Friday, August 7, 2020

Mexico's Underground Railroad for African-American Runaways

In 1829, Mexico's president, Vicente Guerrero, son of an African slave mother, inadvertently spawned a Mexican underground railroad for African-Americans runaways by signing a decree banning slavery in the Mexican Republic.

Felix, a Texas slave was quoted in, "The Slave Narrative of Texas saying that he and other slaves used to laugh at those abolitionists who came along inviting slaves to run up north to be free when all they had to do was walk south across the Rio Grande.

In 1822, more than 20,000 white slave owners settled into Texas, which was then a Mexican state. Texas (or Tejas, as it was officially named) did not join the American union until 1845. Even though Mexican Federal Law clearly reasserted the nation’s commitment to defend the right of enslaved Africans to liberate themselves, Texas slave owners pressed for an extradition treaty which would require Mexico to return escaped slaves. 


Two hundred years before Mexico won her independence from Spain, Gaspar Yanga (above) estalbished a free black town, independent of Spanish rule, Nat Turner style.

After Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1834, the slave population in Texas as well as the number of runaways across the border into mainland Mexico grew exponentially

Mexicans living in Texas took great risks and invested enormous resources toward facilitating the escape of enslaved Africans. The Texas-to-Mexico routes to freedom constituted  major, unacknowledged extensions of the Underground Railroad. 

The Tejanos (Texas Mexicans) were accused of tampering with slave property, consorting with blacks, and stirring up a spirit of insubordination among the slave population. Mexican Americans stood their ground refusing to return runaways and continued to support slave uprisings. 


Mexico's president, Vicente Guerrero, son of an African slave mother and 
a Mestizo, peasant father, abolished slavery in 1829.


In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved African who filed suit for his freedom on the grounds that his owner forfeited any claim to him after taking him into a free state, the Mexican Congress declared that enslaved people were free the moment they set foot on Mexican soil.

Even long after U.S. slavery was abolished, hundreds of Black migrants who were fed up with slave-like conditions and segregation, left for Mexico. These Africans in Mexico established branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

Marcus Garvey, head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), had 10 African-American branches in Mexico.

Sadly today, while both African American and Mexican American communities are suffering racist oppression, I hear of conflicts and have witnessed polarization between African Americans and Mexican Americans in communities. 

Gone are the days when César Chávez established relationships with Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Gone are the days when the Black Panthers were allies with the Mexican-American Brown Berets. And gone are the days when blacks in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) allied with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a Mexican-American student organization on college campuses.  

I cite ignorance in both communities!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Don't Get "Played" Visiting Latin America

It was 11:00 PM on Friday evening when my plane landed at the Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Perú. I was tired and sleepy after 16 hours of flying and changing planes in Atlanta and Mexico City. I still had another three-hour bus ride to Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture where the family of the late-great maestro, Amador Ballumrosio, the Godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance was expecting me.

First, I had to get to the bus terminal, which was another 30-minute cab ride from the airport. Maribel, Amador Ballumbrosio's daughter, told me over the phone that the cab fare to the bus station is $25 nuevo soles ($7.25 USD). There were hordes of cab drivers in the waiting area of the airport, and several flocked over to me, this lone black guy wearing a Luther Vandross t-shirt, which was a dead give-away that I'm an American. Being my first trip, “fresh fish" was written all over my face.

One cab driver came across as being very sincere as he showed me his badge emphasizing, in impressive English, that I would be in good hands if I chose his taxi service over the rest. Because I wanted to use this trip, like I do with all of my Latin American trips, to practice my Spanish, I answered him in Spanish as we negotiated the fare that Maribel suggested.

The cabbie then escorted me to what was supposed to be a taxi stand, but there was no taxi. How strange I thought, as his buddy ran to get my driver's cab. When he returned, he leaped from the cab with his hand stuck out demanding five dollars for retrieving my driver's cab. Confused, I reached into my pocket and gave him only a dollar, and he left me alone. In my subsequent trips, I realized I got played a bit.

As my cab driver raced and maneuvered his way through the dark, hard, fast-paced streets of Lima, he himself became aggressive and relentless in trying to hustle me out of a fare four times greater than what we agreed. In response, I started using some Peruvian street talk and some curse words that I learned on the Internet insisting he is getting paid what we agreed, plus a tip.

What those cab drivers attempted to do, as they presumably do with other visitors, was charge me the gringo tax. What is the gringo tax? It's when you are being overcharged by shopkeepers and taxi drivers with what they can get away with because you are a gringo (foreigner). In Perú, however; if you are from any country other than Perú, you are viewed as a gringo even if you are of Latin American heritage.

