SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Robert R. Gehl

Getting Pinched in Mexico

For about two years when I was a kid – between 4 and 6 or so – we lived in Douglas a (now dying) border town in Southern Arizona. My brother and I traveled across the border into Agua Prieta with my father all the time for everything from buying groceries to getting a haircut.

My brother and I were a magnet at that time to Mexican women. They couldn’t keep their hands off of little white kids … And we knew what was coming down the sidewalk headed straight for us with those wondering brown eyes. Oh no. “Be good, kids. Smile and be good boys,” dad ordered.

¡ Pequeno Gueritos! These cute little American boys. So white … they are just the cutest things. Ever since I was a little girl, I was told about the value of being white. Why, my father’s family can be traced back only two generations to a Spaniard, but my mother was Mayan. Unfortunately, I was born with her complexion. Here comes another one. And just with his father this time. Giving that questioning, non verbal gesture to the father to make sure it’s ok, I’ll bend over and Ooo! ¡Pequeno Gueritos! So Cute!

I found out much later that Pequeno Gueritos means “little white one” in Spanish. Many times, I remember my dad, my little brother and myself walking down the street, while Mexican women would walk up to us, bend over and squeeze our cheeks real hard – chattering something in Spanish.

I felt:

Pride –I was something special … These women noticed me and my brother … not everyone else … Special … I as different from the other kids … Light colored --- it’s odd, but that’s the phrase my dad used to describe why these women were pinching out cheeks … I felt lighter. … Unworthy – I remember feeling I didn’t do anything to deserve this and I hoped that these nice tamale-shaped women smiled at all little kids this way … embarrassed – yes, it was embarrassing … and OH the PAIN! They can pinch the cheeks real hard!

When I asked my dad why they always did that, he said they liked blond little boys (both of us were particularly blond) more than anything.

This happened at least twice every time we went across the border.

As I got older, maybe 10 or 11, I asked my dad why those Mexican women preferred blond boys when their children, well, weren’t. He told me that Mexico is obsessed with skin color, and that the Mestizos were a combination of “white” Spanish and “brown” Indian and their culture prized the lighter skin.

This was my first introduction to the concept of “whiteness” being an advantage in life.

I am constantly returning to this incident because it makes me think of the differing state of race relations in the US and in Mexico. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they found a relatively well-civilized, established group of people. And while those people were enslaved, tortured and mistreated, over hundreds of years, a blending of the two – White Spaniard and Red Indian – made the miracle that is Mestizo.

Since then, my wife, myself and my 3-year-old son often go grocery shopping in Food City in Phoenix or Glendale. At least every other time, a Mexican woman will pinch my son’s cheeks, and mutter “¡Pinche Gueritos!” what a cutie he is in Spanish. It’s not as frequent as it was in Agua Prieta, but it still happens.

Back on the streets in 1975 Agua Prieta, The two boys and Daddy are on their way for a haircut and some strong Mexican coffee. The tamale-shaped Mexican lady continues her trek, and we can hear her thoughts, even as she walks off … and then turns a corner:

In this world, in this México, the light complexion is the most important. When my children were born, my mother looked them over closely … eye color, hair color (straight or kinky, that was important) and said that they were ok … that’s is … just OK.

Us Mestizos know all about the caste system, based on color. The lighter the skin was, the better you were – that means you’ve got more European – more Spaniard –
in you. The darker you were, the more red – or Indian blood you had.

As a little girl, the darker ones were made fun of … it was almost
part of our souls that we weren’t as good as the whiter
girls and boys. Whiteness was a sign of beauty.
And these two cute little white blond boys. ¡Que
Lindo! If only my niños could be so
Almost every week their dad
brings them down across the
border. I think it’s
just so I
can pellizcar las
mejillas. How cute
they are.

I hope my girls can marry a nice white boy and lighten up the family a little.

The late 1970s were a period of rapid change for the state of immigration in the United States. The end of the Bracero Program, various immigration acts meant to both curb and encourage immigration, these combination of factors left a confusing landscape politically, and as my Father’s testimony below will show, it starts to make it’s way down to the local border resident.

