Scrub the Brown Away

Part 2: Shame, torment, discrimination experienced by dark skinned Latinas


Part 2: Shame, torment, discrimination experienced by dark skinned Latinas


Normally, bath time is an enjoyable experience for children. It’s a time where imagination is at the forefront, running wild. As a child, Lupe Castillo, 21, sat in the bath tub scrubbing her arms repeatedly and vigorously with body scrub until her arms were raw and bleeding. She sat in the bathwater wishing she could scrub off her dark complexion.

“Growing up I always felt like I was treated differently because of how I looked. I wished and prayed most nights for a lighter skin tone,” said Castillo.

Although it is not talked about openly in the Latino community, it is not uncommon for morenas, or darker complected Latinas, to feel shame because of their skin color. In fact, shame is instilled in morenas from a young age.

Ashley Huicochea, 16, said that she was very conscious of her dark complexion growing up because her family members would caution her not spend too much time in the sun so that she would not become darker.

“I spent three years avoiding the sun and going swimming because I refused to get darker and feel uglier. I was tired of being called prietita and feeling like less of a family member because I was dark,” said Huicochea.

11-year-old Ashley Huicochea with a relative at the beach.

Sandra Galvan Ortega, a 23-year-old student at Holy Names University, said that brown people have to dig for their beauty and eventually come to terms with the fact that they are beautiful; it’s not something innate the way that it is for güeras, or light skinned Latinas. “It’s not that way for the lighter skinned Latinas. To the light skinned Latinas, it never crosses their mind that they can’t be beautiful because of their skin color. It’s not something they even have to think about,” said Galvan Ortega.

As a teenager, Castillo took an interest in beauty and always felt a need to experiment with her look like most at that age. She saw her friends experimenting with bold hair color, eyeshadow and lipstick choices and naturally, she wanted to partake in the adolescent rite of passage as well. Once she decided to experiment, she was met with harsh criticism.

“[The light skinned Latina girls in school] were able to dress up, try different hairstyles and makeup colors and they would look beautiful. Where if I had tried anything the other girls did, people would say ‘you’re too dark. That color makes you look darker, maybe you should stick to natural colors.”

Castillo said every time she applied her makeup in the morning, the thought of the judgmental comments she would receive later on in the day overwhelmed her to the point that it was no longer enjoyable for her. A jealousy grew inside of her because she knew her light skinned peers would never encounter the same issue.

“I felt that if I had just been one tad bit lighter I would be pretty and could try all the different hairstyles, makeup colors and outfits that I wanted. I simply wouldn’t get bullied anymore and could finally focus on things that mattered, like my school work. The light skinned girls had it all,” said Castillo.

Dating, another adolescent rite of passage, proved itself to be difficult as well. Galvan Ortega said that the boys in school wanted the Latina Barbie looking girls — light skin, light hair and thin.

Castillo had a similar sentiment.

“Growing up I did feel that boys didn’t think I was pretty because I wasn’t light skinned. I had friends who were light skinned and they always had all the boys and it was as if they could pick and choose who they wanted to date or get to know and [the morenas] couldn’t,” said Castillo.

Castillo recalled her first boyfriend embarrassing her so bad during a lunch break that she immediately left and took shelter in a classroom.

“He put his hand up next to mine and said ‘damn girl, you’re dark!’ I just remember everyone laughing at me.”

Above: Hosts of the popular TV show “El Gordo y La Flaca.” Below: Cast of “Dos Hogares” telenovela.

Telenovelas, or Mexican soap operas, are an integral part of Latin American culture. Most storylines revolve around a wealthy family and their woes. The stars of the show are always light skinned and white passing whereas the characters who play servants, farm hands and non-wealthy roles are normally darker complected. In fact, Spanish speaking media in general, including news shows and variety shows are dominated by lighter skinned people. There is hardly any visibility of any other type of Latino.

Nuestra Belleza Latina, which translates to “Our Latin Beauty,” is a pageant and reality show produced by Univision, the largest Mexican broadcasting network. Similar to how the Miss America pageant has a representative for each US state, Nuestra Belleza Latina showcases one candidate from each Latin American country.

Rosie Martinez, 20, had mixed emotions when she saw a former classmate, Josephine Ochoa, representing Guatemala.

