Compliments & Colorism

I cannot count the amount of times I laid in bed, postponing sleep, crying to my mother about how ugly I was. I felt ugly because I didn’t fit in. The gold strings that cascaded around my head, did not match the dark luscious locks of hair that hung down my mother’s back. I didn’t look like her, my dad or my brothers, so I must be ugly. My greñas (I never combed my hair, my mom would have to hound me to do so) did not curl. They didn’t even bend, so they did not match the texture, thickness, or style of my siblings’ hair. Therefore, I must have been lied to. My mother did not have me, and I came from a strange foreign land full of blonde people with light skin who did not want me, so a nice Mexican lady picked me up and loved me. This was the scenario I created in my head. The “truth” I tried every night to get my mother to admit to.

My sweet mom, who did in fact give birth to me, acknowledged that I did look different than her, but that I did fit in with my father’s side of the family. A plethora of tall, light skinned beauties with green and blue eyes filled the houses of his family. I did not immediately notice this because those light hair/eye genes came form form my grandmother who married a darker skinned man with dark hair. So their children with the exception of my dad and 1 aunt looked darker than their cousins…. I digress. I saw pictures of my father’s mother as a young woman, and she in fact had light eyes with hair that looked just like mine. But that didn’t matter to me. Because the women I spent the most time with, my mother and grandmother, had dark skin and hair and these things were not like the other; i.e. me. My mom bought me books like “The Ugly Duckling” in an attempt to show that a mother can love a duckling that does not look like her…but all I focused on was the fact that that duck was really a swan, and never belonged in the first place.

When I was 6, my brothers being bullies (well, really just being BROTHERS), told me that the word adopted really meant baptized and showed me pictures of this “adoption” so when the neighborhood kids (most happened to be protestant) friends would ask if I was  adopted I would say “why yes, there’s even pictures of the day it happened,” as I pointed to the pictures of me in a white christening gown with 2 couples standing side by side. The kids and my brothers would point and laugh and well, that just made everything worse.

Shortly after that, I came across a school picture of my father. I thought my mean brothers had taken a picture of me and somehow managed to cut the picture so it looked like I had short hair. But nope, it was my dad, age 8 or so with a face exactly like mine and hair and skin even LIGHTER than mine. I sighed with relief and realized I did belong, but still yearned to look like my mom. Her pictures from her youth, her long black hair and tan skin reminded me of Princess Jasmine and Pocahontas…I was envious.

As much as I remember not fitting in, I also remember being told I was such a pretty girl.  My beauty corresponded with my blonde hair. People would stop me and my mother while we were out to touch my hair. People would even criticize my mom for dying my hair. Little did they know I just spent too much time outside. I answered to either Janeli or “guera” which means “blonde” or “blondie” in Spanish. To this day I cannot hear Alejandra Guzman’s song “Hey Guera” without cringing.

My blonde locks eventually darkened around age 13 and my mother very happily and hurriedly rushed me to my tia’s salon and I got my first set of highlights. Everyone loved them, but they were too light for my taste, so my aunt put in lowlights while I sat at her kitchen table. She scooped up a darker toner of out some tupper ware with a toothbrush. As she brushed I on my head she sais “You’re not so blonde anymore blondie!” And inside, I giggled. I was finally going to look like the rest of my family! When the highlights faded and I chose to go darker, my mom missed her blonde daughter but respected and understood my want for darker hair. I only ever got highlights since then to please her, and I have to admit, they compliment my skin tone.

prego-OchoWhen pregnant with my first son, I thought about who he’d look like. My stepdaughter is a clone of my husband, so would my son be another Jake-clone? The schmorgesboard of genes and genetic combinations were endless. Both of our mothers had dark skin with dark hair. Our fathers the opposite. Curly and straight hair both ran the gambit amongst our siblings, but I secretly prayed for my baby to come out with hair as curly and beautiful as his father’s. And so he did. As well as with the pale Saucedo skin. I mean, PALE. So much so, the doctor confused him for being oxygen deprived once when having a bout of bronchiolitis.

His light skin. His cute chubby face, his beautiful hair, his light skin. The compliments and comments, always came back to his light skin.

My mom once showed off pictures of “Ocho” to friends/coworkers who said “he’s so light”. She responded “don’t worry, we’ll put him in the sun.”

Then my 2nd son was born. A Janeli-clone. Light hair, light skin, big brown eyes. With him, came so much more love, lots of less sleep and even more loads of comments/compliments. All the compliments and comments about their cute attitudes, their intelligence, their great heads of hair and their LIGHT SKIN. This, my friends, is NOT a compliment. It’s a fact.

My children are not beautiful because they have light skin. They’re beautiful AND they just so happen to have light skin.

My mom once showed off pictures of “Ocho” to coworkers who said

“Ay hermoso! He’s so light!”

Ocho yawning

She responded “don’t worry, we’ll put him in the sun.”

When she told me about that interaction, she addressed for the first time I could remember, the colorism her siblings and she faced. She’s the oldest of 6, and no one looked like her. the 2nd child, my tio James, is tall blonde and has blue eyes. My grandmother was usually confused as his nanny, rarely recognized as his mother. She advised me never to accept a compliment on the lightness ok their skin…because it isn’t really a compliment and I’d only be feeding the problem.

And then arrives my newest bundle of bliss Ezri. My “morenita.” She’s not even really al that dark, but compared to her pale parents and siblings, she’s got a little mocha in her piel. And I LOVE IT.

My mama and Ezri-bean

Me on the left. Ezra on the right

Me on the left. Ezra on the right

And it’s been great hearing her comparisons to me as a baby, and also matching her features to other family members like my mother-in-law. But it’s strange to be stopped in a doctor’s office, the mall, or just out on the street and hearing these sorts of comments (usually in this order):

-“So cute!”

-“Are they twins?” [insert  comment about how close together in age they are]

-His curls! His blonde hair, they’re light skin!

-What a pretty girl…but she’s darker than the boys, huh?

-She’s still pretty….

Uh-what?  still pretty? This wasn’t just some weird encounter; this is something that happens regularly. A side comment about how my daughter is darker BUT she’s still just as pretty as my lighter skinned boys. SHE’S NOT EVEN THAT DARK. And if she were, what does that have anything to do with her beauty. Ugh, I can’t even.

No really, I can’t. I can’t take the time to explain how the embedded colorism in our Latino culture is a PROBLEM we need to address/call out, acknowledge as a problem and find other ways to define and comment on the beauty of our skin. I can’t do that, cause I’m either pushing a double stroller with a death grip on my oldest son’s hand/wrist, or a car seat hanging from bended arm with a weird double death grip on my boys’ hands (they’re runners).

What I can do is do my best to make sure I celebrate my kids’ physical differences and present a wide array of beauty to my kids so they see beauty in themselves and in other who look nothing like them. But until my kids start to show signs that they even care about their appearance, I’ll just do my best I’m going to keep it simple, take notes, and tell them they’re beautiful just because.

But I gotta admit we’re having tons of fun regularly dancing to “Baila Baila, Mi Morena” by Chayanne

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