For many families, the summer months are revered as the most special of the year. Filled with days of leisure, vacation and adventure, the magic of summer has school-aged kids counting down the days until it arrives. The sun shines bright, the days are long and the pavement beckons for exploration.
As a child, I remember inhaling the fullness of summer freedom — staying up until the wee hours of the morning, waking up after lunch and riding my bike down to the shores of Southern California beaches to meet up with friends. Wearing shorts and a bikini top, and unfortunately not an ounce of sun block, it would take a week’s worth of summer vacation before my Cuban skin turned many shades darker. After the whole year without it, I began to hear the word prieta used within my family.
Honestly, I never even considered the word an insult. All my friends were white Americans — as the only Latina, I was by far among the darkest — and they all seemed to work hard for the tan that my olive skin achieved without effort. “You have the most beautiful skin color,” they would say. “You’re so lucky! You tan so easily!” I had never been hurt by my school-aged girlfriends. In fact, during those summer months, it was my primary goal to get as dark as I humanly could. Everyone looks better with a tan!
It wasn’t until I married my African American husband, had his children, and met other families like mine, that I became aware that basking in the sun of summer months was ingrained with a fear of becoming prieto. Only recently have I understood the insult behind the word, pegged squarely on what happens if you embark on too many sun-filled adventures. Dare I allow my children to sink their toes in the sands of beaches, swim all day at the hotel’s pool or ride their bikes outside while the sun sits strong against their brown faces? The risk of becoming prieto is almost certain for my biracial and bicultural kids. And regardless of who it comes from, I refute any claim that keeps my children hidden from the joys of sunshine.
Latinos come in all shades, but we still revere the most light as beautiful. Why is that? Phrases like mejorando la raza bring question to the pride I have in my heritage and make me worried for the challenges my children will face as dark-skinned, bicultural Latinos. The summer months are meant to build family legacy — traditions and bonds, alike. I’m not afraid, nor ashamed, of our darkening, brown skin. But still, I wonder, do you believe there is insult in being called prieto?