See the Mexican

I thought I was like everyone else, only with a year-around tan, until the day I realized that I was the Mexican

By Cristina Acosta
Published on LatinoLA: December 18, 2008

See the Mexican

In Palos Verdes, a Southern California suburb, during the 1960's and 70's, all of the neighbor ladies spent time cultivating their tans, something they called, "laying-out", a term that gave tanning the status of a task. Mrs. Nordquist two doors up would put solid plastic eye shields over her lids before she settled into her half-hour sunbath. Mrs. Rick shared her "secret" recipe of iodine and baby oil with a few drops of olive oil ("like the Europeans use," she'd say) with those who gushed admiringly over her tanned limbs. Even Mrs. Wright, an over-worked mother of five managed to get in a few afternoons each week napping on her day lounge by the patio, slathered in Bain de Soleil (for the St. Tropez tan). Successfully laying-out could result in a tan between your fingers if you were dedicated and disciplined.

I felt very lucky. Comparing myself with the neighbor ladies I saw that my skin was a lovely golden tan color despite my inability to sit still long enough to successfully lay-out. I did wonder about my good fortune. My mother's skin was the color of the neighbor ladies' skin, though she never seemed interested in tanning. My father had rich brown colored skin that needed little attention. I don't think I ever saw him do much more than splash on aftershave. My mother would slather herself in white lotion to ward off the dryness her skin was predisposed towards. In the kid's bathroom she put a bottle of the same brand of lotion.

To keep us kids from using her lotion, she bought us a different version. Ours was "almond" lotion, infused with the scent of almonds and slightly colored to match the golden tan plastic dispenser. With a child's logic I concluded that my skin must be darker than my mother's and lighter than my father's because of the color of the lotion I used.

My parents weren't trying to keep any secrets about skin color. I watched I Love Lucy re-runs on television and knew that it was entirely normal for a man who spoke Spanish and English to marry a woman who only spoke English. Though Ricky Ricardo wasn't very tan (at least not that I could tell on our TV), he was a dark contrast to Lucy's pale coloring. My father spoke Spanish, but like Ricky Ricardo, he didn't speak much at home. Though, when he took me on visits to his mother's house, he and my grandmother would often only speak Spanish when they were alone together.

Listening to my father and grandmother, I would try to say things in Spanish, but they quickly admonished me to speak only English. My grandmother would often tell me stories about the Mexicans -- "Rich Californios and Rancheros who lost their property to dishonest Americans, because they didn't know English." she would say. After the United States won the Mexican War in 1848 and negotiated the Gadsden Purchase for other lands, the Americans sent tax bills only in English to landholding citizens, people that had no concept of a land property tax.

My grandmother said that these things happened despite the promises to uphold the rights of the Mexicans settled on these lands for hundreds of years. Her godmother was Catalina Pico, a direct descendant of Pio Pico, the last Governor of Mexican California. Swindled out of his lands, Pio Pico died a pauper in his daughter's home. "Only because my father learned English," my grandmother would say, "was he able to conduct business and prosper." Despite the fact that she knew the two languages perfectly, she and my father thought that it would be best for me to know only English. With time, my father changed his opinion, but not while I was a child.

At the time, these stories were not much more than a repetitive and slightly boring history lesson to me. The people in these stories died so many years before I was born that despite the presence of old photos lined up across my Grandmother's bookshelves, I could only envision them vaguely. While my father and grandmother talked, I would often go upstairs and play with the hand woven rugs and clay Indian pots that had come from the former family ranch in New Mexico.

Despite my grandmother's stories and the various shades of brown skin among family members, I never felt like our family was markedly different from our neighbors. We did eat some things the neighbors didn't regularly eat, like enchiladas and salsa but that didn't seem like a big deal. The Nordquist's ate pickled herring and the Goldberg's ate matzo crackers. Like the rest of our neighbors, my mother made Jello pudding and joined the ladies in heated discussions comparing the merits of Cool Whip and canned whipped cream. I thought we were all pretty much the same. That is, until the day I looked for the Mexican.

Ridgecrest Intermediate School had a split level campus. Walking up the double flight of stairs from the lower field to the main buildings I saw a boy at the top of the stairs yelling. I wasn't into boys when I was eleven years old, so I didn't pay much attention to him. I kept walking up the stairs, and he kept yelling, "Hey Mexican, Hey Mexican". By the time I was halfway up the stairs I wondered who it was that he was continually yelling at. I turned around, fully expecting to see an old Ranchero in a serape walking between the buildings.

There was nobody there. Nobody.

At that moment, all the little things I'd felt and heard over the years fell into place: The confused expressions that I'd see when I responded to questions about my skin color with a recommendation for almond lotion. The frustration my father would express at the dinner table when talking about not being allowed to join a Los Angeles businessman's club. My embarrassment over watching my father being patted down by the police while standing on the sidewalk on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, in full view of the restaurant we were headed towards, dressed in our Sunday church clothes. At that moment I realized that I was "the Mexican".

Until that moment, the things I knew were simple. I knew what type of dress was perfect for a piano recital. I knew that a man had to know how to tie a Windsor knot, because only little boys like my brothers wore clip-on ties. I knew about charity balls. I knew that a sandwich on white Wonder Bread was worth two Ding Dong cupcakes on the school lunch trade table. And I knew that the color of my skin was perfect because I had a tan, even in the winter.

What I didn't know was that the perfect color of my skin, my long wavy dark hair and the melodious sound of my Spanish name would influence how some people treated me. Awakening to this realization began the day I turned to see the Mexican.

Photo: Woman with Necklace & Straight-Forward Gaze, Catalina Pico, Granddaughter of Pio Pico, the last Governor of Mexican California, godmother to her namesake, Catalina Maria Ortiz. According to my grandmother, Catalina Pico would also call herself Catherine (in addition to Catalina) when she socialized.

Read More of Cristina's Books and Articles at http://www.cristinaacosta.com
All text and photos copyright Cristina Acosta 2008.

About Cristina Acosta:
Born in Los Angeles, raised Chicana and Catholic, and living in Bend, Oregon. Acosta is an artist, author and design consultant.
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