Remembering my brown-skinned dolls

** Hello readers! I know it’s been a while and if I’m not careful, I will have to change the title of this blog to the “Weekly Chicana” . . . or maybe even the “Monthly Chicana”, which, come to think of it, sounds like it’s menstruation-related, so I probably won’t be choosing that name, but you get the point. I’ve been away from my computer for a bit as I was recovering from an appendectomy. So what follows is my first appendix-free post! **

Last night, I finished reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. The title character is an obese Dominican “ghetto nerd” obsessed with the “more speculative genres,” such as sci-fi, fantasy and apocalyptic narratives. One element of the novel that I find I’m reflecting most on is Diaz’s suggestion that the history of rape, genocide, dictatorships and abuse of power that make up the central historical narrative of the Americas–with the island of Hispaniola, today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic, as ground zero of the creation of the New World–are just as fantastical as any speculative novel. In other words, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and the like have nothing on the true, gut-wrenching tales that emerge from Caribbean history and its resulting diaspora.

One quote in particular stood out to me: Oscar wonders aloud,

If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves? (178)

I love the moments like this where Oscar connects his beloved fantastical creatures to his everyday experience of race. I’m not actually into Lord of the Rings, btw; I never read Tolkien and only understand what Oscar’s talking about because my ex-husband forced me to see all three LOTR movies with him. So in case you don’t know an orc from an elf, Oscar is comparing the orcs, despised and hovering at the lower end of the hierarchy:

to the elite, golden elves, so genteel and immortal:

The question he poses is a sci-fi version of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye. It’s about the extreme impact, over time, that racial self-hatred has on one’s self-esteem and psyche. What happens to us when we never see positive representations of ourselves?

Suddenly I found myself thinking back to the toys I had in my childhood. My primary toys were my Barbies. I had about sixty of them, mainly because I inherited all of my older sister’s Barbies once she outgrew them. Truth be told, Barbie and I got off to a rocky start. When I was two years old and my sister was at school during the day, I had the habit of taking her Barbies, completely denuding them and hanging them by their hair in the bushes outside our front door. After coming home to this disturbing scene, my sister began hiding her Barbies out of my reach.

A couple of years later, though, I developed a finer appreciate for Barbies, and with me they lived an extremely privileged life: I had the Barbie townhouse (three stories, with an elevator), the Barbie van, Barbie horses, a Barbie convertible, you name it. All of them were the standard Barbie: blonde, blue-eyed…oh you know:

Loving You Barbie (1983)

I never questioned Barbie’s attributes, of course, because I’d never known anything but white dolls during my entire young life. The only non-white toy I had was my Care Bear (I had Lucky, who was green).

Things changed, though, when I finally got a Mexican Barbie. Yes! A dark-haired, brown-eyed, tan-skinned Barbie…who, now that I look back on it, still had that impossible Barbie physique that didn’t look like that of any woman in my family, but still–she was brown! Like me! I was totally thrilled! Of course, back then, I couldn’t really have articulated why my Mexican Barbie was so important to me. I just knew that she was special.

I hadn’t thought about this Barbie in years. A google search didn’t bring back her back exactly, but I found this more recent version:

Mine had the same face and hair (actually, it was unbraided), but her outfit was different: my Mexican barbie had a white, shirred off-the-shoulder peasant top, a flouncy red skirt, black velvet belt with gold trim and black t-strap shoes, kinda flamenco style. (I hope you’re not too disappointed, but my modern self won’t even get into the politics of her stereotypical get-up.) Whereas I became careless with my other run-of-the-mill Barbies over time, Mexican Barbie was always kept neat and clean. She twirled around the townhouse, rode the horses and drove the van in her ethnic outfit like it was nobody’s business.

I remember the exact moment I discovered my treasured brown-skinned doll. While my mom and I were shopping at Montgomery Ward, I wandered around the corner from the appliances and discovered a wall covered floor to ceiling with Barbies of the world. There were dolls representing all different nations, each dressed in a representative ethnic costume. I thought I’d just about died and gone to heaven. I wanted all of them, but my mom said I could only pick one. Of course, I had to keep it real and pick Mexico.

I also had a Latina Cabbage Patch Kid. During the height of the Cabbage Patch craze–and lest you forget, it truly was a craze: just watch this video, especially at the one minute mark–

I watched as my dad valiantly entered a mob of moms grabbing at the dolls and emerged with one for me. Amazingly, in the midst of the frenzy, the one he managed to pick for me had brown hair, brown eyes and tan skin! Her “adoption papers” said her name was Alicia. I was ecstatic: not only was owning a real Cabbage Patch going to make me the envy of all the girls in my third-grade class, but, just like my favorite Barbie, homegirl was Latina!

Again, I couldn’t track down an image of her the web, but I did find this image of Cabbages of Color (a phrase that is quite amusing to write):

Now I know that there will be some folks out there who read this post and roll their eyes, thinking I’m making too much of race and toys. “Toys are just toys!” they will say. “Get over it.” However, toys are never “just” toys. They matter because they are the primary way of socializing children. To say the least, Barbies teach young girls the mainstream ideals of femininity and beauty. Likewise, having baby dolls starts inculcating girls from a young age that they will one day be mothers and be the ones who are primarily responsible for child care. I’m not saying anything controversial in pointing this out: just google for yourself “socialization and toys” or “importance of ethnic toys” and read a few of the articles written for academic and popular audiences alike.

Looking back, I can now see that I was very fortunate to have (a) parents who were in a financial position to provide me with so many toys; and (b) just two dolls (out of the 100+) that were brown-skinned and that looked like me even a little bit. Many other little girls don’t have any at all.

2 thoughts on “Remembering my brown-skinned dolls

  1. Pingback: OC Latino ‘Links’: J Lo, Wells Fargo, Guadalupe and more - OC Latino Link : The Orange County Register

  2. Maybe the Barbie you mention is “Hispanic Barbie”….Highly glamorous and one of our favorite Barbies growing up!

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