By Kenia Torres
For my sixth birthday, my aunt gifted me a Mexican folktale collection about powerful indigenous women. My favorite story was “Rosha and the Sun,” in which a Mayan girl helps liberate the sun after it’s stolen. I’d flip through the pages entranced by the illustrations of women in colorful rebozos, embroidered dresses, and braids entwined with vibrant ribbons.
By the time I turned ten, however, the Mayan women were long forgotten— pushed to the back of my shelf and shielded by books with characters who looked nothing like them and nothing like me. Instead of longing for the cleverness of Blancaflor or the determination of Kense, what I most desired was to have blonde hair and blue eyes.
Picture this. You’re still a kid, walking down a beach in one of the whitest parts of New Jersey. After being smothered in ten layers of sunblock, your mother continues to grill you about walking in the shade because god forbid your skin turns a darker shade of brown— as if you weren’t dark enough already. Meanwhile, in the sand, several blonde teenage girls lie together like kebabs on a grill absorbing the sun’s rays. They flip themselves every once in a while and reapply a lotion that will make their skin the same color as yours, but for them it won’t be a burden.
In middle school, most of your classmates are Eastern European. You have a crush on your friend, a boy with strawberry-blonde hair and freckles. According to the BuzzFeed quiz “Does Your Crush Like You Back,” he feels the same way. You lack audacity, however, and never confess your feelings. Instead, you wait it out in hopes that maybe, in between an awkward silence or in the form of an unexpected text, he might profess his love for you.
Instead he tells you about a problem his sister is having.
She’s dating a Middle Eastern guy who doesn’t meet their father’s standards since he isn’t white, and is threatening to stop paying for her college if they don’t break up. There’s a pause, and though something inside of you is begging you not to, you ask what he thinks. He hesitates, then utters the words responsible for the death of the butterflies which once fluttered in your stomach. “I mean, I kinda get it. He’s thinking about their kids. Mixed babies are disgusting.”
At home you ask your mother for permission to bleach your hair and purchase colored contacts. When she refuses, you confide in YouTube for alternatives. As it turns out, apple cider, lemon juice, chamomile tea, and cinnamon all serve as natural hair lighteners. Nonetheless, after multiple attempts with each, your hair, unwilling to succumb to your petty desires, remains jet black.
During the summer you go to Mexico. At the markets the sweet smell of ripe guavas, vibrant colors of produce stands, bitter samples of fermented drinks, and most importantly the sound of the vendors’ calls, awaken your dormant senses. “¡Pásele, guerita!” Stop by, blondie! they exclaim as you walk by. Guerita: a term of endearment used to refer to someone with blonde hair or light features. And although you are well aware that that is merely what they call everyone, regardless of whether you actually are “guera” or not, you feel a sense of pride being addressed as such. It’s as if somebody has finally confirmed the whiteness you’ve been trying so hard to convince others you possess.
It’s not until you find yourself holding a bottle of honey above your eyes, waiting for it to drip into your iris— as the video “how to lighten your eye color naturally” suggested, that you realize you’ve gone too far. In the mirror you catch glimpses of yourself and feel a sense of shame, but look away and up into the bottle’s eye.
The one thing I’ve always disliked about honey is its thickness. Being a big food-texture person I always found the idea of eating honey unpleasant. I do, however, have honey’s consistency to thank, for standing there, waiting for the thick goo to pour out, gave me a moment to think. Did I really believe the possibility of changing my eye color was worth the risk of blindness?
I blinked before the honey could meet my eyes and stared into the mirror, eye and hair color still as they were before. It was then that I remembered Rosha. Who liberated the sun from the net it’d been trapped in, and in return received, as a gift, the promise that her eyes, and those of all Mexican women, would possess the same sparkle as its own golden rays and shine for eternity. I saw it then, the shine in my own eyes— the gift from the sun which I didn’t want to lose. While I used to think I resembled Rosha, in hindsight I think I have more in common with the sun. Our shine obstructed at some points in time but never gone and always ready to resurface.