Fighting Stereotypes: “But She Looks So Indian, Too Bad”

A family friend gave birth to a newborn a few days ago. Everyone gathered around the baby and played with the her soft hands, her button nose, and her tiny feet. People cooed and made funny noises to the baby. The people commented on her features.

“She’s as tiny as the aunts – now that’s a trait!” Everyone giggles.

“She got her abuelita’s nose. Who would’ve thought?” Everyone laughs. The abuelita gently smiles. She asks someone to bring her the baby.

“But she is so Indian, too bad. She would’ve looked better if she were as light as her father.” Everyone sighs. Even the grandmother.

Hold up!

Are you hearing what I’m hearing?

“But she is so Indian, too bad.”

I asked a bit annoyed, “What do you mean ‘too bad’?”


“She is tipica, you know. Super brown and chola hair. Plus she was born in the USA.” Then, she turns to the great-aunts with a question. “In our family, we have Spanish blood. Blue eyes. Thin nose. Light skin. But I wonder why this baby is so brown in the first place?”

They sigh again as if this precious gift of life FAILED to inherit the most “beautiful” physical trait: the White features.

 My mother darted the DON’T-YOU-START look. It was not the right time and place to discuss such matters. But I thought about the times my very own family used to say things like this to us – to the new generation.

Both of my grandmothers acted like they were on top of the world when they lived in New York City – the American dream. Their Ecuadorian families respected them for their courage to face a new life and a new culture. Therefore, both families assumed my grandmothers had tons of money with their new acquired social status as las americana.
My paternal grandmother wore her hair pineapple style. It was even the pineapple color: blonde. She was a tall and robust woman. She wore Macy’s high quality dresses, a gold watch, and pearl necklaces – even when she was at home all day. She made sure she walked like a Hollywood star in her neighborhood – and people respected her.

So one day, I asked her out of curiosity, “Mamí, who are our ancestors?” She took care of 8 kids at the time, including me, so my question came out as absurd.


“We’re Ecuadorians, my love. We come from the Spanish Barrera family. It is said that a long time ago, when Ecuador was still a colony, the Spanish Barrera started a new life there – like us in New York City. The father figure owned a hacienda. He had three daughters, one of which was your Great-great-great Grandma Eva. Well, she was a writer, a poet, and a novelist. Her writing got published in many newspapers in Ecuador. But that’s a whole other story. Eva fell in love with the overseer of her hacienda. He was poor like the rest of them, and her father didn’t like that because they met in secret.”

“The father gave Eva an ultimatum – either she goes with her lover or she stays with the family. She chose to leave with the overseer, rode their horse, and started a new life elsewhere. She married the man, but she lost her inheritance – something we could all make use of nowadays.”

One of my cousins shattered the plates in the kitchen. She left me with more questions.

Later that day, I found her sitting next to the window. She stared at the kids playing basketball in the streets and young mothers talking to their husbands in the park. She could see the birds fly over the trees. She felt the sun shine her face.

“Abuelita, so what happened to them?” I asked with a chipmunk’s voice in the background.

“Who?” She was caught off guard. “What are you talking about?”

“Eva and her husband,” I said shrugging.

“Yes, yes, Santísimo,” she said recollecting her thoughts. She positioned herself to face me even though the sun shone her cheek. Her pineapple hair looked white with the reflection.
“Eva and her lover left the hacienda and rode through the forest, the hills, the rivers, and the mountains. Many day later, they finally arrived to Guayaquil. This is where they started their new family. This is where their kids grew up to be healthy and strong. This is where they had their grandchildren.”

“Then came a day when Eva got sick and was sent to a private clinic. A doctor checked her health, prescribed her medicine, and talked to her husband about possible cure. Ay Santísmo, you should’ve seen their reaction when the doctor looked through her records and asked, ‘You’re Eva from the Molestina family?’ She nodded. ‘Tía, I’m your nephew. We’ve been looking for you all these years.’ So the story goes, they talked for weeks until the day she died. She did not get to see her family, but she sure died knowing that at least she was able to reconnect with somebody.”

“Wow,” I tell her. “What about the lover?”

“We don’t know much of his story. What’s important is he married a woman of high class – we have Spanish blood!” She emphasized. Then I look closer at her pineapple hair and like the fruit itself she had hints of black hair.

