My name is Natalia and I am a Latina. I was born and raised in Colombia by Colombian parents. Despite the fact that I am constantly surrounded by friends and family who are Hispanic Latinos like myself and having, to my knowledge, no black heritage, I legitimately thought I was black for a considerable period of my life.
I was raised in a home with a TV in my bedroom that I was devoted to. The two channels I watched while growing up were Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Have you seen a Latina as a Disney princess?
The answer was always no.
I never found myself represented on TV. I saw black girls with pretty hair and white girls with blue eyes. There were some shows that portrayed Latino characters. The only character I could see myself in at all was Dora, from Dora the Explorer. However, her character came from a Mexican family and I was entirely aware that my heritage was not Mexican.
“But I’m Colombian. It’s not the same thing. We don’t even look the same.” As a young child, I was already aware that I was not a Mexican girl or a white girl. I had an idea of who I was not but I didn’t have an idea of who I was.
No one bothered to talk to me about race.
Because I was so poorly educated on racial issues, calling a person black felt like a bad word, and calling someone white felt strange as well.
Surprisingly, for a country like Colombia, populated by a very wide range of racial backgrounds, the people who I have shared my formative years with (read: children, teenagers) have as little knowledge about race as I do. It drove a lot of people I grew up with to look down at black people or even just people with skin that wasn’t light. We all have learned our beauty standards from the media which mostly had white characters portraying main roles, even in the local media.
Race became a taboo. “Black” was an insult said between kids at school. I went to a private school in which we had dark- to light-skinned kids, most of them with that signature Latino skin tone that is right in the middle. Nonetheless dark skin was always demonized.
I didn’t understand who I was. I looked at some of my friends who had very light skin and then looked at myself. My skin was darker.
I assumed I was black.
Since race was a taboo topic, I never had anyone discuss it with me, I assumed “Latino” was just a word for people who were born in South and Central America. Nobody told me my traditions, my family and my entire culture were my race, who I was. That my parents and close family (my dad’s parents, mainly) were not at all enthusiastic about their own culture didn’t help. They rarely participated in the traditions that define Colombian heritage.
I saw dark-skinned people demonized by children around me. I later understood, thanks to a comment my boyfriend made, that my country has perpetuated anti-black culture. When he came to visit from the United States he asked me why hadn’t he seen any black people.
“Oh, we keep them in the northern part of the country.”
It was then that I understood that we created a society that sends darker-skinned people to live in a part of the country that also happens to be one of the poorest areas. I was, subconsciously, part of a culture in which people casually say things like, “We keep them in a certain part of the country,” as if speaking of an exotic animal kept in a specific part of the zoo.
As I grew up, I understood for once that this issue didn’t just make a little girl not know who she was. It came all the way back from a system that demonized black people and a movie industry that made my culture stay silent.
I gained a voice to say no, I was not being represented because Jennifer Lopez was playing a maid in a movie.
Now, after all these years, I have seen an Asian princess, a Native American princess, a black princess and multiple white princesses, (it isn’t a coincidence that the most represented racial group within Disney is white) yet not a single princess who represents who I am.
And it isn’t just massed produced movies directed by white people. The local media, made by and for the people of my country shows an overwhelming number of light-skinned people.
It is a common problem in countries with high populations of colored people: the private face of the country, the dark-skinned people who have been doomed by a silent social and cultural arrangement to poverty and concealment, remains hidden.
It happens in places like India, Mexico and the Philippines. Google “Indian actress” and you will almost exclusively get light-skinned people, which does not match the large population of dark-colored people whose visibility is drowned by the shame of their melanin. You will get similar results, light-skinned people, if you google “Mexican actress” and “Filipino actress.”
But I have been waiting for years. That little girl who was waiting to see herself on TV is still here, holding onto hopes that one day we will have the correct representation in the media so our future generations do not get stuck in this poisonous social system that puts its own people down.
I hope to one day turn on the TV for the future family members I will have, and be able to show them someone like themselves on TV. Someone to look up to. People who are maids and plumbers but also people who are superheroes, princesses, and presidents.
I want to show the future generations the kind of sense of identity I never had and the kind of self-love for my skin and culture that society and TV took away from me by teaching me to ignore.