When Brendan and I attended language school in Cuernavaca, we stayed with a family. One of my favorite people in our large pseudo-family was the abuelita, the grandmother. She was diabetic, well into her later years, wore thick glasses that frighteningly magnified her eyes, and shuffled around in house shoes and a housecoat. Since she spoke with a garbled lisp, I couldn’t really understand most of what she said, but she smiled and laughed a lot. (She instantly taught me the word mosca (fly) by dramatically swatting away any gnats and warning everyone around her that “moscas!” had snuck inside.)
One night, as we wrapped up watching a telenovela with the entire family, Brendan and I stood up to go upstairs.
Us: Buenos noches a todos!
Abuelita: Buenos noches los gueros! (Good night white people!)
OK, I thought. She’s old.
Then, on another evening, Brendan needed to go back downstairs for some water. The family was still sitting around the kitchen table, chatting. Abuelita spotted Brendan first and warned the family that he was approaching by semi-shouting not his name, but Guero!
Abuelita, in other words, was the first person to introduce me into the weird world of racial relations in Mexico.
But then, as my Spanish improved, I noticed it wasn’t just abuelita who called us out on our skin color, it was also vendors, including the guys who roam around in trucks trying to sell complete furniture sets.
“Pssss….Guera, guera, blanca, blanca,” one man said to me, “Quiere comprar una sofa?” (wanna buy a sofa?)
As I’ve learned to do with all street peddlers, I smiled and said “no gracias.” And tried to not fume over the way he got my attention.
Mexicans handle race and skin color much differently than we Americans. It clearly takes some steeling-of-the-soul to be called “white person” so pointedly, and I’ve been assured many times over by locals that it’s meant as a term of endearment. You could say I’ve come to accept my lot in life here. Sometimes I blend in (people ask me for directions somewhere, in Spanish) and sometimes I don’t (“hey whitey whitey whitey whitey, wanna buy a sofa?”)
I have often wondered what it would be live to here as an African-American (or even just visit as a tourist) both because it’s rare to see a black person in Mexico, and also because, like white people, black people too are called out for their skin color.
Case in point: An extremely wealthy Mexican bread company has started selling “Negrito” twinkies, and they’re as every bit as tacky as they sound.