Monday, July 24, 2017

I Am Proud of this Historically Black Peruvian Team

Proudly wearing the jersey of a Historically Black Peruvian Soccer Team

As I strolled through one of Lima, Perú's most dangerous districts, La Victoria, where a stadium is located housing Perú's famous Alianza Lima soccer team, no one gave me a second look, let alone tried to harm me. Word on the stree is that no one messed with me because they though I was “familia” (Afro-Peruvian). 

The Alejandro Villanueva Stadium where Alianza Lima play their home games.

Instead, people came over to me jubilantly shaking my hand; others drove by giving me the thumbs up and honking their horns shouting ALIANZA LIMA-A-A-A-A-A-! These folks, are hard-core fans of their local soccer team. It was the jersey that I was wearing that attracted so much positive attention for I too, like Barack Obama, by the way, am a fan of Alianza Lima.

Alianza Lima, winner of 22 national titles.

Before my first trip to Perú, many warned me about venturing into La Victoria, particularly alone. They told me that I was crazy and that this district is no joke. When I arrived in Perú, the family with whom I was staying also warned me about La Victoria. But I had to go. 

To help ensure my safety, I flagged down three different taxis. When I told them that I wanted to see La Victoria. They simply looked at me trying to keep from laughing, then drove off shaking their heads. I finally hired a taxi to show me around. The only time I got out of the taxi was to take pictures of Alianza Lima's stadium, named after the black superstar Alejandro Villanueva, considered the first great soccer player in Perú's history.

El Nene (the Kid) Teófilo Cubillas, Peru's all-time leading scorer and two-time world cup soccer star.

Several days later, I got a little bolder and took a combi (van serving as a bus) into La Victoria's main square and started walking around. Someone greeted me with the word's, ¿Qué pasó, familia? (what's up, bruh?) I just smiled, waved, and kept stepping. He most likely thought I was Afro-Peruvian, I didn't want my gringo accent to reveal otherwise.

The stadium which Alianza Lima play their home games is named 
after superstar Alejandro Villanueva, pictured above.

The reason I'm so fascinated with La Victoria and its team Alianza Lima Grone (Grone is Negro spelled backwards) is that this historically black team has won over 22 national titles. This is the team that produced black superstars such as Alejandro Villanueva of the 1930s and Teófilo Cubillas who was part of the Peruvian national team that won the 1975 American Cup, and reached the quarter finals at the 1970 and 1978 World Cup competitions.

After several trips to Perú, I made friends with a black family from La Victoria, and rented a room on their property for several nights. In this community hardly anyone speaks any English so all of my communication was in Spanish. However one evening, I happened to pass by a Peruvian National Police officer; as our eyes met, I guess he can tell by the way was was walking (swag movements) that I am black American, he blurted out in English, "how ya doin, man?” LOL.

Nowadays, Alianza Lima is no longer a black team. After so many black athletes proved themselves on the soccer field decade after decade, other teams that did not recruit blacks started bringing them on board.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Colombia, South America “Dissed” Their First and Last Black President

A portrait if Colombia's first black president was doctored to make him look whiter.

A Colombian woman once wrote on my blog that we Americans are too preoccupied with race, but when I pointed out all the racism I observed when I visited the hometown of her country's former black president, she had nothing to say. A lot of Latin-American people deny racism even exist in their respective countries as they traditionally sweep it under the rug, and get annoyed when you call them out with the facts.
Juan José Nieto Gil (June 24, 1805 – July 16, 1866) was a Colombian politician, army general, and writer who held several political offices before becoming the first Afro-Colombian to rise to the office of president at the end of the 19th century. Yet you will not find him in a single history book. 

While many Americans, with their own racial issues, are proud to let the world know they've elected their first black president, the Colombians kept theirs hidden for over a century. He was finally rediscovered in the late 1970s by a Colombian historian and sociologist who spent his entire life trying to do justice to the forgotten politician, it was not until his death that the Colombian media recognized their first black president.

The red portion of the map of Colombia, South America is the prdominiately black province of Chocó were former president Nieto was born.

When his portrait was painted just before he became president, it was immediately sent to France where it was whitened and altered to make Nieto Gil appear more "worthy" for the elite of his home town of Cartagena who were racially very closed. The painting was then "re-darkened" in 1974, when the Colombian historian and sociologist found it. But it was only recently that it was displayed in a Cartagena museum.

