On June 3, I went to a Black Lives Matter protest in the Mission. I wanted to interview the Latino community to find out what else we could do to support the Black community?
“I am Mexican and I see that we have a lot of internalized racism, specifically colorism. We have a lot of anti-Blackness in our communities … If you go to Mexico you will find white people with blue eyes who are Mexican and you will also find brothers and sisters with darker skin. We are too prejudiced with ourselves”, said Bella, an 18-year-old college student.
Her answer touched on a point similar to the other answers that day. Everyone was talking about internal racism in the Latino community and colorism. Colorism is when a person is discriminated against within her own community or racial group because of the color of their skin. People with darker skin tones are usually looked down on while fair-skinned people are often idolized. Before going any further, I want to highlight that this article is written from the perspective of a 21-year-old white-skinned Mexican-American woman. This is my opinion on these issues. I would like to share situations from my personal life where I saw this racism exposed.
My maternal grandmother took me to the Del Valle market in the city of Zamora in the state of Michoacán. It was the first time that I remember seeing an Indigenous woman. She was sitting selling cactus in small bags and was dressed in her typical costume with a cute shawl. I was not more than five or six years old. I remember the peculiar noise of her Indigenous language, which is the language of the Purépechas. When I was older I began to hear family members comment on people’s appearance. Usually the comments used to be about skin tone and features. “He came out looking Indian;” “good thing that he came out white like his mother;” “he has Indian shag hair;” “well, we have French and Spanish ancestry, and with that we are relieved;” “do not be shy, do not be india;” “it is about improving the race;” “she is ugly and dark.” Sound familiar?
This feeling of European superiority in my opinion is actually fear, rejection, and shame towards the Indigenous roots, the mother root. But what happens on September 15 and 16, Mexican Independence Day, or when they want to get drunk and sing with the mariachi band? Suddenly they start with the corrido of Gabino Barrera (an Indigenous man), they sing Prietita Linda. They dress in typical costumes. They eat and drink pre-Hispanic culinary treasures, intangible heritage of humanity. They celebrate the independence of Mexico and the Mexican revolution, both battles fought by the Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous people that to this day continue to be discriminated against and without just reward. The last time I was in Mexico City, practically every store and every advertisement featured women and men of European characteristics, or almost European mestizos. Very few times I saw an advertisement with an Indigenous or Black person. Proud of their roots but keeping their distance.
Since I was little, my paternal grandmother always told me “daughter, don’t go out in the sun because you’re going to get burned and you’re going to get dark;” “take care of your skin because you’re going to be dark and ugly like me;” “look what a pretty face you have, white as porcelain;” “you look French, with your white hands.” When she was a child, her father also told her to get out of the sun because, according to her words, “you are already brunette and with the sun you will turn Black.” This is a great example of how deep this fear of Black skin is, and how white skin idolatry, specifically in women, was passed down from generation to generation.
One day when I was about seven years old, a relative made a comment: “I am not a racist, but I hate the damn Blacks.” He started to laugh a little and the others did too. I think that was my first time hearing a racist phrase and understanding the meaning. At that time, if someone had asked my family members if they considered themselves racists, I’m sure they would have said “no” and after a pause they would add that “maybe a little bit” or that “it was just a joke”. Finally one day I called them out on it and I told them that it bothered me to hear those words and they answered me like I already knew they would. They replied something similar to, “Oh … Lorenita, it’s a joke, do not take it so seriously.” What else could I do? I was a child and they were the adults, and I did not have the courage or knowledge that I have now on the subject of racism, much less the knowledge of what colorism was.
One day my cousin who is half Mexican and Dutch invited me to go out to a bar. While we were sitting she asked me about the type of guys I liked. I replied that I was willing to date people of different races. But that at the moment I would prefer a Latino or a Mexican because I felt that we shared more things in common. She answered me “oh no, Lorenita, what do you mean with a Mexican? With a Latino, oh, please? You are too pretty.” I replied that I didn’t see why it was a bad thing if these were our roots, and I also reminded her that she was a Mexican born in Guadalajara. I also added that I liked dark skinned Mexicans and Latinos. She answered me “but how are your children going to turn out?” I let her know that her way of thinking didn’t seem fair to me and I spent about 20 minutes explaining why she was wrong. She apologized and we changed the subject. I left that bar with my gut in a rage on the border of tears because it hurt to see how my cousin, being Mexican, could have such strong feelings.
On one occasion I argued with a relative of mine about how Mexicans have every right to be here because this was formerly Mexican territory. She began to say that Black people should leave the United States and that the government should return them from where they were caught. I confronted her and the other people who were listening. I told him that the original pre-colonial people in this region of the United States have always been the natives. That she did not have the right to tell slave descendants where to live. Suddenly my mother said “forgive her, she is very sensitive, and she does not like these talks.” I couldn’t believe that my mother had abandoned and ignored me at the time, and that she would have apologized for me when they were in the wrong.
Knowing what I know now, I would also have told that relative that there are communities of proud Afro-Mexicans in Mexico who are also descendants of slaves. That Mexican miscegenation also includes the third root, which is the African root. That they gave us José María Morelos y Pavón, an indispensable character during the fight for Mexican independence. They gave us Vicente Guerrero, the first Afro-Mexican president of the Mexican Republic and of the American continent. Artists like Toña la Negra, composers like Álvaro Carrillo, and many more Afro-Latinos like Celia Cruz, and almost all of Fania Records. I would have told her that the music she dances so much is thanks to their art, passion, and suffering. The poems that I adore so much were formed by Black day-dreaming minds like those of the Afro-Peruvian Nicomedes Santa Cruz and the Afro-Peruvian Victoria Santa Cruz. Certain liberties today would not exist without the efforts of past generations of Black and African Latinos.
I can’t bear to hear stories of people who have been abused and discriminated against because they are Indigenous, or Black. I can’t stand listening when they question the identity of an Afro-Latino. I cannot bear to see how in the United States police assassinate our brothers from the Black community. I cannot bear to see how the Mexican police torture, kidnap, and murder under the command of a government controlled by drug trafficking. I am tired of seeing how two such similar communities continue to be drowned in a sea of blood.
I am writing this knowing full well that I will never understand one hundred percent the difficulties that darker skinned people go through, people with fewer resources, or the Mexican people who live this reality day by day. These are my personal thoughts that reflect the feeling towards people of Black skin or Indigenous roots during these difficult and necessary times for change. I simply offer this perspective in the hope that all Latinos will reflect on and stop racism and colorism wherever we are. May we be proud of our African and Indigenous roots.