Years later, I did my independent research in addition to my college work to find out about Eva’s husband. I read books to learn more on Ecuadorian history. I searched online to track the Molestina family. I pulled scholarly articles from JSTOR about haciendas, colonial Ecuador, slaves, etc.. I did not find his name, but I found a story that spoke on behalf of people like him – whose stories were left in the forgotten.

In colonial Ecuador, haciendas expropriated Indigenous people from their land. Indigenous people were forced to work as slaves. They were baptized into their master’s surname, and took his culture, his religion, and his tradition.


There was the Casta, too – a system that categorized people according to racial backgrounds. The Casta included the following: the Peninsulares (the Spanish); the Criollos (Spanish-born in the colonies); the mestizos (mixed-Spanish/Indigenous); mulattos (mixed-Spanish/African); Indios (Indigenous); and Black (Africans), and a set of ridiculous hybrids based on blood quantum (sambo, cholo, castizo, etc.). The system encouraged the separation of thought process, behavior, expectation, and stereotype associated with each racial category – which, in turn, empowered the elite and suppressed the discriminated.

The general logic: The lighter your skin, the better your socio-economic position in a white-mestizo colonial society.

The Casta perpetuated for many generations after the colonial era. Actually, we ARE living the same system where identifying as a Mestizo is much more convenient than identifying as an Indigenous or as Mulatto. The worst part is the Casta is in everyone’s mind in Latin America. The future of your kids depend on who you marry, who you socialize with, and who you work for. If you look “Indio” or” cholo,” society will encourage you – through media, politics, and costumbres – to marry a white-person to strengthen your socio-economic position in the future. For those who prefer not to mix, Indigenous people have the option to abandon their traditional clothing, their braids, and their language, and in their place, wear Western clothing, comb their hair, and speak Spanish fluently.  Therefore, they can pass as mestizos.

This is the narrative of mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous people when it comes to culture, politics, and land sovereignty in relations to blood quantum and ethnic labels. The Casta empowers the elite and the lighter-mestizo and castigates the brown-mestizo, Indigenous people, mulattos, and Afro-Ecuadorians.

“But she is so Indian, too bad.”

The Casta also perpetuates stereotypes associated with Indianess. For example, why do we have shows like La India Maria or La Paisana Jacinta that portray Indigenous women as “stupid” and “brutes” – often ridiculed by urban mestizos? When I was little, my entire family watched La India Maria and laughed at her “Indianness” in urban spaces where she was always corrected by the society. Why do we say un “indio civilizado” versus un “indio salvaje”? What does that even mean? Sometimes, I think there is no difference between the both. It just empowers the civilized – the one who assimilated, the one who adapted, and the one who was colonized – to disenfranchise the savage – the one who wore plumes, the one who worshiped rocks, and the one who walked naked in the forest.

MariaNicolasa video-paisana-jacinta

“Don’t be Indian.”

This is a common phrase used in Latin America to correct a person who does something “stupid.” Once again, this phrase incorrectly protrays Indigenous people as uneducated – unless they assimilate.

“Eres Cholo” or “Vos es Longo”

In Ecuador, a lot of people use “cholo” and “longo” to discriminate Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous people. In the Ecuadorian context, “un cholo” is associated with stupidity and backwardness. In Guayaquil, “un cholo” is a person from el campo. “Un cholo” is a person with strong Indigenous features and super moreno skin. “Un cholo” is a wannabe mestizo who tries to fit in dominant urban society.

In Quito, “un longo” is a person from rural Andean towns. “Un longo” is a person with existing Indigenous ties to his or her current place of origin. “Un longo” is a wannabe-white.

Both serve to put down a people who might be proud of their Indigenous roots, but feel the need to cover up their cholo-ness and longo-ness under the mestizo label.”Cholo” and “longo” is equivalent to “indio” and “stupid.” Who wants to identify as such in the social context? In family settings? In the census?

I was recently corrected by a reader that the Ecuadorian government does provide an opportunity for Ecuadorians to identify as “Indigenous” in the census. I want to give a shout out to the person who brought this to my attention. Perhaps I was not clear with what I wanted to say so I will elaborate here. The Ecuadorian government allows the following options: White, Mestizo, Indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Montubio – the latter is a new addition to the mixed (Blanco, Indigenous, and Afro) population in the Ecuadorian Coast. However, the real challenge is how does the census get to the people? Are they accessible or inaccessible to ethnic groups in various locations? Is the government still excluding other ethnic labels that we do not know of?

