The color of the people of Mexico is one of the things that had a most profound effect on my psyche when I first visited the place of my birth in 1976 at the age of 22. The people came in all colors, though primarily different shades of red-brown, owing to the nation’s Indigenous roots.

Having grown up in a White dominant society, it was an affirmation of my own chocolate brown skin color, if you will, in sharp contrast with the artificial chalk color of official Mexico, especially that of government bureaucrats and those that graced the nation’s television screens: light skin, bleached blond hair and artificial blue or green eyes.

The truth is, more than 40 years later, the nation’s colorline has seemingly not changed much at all. When I fist noticed this light-skin preference in Mexico, it was present everywhere, at every turn and every corner. But it wasn’t just a case of difference, but also disdain. Apparently, all things light = good and all things dark = bad. This was especially true of television. White or light skin was preferred for virtually every role, except the ones for the subservient, demeaning and outlaw roles.

This was most pronounced in advertising. Virtually all commercials obscenely used the same blond baby and the same blonde couple, to sell or promote everything.

This had a shocking effect on me as I had been part of the Chicano Movement (part of the civil and human rights movements of that era), had just graduated from UCLA, and it is not what I expected. I thought this reality would have been opposite of the United States. Bewildered, when I inquired, everyone, even the revolutionaries, explained that racism was a U.S. problem, a product of its history, not Mexico’s, which on the other hand, was afflicted with a deep-seated classism, not racism, so went the delusion.

And yet, I saw and felt the effects of white supremacy everywhere. In the United States, my chocolate brown skin could not be hidden, especially in a society that seemed to abhor all things Mexican, including the language, which was racialized; even light-skinned Mexicans were treated like trash, though unquestionably, light-skin preference was well-entrenched within the Mexican community.

When I left to Mexico, I thought all would be different and hoped I would be accepted and treated better, like a prodigal son returning home. And truly, that is how I was treated by my very large extended family, though I did notice the color of the people on the ground begging. And I also did notice outrageous behavior against brown-Indigenous peoples, something I too experienced, but not until my second visit.

In Mexico City, my girlfriend, a light-skinned Chicana, was able to easily get a room at the same fancy hotel that minutes before had denied me a room. After this, I began to see things differently. On that same trip, a light-skinned woman screamed at me because I did not move fast enough for her on an extremely overcrowded bus. She then told my girlfriend that she was beautiful and could not see how she could be with someone as dark as me. A few years later on a bus there, I saw another light-skinned woman yell at what appeared to be her grandchild, imploring him to get up and not be an Indian (Levántate. No séas Indio). No one said a word.

For me, this was post-Chicano Movement, and yet, nothing had changed in the United States really, except that a lot of us spoke up whenever we witnessed injustices. In Mexico, at that time, on top of the great inequalities, what continued to bother me greatly was the predominance of Whites on Mexican television screens.

The 1970s is ancient history, and yet I remember in the early 1990s when I continued to observe that same phenomenon, I remarked to a leftist scholar: “Mexico needs a Chicano Movement.” He thought that was pompous of me. Within a few months, the Zapatistas rose up and Mexico has not been the same ever since. Except that Mexico’s colorline remains.

On a trip a decade ago that took me to a conference at a resort in Cancun, I was checked for ID every time I went to eat in their dining room. My wife noticed that I was the only person that was being continually checked. I was the only brown person there. On leaving the resort, we noticed that all the Maya workers were being wanded by a metal detector before boarding the bus back to their communities.

On my sabbatical this past year, I decided to live in Mexico to work on several projects without the distraction of U.S. politics. One of them, the Smiling Brown Project, examines color and color consciousness within the United States, a society that seems to view everything in black and white. Living in Mexico permitted me to observe this phenomenon there, though some of the things I observed there cross-pollinated with the other projects I have been working on. For example, color is very much a part of the tourism industry. By its very nature, it is designed to attract Dollars and Euros, creating an apartheid-esque feel to it all, with some places more obscene than others.

