|My mother and I Ca. 1950|
It became obvious to me early in life, growing up in a Mexican barrio in Central California, that color of skin would play a crucial role in successfully assimilating in the American culture.
The dark skinned Mexicans were called "prietos", or "morenos", referring to their complexion. My mother would often admonish me when I was playing out in the sun "Metete a la sombra, sino vas a parecer Indio" (get into the shade or you're going to look like an Indian").
And everyone knew that to be a dark-skinned Mexican Indian was bad.
On the other hand, to be a fair-skinned one, a "Guero", was a distinct advantage in the U.S. That meant we could "pass" for Gringo or White when it was convenient. Most of my friends were clearly Mexican looking, "prietos," and possessed an accent, to boot.
But by a stroke of fate's faceteous hand, I was born with a triple whammy: Guero, freckled, and with curly red hair! Of six siblings, three of us were born with red hair, and three with black hair. Where the red came from, we will never know since both my mom and dad had black hair. All of the red heads had freckles too.
No one had really ever heard of a red-haired, freckled Mexican.
When my kids became aware of the splatters of freckles on my face, arms and hands they would ask "Daddy, why do you have these spots all over you?" "Well, one day my mother was painting the ceiling, while I was in my crib underneath, and the paint spattered all over me", I would kid with them. They loved the story so they kept asking the question.
But all this had its negatives. My mother's comadre, Doña Margarita, who lived next door donned me "El Coloradito", referring to my red hair. "Como esta mi coloradito?" She would taunt. I hated it. It was like being called "carrot-top" or "matchstick." Other Mexicans often referred to me as Guero. "Como estas Guerito?"
There is no question there was a great amount of discrimination against dark-skinned Mexicans, at work and in school. They were singled out by the "Americanos", and prodded into fights, or put at the "back of room" with all the "slow learners" by teachers.
But I could slide. They never quite knew what I was, and I could hang with my Mexican friends one day, and with my Anglo buddies the next. Sometimes my Mexican pals resented me for running around with the Whites. Mostly, they stuck together out of necessity by a mostly white-skinned culture that feared dark skin.
In Mexico, the "Indians" (being dark-skinned), were relegated to secondary status as a by-product of the Spanish Conquest in the 1500's. While they were outcasts, Spanish men saw no hypocrisy in mating with Indian women, creating another caste of people labeled "Meztizo", one born of a Spanish father and an Indian mother, scorned by Europeans for having Indian blood, and equally by Indians for having European blood.
The "Peninsular", native of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) believed that the Indians were less than human, "gente sin razon", people, but without logic, or reason. It made it easier to commit atrocities on them. Ironically, it would be Meztizos who would lead the rebellion in 1810 which culminated in Mexico's Independence in 1821, after 300 years of Spanish colonization.
Compounding the irony, the term "Mexican", replaced the word Meztizo, after Mexico's independence in 1821, and a Mexican would now be redefined with a new sense of pride, as being one of both Indian and European bloods! How's that for a neat contradiction?
My own stereotype of what Mexicans were supposed to look like was shattered on my first trip to Mexico. I was amazed to see so many gueros, light-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed! Some were whiter than I was! "These are Mexicans?" I thought.
My suegro (father-in law) was fair-skinned and had the bluest eyes. My two sons are dark-skinned with black hair. No red-hair or freckles in sight among the rest of my family, brothers, nephews, cousins or grandkids. Maybe one will pop up some where down the line, who knows?
Nonetheless, I have learned that Brown is Beautiful, that Bronze is Beautiful (and freckles too!). However, I no longer have red hair; alas, it is all white now.