored away, often, deep in the subconscious because the culture has not generally permitted their full expression. During the "Brown Power" era of the 1960s-1970s, this form of expression flowered in political, artistic or poetic realms, but the full airing of this sensitive [internal] topic by those from within these communities and these cultures was short-lived. It is a topic everyone is aware of, but one that is silenced and continues to be taboo.(5)

As a child I remember hearing Mexican Americans claiming to be Spanish, complaining that they were being confused with being Mexicans. To them, this was their version of being subjected to an insulting stereotype. Many of them always seemed to be complaining, insulting dark-skinned Mexicans (read Indians), all the time. Yet, some of them were themselves dark.(6)

In this project, I am interested in bringing those childhood memories and voices to the fore.(7) I see this as part of a healing process, both for those sharing their suppressed memories/experiences, and hopefully for those being exposed to them. Some of those who have shared their stories or memories have done so in tears. Others simply relayed that it was very difficult or very painful to recall or share them. One friend, Joaquin Galvan of Sacramento, Calif., sent me some of his early childhood memories. They were powerful, 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 relayed that he was not kidding about the need for therapy if he reopened up old wounds. Other friends passed for similar reasons… not because they would need therapy or because it would reopen wounds, but because some of the issues are not in the past tense, but rather, exist or are unresolved between and among family members or friends, to this day, etc. In the external world, for many of us, they are always ever-present.

The association between brown skin color and indigeneity is key to this work. The connection seems obvious, but not necessarily, because most Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas are either de-Indigenized or Indigenous-based "mestizos" (racially mixed) or undeniably Indigenous. Part of de-Indigenization often involves shame related to things Indigenous, which includes skin color and an acceptance of that [sometimes complex] identity.(8)

I am not sure what I will find as I continue to collect these stories because I have already been surprised in just my initial excursions into their collection; not everyone's experiences, perceptions or recollections are the same and not all were negative. What and who is dark is relative to one's own life experience, one's family and community. I have come upon situations in which the question comes back: dark, compared to whom?

For example in the vignette that author Luis Rodriguez sent in, his light-skinned brother Rano had a difficult time growing up in South Central L.A., which was majority African-American.

"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 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), maybe someone to be picked on and messed with.

Luis related that when his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, it was he with dark brown skin that was now being chased and beat up in that White part of L.A.

The one thing that all those sharing their vignettes share in common thus far is that the stories and the memories are powerful.

Here is an example from a friend and colleague, Karen Mary Davalos, recounting her first memory of being aware of her "skin color being different." She tells her story to her classes at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles as part of an icebreaker. She has been telling it for 15 years, though this is about the first time she told it:

So I was in kindergarten and back then, we used to watch movies that were reel to reel and we would sit on a rug. And the teacher would put up a screen and we'd all sit on a rug, cross-legged. And I went to sit down, and two girls to my left, blonde hair, white skin, [probably] blue eyes. They turned to each other and one whispered:

"You touch her skin."

"No you touch it."

"No, you do it. I bet you it feels like snake."

And eventually one of them reached over… and touched my skin, you know, like they were petting a dog for the first time…

That's how I became aware that my skin color is not valued or somehow different. It's not what my mother taught me, a white-skinned woman. She doesn't identify as white, but is a white-skinned woman. Italian American. That's when I realized in kindergarten…

She cried telling the story and said that in the 15 years she has told the story, only once has she not cried. This is her explanation:

I … don't know where it comes from. Its obviously really, really deep… because my mother taught me to love my skin color. She was very, very clear on that. It wasn't accidental. It was deliberate. Always telling me that I was beautiful, that my skin color was so beautiful… and that she wished she had the same skin color as mine…

I'm the kind of women that doesn't wear makeup. I'm not into beautification. I really like myself. I feel like a very confident person. But it still pains me that story. I don't think I will ever… like I will ever figure it out.

In a sense, this is the purpose of this project…. hopefully to figure it out. At minimum, I was very much moved by her telling, this and several other stories. One other one involves always being treated like the "Mexican mom" to her two light-skinned children: she is often confused in public for the maid.

Here is another example from a friend in Denver who had her heart broken, though not her spirit, by her own grandmother:

People the Color of the Earth

Reflections by Olga Vianey González (Otomi/Yaqui)

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, "no ha de ser de Jaime (my father), está muy prieta!" (she can't possibly be Jaime's daughter, she's too dark). She was repeating the same hurtful words that she had been told during her whole life. 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 to me 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.

