La Guera con El Moreno- The Dangers of Parenting with “Mismatched” Skin

15 Sep

“Do you have identification for this child?” Five police officers were swarming around Conan, who was holding Lucia and walking with Pancho, the guy who sold us our new car. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was at work, as usual. I’m sure that it doesn’t help that fathers out with their kids- without the mother- is not all that common, like I talked about in the post about Conan’s venture in stay-at-home fatherhood. But it does happen; it’s not like it’s totally unseen. The police later told him that they were looking for a missing two year old that fit Lucia’s description- light-skin, curly hair. Hopefully they really were looking for a missing child, although it doesn’t make the situation more pleasant regardless.

“No,” replied Conan, about having her ID, “She’s two years old,” he explained. “How can you prove that this is your child?” One of the officers asked Conan. “Well, I’m holding her and she’s not protesting,” he offered. They were not at all satisfied by that, although perhaps if they had tried to talk to Lucia or (goodness forbid) tried to hold her and seen how resistant and panicked she could get, Conan’s explanation might have had more credibility. This is the child who sometimes hides her head and yells “no” when people ask what her name is, who sometimes pushes people if they try to pat her arm. My daughter is very outgoing and loves to play with and talk to strangers if they are kids, or if she’s decided to interact with them- not if they’ve decided to interact with her. So no, I didn’t really want the cops to try to hold Lucia, and Conan certainly wasn’t going to offer that, but it might have clued them in that she doesn’t take kindly to any old kidnapper.

They asked Conan for his ID and they all walked back to where the car was parked. There the cops started taking pictures of the car, its license plate, and anything else they deemed relevant, and calling in information on their radios. “What’s the child’s name?” the cops asked Pancho, but of course he didn’t know, because he’s just the guy selling us the car, not our friend. He explained this to the cops, who were still not satisfied. They asked about the location of “the child’s” mother, which Conan explained. He told them Lucia’s full name, complete with her second last name, the hard-to-pronounce foreign one (mine), and mentioned that her mother is not from here. It was a round-about way of explaining Lucia’s whiteness. Not that Lucia is “white” the way we define that and talk about it in the U.S. Due to our U.S. legacy of slavery and the ever-lasting discrimination following slavery, anyone who has a drop of not-white blood is not “caucasian.” We say that people like Lucia “pass for white,” which is a very “polite” racism-based way to say that she doesn’t look “colored” (all non-white is in the same category of tainted non-good in U.S. cultural context, although there tends to be more discrimination for people the darker their skin is).

In Mexico, there is a different legacy of oppression, and thus a different system for talking about skin color and race, a different way of discriminating against and privileging different people. In Mexico people will often tell you that there is no racism, and they believe it because they don’t have the same black/white issues and history like we do in the U.S. They believe it, maybe, because they talk about skin color in a nonchalant way. They call their darker-skinned friends and loved ones “negro” or “negra” like it were a name, with affection. For light-skinned folks, they use the term “guero” or “guera” (pronounced kind of like where-oh or where-ah, the g sound is very light- a very Mexican term and who knows where it comes from). So sometimes I suspect their ease with which they point out skin color in a way that’s neither awkward nor insulting helps to perpetuate this idea that there’s no racism down here in Mexico.

But all you need to do is check out ten minutes of Mexican soap operas (practically the only thing on the three public TV channels down here) to see very clearly that racism exists. Most people on television, and all of the “good guys” are very light-skinned, often light-eyed, sometimes blonde folks. (And before you say something about them not being Mexican, check out your own assumptions about race. Mexican people come in a wide array of skin colors.) The “bad guys” and the servants are darker-skinned.

If you don’t believe that TV imitates life, if TV isn’t enough proof that racism exists here, then all you have to do is observe the situation of many indigenous peoples down here, or listen to the way people talk about them. Listen to the insult “indio,” used as a synonym for ignorant idiot. For the most part, people don’t value indigenous culture, language, or people, outside of museums. Indigenous communities tend to be very economically poor, and have very limited opportunities. And of course the discrimination they face is partially a class issue, (I don’t think anyone in Mexico denies the existence of classism) but lots of the class and poverty issues are inherited from times of colonization and caste systems that privilege people based on how much white European blood they had. Pure indigenous folks were at the bottom of the barrel, and they still are, caste system or no. And the darker your skin is, the closer you are to indigenous, the more likely you are to be poor and discriminated against.

So back to Conan and his brown skin, carrying around his white-looking daughter. Since her birth, people down here have insinuated that she doesn’t look like him because her skin is so light, although as a baby she was pretty much the spitting image of him (except for my nose; she’s always had my nose). They’d even say stuff like “Oh, she looks just like her mom,” although at the time she looked way more like Conan, except for her skin tone. (And yes, of course stubborn Julia tried to set them straight, sometimes rudely, sometimes politely, but I doubt it did any good.)

