During the eight years I attended Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Amarillo, Texas, half a century ago, our lives as students revolved around celebrations of “Our Lady”, as we referred to the indigenous Madonna with the dark cinnamon complexion. We had a special devotion to la Virgen del Tepeyac, who had appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico. Her feast day celebrations on Dec. 12 were second only to Christmas in our parish.
Unlike Juan Diego, La Virgen de Guadalupe never appeared to me personally but on one warm autumn afternoon she saved my day. Just as the final bell rang, Sister Regina asked me to clean the erasers. My best friend Gloria had promised to wait for me and save a swing next to hers. By the time I ran outside, Angela, one of the güeras—fair-skinned classmates—was swinging high above the ground next to Gloria.
“Go away! There are no more swings for you! Anyway, no negras allowed!” Angela yelled.
I looked up at Gloria’s red sticky fingers clutching the chain on the swing. Two empty boxes of Red Hots lay on the ground next to a crumpled brown paper bag. Angela had also brought piñones for her bait. Her parents owned a tiendita in the barrio so she had access to all kinds of goodies the rest of us could rarely afford. After school, Angela would unveil her bag of treats. Then, everyone—even the boys—would vie to be her “best friend” until all the goodies were consumed. This day, she selected my best friend Gloria.
It was true. I was dark-skinned; my hair was thick, black and wavy. No matter how much I combed it, it still looked wrinkled. My eyes were black marbles. Gloria was la güera—so güera she could pass for white. Her hair was the color of straw; her cat eyes, amber. La morenita y la güera, best friends since first grade.
We both loved school and engaged in healthy competition for the best grade in every subject. Gloria was smart, but so was I. The nuns had told me so. But even at age seven, I understood that “güera y smart” was somehow better than “morena y smart”. Until that day, neither Gloria nor I had paid much attention to our skin color.
Angela continued, “Me and Gloria are the same; we’re güeras! You… you’re NEGRA! Gloria is my best friend now, not yours!”
I waited for Gloria to come to my aid; instead, she joined in the taunts.
“NEGRA, NEGRA! You’re so black we can’t even see you!” they laughed loudly.
I bit my lower lip to hold back the tears welling in my eyes. “¡Güera, güera güerinches, pica las chinches!” I countered back with a meaningless chant I’d heard somewhere.
“It’s better to be güera than NEGRAAA!” shouted Gloria with a twinge of cruelty I had never heard before.
La Virgen de Guadalupe saved my day
Trying desperately to recover my pride, I blurted out, “Well, I don’t care! I’m negra-morena like la Virgen de Guadalupe! And you’re committing a sin because La Virgen is morena, too!”
“NEGRR…..” Gloria stopped short of finishing the word. Surprised at my invocation of La Virgin, big tears of instant repentance rolled down her cheeks. “I love la Morenita, too!” She jumped off the swing, took my hand and we ran to her house.
Gloria never called me “negra” again. We dreamed of playing the role of La Morenita in which her apparition was re-enacted each year.
The story was my favorite, especially the part when Juan Diego comes back to the bishops with his burlap tilma tied around his neck like a large bib, full of beautiful deep red roses.
“You can’t grow roses in winter; not in a desert like Tepeyac,” Sister de Cristo often explained when she was preparing the actors for the play. “When Juan Diego opens his tilma, an image of La Virgen appears miraculously.” In wonderment and awe, we’d gasp “AAAhhh” as if seeing and hearing the re-enactment for the very first time.
In the deep recesses of my heart, I recognized that Dec. 12 was special because a morenita like me could relate to La Virgen de Guadalupe. But… maybe it was because las güeras, who coveted the part of “la morenita,” never got the lead role.
(Reach María de la Luz Reyes at [email protected])