Sara HaskieMendoza, has several painful memories, including [unintentionally] from her light-skinned grandfather in Mexico City:

So I'm walking home and I'm on the sidewalk on the side of my house and from far away I think I see my dad and my grandpa… and my grandfather when he saw me, he starts kind of like kneeling down with his arms wide open… 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 because I was walking with a friend.

She shares another memory:

While growing up, I noticed how the family… how they always used the word beautiful, for any woman that was light-skinned…"O está tan bonita… bella… (Oh how beautiful she is, pretty). Soon 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. And I didn't know if I was embraced in the same way.

 

THE QUESTION

 

My supposition in regards to this project on brown skin color and color consciousness is to examine the issue of memory and voice. While there is a myriad of issues associated with this topic, what I believe to be unique in this undertaking is the giving of primacy to those voices of those who have lived these experiences, particularly childhood memories. Doing so liberates those subsumed or suppressed voices. So naturally, the primary voices I am looking for are from people with identifiably red-brown skin, such as those who have already shared their memories here. Other voices – those who have family with red-brown skin – will also be a part of this project.(9) What I have collected thus far, affirms that the stories are powerful and that these memories have rarely made it into the public consciousness (outside of the arts and political slogans), something that needs to happen even before a "healing" can take place.(10)

 

What the voices reveal is a rich, deep and often traumatic narrative(s); in effect, an open wound or the revealing of the open veins of a culture(s). While the public may assume that they know these narratives, I believe this will create a project in which the reader will become familiar with an incredible hidden narrative that has always existed, probably since the arrival of Europeans to this continent, but always just beneath the surface. The internal narrative, as opposed to the public sphere.

The thesis of this project is very simple; that culturally, these voices have historically been suppressed or disappeared, both intentionally and unintentionally. Merely airing these voices will contribute to understanding that larger narrative of this continent. I believe it to be an [suppressed] Indigenous narrative; perhaps a de-colonial narrative, one that necessarily has to be aired.

For those sharing their stories, it will be and has been cathartic. For those listening to these narratives, I'm not yet quite sure the effect, though if anything, it should be a time of listening, and I write this in a form of a plea: before responding, please, just listen.

In the following section, the reader will see the many related issues. For this project, none is more important than the topic of Indigeneity, de-Indigenization and the de-colonization of that identity. Plain and simple, at the root of this issue is its relationship to Indigenous consciousness or the lack thereof. But truthfully, this topic is not plain and simple; it is very complex and multilayered.

Here is an example of the deep-seated issues present even at the youngest ages. This example comes from Tucson educator Norma Gonzalez, who explains an exercise she does with her Mexican/Mexican American students:

"As an identity pre-assessment, in working with kindergarten students, I will invite students in the creation of a self -portrait… As I wander around the classroom, I hear excitement in their conversations... Then 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. Our conversation typically goes like this:

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."

Further study will affirm that these attitudes are already normalized by children in their pre-K school years. The following section deals with the multilayered issues regarding skin color present within these communities.

 

THE ISSUES

There are many recurring themes that are revealed by the vignettes contained within this essay. The following are the principal ones:

  • Stigmatic injury/inferiority complex
  • relationship between skin color, and hair and eye color.
  • Mexicans as people of color
  • Driving while Brown
  • The color brown as "reasonable suspicion."
  • Racism/discrimination
  • "Passing for White"
  • Mexicans as Hispanics
  • Color of babies at birth
  • Color and beauty
  • Color in history, the Law and US Media
  • Color in Spanish language television, movies and advertising
  • Color in the arts
  • Color in Mexico/Americas
  • Color in the psyche
  • Color and marriage
  • Mexican as synonymous with the color brown
  • Brown Power as associated with the continent.
  • Gente de Bronce and Chicano Movement
  • Brown – does not translate (as the color of people) into Spanish
  • Mexicans as part of La Raza Cosmica in US/Mexico
  • The racialization of the Spanish-language
  • Indigeneity/phenotype
  • De-Indigenization/Mestizaje
  • Red-Brown/Indian as stereotype

In this essay, due to space limitations, it will not be possible to comment on each one of the above themes individually, though they do come to the fore in the vignettes.

