Sunday, January 15, 2017

During Trump's Inauguration, I Will Be in a Latino World

At a block party while visiting El Carmen, Perú
 I am second from the right attending a party in El Carmen, Perú

On Friday, January 20, many TV channels will be airing Donald Trump's inauguration. A host of people across the country, including politicians, will be boycotting this inauguration. I too will be among the boycotters by keeping my TV on, but on a station not airing the inauguration like a Spanish station where I can practice my Spanish. Such a TV boycott that so many are talking about will lower Trump's TV ratings. Donald Trump's ego cannot stand to be ignored.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Surge in Latinos Embracing Black Heritage

Black Bolivians parading their black pride

A young, African-American girl used to tell a good friend of hers at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Intermediate School here in New York that she is black, and not Latina. That comment infuriated Marta Orozco so much that she blurted out Spanish expletives in heated protests. She shared her concern with her mother who assured her that indeed she is Boricua (Puerto Rican), and not black.

What Marta, her school friend, and her mother failed to realize is that you can be both black and Latina as Marta's parents were born and raised in the predominately black city of Loiza in Puerto Rico. They, as so many others, overlook the fact that black is a color, and Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican are nationalities; nationalities that come in all colors, not just what you see on Univisión or Telemundo.

At home, Marta comfortably spoke Spanish with the family, and listened to salsa, bomba, and plena music while gulping down their favorite Puerto Rican dish, asopao, a hearty gumbo made with either chicken or shellfish, or when the budget ran low, with gandules (pigeon peas).

Mónica Carillo, Afro-Peruvian civil rights worker, is Pan Africanist
Outside the home, things were frustratingly different for Marta as many of her Spanish-speaking neighbors and schoolmates would not acknowledge Marta in her native tongue, Spanish, soley because of her skin color, and her black American friends, astonished that she even speaks Spanish, often told her that she does not even look Latina.

Well, here is an indisputable fact; real Latinos are of African, Asian, European, Indigenous, Jewish and Middle Eastern ancestries, not to mention many more of mixed races. Such a fact became very much alive during my travels through nine Spanish-speaking countries where I had direct encounters with racial and ethnic diversity.

In Venezuela, I entered a meat market owned by Middle Easterners who were pleasantly surprised when I greeted them in my basic Arabic. At a Chinese restaurant in Perú, I had to order in Spanish (or Cantonese) if I was going to be fed. At the same time, I enjoyed black music of festejo in Perú, marimba in Ecuador, and champeta of Colombia. I appreciate saya music of Bolivia and candomble of Uruguay; both black music as well.

 The cover of Colombia, South America's version of Ebony Magazine

As Marta grew into maturity and got better educated, she saw the term Afro-Latina as a perfect fit for her identity. Marta’s bigger challenge was enlightening her friends and members of her family and community to the fact that her skin color does not make her any less Latina, and her native Spanish does not make her any less black.

Marta is not alone in this great revelation as there has been an ever growing surge in the number of Latinos throughout the Americas embracing their African heritage; many of whom I met during my travels. 

I also met Afro-Latinos in Cuba, Peru, Panama, and Colombia who been deeply in touch with their African roots for centuries. I felt proud of my Afro-Peruvian goddaughter while teaching her to play chess. I told her that I will take the black pieces because I am black. She immediately tapped her arm stating that she is black too. 

English Translation:
I am a black Mexican
Recognition of (Mexico's) black community
Equal rights in Mexico City
 As a member of Facebook's Afro-Latino forum of nearly 6,000 members where we celebrate Latinos of African ancestry, I am wishing for greater mesh between the members who are English speakers only and the members who are Spanish speakers only. I generally give the Spanish-speaking members who posts their messages in Spanish my acknowledgment such as Freddy Cevallos of Ecuador whom I met personally during my visit to his country for our black on black cultural exchange.

 I have Facebook friends in some of the most unlikely places where black pride could be recognized as being so strong, and are on my list of places to visit and explore; Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Uruguay where more and more black folks are saying it “loud;” they are black and they are proud!

Monday, January 2, 2017

PRESUMED CUBAN: African American Tourists Mistaken for Afro Cuban

Arriving at the José Martí Airport in Havana, 
Cuba to be processed by immigration 

Since my trip to Cuba years back, I heard accounts from other African Americans who visited the island who had a different experience than I when it came to experiencing Cuban racism, and I truly believe that it had more to do with my own intentions and perceptions.

