There is a not-so-funny story my aunt Josephine used to like to tell: “When you were born, your mother thought you were so ugly that as soon as she brought you home she shut you in the closet.” She took a slightly twisted pleasure in trying to get me to laugh at this. My mother, now deceased, was not always a well or rational person, and it was very likely that she could have done such a thing or worse; after all, I had been taken away from her by my aunt because of her strange behavior. Still, there are some things which are harder to believe than others.
“You were a month early, so not only did you have a head full of curly black hair, but you had a fine netting of black down all over your body. She said it disgusted her,” my aunt insisted.
Black is a key word in the mind of the speaker, as you might be able to tell. It is the key word in any conversation about (skin) color. The black of ink, of night, of lumps of Mexican chocolate served melted in warm milk right before bedtime; the black of niggers crowded into low income housing, the shiny black of the quick Buick Skylarks driven by half-witted speed demons down deserted Chicago alleys; the black of the good earth of the Midwest, so good to smear all over legs and body in the middle of the hot summer.
Whenever this story was repeated, I imagined not myself smothering in a crammed-full closet, but a squealing monkey-like child, its leathery, apish hands clawing at the door, its monkey face framed by a frilly and ridiculous baby bonnet.
There was only one other Hispanic child in all of Patrick Henry Grade School in 1966, the year of my admittance. Everyone else was Polish, Lithuanian, German, Irish, Croatian, Czech, Dutch. The first day of school had me running from a pack of kids armed with plastic jump ropes and laundry lines. “You mustn’t tell people that you’re part Mexican,” my aunt had warned. We were Italian, and that’s all they needed to know. But I didn’t have to tell them a thing: All summer long I’d been baking in the sun, and by the time September rolled around I was done to a golden-(dark)brown perfection which no Croatian Princess could ever hope to match. My hair was no longer completely black, nor were my eyes, but this change from black to chestnut was a fine distinction that the kids hardly had the inclination to make.
“Nigger!” they shouted as they lashed the—I remember, it was pink—plastic rope at me. No one got seriously hurt, but that was hardly the point. I felt then that maybe those stories about the closet were true. Obviously the skin color thing—not that I was Mexican, because I had no accent and could speak only a small amount of Spanish—was very important to a lot of people.
So, when I wasn’t squinting at the blackboard for lack of glasses (I was just about to get some), I was staring at the curling blonde swirl of ponytail in front of me, attached to the head of one of my favorite classmates, Vicky Jones. She and three others seemed to possess all that I lacked: thin limbs, hazel or blue eyes, varying shades of light hair. I followed them around in mute admiration. Everything they possessed or were seemed brighter, cleaner, fresher than anything I could ever be. But the hair, oh, the hair was the best: bleached and wispy and white just after summer, then darkening just like the Fall skies and falling leaves as winter approached, until the brown strands outnumbered the blonde, and the swirl resembled a caramel sundae with more caramel than vanilla ice cream.
It got to the point where I would often befriend someone almost entirely on the basis of their hair color. It helped cancel out all that was wrong with me if I was seen in the company of blondes or near-blondes. Often this would get me into trouble. I sometimes ended up in packs of kids who were extremely poor and mean. Kids whose parents drank cases of Budweiser every evening and batted them across the room for walking in front of the television set and who threw down Bologna sandwiches for dinner, if that. The parents didn’t care what I looked like. They didn’t even notice I existed. But their children did. They had gotten the message of intolerance from their parents and dutifully carried out its orders. Once after school a cross-eyed girl in one of these packs pulled a huge kitchen knife out of her schoolbag and pointed it at me. “Pam is my friend, not yours,” she said fiercely about the blonde in question. “Stay the hell away from us or I’ll cut your eyes out.”
Another girl who had begun having sex at the tender age of nine and who smelled of urine and who I thought might be pregnant, pulled me aside and informed me that they all decided that I should shut up and stop answering the teacher’s questions in class or they would all write a letter to the Principal saying they didn’t want “No Afro-Americans” in their school.
Afro-American (sung to the tune of the “Franco-American” noodle jingle), Aunt Jemima, Mammy. Even kids who didn’t care had to throw in a word or two about what a “Negro” I was. I stared at my face in the mirror. My lips did not seem that big, nor my nose that wide. Well, maybe just a little bit. But a little bit goes a long way.
I realized that I had fallen into the wrong group and proceeded to content myself with a better and longer-lasting brunette pal named Wendy. I was not reformed, however, merely resigned to a new sensibility, experience having made me a bit wiser.
Times and opinions eventually changed, and it became entirely acceptable and fashionable to be a brunette, though of no particular ethnicity, and certainly not Black. I still could drive my aunt mad with the taunt: “I’m going to marry a Black man.” I married, of course, the whitest man I could find, because of some inner law. For what I see as beautiful, what is in me as an absolute is what I learned to know and love: I grew up never having been friends with a Jewish or a Black kid. Chicago in the Sixties and Seventies was extremely segregated, with the inner city becoming more and more desolate as whites abandoned it for the suburbs. My only contact with other Mexicans was on weekend visits with my father to see his brother’s kids. I saw no difference in them, felt actually more comfortable with them than with anyone else, yet what became normal, average, acceptable, desirable for me was what I saw around me every day; what I hoped I could be, what I could never be.
When I moved to New York, I experienced for the first time the comfort of having people with dark hair and eyes around me. Noses! What noses I found in the five Boroughs! And more than that, scads of beautiful women who were way dark. Beauty, as I saw it there, did not come in only one flavor. At this point I felt I was truly reformed. I might still have a tender spot for the bleached ones, but my heart was wide open, I had gotten over the closet issue.