While some people might think that the issue of color is minor, or no longer relevant in these "post-racial" times, for those who visually appear to be Mexican, of different shades of brown, these issues do not reside in the past. Here, I would like to illustrate one high-profile figure in Tucson, Arizona who believes that color has ceased to be an issue.

Facing a crowd of Cholla High School students who had walked out of school due to the dismantling of the Mexican American (MAS) Studies program, [former] assistant superintendent, Lupita Cavazos Garcia, asserted that racism is not related to color, that it's related to education:(11)

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.

As a light-skinned blonde Latina, that may be her reality or her perception, however, virtually all the students rejected her and her message. That may be in part because she also conveyed the message to those students defending the MAS department, that if they wanted to learn about Mexican history, Mexico is where they could learn it, not the United States. While the language is parsed, to the students, the message was perceived as: If you want to learn your culture and history, go back to Mexico.(12)

METHODOLOGY

 

The first thing I need to do is to stake out my academic identity; I am a lifelong journalist/columnist, though writer/storyteller would actually also describe me just as well. In my research/academic capacity, I have come to the conclusion that I am better suited to continue to be a storyteller. For this project, my methodology is story; the story is the methodology. No doubt there are other ways to engage this project, but I am convinced that eliciting stories – in people's own words – from those who have lived this reality, is the best way to communicate these narratives, narratives that have been silenced and repressed, arguably for hundreds of years. If a different methodology could address this reality, I would use it. After all, the topic is not new, though when it has been addressed, it has been addressed primarily as a media issue. Here I am treating it as part of a more totalizing cultural trait, arguably traced to the era of Spanish colonialism.

In preparing to do this initial essay, I have contacted friends from across the country to send me vignettes regarding this topic. In this essay, I integrate passages from selected vignettes. When this project expands, the full text of all the vignettes will be included. Initially, I was more interested in vignettes from peoples' formative years. 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 in a harsh and brutal way in relationship to encounters with law enforcement, including the migra.(13) The reason I am interested in the formative years is because I am interested to see if those memories continue to affect attitudes in later life.

This brings me to the incipient theory behind this project, that in human rights movements, in education and political circles, akin to television and Hollywood, there is a perception by those with brown skin that our voices continue to be marginalized and internally subsumed, especially on this particular topic. Not everyone will agree with this perception. Some people would rather that this subject not be broached. It may not even be a correct perception, but one that exists nonetheless.

Thus, just as I begin, it is understood that there is not just one concept of what constitutes dark-brown skin or people the color of the earth, or what it means. Just as the Spanish language in the United States racializes a person, so too just being identified as Mexican/Latino – regardless of self-image – also racializes a person as brown – as mestizo/Indigenous, often – regardless of actual skin color. Also, dark skin is both in the eye of the beholder and it is relative and even seasonally or geographically bound.

Here, I share one of Francisco Alarcon's poems that make several of these points:

                                               

I used to be much darker

I used to be

much much darker

dark as la tierra

recién llovida

and dark was all

I ever wanted—

dark tropical

mountains

dark daring

eyes

dark tender lips

and I would sing

dark

dream dark

talk only dark

happiness

was to spend

whole

afternoons

tirado como foca

bajo el sol

"you're already

so dark

muy prieto

too indio!"

some would lask

at my happy

darkness but

I could only

smile back

now I'm not as

dark as I once was

quizás sean

los años

maybe I'm too

far up north

not enough sun

not enough time

but anyway

up here "dark"

is only for

the ashes

the stuff

lonely nights

are made of

© Francisco X. Alarcón

The following are the memories of another friend, Dulce (https://vimeo.com/39951084), from Phoenix, Arizona. They are about how she grew up ashamed of herself. Because she produced a video of her story, it was her story and video that I sent out as a prototype to many of those who are sharing their stories and memories here:

mujer con piel bronce

By Dulce Maria Juarez Aguilar 



… 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 US 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.

I remember being 9 years old 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, US 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] US, 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…"

Dulce 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 Dulce first shared her story, one student raised her hand to acknowledge that she still had feelings of inferiority regarding her skin color. The class went silent, and yet, it was an instantaneously transformative moment.

The following are further vignettes that highlight the aforementioned issues.