It was not only because of the color of Jose Nieto Gil’s skin that his legacy was disrespected, but because he came from Colombia’s Caribbean coastal province of Chocó, which is largely populated by people of African descent and has always been considered marginal by the central power in Bogota, the nation’s capital. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Funny Ecuadorian Memory

 Juncal (Valle de Chota), Ecuador

While riding a long-distance bus into the Andes Mountains in Ecuador to visit a small black community that produces many of Ecuador's best soccer players, I struck up a conversation with a young black teen wearing a New York baseball cap. I asked him in Spanish if he knew what he is wearing. 

 Retired Afro-Ecuadorian World Cup soccer star 
Augustín Delgado

I found that in many of the foreign countries I have visited (14 to date), people like to wear American garments with English writing across as a fashion statement not knowing what is written. Wisely, this young man pronounced “New York” very well versus the Spanish name Nueva York. I continued the conversation in Spanish telling him that i grew up in New York City. 

Afro-Ecuadorian Cultural Center

That got the attention of other Afro-Ecuadorians riding the bus as they looked at me astonished that a black American was riding among them. A mestizo woman who also overheard me asked me a question in English. When I answered her in English, there was a roar of laughter so loud and hard that I thought my eardrums were going to pop.

My dear, late friend Gloria Chalá who showed me
 the ropes while visiting her country (RIP)

What was so funny? These young Afro-Ecuadorians never heard a black man speak any other language than Spanish, let alone English. For me this was just another indication that we members of the African diaspora throughout the western hemisphere have a lot to learn from and about each other.

My place of residence in Ecuador's capital, Quito

In Oakland, CA where I have been living for many years, I received similar reactions from African Americans (and Mexican Americans) who are not used to hearing a black man speak Spanish. People would look me right in the face and ask me if I am black. Duhhhhhh! What else could I be? A Mexican woman told one of my black co-workers that I was not black.

Freddy Cevallos, a university Afro-Ecuadorian Studies Consultant who met with me on my second trip to Ecuador

We black folks in the western world, from Canada all the way down to Argentina speak English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Creole, Patois, Geechee/Gullah, and Garífuna. We have a lot to learn about how our African roots evolved in our respective environments since the slave trade.

The soccer field where young black youth train to become Ecuadorian superstars.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Afro Latina Bashes African Americans

In response to one of my blog posts, Confusing Afro-Latinos with African Americans, a hurt and embittered Afro Latina whom I will refer to as Liliana, posted her comment:
 “This is the problem, African Americans want to believe that we Afro latinos and Caribbean peoples are the same and the only thing dividing us is a boat stop. No it's more than that. We act differently, our culture is different and our morals. There is nothing similar about us. The only thing we share is skin color and we wish not to associate with African Americans. They have no culture, respect, morals, values, nada. And "slavery" was very different in Latin American and the Caribbean. We aren't scarred like African Americans...”
This black immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Stephen Hotesse, was included among the famed African-American fighter-pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

In once sense, Liliana is right. African-Americans and Afro Latinos, regardless of national origin, are indeed different as of result of our respective cultural environments. What we do have in common; however, is the perpetual racism that affects the whole African diaspora. Here in the U.S., racism is much more blatant and not swept under the rug as done in Latin America.

One white woman from Colombia, South America commented on another one of my blog posts that we Americans make a big deal out of race as if Colombian people do not. I pointed out to her that when I visited a predominately black and brown city in her country, Cartagena, how I noticed that the best jobs were held by whites and the most menial jobs were held by blacks. If this is not making a big deal out of racism, then what is?

Receiving his inspiration from the U.S. Black Pride movement of the 1960s, Rinaldo Campos organized what is now the world famous Afro-Peruvian dance troupe Perú Negro (Black Peru).

When I reached out to Liliana to inquire of her home country, I knew instinctively that she was going to tell me the "Dominican Republic." Historically, Dominicans, including many of the black Dominicans, appear to have deeper race issues than than those in other Latin-American countries. And many Dominicans have an even deeper hatred for Haitians for historical reasons where race was made to play a role by the Dominican government.

I explained to Liliana that I traveled to nine (9) Spanish-speaking countries going on 11, and not once have I experienced the hatred that she is preaching from fellow blacks because I am African American. In fact, quite the opposite as I experienced admiration because of our historical stand during the civil rights and black power movements that are now being emulated throughout Latin America today. 