When I was in Havana, Cuba, there is a famous ice cream parlor, boasted as the largest in the world called La Coppellia where they have a government-sponsored gringo tax; a pint of ice cream costs a Cuban one peso, but for visitors (the gringos), it was 20 pesos, which at that time was equivalent to an American dollar. 

In Quito, Ecuador, My Afro-Ecuadorian friend, Gloria (RIP) took me to La Mitad del Mundo (the equator) where I took pictures of me with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere. Afterward, we toured the museum on location, which also had a government-sponsored gringo tax. Gloria used her ID enabling me to pay the local fee.

As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible where you can get food and other items at much cheaper prices. Furthermore, making friends with local citizens and even asking hotel staff or other members of the community for appropriate prices for the things you want will put you in a better bargaining position. 

In Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I went to the market to shop for some chicken as a favor to my host family I was staying with. The market clerk immediately recognized my foreign accent (in Spanish) and quoted a price higher than what my host family advised. I called her on it and insisted on paying the appropriate price or I will go somewhere else. I paid the appropriate price.

It's also a good idea to carry small bills. In the nine Latin American countries that I've visited so far, I notice that merchants and cab drivers do not carry a lot of change. If you hand over a big bill, that can compromise your bargaining power. Therefore, I often go to a bank to change my money into small bills and loose change. In terms of tours, I've gotten much better deals hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash. Of course, it is necessary to be able to speak Spanish.

Before any Latin American trip, I network online. For example, in the Spring of 2009, I opened a separate Spanish-speaking Facebook account making more than 300 friends throughout Latin America. In Colombia, for example, there was an African village of former slaves who won their freedom from the Spanish 200 years before Simón Bolivar liberated the rest of  Colombia and other South American countries. I made it known on Facebook that I wanted to visit and received heart-warming responses from those willing to help. 

Before my first trip to Ecuador, I put the word out that I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team (I really am!), and that I wanted to visit the all-black town that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado (the Shaquille O'Neal of Ecuador). 

Within a couple of days, I got a response from an Afro-Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. Her mother showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from those notorious gringo taxes.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Has Your Foreign Language Skills Ever Been Tested in a Job Interview?

If you state on your résumé that you can speak a foreign language, be prepared because you are likely to be interviewed in that language. 

One year, I interviewed for a workforce development position at a prominent agency in San Francisco, California and passed the interview with flying colors.

Being that I'm so passionate about the Spanish language, I made it a point to emphasize my experience working with Spanish speakers as well as my travels to several Latin American countries. The job announcement itself stated that the ability to speak Spanish is a plus. 

Sure, I had Spanish in school, but like anything in life, the classroom is no match for the real world. 

I once had a supervisor who minored in Spanish in college, and I was so surprised when she asked me to help her with her Spanish. The difference between her progress and mine was that I always made it a point to seize every opportunity to converse with monolingual Spanish speakers.

When I returned for my second interview for that highly coveted position, I was as usual confident and ready to rumble. However, this time—there were two Latino managers waiting for me in the interview room. That made me unusually nervous because I knew my Spanish was going to be tested. 

Fortunately, the two interviewers spent almost the whole interview in English until they were satisfied that I was a good match for the open position. Then one asked me a question in Spanish. For the first time in my working life, I started stumbling over my words as I attempted to respond in Spanish. Finally, I just let it all hang out and stated (in Spanish) that I speak much better Spanish with those who speak Spanish only and no English. I added that bilingual people make me nervous and I begin forgetting simple words (a true statement!).

They both laughed and commented on how fine my Spanish sounded to them and let me off the hook telling me not to worry. 

There were other interviews where I did not get off so easily. At a predominately Latino employment services agency, the hiring manager, in the middle of our interview, insisted that we continue the rest of our discussion in Spanish. Reluctantly, I complied, but fortunately, I performed much better than I anticipated

When I apply for positions where the use of Spanish will be an asset, I want the employer to know upfront that I'm functional enough in the language to make conversation, conduct business in banks and shopping centers, but most importantly, do my job as a workforce development specialist and as a professional résumé writer.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Hey, A Gringo is Paying!

While on vacation in Ecuador, I made an appointment to meet with an Afro-Ecuadorian Studies Consultant at the Simón Bolívar University of the Andes in Quito, the nation's capital. I offered to take him to lunch to show my appreciation for the black on black cultural exchange. 

Well, his girlfriend popped in about 15 minutes before our scheduled lunch. Not a problem! We hugged and continued to chat. A nutritious, filling lunch in Ecuador is as little as $2.00. When I told the couple that I’m paying, they both chuckled as though this was expected. After all, I’m the “gringo” here.