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 discriminatory preferences among these populations:

Mexicanos and Chicanos/Mexican Americans have an interesting relation to the issue of skin color. More specifically, 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 these populations. While the correlation between brown skin and ugliness is not stated, the message nonetheless is explicitly communicated, though rarely acknowledged.(14)

A survey of Raza literature reveals that there is a plethora of works related to culture, history, identity, language, education, politics, race, ethnicity, nationality and immigration status, and even Indigeneity, yet little emphasis on skin color, particularly its internal dimension.(15)

I posit that these discussions tend to substitute for discussions on skin color. Better yet, discussions on skin color are silenced. This project does not assume that the concepts are synonymous. What I am exploring may appear to be counter-intuitive as the color brown in this country was/is associated with Mexicans/Chicanos/Chicanas, and to a lesser extent, with peoples from Central and South America also. In reality, the association is with Indigeneity too, though usually unstated. But "Brown Power," "Brown Pride," "Brown and Proud" and "Brown is beautiful" are powerful political concepts that emanated from the civil rights era, they were liberating, and even de-colonial concepts. And at the time, they also appeared to be unifying concepts.

But years after the heyday of that movement, one rarely hears much about those concepts anymore, though it is not uncommon to hear or read about the "browning of America." So the concept of browning associated with Mexicans or Latinas/Latinos is not altogether gone, though more and more, the same concept is nowadays characterized as the Hispanicization or Latinization of the nation. Those are political concepts because the people that are referred to as taking part in that browning of the nation are actually not all [dark] brown. The majority are people of Mexican or Central American origin, but they come from all of the Americas with plenty of shades, though in relation to the white population, most definitely are [much] darker. Yet the era of Brown Pride was short-lived, except perhaps on college campuses. In this day and age, beautiful young children still feel shame and embarrassed of their skin color. Here I will give an example of a beautiful young woman who developed an inferiority complex as a child in Southern California and did not realize her own beauty until moving to the East Coast to go to college. From Evelyne Santiago:

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! However as much lotion as I applied to my face I remained different. Instead 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 during the 2000s (not the 1950s) at trying "to be white," is not an uncommon phenomenon among Mexican Americans and other people of color. Often it is an attempt to be accepted. But she did overcome her sense of inferiority:

Things changed when I arrived at college…I didn't see a single brown face in any of my classes. Suddenly I didn't long to be like them. Instead, I longed for all of the things I had spent so long running away from. I had taken my entire culture for granted, but it was so much richer and beautiful than what I was surrounded by. 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 to attempt to get on my level… They could pay all they wanted, but they would never have the color that I was blessed enough to inherit from my ancestors.

The transformation that Santiago underwent shows that shame indeed is reversible. This highlights why the need to collect these stories.

In the United States, the government- and media-imposed black/white paradigm disappears brown skin color from the critical discussion of race and color in this country. This is especially important because the US 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.(16) Despite leaving it up to each individual or each family to determine their own race or ethnicity, for decades the bureau has steered Mexican/Latino peoples into the white racial category. Aside from "state-enforced" shame, this is the definition of cognitive dissonance.(17)

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. Interestingly, even the color brown in Mexico and the Americas, is not associated with people. Bronze or bronce, as opposed to café, is the color most associated with brown or indigenous peoples.(18)

While Mexicans/Latinos live unique experiences in the United States, it is undeniable that they carry over similar attitudes from their home countries, etc. That is a large reason for shame. This is why I am proceeding 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 will rise to the fore, in this country, but also in Mexico and points south. One of the most powerful stories that I've come across on this topic, which points to the need for altering this reality, comes from a friend, Estela Roman, in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

She related that she has a sister who is a little bit lighter than her and when her daughter was born, she was born also a little bit 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. Neighbors would come by to praise the baby. The family noticed that one particular neighbor would come by every day and rub the baby's tummy. They asked her why she would do this and she responded that she too was pregnant, hoping that if she rubbed the baby's tummy, then perhaps her baby would also come out light.

It hardly seems believable, yet each story, each vignette presented here also exists in that realm. It is a tragicomic legacy that has been imposed on this continent.(19)

In my initial foray into this topic, my horizons have already broadened simply by asking people to send me vignettes. While the experiences are varied, the one experience shared almost universally is that of family or friends who generally associate light-skinned newborn babies with beauty.

Sara HaskieMendoza 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…. When I was around, they would say, yes, yes, you're pretty too, but really focus on my sister's skin color. And that made me feel very self- conscious about my skin color.

EARLIEST MEMORIES

Color has always been a part of my life, though I'm not sure when I first became conscious of the color of my skin and when I first learned that there was meaning attached to skin color. I was born in Mexico, but I wasn't there very long and I have but two memories from my four years there. Neither of them has to do with skin color. All my memories regarding skin color appear to be from the United States.

