It’s easy to stereotype a culture with a particular color palette, and Hispanic cultures, like Mexico are often seen by Northern neighbors through a lens saturated with color. The tint of that lens, saturated with stereotypes can limit the perceptions within one’s gaze. It’s not always a bad thing. A stereotype exists because it identifies a characteristic, sometimes with a negative view and sometimes with a positive view. The problem with stereotypes happens when the stereotype overrides reality.
The irony for me being an acculturated Latina born in Los Angeles is that I know that though Anglos from many cultures have representative crafts saturated with color, like Polish paper-cuts or Scandinavian tole painting, American Anglos will often focus on the colorful aspects of Mexican American visual culture while ignoring most of the subtle colors that are part of the same mix.
During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I was actively promoting my licensed line of signature home decor design, I was often perplexed and baffled when potential clients would turn down my line with comments that the colors were too bright. Especially when these same manufacturing companies were already heavily promoting the work of Anglo artists renowned for bright colors such as Laurel Birch, Susan Sargent and Mary Engelbreit.
To this day, there are no Latina visual artists licensing their decor lines at the supported level of acceptance any of the above Anglo artists have achieved. Though I knocked on that licensing door and for a brief time thought I’d been invited in, I never was successful in my licensing efforts at the time.
Though there is always someone who may claim sour grapes, I heard too many negative comments from manufacturers during that time that my colors and the style of my color use was too particular to or representative of my Latino culture. The implied meaning was that the work would not sell. This happened despite an almost decade long successful national run of my imagery and design with my ceramc tile business. A run that included years of free editorial coverage by mainstream mid-tier home decor magazines such as Better Homes & Garden’s Special Interest Publications and other periodicals.
With the perception of hindsight, I realize that what I was up against was a stereotype and a perception that I couldn’t vanquish. Though it seems so obvious to me now, at the time I never expected that colors I painted with along with the link to my Spanish name would be inexorably linked with my Hispanic heritage in such a limiting fashion. Until then, I really thought that my talent and hard work spoke for itself.
When it finally hit me that my Latino heritage was the “elephant in the room” during my licensing negotiations, I redid my website and my marketing efforts, bringing the discussion of my Hispanic heritage front and center. I was frustrated that my art and the color stories I presented were only seen through the context created by stereotypes my potential clients could not seem to overcome.
During the ensuing years I’ve thought a lot about my experience with stereotypes and still haven’t found a simple or elegantly concise answer. What I know to be true is that the context my art and design were seen in by the manufacturers considering my line not only trumped content, it was a lens that obscured any content that didn’t echo their context. Why that context exists is a product of at least 150 years (the end of the Mexican War) of intercultural perceptions that have defined the U.S. and the complex relationship in U.S. society with Hispanic minority cultures. It’s a mindset that was too much for me to overcome.
For decades, American advertising that referred to Hispanics in the U.S. has focused on the aspects of bright color within the Latino or Hispanic cultures without a nod to the rest of the colors present in the cultural environment. And like all humans, what we believe or have been prepared to believe is usually what we perceive to be true despite contradictory evidence.
I’ve included photos from a trip I took to Oaxaca to illustrate how opposite color palettes that are both bright or subtle can be culturally accurate. I chose photos from Mexico to illustrate the visual color concepts that are often associated with Mexican-Americans as well as other Hispanic cultures from other regions by the majority culture in the U.S.
You’ll see when you look at these photos that color schemes exist that are not always what we expect and where we expect to see them. Though I am asking you to look at the colors within a photograph, I am also asking you to look beyond preconceptions you may have about Hispanic color palettes. Looking consciously is the first step to seeing clearly.
When we don’t acknowledge those things that exist just because we don’t want them to be there, we limit ourselves as a society. This is true whether you talking about politics, business or color. Everything is woven into our patterns of perception. Stereotypes are only a shorthand to perception, they don’t engender the clarity necessary for an inclusive society. And part of an inclusive society is visual representation at all levels.
Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to celebrate the beauties and gifts that are part of our country’s heritage as well as to acknowledge the mosaic of cultures that make up all of the U.S. During these trying times of environmental, political and economic upheaval it is more important than ever that we work together as a nation to create the best future possible for our progeny.
Note: Cristina Acosta is a color consultant working for a variety of clients – residential, commercial and institutional. Hire her for your color expert.