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Monday, June 18, 2018

Colombia, South America's Black Salsa Music Icon

Grupo Niche

This is my favorite salsa band of all time with it's lively, yet suave musical style. The word, Niche (pronounced Knee-Chay), in Colombian Spanish, describes the darkest-skinned black people. The group was founded and lead by the late Jairo Varela, which became the first salsa group to gain a wide international following. Mr. Varela took the salsa music traditions of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and New York and mixed it with the black music of his home province of Chocó in the nation of Colombia leading his band to seven gold and four platinum records.

Maestro Jairo Varela, who pulled himself out of poverty in Quibdó, a tiny village in Chocó on the Pacific coast of Colombia, asserted that his music is not Colombian, but of African influence based in his predominately black province of Chocó.


Jairo Varela


With Varela, who boasted of having the best-paid salsa band in the world, how is it that he could be sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly having business dealings with major drug traffickers? He contended that Colombian prosecutors were willing to believe that his income was ill-gotten because he is black in a country where few black residents have his kind of income. Varela insists that Colombian racism is quite clear.

Even during my own short visit to Colombia, such as in the predominately black and brown City of Cartagena where I noticed that the whiter a person, the better the employment, and the darker, the more menial. I went into banks to do business and saw not one black or brown face; that is with the exception of a security guard.

While in jail, Jairo Varela enjoyed a private cell due to his celebrity status, and was able to manage his band by cell phone. This was in he began thinking deeply about justice and racism, which was reflected in his music. 


A Young Jairo Varela
Despite, Jairo Varela's incarceration, his popularity has not suffered. Mr. Varela  was invited to appear on live television program, where former members of his band performed boleros in Mr. Varela's honor. The show, ''Noche de Luna (Night of the Moon),'' was broadcasted on Spanish-language stations from Canada to Perú. ''People were absolutely convinced of his innocence believing that his wealth and influence got him into trouble with the law in a country that is not ready to accept a successful black man.

Below is a song Jairo Varela wrote while incarcerated. The song is about being away from all of his loved ones and that “freedom is a treasure whose value you don't know until you've lost it.''







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Monday, June 4, 2018

Happy Afro-Peruvian Heritage Month!


On June 3, there was a grand celebration of Afro-Peruvian Cultural Day with tasty "comida criollos" (Peruvian soul food), black artifacts with a homage to the Mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theater, Victoria Santa Cruz. 


The late Rinaldo Campos, founder of the of the 
internationally acclaimed Perú Negro dance troupe.


This is the main square (Plaza de Armas) of El Carmen, Perú where I stayed during my Peruvian visits. This is the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture. 

A child playing the cajón in celebration of Black Heritage.

What we in the United States call "soul food," Afro-Peruvians call it "comida criolla." recipes passed down through generations since slavery. 

I am about to chow down on a "seco de cordero" (dried lamb stew) consisting of lamb, rice, beans, potatoes, carrots, and ají (chili peppers).
Victoria Santa Cruz, the Mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theater. 
Below is her husband, Nicomedas Santa Cruz, poet, composer, journalist, and folklorist. 

Amador Ballumbrosio, the Godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance.





Wednesday, May 30, 2018

An American First—the Parodox of Latin American Racism

In Latin America, a black person with a foreign passport and Euros, British Pounds, or American or Canadian dollars is treated as an honorary “white” person.

 
It's been all over the news and social media, reports of one incident after another; innocent and unarmed black men and women accosted and even attacked by the police for minding their own business— “living while black.” He could be moving into a new apartment, she could be napping in her college dormitory lounge, or checking out of an Air B&B facility. I too can tell stories of being racially profiled, although not as aggressively as what has been outlined in the news. 


No matter how much I try to fit in with Latin-American black folks, they too see me as an American first and a black person second.


 I once got into a discussion with a recent black immigrant from Cuba who asked why blacks in the U.S. refer to themselves as “African Americans” and not simply “Americans.” All I could say in response was, “you just wait until you've been in the U.S. for a while, and especially when your children get big enough! Here we are seen as black people first, and Americans second.


Receiving my advanced Spanish Certificate at the El Sol Escuela de Español (The Sun Spanish School) in Lima, Perú.
  I myself have been to Cuba and eight other Spanish-speaking countries, and the main thing that I notice is how much better I'm treated. People see me as an American first, and a black person second. No one fears me or crosses the street when they see me coming, and even cops of all people, made me feel welcome. 

 
 Chillin' like a villain in my Havana, Cuba home-stay

I can recall only one minor incident in Lima, Perú when I was profiled and followed at a distance in a music store. I called the man over and asked him to help me find the items I was looking for. After collecting all that I wanted, he escorted me back to the register and rung me up. I then thanked him for his first class customer service (sarcasm). I believe this store clerk or manager thought I was Afro Peruvian. Had I gotten cute and flashed my American passport, my black skin would have, “poof,” vanished.


Passing through El Salvador
 
Yes; there is prejudice and racism in Latin America. The old adage, “if you are white, you are right—if you are brown, stick around—if you are black, stay back” is alive and well. But unlike the U.S., racism is subtle. The racism that I found appears to be economically related with the best paying jobs going to those primarily with the whitest skin even in predominately black and brown areas. What you won't find; however, with the exception of Brazil and Colombia, is police brutality and hate crimes against black folks. 

Shopping in La Mitad Del Mundo, Ecuador

A friend, an entrepreneur, living in Perú with his Afro-Peruvian wife testifies repeatedly that with his income and education, he and his family get first-class treatment with race being inconsequential.  He does not worry about his son being harassed or beaten by the police for little or no provocation. A Haitian friend living in Ecuador with his Ethiopian wife has experienced zero racism. In his city of Cuenca, he is well-known and well respected. People flock from all over the country and different parts of the world to attend his alternative medical clinic.


While being served fresh-squeezed orange juice in Mexico City, the police officers (left) are not even “thinking” about racial profiling.

I too get treated as an upper-class white person when in a Latin-American country; that is, until I steer away from tourist routes, which I usually try to do, and blend in with the local black community. One evening, I went shopping in a high-end shirt shop where none of the clerks wanted to talk to me because they assumed that “this black guy” didn't have the income to afford such merchandise. 

Finally, I made my way to the owner who was intelligent enough to notice my foreign accent and the Muhammad Ali t-shirt that I was wearing. Suddenly, he exhibited a whole change in attitude; he saw an American (with a  pocket full of  money) first, and a black person second.