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Violetas: A toxic cultural tradition

Violets are Blue 1 (CI42090)

If you are Cuban, and old enough to read this, you have smelled like “Violetas.” You were doused in it from the moment that you came from the hospital, wearing red booties to ward off the “evil eye.” The only time you weren’t smelling of violets, is when you were outside where many a tio and primo were roasting a pig. Then, to ward of mosquitos, you were wearing Bay Rum.

When I had my first son, I was well on my journey to discovering that in order to protect the life-long health of my child, I would need to spare him as much as possible, from exposure to the chemical toxic load that our government allows, via poorly regulated children’s products. I was lucky that Whole Foods had opened, and that my access to organic products was sufficient to quell my growing anxiety. Once I learned about “off gassing,” I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I’m Cuban. (You’ve seen a novela? Right. Something like that.)

Organic layette organized, certified organic baby balm in my organic baby bag, and soap nuts (I USED SOAP NUTS to do my child’s laundry), I was off to Miami to see the family.

When I arrived with my new bundle of joy, my heavily perfumed family passed him from prima to tia to abuela, so that they could all give him a bendicion. Then. The inevitable. Some quick thinking tia ran off to present me with a big familiar bottle of “Violetas”, that she thought perhaps I couldn’t find in Chicago. This was it. I was surrounded. (I was also sober, as I was still breast feeding.) This was the moment that I would have to explain that my, by now, gold-Saint-necklace-laden child was not now, or ever going to wear this cultural staple.

A rare moment of Cuban silence. Signs of the Cross. A few “Ay, Dios Mio!’s” And then…a torrent of language that I shall not recant here, lots of frantic hand waving, and the accusation that I had become a “gringa loca.” Of course Violetas was “organic,” it was made of violets! Flowers! Nods all around. Why would a Cuban company, around since 1927, produce a product that wasn’t safe for Cuban babies? Why weren’t Cuban babies keeling over, if it was so “toxic”? How was I still alive and healthy after having been bathed in Violetas for my entire childhood? Clearly, I was being brainwashed by “dose hippy peoples.” My son, gratefully, slept through it.

Though the Environmental Working Group did not have Violetas in it’s Skin Deep database, I explained that the ingredients in Violetas included:

  • Yellow 5: Banned in Austria and Norway, this dye has been known to cause allergic reactions, such as asthma. (Interestingly, hispanic children trend higher for deaths of asthma.) Source: Allergology International. June: 2006. (Fantastic! Link when possible)
  • Yellow 6; Red 40, and Blue 1:  These dyes, are all known to be contaminated with benzidine and other carcinogenics. Source: Kobylweski S, et al. Int J Occupational Environmental Health. 2012 Jul-Sep.
  • As for the term “fragrance”, another ingredient: that is basically a catch-all term to cover over 10,000 chemicals, including phthalates according to Dr. Heather Patisaul, a biologist at North Carolina State University, who studies how environmental exposures contribute to our toxic load. Which ones are in Violetas? I can’t be sure.

Though the elder Cubans were not moved in the least bit, (ergo: The Bay of Pigs), my younger cousins were curious. Discreetly, I shared a few sources for them to begin their own green journey, that I wish more of my fellow Latinas would join us on.

I’ll light a beeswax candle and say a prayer.



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