As I've pondered my first memories, I truly cannot remember one incident that stands out more than any other. Especially as a child, it was more an overall environment that I lived under. As a child, I experienced a lot of hatred because I was Mexican and because I didn't speak English. It was very oppressive. Many of the neighbors where I grew up hurled anti-Mexican epithets at my entire family, including myself, seemingly all the time. When one is five and six years old, one does not have the capacity to comprehend or discern multi-layered hate. What I did know is that we were not liked because we were from Mexico. The issue of color at that time, in one respect, correlates to the idea of "hidden within plain sight." What was confusing initially is that many of those doing the hating looked just like me, but they had been born in this country. Thus, with Whites, it seemed we were hated for everything, especially our color. With Mexican-Americans however, it probably took a little longer to comprehend that phenomena.

Yet with all that hatred swirling about, for me the issue of color was perhaps most pronounced within my own home, and secondarily, at school. There were nine of us in the 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 (which is also my father's color). It wasn't that I heard hate hurled at me by my own family; instead what I constantly heard was praise of my lighter-skinned brothers and sister, either by my parents, their friends, or neighbors. The cues were always there; they just needed to be deciphered.

Perhaps a clarification is in order about memories. Failure to recall an incident regarding skin color does not mean that the generalized environment did not exist. I have noted this in some people who say they do not recall such memories.

As I write this, I'm not sure how to explain the feelings I felt when I heard that [constant] praise for my brothers and sister (akin to what Sara has related). The praise was effusive and it was a form of silencing; I cannot remember me ever responding to that praise publically, but I always did respond silently. I was keenly aware of my skin color because as a child, I was always out in the sun; I have many memories of always being admonished to stay out of the sun, because even beyond sports, I also used to like to sit down outside and take in the sun. I would venture to say that such memories go back to when I first arrived in this country; I learned early on that dark skin was not highly prized. Sometimes, such memories are not necessarily negative, but awkward or even disorienting. But with me, many of my initial memories indeed are negative.

When I was growing up in East L.A., the dynamic there in the realm of race or skin color was more between Whites and Mexicans. When I was age 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. Even at that age, I remember thinking that if these hateful people despised Mexicans and compared us with this other group, then this other group must be the cool people. Even to this day, I am not sure that I could understand what I was learning or perceiving about the world around me at that time, though hatred is easily understood by children of any age.

Writing on this topic more than 50 years after the fact, I am not recalling the first incident; what I am recalling is that generalized hate. A ferocious hate against Mexicans, but also a vicious hate or dislike because of my skin color. Even at that early age, I became aware of a phenomena that is even prevalent today; while White people were hating me because of my skin color, many were busy trying to get a tan.

There is much humor in all this, and much irony. One early memory that I do recall is from my nurse when I was perhaps seven-eight years old; she commented one day: "What a beautiful tan you have." I remember looking at her and responding: "This is not a tan. I'm Mexican." I had momentarily been taken aback because most comments about my skin color were usually negative. I knew she was giving me a compliment, but I wanted and needed her to know that that was my natural skin color and not a tan.

I do know that as a child, I did have pride in being Mexican, in being Indian, while at the same time being ashamed of my skin color. I do know that I developed an inferiority complex, but I simultaneously developed a rebelliousness about me. My father, who was dark, taught me early on that we were Indigenous. I grew up hearing stories from him about being Aztec-Mexica and about not having come from across the ocean. In that sense, that was protection from those that would always tell us to go back to Mexico or that we were aliens. But with so much hate swirling about, I do not know that 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. That was the standard of beauty/handsomeness; brown was ugliness. That was not always stated, but was implied. I do have to say that my father would always tell me as a small child, that more so than my brothers, I would end up with the most beautiful women. I believe he would tell me this because he was aware of the hate hurled at me.

Despite traumatic memories, there is some humor. Like others, I do remember taking showers or baths, washing extra hard, eyes closed, and being disappointed when I opened my eyes, only to discover that the soap had done no good. I don't remember when I stopped doing that: last week? I said there was humor in all this, but it seems pretty cruel that children would resort to doing this. Because I've had an interest in this topic for years, I've spoken with enough people my color, to know that that was a most common experience. This was the early 1960s, though such experience was not limited to that era. So the advent of the Chicano Movement and the era of "brown power" and "brown is beautiful" could not have come soon enough.

