When my Guatemalan father started dating my Anglo mother, a man nudged him and said, “¿Mejorando la rasa, eh?” or “Bettering the race, huh?”
The comment made little sense to me when Dad told the story. If white skin is some sort of club, then my dad can’t be in it no matter whom he marries, and I wouldn’t qualify either. Yet, I am lighter-skinned than he is and my kids are lighter still, since their father is white. Also, I’m pretty Americanized, my kids even more so. None of this changes my father’s skin color or mine, but I’m starting to grasp what the man was getting at: whitening.
This “whitening” business assumes a lot:
- That marrying a lighter-skinned person is a “step up,” socially
- That marrying an American (specifically an Anglo-American) means undergoing total cultural assimilation
- That Anglo-American culture is better than Latino culture
- And of course: that white is better than deeper skin tones
Sadly, this involves some shame on the part of this man for his own culture and color, unless he was joking. True, my dad relayed the incident with a laugh, but I didn’t get the idea that the man was winking at a by-gone attitude. My strong impression was that this man was congratulating my father on winning the heart of a light-skinned American woman. Make no mistake, my mother is a catch. She’s smart, positive, musical, socially conscious, and energetic, but these weren’t the qualities she was being admired for in this “bettering the race” comment. The comment was prompted by her nationality and by the low melanin levels she inherited from British ancestors.
The remark revealed prejudice, but it also revealed assumptions about the results of inter-racial marriage. According to the whitening model, my dad was lucky to marry an Anglo-American because now he could act white, live white, and have kids who did the same.
My reaction to that? 😕 (confused face) and 🤦 (face palm).
Here’s the thing. Though my dad became a citizen and learned to arrive on time, sing “Happy Birthday,” and shovel snow, he remains a proud Latino. My mother enjoys her American culture, but also recalls her two years in Guatemala with great fondness. She drapes walls with Guatemalan weavings, sings Spanish love songs, and makes sure the TV bundle includes fútbol channels. Much about my childhood was American, especially in 1970’s Iowa, but Spanish lullabies, Spanish Scrabble games, and my dad’s voiced observations on both cultures were ever-present. Living white was never the goal.
Nowadays, most people realize that “whitening” oversimplifies and misrepresents the bi-cultural experience. Naturally, Latin@-Anglo families live out a range of experiences, from whitening to mixing to browning. Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez identifies four categories for inter-racial family styles in her article, “The Whitening Hypothosis Challenged: Bi-culturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Thank you!
Vasquez interviewed 28 people and observed these family styles:
- Leaning white
- Everyday bi-culturalism (casual mixing of cultures)
- Selective blending (deliberate incorporation of desired aspects of each culture)
- Leaning Latino
Vasquez emphasizes that these are nodes on a spectrum, with real-life families not fitting neatly into any one category. I see my family shuttling up and down this list within my lifetime and within decades. For example, I’d say we started out leaning white, with Dad learning English and attending a Protestant church.
Later, my parents became representatives of international flavor in my hometown, putting on presentations about Guatemala. Mom started teaching Spanish to me at this time, and I became aware of an everyday biculturalism. When we moved from Iowa to Texas, we tuned into Spanish TV stations and easily found foods like tamales, but eschewed the Latin world’s narrower roles for women. This slid us toward selective blending. I can’t say we truly leaned Latino except when Balcárcel family visited. For that day, we’d do everything the Latin way, playing marimba music, dancing, gesturing more, and speaking mostly Spanish, depending on which relatives came and how long they’d been in the States. When I married, our new family leaned white. I bought our boys soccer balls and had my parents teach them Spanish, but our home was basically Anglo — a little alternative, with vegetarian meals and a compost bucket, but Anglo. Had I married a Latino, I’m guessing we would have leaned Latino, but I married an Anglo man. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but my high school wasn’t diverse, and I married a classmate at age 20. College might have had more men of color, but I was a newlywed and didn’t notice. My graduate school was almost entirely white.
My sons are now in their 20’s, and one enjoys learning languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Twi . . . you name it! I hope his facility with languages was helped by early exposure to Spanish. In any case, I see him socializing with an international group of acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dated a woman of color or married one. If so, I’ll be curious to see how they build their bi-cultural home. Marrying white is okay too, as is not marrying at all. I just hope he’ll always be pleased to own his bi-cultural heritage.
I have this same wish for myself. As I age, I find that I want to brush up on my Spanish and note the details of my dad’s childhood. I’m playing chords he taught me on the guitar. I love my extended Anglo family, and I grew up with them, but I want to balance myself and not lose my Latina-ness.
About ten years ago, I learned that I have a half-sister in Guatemala. Azucena is a feisty, sensitive, intelligent, lovely woman. Though we need Google translate to communicate, we are getting to know each other. In her, I’m finding another link to my heritage and more reasons to keep Guatemala in my daily consciousness and in my heart.
Check out Vasquez’s full article! It goes into even more interesting places.
Reference: Vasquez, Jessica. 2014. “The whitening hypothesis challenged: Biculturalism in Latino and non-Hispanic white intermarriage,” Sociological Forum 29 (2): 386-407.
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