In addition to Ecuador, I've been to eight other Latin American countries. If there is one attitude that so many people throughout Latin American have in common is that they view every North American and European as always having their pockets bulging with money. 

A retired police officer living in Ecuador explains that over many years, he and his wife would have a night out with a group whom they have invited. Word got around that a gringo is paying, and invite other friends to join them. 

They normally don’t show up at the beginning of the night, but straggle in without having any qualms about joining the party. It would have been considered bad manners to turn them down; thus, he and his wife felt put on the spot, and wound up spending considerably more money than initially planned.

With my repeated trips to Perú, and as people got to know me better, they felt bolder in treating me like a walking ATM. When I first arrived in Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I approached a black guy working in one of the shops to get some directions. When he heard my foreign accent, he became gleeful as it was evident that I am a gringo. He immediately stopped what he was doing, took a self-appointed break from his job, and said, ¡Vamos, un moreno tiene que ayudar un moreno (come on, man; a brotha gotta help a brotha out)!

He took about 30 minutes of his time to show me around. Out of appreciation for his hospitality, I invited him for a delicious seafood lunch, and towards the end of our little tour, he asked me for some money. I reached in my pocket and handed him 10 nueva soles (Peruvian dollars), and we parted ways.

On another occasion, I invited my nine-year-old Afro-Peruvian goddaughter and her older sister out to a local restaurant. Her uncle instinctively tagged along for a free meal, so I had to (reluctantly) include him in the dining bill. The older sister mysteriously disappeared and returned with four more of her family members. 

Like the retired police officer, I felt put on the spot. If I had more cash on my person at the time, or if this particular restaurant accepted Visa or Mastercard, or at least had an ATM; I too would have fallen for that blatant manipulation. 


Instead, the four other family members simply had to be left hanging. My goddaughter felt hurt and disappointed. The older sister was absolutely appalled. I later pulled her aside and explained to her that I am not one of those rich Americans; I live on a budget, and unfortunately, I don’t have the money to be spending on everyone in Perú on her whim or mine.

I thoroughly enjoy interacting with Spanish-speaking members of the African diaspora, and have even established family-like relationships with free room and board, such as the occasion when I got very sick on one of my trips, and two different families looked after me and nursed me back to health so I can continue my travels. 

As a general rule, however, no matter how well I connect with the people,  the indisputable fact still stands… I’m a gringo with a pocket full of money first, and a “brotha” second.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

What's It Like for a Black Man in Perú?

 Late Afro-Peruvian singer Pepe Vazquez
I received the following message in an e-mail from Sean, one of my blog readers, with the following inquiry:

 Good afternoon, Sir:

Are you still in Lima? I saw your blogs about being a black man in Lima where I am about to visit for a week. I wanted to get a perspective of how things are for a black man there.

Afro-Peruvian drumming on the cajon. This popular percussion instrument was invented by Black slaves.

My e-mail response:
 As a black man in Lima, and Perú in general, it has been my personal observation that there is not much visibility of black people working in shops, office buildings, in transportation, on the police force, or in restaurants. 

In the heavily black populated province of Chincha where I did considerable amount of banking, the staff is lily white with the exception of maybe the security guard. Black people are restricted to  certain types of jobs like security guards, pall beaters, nannies, factory workers, and entertainers.

The good news is that racially motivated police brutality and hate crimes are non-existent compared to the U.S.A. I personally know a Black American family who chose to live in Perú because their black male child would be safer than he would be in the U.S.

With the owner of a tourist popular soul food restaurant in Guayabo, Perú

As a visitor with a U.S. passport, you will be treated as an upper-class white person. Even the black people you meet will see you as a brother from another culture, or in the Afro-Peruvian vernacular, "familia" with a pocket full of money.

If you do as I did and try to blend in with the black community speaking only Spanish, then you will notice some racial disrespect. 

 At an El Carmen, Perú resort

In a music store in Lima, I was serruptitiously followed by a white employee. In a high-end shirt shop, the store clerks didn't want to serve me because they thought I didn't make enough money. When I approached the store owner who noticed my Muhammad Ali t-shirt and the heavy foreign accent in my Spanish, he treated me as though I were a fellow businessman.

At a bus station where I was hanging with a local Afro-Peruvian, I approached a ticket agent inquiring about a bus ticket to Ecuador. In a demeaning tone, he blurted a price that he was so sure I could not afford. In each of these cases, had I flashed my passport and burst some English, their whole attitude, like the shirt store owner, would have taken an about face.

