At the end of an exhausting day, my mom likes to trace the palm of my hand with her finger and imagine my future.
She lightly touches my life line, hovers above my heart line, and smiles because, she says, she can tell that I will live a comfortable life.
My mother is not a palm reader. She is just a hardworking woman who can see with my soft hands that I am a privileged Mexican American who has never encountered a full day of hard work.
“Tienes las manos bien finas,” she said. You have very beautiful hands. She tells me this with a feeling of comfort.
Studying my hands allows my mother to be proud of what she has given me through her sacrifices. It’s a harmless ritual between mother and son, and I have never questioned it.
But there is another deep-rooted family custom with similar good intentions that makes me cringe – praising my light brown skin and viewing my weak indigenous physical characteristics as a form of progress.
I am a metis.
A Métis, as you probably know, is a person of mixed ancestry in the Americas, generally of European and Indigenous descent. During the time of colonization, people like me would have been considered inferior because we did not have pure Spanish blood. And it’s a mentality that has stuck with us.
In Mexican families and other Latin American families, even now, when a baby is born in metis parents who have blonde hair, green eyes, and snow-white skin – or something close – this is seen as a cause for celebration. This is something brunette grandmothers proudly talk about at family gatherings as they research El Apache, the Native American warrior, on their lottery menu. It’s like saying, “BINGO, your baby looks white!
Skin color bias, offered as a compliment, is a custom that dates back generations in black and brown communities and is generally considered harmless. But there is a troubling undercurrent, of course, some sort of unspoken message. It may sound like a measure of how much you are – or can be – loved. Or as a measure, from birth, of the opportunities that life has to offer.
And this continues to torment every new generation.
This complicated subject is being performed on stage right now at the Den Theater in Wicker Park in a show called “Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?” The play follows Puerto Rican interracial couple Adalina, a beautiful woman with soft caramel-colored skin, and Xavier, a passing white Latino with unmistakable good looks.
The couple are accepted into a program that will allow them to change the genes of their children before they are born. Adalina and Xavier are excited about the possibilities and play with their options, but as they think more deeply about which genes will benefit their baby the most, they ask themselves an uncomfortable, but inevitable question:
What color of skin should her baby have?
The title “Y Tu Abuela, where is she?” – “And your grandmother, where is she?” – is a sharp reminder to those Latinos who aspire to appear more European that there is a good chance their grandmother has very dark skin, to the point of being considered black by the mainstream culture. And the title of the play weaves its way through the story as Adalina and Xavier recollect how skin tone influenced the way they were treated by their parents and grandparents.
“When I straightened my hair, some people looked at me and didn’t know that I was mixed race, but then they would joke and say: ‘Ah, pero se te dirty tu abuela’ – your grandmother comes out this wayGabriela Castillo, who plays Adalina in the play, told me. clues left by your grandmother. “
The play also takes an authentic look at other issues specific to Latinos, such as a cultural reluctance to seek therapy and a realization that while your family may accept you as a queer person, it can be with a shame undeniable.
I saw myself in these characters. Both as someone who continues to get unwanted advice on how to get lighter skin, and as a gay man who finds he has to go out with his parents over and over again – whenever they ask me if I am dating women.
“One of the most important things (to take away from the show) is not to just sit idly by and let go of what you think is normal commentary because it’s not OK,” he told me. Gino Marconi, who plays Carlos, Xavier’s gay cousin. “By letting this happen, you allow this racism, this colourism, and the homosexual (bashing) to live on.”
Colorism is not a generational thing that will go away in 50 years. In fact, I have seen favoritism towards lighter skinned people grow among the younger generation of my extended family. And it’s hard to admit, but I allowed it to happen by being silent.
Latinos need to speak up and call this miserable age-old custom. Even if it means stopping a whole lottery game to do it.
“Y Tu Abuela, where is she?” Runs at the Den Theater, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., until October 24. For tickets, go to CLATA.org
Ismael Pérez is a member of the editorial board of the Sun-Times.
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