Growing up, I heard three kinds of statements from my extended Salvadoran family. They were either: 1) a negative comment on my appearance and/or weight, 2) a compliment on my grades which eventually led to a strained and awkward relationship with my cousins, or 3) something about me being “so white”.
Weirdly enough, I felt uncomfortable about the first two but not so much about the third. As a kid, I knew being fat and a nerd were not desirable traits, but being called white wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
I grew up hearing comment after comment from both family and strangers alike about how being white was the desirable thing to be. My parents would always say that I’d end up meeting a nice white boy in college and having half white babies. My sister was frequently complimented for her fair skin by like 90% of the Latino people we encountered in our daily lives at laundromats and grocery stores. When I asked my mom if I could go to a white kid’s house party in high school, her usual strictness about my social life melted away and she barely took a breath before saying yes.
I wasn’t taught to hate non-white people, but it was drilled into my head that the best thing for me to do for myself and my own success was to be as white as possible and shove down my Latina roots. I’m not outwardly white passing; people immediately clock that I’m Latina and I’ve had to have the awkward conversation where someone assumes I’m Mexican and I explain Latin America to them more than a few times. However, every time I talked about books or green juice I felt like the world saw me as whiter and whiter. Of course, that’s stupid and doesn’t mean anything, but the way my aunts and uncles sliced it, those were the activities of fancy white ladies. Girls like the Guzmans had babies and cooked for their husbands, and girls like the Guzmans’ bosses did yoga and had college degrees. Not ready for babies or a husband, I found myself subconsciously leaning into the whole “you’re so white” thing as a way to avoid what I saw as my Latina destiny. As a result, I suppressed my Central American roots. It was messed up and wrong, but it was all that I knew at the time.
It took a long time for me to realize what I was doing to myself, which I am not proud of. In college, I’d frequently be invited to Latino student mixers and I wouldn’t go, telling myself that I didn’t need to segregate myself from white students. What I know now is that embracing my community in college would’ve gone a great way to make me feel less lonely because no matter how you slice it, humans are social animals, and it’s nice to feel like you belong once in a while. But instead I locked myself in my dorm, trolled around on Tumblr, and watched The Office for the billionth time.
Weirdly enough, it was my time doing the supposedly “white” thing (according to my aunts) of getting an education that made me realize I was being a complete idiot by letting myself be brainwashed this way. As a human biology major, I had to read a lot about anthropology. I was slowly learning how to think critically about culture and academia, and it was just a matter of time until it all clicked. Suddenly, it was like the proud Salvadoran that had been in me all along burst out, throwing pupusas into the air like Frisbees.
I reflected on how my upbringing had impacted my worldview, especially toward my racial and ethnic identity. What does it mean for me that I’m brown but have been told repeatedly that I “act white”? What do I do as a Salvadoran American who doesn’t 100% fit in with either culture? Why do I view certain things as “white”? What does that mean about the things I view as “brown”? How do I break this cycle of thinking, for myself and for my family? How am I just noticing this now?
I began speaking more Spanish. I let myself enjoy our music, playing it on speaker instead of my headphones. I read up on Salvadoran history, wanting to get to know my country better. I stopped listening when people called my neighborhood “ghetto” or “sketchy. I learned to love my dark wavy hair and olive-toned skin.
Then I looked inward at my own family and community. Why were other Latinos telling me that being white was a desired trait? What did they think of people that were darker than me? I realized for the first time in my life the scope of racism within my own minority community. I felt so ignorant for not realizing this all my life.
I had open and honest conversations with my African American and Afro-Latinx friends about anti-blackness in the Latino-Hispanic community and how pervasive it is. I hadn’t even realized that Latin American countries also participated in the Atlantic slave trade, and that even though there are millions of Afro-Latinx people in our countries, we still think of light-skinned Latinos as the default. I’m ashamed that I was so ignorant about it but at the same time, it’s important to talk about it in case it helps anyone else learn.
The desire to be white or telling others they “act white” comes from a place of racism, regardless of how unintentional it is. Being a minority is hard enough without buying into that kind of toxicity. This is unfortunately an age of xenophobia and racism, and now more than ever, we can’t be doing this to each other. At the end of the day, no matter what, I know that I’m going to be labeled first and foremost as a Latina woman. That’s what happens to people like me. We’re referenced to as a “Latina writer” or a “Latino politician” or whatever rather than just the occupation itself. White is still the unspoken default; it’s on us to change that.