“No te lo puedes pintar rubio. Te lo digo como papá. No se va lucir bien.”
“¿Tú crees? Pero yo odio mi pelo.”
“Tienes una cara indígena, como yo, como nuestra familia. Si te lo pintas, todavía vas a tener la misma cara.”
This was the conversation I had with my dad after I sat him down to tell him I wanted to dye my hair blonde.
It was the third grade and I didn’t want to be Honduran anymore.
He told me that I have an indigenous face, like him, like our family, and dyeing my hair would have no effect on this.
I was heartbroken. I felt as if every day I woke up to a body I didn’t recognize. I was bullied at school for the features that made me distinctly Honduran: my dark bushy hair, my small upturned eyes. At night, I would pray to God that I would wake up the next morning with straight hair and round eyes. I thought He had put me through enough; surely I deserve to be beautiful.
I’ll admit though, my elementary school was cut-throat. At school, I noticed there were these sorts of arbitrary structures. If you weren’t conventionally attractive or had an identifying characteristic, like being a math whiz or a track star, you were excommunicated. Forever an outcast. If you fell within these criteria, you were well-liked. You were rewarded for abiding by this structure and punished if you didn’t.
After some reflection, I’ve found that these structures, as frivolous as they may seem in the context of my childhood bullies, have masqueraded themselves throughout history, literature, and contemporary American culture. It’s common knowledge that humans are innately social beings and crave organizational structures. This explains why we’re drawn to creating institutions like governments, religions, and even tribal communities; all to sustain order in our societies. It’s the same idea time and time again, just now it was reincarnated by elementary school students.
The gifted program at my elementary school had a unique execution. We had our own building separate from the non-gifted students, special field trips, and our own t-shirts. Some of my peers felt that because we were gifted, we were superior to students who were not. That our differences in hair type and interests were significant enough to determine who you speak to and who you don’t. While this is extremely problematic, it’s reminiscent of the ideology used to justify racial superiority and other forms of discrimination. It’s clear that the issue wasn’t my peers—they were only mimicking the world around them. The real issue was the structures that enabled this type of thinking. The type of thinking that pins people against each other. The type of thinking that has led to world wars and genocide. The type of thinking that condones racism, classism, and xenophobia. But most importantly, it’s the type of thinking that has been the catalyst to revolutions, reforms, and social movements.
Humans seem to have a fascination with these institutions. I’m reminded of how throughout literature, specifically the dystopian genre, authors tend to play up traditional community structures either through the suppression or distortion of them. As a sophomore in AP Literature, we analyzed Huxley’s Brave New World as part of the required reading list. In Huxley’s universe, the caste system predetermines the roles for each individual and established a culture that encourages people to interact solely with those in their class.
Unwelcome in Miami
All this brings me to my next finding: the Spanish colonial caste system has seeped into the fabric of modern-day Latin American culture and the Miami Latinx community. Those who are white-passing (the descendants of the Peninsulares) are seen as more attractive, intelligent, and financially successful. While those —like my family— who are indigenous or black, are predestined to achieve less favorable outcomes. These ideas have become second-nature for many in the Latinx community. I like to call this a “thought matrix,” and a thought matrix is difficult to pull yourself out of.
Here’s the tricky part about being in a thought matrix: you may not even realize you’re in one. I believe this is why my childhood bullies —white-passing and beautiful— felt compelled to belittle me. Their ancestors have done it for hundreds of years. The only solution is through the active rejection of the problematic prejudices of our forefathers. I seek to achieve this in my own life through my storytelling and my journalism: two components of my identity that I feel are interdependent. Journalism is storytelling. Storytelling is journalism.
My fascination with storytelling is what draws me to history. I’ve become incredibly excited by the complex nature of it and the way in which the unity of people fighting to achieve a common goal has shaped the America that we live in today. It’s made me thankful for the people, particularly the women, who came before me and fought for the rights of marginalized groups; groups that I identify at the intersection of. It has established the idea that if I don’t continue to advocate, to carry the torch, and keep their mission alive, what did those people fight for and would they be proud of the work I’ve done?
With this hindsight, I believe we must look past our differences to set an example for future generations because we have the power within ourselves to create a world worth living in.
Emily Rivera is a high school junior from Miami. She is a newsroom intern at the Miami Herald, where she covers education. You can find her on Twitter at @EmilyMRivera.