On Being Light-Skinned, Hispanic, & On The Hunt For A Foundation Shade That Doesn't Cover Up My Ethnicity

I am light-skinned and Hispanic. This is not just because of my Euro-American father, a man of mixed British descent, and his contribution to my gene pool. My mother, a native Salvadorian, is light-skinned and many of my Salvadorian relatives are light-skinned, too. There are even redheads, born in Central America to Central American parents, on my mother's side of the family. They grew up eating pupusas, playing in coffee plantations, and speaking Spanish.

Meanwhile, I grew up in suburban Washington, D.C. wondering, among other things, why so many of the stars of Latin American telenovelas were light-skinned like my family, yet my elementary school classmates couldn't believe my sisters and I were Latinas. And, once I reached my teens, why was shopping for foundation, concealer, and powder at the drugstore so darn hard? How come Jennifer Lopez seemed to be the only woman representing Hispanic beauty in mainstream American culture?

Before I ruffle too many tail feathers, let me define a couple of terms, going by none other than the dictionary (yeah, I'm pulling that one). The word "Hispanic" refers to anyone who can trace their origins to the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain and Portugal are located, though not all Portuguese embrace the term. "Latino" means anyone from Latin America or anyone descended from Latin Americans. Neither word refers to race; they refer to ethnicity.

So, a Spaniard born in Spain and raised by Spanish parents is Hispanic, but not Latino. Though many Latinos are Hispanic, not all are. Shortly after Columbus blundered his way to the Americas, the New World became a place where Spanish conquistadors, the indigenous people of the Americas, and African slaves mixed and procreated. So someone could have ancestors who were African slaves and the indigenous people but not necessarily Spanish conquistadors.

Granted, lineage in Latin America is a tricky thing to prove since the Spanish documented their slaves as property, not people. Indigenous people also didn't document their ancestors the way Europeans did, with inky tree drawings in thick books passed down from generation to generation. And let's be real: In the days of the Spanish conquest, mass rape was a problem. Historians may argue to what extent, but, even with consensual lovin', interracial marriage was discouraged, and the " mestizos " born from such unions had fewer rights than their European parents. Children born out of wedlock often weren't documented out of fear and shame.

This is all background that my progressive high school Spanish and history teachers pointed out, yet it does not seem to be common knowledge. To quote my little sister from a recent Facebook chat, one of the frustrations of being light-skinned and Hispanic is "having to educate others about how Hispanics come in all colors and it's not a race and how we aren't all Spanish."

Because I have light-olive skin, I am not always taken for Hispanic (or at least not Latino), which doesn't particularly bother me, except for the assumptions, or even accusations, some people make. Here is the first issue: In the United States, many Euro-Americans do not distinguish between the words "Hispanic" or "Latino." While my idealistic little heart wishes we didn't bother classifying people by race and ethnicity at all, the fact is that people do. Since semantics have real-world implications, we should use words accurately to minimize confusion, or at least try.

Second, many Euro-Americans believe that all Hispanics and Latinos are brown and short, with straight, black hair. This is not only untrue, but, as previously mentioned, there are numerous exceptions to this so-called rule. Upon hearing this, most people are happy to learn more, but I've seen some people get rude, even angry. They don't like hearing that they are wrong, especially if they hold unfavorable opinions of Hispanics and Latinos for whatever reason.

I've been told that I don't know what I'm talking about, that I must not really be Latina, that my family must be from somewhere else, that — again to quote my sister — "Latina is not an option." My mother likes to tell the story of the time a Euro-American man asked where she was from and she answered, "Central America." He replied, "Oh, like Kansas?" Multiracial and multiethnic people hear enough tiring things as it is; hearing a rejection of your identity, whether blatant or implied, doesn't need to be added to the list.

American society's reluctance to recognize and embrace the various colors in the Hispanic and Latino world is reflected in beauty and fashion marketing. The mainstream cosmetics industry caters to fair women or dark women as separate entities, but it doesn't know what to do with those of us who are in-between. I still remember my mother's excitement when Iman launched her cosmetic line in 1994. More than a quarter century later, why aren't more cosmetics companies getting that so-called "People of Color" come in a multitude of colors? Yes, my relatives and I benefit from the "white passing privilege" of looking European and I acknowledge that privilege — but being of a unique ethnic background brings with it unique daily challenges in things as large as racially-tingued conversations and as small as what concealer I buy.

It takes a gifted and unbiased makeup artist to properly blend my foundation. If someone perceives me as Latina, my skin may end up looking too yellow. If someone perceives me as a white American or Eastern European (which happens fairly often), my skin may end up looking washed out. In reality, my skin is fair but with a light-olive tint. There is yellow, but there is pink, too. Before I accepted this reality, I often did my makeup wrong. For that reason, it can be hard looking at photos from high school and early college, when I was either a Simpsons character or Strawberry Shortcake. Today, I usually eschew foundation, but when I do wear it, I'm more sensitive to the nuances of my complexion. The truth is, nobody's face should be treated like a paint-by-numbers, no matter their color(s).

I'm not saying that light-skinned Hispanics have it worse than anyone else. What I'm saying is that our plight is unique. I can use #thestruggleisreal seriously or satirically here.

Being light-skinned comes with its privileges and I recognize those privileges. In many people's eyes, my sisters and I pass as Euro-Americans or Europeans, not Latinas. Ditto for my mother and much of her extended Central American family. In Latin America, traces of the Colonial caste system still abound, just as the black-white racial dynamic still exists in the United States. At the top of the Latin American race pyramid are people with the most stereotypically European features. My family qualifies — and that fact will continue to benefit and burden us for as long as we live.

Having even a basic understanding of racial politics in Latin America might make more Americans compassionate toward Latino immigrants and humanity in general. To be dark-skinned, especially an "indio," or indigenous person, in Latin America can mean facing discrimination and social unease on a daily basis. That can include everything from coping with low self-esteem to dealing with violence and hate crimes. To be light-skinned may mean higher social status in Latin America, but, in the United States, it may mean having your identity denied. My inability to consistently find affordable makeup that works is a metaphor for American society's inability to fit me into a box.

Regardless of your skin color — regardless of whether you are Hispanic, Latino, or otherwise — your identity matters. Your culture matters. Your ancestors matter. Your story matters. All of our stories, with all of their nuances and complexities, matter, and those stories are told in part, but not entirely, through the color of our skin. Instead of letting skin tell the whole story, we should let people tell it.

Christine Stoddard is the author of the forthcoming book, The Hispanics of Virginia, which tells the story of Hispanic and Latino contributions to the Old Dominion. The book will be released by The History Press this fall.

Images: Christine Stoddard