In my article, recently published in Indian Country Today Network Media, I mention that Comuneros in Santa Elena Peninsula had the following option to identity as such: Blanco, Mulatto, and Mestizo (please consider the aforementioned correction in the last paragraph which includes all ethnic labels since 2010).  What I meant to say was their specific ethnic label was not included in the census. In this article, Comuneros from Chanduy district complain the following:

In Santa Elena, the Comuneros want to identity as Cholos. And they complain that their ethnic label is not included in the census.

Comuneros feel the ethnic label Mestizo does NOT correctly identify their cultural history, tradition, and people. Comuneros are in the process of re-claiming their Wankavilka roots to protect their lands and cultures from expropriation. In their opinion, “Cholo” becomes a tool that empowers them and separates them from the Indigenous and Mestizo space for various of reasons. In my oral tradition, my family says we come Indigenous ancestors, but we identify as Comuneros today.


In Santa Elena, comuneros identify as Cholos because it closely describes their existence as an ethnic group that acculturates from one era to the other -pulling a rich history of 12,000 year-old-Indigenous culture and including new cultural elements to their Comunero identity. “Indigenous” to them means a group of people who maintain their traditional clothing, roots, language, and land since the beginning of time.

Cholos live in their ancestral land and maintain their Indigenous culture, but they adapt to new clothing and language in order to keep up with global technology and better use of communal economy.  I’m a Comunero from my mother’s side. I speak English fluently and acculturate American elements as part of my identity. But I also pull Spanish, Kichwa, Huancavilca, and Sumpa cultures with me – and this does not make me any less Indigenous.

The ethnic label “Cholo” is not in the Ecuadorian census – which means they have two options: Mestizos or Indigenous. They oblige-voluntary identify as Mestizo – a blanket term that covers up discrimination and encourages assimilation of all ethnic groups regardless of their historical origins, colonial trauma, and ethnic traditions. They do not feel comfortable identifying as Indigenous because some, more than others, believe they are not Indigenous as the Tsa’chilas, Kayambi, or Shuar Nations, to name just a few. Also, they get backlash from Indigenous communities because Comuneros do not “look” Indigenous, and by this, they mean Comuneros do not wear traditional clothing or speak their Native tongue. In Silvia Alvarez’s research, however, Comuneros are the most “Indio” in the Ecuadorian coast and Andes regions. In fact, they are full blood Indigenous people who possess a half a million hectares which makes them the largest ethnic group in Ecuador.

The mestizo concept does not equally glorify two cultures. The dominant Euro-centric culture overpowers the Indigenous one – providing an opportunity for discrimination with words like “cholo” and “longo,” land expropriation, and much more. In this case, ethnic Comuneros with “mestizo” label become an invisible ethnic group in the Ecuadorian coast – a total of 200,000 plus people – at risk of losing their lands.  Large corporations expropriate them from their ancestral land due to the mislabeling since 1982.

Comuneros demonstrate that language is key to empower a people. Cholo is a negative term in Latin America, but Comuneros transformed it into a positive label for self-identification.

This goes to all of us – not just Indigenous people in the Americas. Have you ever wonder how one word can impact another person’s self-esteem? Have you asked yourself what the word originally means? Let’s take a look at how we can raise awareness in our communities.

I hear kids in school say “that’s gay” when they really mean to say “that sucks” or “too bad.” Using the word “gay” hurt a large group of people who identify as queer, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender, and serves to reinforce negative connotations and stereotypes with the word. The original meaning is “joyful” and “happy.” The word “gay”  can negatively impact a person’s self-esteem when used incorrectly.

In Ecuador, the Tsa’chilas People had a reputation based on the “one word” every Ecuadorian used: Los Colorados. They were called “colorados” because of the red taint on their hair, but the Tsa’chilas collectively felt it was offensive to their people, their history, and their youth. The red means salvation to them. It saved them from an epidemic disease that hit their region centuries ago. They wear it in honor of the sacred medicine. Even though it’s part of their identity, they feel it does not correctly identify them. The Tsa’chilas pushed for national recognition of their true name. Now, they are referred to as Tsa’chilas, not Colorados – thanks to raising awareness.