When I became pregnant I had an amniocentesis, a cautionary measure due to the fact that I was thirty-six. “Can we tell what color her eyes will be?” I asked the geneticist when she told me what they had been able to find out from the test, basically that everything was okay. They had been looking for signs of birth defects. I was wondering about blue eyes. My husband’s eyes are the most beautiful blue, of sky and sea, and he can wear shirts to change their hue. Rationally, of course, I wasn’t really wishing for a blue-eyed baby. But irrationally, and constantly, I worried that she might be “too dark.” This was what my aunt always looked for: we were Sicilian, there were instances of over-darkness in that side too.
Paul of course was hoping that the baby would be of my coloring, and finally, when she was born, we found out: this was no Mexican baby. “Oh my God, she has my lips!” he cried, meaning they were thin and barely there. She was pale, but with dark hair at birth. I had mused to a friend about the other kind of darkness, the more personal kind: “I wonder what color her nipples will be?” My friend Susan, taken aback but not wanting to offend me, offered that she hardly thought it mattered. But she too has blue eyes, and fair skin, and although she is Jewish, her looks do not “betray” her in any way. The darkness of nipples, pubic hair, the skin around the genitals, this all counted, and I knew it. If dark was bad, then everything that was dark was bad.
Alexandra had neither pink nor brown nipples, which actually made me breathe a sigh of relief. For, on the other hand, what if she were too light, thus too different from me, thus superior? It was all so complicated.
A Mexican cousin, married to a red-headed Englishwoman, had a baby around the same time that we did. Anica looks like a beautiful Indian child: with fair skin. She is gorgeous. Somehow I feel that I have let Paul down. I have not produced an ethnic enough child, the one he was hoping for, and probably never will. My mother, though Sicilian, was light-skinned and freckled. Having once been too dark, I am now not dark enough. Alex has pretty ringlets. My hair no longer really curls, so I have to explain, “You see, when I was born …”
Times have changed so much that it is fashionable, say, like Keanu Reeves, to be of mixed and exotic races, so we seem to think that we are less concerned with color these days. Until someone in the sports world goofs up and makes a reference to ape-like athletes, or until there is yet another beating of a skinny high school kid riding his bike through the wrong white neighborhood.
We think we can keep ourselves separate and say that everything is okay. But there is no love without intimacy. The closer we get, however, the more fear is involved. I once was thrust deep into a place where I supposedly did not belong. But in retrospect, it is what my Mexican father wanted for me, and not for entirely good reasons. He identified so strongly with a non-Latin, non-Black culture that later in life when he was forced because of illness to take a Senior Citizen’s apartment in a Latino neighborhood he was miserable. “I can’t understand these people,” he would say to me. He always spoke to me in English, and though we visited Mexico, I was brought up as an American child. And while my mother obviously liked Latin men, there was a particular line she could or would not cross. The Black thing.
Having come from where I was not totally wanted, I am part of the culture, but I am also other. It is a feeling that many Latinas have, especially those who are mixed, who have grown up knowing more than one world. I have nieces and cousins entering college for the first time. They are going to places like Normal, Illinois and Whitewater, Wisconsin. I shudder at the thought of even the tiny bit of discomfort they are going through, that they will inevitably continue to go through. And it is not just about the way they look, it is about the way they feel. Ours is a culture of assimilation. The more you seem like everyone else, the better off you are. You are not supposed to call attention to what is different about you, you are only supposed to celebrate what is the same. At a football or basketball game, at a Homecoming dance or a night of debauchery, you must keep cool, smooth, static.
My cousin Xochitl (the Aztec word for flower) is at the University of Illinois at Normal. Her mom says she is having “issues” there. Not wanting to pry, I try to imagine what they might be. Subtle differences in attitude, a different way of touching, being. Pride in a Mexican heritage even though her father is German-Irish. Bi-lingualism. Her own brand of Feminist ideals because her mother taught her daughters to take their studies seriously, possibly to avoid sex outside of marriage, to stand up for themselves in a way entirely different from her own mother, whom she considers to be too passive.
Being dark then boils down to a matter of differences, and the big difference is obvious, there is nothing you can do to hide it, to smooth it away. And though color can become diluted, what you feel about yourself and what groups you identify with does not.
The golf player Tiger Woods was chastised by some members of the African-American community because he would not identify himself as one of them. He identified too strongly with his Thai heritage, he claimed, to limit himself in that way. In his mind, when he looked in the mirror he saw an image of his Thai mother, not the Black man that they wanted him to be. It is a tricky matter, this process of identification and assimilation. On the one hand we risk falling prey to a sort of denial that is probably bad for the soul. On the other, it should be up to the individual to decide what and who they are. No matter how many times someone called me “Afro-American,” or “Nigger Lips” I knew that it wasn’t who I was. Yet the scorn has stayed with me. It is part of who I am. Even though I knew then that there was something wrong with the people calling me those names, I did and still do always have to remind myself that there was and is nothing wrong with me.
So sometimes I still get confused about who is right and who is wrong, who is accepted and who is not. I think about the tale of the baby in the closet. It was me. A therapist once had me do some playacting where in a fantasy I would go to the closet and take the baby out. Hold it. Talk nicely to it. It felt silly. The baby didn’t look like a monkey in that instance, but like a doll, a not-very-realistic doll with brittle brown hair that you get as a Christmas present and which you cannot help but compare with the very expensive German doll that your friend got. The one with the trunk full of clothes and real wool coat. The one with the golden skin and hair and the very lifelike glass blue eyes.