Have you ever watched those films back when people went to war, and they would smear paint on their faces? I have. Growing up, I have seen indigenous communities be depicted as wearing war paint (though we know that Hollywood likes to make anyone who is not-white seem like savages and dangerous). Yet I have also seen basically anything that young Mel Gibson was in that depicted wars and warfare.
This gesture of painting one’s face, even within the fictitious guise of Hollywood, has always fascinated me. I have been entranced by the idea of war paint, since I first saw it ritualistically and dramatically get smeared on warriors faces. Furthermore, when I moved to the South, and started getting racialized by white people, my understanding of oppression became intimate. Moving to the South means learning a certain set of defense mechanism that mirror the aforementioned war paint.
So every morning before I go out, I put on lipstick and the colors usually match my mood. But my intentional application of said lipsticks is my version of war paint.
When I smear these pigmented sticks on my lips, as an immigrant brown Latina in the South, I am preparing myself for war. And this is not war as we would understand it, but rather a metaphor for what it means to be a non-white person in places like Nashville, Tennessee.
The subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism disguised as well-intentioned curiosity consistently has left me feeling disarmed, vulnerable, and therefore exposed. I remember when I first moved to Nashville and being out at a bar attempting to enjoy myself, and a white man rubbed my exposed shoulders while asking, “Is your skin really this color?” He assumed I had tanning spray on, or had gone to a tanning bed, because he had never seen someone with my skin tone before, and in his “well-intentioned curiosity” he had managed to other me. This was just one example of what I experienced when I first moved to a predominantly white city. These disarming comments never get old, and I never grew accustomed to it—rather I learned a particular kind of survival tactic. I have learned to arm myself, to adorn yourself accordingly, and lipstick is one of those armaments.
However, this transition of learning new coping mechanisms has taken my years to learn because I am also unlearning my own biases against heavily made-up women. I did not grow up wearing lipstick, other than the occasional night out as I grew older. And if I ever did wear lipstick, I felt self-conscious. I grew up in a conservative church where women’s clothing, makeup, hairstyles, and even mannerisms were heavily monitored and controlled. All these things were reflections of our souls, or at least that is the theology that we were told. Good things were blessings from God, bad things were punishments from the same God, and how women functioned were reflections of their souls, husbands, dads, God, etc. Essentially, if you loved God then you did not need outsider-affirmations, because God was all you needed.
So when I began to realize that I wanted to wear lipstick, I carried this strange (yet very much learned/taught) shame that was given to me through this church. As I grew older and attended seminary, I realized how much the particular theology I was taught about women was actually bad and even dangerous. Realizing how policed I was growing up by my church has made me more determined to reclaim these things that were weaponized against me.
Furthermore, within my own personal growth and radicalization I began to gain the confidence to finally wear makeup on a regular basis, and to wear lipstick on a regular basis. And then somewhere along that journey, I discovered the power of makeup, and specifically the power of lipstick: the power of femme armor. I discovered how to create and curate a version of myself that helped me manage life in the South as a brown Latina immigrant from Nicaragua.
Now I am adamant about upholding and elevating makeup as war paint, as it is the reality of tons of femmes who have also framed makeup as war paint. Interestingly, how someone approaches a Latina wearing anything red says more about that person than anything else. The spicy Latina stereotype depicts Latinas as fiery, and thus associates us all to the color red. So I learned to pay attention, and I have learned to adjust my behavior according to how people react to me wearing anything red.
Red is my color, and I have a feeling it will always be my color. Red lipstick is an homage to the tired spicy Latina troupe, but it is also my middle finger to those people who sexualize me without my consent simply because I am Latina, simply because they have never been exposed to someone like me.
Racism comes from places of ignorance, but that does not mean that I am going to be the one to constantly educate people how to approach me. Simply because I exist does not mean that I must have my own body and features weaponized against me.
I dare someone call me spicy.
I walk with that challenge on my lips.
I am ready for war, and I have my armor on.
Because existing in this skin, existing as an immigrant, existing and enjoying myself is a confusing reality for racist white people who cannot wrap their minds around people like me loving ourselves and thriving.
So instead of feeling unprepared, as I initially felt when I first moved to Nashville, I stand ready to protect myself: wearing my red lipstick.
Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez is a grassroots foreign citizen, maneuvering and resisting assimilation and respectability politics through what she calls her a chonga Mujerista ethic. She is the founder of Latina Rebels, an online platform that boasts over 200K followers. She is from Managua, Nicaragua, currently living in Nashville. Prisca has written for Philadelphia Printworks, TeleSur English, SupaDaily Latin, Huffington Post Latino Voices and other publications. Her interests are within biopolitics as it relates to Latina embodiment, specifically concerning models of conquerable flesh around narratives of naturalization for women of color. ¡Que viva la mujer!