For example, there are heavily populated tourist areas in Cuba, such as Varadero Beach with all of its fancy hotels, where black Cubans are not allowed without proper identification. Black American tourists who are often presumed Cuban have been stopped by the police having to present their passports before entering when their white American counterparts strut right through unnoticed.

 At my homestay in Havana's El Vedado District

A well-traveled African-American woman recounted how she was often prejudged as a prostitute. In Varadero Beach, for example, an undercover cop snatched her and started screaming in her face. When the officer saw her hotel bracelet, he suddenly became overly apologetic. She has traveled all over the island, Holguín, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, and each time, she was prejudged and stopped. Once even in the company of her parents.

During my trip, I made it a point to separate myself from my American and European classmates at the University of Havana to immerse myself into the Afro-Cuban community. I wanted as much as possible to live Cuba's black experience, including the racism, as part of my language and cultural immersion. 

Interestingly enough, once Cubans realized that I was not Cuban, whatever racism they initially wanted to exhibit was immediately withheld. And the black Cubans immediately saw me as a well-to-do American first, and a black man second.

Chilling in July heat over a mojito (pronounced 
“moe-hee-toe”), Cuba's national rum-based drink 

However, Global Exchange, Inc., the agency that sponsored my trip legally in partnership with the University of Havana where I underwent Spanish language intensive training, assigned me to a non-black Cuban family for my homestay.
Although the family was very cordial, I noticed how the family kept their social and family circles free of black people. My white roommate was given special treatment that was not given to me. Yet, I was not the least bit offended because my purpose for being in Cuba, besides improving my Spanish, was to connect with the Afro Cuban.

Thus, I found it very flattering when I was presumed Cuban; when local citizens would consistently mistaken me for being one of them. Vladimir, a black Cuban neighbor of mine when I lived in Oakland, California, chuckled and told me that when I arrive in Cuba, everyone will think that I am Cuban until—I open my mouth. Although I can speak the language, my accent is hopelessly un-Cuban.

My new friends, Ariana and Nairobi, at the Revolutionary 
Plaza where Fidel Castro gave live speeches

A black woman in a housing project was in utter shock when she overheard me speaking Spanish with my thick foreign accent. Even though I acknowledged her with a smile and friendly eye contact, her stunned reaction remained intact. It never occurred to her that I was a visitor from another country. She thought that I was simply acting a fool. There were many others; however, who would ask me where I am from, then shake my hand saying, “nice to meet you” when I tell them that I am from the U.S.

The Marianao District of Havana where I 
saw a live Afro-Cuban dance performance

It was interesting how another African-American visitor to Cuba pointed out that because of his color, he could easily blend into the crowd while his fellow white exchange students are targeted on the street by tourist traps.  

In contrast, I experienced my share of being targeted in my first week in Havana because I made the mistake of wearing designer shorts, designer sunglasses, and a battery-powered plastic fan around my neck. Finally, an Afro-Cuban friend pulled my coattail and advised me to dress normally, i.e., as a local would dress, and it will not be assumed that I am a wealthy visitor from a foreign land here on vacation.

Ronaldo, a black bicycle-taxi driver with whom I tried to establish rapport as he taught me Cuban ghetto-talk, conspired with his friends to capitalize on my exuberant black-on-black connections by having me spend money on booze and food at a bogus birthday party for a supposed niece. Earlier that day, Ronaldo introduced me to one of his friends who, in retrospect, gave me such a bright smile appearing pleased they got themselves a mark, a black one to boot.

Fortunately, I met a woman and chose to run with her instead, not realizing how much trouble I inadvertently avoided. Ronaldo was visibly upset when he came by with his carload of friends to pick me up. My hosts and some neighbors, very much concerned, pulled me aside explaining that those guys are jineteros (pronounced “hee-nay-tay-doze”), people who specialize in taking advantage of tourists, and warned me to be careful of the friends that I make.

Dancing with my date, Denalys Fuentes, at
the Hotel Riviera's Salsa Palace

Overall I met far more good, respectable, and down-to-earth people than the bad. Having traveled to over 150 cities in three continents, Havana, by far, will always be my most heartfelt, memorable travel experience. 

It was pure joy walking the streets of Havana hearing the musical sounds of son-montuno, charanga, and timba blaring from cars, homes, and businesses. A Cuban woman and I could not resist grabbing each other to dance openly as we passed through a public square in Central Havana to the sounds of salsa music.