Even using simple phrases like “the lighter, the better” can be damaging to those who do not have light skin color. They feel ugly and out of place . Instead of celebrating diversity, only one color rules them all. Like in the movie Precious, she sees herself as WHITE in the mirror – a reality that many people of color sometimes try to live up to.

The next time I see a baby that is too brown or too  cholo-looking, I will raise awareness by asking people “Why would you use x word to describe x situation?” Think about it – just by asking you can change the world one step at a time.


This entry was posted in October 2013 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Fighting Stereotypes: “But She Looks So Indian, Too Bad”

  1. Alejandro Hernandez says:

    As always, quite interesting your posts!
    Understanding that the internal relationships among families are very complex and sensitive to small changes or pushes, and that a a family is in itself a social mechanism of survival, help, safe net, etc, I can understand that your mother’s reaction and order to stay quite may be found in such a context.
    However, I also think that those who are more enlightened and can comprehend social issues in a more profound way (such as yourself), should also exert their voices (agency), and create ruptures, uncomfortability, and annoyance at every chance as a mechanism to generate (guided) self-reflection, self-recognition (positionality), and point out to the very core of the beast (Othering, whiteness as a result of white privilege, racism in various forms and levels, overt and covert), which is quite profound and embedded among many people in Latin America.
    Staying quite (except when in itself is a strategy of survival, maintenance of support, agency, etc), may just prolonge and keep alive a racist system. (Just to be quite clear, it is not a criticism, but a small, contextualized analysis that tries to show and ampliy the agentic capacity of individuals in specific social circumstances that deal with (c)overt racism, Othering, discrimination, etc., and to situate that agency in a different fashion. We certainly need changes, and they can also start at the micro-level).

    • Hi Alejandro, thank you so much for your insights and thoughts in my recent blog posts. I agree that staying quite cannot be prolonged in general and in this context, it was so much out of respect for the relatives. But also, I felt a need to speak up because the system will keep perpetuating unless someone brings awareness. Thanks for your comment and I will keep this in mind moving forward.

  2. Edwin Merino says:

    This is completely true. Even when it is subtle and unconscious, there still exists an overwhelming preference in Latin American society towards light skinned and “european” features. Unfortunately, the casta system still exists socially and economically.
    In the last 200 years since Latin American independence, the hierarchy of the casta system has only been reinforced. Indigenous society has not been permitted to contribute to national identity beyond an aesthetic and superficial level, and is only acknowledged as part of a mythologized interpretation of the past glories of the Aztecs and the Incas. We should not only be proud of our indigenous past, but our indigenous present as well.
    Great post Santy!

  3. Thanks Edwin for the comment! I completely agree with your opinion especially the part where “We should not only be proud of our indigenous past, but our indigenous present as well.” Awesome quote!

  4. Maurice says:

    I find this very interesting. In many ways, ideas among my people (Yavapai-Apache Nation) and many Native North Americans are the opposite, as in “too bad, he/she doesn’t look Indian enough…” I have a Native mother and a white father, and so I inherited characteristics of both sides. I’ve been told, “you don’t look Indian.” It’s unfortunate, but many Natives I know have internalized ideas of indigeneity based on phenotype. For many “full-bloods,” if you don’t “look Indian,” then you aren’t Indian. Blood politics are very strong here. I drive around our rez and I often see stickers on cars that say, “FBI: Full Blooded Indian.” Thanks for your blog post. Lots to think about…

    • Wow that is so interesting. I did not realize how strong the the blood politics are in the rez. Where I come from, though, there are Indigenous people who camouflage as mixed to gain an” acceptable” social position in the dominant society. This camouflage protects them from discrimination at the expense of abandoning their culture. So being a brown mestizo phenotype-wise can be a hit or miss whether or not a person is actually comes from an Indigenous Nation or “looks” Indian but is not affiliated with a particular Indigenous Nation. This is a reality down there but some of the mixed-Indigenous people are now aware and are returning to their roots and ancestral lands especially when they experience the American culture. Thanks for your insight!

