As a little girl, my family members often called me “morenita.” It was only until I grew up that I understood why they felt the need to distinguish my skin color among all things.
In Latin America, colorism is an issue that gets buried by nationalism. We are not our race, just our ethnicity. We are Mestizos, mixed-race and therefore all equal.
In theory that makes sense and it’s beautiful. However, the narrow representations and reactions of such diverse communities say something completely different.
I learned this when I was 7-years-old and my father told me that my great grandmother, who had gone blind, was racist and would reject me if she could see.
The scars that colonialism has left on Latin America are immense, not only stripping us from our identities but creating a new one that denies melanin and embraces whiteness.
I really struggled with this as a teenager trying to find my identity within a community that didn’t explicitly reject me, but subliminally determined I was less deserving.
My oldest brother shared this experience with me as well.
“I had a family member who would tell me that I would look more handsome if my skin color was like my brother’s light skin,” he said. “This was something that impacted me growing up because it made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.”
Most Hispanics in the media are white-passing. Most presidents of all Latin American countries are white-passing.
In Mexico and many other Latin American countries, people with lighter complexions fall into the highest wealth brackets while dark-skinned people fall into the lowest categories which persist across generations.
This creates a dangerous message that more white means more beautiful and deserving.
Growing up, that same family member who is of Mestizo and African descent would encourage me to marry white and rich, unlike my mother, who ruined her life by marrying a poor brown man.
My brother said that as he grew older he “learned that this must have stemmed from that family member’s own experience and what they went through growing up in Mexico.”
As a child, I would ask my family why we were darker skinned. They would joke that slave ships from Haiti crashed on the shores near Acapulco and that my grandmother was a descendant of them. They never explained it to me and I had to figure it out on my own.
After some research, I found that story was true.
Many slaves found refuge in the southern coastal regions of Mexico including my mom’s hometown, Cuajinicuilapa in the state of Guerrero.
Though my grandma denies any ties to Africa, you can see it. You can see it in her beautiful coarse hair, in her complexion and in her features.
And you see it in my mother who inherited those features and my oldest brother who looks just like her. You can see it in my complexion too although my dad’s genes took over after the second child, giving me fine hair.
I can only imagine the challenges my grandmother faced navigating a world that denied racism and denied her existence.
Upon taking my ancestry test I confirmed what I already knew about my family, that we weren’t just American Indian and Spanish but that we had a third root.
My brother and I both agree that the Afro-Mestizo experience is isolating and that although light-skinned Latinos face racism in America, they will never expect to face racism from their own people.
“Colorism in Latin America perpetuates a vicious cycle of hatred and can create negative impacts amongst young minds,” my brother said.