Papi and daughter: Peas in a pod

Papi and daughter: Peas in a pod

There he was, in a parent’s nightmare, with police threatening to take away his child because she doesn’t look like him in the right way. Finally he remembered that he had his iPod in the car, with its thousands of photos of Lucia and our family over the past two years of life. So he showed them the pictures, which he said they viewed for a good while, and finally they were satisfied. They didn’t take Lucia away, and Conan didn’t have a heart attack, although I think he was pretty shaken up for the rest of the day.

Before this, it hadn’t occurred to either one of us that something like that could happen here. We’ve both read parts of a book on raising multiracial/multicultural kids, and talked about dealing with people’s rude comments and things.  We’ve talked about responses when you’re the parent who “doesn’t look like” the child, and good responses when you’re the parent who does. But we hadn’t thought about or discussed this kind of danger, that some authority could actually take our child away because of “mismatched” skin colors. I imagine that if they did, it would be temporary, but can you imagine the trauma? For Lucia? For Conan? For me? It’s horrifying.

“Yeah, my friend so-and-so used to carry around a copy of his kids’ birth certificates” my mom told me when I recounted the incident to her. It made me realize that this problem is not new, and it’s not unique to us. Somehow I thought there would be less racism against Conan here in Mexico than in the U.S. That’s probably true, but by no means does racism not apply to him here. So we will deal with this, too, knowing we’re not the first generation to face this, but hoping that maybe, just maybe, we could be the last. 

9 Responses to “La Guera con El Moreno- The Dangers of Parenting with “Mismatched” Skin”

  1. Ellen September 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Insightful, informative and well-written. Sorry to hear that Conan had to experience that sort of thing. It’s a good thing he thought about showing them the family pictures.

    • exiletomexico September 17, 2014 at 8:21 am #

      Thank you, Ellen, for your compassion- and for your compliments, and for reading in the first place.

  2. Linda satterlee September 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    If you can call it one, the good side is that the cops were seriously looking for a missing kid…or at least were concerned about Lucia’s well being. I’m sure Conan isn’t seeing that now, but if she ever went missing (God forbid), it’s good to know the policia would take it seriously. It seems to me that every country and every culture has it’s prejudices. Not good, and definitely something we should consciously work on, but I guess it’s part of being human.

    • exiletomexico September 17, 2014 at 8:24 am #

      I hope the police were really looking for a missing kid, although it seems that often when racial profiling happens, the cops mention something like “there have been some robberies in the area” or something like that, whether it’s true or not (That exact line was just used on one of my girlfriends stopped in her neighborhood for the suspicious act of ROLLERSKATING!).
      Of course I hope that they would take it seriously for any missing child, whatever their skin tone. I am just a bit skeptical about these things, unfortunately.

  3. Kirsty Erikson September 16, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    nodding…you know we did the same thing when our kids were little, especially the last two as they were infants (our eldest was 15 months, the next was 5, but the two “littles” were each 3 days old when they came home). I would be terrified to go to the grocery store because they were black and I was white and would someone accost me and accuse me of babysnatching? I’m an older mom, too. (I didn’t give two figs about if someone accused me of *sleeping* with a person of color, only the possibility of being accused of stealing them, and having them removed.) It’s not unique…but it is totally and utterly terrifying. I wish I had a magic answer for you–but I don’t.


    • exiletomexico September 17, 2014 at 8:27 am #

      Kirsty, I remember the first time I went to the grocery store with Lucia, and being worried then that someone was going to take her away from me- that they would realize I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as a new mom!!! It is scary enough just being a parent without adding these extra fears.
      Thanks for just being there with us and understanding.

  4. lee1978 September 16, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    I didn’t think of it happening to Conan in Mexico. It is so bizarre when this happens. My wife mentioned how we always carrieds docs and pics when they were little. But your comment about “passing” made me think back on a conversation I had with my eldest son’s adoption agency in GA years ago. They were asking if I had any preferences. Male? Female? Doesn’t matter, I said. Complexion? LIght? Dark? I said since I was adopting internationally obviously this was not an issue for me. “Well down here it is maa’m” was the answer. For the record, Chet’s complexioni is considered “wheatish” by their peculiar standards!

    • exiletomexico September 17, 2014 at 8:30 am #

      Yeah, I think in the U.S. we have so many race issues that we don’t think about race in countries where race seems to us monolithic, in comparison with all the diversity in the US…It is odd, but frustratingly true.


  1. Rejecting Compliments, Resisting White Privilege: A Call for Help | exile to mexico - November 1, 2016

    […] starting at birth. It’s why Conan got stopped by the police for walking with his own daughter (read about it here). It’s the kind of thing that they talk about in this study, where they found that teachers […]

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