Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Cousins

Isaias is crawling around the yard like a lizard—grass, gravel, concrete, hot coals: it’s all the same to him, as long as he’s moving.

His cousin Matias, three months older, has never sat in the grass before; his mother would gladly enclose him in a sterile plastic bubble until puberty, were it socially acceptable. He stays where I put him down, plucking one blade at a time, examining each one carefully before handing it to me and then plucking another.

When I see, out of the corner of my eye, that my sister-in-law has come out of the house, I brace myself for a comment about all the hidden dangers in the grass: bitey ants, venomous spiders, angry scorpions, lurking allergens, all manner of germy unidentifiable stuff that could possibly, maybe, find its way into her child’s mouth.

Instead, I hear her tell someone this: “It’s fine for Isaias to crawl around in the burning sun; he could use some color. But mine is just going to get even darker than he already is.”

The late afternoon light is slanty, sweet, and warm. Maty and Isai are both beautiful babies, with their abuelita’s stick-out ears to mark them as cousins.

I stroke Maty’s silky-straight black hair. He hands me another blade of grass, his eyes wide with wonder.


The other day I was evesdropping on some of my fellow expats in the library.

One of them was talking about how she lived in Mexico City for nine months (she kept repeating that she had lived there for NINE MONTHS as though that particular period of time had some wonderful significance in this context) and what a revelation it was to look around a metro car and realize that she was the only white person in sight.

“It’s such an important experience for us to have,” she said, “being a minority, and we can’t have that experience in the U.S.”

The others all nodded seriously and agreed and began swapping how-living-in-Mexico-helped-me-understand-discrimination stories.

I rolled my eyes into my magazine and left before she could say something like, “Nine months! Isn’t that funny? And it’s like, at the end of that time, I had GIVEN BIRTH to my TRUE SELF!” and make me puke all over the periodicals.

Someone is not paying attention, not during NINE MONTHS in Mexico, not the U.S. Being white in Mexico is not the same as being black, or Mexican, in the United States.  Not at all.

Yes, there are people in Mexico who hate white people on sight. But make no mistake, rich and powerful people in Mexico are, by and large, white. Or beige, at their most colorful. Not brown. Most famously attractive celebrities in Mexico are white. Try to find a brown person on Mexican TV who is not playing the role of the maid, or being interviewed as a victim of some tragedy…go ahead and try.

Being hated because you are assumed to be rich and powerful and attractive—or being fawned over for the same reason—is a very different experience from that of minorities in the U.S.

Ibis and I worry about Isaias and Matias for that reason. They are cousins. They are family. But how can we keep the color of their skin from coming between them, in this place, in this time? Can it be done?


Walking downtown last week with Isaias on my back, I spotted an American tourist sneaking a photo of an indigenous woman’s pudgy cheeked baby.

What would happen, I wondered, if I told her: hey, my baby’s authentically Mexican, too. Half Zapotec. Born right here in Oaxaca. Want to see his birth certificate? Why don’t you take a picture of him?

She wouldn’t have wanted to. A blue-eyed, curly-haired, white baby is…well, a little person. Nobody wants a picture of some person they don’t even know. A black-haired, black-eyed, brown baby wrapped in a woven shawl is anonymous. Scenery.

Isaias and Matias. I would give anything to know for certain that they’ll both be okay.


  1. Everything you say is true, Teresa. But there is more to it than pure racial prejudice. Class prejudice enters in as well.

    Even if the population is entirely of a single race, more melanin in the skin is a marker for lower economic class. Why? Because being poor means having to labor outside, whether in the fields or roofing houses. Most people don‘t bring this awareness up to consciousness, but it is there nonetheless. Browner than I am = poorer than I am.

  2. This phrase "A black-haired, black-eyed, brown baby wrapped in a woven shawl is anonymous. Scenery" is truly heart-breaking.

    @Janet (above) you're absolutely right. But let me tell you something: back home in Argentina, if you have a tan, it means you belong to the upper classes too because you have the free time and the means to get it.

    I'm from Argentina and I'm currently living in Dallas TX. When I tell people where I'm from, sometimes they look puzzled, as if saying "how can a white person be Latin American?" Well, actually, someone has said it in so many words. I don't really care for such reactions. They mean well, maybe as a compliment?, but they're quite offensive.

    Ana Astri-O'Reilly