Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Taste of Black Colombia

Visiting San Basilio de Palenque

The statue of Benko Bioho of Senegal, in the town Square of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. Bioho led a successful slave revolt in the 17th Century, making it the first free black town in the Americas, which maintained its African cultural tradition. 

The bus took me far as I could go from Cartagena, Colombia as I headed towards one of the nation´s proudest legacies, San Basilio de Palenque or simply Palenque. A town that was successful in doing what Nat Turner in the U.S. tried to do before he was sold out by uncle toms. The town led by Benko Bioho from Senegal led a successful slave uprising against the Spanish setting an example for the rest of Colombia in gaining her independence from Spain.

The bus driver told me if I was going to Palenque, this is where I needed to get off. Because of the limited public transportation into Palenque, there was a motorcyclist waiting and I had to ride the back.

It was a thirty minute ride into Palenque before I was dropped off at a restaurant across the street from Benko Bioho Square, containing the statue of the legendary liberator Benko Bioho. I had the traditional Palenque meal of fish, rice, and plantains before my tour guide Carlos entered.

Carlos and I walked about town as he explained to me the history of Palenque and the lifestyle of its residents, known as Palenqueros. Carlos himself was born and raised in Palenque before studying at a university in Cartagena. 

I could not help but notice how friendly the people were wanting to know where I was from. One woman kept looking at me and marveling as if she had never seen a black gringo before. The town itself is so peaceful that they don´t even have a police force as it is virtually crime free. Can't we all get along?

Every year on October 12 San Basilio de Palenque holds a Festival of Drums & Cultural Expressions.

How To Fool Pickpockets When Traveling

I wanted to use another “F” word besides ”fool” listed above, but I´m sure you get the message.

Upon entering Perú for the third time from neighboring Ecuador, I was accosted by a Peruvian National Police officer who wanted to see my documents. As I complied with his request, a couple of my expired credit cards and my old, expired passport fell from my back pocket. The cop asked me what those were about. He and my cab driver had a hearty, good laugh when I casually replied “son para los ratersos (they are for the pickpockets).” At a crowded bus station in Lima, a station attendant warned me about rateros. I laughed, pulled out my old, expired passport filled with fake Obama $44 bills, and everyone observing our conversation also joined in on the laughter.

During my five-nation trip to Latin America I had nice gifts for thieves and pickpockets, and souvenirs for the friends I made: Obama dollars sold by

It was through a published travel guide where I was warned about pickpockets targeting tourists. Naturally, after growing up in New York City, and having experienced travel to several other big cities in the U.S. and around the world, I've learned to hide cash in places I will not reveal here. I simply carry enough cash in my side pockets to get me through the day with a silk handkerchief directly on top in the event of a professional pickpocket making any attempt, and all that she/he would get is my silk handkerchief. And, yes, they got my silk handkerchiefs on two occasions. They also got one of my Barack Obama dollars that I purposely placed in my back pocket to see how good these pickpockets really were. I do not carry a wallet while traveling unless it is a wallet filled with funny money and old, expired credit cards.

In future travels I will make it a point to carry a wallet strictly for “rateros,” filled with funny-money and fake credit cards.

In Cartagena, Colombia, I placed my old, expired passport in my back pocket. It was gone in an hour. I never felt anything strange going on until I randomly reached for my back pocket. This to me was my biggest lesson as to how skilled these pickpockets are. My current passport and cash were stored in much safer places.

Pickpockets operate in places like crowded buses.

Pickpockets generally operate on crowded buses, bus stations, markets, or streets, such as Avenida Gamarra (Gamarra Avenue) in Lima, Perú. Peruvians warned me telling me that the pickpockets are highly skilled with hands of silk. The first time I was on Avenida Gamarra, I was in a cab. The streets were crowded with one store after another for blocks and blocks.

My front pocket is always in layers. My spending money at the bottom, a couple of handkerchiefs over the spending money, and at the very top, fake, funny money.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passing Through Mexico City

Zócalo District Mexico City
Mexico City's Zócalo District.

