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by Santa-Victoria Pérez


The invitations to my 11th birthday party featured a photo my mom took of me. My skin was tanned from spending the summer of ‘07 building sandcastles on Cabrillo Beach with my abuelito, and my hair was wild and curled from the ocean water. A few weeks before my birthday, my mother gave invitations to a few of her coworkers who had kids, and I handed them out to my friends at school. 

Later that night, my mother told me one of her coworkers couldn’t believe I was her kid. My mother is blonde with light skin; there was no way a dark kid with black, curly hair was hers. She only told me what her coworker said in passing, but even now, I think about it from time to time.

The comment of a woman whose name I don’t know has become my reminder to avoid the beach because my skin tans too easily. The voice tells me to wear long sleeves even when it’s hot out because my arms will tan. The whisper in the back of my mind that warns me to hide from the sun.  

Those reminders are the reason I avoided the sun for so long—the reason my skin is lighter than my mother’s now that the sun and I are enemies.

Those felt like the reminders I got from my abuelita, who got called La Negra by her much lighter siblings. Did she give me those reminders so I wouldn’t be called the same name?

While I worried about how dark my skin was, I never considered how my cousins must have felt when I was praised for being the lightest among us. I started to recognize that when I’d straighten my hair and overpluck my eyebrows, I’d look white-passing. Even worse, I liked looking white-passing.

When I was 19, I paid too much for a stylist in Redondo Beach to bleach my hair. Three expensive sessions later, my hair was an ash blonde that matched my mother’s. I spent hours each week blow-drying and straightening my curly hair. 

I felt broken when I recognized that if I wasn’t ashamed of being Mexican, then I was, at the very least, ashamed of what my Mexican heritage made me look like. I could no longer hide behind the bleach. My eyebrows were too thick, my hair too curly, my nose too wide, my eyes too brown. 

I had that Redondo Beach stylist dye my hair dark in 2018. But it took a pandemic for me to finally stop straightening my hair, and even after four years, my curls still don’t look the way they did when I was a kid. 

But at least now, when we take our family photo at Christmas, I don’t stand out as much among my tan, dark-haired cousins.



When my cousins Edith and Liz lived with our abuela in the 1980s, Liz told Abuela that her teachers wouldn’t let her drink water before the white kids—Edith among those kids.


Abuela listened to Liz, held her as she cried, and smoothed down her hair. And then she went to their school. 

I imagine her smiling politely at the administration, who couldn’t believe the misunderstanding. Except I know that smiling politely isn’t who my abuelita was, so I’m sure she actually told the teachers, “Que vivan a chingar a su madre,” as she left the building.


The next day, Liz told Abuela she was served water first. But she still wished she looked more like her little sister.

Over the years, Abuelita and I talked about this often. We speculated that the teachers didn’t know they were sisters and assumed Edith was white. Edith was light-skinned with light brown hair, and Liz is morenita with dark hair.


Liz heard her teachers complaining about the woman who made them give the brown kids water at the same time as the white kids. 


Later, when Abuela bathed Edith, she called Liz into the bathroom. Liz came in carrying the gallon of bleach from the kitchen. I imagine Liz as a small child, using all her strength to carry a bleach bottle almost as big as her.


“Elita,” my abuelita said. “Que estas haciendo con el bleach?”


“Para que me vea como Edith, Abuelita.”


I don’t know how old Liz was then, and I don’t know if she’d remember this. I don’t want to ask. But even when my abuelita retold this story, I could tell how much this hurt her.


I wonder if I asked Liz if she would remember how she later covered herself in baby powder, thinking that if she couldn’t use bleach, at least the baby powder would make her skin appear lighter.


Liz and my abuelita share the same skin color. She’s the only one in our family who looks like Abuela. I envy her for that.


I want to ask Liz if she remembers the day Abuela’s mom met her and Edith for the first time. Our Abuela said her mother stopped and looked at the two of them, first at Liz, then at Edith, and back again. She paused, picked up Edith, and said, “Esta es la mía.”


I never want to reject a child that way. I want to protect Liz from the stories I’ve heard so many times they feel integral to my own memory.


A photo of my great-grandmother hung in my abuelita’s house. In it, I see where Edith and her mom got their light hair and skin.


Abuelita caught me looking at the photo one day. And then she admitted something to me. Years after her mother died, one of her mother’s friends came to her with a confession. When my abuelita was a baby, her mother had to be coaxed into breastfeeding her. She said her mother couldn’t look at the dark baby who needed milk from her fair skin.


I felt sick hearing this. I never got to meet my abuela’s mother. She died a few years before I was born, but my abuelita told me, “Mi madre te hubiera querido porque eres tan blanquita.” I hate that it was the color of my skin, the thing that made me look less like my abuelita, that would’ve made her mother love me.

*Title photo credit: Snabayan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Santa-Victoria Pérez is a Mexican-American writer who teaches, lives, and sometimes writes in LA. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from Chapman University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The PointShotgunThe Curator, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Chapman University, UC Irvine, Cal State University, Fullerton, and Orange County School of the Arts.

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