Mi mami tells me to get out of the sun. Mi mami tells me to put on sunblock. Mi mami tells me to not go to the beach so much. But she is not protecting me from skin cancer; that is not really on our immigrant radar nor our primary worry, unfortunately. She is not telling me to stay out of the sun out of a deep concern for my health. Mi mami does not want me to be too brown.
You see, mi mami is from the mountains of Jinotega, Nicaragua. The mountains, where the temperature stays at a cool sixty degrees Fahrenheit. It is foggy, and people often wear sweaters. Mi mami, like many of her townspeople, is light skinned. She does not tan in the sun; she burns. Mi mami turns bright red, gets sunburned in ways I have never experienced. But she is not as light skinned as my tias and her youngest brother, Tio Ivan. Mi mami has dark black hair and mi tias all have light-brown and ash-blonde hair. Since mi mami is one of the oldest among her siblings and cousins, and since each child born after her was fairer than the last, my family would joke, “La raza mejoró” with every child. And it should be noted that mi mami’s skin tone at her darkest is my skin tone at its lightest.
Mi mami was born of a green-eyed, light-brown-haired, light-skinned man: mi abuelito Nicolas. Everyone hopes that my grandfather’s light-eyed genes will be passed down and resurface someday, though it seems to have skipped two entire generations at this point. His mother was an Afro-Nicaragüense, but we do not talk about that. I learned about mi Black bisabuela in my late twenties, through a casual, happenstance conversation that left me surprised. Everyone else seemed content with this erasure.
I, however, have my papi’s genes. My papi’s side of the family is darker. They have Brown skin and very prominent traditional Indigenous features, like flat faces, wider noses, and straight black or brown hair. My papi is not ashamed of his Brownness. On the contrary, mi papi does not worry about his skin tone. He enjoys sitting in the sun unfettered, while mi mami wears a hat, sunglasses, and a long-sleeve shirt if she is able. But my papi is a man, and standards of admiration for men stem from their ability to perform some arbitrary definition of manhood. That is not to say that mi papi has not experienced discrimination due to his Brownness. I have vivid memories of the hyper policing mi papi experienced after 9/11 along with many other Black and Brown men in this country. These random body checks by the Transportation Security Administration were quite difficult to disregard as just coincidences. However, when I was growing up, how much money a man could provide for his household held more intracommunal
value than his skin tone. On the other hand, women were valued for our fragility, our purity, and our proximity to white standards of beauty.
I understood this growing up. The “prettiest” girls in my classes were always the ones who had light skin, light eyes, and light hair.
Mi mami tells me to get out of the sun. Mi mami tells me to put on sunblock. Mi mami tells me to not go to the beach so much. Because I have my papi’s Brownness but mi mami’s gender, a curse—I was born female and Brown, in a cultura that hates females and especially hates the darker ones.
But avoiding the sun feels unnatural and distasteful, when I know full well that the politics of pigmentation have been telling my people that being Black and Brown is bad and that getting darker is your own damn fault. Despite having grown up with meager means, we do not want to appear like we have worked in fields. It is shameful to own your poverty, and more shameful if your skin begins to tell the tale of your misfortunes. Our communities act like Brownness is optional, like we can dim our skin tone by avoiding the sun and hope that the yellow undertones eventually turn pink.
Mi mami tells me to get out of the sun. Mi mami tells me to put on sunblock. Mi mami tells me to not go to the beach so much. Mi mami tells me that I am becoming negra, with rechazo in her tone.
But I cannot undo the fact that my skin glows from all this sunlight. Like magic, my skin turns sunrays into nutrients, into vitamin D. You ask me what color my skin tone is, and I will tell you: It is a morning cafecito con leche with your abuelita. It is a caramelo tint that looks unreal, painted beautifully on my flesh. I do not burn with the sun; I evolve right before my very eyes.
My Brown skin is beautiful. In the winter it becomes a lighter shade, the color of walnuts, and in the summer it darkens. I have to change my makeup with the seasons to match my beautiful, evolving skin tone, because my skin is supernatural.
I love my Brown skin, but it has taken me years to realize that and to undo the years of the sun-avoidance dance that many of us Brown girls are told to perform.
Mi mami tells me to get out of the sun. Mi mami tells me to put on sunblock. Mi mami tells me to not go to the beach so much. And I understand what she is doing, I understand what her life has taught her about Brownness, but I insist on living differently. I decline, because I refuse to let the color of my skin and my gender make me hide under ridiculous gorros. I refuse to incomodarme for a cultura that breeds colorism. Instead, I wear my tiniest bikini and I go to the beach, put on sunblock to protect this beautiful Brown skin I have been blessed with, and watch magic happen.
From the book FOR BROWN GIRLS WITH SHARP EDGES AND TENDER HEARTS by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriquez. Copyright © 2021 by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriquez. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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