Growing up biracial in Puerto Rico made me aware at a very young age of the racism in Latino culture. Although family and friends called me triguena (wheat colored), I recall classmates' and even teachers' cruel taunts because I stood out. They told me, "Eres una mosca en un vaso de leche" (You are a fly in a glass of milk). When I powdered my face, children laughed and called me Cucarachita Martina. I was reminded, "No eres arroz con leche" (You are not rice with milk). When I dressed in my best, I was taunted, "La puerca de Juan Bobo" (Juan Bobo's pig).
Arroz Con Leche (Rice With Milk), Cucarachita Martina (Cockroach Martina), and Juan Bobo (Simple John) are part of the rich Puerto Rican oral tradition. They are culturally authentic folklore. I grew up disliking these stories and characters and shied away from using them in my own classroom. They always brought back painful memories of how I was taunted. I continue to be concerned about the use of such folk tales in today's classrooms by teachers who seem to be unaware of their subtle, damaging messages.
In Arroz Con Leche, children in a circle sing: "Rice and milk wants to wed a little widow from the capital state, who can embroider and knows how to knit, and in the same safe place her needle does keep." A child inside the circle responds: "I am the little widow, a daughter of the king. I want to get married and cannot find with whom." The group sings back: "If you are so beautiful and can't find with whom, here you have plenty, choose at your taste." Children imitate church bells: "Ti-lin, Ti-lan, . . ." The child inside chooses among the players: "With you, yes. With you, no. With you, my dear, I will marry." The chosen child steps inside the circle and the game begins again.
Arroz con leche is a sweet hot cereal for children. It is also a popular expression for a light-skinned and often preferred child - as white as rice and milk and just as desirable or sweet. This is not unique to Latino culture; other cultures have references for very "fair" children. We often hear "milk and honey" for blond children and "peaches and cream" for those with rosy cheeks.
The game Arroz Con Leche reflects Latino gender and racial biases favoring boys and light-skinned people. In the game, a man seeks and chooses a wife and sets his expectations: She must be a good cook, seamstress, and tidy housekeeper. The wife sets no expectations for her husband; she just wants to get married, and it doesn't matter much to whom.