Here, another poem by Francisco Alarcon is appropriate:

            Prejudiced Grandma

            my grandma in                                   

            Los Angeles keeps

            on telling me                                      

            "go and wash                                                 

            those so dirty

            hands of yours"

            but only to me,

            not to my white

            skinned brother —

            at five years old

            I find out within

            my own family

            the very painful

            reality of having

            a brown skin

Right now, I am recalling a visit from my cousins from Topeka, Kansas in 1965 (Yes, there were Mexicans in Kansas in those days). I think I was traumatized already at that early age of eleven because I remember asking my older cousin Junior, who was my color, about how he was treated in Kansas relative to his color.

He related this story from his mom (my aunt Aurea). The story is about how when God first made human beings he put them in an oven. "The first ones were underdone and came out too light and the next ones were overdone and came out too dark. Finally the next ones came out just right; that's us, the Mexicans," he said.

At the time, I think it brought a smile to my face because it did in fact have the effect of making me believe that there was nothing wrong with me, that there was nothing wrong with the chocolate brown color of my skin, which I knew through my dad that it was related to being Indigenous. While it worked for me then, I do remember that a few years later, I stopped telling that story because it still contained the message that somehow, some human beings were too dark, or too light. By then, my political consciousness was forming as we were in the midst of that cultural and political revolution called the Chicano Movement.

And yet, I do recall a powerful memory - not of words, but of a look or mirada I saw in the expression of a friend – not as a child, but as an adult. 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] brown skin was sizzling in the blazing sun. My other friend looked on in horror as if she had the plague, as if she were contagious. I know this because she used to tell me that her family was horrified when her skin would slightly tan.

In thinking, my mind takes me back, not to my childhood, but to my college days in the 1970s when my girlfriend and I were denied a number of hotels in Mexico City. When I suspected something racial was going on (my girlfriend was a light-skinned Chicana), I went by myself to a fancy hotel, tried to get a room and was denied. Then I gave her a $100 bill and she promptly returned with keys to a hotel room. In my relationship with her, I did experience a number of incidents, but the one thing that stands out is that she used to tell me that when she was in elevators, white people would say some pretty racist things about Mexicans, not knowing was Mexican.

When I was in the 11th grade, as I waited for my cousin Margie at Washburn University in Topeka Kansas, someone approached me and spoke to me in Arabic. That was about 1970. When I moved to Washington DC, this repeated itself. People began to ask me if I was Palestinian. Latinos there would tell me that it was not possible that I was Mexican. "Mexicans aren't that dark," I was told. Amazing, I thought. How did they arrive at this belief? Hanging around diplomatic types?

No doubt, in time, I do believe that I will come to remember specific incidents from my childhood, but at the moment, not yet.

The vignettes

What follows here are a few vignettes, each under their own category. In the larger project, I will continue to collect such examples.

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. For this essay, the vignettes from Ana Nieto Gomez best illustrate this and from her, comes the title to the essay.

Piel Canela

By Anna Nieto Gomez

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. It's rather funny that of those who are some color of brown, I do not know who is darker or lighter. 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, but not the color of a brown crayon.

If I were to have described her color prior to receiving her vignettes, I would have said chocolate brown. But now that I've read her stories, I would agree: smiling brown.

The phenomenon of siblings of different colors is not unusual in Mexican/Central and South American homes.

The color brown in the Southern United States

Here is a description by a friend who grew up in the South, though prior to her life there, she had been raised in Oxnard, California.

            Xicana in the South

   Monseratt Alvarez

           

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. As a child your mind is innocent to the factors that separate us, better yet the factors that we allow to divide us.

 

A Central American experience

 

Devora is Salvadoreña and Guatemalteca, who grew up in Los Angeles. Her experiences are virtually identical to the other experiences shared above.

 

The Color of My Skin

By Devora Gonzalez

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 did not feel beautiful, even though I was told all the time by my mom that I was. 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. I would imagine how I would be when I grew up, and in my second grade imagination, I was skinny, tall, and light. 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, but his nose had gotten pointier. I did not want to look like that. I did not like the way he looked. That, ironically, gave me a little bit of pride. If I could possibly change my skin tone and look like that, then I was content the way I was. The time passed, 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 went to college and studied Central American Studies and learned about her Maya ancestry.

