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White Beauty Queen From Bolivia Opens Conversation On Skin Color
By Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist
June 13, 2004
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- There is no such thing as a Miss Goofy contest.
But if there were, one would have to consider Miss Bolivia, a contestant in the recent Miss Universe contest, right up there among the real beauties.
Before the pageant, reporters asked Miss Bolivia, Gabriela Oviedo, to describe herself. And this is how the 6-foot-tall woman responded:
"Unfortunately, people that don't know Bolivia very much think that we are all just Indian people -- poor people, and very short people and Indian people.
"I'm from the other side of the country. And we are all tall, and we are white people, and we know English."
But her response is important for a much different reason: It offers a glimpse into a mode of thinking that has affected indigenous people -- and those of African ancestry -- in this part of the world for more than 500 years.
Let's face the facts. Every country in this hemisphere struggles with racial problems, not just the United States. Bolivia, for instance, has struggled with its native peoples seeking more power for years.
In this part of the world, it's just a little more subtle to notice. Talk to people in Puerto Rico, or in other places in the region, about race, and here's what they'll tell you:
Why are most of the people running Puerto Rico light-skinned while most of those sweeping the streets are black?
Why do those same light-skinned people become upset when, upon entering the United States, they are looked down upon?
Why do the popular Spanish-language soap operas feature far more light-skinned Hispanics than black Hispanics or those with native features?
Why are the darkest people far more likely to be functionally illiterate?
Why do those same classes of people with pronounced African links make up the highest concentration of the grossly poor?
Why are private and public schools often accused of teaching more European history than African history?
Why are infant-mortality rates higher in black barrios?
Why are ethnic celebrations far more likely to focus on European links rather than those same links to native peoples or African nations?
Perhaps we should all thank Miss Bolivia. She didn't win Miss Universe.
But she did perform a public service, in a sense, by opening the door for a conversation that hasn't been getting much public attention over the years in Latin America.
Make no mistake, though: People make note of it here every day -- such as when Puerto Rican mothers call their own dark children "negro" as a term of endearment.
But they wouldn't like it if someone else, especially a light-skinned person, made the same loving reference.
My wife's parents, both Puerto Ricans, called our firstborn "negrito."
Having just returned from the Dominican Republic covering the devastating flooding on the island of Hispaniola, let me share one last observation:
Though most of the residents there are dark-skinned people, why do they have a president who isn't?