On my way to Perú, I took advantage of an 11-hour flight layover in Mexico City and took the Metro (subway) into town. My first stop was in the Pino Suarez section of town, where I hung out, went shopping, ate some genuine tacos, then took the subway again into the famous Zócalo section of town.

Buying fresh OJ in Pino Suarez
Buying fresh-squeezed orange juice in the Pino Suarez District.

Keep in mind, the primary purpose of my Latin-American trips is to practice my Spanish among people who don´t speak English. That way, I cannot cheat. LOL. I was amazed at how well my Spanish went over with those whom I chatted. They did not believe that I´m an American. Many thought that I was one of the many Cubans who migrated to Mexico. I had to bust some English to convince them. I found this whole experience flattering.

Mexico City Metro
Catching the metro subway from the airport into town.

Also, I used proper Latin-American manners that I should have learned to use a long time ago, like saying buenos días/tardes before approaching someone and getting to your point. When you leave, you say “permiso” (exuse me, gotta go). I am learning from my travel experience that these little things go a long way when interacting with Latin Americans.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Latin Tribute to Dizzie Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993

The music the world knows as salsa did not just evolvd from traditional Puerto Rican or Cuban music. Many jazz artists began interacting with Cuban music as far back as the early 1900's. Some of those interactions resulted in Dizzy Gillespie's famous piece, "Night in Tunisia." Dizzy Gillespie was an American jazz trumpet player, bandleader, singer, and composer dubbed "the sound of surprise"

Together with Charlie Parker, he was a major figure in the development of bebop and modern jazz. He taught and influenced many other musicians, including trumpeters Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Arturo Sandoval, Lee Morgan, Jon Faddis, and Chuck Mangione. Arguably Gillespie is remembered, by both critics and fans alike, as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time.

Dizzie Gillespie was also instrumental in founding Afro-Cuban jazz, the modern jazz version of what early-jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton referred to as the "Spanish Tinge." Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and gifted improviser, building on the virtuoso style of Roy Eldridge but adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unknown in jazz. Dizzy's beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop.

Dizzy Gilespie also worked with the renown Latin music maestro Mario Bauza in New York jazz clubs on 52nd street and several famous dance clubs such as Palladium and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They played together in the Chick Webb band and Cab Calloway's band, where Gillespie and Bauza became life-long friends.

Afro-Cuban jazz was considered bebop-oriented, and some musicians classified it as a modern style. Afro-Cuban jazz was successful because it never decreased in popularity and it always attracted people to dance to its unique rhythms. Gillespie's most famous contributions to Afro-Cuban music are the compositions "Manteca" and "Tin Tin Deo" (both co-written with Chano Pozo); he was responsible for commissioning George Russell's "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop", which featured the great but ill-fated Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo. Chano Pozo is one of a handful of famous Cuban percussionists who came to the United States in the 1940s and 50s. In September 1947 he featured with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band at Carnegie Hall and subsequently on a European tour.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Is He Really the Father of Salsa Music?

Salsa music is based on the son (pronouncd 'sewn') music of Cuba!

---Guillermo Céspedes, pianist with the
Afro-Cuban music group Conjunto Céspedes.

Arsenio Rodriguez, Matanzas, Cuba
August 31, 1911-December 31, 1970

One evening I was watching a TV presentation of “Roots of Rhythm,” which talked about the history of one of my favorite genres of music... salsa. The narrator Harry Belafonte, referred to Arsenio Rodriguez as the father of salsa. Many expert musicologists tend to agree. In a recently reissued song, Pio Leyva (from Buena Vista Social Club) sings, si te hablan de la salsa, mentira, se llama son (if they talk to you about Salsa, lies, it’s called Son).

Renown salsa music pianist Eddie Palmieri's and the late-great conga player Ray Barretto based their top hits on the music of Arsenio Rodriguez.

In the late 1930's, Arsenio Rodríguez (one of Cuba's greatest musician and composers) began reconnecting son music of Cuba with its African roots, which many of the earlier groups had either omitted or simplified. He synthesized and maintained the integrity of African and Spanish elements. His style became known as "son montuno" and formed the basis of the mambo craze in the 40's, influencing Latin popular music in New York for years to follow.