I loved the Cuban people with their high-volume cultural energy so much that I fought back heavy tears on my way to the airport to return to the U.S. I felt there was a lot more to Havana, and Cuba at large, that I was missing and needed to experience. All I can do now is sing the chorus of a song by the salsa music icon Willie Colón: “Pa' La Habana, voy a volver algún día; volveré—To Havana, I Shall Return Someday.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Blacks and Browns in Harlem Celebrate the Legacy of the Puerto Rican Ally of the Black Panther Party

 Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, NYC

Recently, I attended a celebration of the Puerto Rican contribution to the black and brown liberation struggles of the 1960s, which was hosted by the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. The center was named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican historian who as a young pupil was told by his school teacher in San Juan, Puerto Rico that black people have no history and have never accomplished anything of note.

Arturo Alfonso spent the rest of his life not only proving his teacher wrong but educated the world, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, with an ever-growing collection of books, artifacts, recordings, films, and hordes of other materials exemplifying the accomplishments of black people worldwide.

The Young Lords Party

Felipe Luciano, Afro-Puerto Rican leader of the New York Branch of the Young Lords Party

Residents of Spanish Harlem, which included Puerto Ricans (black, brown, and white), African-Americans, and Dominican Americans marching the streets for social justice.

Panel members of men and women from the Young Lords Party received a standing ovation after addressing a full house of African-Africans, Latinos of all colors, and whites.

Young African-American millennial
addresses her question to the panel 

 Celebrating the 50th Anniversary 
of the birth of the Young Lords Party

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Thinking of Stepping Away From my Beloved Afro-Peruvian Godchild

The main square of El Carmen, Perú

I am among the few heterosexual, black males who made it well into adulthood without birthing any children. I don't know about the minuses of this experience, but I am certainly aware of the plusses; no hefty child support payments, no “baby-momma” drama, and none of the stresses that comes with raising children as my father, a single parent himself, frequently lamented during my own childhood.

My trip to El Carmen, Perú, one of the areas of the country where former slaves settled after emancipation, was only my second trip to an Afro-Latino community (Havana, Cuba was my first). There, a three-year-old wandered into the living room from next door. She sweetly told me that her name is Daniela. Immediately, I felt a deep, strong, paternal connection with a girl who appeared to be the daughter I never had. Her mother was deeply touched to see the ecstasy in my eyes when Daniela, then age 7, and I hugged each other so tightly that we both seemed to melt into each other's arms.

Daniela and I chilling out in Chincha Alta, Perú

Words cannot express how honored and loving I felt when Daniela asked me if she could be my daughter. In fact, Daniela was highly pleased to hear me tell her mother who happens to be married to a second husband that she is my only child. Every time I am in Perú that is exactly how I treat her. I take her and her family and friends to parks, recreation centers, the beach, and for dinners and ice cream. 

Although Daniela declined to let me teach her English, I read children's stories to her in Spanish, taught her to tell time, and play chess, Scrabble, and Monopoly. I even bought her a bicycle, per her request. While here in the USA, I would call her once or twice a month and wire money to her mother and grandmother.

Finally, I began to notice a marked change in Daniela's demeanor over the phone. The closeness I once felt seemed faded. I told myself that I will see what this is all about when I return to Perú on vacation

Sure enough, upon my return, her demeanor was consistent with that which she displayed over the phone—one of polite distance. Obviously somebody pulled her aside for a heart-to-heart talk making her understand that I am just a gringo with money to give away and not family and that she needed to withdraw from the bond that she and I developed.

A popular soul food (comida criolla) restaurant in El Carmen, Perú

The only exception to her withdrawal was when she surprisingly began hustling me, probably motivated by her mother, to take her and her sister to an expensive market to buy the best poultry and fish for the family. She then proceeded to talk me into buying certain gifts for her and other members of her family presumably for her mother to sell just as she sold the bicycle, games, picture books, the clock when she learned to tell time, and so many other nice things that I bought for Daniela's childhood enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. 

Having grown up in New York City, and traveled to more than 150 cities on three continents, I know a hustle when I see one and was caught off guard to experience it from a nine-year-old with whom I had supposedly bonded. Because of the soft spot I have for her, which her family knows all too well, I complied with most of her requests.

Today, Daniela, now 14, her mother, and other family members friended me on Facebook as they subtly and not so subtly ask for money. I've grown to the point where I stopped responding to their Facebook inbox messages, and yes, even Daniela's.

Despite the spoiling that Daniela received from adult members of her family, I will always keep the fond, joyous memories of our beautiful father-daughter relationship we had in the beginning. That is the Daniela that I know and will always love.