My Father recentlygave the situation some perspective, since I was only six at the time.

Move to Douglas: “One of the first things I remember was when we were looking for a house. Pirtleville is a small community east of Douglas and I asked the realtor what about a house in Pirtleville. He said "You don't want to live in Pirtleville, that's where the Mexicans live".

At Father’s Workplace: “At my first meeting with the smelter superintendent he asked what kind of a name Gehl is. When I told him he said "Not another goddamn German. It's embarrassing that 80% of our workforce is Mexican and we don't have one Mexican in management.”

Cultural feel late 1970s border towns: “80% of the population was Mexican but the elections were decided by the Gringos because very few of the others bothered to vote.”

“ When a Mexican whose name I can't remember decided to run for mayor he ran a strictly middle class campaign (pictures with the kids, military record, education, etc.) and was elected easily.”

“ When he was asked what he would do for the Mexican population if he were elected he replied "I don't want to be the Mexican's mayor, I want to be everybody's mayor".

“ When we would go to a store, the clerk would invariably be Hispanic but the treatment we received would vary wildly. Sometimes we would be treated with deference to the point of being rude to Hispanic customers and other times we would be ignored in favor of Hispanic customers. This didn't happen all the time but enough to be noticeable.”

On the Pinching of our cheeks: “The Mexican women did like to pinch your cheeks, but you had very chubby cheeks.”

“ When we would look for you in a group of kids, you were always easy to spot because you would be the only blonde kids there.”

On the state of immigration in the late 1970s: “ I worked with a number of people who lived in ranches on the border and their general feeling about "wetbacks" was that they were just people who were looking for work to support their families.”

“ If they asked for help [the ranchers] would often give them water and food.”

“ This ended when drug dealers started bringing stuff across the border and on their way back they would rob ranch houses near the border. I knew one gentleman who had his house robbed 5 times. As a result of this people started putting up watchtowers and infrared cameras and adopted a shoot on sight attitude.”

“ The attitude among Chicanos toward illegal immigrants was somewhat mixed.”
The loudest were the ones who wanted no restrictions but I met a lot who looked down on illegal immigrants.

AFTERWARD: We left Douglas in June 1978 after my mother passed away, but it was already apparent to my father that attitudes were beginning to shift.


I think about when the northern Europeans landed on the continent. From what we know archaeologically, the groups encountered were less developed and much more sparsely spread out (This led to a greater need for African labor in the form of slaves for North America than South American).

This is likely an over-idealization, but what would our culture be like if we had integrated with the local inhabitants. What would we call ourselves? Amerizo? Would race relations be different across the US Mexican border, since we shared even more common ancestry. Would we develop the strict caste system based on color that Mexico has?

If North America were more highly populated when Columbus arrived (or if diseases hadn’t wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population), would there have been a need for a “slave route”?

If we were truly a mixture of the natives who lived here to begin with (like the Mayas, Incas) and the conquering European could we claim a common heritage like they do in Mexico?

And if American culture had followed a similar path to Mexican culture, would distinct and different flesh tones be as important as the dramatic flesh tones appear to be now. I’m German … My wife’s family is Italian (it’s pretty obvious we come from different stock) would there be a different feeling about them? Or would it simply come down to something like “I’m 1/3 Navajo and you’re only 1⁄4 Navajo, so I’ll be lighter than you, therefore I’ll be better than you.”

The Mestizo culture is fascinating and rich. My “Borderlands” encounter with both racial identity and transnationalism gives me greater respect for the proud “mixed breed” that is the Mestizo.

My father has always tried to teach us not to be quiet about issues about race or ethnicity, but to confront them head-on. To this day, when I see a Latino couple at a party, I’ll ask where they’re from … If they say someplace like Columbia, I try to learn something about their culture.

As my dad said, just because they’re all out picking cotton doesn’t mean they’re all from Mexico.


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