In Colombia, South America, a magazine similar to Ebony Magazine of the U.S. is published monthly by black Colombians.

Black organizations have sprung up in places most would not imagine, such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. In Peru, I myself became an honorary member of Ashanti and Makungu Para El Desarrollo, two black civil rights organizations.

I explained to Liliana that it sounds as though she herself has been scarred by a very ignorant segment of my community (African-American), and want to paint us all with the same brush. After some probing, it turned out that my assumptions were right on target. She says, a majority of African Americans are not kind to foreigners, especially Caribbean and Afro Latinos. 

I heard the same complaint from immigrants from the African continent who say that once an African American realize they are from another country, they suddenly become distant, and in many instances, hostile. A young black man from Brazil shared his experience in school how he was bullied by African-American students because he was "different."

In Caracas, Venezuela I was taken in, fed, given a place to sleep, and treated like family by Felix and his extensive family, and am always being invited back.

If I had experienced the same unpleasant welcome from black Latin America as Liliana experienced from black America through my travels, I am sure that I too would have been as hurt and embittered as she. I assured her that if there was anything I could do to console her, I would be happy to accommodate.

I am by no means defending the ignorance  of fellow African Americans who rebuffs black foreigners as I see them as not privy to what Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X tried to instill in the minds of black Americans during their heydays let alone not knowing their own history. The black race is much, much bigger and more diverse than black America will ever be.

I long to visit Bolivia where their Black community strongly embraces black pride and the freedom struggle.

On the other hand, blacks from other countries, as Liliana pointed out to me, are warned to stay away from African Americans. My ex-girlfriend from Eretria, East Africa heard the same warning, which only made her want to get to know us even more fervently. This seems to be a divide-and-conquer tactic by those in power who do not want to see a revival of what Marcus Garvey attempted to establish, a united African diaspora.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Afro-Latino Films for Black History Month and Beyond


When discussing black history, the subject is too often limited to black Americans as black history can be traced even to places like Russia. There is much more to the black race as it extends through many languages and cultures around the world. Therefore, when I think of black history or black heritage, I think globally. 

I feel fortunate to have grown up in the vicinity of the Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research & Black Culture, which is part of the New York City public library system named after a black Puerto Rican researcher who as a child was told by a school teacher that black people have no history. Since childhood, he felt inspired to prove his teacher wrong by researching black hstory worldwide.

Here in the western world, the largest population of the black race are in Spanish speaking countries. As one who takes an ardent interest in Afro-Latino cultures, I've been searching high and low for Afro-Latino films. Lo and behold, I ran across this article containing a list and synopsis of 15 films for Black History Month and beyond.

Link to original article:
1. They Are We
A Cuban Afro Reunion Story

Director Emma Christopher
Country Cuba
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on
Emma Christopher’s ebullient They Are We began with a simple question “Can a family separated by the transatlantic slave trade sing and dance its way back together?” Tracing back the origins of the Afro-Cuban songs and dances brought by an ancestor during the trade to Perico, Cuba, Christopher eventually found a remote village in Sierra Leone where, upon watching a recording of the Cubans’ songs and dances the people exclaimed, “They are we!” Christopher’s film is a colorful celebration of Afro-Cuban culture, rhythmically pulsing with the percussive songs that have survived through centuries.
Manuel Betancourt

 2. Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)

Director Mariana Rondón
Country Venezuela
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on Amazon & YouTube.
Junior is a young boy whose outward appearance just doesn’t match up with what he feels inside. He fervently hopes for “pelo bueno” instead of “pelo malo”– for him this means elusively straight, free flowing locks that he can only achieve by applying enormous amounts of effort and sometimes oil or mayonnaise to his naturally curly, kinky hair. As the darker-skinned older boy of his mother’s two children, it’s not just his more African features but also his more effeminate ways that make him the brunt of her anger. However, his grandmother understands and even encourages young Junior’s differences. She helps him blow out his hair and encourages him to sing and dance along to saucy 60s tunes.
Maria-Christina Villaseñor

3. Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus)

