The first time I became aware that I was different from some of the folks I would call “mi gente” was when Disney’s animated drama Pocahontas came out in cinemas. It was 1995, and everyone in my second-grade class was telling me I looked just like the fictionalised cartoon heroine. I did not think too much about it — until I realised it was all that anyone thought of me.
It was a lesson I learned while playing pretend princesses with my friends. I insisted that I wanted to be Cinderella, but they told me I couldn’t because the only role available for me was Pocahontas. It’s not because I was Latina. It was 1990s Miami; most of us were Latinx. It was because my Latinidad — a Brown Latinidad — wasn’t celebrated in South Florida. In fact, it is not celebrated at all. While the world has labeled Miami the capital of Latin America, there’s a specific kind of Latinx that thrives in this region and a beauty standard that is upheld: white, light-eyed, and wealthy. The rest of us are fodder for daily anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. My entire life, within Latinx spaces, I have been called a slew of slurs, specifically for my golden brown skin, high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, and dark hair. I have understood, since childhood, that whiteness is the pedestal Latinxs worship on their knees — and this message has been repeated to me throughout my life.
In fifth grade, when my bangs finally grew long enough that I could tuck them behind my ears, my classmates started calling me “india.” The “jokes” were relentless. I remember coming home one day and telling mi mami to cut my bangs again. After insisting to know why, I told her through my tears that I needed bangs to avoid being teased. But this didn’t save me. Miami’s Latinx youth had already internalised our parents’ Eurocentric beauty ideals and biases.
In seventh grade, my first “boyfriend” dumped me after his group of friends made fun of him for dating an “india.” I heard them, even when I pretended I didn't. That’s when I learned someone could be shamed just by their proximity to me.
In tenth grade, in the early 2000s when the plot of every other teen movie was about a popular guy dating an awkward girl as a joke, I became someone’s bet. In a Latinx school that worshiped whiteness, it took bravery to agree to the hilarious challenge of dating someone Brown.
These experiences marked me; these comments chipped at me. As a little girl, I wanted to be lighter — have lighter skin, lighter hair, and lighter eyes. English- and Spanish-language media depicted people who looked like me unfavourably, if they showed us at all. Decades later, little has changed. Whenever we do see Brown Latinas on our televisions, they are often nameless and in subservient positions. They are not worthy of actor credits; they’re extras. That’s how they’ve been seen in society for centuries: peripheral, insignificant, and unworthy. In Nicaragua, where I was born and where my ancestors originate, land was forcefully taken away from people who refused to deny their Indigeneity. This is the story — of subjugation and resistance — written in my face, my skin, and my hair.
I do not get told I do not look Latina enough, and people are never in disbelief when they hear me identify as Latina. In fact, I have been told I look too Latina and that I act and look too Nicaraguan, specifically. Among my communities, I am the Latina who other bilingual Latinxs speak to in Spanish first. Among non-Latinx white people, I am, phenotypically, the Latina that Fox News uses in its fear-mongering reports on immigrants. I am the Latina people think of when they picture someone who is criminal because that is what they have been told about brownness.
I am the Latina people think of when they picture someone who is criminal because that is what they have been told about brownness.
I have a particular racialised experience. My brownness is not just evident when I speak or share where I was born; my brownness enters rooms with me. Even when I stand quietly in a corner, I still get racialised as other. I have learned how to navigate spaces where I can predict these biases will bubble up, managing my appearance and learning how to stand up straight, like someone who expects respect. It takes this performance for white folks to release the preconceived notions they have about me because of how non-white I look. But it doesn’t work all the time.
When the Metro Nashville Police Department allegedly partnered up with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), I was repeatedly profiled. No amount of nicely ironed clothing could keep these officers from calling me “señorita” as they approached my car door, accusing me of made-up traffic violations. Similarly, when my local Whole Foods cashier randomly asked me how many guns I owned, it was an assumption he made based on what he has been told about people like me. It did not matter that there was a Vanderbilt University ID in my wallet; instead, what mattered was how I looked and what others have been told about this kind of Latina look. I have that look. I am that Latina. I have understood this for a long time, but it does not mean it doesn't still take all my energy to keep myself from giving into what this messaging is telling me.
I am Latina enough; that has never been my fight. I have earned that title by shouldering all the negative stereotypes white Latinxs have readily perpetuated in the media through faking accents and dying their hair black or brown to get roles in U.S. shows. They have received the benefits of being “exotic” through a type of brownface, but they do not have to shoulder the negative effects their complicity creates because they are white. It is the Argentinian Anya Taylor-Joy Latina who folks want to meet and prop up as Latinx excellence, the ones who remind them that their whiteness is interesting, at times. It is the Yalitza Aparicio Latina whose success is perceived as an anomaly and whose Indigeneity is mocked.
Our experiences within Latinidad are not the same. I have a particular set of experiences from growing up looking like my Indigenous ancestors in a cultura that wants to forget who our countries belonged to before our colonisers came. White Latinxs show disdain toward me as much as non-Latinx white people do. I am a past they never want to remember; I am the “face of Latinidad,” but not the ones who have risen to prominent positions in media, business, and government, in this country and often first in our own countries.
White Latinxs show disdain toward me as much as non-Latinx white people do. I am a past they never want to remember.
Claiming my brownness has given me language to name some of my experiences both within Latinidad and whiteness, and helped me to decolonize my ideas of beauty. To love myself, I now know, I have to actively defy the expectations placed on me: the audition for whiteness. For years, I attempted to adjust myself to fit into what white Latinidad has purported as the goal. I worked tirelessly to look whiter by avoiding the sun, dying my hair lighter, contouring my nose to a thinner European shape, and only associating with white Latinxs. Loving myself has required that I stop investing energy into appealing to white people. Loving myself has stopped me from shying away from what I look like.
It has been a mental feat to counter all the messages I have received throughout my life, but I disown the shame I was taught to carry, and I demand people take me in all my glory. I am no longer a lost little girl attempting to fit in. Instead, I am an emboldened adult woman watching people tell on themselves. When I think about self-love and the celebration of our people, I see Black and Brown faces, not the fair ones I was force-fed for years. Understanding this is how I have learned to love myself in the muddy waters of “too Latina” but never the “right Latina.”