When I was in elementary school, my dad’s friends who lived a block away from where we went to church gave dolls to my sister and me. My sister’s doll was in a plain pink onesie, but mine was in an ornate dress with lace details and little embroidered flowers. Both dolls had the same rosebud mouths, wide, expressive eyes with the little reflection marks painted into them, and button noses. But my doll was a smooth, satiny brown, while my sister’s was an in-between pink beige. I wanted her doll, not mine.
I didn’t want a doll that reminded me that my eyes were a common brown, and that my hair was brown. I wanted the blonde haired, blue-eyed doll like the one my sister had - like a lot of my other dolls, and like all of the women I thought looked the prettiest in the movies and television shows I watched.
I wanted to be like them. They took my brownness away for a little while when I watched them on the screen. They made me wonder what bleaching hair was like, or how much it would cost to get it done. I was convinced that they where what pretty was. They had to be. They were the only girls in movies who were the “pretty ones.” They were the only girls all the guys liked. They were the protagonists. Every aspect of the movie was a piece of their inner monologue - the world was theirs, not mine.
And because of them, I didn’t like my little brown doll.
I sat on the couch in my parents' friends house, next to my sister, and looked on as she gave her doll a name, played with it, and changed its clothes. My doll just sat on my lap - I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with her. We went home later and I placed the doll on my side of the bed, and wouldn’t really play with her. Whenever my sister’s doll was unattended, I’d try to get ahold of it so that I could play with a doll that I thought was pretty.
My mother eventually noticed.
“All dolls are pretty!” she tried to tell me. “It doesn’t matter what color it is.”
I liked that she told me that. I liked that she said that everyone was beautiful, but I didn’t know how to explain that I saw how other adults treated kids who were lighter than me.
Despite going to school with kids whose parents came from all over the world, and despite going to mass with Latinos from all over Latin America, wearing a full range of complexions, even at elementary school I noticed that the “cuter” kids everywhere were the palest - oftentimes the blondest, or the ones with the lightest-colored eyes. The ones who resembled the porcelain dolls that I liked looking at in the second-hand shops I went to with my mom.
Anyone who was lighter was described in Spanish as “elegante” or “fino.” Eurocentric features were given all the prettiest words in both English and Spanish and, even though no one outright told me that those features were the best, I knew right away what they meant when an older relative called someone “classically beautiful.” Adults around me wouldn’t outright say that my tan wasn’t nice, but I remember being encouraged to stay out of the sun. I wasn’t told to cover up because it would stop skin damage - I didn’t learn about that until a few years later, and for a long time thought the whole point of covering up was to avoid changing skin color.
No one has to tell a child specifically that what they look like isn’t adorable enough – they learn it in other ways. All anyone has to do is to make sure that they don’t exist anywhere – not in a book, as a fairy with a beautiful dress; not as a movie star; not as a doll.
I think that’s why I stood in front of the large mirror in the bathroom of the apartment where I grew up and tried to glue baby powder onto my face to look paler. Family was visiting us from the Caribbean that week and I had gotten a tan at the beach, so I was afraid that they would think I was ugly. I peeled the tacky layer of powder off and almost cried when it caught on sensitive places.
One of the few things that made me feel better was when the literature anthology at school had a story that was actually in both English and Spanish. The people in the drawings were all shades of brown and tan, and I liked seeing them on the pages of my book (I read the story again during my break time). I felt the same excitement when a cartoon on television had characters with parents who had Latin American accents. Characters in Dragon Tales would mention having uncles in Mexico. Characters in Max and Emmy would casually speak Spanish and have all kinds of friends. I needed to see them like that, being themselves in both languages and wearing their tans like it was nothing.
I slowly began to wear who I was, and liked appreciating the different shades of tan and brown that I saw around me, and eventually began to see being represented in media. When my house finally got Wi-Fi, I would binge-watch hours of YouTube videos of all kinds of people being funny, talented, and creative. I craved being able to know that someone who looked like my community, like me, could be admired - could be considered good enough. The older I became, the more I began to appreciate my community and myself. Thanks to my laptop, I also had more access to different genres of music found in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where my family is from, and I fell in love with the lush orchestration in Hector Lavoe’s music, with the straightforward beat in bachata, and the melodic swing in old boleros.
But my favorite song of all was “Piel Canela”, or "Cinnamon Skin". It was one of the only songs I could find in Spanish where the singer went out of his way to say that the person he loved had black eyes and brown skin. The song went on to say that it was those dark eyes and skin that drove him to the brink of desperation and back, that made him sing about how life would be amazingly dreadful if he ever lost sight of her – if he ever lost sight of her eyes. Even losing the stars in the sky wouldn’t amount to being apart from his beloved.
I replayed the song over ten times that first night - I didn’t know that singing about eyes that weren’t blue or green could be so beautiful and thoughtful. I didn’t know that wooing someone in song over their cinnamon-colored skin could be so sensual, but also so enchanting. I was obsessed. I still am.
Listening to that song, I remembered how I had rejected that doll so many years ago before I understood that any color could be beautiful, before I had heard the lyrics “cinnamon skin…black eyes…that take me to the throes of desperation…”
The doll is somewhere in my mother’s daycare now, along with a lot of my other old dolls who are blond and blue-eyed. The darker doll is still in her beautiful dress, and she still has the reflection bubble in her eyes. Some of the kids she takes care of cradle her and give her names. One of the kids showed it to me and said that he thought the doll was the prettiest one. I laughed and agreed, because he was right.
Angely Mercado is an NYC based freelance writer whose work has appeared in NPR Food, The Lily, Lenny Letter and more. She writes about Latinidad, intersectionality, and NYC news. Connect with her on Twitter.