There I found pride, there I found myself, and 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.

Self-Hate

Self-hate is what many of us develop when we are subjected to vicious hate. Here is a powerful memory by Yaotl from Aztlan Underground.

Growing up and into adulthood I would regularly witness an act of self-hate that my mother would inflict on [my] father. My mom would get mad at my dad when he would come home drunk. She would be enraged. And 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!!" My dad would lose his composure and begin to tremble, pout, and wimper 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 although she had the same hue.

The good news is that Yaotl did not inherit this self-hate. Interestingly, Papago is the name Spaniards gave to the O'otham peoples of Northwest Mexico-Southwest United States… and Cambujo is Spanish colonial term for a person of mixed Indian-Black heritage.

 

On The Color Black

Because most people here are of Indigenous origin, the focus of most of this essay addresses the relationship between color consciousness and Indigeneity. The relationship between Mexicans/Latinos, color consciousness and African-Americans is quite complex, and perhaps will become the central focus of a different essay. A few of those that have contributed vignettes also share African blood. Here are the words of one contributor, Dionisio de la Viña of Nicaragua, 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 very dark, skinny nine-year-old boy… I will be 65 soon and 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… One thing I do understand is why my family back in the fifties called me "el negro" - "Blackie" in English. It was a term of endearment, or so I was told. In the house in Managua where I grew up, I lived with 25 other relatives – from very dark (me) to very light (my father). It's strange that I had forgotten about my place in my family's totem pole of skin color back so long ago. 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?

A Mexican/Hopi Experience

 

Dina identifies as both Hopi and Mexican, as opposed to part Hopi and part Mexican.

Vignettes of the Brown Experience

By Dina Barajas

It was "show and tell day" and it was my turn to share. So, I happily began to say, "I have a song my aunt taught me." As I began to sing, "Cucabera sits on the old gum tree . . ." A blonde White girl exclaimed, "We already know that song." I fell silent. The teacher did nothing. This would not be the last time this girl was rude to me. Soon after, she and other White children began taking pleasure in calling me a "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?" After several weeks, this name-calling began to take its toll. 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. I had enough of this cruelty. In tears, I told the principle what the boy had called me. The principle banned the boy from riding the bus for two weeks. After this, the boy never called me a nigger again.

A Secret Native Experience

It stands to reason that Raza who are brown are most likely native, though in the history of this continent, chances are that many, if not most, due to de-Indigenization, shame and/or fear, do not know their native roots. Here is one story of this hidden narrative.

Her Secret

By Huitzmaitl

East Los Angeles is where I grew up - near the train tracks… 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. You were called Mexican if you were brown. 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. She would remind us of this regularly by telling my sister and me, "You are United States Citizens." Looking back at this time, I can see that this pride in being a US citizen was usually brought on by someone calling her a Mexican or another nationality. She was often mistaken for Indian (Native American, Chinese, or Japanese). This disturbed her very deeply. Perhaps she thought that being a US citizen was something you could see.

About seven years ago, my mother told me for the first time that her mother was Native American. It took weeks to get her to open up about her mother. This was her deepest, darkest secret. She never said why it was so important to keep this secret. I believe her parents made her keep that secret, possibly for her own protection.

My mother was born in Texas. Her mother was a Native American married to a white man. When my grandmother was pregnant, she spent her nine months on the reservation, and by choice would leave the reservation to have her babies in Texas. Her father had an English surname. He was part white and part brown. The white part was British and the brown part was probably Native American, Spanish, or Mexican.

She has lived her life removed from her culture. She is troubled by what she is and disturbed by what she isn't. There has always been a sadness that runs deep inside her. Many times it plays out as anger. It is anger so fiery hot that it will send you running if it is pointed at you.

CONCLUSION

 

The above vignettes have given me the confidence that this is a critical topic for these communities. My initial objective is to continue to gather these stories and bring them to light. There is no doubt that much can be learned, much can be analyzed and much can be deduced just with this initial exposure to these stories.

Finally, let me end with a few thoughts from Anaheim teacher Carolyn Torres:

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. We are curvaceous with thick arms, legs and hips, both the men and women. We are strong and noticeable. 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.

OPEN INVITE

If after reading this you would like to contribute some vignettes to this project, please send between 300-1200 words to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Questions and comments also welcome.

