You can probably imagine my glee when my sister-in-law told me that she and my brother were considering placing my nephew, Jalen, in the Puente de Hozho Bilingual Magnet School of Flagstaff, which has one "track" for Spanish/English and another for English/Navajo. Nothing could be more exciting knowing that Jalen would have the benefit of growing up bilingual, something that I could only dream of and still do... in retrospect.
When me and my bro were little we had a number of nanny's and babysitters that I can remember, April being a particular favorite. Mrs. Huff though was the only one, from what I recall, who spoke Spanish and had a particularly strong accent in English. However, she never spoke the language with me and my brother, or at least enough for us to have acquired it. It brings a lágrima to my ojo.
Another missed-out opportunity concerns Creole Portuguese, which you may know is the language of Cabo Verde, and usually spoken by the older generations on my mom's side of the family.
Never heard Creole Portuguese before? Here's a taste provided by world-famous Cape Verdean artist Cesaria Evora:
The youngans you see have mostly missed out on this beautiful language. And ultimately its because people find a need to, or are forced to, accept the idea that U.S. culture is monolingual when it's really not and never has been. Oh well, at least I am able to do some guesswork from my knowledge of Brazilian portuguese to try and communicate with my mom and Auntie Laura. Ago, N podi fra un poku di kel kuz, hence the title of this blog: Marikan di Kor (American of color), which so neatly expresses my dual identity as black, or person of color, and Cape Verdean, as its written in Creole.
Nothing to do now except set a goal of taking every opportunity to speak Spanish and, in the future, become conversationally fluent in Creole Portuguese. The ones who do always have a second-chance so to speak are the newest generations. During a town-hall meeting Obama attended, introduced by the governator himself, a little boy was given the chance to ask Mr. President the final question. If you watch the video (about 1:20 in), as the little boy says his first name, "Ethan," he says it in standard English as you would expect.
But his last name comes out "Lopez," undeniably in Spanish. I was watching it the other day and it hit me like a ton of bricks...in a good way, and here's why: in all my years of watching media in the United States, mainstream media, far too little do we get to hear the code-switching that so many Americans utilize to communicate to one another. Does Dorah the Explorer count? Yep, and my nephew highly enjoys her and her brother Diego as evidenced by his backpack, scooter, thermos, etc. But I don't want just random words here and there. I want full-out in your face evidence of bilingualism, that I feel is such an important part of this country and its history.
I say put a character on a sitcom or a drama who occasionally speaks in Spanish to his friends or others... and without subtitles. The message isn't so much that you understand what they're saying but that millions of people daily are switching in and out between inglés y español. I certainly would not claim code-switching abilities, but know many who do and it just absolutely amazes me. My mom ups her Creole output especially when visiting her relatives outside of Boston, along with the East Coast R droppage, in part to express that part of her identity. Why can't we catch a glimpse of similar language shifts in movies or advertising?
Word on the street (digo, Wikipedia Boulevard) is that President Obama himself speaks Indonesian, although we do not know to what degree. Why isn't this covered in the news as something amazing, awesome, worthy of celebration? How many other presidents spoke a different tongue, fluently? Imagine the message that it would send if he suddenly switched into Indonesian during a press conference (of course later translating what he had said).
I don't know if my nephew will end up attending that school, but when he grows up, I hope that overall attitudes have changed and being bilingual will be something more publicly visible and valued in the United States.
I guess my lil' nephew Jalen was randomly asking people how to blow a bubble with his gum, and then it occurred to him that perhaps Uncle Brandon would know how to do it. So I decided to make a little how-to video to show him. The wonders of technology!
So they asked me to make some changes and did some altering of their own before putting up my column about colorism here in Mexico. To offer a bit of self-critique, I admit that I silence the voices of those who do break the color barrier, actors who are darker-skinned and yet enjoy prominent roles in TV shows, movies or advertising. Also, although I do give a link to a New York Times article over the subject, to some it may appear that I give a holier-than-thou criticism from a non-Mexican perspective since I don't go any further into the issue stateside. Lastly, I do not mention class and the role it plays in maintaining the colorist system.
