Layer 1: Heritage – Ancestral, national and ethnic background, including race and complexion
A contributor’s example of Layer 1:
It was the last day of second grade, and I proudly walked home from school wearing a beautiful yellow and black polka dotted dress that my mother had chosen for me the night before. Just earlier that morning, my mother had managed to neatly part my thick, frizzy, dark brown hair into four sections. She had adorned each section with twists and petite white bows and somehow, even by the end of that day, I had managed to keep my hair done as neatly as she intended. I wore my shiny black patent leather shoes – shoes that were generally reserved for church – complimented with white ruffled socks with tiny yellow flowers on them. Though I was quite the tomboy and generally shied away from dresses of any kind, I felt special – pretty even – as the bright colors and the reflection of the sun danced in beautiful contrast to my brown, milk chocolatey skin.
As I took the half-block journey to my home, I held my head high. Certificate in hand, not only did I feel pretty, but I had just completed second grade and would be going to the “big kid school” in just a few months. Nothing could steal my shine.
And then I saw her.
She was the mother of a little girl who also attended my school. She wore a plain white t-shirt and fitted blue jeans. Her short, relaxed hair was slicked back, and her bright red lipstick stood out in contrast to her dark brown skin. She was walking on the same side of the street as me, but in the opposite direction, toward school. As she approached me, she stared at me; I looked back at her with a small grin, assuming she would compliment me on my pretty outfit. But the closer she got to me, the more I noticed the grimace on her face. Just as she was about to pass me, she looked straight into my eyes.
“Ugly little girl,” she snarled, rolled her eyes and kept walking apace.
I wanted to hurl over from this gut punch that she landed, but I kept walking with her words resounding in my head with every step. When I arrived home, I did not repeat the story to anyone. It was too painful. It was not as if she was another little kid telling her opinion about me. She was an adult. Someone whose opinion I was taught to trust. Was she right? Was it true? Was I… ugly?
It was in that moment that I began to become keenly aware of my own beauty and place in the world. What did it mean to be beautiful? I became fixated on the search to discover what that meant. And, the further I explored, the more I began to understand the large impact that something as slight as my skin tone had in the way that others perceived me.
One of the most desirable features in the black community was to be light-skinned. If you were light-skinned, with more Euro-centric features, pretty hair and light eyes, you literally had it made. In contrast, the most undesirable feature in the black community was to be dark-skinned. As a rule, the more “African” a black person looked, the uglier they were. Looking African included features such as coarse, nappy hair, a wide nose and big lips.
From these life experiences emerged a rebellious, confident, beautifully brown and unapologetically black woman in her adulthood. A woman who now understands that the mother who called her “ugly little girl” was only projecting her own insecurities. A woman who understands that the color spectrum still exists but does not use it as a tool to limit or govern her potential. My story is about breaking free from the chains of colorism and embracing my beautiful life in full color.
Author’s example of Layer 1:
I was born and raised in Mexico City. I grew up and lived almost the first half of my life there, and I retain Mexican citizenship. Obviously and proudly, Mexico and being Mexican are key parts of my background.
This influences the way I see the world in profound ways. For example, it is the source of my perspective about the importance of the family as the nuclear social structure upon which all others are built.
Looking at my parents and grandparents, I need to expand my ancestral roots more broadly since about half of my lineage originated in the Basque Country.
My last name, Zaldivar, means “field of horses” in Basque. There is a charming little town in the Basque Country called Zaldibar, a few kilometers south of Bilbao, which my family and I visited years ago. My maternal grandmother’s family name is Tellaeche, which means “house with the tile roof” in Basque.
My father’s mother, Ana Baillères, was French; she and her family migrated to Mexico in the late 19th century, when she was a baby. My mother’s father came from the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago near West Africa. My father’s father comes from a long lineage of Mexican families.
It is safe to assume that, like most Mexicans, I have some indigenous, pre-Columbian blood as well as some African blood in my DNA. Let’s not forget: North Africans conquered and controlled most of Spain during seven centuries.
In 1984, I moved to the United States for what I thought would be only two years, to complete a master’s degree. More than three decades later, after a number of life events and deep reflection, I remain here. I am now also a U.S. citizen and was happily married to my lovely wife, Suzanne, for more than 30 years. We are the proud parents of two sons who were born in Washington, D.C., and are now mechanical engineers. I’ve now spent more than half of my life in the United States. So, I am equally proud to claim a U.S. as well as a Mexican background. Furthermore, I’ve had the privilege of having worked in more than 50 countries.
I’ve realized I do not fit neatly into any culture. I am routinely perceived as a foreigner anywhere, including Mexico and the United States. On one hand, I could feel like I do not belong anywhere, like a permanent outsider. On the other hand, I could feel like a citizen of the world. I’ve chosen the latter!