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We love our abuelas, but favoring those of us with lighter skin is not OK

Skin color bias, offered as a compliment, is a custom that goes back generations in Black and Brown communities. But there’s an unsettling undercurrent, of course. It can feel like a measure of how much you are — or can be — loved.

“Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?”
Adriel Irizarry plays Xavier and Wanda Baez is The Figure in Visión Latino Theatre Company’s world premiere “Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?”
Photo by Dylan Cruz

At the end of an exhausting day, my mom likes to trace the palm of my hand with her finger and picture my future.

She lightly touches my life line, hovers above my heart line and smiles because, she says, she can tell I will live a comfortable life.

My mother is not a palm reader. She’s just a hard-working woman who can see by my smooth hands that I am a privileged Mexican American who has never met a full day of hard labor.

“Tienes las manos bien finas,” she says. You have very fine hands. She tells me this with a sense of comfort.

Studying my hands allows my mom to take pride in what she has given me by her sacrifices. It’s a harmless ritual between mother and son, and I have never questioned it.

But there is another deep-rooted familial custom with similarly good intentions that makes me cringe — praising my light brown skin and seeing my weak indigenous physical features as a form of progress.

I’m a mestizo.

A mestizo, as you likely know, is a person of mixed ancestry in the Americas, usually of European and indigenous descent. In colonizing times, people like me would have been viewed as somehow inferior because we had less than pure Spanish blood. And it’s a mentality that has stayed with us.

Ismael Pérez with a darker skin tone while he was in marching band in college in 2012 compared to his skin tone in 2021.
Contributed photos

In Mexican and other Latin American families, even now, when a baby is born to mestizo parents who has blonde hair, green eyes and snow white skin — or something close to it — it’s seen as a cause for celebration. It’s something Brown grandmas talk about proudly at family gatherings as they search for El Apache, the Native American warrior, on their lotería card. It’s as if they are saying: “BINGO, your baby looks white!”

Skin color bias, offered as a compliment, is a custom that goes back generations in Black and Brown communities and it’s generally seen as harmless. But there is an unsettling undercurrent, of course, a kind of unspoken messaging. It can feel like a measure of how much you are — or can be — loved. Or like a measure, from birth, of what opportunities life can offer you.

And it continues to plague each new generation.

This complicated topic is being played out on stage right now at The Den Theater in Wicker Park in a show called “Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?” The play follows interracial Puerto Rican couple Adalina, a beautiful woman with sweet caramel colored skin, and Xavier, a white-passing Latino with undeniable good looks.

The couple are accepted into a program that will allow them to modify the genes of their children before they are born. Adalina and Xavier are excited by the possibilities and play around with their options, but as they consider more deeply which genes will benefit their baby most, they land on an uncomfortable, yet inevitable, question:

What color skin should their baby have?

The title “Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?” — “And Your Grandmother, Where is She?” — is a pointed reminder to those Latinos who aspire to look more European that there’s a high chance their grandmother was very dark-skinned, to the point of being considered Black by the dominant culture. And the title of the play weaves throughout the story as Adalina and Xavier dig through memories of how skin tone influenced how they were treated by their parents and grandparents.

“When I would straighten my hair, some people would look at me and not know that I’m mixed, but then they would joke and say, ‘Ah, pero se te sale tu abuela’ — your grandma is coming out through here,” Gabriela Castillo, who portrays Adalina in the play, told me. “If you start sweating and the curls start happening, or if your nose is a certain shape or your lips are a certain shape, those are hints left behind from your grandma.”

The play also takes an authentic look at other Latino-specific issues, such as a cultural hesitancy to seek therapy and an awareness that while your family may accept you as a queer person, it can be with an undeniable shame.

I saw myself in those characters. Both as someone who keeps getting unwelcomed tips on how to have lighter skin, and as a gay man who finds that he has to come out to his parents again and again — each time they ask if I’m dating any women.

“One of the biggest things (to take from the show) is to not stand by and let what you think is a normal comment just slide, because it’s not OK,” Gino Marconi, who plays Carlos, Xavier’s gay cousin, told me. “By letting it happen, you are allowing for that racism, colorism and the homosexual (bashing) to live on.”

This is true.

Colorism isn’t a generational thing that will go away in 50 years. I’ve actually seen the favoritism toward those with lighter skin grow among the younger generation of my extended family. And it’s hard to admit, but I’ve allowed it to happen by staying silent.

Latinos need to speak up and call out this miserable centuries-old custom. Even if it means stopping a whole loteria game to do it.

“Y Tu Abuela, Where is She?” is running at The Den Theater, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., until Oct. 24. For tickets, go to CLATA.org

Ismael Pérez is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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