Smiling Brown: Erika’s story

By Erika González

I grew up on the Border of Texas and Mexico and was surrounded by brown Xicanitas just like me. I still remember my thoughts as a young child and for this I am grateful, because I feel that it is children who are closest to the Creator, who have the most innocent and creative minds, and fearless instincts based on love.  As a young child, I remember sitting down in the spots on the rug in my family’s trailer house where sunlight shone. I stayed in these sunlit spots in a meditative state for long periods of time. It was quiet, peaceful and I felt closest to what as an adult, I try to channel today. I remember looking down at my skin and loving the way it reflected the sunlight back at me.  The bronze, red, yellows and brown tones made me feel like I had a connection to the sunrays.

I now ask myself, what happens to children when they grow up and lose their connection to the Source of Light?  As I got older, I stopped seeing the sunrays and moonlight’s reflection on my own skin and started playing with Barbie Dolls with blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin.  I forgot all about my own bronze skin because everywhere I turned, I was fed the idea that white skin was beautiful from the dolls I played with, to the commercials and cartoons I watched each Saturday morning.  I vividly remember getting mad at my mom for getting me a Cabbage Patch Doll with brown hair and brown eyes while my sister got one with blonde hair and blue eyes. At this point in my childhood, I had already associated brown as not beautiful.  

My Grandfather Pipa nicknamed me Prieta Linda, after a famous Tejano song by Little Joe y la Familia.  I remember being embarrassed by the nickname not really understanding why anything Prieta (brown girl) would be linda (pretty).  I never took it as a compliment as a child and was embarrassed each time my grandfather and my father would stop to sing me parts of the song. As an adult, I have now reclaimed that nickname and am proud to be a bronze woman.  Last year, I danced to the song Prieta Linda with my father on my wedding day during the Father Daughter dance and I sobbed the whole time, as my dad and I embraced each other in a moment that only he and I knew so well.

The road to loving my own skin was not an easy one.  Nobody sat me down and told me how important it was or even showed me the path to love myself and my brown skin.  It happened organically through meeting elders in the Xicano and Environmental Justice movement in Austin, TX who made it a part of their life struggle to defend their communities of mostly people of color experiencing injustices.  A demand of justice for communities of color experiencing racism led me to work alongside them for many years which led to my own realizations of self love and love of community.

Fast forward twenty years, and I am now a mother of two children who are mixed with beautiful black and brown skin.  I am also a Kindergarten teacher at Roses in Concrete Community School in East Oakland. As an elementary teacher, I remember when I first came across skin color crayons.  They were sent to my classroom in a package and each box said multicultural crayons in big bold letters. I opened a box and saw a variety of brown and black shades. I couldn’t wait to let my students use them.  Each child had their own box and was given the task to look through the box to find their closest shade of skin color. This particular year, I had all brown students and I was surprised at how many students chose lighter shades of brown when their skin was actually darker.  I had to bring in mirrors the next day so that my students could see their beautiful brown skin and create self portraits that truly embodied their skin tone and features.

These past three years at Roses in Concrete have been the most interesting for me because all of my students have been students of color.  Because I get to design my own curriculum, I have the freedom to teach Ethnic Studies through a unique lens without limitations. Over the years, students have created their own shades of brown skin color and named them names such as Redwood Tree, Café con Leche, Brown Buffalo, chocolate amber donut, or black as night.  We go deeper into the study of their own ancestral histories by interviewing family members and creating altars for ancestors that have passed away. Our classroom culture is based on the Mayan concept of the Inlakech: You are my other me. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself.  

Our school’s music and art program balances out what is learned in the classroom.  Students get to learn breakdancing and mindful mediation, sing soulful and revolutionary songs, learn basic vocabulary in the Nahuatl language, concepts and dances from the Danza Azteca tradition, and create sculptures and paintings relevant to their own lives and culture.  This year, Maestro Danny taught my students about the Aztec calendar and gave each child their Aztec birth sign. During Writing, students incorporated their Aztec birth sign as well as their skin color name onto a poem about themselves.

I find this type of cultural work in creating Ethnic Studies curriculum for children as young as Kindergarten age, a crucial necessity when the dominant society is bombarding them with self hate propaganda.  We see the lack of diverse characters in children’s books and as a teacher, it becomes even more glaring because when designing my own lessons, I have to search for hours just to find books that my children can identify with and sometimes end up creating my own stories due to the lack of books made for children on topics such as the origins of corn based people, the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and all Social Justice Movements.  I’m getting to a point where I am starting to really grasp the idea of writing my own children’s books so that future generations of teachers won’t have to go through what I am going through.

I have to give credit to children’s book authors and illustrators such as Maya Gonzalez, who has authored and illustrated numerous children’s books with characters of color and who has now published the last book in a 3 book anthology in response to the lack of relevant representation of “the people” in traditional children’s books.  I am blessed and proud to share that I am one of the 18 Artist Authors whose writing and illustration is included in her latest Anthology, “Unfulring: A Voice is a Revolution.”

This is a huge accomplishment for me considering that as a child, my parents had to drive for two hours in order to buy my sister and I children’s books because our border town had no bookstores and all the ones they brought back to us contained blonde girls with blue eyes.  I grew up during a time when the only brown girl representation on television was La Chilindrina, a whiny and goofy Mexican girl who would cry hysterically after being teased by other neighborhood children.

Unlearning what was taught to me, as a form of de-colonization is what I have been doing for most of my adult life.  The hope I have is that I am saving my own children and my students years of having to unlearn self-hate and relearn what has been denied.  Maybe one day the message of brown is beautiful will be read about in every public school in the nation, or better yet, be spoken about and truly honored. I have moved beyond the sunlit spots to venture out in the world and let the sun guide me and fill me with love.   The grand mystery of love reveals to us that it is not how much we can be loved for our own beautiful black and browness but in how much we can love others with shades of brown without limitations. It is similar to the love given to us by our Mother Earth. Mother Earth’s unconditional love for us teaches us how to love others and ourselves.  

Erika González is a Xicana educator and former environmental justice organizer with fifteen years of experience working with children and families in K-12. Erika infuses art, social justice and culture in curriculum. She is the former Co-Director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) based in East Austin, Tx and is currently a founding teacher at Roses in Concrete Community School, a social justice school in East Oakland where she teaches Kindergarten. Erika’s poetry has been published in three books: Cantos al Sexto Sol: An Anthology of Aztlanahuac Writings edited by Patrisia Gonzales, Roberto Rodriguez and Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo, Experiments in a Jazz Aesthetic: Art, Activism, Academia and the Austin Project edited by Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Lisa L. Moore, and Sharon Bridgforth, and the most recent in an anthology by children’s book author and illustrator, Maya Gonzalez titled Unfurling: Voice is a Revolution. Erika is originally from Eagle Pass, Tx a border town next to Piedras Negras Coahuila, Mx and is a mother of two beautiful mixed black and brown children.

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