 

Footnotes:

1. When I moved to Wisconsin in 2003, I noticed that the extended gray winters have an effect on peoples' skin color.

2. The dynamic and discussion regarding skin color is not unfamiliar to American society, but normally, it is discussed within a black-white paradigm. Here, while the initial focus of this work is on peoples of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage, I also have gathered the views of peoples from throughout the Americas and other peoples of color.

3.To include their story in this essay, I asked both sisters for permission to be able to retell this story. Both said yes. The darker sister noted that she was also called "blackie" and "sambo" as a kid. The lighter sister said it was about time this issue was dealt with.

4. Ironically, I have rarely been privy to conversations (as opposed to being subjected to racial epithets) by Whites about light-skinned preference, though I have often heard these conversations amongst people of color. Also, In collecting these stories, I have come to realize the obvious; when one tells someone that they are beautiful because of their light or white skin color, in effect, what is unstated, is that a person with dark skin, is ugly. This often is not verbalized, but it is often and clearly communicated as these compliments often take place in front of dark-skinned children. As children, this is huge, particularly as one grows older when beauty becomes the topic of whom to date, and later, whom to marry, etc.

5.The late Gloria Anzaldua once stated that she was working on a book on skin color. To this date, it has not surfaced.

6.I have recently noted that light-skinned Mexicans derisively refer to dark-skinned Mexicans as "stereotypical Mexicans." Implicit about stereotypes is that they are false. What is communicated here is that somehow, dark Mexicans are not truly Mexican; at best, part of the past.

7. I envision this as an ongoing project in which I will continue to gather vignettes, eventually for a book, a video project and a play.

8.Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's Mexico Profundo (1995) is a classic treatise on this topic. Identity becomes even more complex in the United States because additional racial and cultural mixtures further compound it.

9.What I have found through the years is that in discussions about skin color in Mexican communities, light-skinned individuals sometimes inject their views into the discussion, not to add to it, but to negate or mute red-brown voices. At the same time, many light-skinned individuals do understand the pain involved because issues of light-skin preference often involves family.

10. The healing would have to be in both directions because the imposition of light-skin preference points to internalized racism, whereas much resentment continues to exist by those subjected to this imposition.

11.This Jan 12, 2012 exchange was captured on video by David Abie Morales (http://threesonorans.com/2012/02/22/tusds-lupita-garcia-vs-the-special-master-on-racism-in-todays-schools/)

12. 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 (Santa Barbara Independent, Brandon Fastman, Dec. 20, 2012).

13. The migra has long-used racial profiling in search for unauthorized migrants. The profile it has always sought out is Indigenous: the more Indigenous (phenotype) one looks, i.e., brown skin, etc., the more suspect one is. To the chagrin of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, he found out in 2013, via a federal court decision, that it is illegal to racially profile.

14.Speaking bluntly, these attitudes promote ideas of [white] racial superiority, though it is rare to use such terminology when speaking of these attitudes by Mexicans/Latinos in the United States or the rest of the Americas.

15.I have not surveyed African American literature in a systematic way, but as a writer for Black Issues in Higher Education throughout the 1990s, I became aware that similar [internal] color issues are part of the African American reality in the United States. I am well-read, but I have also not done a systematic survey of American Indian literature, but I believe this is also the case in these communities.

16.Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America are categorized by the government as Hispanics/Latinos. It is presumed that because they are made up of many nationalities, it is thus a "raceless" category. The government has long-presumed that when peoples from this group are discriminated against, it is because of their nationality, as opposed to their race or color.

17.The issue of race and the census relative to Mexican peoples (and now Latinos) has always been complex. More than anything, it has been anything but fixed. Since the 1930s, the bureau continues to change their working definitions. The only apparent constant is that it appears to be unfamiliar with the concept of mestizaje and de-Indigenization, thereby skewing its racial statistics. Most Mexicans consider themselves racially mixed peoples, with a primarily Indigenous base.

18.Through the years, whenever I've written the word brown/bronze in my work, translators have usually translated it into ‘pardo,' but never café.

19. Recently, I came upon a story, "Retiren a las mujeres vestidas como indias," from Mexico in which two Tztzal women in Chiapas were monitored as they shopped at an upscale mall. The reporter referred to the storekeeper as keeping an eye on their "manos morenas" or brown hands as they handled the merchandise (El Universal, May 10, Natalia Gomez Quintero).

This article is a Truthout original.

Roberto Cintli Rodriguez

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor in Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, can be reached at xcolumn@gmail.com.

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