For most of my childhood and adolescence, if my abuela wasn’t cooking me fideo or heating up a can of Juanita’s pozole, she was watching Mexican telenovelas on TV. She of course had her favorites, though I don’t remember them now. But in hindsight, it didn’t really matter because they all looked identical to me—the overacted hysteria, the plot twists you always saw coming (how many times can a single person turn out not to be dead?), and always, the all-white cast of actors with darker-skinned people only in servitude or poverty, never with any agency of their own.
With my abuela looking like the main characters she was watching, I never knew if this was something she noticed or was bothered by. If maybe she was worried about me because several shades divided the colors of our skin and I loved spending time outside, darkening my already brown skin. At the time, I didn’t think about it too deeply. But a seed must’ve planted itself anyway because as I grew older, I couldn’t stand to watch these programs where racism and colorism was so obvious.
And it’s not just a problem in Mexico, nor is it something that’s improved over time. Look at Yo soy Betty, la fea, the 1999 Colombian telenovela and basis for the American remake, Ugly Betty, with its light-skinned protagonist and supporting actors. Or Segundo Sol, a Brazilian series that made headlines three years ago because of its almost entirely white cast, despite taking place in a state where 80% of the population is Black or mixed-race.
The U.S. suddenly became obsessed with the image of mestizaje… casting actors and centering characters of white and Indigenous descent, preferably with that perfect shade of brown skin.
Trying to cope with this reality, I did what any kid with my background would do—I turned to America.
Interestingly, the U.S.’s representation of the Latinx community hasn’t always been what we know it as today. In the days of old Hollywood, the path to being an actor was fairly straight and narrow: you had to be white or else anglicize everything about yourself to make you that way, including your appearance, your style, and your name. Look at the Latinx actors of the era, from Donna Barrell (originally Teresa Luisa Michelena 1889-1941) to Anita Page (originally Anita Evelyn Pomares 1910-2008), and you’ll find white actors who could easily blend in with the Anglo-American starlets of the time. Most producers used the excuse that they wanted Latinx people to fit in but really, they just wanted actors who would be most palatable to white America.
Yet somewhere between the beginning of the 21st century and today, something changed, and the U.S. suddenly became obsessed with the image of “mestizaje,” a term used to define people of mixed-race heritage, which meant casting actors and centering characters of white and Indigenous descent, preferably with that perfect shade of brown skin. After so many political revolutions and socialist/communist uprisings throughout Latin America, we’d suddenly become exotic, separate, the “right” kind of different (cue: the drug dealer. The fiery, sexually provocative Latina. And the pure Catholic virgin).
Every Latinx person you meet has a story where their mom or abuela tells them to stay out of the sun so that their skin doesn’t darken too much.
I like to think George Lopez was the starting point in 2002. At the time of its debut, Lopez was one of four Latinx actors starring in the TV comedy series, the show was one of the few geared toward the Latinx community, specifically Mexican-Americans, and it centered the darkest non-Black person I’d seen up until then.
After the series ended, the trend didn’t stop. From Coco to Jane the Virgin to Gentefied, Latinxs were becoming brown on-screen before my very eyes. It should’ve made me feel better, seeing people who more closely resembled me, my family, my friends. That my people didn’t have to pretend to be just white anymore to tell our stories.
But it didn’t. Anglos (and let’s be honest, most Latinxs), think we all look the same. Think about it—white actors in Latin American telenovelas, with Spanish fluency, Spanish names, and Latin American heritage, would unlikely be cast as Latinx in the U.S. today. They no longer fit the state-side image of the “average” person with that background (which doesn’t actually exist).
Latinxs were becoming brown on-screen before my very eyes. It should’ve made me feel better.
On top of that, the great Brown mestizaje, despite supposedly celebrating multi-racial heritage, is just a different form of colonization. Sure, because of European settlers, white, Indigenous, and Black relations were common, and that resulted in a lot of mixed-race people. But that doesn’t mean we all became equal or the same. In the 19th and 20th centuries Latin American countries began promoting “mejorar la raza”, the idea that everyone was mixed to erase people who solely identified as Black or Indigenous. Many governments, including Brazil’s, even promoted blanqueamiento, a racial and ethnic cleansing practice that sought to reduce Black and Indigenous ancestry in their populations. Afro-Latinxs were told to go back to Africa, Black immigration was limited or banned altogether, and Indigenous people were pushed out of major cities, all in an effort to produce descendants with lighter skin.
Ironically, in places like Cuba, mestizaje was held up as an example of Latin America’s triumph of racial equality and immunity to racism. After all, how can we be racist if we’re made of many races? But all that meant was that Black and Indigenous people were punished, arrested, and ostracized for speaking out, and now nobody in the Latinx community can discuss race without it becoming a messy, heated debate.
My dad often characterizes this behavior as a perverse type of eurocentrism, where Latin America wants so badly to be like Europe, our original conquerors, or like the U.S., our richer next-door neighbor with its hands always in our business.
It’s why Mexico City is shaped like Rome or Paris with cobblestoned roads diverting like wheel spokes from the city center. Why white Latinxs dominate positions of power in government, finance, and media more than any other group. Why every Latinx person you meet has a story where their mom or abuela tells them to stay out of the sun so that their skin doesn’t darken too much. Why there is no Spanish word for a Black or Indigenous person, their hair, or their culture with a positive connotation.
The reality is much more beautiful and complex, more than just brown or white. Because there’s no one singular experience.
And why telenovelas, for as long as they’ve been around, have centered lighter-skinned people.
So because of colonization, Latin America wants us all to be white, and the U.S., in their effort to include but also differentiate us in their media, have pigeon-holed the entire community into being the same shade of mestizo brown.
But the reality is much more beautiful and complex, more than just brown or white. Because there’s no one singular experience (despite what mestizaje tries to tell us), it’s dangerous and damaging to separate to put us all in one camp. Especially when Black, Indigenous, and Asian mono-racial voices have been marginalized historically in the diaspora for centuries. In 2021, in the wake of Black Lives Matter and increasing awareness of the lack of Indigenous rights, we’re just starting to change that narrative.
As a person with roots in both the U.S. and Latin America, whose mixed-race heritage has benefited me in more ways than I even realize, it pains and incenses me that neither region is fully ready to share power and fully recognize and respect all the people within their borders. But I, for one, am excited to see the Latinx community finally being allowed to speak with all its many voices.