Updated: Oct 23
“We are one single mestizo race from Mexico to the Magellan Straits”
- Che Guevara.
This is the line that always stuck with me from when I first read The Motorcycle Dairies as a teenager. At the time, I was just beginning to discover what it meant to be a young Chinese-Uruguayan woman born in Australia. I couldn’t speak Spanish and my skin was way too dark for anyone to associate me with the bronzed yet Eurocentric beauty standards coming from my dad’s home continent. The microaggressive “where-are-you-really-from?”, guess-my-ethnicity game never left anyone with the Latine answer I desperately yearned for. The feelings of otherness in Australia, as well as its Uruguayan diaspora, culminated in a burning question that I repeatedly asked myself: why could something as arbitrary and uncontrollable as skin colour and non-Eurocentric features make me feel so inferior?
My dad was born in Salto, a small town in the Uruguayan countryside near the border. There, in a small, agricultural nation wedged between Brazil and Argentina and atop the Río de la Plata, he was perpetually reminded of his skin. “Negrito”, they called him (2). My grandparents named him “Mauro”. Although Mauro may be an unassuming name, it served as another racial signifier, translated as “dark-skinned”: a perpetual reminder. As a child, my father found family dinners difficult. His aunt had married a white man who would take one look at my father eating his meal, pick up his plate from the table and scowl, loudly proclaiming that he would never eat at the table with him. When my dad was a child, no one came to the defence of my father’s skin. To try and remedy his racialised situation, my father was taught European etiquette. How to use cutlery the “proper” way, how one should always keep their elbows off the table, and how one should speak with the Castilian Spanish of the conquistadores (3). A local teacher who had recently emigrated from Spain took him under her wing, using the curriculum of ‘White Man’s Burden’ to give him more access to that special brand of ethnocidal Uruguayan whiteness.
In 1970, he migrated to Australia in the wake of the White Australia Policy. Before, he was committed to only Spanish, but now he was only committed to speaking English. My dad refused to teach me Spanish. “Speak proper English”, was how he used to chastise my sister and me. I myself was born in Sydney in the early 2000s, a time where school was filled with the befuddling delight of multiculturalism lessons on a Tuesday and then on Wednesday being told my skin looked like bird shit. With the aid of my dad’s stories, I romanticised Uruguay all through my childhood. Recently, when I finally met who I thought would be a like-minded Uruguayan, I opened up a discussion on race, privilege and whiteness in Uruguay and its Australian diaspora. She told me to get over my racial traumas: of course, I wouldn’t feel a sense of belonging in Uruguay, but maybe if I went up to Peru, I would feel more at home because I looked like “those” people.
A few years ago, my dad passed away from a rare blood disease. On his deathbed, a Spanish interpreter was called in as per Department of Health protocol. So acculturated to Anglo-Australia, the interpreter chuckled awkwardly before confessing that he couldn’t actually understand the unique brand of Spanglish my dad was speaking. Sorry Che Guevara, but if my father’s story shows anything, it’s that the unifying mestizo race is a myth (4). It’s a myth of post-racial ignorance that breeds internalised racism, where Black, Indigenous and people of colour once again bear the brunt of insidious standards of white skin, language and culture.
1. Mauro means “dark-skinned”, an ethnic signifier for someone of North African or “Moorish” descent.
2. Negro and Negrito is Spanish for “Black man” or “little Black man”. A racialised signifier relating to the colour of one’s skin, most in Latin America do not consider calling someone Negrito to be racist.
3. Conquistadores is Spanish for the European invaders that mainly committed genocide against Indigenous populations.
4. Mestizo is Spanish for “mixed-raced person”. It is a term that refers to how Latin American society is completely miscegenated to the point where race does not exist.
Deborah Prospero @deb_prosp is an Australian born Chinese and Uruguayan woman. Deborah explores her Latine and Chinese-Australian perspective and her racialised experiences through both creative poetry and prose.
Attempting to come to terms with her “in-between” identity, she mostly writes about Latin America- a homeland she has never physically been to.
Her heritage as a Uruguayan woman rediscovering her Indigenous roots given the Charrúa genocide has led to a deep interest in decolonising work through Indigenous epistemologies.
Deborah is also a raging intersectional feminist.