Latinos, we need to talk honestly about race and how colorism divides our community.

The racist conversation with Nury Martínez, Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León and Ron Herrera is shocking but not really so surprising.

Many of us in the Latino community have heard friends and family members use racist language. We also have been the victims of racist language – anti-Black, anti-Brown and anti-Indigenous – and sometimes from those within our own community.

But we can’t stay silent any more.

In Spanish, we too often describe people by their skin tone. You know the terms used in Spanish for Brown, Black or white people. The diminutive “ito” often is added. We can’t accept this as cute or sweet. It’s patriarchal and racist.

As a Brown woman, I’ve been called “morena.” This could be a compliment or an insult. 

“Eres tan morena,” or “You are so brown,” someone told me recently.

In Mexico, I’ve also been called “india.” This also was meant as an insult. 

The Indigenous people in Mexico face rampant discrimination. It’s disgusting how the so-called Latino leaders spoke about Oaxacans in the recording. The Indigenous people of Mexico deserve much more respect as human beings for their contributions to history and culture.

Some Latinos would deny that they even have Indigenous roots. “That’s not my culture,” a Brown woman in Mexico once told me.

The words that Martínez and the other council members expressed and condoned are unacceptable.

Let’s be honest. We’ve heard people in our community use similar words, including some of our grandparents and parents.

We have to call out these terms when we hear our friends or family members use them, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

A friend of mine told me that he heard his grandmother refer to Vice President Kamala Harris by her skin color and not by her name or title. He was afraid to correct her as she is an elder. 

But we have to start.

“Abuela, ya no se usan estas palabras. Es racista,” one could say. “Grandma, we don’t use those words any more. It’s racist.”

To understand, this racism that divides us we only need to look to history and the horrible legacy of Spanish colonization and genocide.

Some Latinos identify more with the Spanish roots. A young woman I knew in college, whose parents were from Mexico, told me she was Spanish and French. She said this with pride and also a sense of elitism as she was white passing.

This idea that you are more attractive if you are white is constantly reinforced in Latin America and that translates to the U.S. through media representations. All you have to do is turn on Spanish-language television and what you mostly see are white people in the news and the entertainment shows. The darker skinned people are usually the servants in the telenovelas. 

In some Latino families when a child is born with light-colored eyes or hair, this is often praised. 

“Que bonitos ojos azules,” I’ve heard. “What pretty blue eyes.”

I’ve never heard someone in Latino culture praise a baby’s brown eyes.

These distorted classist and racist beliefs elevate those with more Spanish blood and features. The media representations also shape how society defines beauty and this is translated to many of us as children.

“Don’t stay in the sun too long or you will turn dark,” some of us have heard.

There should be no shame in being Brown, Black or Indigenous.

These messages are deeply internalized and lead to self-hatred and racism of the kind we heard in the abhorrent recorded conversation. 

We can’t treat this racist controversy as an isolated incident. We have to call it out when we hear it in our families and workplaces. We have to hold people accountable when they use this language. Silence makes us complicit.

Teresa Puente

Teresa Puente has spent her career reporting on immigration and Latino issues in the U.S. and has also reported extensively from Mexico. Previously, she was a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune and...