World famous Tito Puente on Timbales

Other music critics claim that despite these musical roots, what we now recognize as salsa, originated in New York City nightclubs in the years following World War II, an evolution of the era's big band tradition. The first great salsa musician was Tito Puente, who, after a stint with the U.S. Navy, studied percussion at New York's Juilliard School of Music. He went on to organize his own band, Puente's Latin Jazz Ensemble, which has been heard by audiences around the world.

Originally, Salsa was not a rhythm in its own right, but a name given in the 1970s by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to the New York City area, and its later stylistic descendants including 1980s salsa romantica and other sub-genres. The style is now practiced throughout Latin America, and abroad.

Arsenio Rodriguez with Conjunto Modelo, Guaguancó en la Habana

The history of Cuban music pivots around one man: Arsenio Rodriguez, the blind tres player. Arsenio pushed up the percussion, added a piano, and tripled the trumpets of the traditional septet line-up, and pretty much singlehandedly invented salsa as we know it today. He was a prolific composer and surrounded himself with the cream of Havana's musicians in the late forties.

Beny Moré was a gifted Cuban singer who also gets credit for what salsa music is today. He is often thought of as the greatest Cuban popular singer of all time.

The US has been a major consumer of Latin music not only through tourism as was seen in cabaret Rumba, but also in the "rhumba craze" of the thirties (see above) followed by the popularity of the Mambo and Chachachá, which the USA helped to distribute.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Peruvians in The Hood

The District of El Carmen, the Hub of Afro-Peruvian Culture


The Main Square where people come to relax and simply hang out.

At the end of my first trip to this quiet little town in October 2005, Mamá Adelina of the home where I was staying said to me when I return, I will have a family. I was fortunate enough to have several families. I even adopted a goddaughter since my first trip.

The Ballumbrosio family in whose home I stayed.
I'm in the back, second from the right.

It's a good feeling to be awakened in the morning by roosters, being greeted with buenas dias by strangers, hearing salsa and Cuban music walking the streets, and meeting all kinds of interesting people.

Afro-Peruvian dance

Afro-Peruvian dance

Afro-Peruvian woman dancing to the beat of the cajón.

On my fourth trip to El Carmen, a local doctor was good enough to show me all around the province of Chincha where lies El Carmen. This is a town where poverty prevails, but where everyone is at peace with them one another. I've never heard of any crime taking place. And if there is any drug abuse, it is kept on the down-low.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Afro-Latino National Heroes

Black Latinos & their Historic Victories for Freedom

Antonio Maceo,
1845-1896, Cuba

General Antonio Maceo was known as the Bronze Titan. So named because of his skin color, physical prowess, and social status as he led his troops to consistently outmaneuver the Spanish army in the 10-year war.

Alonso de Illescas

Illescas, a native of Senegal, West Africa was brought to Ecuador on a slave ship around the age of 25 and grew up to be a strategist skilled in guerrilla warfare. Behind a fortress built by by an alliance of escaped African slaves and Indigenous people, Illescas and his men fought and turned back many expeditions of Spanish forces.

Vicente Guerrero

Born of an African slave mother and a Mestizo father, Vicente Guerrero joined the Mexican Revolution in 1810, and achieved the ranks of Captain, Colonel, and finally general before becoming Mexico's second president in 1829.

Benkos Bioho
Late 15th Century-1621

Benkos Bioho, a successful slave revolter in Colombia who left a legacy of a free black town that stands to this day----San Basilio de Palenque, 40 km south of Cartagena. This town still holds on to African dialects like the Gullah people off the South Sea islands of the United States and the Garífuna people of Central America.

Gaspar Yanga in Mexico was said to be a member of a royal family in an area of West Africa now called Gabon. For three decades, Yanga and his African warriors survived and thrivedin the remote hills of Vera Cruz, Mexico by swooping down on caravans bringing goods to Veracruz, and raiding local Spanish settlements and slave plantations.

