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A Wedge Between Us

by Catherine Valdez

Images of rough hands remind me of my half-brothers, nails curved like resin terrariums and roughly clipped. I can imagine the pads of their thumbs, scraped by thorns, the skin opening like a skirt frill around the wounds. No one has asked me to undress my skin like that. Their childhood was consumed by unregulated labor as they worked in cocoa fields in the Dominican Republic. When some members of my maternal family members speak of my half-siblings, they do not see the hands I see. They refer to them as “esos negros,” which can translate to “those black boys/men/people.” Although the phrasing is not overtly malicious, it implies a certain discontent with them. I find something inherently wrong with the sentiment. Heritage is a constant wedge between us, a toxic game of “how much Spanish can you claim is in your blood?”

I have come to understand there is no one pure bloodline in this country, but there is a prefered one. I wondered: If I were a less proud person, would I be more willing to claim my grandfather’s Spaniard whiteness? He certainly made use of it. He came of age during the Trujillo era, an unforgiving time to be a careless or rebellious teenager. After trouble with a government official, he got sent to a labor camp for 11 years in Nagua. It could have been worse; it could have been death. If he were a darker man, such as the citizens that died in El Corte (Parsley Massacre) perhaps he wouldn’t be alive. In that situation, perhaps I too would cling to my Spaniard accenstry.

The micro-aggression of colorism still inhabits most families. It’s the way some find my half-brother’s hands to be less attractive than my own. How family members made a distasteful face and told me, “te ves muy negra,” (you look really black), when I stopped straightening my curly hair and stopped trying to look more like them. It’s the way strangers used to stop my mother in the street to say how beautiful they thought my older white-skin sister was, then take a look at me in the stroller and curtly say I must take after my father.

Commentary by Bernice Arricale

As Catherine points out, lightness is often equated with greater beauty in the Latin cultures as it is in many cultures around the globe. But the preference for “Spanish blood” among Latinx groups also stems from the class distinctions that developed as a result of colonization. Money, education and power accrued to the families of the European gentry and not to the indigenous and darker skinned native populations. Why might a loving parent choose to celebrate the lightness of her child’s skin? What could that light skin signify to them? Can colorism be seen as a desire for economic opportunity?