the holy grail: the story of how I got a Red Bull in glass bottle form (yes, they exist)
June 14, 2016
I Think I Gave Myself a Mullet: A Cautionary Tale
July 1, 2016
Negrita, Prieta, Morenita, Aperlada: thoughts about the color of my skin
January 29, 2018
Listening to NPR's Latino USA podcast, I discovered Xenia Rubinos, an Afro-Latina musician. She says she didn't set out to make her music political, but in today's political climate it's hard to be herself and have it not show up in her music (I'm paraphrasing).
As foolish and ignorant as this sounds, I wasn't aware until a few years ago that Afro-Latinx was an identity. I should have known. When I first heard about "La Raza Cosmica", I clung to the idea. Jose Vasconcelos', a Mexican philosopher, posited that because the people of Latin America had mixed with all the people of the world through imperialism, colonialism, and slavery, we should be considered a fifth race. I would look at myself in the mirror and try and see the physical features I had been taught matched with different races--in my estimation I was Indigenous with some African and European mixed in. Maybe one day I'll get a DNA test to see if I'm right.
Of my siblings, I had the darkest skin color; only my father that spent all day in the sun had darker skin than mine. And, I learned early on that my goal was to have the lightest skin color possible. Some of my relatives, those with lighter skin, called me negrita, but I think they would stop when they saw my parents frown. My parents told one story for years about the time one of my uncles asked about me, "Y de quien es esta prietita?" I would hear my parents reassure each other that I was not prietita, and that my uncle shouldn't be talking because my cousin was darker than me. After a while, I would ask for verbal reassurance from my mom that I was not prietita. "No," she would say, "tu eres morenita." This would calm me down. What I really wanted was to be considered aperlada like my sister and my pretty friends. The gueritas, the fairest of them all, were the pageant queens and loved by all.
This idea that lighter was better was reinforced by Spanish television. All the soap operas stars were either white Latinos or very light skinned ones. The actors who were Indigenous or Black played the servant roles.
It took a long time for me to start questioning this. I took a history class in college, and our professor made us memorize the human sacrifice rituals by the Aztecs. I read about the Olmecs and Toltecs; it was the first time I realized (again, I know this sounds ignorant) that there were more Indigenous tribes than the Aztecs and Mayans in Latin America. I was a bit excited to connect myself to these strong civilizations. I remembered hearing my dad talk about his grandfather, Pedro Infante (not the famous actor), who was rumored to be a full blooded Mexican Indian (his words) and bootlegger. After class one day, I asked my mom how much Indigenous blood I had from her side of the family, and she said, "Estas loca, Mayra Ivette! Si mi gente es de España!" I laughed so hard because she was legit serious! My mother claims that her aunts and uncles had blue eyes.
When I met Ian, I would talk about my skin color... a lot. And, this perplexed him. "I can't go outside because I'll get darker." "I have to get a new shade of makeup because during the winter I'm lighter skinned." "What are your parents going to think about you dating a Mexican? You know I can't hide who I am. Just by looking at me, you can tell I'm Mexican." And, it was that last line that finally made him say, "Enough!" He explained that no one cared about my skin color but me. (I of course retaliated with the many micro-agressions I had suffered growing up.) He told me things were different in the U.K.--that no one would know or care that I was Mexican. He was partially right. No one knew I was Mexican, nor did they care. All they heard was an American accent. However, I do believe that race relations in the U.K. are just as heated as in the U.S.; the difference for me was that my American accent was privileged. And, I have to admit, I am treated better in the U.K. than I am in the U.S.
So, why has it taken me so long to be aware of the Afrolatinx identity? I think that it's hard to admit that our families hold views that we are not proud of. In South Texas, it was us mexicanos and the gringos. As far as I knew growing up, there was nothing else. I joke about it, but it's mostly true that I didn't see white people until I was ten years old (the partial truth is that I wasn't around a significant number of them on daily basis.) I would see white people on TV and I had a couple of white teachers; but, it wasn't until I was bused to another school for 5th grade that white people surrounded me. But, I digress. The point I wanted to make is that when my parents referred to Black actors or musicians on Mexican television, they never referred to them as being Mexican. As a child and teen, I didn't realize that you could be both.
The more I explore my own identity, the more I learn about myself. I know I have to be respectful and be invited to certain cultural spaces. And, when I think about how Between the World and Me and The Hate U Give, and how the words of Coates and Thomas resonate with who I am, I don't want to intrude on something that does not belong to me.
But, listening to Xenia Rubinos, I think, she's my sister. I have the straight hair of my guelito Pedro, but my skin says I'm connected to so much more out there. And, I like that.