      • Maurice says:

        This was certainly the case a few generations ago. My great-grandfather, for example, was Panwee and lived in Oklahoma, but then moved to Arizona. In Oklahoma, where the Indian population was high and Indians exerted a relative degree of power in territorial and state politics, he had less reason to hide his Pawnee identity. He even worked at federal Indian schools for a time. But, when he moved to Arizona–I don’t know if “hid” is the right word–but he certainly didn’t advertise his Indian identity, since it was not to his advantage in racist Arizona (not much has changed in my home state). Nowadays, though, especially with the advent of Indian casinos and casino money, in many tribes you cannot be enrolled unless you meet the 1/4 Indian blood requirement. This turns the “less is better” paradigm on its head, as now more Indian blood is better…

  5. Michelle says:

    It’s a very big prevalent problem in Latin America that light skin is the best :(. I can say this as a Mexican who looks very white. I am not 90% European I am only about half European yet my looks deceive so much. I am told by other you are a white hispanic and I am like I am not white! A white hispanic is a spaniard in my opinion and I am not a spaniard or a full blood at that. It drives me up the wall to hear it because I don’t like people trying to tell me what my ethnicity is because I am completely aware of it. I know what my genes are not other people telling me what they think they are! I have a mixture of people in my family both of very dark skin and very light skin. I am told oh you don’t look Mexican or I am called “guera” a term used in Mexico for a very light skinned Mexicans. I have no problem identifying myself as a mixed blood or mestizo and that is what I am despite my looks. I could care less if I am considered higher class or I am valued or judged on my looks. It’s so ridiculous yet it’s like I have stated before in another place it’s a world problem. In Asia, India and the Middle East light skin is most desired. Mexico got rid of the term Mestizo in it’s census. The last time it was used was about in the early part of the 20th century. The choices being Indigena, Indigena mezclada con blanca, Europeno. This was in the 1920′s I believe when they used those terms in the Mexican census the last time. They rarely use the term Mestizo mainly for ethnic studies of Mexico’s population is mostly when it’s used other wise it’s pretty much an obsolete word. You know it’s funny I have been told by natives in the USA that we are not real natives! I am like are you serious? I have been accused of being something I want to but am not! I have heard some really ridiculous and insulting things by some natives in the USA and it just disgusts me the treatment of my own people here as being less than or insignificant because they are Mexican natives or as they term not Native American! I am like I am North American Indian so that is a fact that they can’t change. Labels have so much power in the states it’s just so darn sad and it’s the government’s fault in my opinion 😦

  6. Robbie says:

    The reasons white people ( across time ) have been able to thrive is largely because they can look down on blacks, asians, and indios. I expect that this creates a complex social structure as time goes on. I often get angry when a Mexican American says ” I’m Spanish with some American Indian. ” Personally, I take not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of shame that they can’t say ” I’m native American with part Spanish ”

    The history of Mexico is one where the Spaniards, French, Germans, Irish, Russians – and more or less everyone came and tried to wield their influence over the ignorant peasants. I have no idea what my lineage is. I have heard that I have Spanish and French in my blood, but the most important part to me is that I have Cora Indian in my blood.

    My white anglo saxon step-father used to describe things done badly as ” The Mexican way ” of doing things. Using a word like “gay”, “n*gger rigged”, “punjabi”, or “Mexican way” any equally demeaning terminology is just another way of putting down an entire race, ethnicity, or culture. I for one am proud of my heritage.

    Own your heritage. I or one would be happy if I had a daughter who looked more india than white.

    • Thanks for your comment! I did not even think of the point you just brought up: “I’m Spanish with some American Indian. Instead of I’m native American with part Spanish.” And yes, this still happens in North, Central, and South America. In Ecuador, regionalism is present in the coast and the Andes. The main reason has a lot to do with ethnic origin and from personal experience, the coastal Ecuadorians refer to the Andean Ecuadorians as “longos” or “cholos” because of their Indian-ness. The Andean Ecuadorians refer to the coastal Ecuadorians “monos” because of their willingness to take on a European culture. Like monkey see, monkey do. Coastal Ecuadorians are so in denial of their Indigenous heritage they even use this phrase to protect their reality: “Yes, I have both Spanish and Indio blood.” or “My ancestors were Indians, but that was a long time ago.” A friend of mine said why do we glorify the Indigenous past when we can glorify the Indigenous cultures in the present.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Axlandes says:

        I read this post to better understand Ecuadorean society yet most commenters, myself included are from the USA. I think the US has recently done a better job at acknowledging native folks than latin countries.

  7. Pingback: The Secret Relationz Between Blackz and Mexicanz | Moorbey'z Blog

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