Why is what is beautiful to some cultures considered unattractive in others? In this series, Document investigates ideas of beauty, class, and race around the world—and questions how we can shed this social conditioning.
It was a magazine cover that caused an Instagram sensation. Last December Vogue México debuted a cover featuring Yalitza Aparicio—the dark-skinned, Oaxacan lead actress of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a moving black-and-white narrative that tells the story of a wealthy Mexico City family’s maid who becomes pregnant—dressed wearing a Dior look inspired by escaramuzas, fashionably-dressed Mexican rodeo women. The cover image went viral, with a number of people praising it.
“This is a dream made into reality!!!”
“Without a doubt, the best cover in years.”
“Finally! Some color!”
The groundbreaking move was the first time that Vogue México put an indigenous woman, who would also be the first to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, of that skin tone on its cover. Prior to that, women on the cover tended to be thin, tall, and light-skinned.
“Even a friend of mine, who is of Mexican descent, never lived in Mexico, lives in Texas, she’s very indigenous looking, American, third-generation American,” said Karla Martinez, the editor in chief of Vogue México and Vogue Latin America. “She was like, you don’t understand, I was so happy to see someone like this because no one that looks like me has ever been on the cover.”
That’s because in Mexico, beauty is in part defined by the color of your skin. The terms guera and guero are reserved for fair-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed people, while prieto refers to dark skin, and negro and negra is used to label black people. Morena, meanwhile, can be used to refer to someone whose shade of skin color falls somewhere in between the two extremes. Chino and China are used for Asians.
“In Spanish speaking countries, at least in Mexico, it’s not [always] racist or derogatory to say that to someone,” explained Martinez of the Spanish-language racial designations. “It’s not like they should feel insulted, which is obviously just like cultural differences between all of our countries.”
The editor even recounted an experience in her own family. “My aunt was married to a black man and they called him El Negro,” said Martinez, who is of Mexican descent and grew up in El Paso, Texas. “It’s not like racist, it’s more like—I could say it’s a term of endearment in a way.”
“In Mexico, the society, the more blue eyes and yellow hair that you have, the more beautiful you are,” said Carla Fernández, a fashion designer who grew up in Mexico City with a Cuban father and Mexican mother.
Hector Meza, a writer and mezcalier who recently returned to live in Mexico City at 36 after moving to the United States at 14, recalls being teased as a child while attending a fancy progressive private school in Mexico. “I was one of the kids with darkest skin among other upper and upper middle class kids,” he remembered. “I used to be teased for it, being called ‘monkey,’ among other things.” He recalls being relieved when a darker student joined his class. “They used to call him ‘el negro’ while using an Afro-American inflected accent,” said Meza, who regretfully admits, “I even participated in calling him that.”
Meza remembers that as a child, his mother used lightening creams. “That she used them, I thought it was normal,” he said. “I wanted to be whiter too when I was a kid.” A recent visit to a pharmacy in Mexico City showed that serums and creams labeled despigmentante (depigmenting) were on the market, but those were more likely a solution for hyperpigmentation. “I think she wanted to fit in, to be ‘more beautiful,”’ said Meza. “Beauty standards in Mexico are incredibly eurocentric.”
The attitudes towards skin color in Mexico started with the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire during the 16th century. That’s when lighter hues were introduced and the mixing between the white conquistadors and the indigenous populations began. Like many third-world countries that were colonized by Europeans, white became defined as beautiful, while dark became less attractive.
But, the preconceived notions about skin color in Mexico are more about class than race. According to a 2017 study by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project, the lighter your skin tone, the more educated you’re likely to be, with people with white skin completing 10 years of school on average versus six-and-a-half years for those with darker tones. Wealth also correlated with skin color; Mexican households earned $193 a month on average, but lighter-skinned households earned $220 a month, while their darker counterparts earned just $137 a month.
In Oaxaca, perceptions are a little different, says Oaxacan Chucho Ortiz, the owner of Archivo Maguey, a mezcalaria in Oaxaca. “A lot of people in Oaxaca are brown skinned and there is not a lot of conflict. When I was in Mexico City, maybe there was a sense of discrimination, but it was from a socioeconomic standpoint. Most of the people in Mexico associate brown skinned people with the lower class.”
“If you think about the example of the telenovela, you had the dark housekeeper, the blonde owner of the house—it’s always such an issue—the indigenous woman would never play the owner of a house, or hasn’t been in recent years, so there is an unspoken classicism,” said Martinez.
“They are very poor people with very few opportunities, especially if you are indigenous because you have your own language, and Mexico can be terrible with indigenous communities, even though we still have many indigenous communities,” added Fernandez.
The fashion designer then told the story about the time she jokingly suggested her friend, who is a dark-skinned business owner, date Narcos actor Tenoch Huerta. Fernandez was shocked by her response, especially because her friend has the same skin tone as him. “She said that instead of going out with him, she should hire him,” recalled Fernandez. “Because she has a company, a very big company. And in Mexico, people tend to think that the people that you hire have dark skin. They are the workers.”
Fernandez says that her own fair skin tone attracts questionable comments. “Every time I took a taxi or I was in the market or a lot of things that I do every day, they call me, ‘Hey, guera, where are you from?’ So I’m like, ‘Oh, oh. No, I am Mexican.’
Attitudes towards skin color in Mexico are slowly shifting, thanks to things like Cuarón casting a woman like Aparicio in Roma, and Vogue México subsequently putting her on the January 2019 cover. Meza said that the ‘80s and ‘90s were a different time in Mexico and that most of his classmates are now lead progressive and aware lives, and that it’s now seen as desirable to be in touch with one’s indigenous roots because of the boom of natural products based on traditional Mexican medicine.
“It gives hope to different girls that maybe don’t look like the typical Mexican actress looks would hope that they two could be actresses, and hope that they could be the lead role in the movie, and then can be on the cover of Vogue, that the ideals of beauty are changing,” said Martinez, who has also put darker-skinned models Luz Pavon, who is Mexican, and Dominican Lineisy Montero on covers.
“We need to work all together to understand that we deserve the same opportunities,” said Fernandez, “not because of skin tone you have.”