Former Miss Guatemala Josephine Ochoa on Instagram.

“I went to middle school with this girl. You could tell she was very poor and her mom would take a stroller to school that was filled with candy to sell to the kids getting out of school. I remember seeing the embarrassment and shame in her face every single day at school and so I was proud of her success. We didn’t have that privilege that others get. I related to her because I was embarrassed too [of my upbringing]. I see her on TV now and it looks like she’s trying to be white. I have mixed feelings about it. She plays into the white thing. She has highlights and the whole thing. She looks completely different.”

Galvan Ortega feels that the Spanish speaking media does nothing but reinforce the negative stereotypes that are in place.

“The novelas are a source of the white supremacy. The darker people are the servants, the rich light people are the main characters. You watch it so often that you kind of believe it. For a huge portion of my life I just accepted things the way they were presented to me.”

Racism and the need for whiteness is not exclusive to the United States. The term blanquiamento, is more or less equivalent to racial whitening. In the latter part of the 1800s, the process of whitening was embraced by the white elites in Latino countries. The objective was to convert the large black and native population into whites. “Mejorar la raza,” which translates to “better the race” is a phrase from those days that is still used.

“I’ve heard [the phrase] countless times. People consider people of my skin tone to be indigenous or ignorant people who are poor, dirty, uneducated, day laborers, cleaning ladies and just not good enough. We are categorized as less and are simply passed by.”

Galvan Ortega’s own family, who is dark skinned like she is, jokingly calls her a cha cha, which is a slang term for “servant.” She feels that both she and her family have internalized the “less than” mentality.

“When I’m watching Nuestra Belleza Latina, there is an array of women but my eye always goes to the lighter ones. I’ll think to myself ‘oh look at her eyes.’ Even myself, I’m so trained by this white culture that I don’t even recognize the other types of beauty like my own right away,” said Galvan Ortega.

Feeling accepted by the Latino community is hard enough for morenas but fitting in within the American culture is nearly impossible.

Galvan Ortega’s mother cleans houses and is a janitor for a living. She has felt the most discrimination for her skin color while working with her mother. “All of the people whose houses she cleans are white with money so they act like they’re better than us. They’d make comments like ‘how do you guys live? What is your house like?’ They assume because we’re cleaning their home, we want their hand-me-downs. They offer me the jankiest shit ever. Why do you offer me your table that you’ve had for ten years? The worst part is that my mom, instead of saying no, just says yes because she doesn’t want them to think she’s ungrateful,” recalled Galvan Ortega.

Galvan Ortega added, “I’ve thought to myself ‘if I was a different color then maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with this crap.’ I’ve thought about what my life would be like if I wasn’t morena.”

Martinez looked forward to the weekend as a child because her family would get together for a family outing, often at a restaurant or at the local shopping mall. She recalled being met with mean stares at the sight of what her parents were wearing — casual Mexican clothing. Martinez said, “When my family and I went to a restaurant or would go to the mall I would always think to myself, ‘why can’t we be American?’ The vibes I got from all of these people told me ‘you don’t belong here, get out.’ I feel that I internalized that at an early age.”

Sheree Brown, 26, feels there is an undefinable quality about her appearance that always leaves non-brown people guessing. Brown said, “People ask ‘what are you?’ So, I share that I’m mixed with black and Mexican. Sometimes, even Mexican people don’t believe me. They tell me ‘oh really? Are you sure?’ It comes off as curiosity at first like if they genuinely want to get to know me but then I feel I’m being exoticized. They want to know where I got my facial features, hair texture.”

Despite the layers of adversity morenas experience both within their community and with the mainstream culture, Martinez and Castillo are comfortable in their beautiful, brown skin.

“I love the skin that I’m in. I think it’s beautiful and I think all morenas are beautiful. We should all be proud,” said Martinez.

Castillo now works as a hairdresser and makeup artist and tries to spread positivity about skin tone to her clients. “Some of my clients tell me ‘I think I’m too dark for this color’ or ‘I don’t want to look darker’ but I show them they can be beautiful and they have an unlimited amount of colors and styles to choose from. I always remind them that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has a different way to categorize beauty.”

Photo illustration by Adam Ernesto Fuentes and Cynthia Schroeder

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.