Director Marcel Camus
Country ItalyFranceBrazil
Production Year 1959

Available to stream on Amazon & iTunes.
Marcel Camus’ retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set during Rio’s Carnival won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. (It’s also Barack Obama’s mother’s favorite film of all time!) Scored by a who’s who of bossa nova composers, including Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá and João Gilberto, the vibrantly-shot film follows trolley driver Orfeu who, despite being engaged to be married, falls for the young newcomer to the city, Eurydice. True to the myth it is retelling, their love story is doomed from the beginning, but French director Camus finds plenty of joy in their many scenes together, including the colorful dance sequences during Carnival, which map the Greek iconography of the Orpheus tale onto Afro-Brazilian and Candomblé traditions.
Manuel Betancourt

4. Ventos de Agosto (August Winds)

Director Gabriel Mascaro
Country Brazil
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on NetflixiTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Brazil’s tropical coastline provides the stunning backdrop to documentary director Mascaro’s first dramatic film, which unfurls as a series of revealing accounts in the lives of Shirley and her boyfriend Jeison. When the latter finds a human skull while dive-fishing, it sets in motion a meditative sashay through themes of life and death, most poetically summed up by an elderly man: “Those who die here don’t end up in heaven or hell. They end up in the sea.” It is just one moment that captures the relationship between people and their environment, with the inevitability of death returning us to the elements from which we emerge. A mesmerizing and beautiful portrait of our place in the greater order of things.
Nick MacWilliam

5. Dólares de Arena (Sand Dollars)

Production Year 2013

Available to stream on HuluAmazoniTunesGoogle PlayYouTube & Filmatique.
The Dominican feature Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), by husband-wife directing duo Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, features none other than Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie and a brilliant actress in her own right) as an elderly French tourist who falls in love with a young Dominican woman and makes plans to move her back to France. Not your typical story of tropical romance told through the eyes of a white foreigner, this film is equally interested in exploring the predicament of the young Dominican woman, played by Yanet Mojica, and the shady power dynamics that may be at work.
Andrew S. Vargas

6. Cicade de Deus (City of God)

Country Brazil
Production Year 2002

Available to stream on AmazoniTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Like the plucky little chicken that escapes death despite all odds in the film’s opening scene, so do a lot of the street kids depicted in Cidade de deus (City of God) get by on bravado and dumb luck in the tough favelas of Brazil. But mostly they die since their guns are not the make believe ones of child’s play but the real deal on the mean city streets of Cidade de deus, an incredibly rough favela on the edge of Rio. Rocket, a budding photographer whose way out lies in his camera rather than the gun, narrates the story of the gangs of children and youth he grows up with, armed to the teeth, who thieve and threaten their way through daily life to survive in a place that holds no other options. Ignored by the cops and social services their lives and livelihoods grow harder as petty pot dealing turns to major drug trafficking and the stakes get higher. With clever narration by Rocket that works in counterpoint to the violence onscreen, a soundtrack that makes shootouts seem like dance sequences, and virtuoso editing and cinematography that shows the Carnival-like craziness of these little kids larger-than-life lives of crime, Cidade de deus is a hyper-original epic of tragic proportions.
Maria-Christina Villaseñor

7. Tango Negro: The African Roots of the Tango

Director Dom Pedro
Country France
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
Tango is generally believed to have originated in mid-19th century Argentine slave societies, and the man widely recognized as the country’s first tango musician, Rosendo Mendizábal, was Afro-Argentine. Yet many Argentines are loath to accept the African origins of their most cherished and internationally recognized cultural expression. To set the record straight, an Angolan filmmaker by the name of Dom Pedro took to the streets of Buenos Aires and beyond to get the lowdown on tango’s African roots. Along the way, he discovered a nation deeply ambivalent about its African heritage.
Andrew S. Vargas

8. O Dia Jerusa (Jerus’ Day)

Director Viviane Ferreira
Country Brazil
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on KweliTV.
As its title promises, Jerusa’s Day aims to present a day in the life of a woman living in the neighborhood of Bela Vista in São Paulo. Dealing with her loneliness in a community filled with widows and single women who live day to day, this short film offers a glimpse into what Jerusa’s world looks like with surprising candor and empathy.
Manuel Betancourt