While studying the Maya language and philosophy this past year in the Yucatan peninsula,[1] as part of my research on maíz culture, I had to necessarily travel to some of the same places that tourists flock to, for instance, ancient ceremonial sites. I was able to witness the summer solstice at Chichen Itza, but was greatly disappointed when the great majority of the visitors were Europeans or EuroAmericans.

There are thousands of ancient pyramids scattered throughout Mexico, yet today, they function more as tourist attractions as opposed to places of education. The narratives are usually all about human sacrifice, cannibalism and mysterious “disappearances,” particularly, that of the Maya. That’s what tourists are fed daily. By the way, to this day, millions of Maya continue to live in the Yucatan Peninsula, Chiapas, Belize and Guatemala and many millions continue to speak their native languages.

But stories of “disappeared peoples” apparently attract more tourists. And the actual peoples today, at best, are seemingly unconnected to their ancestors, are there but to serve tourists, perform, spin yarns, sell trinkets and function as backdrops for selfies. In this manner, native peoples are remanded to the folkloric past, never the [modern] present. And incidentally, many of the churches there, sit atop ancient pyramids.

While I was living in the Yucatan peninsula, my book on law enforcement violence was accepted and thus, another case of cross-pollination. Issues of color are very much pronounced in the United States. Based on my research on violence, the red-black-brown communities of the United States are in the midst of a crisis, though I would venture to say that this crisis actually began in 1492; we continue to be shot or brutally beaten for breathing while red-black-brown since the arrival of those 3 ships to this continent.

After several months of revisions, I finished that book, though I find it extremely difficult to get back on track with the project on color consciousness because the violence never stops. Nowadays, cell phones – which  permit us to film, in the eyes of law enforcement, have also become “weapons.”[2] Even a crucifix[3] in the hands of a Brown man, is now considered a weapon. These type of killings perhaps help to explain why it is difficult to move on to the next project; they are related.

The Smiling Brown Project is about that too, though the emphasis is not on the racial violence, but on the psychological violence inflicted upon us when we are first exposed to light-skin preference. For several years now, I have been gathering stories of those first memories, many of whom reveal a White supremacy imposed on peoples of color. But they also reveal an internalized oppression that appears even more difficult to explain.[4] In my research on this topic, two of the most common childhood memories regarding color are when a baby is born.[5] If there is a hint of lightness or whiteness, that is all that is needed for a national holiday to be declared. The second of these most common memories involves the attempts to change or lighten one’s skin color, by any means necessary.

Here’s a third category of common stories gathered: A former student relayed to me that her mother was forced to produce the results of a blood test, to prove paternity because her grandmother refused to believe her son could produce such a brown child. After providing the proof, the mother threw the results at the husband and then left him. Recently, another friend told me that when she was born, that her grandmother could not believe they could be related. She insisted that they check her lower back – for the Mongolian spot – for proof of being Indian. And yes, she had it, and she was brown, thus her childhood nickname: “India.”

Most of the memories I have been gathering are from when kids are most impressionable, the pre-teenage years, even though such trauma is present from birth. And that is not to say that this ever stops (racial profiling), but the purpose of this project is to get to the root of these attitudes.

I continue to receive stories. Here are excerpts from 2 more. In this first story, the author reflects on struggling with his identity in the 1950s, when Mexicans had been “subjected to violence and many indignities at the hands of white supremacy.”

The Dark Horse

“The black letters on the neon orange background of the bumper sticker on the wall [at Stanford University] shouted out “I Am Proud to be a Chicano…”

I did not start out to be a Chicano. Quite the contrary, I set out to be an “All-American Boy.”  That was what my father seemed to want me to become in those middle years of the 1950’s… In response to their experience many [Mexicans] had constructed a new identity of “Mexican-American” and begun to try to claim full American citizenship rights.

