Bolivia’s American Granddaughter

When I was younger, I told myself that when I was a baby, my skin was white, and that the only reason it was dark now was because I got tan. I was darker than my friends, my dad was darker than my friends’ dads. I clearly remember realizing my dad would always be different and feeling upset about it. I never tried to show my disgrace in being brown, but I never felt sorry about it either. My reality was that most of my friends and playmates had light skin, and what I saw in them affected how I saw myself. 

Still at the elementary age, I was constantly lying to myself that I was just like my friends. Sure I was on the inside, but as often as everyone said “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” it just wasn’t true. Sometimes in the shower I would scrub my skin raw, trying to rub away the brown. My skin would turn out red when I got out, and I would think “maybe it’s working.” I treated myself like the color of my skin like dirt that needed to be washed away, like I was never clean enough because my skin wasn’t light. I clearly needed some dark skinned friends, but the limited few in my elementary grade were not the type of kids I wanted to be friends with. I wasn’t trying to be racist, it wasn’t their skin color that held me back, I simply didn’t like them. I was only racist towards myself, and this self-racism was only influenced by my own comparisons between my skin color and the children I surrounded myself with. This idea was my very own, planted there by no one else but me.

This difference in skin color between me and my friends eventually bothered me less. In the sixth grade, I realized that being Bolivian made me unique, but also that no one cared. I have a vivid memory exemplifying the ignorance that I realized was invading my life. I walked into my law teacher’s 1st period class to ask him a question, and as I left a group of kids asked me “what are you?” I didn’t know what they meant, and they clarified, “like are you Mexican?” and in response to my simple “no,” they asked if I wasn’t Mexican, what was I? That was the most annoying question I ever heard, so I ended up letting them ponder if other countries with brown skinned people existed instead. Nevertheless, that is when I realized, if I wasn’t Mexican, I wasn’t anything, despite my background or skin color. 

This example has come up many times in my life, reminding me that the people I come across in life really don’t take much interest in what is different, they don’t take much interest in me. In 9th grade, my little sister was interviewing me for the sixth grade paper she had to write on me, and she asked where I was from, and I let her know about my dad being from Bolivia. She did not know where it was, and I explained how it was close to Brazil, a country much more relevant, apparently. I have compared my dad to Brazilians countless times, and I finally felt bad about it. I have gotten used to saying “…Bolivia, it’s close to Brazil, in South America,” and when the few people are embarrassed that I thought they didn’t know where Bolivia was, it makes my day a little. I don’t blame my sixth grade sister’s for not knowing where Bolivia was, but when she proceeded to say, “I’ll just say he is Brazilian,” I was reminded again how little people care about what I consider unique. It was astonishing to me that she would write that, Brazil and Bolivia are two completely different countries, but changing the facts to make them somehow easier to understand is somehow a good idea? It was a bad day.

Now in high school, I’m told that I’m white, oh how the ignorance lives! I would have loved to been told that as a small child, but now the tables have turned. Now my skin is lighter than some of my friends’, and as it seems, in this world of teenagers, if I don’t speak Spanish, if I am different than someone’s version of hispanic, I am just white. I face it everyday, it is not new to feel like people really don’t care that half of my family lives in Bolivia. Visiting them is considered a “vacation,” whereas if I was visiting them in Mexico, the sole reason I am visiting the country is dismissed and it is a whole different experience.

I have been to my father’s country three times. When I am on the street with my mother, I stand out, when I am on the street with my father, I blend in, another brown face in a sea of brown skin. We would walk everywhere, and I wasn’t ashamed to walk ahead of my family in attempts to fit in. I wanted so badly for people to not even glance at me, not because I was shy, but because I wanted to be one of them, a little brown fish on the Bolivian streets, a tiny part of that whole ocean. And I did a great job, no one called me gringa, no one looked at me longer than they needed to in order to not walk into me. I was standing in front of a huge cathedral, and tried to go in with everyone else, but they weren’t letting people in at that time. Yet to me, it was more, they weren’t letting in the Bolivians, the ones visiting as they did everyday, and I was one of them, not a simple tourist. This desire to fit in comes naturally to me, in Bolivia especially; I shed my uniqueness like a dirty layer of skin. I wanted to be the whole of Bolivia, not the American granddaughter of Bolivia.

Still, I acknowledge that feeling unique in the eyes of my peers is important to me, but I also realize that accepting my uniqueness is even more important. I knew I was different from the start, but now I know it’s not my fault. It could also be argued that I am really no different than anyone else, I am just another child from just another pair of parents, but neither point of view is the correct one. The only view of myself that matters is my own, and that view will constantly change, based on not just my surroundings, but how I perceive them as well.

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3 thoughts on “Bolivia’s American Granddaughter

  1. “Sometimes in the shower I would scrub my skin raw, trying to rub away the brown. My skin would turn out red when I got out, and I would think “maybe it’s working.” I treated myself like the color of my skin like dirt that needed to be washed away, like I was never clean enough because my skin wasn’t light.” First of all, you’re seriously the best. It’s so weird to look at what you wrote, because sometimes I feel just the opposite. You know I’m the only “white” person in our friend group, and sometimes all I want to do is be from some cool country like the rest of y’all. From my point of view, I’m the boring white person who’s parents are from Louisiana and Texas, and you all get the amazing culture, the cool foods, the experience, learning other languages, and getting to claim that you have been all over the world. I’m jealous of you! It just goes to show that no one can be happy with themselves, and the grass is always greener on the other side.

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  2. I loved your story. It really shows just how much of an affect skin color still has on people’s lives today. There is so much ignorance that still exists, and although you did not experience blatant racism, there is white washing that is embedded in children’s shows, movies, books, and everything that surrounds you as you grow up. What you saw in the media as you grew up affected the way you saw yourself as a Bolivian, and how others saw you as just “brown skinned.” I really liked your line, “In this world of teenagers, if I don’t speak Spanish, if I am different than someone’s version of Hispanic, I am just white.” My mother is Cuban and that is a huge part of my culture, but I was born with my father’s white skin. Even though I consider myself to be Cuban, I am judged as “white,” because I do not speak perfect Spanish, and my skin is not brown. In general, this was a very touching piece, and it is interesting to explore the way you have seen yourself and others have seen you over the years.

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  3. This essay really showed me a lot about your life that I didn’t know about before. I was so surprised when I read about your little sister. Even at that age she should understand the difference between Brazil and Bolivia. “I don’t blame my sixth grade sisters for not knowing where Bolivia was, but when she proceeded to say, “I’ll just say he is Brazilian,” I was reminded again how little people care about what I consider unique.” The way you wrote this made me indignant, because I always think is is really cool to hear where other people’s family is from. I always thought it was so cool that your dad is from Bolivia! I was shocked to hear that other people don’t value that as much as I do (and you do). I also liked the way you described how you felt when you went to Bolivia. “I wanted so badly for people to not even glance at me, not because I was shy, but because I wanted to be one of them, a little brown fish on the Bolivian streets, a tiny part of that whole ocean.” This metaphor illustrated really well how you wanted to be. I could just imagine you among a sea of faces. I like this because every sentence you wrote conveyed a clear feeling. You made me feel your indignation and your yearning to be like everyone else. Really great job!

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