In 1630, Yanga established the first free black town in all of the western world. The town was originally called San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo. In the early 1950s, descendants of Yanga's African warriors positioned the Mexican government to change the name of the town to Yanga.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Museum of the African Diaspora

Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD)
685 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

As a paid member and volunteer, I was attracted to MOAD because of my thirst for knowledge, not only of the African continent, but those of African heritage living in Mexico, Israel, Perú, France, and other parts of the world.

The museum is a three-story building containing, among many things, exhibits, a family room, a gift shop, films, and a research center. Most of my focus at the museum, however, has been in the Maya Angelou Lecture Room to hear experts lecturing on the African influence on Latin America.

Long standing Bay Area musician and Afro-musicologist John Santos (left) presents on African Spiritual Practices and its impact on Latin music today.

Musicologist and author Ned Sublette (left), author of the book Cuba & Its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo gave a presentation on African music and it's impact on all of Latin America.

We had a lecturer from New York presenting on Afro-Puerto Rican history and culture focusing on the predominately black Loiza, Puerto Rico

The African Diaspora

Museum of the African Diaspora

San Francisco, CA

Friday, November 5, 2010

I'm Trippin' (in Spanish)!

When I say trippin', I mean it in both contexts, psychologically, and an actual trip----a five-nation trip to Latin America. I'm leaving on Thanksgiving morning and will be returning to Oakland on Christmas day. I'm so excited that I've already started packing my bags, solidifying my Facebook and e-mail contacts, but most importantly, trying to keep my focus here at work and not trip so hard while I'm on the job. This, I admit, is very difficult.

Buy fresh-squeezed orange juice in the 
Pino SuarezDistrict of Mexico City

I'll be visiting Mexico, Panamá, Perú, Colombia, and Ecuador

My first stop is Mexico City, an 11-hour layover where I will go out on the town. Next stop is Perú where I will spend most of my time due to close contacts I've developed over the last five years. Then I will fly to Cartagena, Colombia and stay for five days to explore Afro-Colombian culture and visit the famous town of escaped slaves who were successful in doing what Nat Turner tried to do before being sold out by uncle toms. This town is called Palenque de San Basilio.

All of this to practice my Spanish and have fun doing it in nations where only Spanish is spoken.

From Cartagena, I will have a six-hour layover in Panamá City on my way to Quito, Ecuador. In Panamá City, I will visit the Afro-Antillian museum. Once in Quito for the second time in my life, I will spend two days hanging out with Gloria, an Afro-Ecuadorian I met through a Facebook friend. I will then have another 8-hour layover in Guayquil, Ecuador and hang out with more Facebook friends before rounding out my vacation in New York City, and head towards San Francisco/Oakland on Christmas day.

The best way to get good at any new language is to either sink or swim!

All of this to practice my Spanish and have fun doing it. The best way to get good at any new language is to either sink or swim! What better way to do this than to visit the country where only that language is spoken. This Spring 2011, I plan to take formal classes in Spanish at a local community college to further grounded in the Spanish languange. Geez, this should have been my major in college because I'm trippin'.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dominican Harlem

Visiting the Washington Heights Section of New York City, known among its residents as Quisqueya Heights.

In my continuing efforts to improve my Spanish and explore various Latino cultures, I took advantage of my long, overdue vacation home to New York City by visiting an area directly north of Harlem that I call “Dominican Harlem. The real name is Washington Heights, known to Dominicans as Quisqueya Heights. Quisqueya is the original name of the Dominican Republic before the Spanish invasion. After I left New York years ago, Washington Heights attracted a growing number of immigrants from the Dominican Republic

Dominican Harlem, like Spanish Harlem, is not the best place to practice your Spanish; there are too many bilinguals. The moment they get the slightest hint that you are not a native Spanish-speaker, they will respond in English. Fortunately, I had such great experiences with great service, in Spanish only, in two Dominican restaurants; El Malecón and Albert's Mofongo House, that I left a larger than normal tip. I always tip better when Spanish-speaking servers speak to me in Spanish----I need the practice because I had little formal training in the language.

