Yalitza, Brown-face, and Colorism

Yalitza & Brown-face

A little over a week ago millions of Americans tuned into the Oscars. I enjoy movies as much as the next person but it’s been at least a decade since I watched the famed award ceremony. What brought me out of this decade long Oscar drought? One woman, Yalitza Aparicio Martínez. Yalitza is the star of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for an Oscar. As I watched her walk down the red carpet in her beautiful dress, brown skin glowing, I had tears well up in my eyes. Finally, a brown, Spanish-speaking woman, like me, was being praised for her talent and beauty. Unfortunately, Yalitza did not win an Oscar. I thought the Latino community would share my sentiment in celebrating the recognition of one of our own on one of the grandest stages in entertainment. But…that’s not the case.  As many celebrated Yalitza’s recognition, there were other Latinos who have been quick to mock and attack her. It was reported earlier this week in The Guardian that a light-skinned Mexican mocked Yaltiza by wearing brownface and a prosthetic nose. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident and that this type of prejudice is rare within Latino culture, but it’s not.

You can read more about that story here.

In Latino culture, indigenous, brown, or Afro-Latinos are discriminated against by lighter-skinned or white Latinos. Stereotypes of funny or ugly indigenous Latinos continue to pop up in Latino media and culture. Is this racism? The short answer is no. Racism occurs “when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control…Racism is a system.” (White Fragility. 2018, p. 21. ) This means for racism to exist there must be a combination of prejudice and institutional power. Latinos cannot be racist against other Latinos.

Though this is not racism, it is colorism, which is the preference for lighter or white skin, within a minority group, and ascribing certain qualities, like privilege, intelligence, and desirability to those with lighter skin colors. Colorism is a form of prejudice within a minority group.

The problem with colorism

Where did the preference for lighter skin and prejudice against darker skin come from? When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1519 and colonized the indigenous population, they used their caste system to maintain superiority. Generally, individuals who were mestizo (a mixture of Spanish and indigenous Mexican), had darker skin, or were completely indigenous were classified at lower levels than those with lighter skin or of white European heritage. These ideals embedded themselves in Latino culture and continue to influence us today.

For generations, my brown-skinned family, and many like them, were poor farmers in Mexico. Their brown skin restricted their access to jobs and opportunities that lighter-skinned Mexicans could get. Most light-skinned Latinos were able to “pass” as white and were therefore given access to power and privilege that darker-skinned Latinos were denied. Those with lighter skin had more privilege and access to education and upward mobility, while those with darker-skin were relegated to service-oriented or manual labor jobs.  During the Mexican Civil War, my family, along with thousands of others, immigrated to the United States in search of better jobs and better education for their children.

Colorism was something I understood from a young age. No one ever told me that white skin was better but through the media and culture around me that’s exactly what I was taught.

I remember looking at my light-skinned younger sister and desperately wanting skin color like hers, instead of my own brown skin. It was decades before I saw the beauty in my skin.

More recently, I read a book by a Latina author where she describes the privilege she’s experienced by being able to pass as white. Though she was raised culturally Latina, when people made racist comments about Mexicans in her presence, she never corrected them, choosing instead to use her white skin as a means to avoid racial conversations and blending into the white culture around her. That has never been my reality. When people see me, there is no mistaking that I am Latina and if they make racist comments, they do so knowing I am included in the people group they are insulting.

Colorism has created a standard of beauty in Latino culture that has been damaging to those with darker skin. Light or white skin is more desirable and valued as more attractive. Those of us with darker skin get nicknames for our skin color. We are inundated with images of white Latinos in novelas as the heroes and darker Latinos as the help. Stereotypes and slurs of dark-skinned Latino populations have abounded. Colorism is one reason for the discrepancy we see in representation of brown and black Latinos in media and culture. The success of films like Black Panther, Spider Man into the Spider-Verse, and Coco has shown the world that lighter does not mean better and there is beauty in all skin colors.

When it comes to abilities, dark-skin Latinos have to work twice as hard to be seen as competent and qualified as our light-skin counterparts. Even as a college graduate, any supervisor I have had has at one time or another expressed surprise in my competency and abilities on the job. I am not alone. This is an experience I’ve heard over and over again by my dark-skinned Latino brothers and sisters. This also affects the ability of brown and black Latinos to gain positions of power in government, the marketplace, and homogenous institutions, both in Latino countries and in the U.S.

Things began to change for me, and how I saw my skin color, as I started to study the bible. The first time I remember reading about a woman with dark skin was in the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is a celebration of love, which we can compare to God’s perfect love for his people. In Chapter 1:6, the woman says, “Do not stare at me because I am dark, for the sun has gazed on me.” (CSB) For all my dark-skinned Latina sisters, how many of us have felt the desire to say “do not stare at me because I am dark?” I love the man’s response to this woman. In Chapter 1:8, the man calls her, “most beautiful of women.” The God of heaven is like this man in that He sees us and also calls us “most beautiful of women,” because he didn’t make a mistake in how He has made us. Our dark skin glorifies God because our added melanin shows his creativity and artful hand in creation. Dark skin sisters, Yalitza, colorism doesn’t define us, Jesus does, and he calls us beautiful.

Another verse that has been helpful for me is Romans 2:11. Paul addresses tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers. He warns against dissension and false judgment and reminds the church that God’s judgment is based on His truth and nothing else. Paul reminds them, “there is no favoritism with God.” Colorism has told Latinos, for generations, that white is best, white is right, and brown and black are bad. This has been reflected in our institutions of power, media, and culture but those are lies. God’s love is not dependent upon the whiteness or brownness of your skin but on Jesus’ work on the cross.

additional resources

The attack against Yalitza wasn’t the only evidence of colorism this week. Trending news on Twitter has been the mixed reactions people had to Will Smith, a light-skinned African American man, being cast to play Richard Williams, a dark-skinned African American man. Minority populations are beginning to address colorism and demand change.

You can read more about that story HERE.

If you’re interested in learning more about colorism, MTV Decoded has a great 5-minute video with practical steps to initiate change. My hope is that as we confront colorism in ourselves, our families, and our culture, we break stereotypes and move to include all Latinos for the benefit of us all.

You can access that video HERE.

1 comment on “Yalitza, Brown-face, and Colorism

  1. Randy Leavitt

    This was a very interesting article. I listened to Decoded. When we lived in Puerto Rico, it seemed to me there was definitely a favoritism toward whiter skinned Puertorriquenos. This was in spite of the fact that generally Puerto Ricans seemed to pride themselves on being unbiased and loving all peoples. I was reminded of the marriage in the Bible of Moses and the Cushite woman who was evidently a black women perhaps from Ethiopia. Racism may have been the problem Moses’s sister, Miriam, and Aaron had with their brother Moses at one point.

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