I remember my early childhood in Barrio Altagracia in Managua, Nicaragua. It plays in my head like a dream, the way childhood does for many of us. I recall afternoons eating pan dulce with my grandma, and playing behind el porton with children from el barrio – my cousins, my brother, and any children my grandparents let in. In the midst of those pleasant memories, I distinctly remember how it stung when adults, sometimes people I loved, would shout “salite del sol, te vas a poner oscura!” Whereas to me, the sun was a symbol of playtime rather than bedtime, to many grown-ups around me, including teachers and neighbors, who had marinated in the colorism-culture of colonial mentality that exists in Nicaragua and in many places once colonized by the Spanish or British, it meant that my skin would get darker, and they wanted to avoid that at all cost.
At that young age, I could not make sense of why I should want my skin to be light. I thought my skin was just fine, but after repeatedly hearing that being brown was bad, I started to feel that there was something wrong with my cinnamon skin. At the tender age of five, I began internalizing the idea that beauty was not brown – beauty was white.
That year, my family, packed up any belongings that fit in a suitcase and booked a flight to the United States, where I’ve lived ever since. I didn’t know what would await me here, but I had heard many wonderful things. Within the first week of school, a little girl mocked me for speaking Spanish and made fun of my “silly” hair. I wondered why my curly, dark, hair was silly, while her straight, light-brown hair was not silly. These kinds of comments continued throughout elementary school and middle school, and the kids saying them were of many different shades.
In high school I was outgoing, and despite all the microaggressions throughout elementary and middle school, I felt “pretty for a brown girl”, as I had been called so many times, and I walked around confidently through the halls. I went to a suburban predominantly white high school in Silicon Valley, which meant that microaggressions were the norm. The first time my friends called me Consuela, I laughed along. I didn’t quite know what they meant, and I figured it was just friendly banter. The second time, it felt less funny as I was with a group of classmates, all white, all laughing in unison at the sound of the name that echoed in the room: Consuela. I was jokingly asked to clean up a spill. That night, I decided to search it online and found that they were calling me Consuela from the series Family Guy, the stereotypical Latin-American housekeeper. Frustration crept into my mind as I thought of all the Latin American housekeepers I knew, and how much I loved them. Why should we make fun of housekeepers? And why should they determine I am a housekeeper based on how I look?
I quickly realized that the seemingly harmless joke was actually deeply racist and classist. Slowly, I stopped hanging out with that group, but the damage had already been done. I wanted to be seen as beautiful and successful like many girls might want to feel in high school. I started flattening my curls with a hot iron, I spent every penny on what my white classmates were wearing, like Uggs, and I kept up with the trends I saw in magazines, all adorned with light-skinned models. Without consciously acknowledging it, I was removing any semblance of my Nicaraguan features.
I don’t think my experience is unique. I think my experience is one of many among women of color. We want to feel beautiful, and beauty in mainstream media is not made of color. Beauty in the dominant narrative is maintained by staying out of the sun. This is the first beauty lesson many women of color get, and it deeply impacts our self-image and understanding of how we should exist in the world.
By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to feel more secure in how I looked, naturally, but I didn’t know where to look for help. All the media I consumed was made by white folks, for white folks. Even the books I had read in high school were all about, well, white people. History books also prioritized white lives. It felt as though I lived in a world where I was a side character or ghost. Where was there space for brown folks to be the protagonists? I remember imagining an alternate universe, one in which big brown curls and brown skin were celebrated and sought after. For a while, I thought this world could only exist in my imagination and then I started college as a literature student.
“Was colonization good?” my professor asked on the first day of our postcolonial literature class. “Yes”. A young Colombian student named Gigi responded, passionately. “Without colonization, the Americas would not have the civilization they have today”, she continued. “No”, I thought but did not have the confidence to say out loud. “The Americas were extremely civilized before any Spaniard stepped on the land”. I wondered why our professor would ask such a divisive hypothetical question.
Literature and friendship saved my life. I would have been a ghost otherwise. The semester’s reading list was composed of Carribean-focused books I never knew existed. Among the titles were No Telephone to Heaven by Jamaican-American writer Michelle Cliff, Wide Sargasso Sea by Dominican-British author Jean Rhys, and poems like “Little Brown Girl” by Jamaican activist and writer Una Marson. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to literature written by and for people of color. As I would read, I would imagine the protagonists, all beautiful people of color. Though none of those books explicitly said “black and brown girls are pretty”, they did something much more profound. They centered BIPOC experiences without a white filter. They captured Blackness and brownness, authentically.
We were not side characters, we were the main characters, and that revolutionized my entire self-perception. By acknowledging my full humanity, by making me a living character rather than a ghost, I felt important. I felt seen, I felt valued, and to top it all off, these stories, just by existing and centering Black and brown folks, made me feel beautiful. The way I existed naturally was how I should exist, and these books, these authors, knew it. We are and should be the main characters of our own stories.
As I continued my studies, Gigi and I became close friends, and would often have long conversations about what it meant to be immigrants, what it meant to be brown women, and how we could uplift each other. Through friendship and literature, we helped each other decolonize our minds, a non-linear, ongoing process. At the end of the semester, our professor asked the class again, “Was colonization good for the Americas?”. The question was not divisive anymore. We all agreed. Colonization was not good, and decolonization was the goal.
It only took humanizing the colonized to arrive at that conclusion. A huge takeaway from working to decolonize my mind was embracing and loving my brown skin. The reason that insecurity had developed was rooted in my own internalized colonial mentality – naming it and working to undo it is what liberated me and my brown skin, which I now love and cherish.
After I graduated, and to this day, I prioritize reading books and engaging with media made by and for BIPOC. I have dived into books from South and Central America and Indigenous authors, and with each book, a part of me is restored. Not only am I beautiful, I am also powerful as I am. Slowly, I returned to the little girl who dared to play in the sun, without fearing getting darker. Now, I celebrate the many shades my skin becomes throughout the seasons, and I face the sun without restraint.