But, at that time in the fifties, it was never really clear what he meant… In my youngster’s mind it seemed to imply that I should be a Mexican version of that “All-American Boy” of the era – Beaver Cleaver…  It seemed to make sense, for by the age of six, I had already come to know that in Texas it was not acceptable to be “Meskin.” The “Meskins,” after all, had been the ones that had killed that “All-American” hero, Davy Crockett, at the battle of the Alamo in 1836.  Indeed, they were often called “dirty Mexicans.” As historian David Montejano in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas notes, “Anglos commonly used the adjective ‘dirty’ as a synonym for dark skin and color inferiority.” Perhaps if I acted like the “Beav,” I would be able to gain acceptance and get rid of that awful guilt that I felt because my “Meskin” forefathers had killed Davy. But, would I make it, given my dark skin?”

The second story is contemporary, something that just recently occurred, near where the writer lives.

Why would a 13-year-old kill herself?

“I read a story recently about a 13 year old girl named Rosalie Avila in Yucaipa, CA who killed herself because she was being bullied for being too “ugly.” I looked at her picture and saw a beautiful girl with brown skin, dark hair and dark almond shaped eyes, notably indigenous features… It made me wonder, what exactly made her so ugly to those bullying her to the point of pushing her to suicide other than her not fitting the perfect Eurocentric mold?

Anything that deviates from whiteness seems to be othered and considered ugly, including physical features and even attributes that can be racialized, like a name or something you wear. I believe this stems from colonialism and a deep anti-Indigenous, racist sentiment that took root here because of it. Most Americans, especially white ones, are uncomfortable with talking about racism in general, so it is not surprising to have it left out of the media narrative, masking cases like this as simple kids’ bullying. But growing up as a Mexican woman leads me to know that whatever bullying she was suffering because of her looks may have very likely tied back to her racial and cultural identity.”

My wanting to return to this project is my idea of wanting to get away from the more traumatic topic of law enforcement violence, yet at their core, they both come from the same place of  dehumanization and intergenerational trauma. The difference perhaps is that when one is young, perhaps we don’t understand how to put sentiments into words and we don’t know how to fight back, but we all can be reassured that even little children know the meaning of hate.

Incidentally, when I first got to Mexico on my sabbatical, I found myself in the Tonala, Jalisco plaza. There, a clown was doing his routine and his punch line for everything was “Pinche Indios.” Everyone there was brown and no one protested, but simply laughed along with the clown.

Light-skin preference is a worldwide phenomenon, or perhaps more precisely, it is a sickness exported worldwide through the process of colonization and [cultural] imperialism. The project I am involved with seeks to understand this phenomenon not strictly as an issue of color, but within the context of de-Indigenization, in Mexico, the United States and the Americas. My own research tells me that this has not generally been the focus of previous research. And at the same time, the stories/testimonies I have gathered thus far tell me that this preference may in fact be due to the result of what can be termed cultural genocide. If that is the case, that possibly also opens it up to hundreds of years of religious indoctrination, meaning issues of “good” and “evil,” issues that perhaps are being daily reinforced by media, television and Hollywood to this day. Perhaps further stories will get us to the root of this phenomenon, which I am now  recognizing is what the late Mexican scholar, Guillermo Bonfill-Batalla, referred to in his classic: Mexico Profundo. Below the surface, Mexico indeed remains Indigenous.

Rodriguez is an associate professor at the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona. He can be reached at: [email protected]

[1] Rodríguez, R. (2017). Ixiim: A Maiz-based philosophy. Journal of Latinos and Education, 1-8.

[2] The killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento in March 2017 was but the latest person of color to be killed with a cell phone.

[3] In December 2016, 73-year-old Francisco Serna was killed by Bakersfield police, believing he had a gun. A crucifix was found on him.

[4] While my primary interest is the gathering of testimonios, several researchers at the University of Arizona, led by Cathy Gastelum, have done qualitative research on this same work and presented it at the annual National Association of Chicana/Chicano Scholars conference in Minnesota in 2018:  Smiling Brown in the face of Colorism.

[5] Rodriguez, R. 2013, Smiling Brown: People the Color of the Earth, This is the article used to gather stories for the Smiling Brown Project.