Mejorar la raza. Improve the race. If you haven’t heard this before, well, it basically means to whiten the race. It’s a phrase I have heard plenty of times by people around me. It’s a way to say that you, as a person of color, should marry a white person. Other times, it can mean that you, as a low-income person of color, should marry a rich white person. This phrase is all about making the next generation better. As if your race or ethnicity was not good enough. As if you were not good enough. As in you need someone else to be considered better. Because having brown skin is not pretty, it’s not good. Many of us Latinos been raised to believe that looking darker was not okay. Getting tanned? No, because they made our morenita skin look darker. “Te vas a poner negra,” they would say. It doesn’t matter if you are a light-skin or dark-skin or any other shade in between, because being a Latino, you more than likely have heard the phrase, “Hay que mejorar la raza/We have to better the race”.
I simply cannot write on behalf of other people of color. I cannot write on behalf of afro-latinos. I cannot write on behalf of Latinos with a mostly-European descent or mostly-indigenous descent or indigenous. I cannot write on behalf of other family members. I cannot write on behalf of anyone else. The point is, we all experience this differently, if at all. It affects us differently, if at all. Some may relate to what I say and some may not.
I remember when I was younger I was at my godmother’s house. My cousin’s husband had family over from Mexico and for some reason, they were comparing skin colors to cafe, cafe con leche, and just leche. I had never heard those comparisons before. I didn’t even know what they meant because they were just saying things like “Tu eres puro cafe” and laughed. I thought to myself, “What does it even mean to be just coffee?” I really didn’t know until I asked. They simply said that my skin tone was cafe con leche, while one of my niece’s was leche because her skin was so light and mine wasn’t dark but it wasn’t light either. This was the first encounter I had with someone talking about my skin color. At that time, I thought it was silly so I didn’t give it much attention and just let it slide.
As years passed, I used to hear people tell me that I had to better my race. But of course, this meant that I had to whiten the race. Blanqueamiento is a term used to describe the social, political, and economic practice used in many post-colonial countries — like Mexico, for example — to improve our race. This is usually reached by, well, whitening. This is obviously not a new thing. If you look back into the times of colonization, the conquistadores were whitening the indigenous people without their consent. Because the Spaniards (for parts of Latin America) believed their race was better, they took everything from the indigenous people. We know part of the story. Through conquering the land, they were also conquering the people. The first mestizo was Martín Cortés, the son of Malintzin — also known as La Malinche — and the conquistador Hernán Cortés. I guess, in a way, we could consider this to be the first official whitening of the indigenous race (or at least the first known).
The idea of the first mestizo, together with the fact that the Aztecs at first believed the Spaniards were the White Gods, started the whitening of a race. In modern Latin America, having dark skin is seen as a bad thing. For example, the Mexican government has only recently recognized Afro-Mexicans. After the most recent Mexican census bureau, it was “discovered” that 1.4 million people in Mexico identify as Afro-Mexican or Afro-descendant. Additionally, many Afro-Mexicans reside in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, some of the states considered to have the most indigenous people of the country. This region is also one of the poorest regions of the country. Mexico ‘discovers’ 1.4 million black Mexicans—they just had to ask
The sudden discovery of Afro-Mexicans happened because the Mexican people and government believed, and continue to believe, in blanqueamiento. If you still don’t believe that whitening the race is a thing, let’s look into beauty standards. Telenovelas are a perfect way to talk about what people consider beautiful or handsome. If you have ever watched Mexican telenovelas, you know that most of the time the leads have light skin. Of course, they are other things, like tall and a body considered to be beautiful, but the focus here is the white skin. But, if we think about it, these leads are who reinforce the beauty standards in Mexico. Everyone wants the tall, white, beautiful female lead not the short, morenita, “ugly” girl. Everyone wants the tall, white, handsome male lead, not the short, moreno, “ugly” boy.
Now, I am not saying that having white skin is bad. All I am saying is that this idea that we have to better our race, and to do that we have to marry someone who is white, is not good. We all have different views on what beauty is, but to basically take someone down because their skin is not white… is something that we continue to face not only in Latin American countries, but in the United States as well.
It starts with beauty standards, and it continues with the belief that to better one self, you have to become the standard. Because what you are is not good enough. Because someone with your race cannot possibly be good enough. Because you must marry a güerito con ojos de color to make it better. Because even if you are cafe con leche, your skin is not white enough, which means you still need to work on becoming better. As if all of your hard work in other things do not count… because you are not white enough.
My skin is really not too dark, but it’s also not too white. Maybe some think that I should not be writing about this because I am not too dark. But the reality is that my beige-colored skin is not ivory. My beige-colored skin is still not light enough for some. Which is crazy, if you ask me. Thankfully, I have learned to love my skin no matter how tan or paler-than-usual I’m looking (because being home means inevitably getting tans and being in college means my skin looks paler-than-usual because of the cold, dry winter). But most importantly, I have learned to love my Latina roots. Because we are good enough as we are. Because it doesn’t matter (or shouldn’t matter) how light or dark our skin is. We are good. We are great. We are unstoppable. We are beautiful. We do not need someone who is whiter than us to be great. Our ethnicity does not need to become whiter to become better. We don’t need to improve our race by marrying someone who is white or is of mostly European descendant. Because we are strong, fearless, powerful, successful, intelligent, and much more.