It had been years, probably since I was in elementary school, that I had pulled my hair straight back into a bun. I made sure, as I always did, that there were no little cuernitos sticking out. I probably did my hair about five times until it was as slick as it could be. “Parece que te lo lamió una vaca,” I remember my mom telling me those days when I stood in front of her mirror to do my hair, tied with colorful bolitas.
Ever since I turned seven, I did not let my mom touch my hair. I always felt uneasy with all the cuernitos, the little hairs sticking out of my pony tail. But that day, at 21 years old, my hair stood as slick as it ever did as I got ready alone in one of the backstage green rooms. I was in front of a mirror getting ready for my first Folklorico performance. I could hardly breathe. I did not know if it was because I had tightened my red skirt so tight, or because of the nerves of performing for the first time in front of a few hundred people at the Stevenson Event Center at UC Santa Cruz. My hands shook as I applied saturated hues of pink and purple eyeshadow on my eyelids. I dabbed my my cheeks with pink powder.
Throughout the whole process, I occasionally found myself staring at my own reflection, wondering if the person I kept looking at was really me. I kept staring, trying hard to convince myself that this wasn’t the child staring at herself in front of mami’s tocador anymore. It was another person. I stared at myself as if I was an infant realizing for the first time that I had a reflection.
I grew up with very conservative and overprotective parents. It took a long time and a lot of courage to put on makeup. Heck, I’m sure I put it on wrong the few years of wearing it during high school. I only tried to feel a bit beautiful.
At the age of fifteen, after my quinceañera en Jalisco, I got away with wearing a little bit of mascara. Getting ready in front of my Nina’s mirror in the mornings, Mama Conchita from México would always tell me, “Cuando se ponen maquillaje las muchachas, se vuelven feas,” prolonging the vowels in feas. What did she know? She’s from un rancho, she had never even worn makeup. I tried to proceed with another layer of mascara before mami passed by and saw me. “Ya. No te pongas tanto. Vas a parecer payasa.” I remember staring at my eyelashes, barely noticeable, and I wondered if that is really how I looked, like a circus clown. My eyelashes were so thin, that wearing mascara barely made me look as if I had any.
Caminábamos por la colonia Benito Juarez to catch el camión to el centro. As we walked, we heard whistling. Some muchachos who were around our age were whistling at my sister and me. Oh, how I wanted to hide! How I wish I had not worn mascara. Estaba llamando la atención, like mamá had warned me. I felt my dad’s condemning stare, first aimed at the boys, and then turning towards me and my sister. We sat near a window inside the bus. My father stood at the edge of the two seats as if to guard us. He stared down at Laura and me, his face so serious. The only thing I could think was that I should have not worn makeup. I did not want to be pretty anymore. I felt so unease. I tried to rub off some of the makeup, pretending my eye was itchy.
Now I was at UC Santa Cruz, putting on fake eyelashes. It was all about accentuating your features, we had been told during the makeup tutorial. I continued staring at myself, but I could not formulate an opinion on how I looked. My mother wasn’t there behind me this time, walking by as I got ready to make sure I didn’t look like someone who wanted to grow up fast like all the other niñas, or that I wanted to allure men. Válgame Dios, que no me mirara que quería llamar la atención de los hombres porque esos no mas estaban viendo a ver con quien. For my parents, my innocence was the only thing that would save me from maldición. I wonder now if my mother ever felt free to feel pretty. In her world, feeling good about yourself, owning how you want to look, feel, was shameful.
I was almost done. I started at my reflection, a serious face stared back. Why was I so serious? I had waited for this moment all my life, to dance, to dance Folklorico. I examined the red roses adorning my trenza, my neck adorned with the Sinaloa blouse, golden arracadas dangling from my ears. I almost couldn’t recognize the woman in the mirror; the only thing familiar was my serious face, the same face I’d have after mama’s or abuelita’s comments or dad’s condemning gaze. I remembered the feeling of shame back in those days.
“10 minutes before we go on,” I heard our dance director call.
I felt the rush. Only one thing was missing. With shaking hands, I opened the seal of my Loreal red lipstick. Perfectly new. I had never seen such a saturated and smooth hue of red. I had never worn any type of color on my lips; I stared at the natural amarth pink hue of their delicate skin, their thin shape. I wonder if in the developmental face, my lips formed this way from the stigma of wanting to feel beautiful, from the tense feeling of being noticed and condemned by my parents. My lips had internalized all of this: they shied away from being noticed, from speaking truth, being kissed, sharing secrets. But now, in that moment, blood rushed to them, their color no longer defined by someone else.
I began with my left upper lip. The scarlet consistency painted my lip like a smooth oil paintbrush onto a canvas. I began from the center to the left side, making sure I didn’t go past my natural lip outline. The bright camerino tungsten lights fought with the bright red, red like the color of Snow White’s lips, red like that red apple she bit, red like the color of things that stain. But no, this red was different. It wasn’t malicious. This red had grace. I proceeded to the top right lip. Then the same to the bottom. The contour was perfect. My lips were beautiful. Lovely. Dramatic. Alluring. Alive.
Nothing in my face had ever been accentuated like my red lips. I felt a joy spring from within. I felt beautiful. The joy gave way to a smile, like red curtains being opened for the audience anxiously waiting to see what lies behind them, never able to imagine the wonder that awaits them, a sight to be amazed. Yes, my smile was radiant. I was radiant and glowed like the light. It was my time to feel beautiful.
Today, what I remember most from that day are the gritos, los chiflidos, the bright lights, la música, la energía que surgía dentro de mí, the ever-present passion finally feeling free.
And my smile. Red. Radiant. Proud.
I was beautiful.