 At a block party in El Carmen, Perú

As far as the black community is concerned, I got way too close where people felt comfortable hitting on me for money. That won't happen to you if they meet you briefly knowing that you are only there for a week or two. It was I who made multiple visits trying to immerse myself in the language, including their Spanish Ebonics, and their culture.

With all that said, expect to have a rewarding, learning, uplifting experience in Perú! If you have any more questions, my number is listed in my e-mail signature.

Monday, April 29, 2019

South America's Own Ebony Magazine

 Revista Ébano/Ebony Magazine

When I was in Cartagena, Colombia, I could not resist bringing back this souvenir I accidentally found in a black business: South America's EBONY MAGAZINE. Colombia has the largest Spanish-speaking black population in Colombia. 

The same West African music that gave birth to the blues and gospel music in the U.S.A; music that merged with White American music, gave birth to Cumbia music in Colombia. Cumbia is a mixture of West African, Spanish, and indigenous music. 

What's weird, a Colombian woman whose race is unknown, wrote on one of my blog posts that we Americas make too big of a deal about race. 

However, she gave me a deafening silence to something that I pointed out about her country. In a predominately black and brown city like Cartagena, why are there little or no black employees working in businesses, banks, office buildings, and on the police force? Is it racial discrimination? 

Colombia, like most Latin American countries deny racism in their country. It is indeed there, they just try to sweep it under the rug.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

African American-Latino World (MY STORY!)

 Wearing my Peruvian t-shirt at a Peruvian restaurant eating Peruvian 
"soul" food with the Peruvian national drink; pisco sour (brandy)

It all started for me at the age of 10 while living walking distance from New York's Spanish Harlem where I began noticing cultural exchanges between some African-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the community. Even African American R&B and jazz radio stations included crossover Latin music in their formats. 

This heavy Puerto Rican presence inspired me to dash over to my local public library and check out a "children's" book entitled, "Fun with Spanish," which I memorized cover to cover before befriending Puerto Rican classmates and neighbors to practice what I learned and to continue learning from them. 

During the Spring and Summer months, it was common to see African-American and Puerto Rican musicians jamming on their conga drums, bongos, flutes, and other percussion and wind instruments to American jazz and Latin jazz on the streets of East Harlem and in public parks. By my teenage years, I was so hooked on Latin music that an African-American classmate noticed a large collection of salsa and Latin jazz music in my room; he chuckled and remarked that I was turning into a Puerto Rican. 


Chilling out on Cuba's national drink, a mojito, in Havana, Cuba

Even people in the Spanish-speaking countries that I've visited assumed that I too am Latino. In Ecuador, a cab driver asked me if I am from Latin-American country in the Caribbean. Evidently, my Spanish sounded Puerto Rican, or in reality, Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican). In Perú where I earned an Advanced Spanish certification, one of the instructors told me that she too thought I was Puerto Rican. When I lived in California, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans suspected that I might be Cuban or Puerto Rican.

It wasn't until late in my adulthood when I decided to adopt Spanish seriously as a second language. My late Mexican-American friend, Yolanda Gutierrez, encouraged me to learn the "culture" as well as the language. Taking her advice, I started reading about the Latin American cultures where African slaves influenced the music that I enjoy most, such as salsa, Afro-Cuban, and Peruvian festejo.

I began traveling to selected Latin American countries to explore their black experience. For example, in Colombia, I visited a landmark African village where their ancestors freed themselves, Nat Turner style, from Spanish rule. A feat that was achieved 200 years before the rest of South America, including Colombia, won their independence.

I, second from the left, at a party in the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture

As of today, I've visited 32 Latin American cities, towns, and villages in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America seeking out black communities such as Valle de Chota (Ecuador), El Carmen de Chincha (Perú), and San Basilio de Palenque (Colombia). I want to include Miami, which I consider to be an honorary Latin-American city where the Cubans who are in-your-face proud of their culture and their language are always ready to roll with their Spanish "if" you can hang. 

I remember walking into Cuban restaurant where the cook asked me in broken English, “can I help you?” When I told her in Spanish that it was OK for her to speak to me in Spanish, she, her co-worker, and even a customer were so cheered that they acted as though I were one of them. I've even had jobs, one with bilingual pay, where I used my Spanish daily. 

Surprisingly, I have not yet been to the island of Puerto Rico, but as of this writing, I am planning to take that trip and was so glad to learn that Puerto Rico is officially recognizing "Spanish" as their official language and relegating English as a second language. There is an area of Puerto Rico where descendants of African slaves produced bomba and plena music, a mixture of Spanish and West African music. Thus, my blog and Facebook page—"African American-Latino Word."