As The Family Morena, I Am Used To Colorism At Home But Was Not Prepared To Receive It From My Husband’s Family Household
Yo soy la morena de la familia, and it became an issue with my husband’s family.
Ever since I can remember, my skin tone has always been a popular topic of conversation among people who barely knew me and my family members. In my mid-twenties, I overheard my own grandmother and her sisters commenting on the color of my skin. They were sitting on the deck by tía Yolanda’s pool. I was getting them beer from the kitchen
“Such a pretty girl,” I heard one of them say.
“Morenita,” said another.
I stood by the fridge listening, waiting to open it to get their drinks.
“Cheryl’s not that dark?”
“Oh, no,” said my grandmother, “Michelle gets her color from her father.”
It was easier to attribute my dark skin than to acknowledge the Afro-Cuban, grandparents that they shared on their mother’s side of the family, and to not notice that each of them was a different shade of tan, and each had curly hair, some with tighter curls than the others.
My marido is the moreno of his family too, and like mine, his family also doesn’t know how to discuss their family’s obvious African roots, but he and I loved our own dark skin so much that we fell in love with each other and married twenty-one years ago.
Our dark skin, him a Mexican National, me a third-generation Xicana—it freaked a lot of people out.
“Are you sure that he doesn’t have a family somewhere in México?”
I was at my tío again in West Covina, preparing for our Mexican wedding, getting ready to travel with my mom, tía Yolanda, an eighty-year-old grandmother to Colima for our big ceremony. My uncle Rick, (the formerly racist uncle) who is Greek, Italian, and Mexican, asked the question. Ines and I were already married, having had a civil marriage two years before at our local city hall. They liked Inés too, but still felt compelled to ask if I was sure that he didn’t have another wife, and children back home in México.
“I’m sure,” I said not terribly surprised at the question since I already knew that my family’s sense of self sometimes relied on looking down on “other” kinds of Mexicanos.
My tíos are light-skinned, and I got the impression that my uncle wouldn’t have thought to ask this question if Inés wasn’t moreno, as if to imply that his skin-tone and his immigration status made him desperate enough to lie and fool me into marrying him.
Two years in, we had already experienced a range of reactions about our marriage, from weird assumptions to out-and-out disbelief or racism.
Even our immigration counselor, Nelly, didn’t quite believe we were a real couple, in love, hoping to make a life together. She thought I appeared younger than I actually was with my “alternative look,” and him two shades darker, looking like the cross between a Mexican Idris Alba and the Indian actor Irfan Khan, and assumed ours was just an immigration marriage. She stressed to me, over and over, that I would have to support him for up to ten years if we divorced too quickly. Perhaps, Nelly’s confusion about our relationship had to do with how rare it is for American-born Latinx to marry Mexican nationals. In the US, according to a Pew Research Center study, U.S.-born Latinx do tend to marry other Latinx, only about 12% marry Latinx born in a Latin American country. But it wasn’t the only time that my union with Inés confused people.
“Tu eres la esposa de Inés, de veras?”
I was on the dance floor at a wedding reception in Coquitmatlan, Mexico where my husband is from, dancing with the groom, the childhood best friend of my husband, Enrique. The wedding had been in Colima just ten minutes away in an ornate church on the plaza. A professional singer performed the most beautiful rendition of Ave Maria that I’ve ever heard. The reception was in the outdoor courtyard of Enrique’s family home across the street from Ines’ very humble family home that still had a dirt floor in the kitchen.
My Spanish isn’t great, but Enrique made it pretty clear that he couldn’t believe that a woman like me was married to Inés. Was it because I was lighter than Inés, or did he think I was too young? Pretty güero himself, I got the impression Enrique’s disbelief had something to do with his expectations about Ines, his dark-skinned friend from the poor family across the street. Inés, in fact, had to leave México to find work even after finishing secondary school and getting two different industry certificates, a problem that could be explained by the relationship between skin-tone and wealth in that country. A Vanderbilt survey in Mexico found that people with light skin fall in the 70th percentile for wealth on average, while people with darker skin are concentrated in the bottom 50 percent.
I used to soothe my annoyance at people, including those in my own family, who were fooled by the false superiority of lighter skin by making a list of songs in my head that celebrate morenas:
“Piel Morena” by Thalia
“Esa Morena” by Ozomatli
“La Morena” by Ilegales
“Morena Ven” by Rosario
“Nina Morena” by Gipsey Kings
There are many great morena playlists, but it’s worth mentioning that there is a certain type of exoticization that happens in some of these songs, a certain type of essentialism, like ideas that all morenas are shapely, sexy women with dark long hair, who shake their hips – mueve las caderas, mueve la cintura. However, ideas in many of these songs that morenas can be pretty, not fea, or a saltapatras is a cause for celebration, in and of itself, when many of us grow up being told to stay out of the sun, encouraged to lighten our hair, sold lightening creams, and colored contact lenses.
But we need more than songs.
We need tías (and other family members) who don’t buy into the idea that lighter skin is better than darker skin, family members who don’t make snap judgments about anyone based on skin color. We need tías who praise children for working hard in school, achieving goals, tending to their mental health, respecting elders, reading books, and exercising, and we need tías who love their own dark-skin too.