9. Manos Sucias (Dirty Hands)

Director Josef Wladyka
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on iTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Executive produced by none other than Spike Lee, Josef Wladyka’s debut feature follows two brothers, a desperate fisherman and a naive young man, who embark on a journey trafficking drugs up the Pacific coast of Colombia. And as they tow a narco-torpedo filled with million of dollars worth of cocaine, their differences will soon make their already dangerous trip: while Jacobo, still reeling from being left by his wife and losing his young son, wants to make enough cash to head to Bogotá, his younger brother, would-be rapper Delio, aspires to the glitzy gangster life. Both a thriller and a character study of these two Afro-Colombian young men, Wladyka’s film breathes new life into the Colombian drug flick, away from the busy streets and out into the green and oceanside outdoors.
Manuel Betancourt

10. Favela Rising

Country BrazilUnited States
Production Year 2005

Available to stream on Amazon.
Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas are the setting of this moving documentary. Focusing more on the sociology than the music per se, Favela Rising exploits the post-City Of God first world fetish for Afro-Brazilian slums culture by following the charismatic Anderson Sa, a reformed street kid who finds in music the power to transform his life and, subsequently, the lives of thousands of other kids who grew up, like him, seeing drug-trafficking as the only viable source of income and respect. Unfortunately, the trite movie scoring doesn’t match the favela aesthetics at all and Anderson’s musical accomplishments and the subculture of baile funk are barely glanced over in favor of grimy stories of drug lords, blood, guns and corrupt police.
Juan Data

11. Black in Latin America

Country United States
Production Year 2011

Available to stream on PBS.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a Harvard professor, an expert in African and African-American history, and the host of Black in Latin America. Gates has taken his knowledge of African history and racial dynamics in the U.S. and focused his attention on the rest of the Americas in this four-part PBS documentary series. He uncovers the hidden history that most Americans, African-Americans, and even Latinos don’t know about. In the series, Gates teaches us that that more than 11 million africanos were taken to Latin America as slaves. That is 25 times the number sent to the United States. He visits Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. He discovers the similarities in religion, food, and music – tracing their common origin to Africa.
Vanessa Erazo

12. On Our Land: being Garífuna in Honduras

Country Honduras
Production Year 2012

This short ethnographic documentary looks at the Indigenous Garífuna culture in Honduras. Making use of interviews with community members, local politicians, and members of the Garífuna diaspora in the United States, On Our Land tries to give some history for this Afro-Caribbean group which continues to find itself neglected in a country they’ve inhabited for centuries.
Manuel Betancourt

13. De Cierta Manera

Director Sara Gomez
Country Cuba
Production Year 1974

Available to stream on YouTube. Catch it on the big screen in Brooklyn at BAM Rose Cinemas on February 18, 2017.
Sara Gómez’s groundbreaking film blends archival footage of poor neighborhoods in Havana following the Cuban revolution with a fictionalized romantic plot centered on a schoolteacher and a factory worker who butt heads and eventually fall in love. The hybrid film was one of the first projects in the island to really interrogate issues of race and gender in a post-Castro world. Gómez, a celebrated Afro-Cuban filmmaker who’d been working mostly on shorts prior to shooting One Way or Another died just after finishing principal photography for this feature project. Released posthumously, the film was finished by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García-Espinosa and Rigoberto López, and has become a classic in its own right, offering a rare look at mid-century Havana through a social lens.
Manuel Betancourt

14. La Playa D.C.

Country ColombiaFranceBrazil
Production Year 2012

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
This hip-hop scored coming of age tale in Bogotá is told through the eyes of a trio of Afro-Colombian brothers who have been pushed out of their home in the Pacific coast by the war. Growing up in a city that remains openly hostile, young Tomas finds inspiration in his brother’s fly hairdo which he got while visiting ‘El Norte’ (aka USA), and he realizes he has a knack for giving neighbors and friends alike elaborate hair designs. But when their younger brother goes missing, he’ll have to face the concrete jungle that is the Colombian city on his own, navigating its bustling streets and confronting its own prejudices that’ll lead him to grow up quicker than he’d like.
Manuel Betancourt

15. Las Manos de Dios

Director Delia Ackerman
Country PeruUnited States
Production Year 2005

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
Noted Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman (Voices That Heal), turns her eye to the Afro-Peruvian musical rhythms of Julio “Chocolate” Algendones Farfán. Chocolate was a world-renowned jazz percussionist, one of the most important interpreter of Afro-Peruvian Folk Music. He’s considered the master of the Peruvian cajón. With the use of archival footage and probing interviews with those who knew the famous musician, Ackerman traces his life story and his impact.
Manuel Betancourt