Before heading out to play soccer in Colonia Moderna, February 2008; a.k.a. the “before” photo
It wasn’t until January 2008 when, for the first time in my life, I became a minority. It was kinda strange, but I didn’t realize before I got to Mexico that I would end up standing out so much.
Now, there are plenty of light-skinned people in Mexico. But in the poor areas, many have not been personally exposed to people who look and act differently than they do.
I remember being at the Quinceañera (15th birthday party) of my to-be sister-in-law, a couple of weeks after my arrival, and the young Mexican girls grouping around me to ask me questions.
They asked about my freckles. They asked if they could touch my skin. I held out my arm to show them, welcoming any curiosity. They softly pinched my skin, feeling it between their fingers as if to confirm that it was composed of the same material as their own.
No, I don’t dye my hair. Yes, my eyes are naturally this color.
It was kind of neat to be an ordinary girl making an impression. I had never really been that girl before — at least not because of my appearances or where I’m from. It reminded me of being back in 3rd grade, when I met my first black classmate. She was super-nice, but I’m sure it took time and frustration before she could really settle in. I finally got a glimpse of what that was like — yes, only a glimpse… because the stereotypes for gringas in Mexico are a whole separate set than blacks in the U.S. (there are various positive and negative stereotypes and opinions for gringos in general. Some people love us, some hate us).
Street scene, downtown Monterrey after a peregrination in November 2009
A couple months later, when we drove out to Anahuac in the coastal state of Veracruz to visit Aron’s grandparents and other family, everyone would stare when I walked by. Walking to the store with Aron’s little cousins, nosy neighbors would shout out and ask who I was.
It was alright to stand out back then. But as time went on — with elevated violence, rape, and extortion (due to President Calderon’s war* against the cartels, along with a web of other causes) — it became less and less exciting to be the “different” one. It was safer to blend in with the rest of the group, and to not have nice or uncommon appearances.
We would see checkpoints or convoys of Mexican army, Mexican Federal Police, city police, or Civil Force just about every time we left the house in our vehicle. Helicopters overhead, more often. At first, it made me feel safe.
But with continuing discovery of corruption in politics, the armed forces, and at just about every other level of authority… when we drove through the checkpoints or witnessed the convoys speeding by on the highway and displaying masked, heavily armed men, it was hard to know whether they were on their way to patrol, to rough someone up, to create a distraction, etc. Once we saw police trucks flying through the Moderna with their vehicle IDs covered up with newspapers… uhm…
When the good are bad and the bad are bad, where do you turn?
All of this made it more difficult to drive to Veracruz each year; we actually didn’t even make our annual trip to the coast last year. It was tougher to drive comfortably around town. It started to make me nervous to walk to the quinta.
That’s essentially what it has come to at this point. With news stories and frightening personal experiences fueling the fire, my paranoia of potential victimization skyrocketed.
Making our transition to life in the U.S., I was surprised by the fact that my temperature would rise and my hands would shake on the steering wheel when a local police car passed by. I felt nervous being outside in the open in the neighborhood, playing with my son. It’s not something I can control, but after almost a year back in Indiana, it has gotten better.
*I’m not opposed to the war against the cartels. However, the war began very late in Mexico’s history compared to when it should have been put into play; so it led to a wave of crime all over the country, affecting citizens and tourists of all socioeconomic levels.