My grandma, Ita, called me Prieta. She called me this because my skin is toasted brown. When I was born my mom says I was light skinned, but she knew “que iba ser morena” because the inside of my little baby thighs were already darker than the rest of me.
In the sun, I turn a darker brown. I get even more Prieta.
It was a term of endearment. My sister, who has a light complexion, was called guera or guerinchi. When I tell people who don’t speak Spanish what Prieta means, dark or the dark one, their eyes open wide and a small gasp escapes. I see the offense they feel for me sprinkled on their faces like the freckles I will never have. When I try to explain, the offense still shadows their eyes.
That is the problem with Spanish. Wait, maybe, that is their problem with Spanish. Even when I explain, they are suspicious. Their faces ask, “Is this true?” as if I am setting them up for a joke. But how can I explain the cultural and literal meaning of a word at the same time?
How do I tell them that when I heard Ita say Prieta I felt the caress of her strong hands on the top of my head as she braided my hair? How do I tell them that I never knew what Prieta really meant until some light skinned Mexican kids laughed at me and said I had to be more Mexican than them because I was “bien prieta”? How do I tell them that when they said the word it turned ugly, and I called them wetbacks in response? How do I tell them that now, even after the cruelty of children Prieta means love? That each time prieta fell from her lips, I learned to love my dark skin.
No one calls me that anymore. I miss how her words sounded aloud.
My Ita called me Prieta. Eight years ago, she died and took the name with her.