The Last White Girl in El Paso

Thoughts on My Body: Sexuality, Feminism and Self-Concept in Generation X

I wasn’t always the ugly kid in school. Petite, small-boned, with flaming red hair in curly ringlets and pale freckled skin: I hardly had a chance. I sailed through early childhood oblivious to my own rareness at first. My grandmother loved me so well as a little child that I never knew how unusual I was; I couldn’t have been prepared for the glares and stares I’d get later on.
Maybe it was normal to feel ashamed as a child. Children are famously cruel to their peers. Maybe I was naive even then. I was an orange-headed alien in the land of Latino Meeps. Why, oh why, must I be born a Moop?
“Carrot top.”
“Shirley Temple.”
“Orphan Annie.”
Then came the pale skin names:
“Get a tan!” If only I could.
The truth is, as much as I found their lack of humanity or tact absolutely vile, I envied them, too. They could play in the sunshine. Their skin glowed like sun-kissed goddesses. They could wear bright floral dresses and bold lipstick, whereas I had to be much more cautious. I learned to avoid the midday sun and clothing in bright colors – nearly everything clashes with red hair and pale skin. I think it would have been less painful had we lived anywhere but El Paso, Texas. I was a hated minority there, especially among young Latinas near my age. I pretended not to care, but their comments shaped my wardrobe, changed my lifestyle and hardened my heart against other young women.

One summer when I was thirteen, I went with two friends – Lucia and Renee, who were half-Latina sisters from my neighborhood – to the local pool. I’d bought my first bikini the week before with money I’d earned babysitting a neighbor’s little boy, and I was eager to join the other teens in the summer swimsuit strut ritual. The water was churning with of kids of all ages. It was wall-to-wall adolescents and children. Teenage boys gawked and girls tittered and practiced alluring poses. The neighborhood pool was a hormonal hive. And even though it was literally 110 degrees outside, I was determined to “get some color.” I found my way to the big flat concrete slab that served as a tanning area for women and teenage girls, spread my worn bath towel down across the pavement (I didn’t have a beach towel like everyone else), slathered on some baby oil and lay in the scorching midday sunshine.

Ella se ve como un pollo recién horneado.”
“Do you know what she said? She said you look like a chicken freshly baked.”

There I was, laying and cooking and pondering the dubious wisdom of my choice to sunbathe, even though I had never gotten anything more than a sunburn in the past, when I heard a girl pass by and say to her companion “Ella se ve como un pollo recién horneado.”
Lucia laughed, “Do you know what she said? She said you look like a chicken freshly baked.”
I’d understood the slur against me, but hearing it uttered again in English was even more injurious to me. I was like confirmation and agreement. My girlfriend just laughed and laughed. People were staring at me, possible to see my reaction.
“What the fuck.”
I was torn between anger, indignation and shame. I covered my pale oily body with the old bath towel and found shade under a tree some distance away. Hot tears of shame brimmed in my eyes, but I made sure not to let any tears escape. I walked home, crammed my new bikini into a dark corner of my drawer, and I never went swimming at the neighborhood pool again. Although I’d been ridiculed many times for my pale skin before this, it had never stung quite so much as this.

Why should it be undesirable to have skin of one color and not another?

I was humorous, fun, kind… and white. Whenever I try to describe to anyone the difficulty of being one of the few Caucasian kids in my high school, they invariably laugh. Perhaps it skirts too closely on a difficult topic. After all, aren’t whites supposed to feel guilty for what our pre-Civil War slave-owning ancestors did? Aren’t we whites also expected to swallow the hatred directed at us by embittered people of the world? Isn’t white guilt commonly held to be a prerequisite for diversity and change? If so, if this is the way things really are, then what recourse could I possibly have when I am the victim of such bigotry? Some would even say that I deserved it. But I know this: Pain is pain. With so much sadness already in the world through inadvertent means, such as sickness and death, how could it seem logical to add to this pool of misery and deliberately be cruel to anyone, ever? Malice is draining and poisons the soul. Love is easier. It feels good. It heals.
Anger can be a formidable ally. I’m not talking about the reckless kind of anger that lashes out and makes a fool of out you. I’m talking about intelligent anger, which plans, and is ever so patient. You can even justify this kind of resentment, citing its ability to “make you stronger.” Not that I buy into that kind of thing, but knowing that the option is available to me confers a certain freedom from oppression. But how can I become the devil that I detest? Wasn’t it fear – hate’s brother – that led those girls to ridicule me so thoughtlessly?
With this sentiment residing in my thoughts, I move forward through my days, remembering the hatred that left me cold and stole my dignity, at least for a little while. I strive for poise and acceptance, and tend to fall somewhere among confusion and gradual enlightenment. To date, however, I refuse to be a bigot, and I still wear my bikini.

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