Latinx Colorism and The Black Skin We Are Proudly In
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As she grew older, abuela liked to tell their origin story. It started, she’d say, when an undercurrent almost took her life. She was wading in the water when she lost her footing and began to drown. She recalled the exhaustion: arms tired, lungs filled with too much—water, sand, salt, panic. Then, there was a stranger’s sturdy arms and a reassuring voice. He lifted her, rendered her buoyant.
What began with “my name is…” would soon turn into a “will you marry me?”. She said yes but knew they would face another undercurrent — the weight of colorism.
Abuela was a light-skinned Black woman. The great-granddaughter of an interracial couple, her olive skin was considered her inheritance, something to preserve. Her mother had dark skin, but both generations had been raised to believe lighter was better. In subtle ways, she was told to “mejorar la raza” — improve the race — by marrying someone as light as her or, better yet, lighter. She married Abuelo, a Black man with dark skin, anyway.
Abuela had a complicated relationship with race. For years, she grappled with the unwritten rules of colorism. She wasn’t the only warrior in this centuries-long battle.
Colorism, prejudice, or discrimination against darker-skinned people remains embedded in many cultures and is often omnipresent in Black and Brown communities. As an Afro-Latina, I’ve lived with its weight, a persistent vestige of slavery and colonialism fighting for relevance.
In the Latino community, we don’t like to talk about colorism. We tell ourselves it is dissipating practice. But those of us who identify as Black or who have darker skin often see it as surefooted and sprawling. It still tilts the scales on beauty. Women who are more white-presenting may be labeled “blanquita y bonita” white and pretty, while those with darker skin may be “negrita pero bonita” Black but beautiful.
Colorism guides relatives to gently inspect the backs of a newborn’s ears to determine just how dark the child will become. It crowns beauty pageant queens and informs who best represents us in media. It turns up the dial on a hot comb and is the lye in our relaxers. It especially sucks its teeth at unapologetic reminders of who we are. It desperately wants Amara La Negra’s afro to blend in, relax, lower the blackness in its volume.
As 14.4 million Latinos proudly identify as Afro-Latinos and more of us embrace our varied roots, many in our community are finally rejecting colorism’s stronghold. We understand that Black skin is a griot. It’s the syncopated beat between the Djembe and conga, narrowing the divide between where we started and where we landed.
Today we stand on ancestry’s shoulders and tell our origin story. And like Abuela, despite our complicated history and relationship with race, we reject colorism’s footing on our rich culture. Many more of us are deeply proud of the rich Black skin we are in. It renders us beautiful, buoyant.