“Muchacha, pareces mosca en leche,” my mother’s words urge me to change clothes, expressing her view that the white blouse I’m wearing makes me look like a fly in the milk. The laughter and other sounds of recognition when I say these lines on stage give me a solid clue as to how many of my peeps are in the audience. By my peeps I mean Raza, a term that means community in this context, rather than race. Personally, I identify as Chicana, and I also see myself as part of that larger collective of 60+ million people labeled or self-identified as Latinx, Latina, Latino, Latine (gaining traction like Latinx as gender-neutral), Hispano, Hispanic. There is no universal agreement as to what we call ourselves or others call us, and language is always evolving. It’s becoming common to see these terms used interchangeably.
But this blog isn’t about what we call ourselves, it’s about colorism, a type of discrimination that favors lighter skin over darker skin, often within the same racial or ethnic group. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report titled, Latinos and Colorism: Majority of U.S. Hispanics Say Skin Color Impacts Opportunity and Shapes Daily Life.
The Pew report explained that colorism can be related to racism but is its own form of discrimination, and not surprisingly found that persons with darker skin experienced more incidents of discrimination than Latinos with lighter skin. I won’t summarize the other findings but will simply say it stated the obvious, the lighter you are the greater the chance you’ve had better opportunities for a decent education and higher status better-paying jobs, and careers. The charts that accompany the report illustrate the research finding and are visually quite interesting. You can read a fuller discussion on colorism and racism and how these -isms affect our families as people from different ethnic groups and racial backgrounds enter into long-term unions and our immediate families become multi-racial in this Time Magazine article.
Colorism is not unique to the Latine community, it’s everywhere, not just here in the United States, or in Latin America, it is a global phenomenon, including in India, Brazil, and many African countries. When traveling in India some years back I saw so many billboards advertising Fair and Lovely products, holding up lighter fairer skin as the standard of beauty. And there have been campaigns by Bollywood actors seeking to counter that narrative. People are voting with their pocketbooks to lighten up. An article in Marketplace reported that the “global market for bleach creams and injectables that purport to lighten skin — and which carry many potential health risks — stood at an estimated $8.6 billion in 2020, including $2.3 billion in the U.S.”
A quick bilingual internet search for the image mosca en leche produced these two books with the phrase as their title. Haven't read either, but the book covers caught my eye. No matter the language, we know that a fly in the milk (or the soup) is not a welcome sight.
My mother’s message was loud and clear don’t call attention to your darkness. I purposely accentuated my skin color as a form of spite. The existence of colorism was often denied with phrases like para mi todos son iguales, everyone is equal. But everyday conversations I heard among adults confirmed this deeply entrenched prejudice. "Juan Felipe is such a smart, kind boy, too bad he’s so dark." And the never-ending praise for light-skinned babies. "Carolina’s baby is so pretty, tan güerita, such light skin, tan preciosa la niña." It is not uncommon for family members and friends to assign a nickname based on physical attributes, la negrita, la prieta, la güera, la chinita. And these names are typically uttered with great affection, I took no offense when my parents or other relatives called me mi prieta.
Listen to some Cuban music (just one example) and these terms of endearment are everywhere. I spent several weeks in Havana and engaged in conversations with people I befriended about their easy-going and common referencing of someone’s skin color. They were baffled by my explanation that such references in the United States would be considered racially insensitive or outright racist.
Today I am a pale version of myself, having lived in the temperate climate of Northern California. When I see current pictures of me or look in the mirror, my mind’s eye sees me in the darker hue of my younger self. As I put my hand up against the chart in the Pew Research Poll on colorism, I’m a 4 but my true color is a 6. I love beach vacations because being in the hot sun restores my true color within a matter or two or three days. Pero aqui en el norte de California estoy muy palida.
Talking about colorism and naming and acknowledging prejudices in our community is a good thing and a starting point for addressing our biases. It does no good to pretend otherwise. The issue was part of a national conversation with respect to Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights and the casting of few Afro-Latinos in major roles.
"Lo prieto no duele," my mother would say when she’d hear my siblings tease me. "Sonriete, para poder verte." Smile so we can see you in the dark. My mother’s comment that being dark never hurt anyone simply perpetuated the lie. No different than being told that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you. We know better, words can and do hurt us. And so does colorism.
Check out my one-woman show, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? where I explore how colorism in our community, along with perceptions of us as perpetual “foreigners,” leads to devaluing Latinos.
Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? is streaming, on-demand, and it’s free, between Friday, November 19th and Monday, November 29th as part of Re-Encuentro, the Latina/o/x Theater Festival. Go to irmaherrera.com, and click on the red RSVP button, this will take you to Re-Encuentro’s RSVP form, complete that and the link will be mailed to you. You must register to receive the streaming link. Thanks for watching, it’s available during the long Thanksgiving weekend.