After I left New York years ago, the Washington Heights area attracted a growing number of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

Sadly, like other ethnic groups in the history of Washington Heights, and like other ethnic communities of color around the country, gentrification is slowly breaking up Dominican Harlem. Due to rising rents and other costs, families and friends who lived in this area for years are being scattered fueling an uptown real estate boom, and widening the gap between rich and poor. Dominican political power in the city is also being realigned.

This explains the closing down of the well-known bookstore for Spanish speakers, Librería Caliope. As I was walking down the street looking for the bookstore to shop, I passed a man at a large table on the curb selling books.

Sadly, gentrification is slowly breaking up Dominican Harlem.

Further down the street, I was told by residents that the owner now sells his books at the very table that I just passed. I asked the bookstore owner what happened. He told me that he had to close his store because of high rents. Gladly, I found and purchased an all-Spanish dictionary and a book of wisdom written in Spanish, and headed towards Albert's House of Mofongo for a Dominican seafood dinner.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Traveling & Living Among Locals


As one who has traveled to five Latin-American countries, three Asian countries, and three North-American countries, I take pride in avoiding most tourist attractions and staying as close to the locals as possible. In my opinion, it is among the locals where you get a real sense of the country's people and language. Juan, an Afro-Venezuelan friend said it so well, “the barrio (the hood) is where the culture is.” I certainly agree!

People think I'm a black relative of Bill Gates or Donald Trump when I'm traveling. HA!

However, I'm finding that an unfortunate trade-off is unfolding here. I make only a modest income. However, to people in many countries, I'm equal to a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump. As I get closer and more acquainted with those whom I visit, more are beginning to assume that I'm an ATM machine. One lady with whom I have a very good rapport, showed me her gas and electric bill asking for help.


I stayed in a family home in El Carmen, Perú

A dance instructor in El Carmen, Perú asked me about my motive for hanging out in a poor, non-touristy area when most visitors stay in nice hotels and go to tourist attractions like Macchu Pichu. My response was (#1), to improve my level of Spanish fluency by living amongst everyday people. (#2), to learn more about the black experience, history and culture as my hobby is exploring black heritage in Latin American countries. You don't learn these things hanging around major hotels and tour guides.

To get around, I prefer as much as possible, to use the same type of public transportation as the locals. Of course, dressing down is important because you don't want to be marked as a tourist with fancy clothes and bling-bling; it invites robbers, pickpockets, and cheats, especially when traveling alone. It's rough enough when I open my mouth and it becomes evident that I'm a foreigner.

As much as possible, I use the same mode of public transportation as the locals to get around.

Most of my time was spent among the so-called lower class. On two occasions I ventured into one of Lima's roughest neighborhoods, La Victoria, where Perú's famous, historically black soccer team Alianza Lima have their stadium. What did I do? I went into the area wearing an Alianza Lima team jersey. Thus instead of being harassed, I was cheered. People shook my hand. Others drove by honking their horns and giving me the thumbs up shouting "ALIANZA LIMA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A! I wonder if they thought I was one of the players. After all, I did fit the profile--black and athletic :-)

R1- 4A

As a traveler, I endure a standard of living that will “annoy” the average tourist. As a result, I had more spending money to enjoy myself, and at the same time, help others who need the help in a way that I can afford. It was a total joy, a heartfelt pleasure, and worth every penny to see how they were enjoying my company and my treats as I achieved my goal of making lifetime friends, learning the cultures, but most importantly, improving my Spanish.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is Latino a Race or Culture?

“You are a goddamn Negro! You think being Puerto Rican lets you off the hook? That's the trouble. Too many of you damn black Puerto Ricans got your eyes closed. Just because you can rattle off a different language doesn't change your skin one bit. Man, if there are any black people up on the moon talking that moon talk, they are still Negroes. Get it? Negroes!”
From “Down These Mean Streets,” 
by Piri Thomas,(1967)


Proud Afro-Peruvian Nicomedes Santa Cruz helped to raise public awareness of black Peruvian culture.