Here's my original writing before all editing:
There's no doubt that one of the most important issues facing Mexico today is the drug war. It's a problem that deserves as much attention and debate as it has received in the national media if not more. However, there's an entirely different subject that merits some discussion, which has been, at least in my opinion, completely absent in the national discourse: the very conspicuous exclusion of darker-skinned Mexicans in everything from telenovelas and commercials to all kinds of other advertising. I hesitate to use the word racism only because I risk conflating the two very different racial systems that exist between the U.S. and Mexico. Colorism is a more apt term; rampant colorism.
It's something that has always irritated me, especially being myself a person of color, since I lived for the first time in Mexico in 2006 in Guadalajara. One immediately notices that the models in advertisements on billboards, in store windows and bus stops have surprisingly white complexions in comparison with the people actually passing by.
In fact, if you were exposed to this imagery and never stepped foot in the country, you would probably think that Mexico had no mulatto, mestizo or indigenous population at all. Go ahead, turn on Univisión or Telemundo, which often run Mexican-produced telenovelas, and you will see exactly what I am referring to. You have actors such as Christopher Uckermann of Rebelde fame or William Levy Gutierrez (actually a U.S. nationalized citizen born in Cuba) from Cuidado con el Ángel who, although they may indeed be fine thespians and perhaps ridiculously good-looking, also seem to have passed along with every other telenovela star the Mexican equivalent of the brown-paper bag test; or in this case more like the white milk-carton test.
After the soap operas, stick around for the commercials if you want to witness even more "whitewashing," such as this commercial for a new shopping plaza in Guadalajara called Plaza de Hierro. I guess just to add insult to injury, as Alejandro Fernandez's love ballad swoons for that girl from Guadalajara with beautiful "ojos negros," we get a close-up of two green and blue-eyed models.
Now I know that some people may be thinking, "What are you trying to say, that all Mexicans are brown skinned?" This is, in fact, a common response from certain Mexicans when I bring the topic up to them. Of course not, but even if the Mexican population were say 50% "light skinned" and 50% "dark skinned," there should be an at least somewhat similar representation in the media, right? Well, currently that ratio seems to sit at about 99% "very light skinned," far from a faithful representation of the country´s actual population.
It's a preference that's also echoed in every-day conversation, something attested to in this ethnographic study on skin color in Veracruz, Mexico. A few months ago I went to the beach with a group of students and upon asking one of the girls why she wouldn't come in the water, she replied, "I don't want to get dark." But avoiding the light isn't the only way to stay "light". While walking to the supermarket the other day (I currently live in Acapulco, Mexico), I spotted some quinceñeras portraits outside a photo developing center. An abrupt change in skin tone from the chin up can only mean one of two things: either they used foundation to whiten up their faces, or to darken up their necks. You be the judge. A common Mexican saying, although also heard in other Latin American countries, puts it even more bluntly: mejorar la raza, or "bettering the race," which refers to marrying a white-skinned person into the family in the hopes that the next generation is ligher-skinned.
It's not my intent to belittle any voices who are indeed speaking out against this injustice, but where is the outrage and criticism? I wonder how many people even acknowledge its existence. One study puts the figure at 40%. However, there is a difference between acknowledgment and public protest. When I do try to bring it up with people, the usual response is to point out that the U.S. is a lot more racist than Mexico, which may or not be true. However, having a racism contest between the two nations is besides the point, although yes, colorism is also alive and well on this side of the border.
So as I really do hope Mexico finds an effective approach to ending the recent rash of violence, I believe that there needs to be another healthy national debate to draw focus to the plight of the slightly-brown-skinned-and-darker and their apparent lack of representation in all forms of media. If you're still not convinced it's a worthy cause, think about Michael Jackson or watch this ridiculous commercial for Pond's "White Beauty" cream from India, and you'll realize how damaging colorism can be.
It's very interesting how having written for a popular blog that apparently thousands of people read, or at least the number of hits for my post seems to reveal, I can google search it to see who has commented on their own websites, like Santo Gay.
Here we go again. ANOTHER White American writing about color discrimination in Mexico! Give me a break.
Well, besides the fact that I am not a "White American," I can agree that I don't want to be THAT Gringo who goes into other countries waving their uppity finger at the host culture. However, I certainly do feel that as a brown-skinned individual--black, mixed, half-Cape Verdean-half-Black, etc.-- I should be able to voice concerns that I feel somewhat have affected me while living in contact with that culture. Any person from a country where Spanish is the official language who journeys to the U.S. only to witness that Spanish speakers are very poorly represented in our media, by all means, criticize away.