One day at a Burger King in Oakland, CA, a some Latinas working the register and I got into discussion about their manager who is from a heavily populated black area of Mexico called La Costa Chica. I struggled to keep from laughing when they told me that she was not black, as if her skin color is supposed to change simply because she is Mexican.

Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, at a young age, was inspired by a school teacher to study black history when he was told that blacks have no history and have never accomplished anything of note.

In an on line forum, an Afro-Puerto Rican woman pointed out to me that the term “black” only refers to black Americans. She became very upset and started attacking my character when I asked her about the racism and discrimination against blacks in Puerto Rico and reminded her that African-Americans do not have a monopoly on black skin.

I'm not “black,” I'm “Do-min-i-can,” said African-American actor/comedian Doug E Doug in in a scene from the film “Hanging with the Homeboys” as he was caught crashing a Latino party.

I have to respect the fact that people in Latin-American countries see themselves by their nationalities first and their race second. Marcus Garvey, whose United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) included branches in Latin-America was told by a Cuban delegation that they were Cubans first and blacks second. Does this sense of staunch patriotism stop racial discrimination in these respective countries? Obviously not. From my personal travels to five Latin-American countries, I've noticed a blatant absence of blacks, Asians, and indigenous people working in shops, as police officers, or as bus or cab drivers, let alone those working in office and corporate settings. Just pick up a newspaper and you can count the people of color, if any, are featured unless they are criminals, athletes, or entertainers.

Thus, I'm thankful for the surge of black pride and civil rights groups springing up all over Latin America these days. Since 1997, the La Costa Chica area of Mexico has been having an annual convention of black villages. In Ecuador, there is an annual celebration of Afro-Ecuadorian culture in October.

Black Latinos, Stand Up by Nadra Kareem

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Taste of “Quisqueya,” the Dominican Republic

Continuing to follow the advice of my late Mexican-American friend Yolanda Gutierrez, that is, learning the culture if I'm going to speak the language (Spanish), I made it a plan to visit an area of my hometown New York City while on vacation. This community has grown into what is known as Quisqueya Heights, formally known as Washington Heights. Quisqueya is what the Dominican Republic was called by the native population before the Spanish invasion.

I affectionately refer to this area as “Dominican Harlem,” since it is directly north of Harlem where I grew up. My first task in learning the various Latino cultures is exploring my favorites: the music, the African heritage, and the food. Being that I already have a collection of bachata and merengue music from the Dominican Republic, and being that I have already read about the African heritage in the Dominican Republic, the only thing left for me to explore was the food. Although, I sought advice from people I knew of Dominican ancestry, I found that I had to wing this one on my own.

Therefore, my first stop was El Malecón at 4141 Broadway. This place is known for its roasted chicken, and the frequent patronage of a lot well-known Dominicans in the community. The waiter appeared limited in English, and I insisted that he speak to me in Spanish because I needed the practice. When I'm in any Spanish-speaking restaurant, I tip better when I'm spoken to in Spanish. My waiter was very good in helping me make my selections of roasted chicken with rice and beans, and a batido de chinola, a passion fruit shake, which the waiter assured me is “very Dominican;” just want I wanted----something very Dominican to try for the first time; quite tasty, I might add.

On day-two of my trip to Washington (Quisqueya) Heights, I chose another popular, but more expensive and elegant eatery called Albert's Mofongo House, described in an on-line review as a Dominican restaurant where most people come for a family meal, paid more than $50, and tipped less than 15%.

I couldn't leave
“Dominican Harlem”
Dominican Rum

Upon my entering, I was greeted with a very happy smile by the maitre d', which gave me a positive first impression, and their having black Dominican waiter on staff gave me even a better impression. Then my waitress came over speaking Spanish----I loved it! I had a scrumptious seafood platter with rice, and for desert, something else that was very Dominican; dulce de naranja (a sweetened orange). The music in the background consisted of jazz, bachata, merengue, and salsa; right up my alley.

Upon leaving, the waitress thanked me profusely for coming. My bill was $38, but my tip was well over 20%. She deserved it!