Bam! There's the sound of another mango hitting the tin roof of the carport right outside my window. I literally just jumped out of my chair it's so loud. Sounds like someone's breaking in. Not only does the mango tree block a potentially breathtaking view of the bay from the sótano of the house, but it also scares me by throwing fruit at the ground.
So back to the topic of violence because it is such a daily part of discourse. I was watching video clips from Crooksandliars.com, which is one of my main daily news sources, and I happened upon Bill O'reilly ranting about how he wouldn't send his kids to any part of Mexico. A minute or so into the video Bill O'reilly claims that all the clubs are owned by drug lords and, trust him, he knows because he's been "everywhere in Mexico." I know he's probably pretty well-off financially but I bet I've probably traveled more in Mexico than that clown.
Anyways he says all the "Baby-O"'s of Mexico are dangerous because that's where the drug cartels apparently have a side business . What's a "Baby O" you say? Well, it seems that Bill O'Reilly here is utilizing a literary device, metonymy, which uses a part of a group, one specific club in Mexico, to symbolize the whole, all clubs in Mexico-- kind of like talking about The White House when referring to the Administration or Executive Branch (Wikipedia te quiero mucho). However, it's not just your average run-of-the-mill discoteque, but only one of the most fresa clubs of this tourist town, as illustrated in this New York Times article, "In Acapulco, a Return to Glamour":
But in true Acapulco style, the most exclusive club is also the longest-running. Baby’O erected its first velvet rope more than 30 years ago, and at 2 a.m. on a recent Monday, the well-heeled and well-primped were still arriving, ready to sweet talk their way past the hard-to-please bouncers...
So exclusive that Madonna, Bono and Naomi Campbell were recently spotted there the article claims.
Here's where it gets interesting...
A few weeks ago after having met a fellow Arizonean, from Rio Rico, at the gay bar, we went outside to go to the next club. He was talking to his friends to let them know where he was headed to while I stood there waiting til I heard a, "pss hey you." I turn around to see a man motioning that I come over. "Te están llamando estas chavas," he says to me. So the two girls who were apparently calling me over, seated in a mercedes benz, tell me come in here. I cautiously take a seat. Rich people won't do me any harm, right? One appears to be a transgendered woman with blonde hair, the other a girl from Mexico City who nonetheless spoke with an accent which seemed madrileño, or from Madrid.
"Why are you speaking like that," I ask, "with a Spanish accent?"
"Oh, yeah," she replies.
"Come with us to Baby O," they ask me. "You are so ridiculously handsome. I literally cannot believe my eyes, neither of us could, when we first saw you. We were just like wow..."
Okay maybe I mistranslated juuuust a little bit that last quote. It actually was something more like:
"You're really cute. Come with us to Baby O."
So I explain, "I can't. I'm with some friends who are expecting me in Zoom." (My friends Judson and Blanca were at Zoom waiting for me to come dance with my new acquantance from Rio Rico)
"Forget them, come with us to Rio Rico," they plead. Okay maybe pleading was an exaggeration also, but they were rather insistent.
"I said I can't! How dare you insist that I would leave my friends, one of whom is visiting me for the weekend, and so would have no way to contact me if I just up and ditched him! You think just because I could have the chance to get into one of the most exclusive clubs of Acapulco and maybe appear in one of those social magazines showing the who's who of the city? Well you've both got another thing coming!"
Yeah, obviously didn't say that either. I lingered in their car for awhile thinking how I could somehow get in touch with Judson to tell him that I'd be right back (going upstairs to the club and telling him in person would apparently take too long they told me). So, after explaining that I really couldn't do it, they kicked me out of their Benz with a "Ok, bye!"
"¡Oseeeaaaa!" is what I should of told them, but I gave them a smirk as if to say, "Wow, thanks jerks."
In conclusion, I almost got into one of the narco-clubs that Bill O'Reilly wrote his dissertation on. If only I had seen the Factor before that fateful night, I would have given those two girls a defiant NO! and they would have been the ones left thinking, "Wow, what a jerk."