Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When I Was Cuban

For years, people have suggested and suspected that I just might be Cuban. Just because I rattled off some Spanish to some Spanish-speaking clients at a social service agency in Richmond CA, where I was working at the time, word spread rapidly among staff that I'm Cuban. Why? At a bus stop in a Spanish-speaking community in Oakland, CA, I casually struck up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a woman who was also waiting for a bus. Her immediate response to me was, ¡Ayyyyy, Cubano (ohhhh, you're Cuban)! Now, how did she figure? When I was on vacation in Southern Perú, I thought because I was in a heavily populated black area that I just might fit right in. No. As soon as my back was turned, I overheard someone ask about me, de dónde es, Cuba . (where is he from, Cuba)?. Now, what does Cuba have to do with me? Well, I actually had the opportunity to visit Cuba to find out.

While growing up in New York, I was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors to learn Spanish and love salsa music.

I must admit, I did feel at home. There was something about the energy of the Cuban people that made me feel like a long, lost member of the community who finally came home. Words cannot express how uplifted I felt to just walk about town hearing son-montuno music, charanga music, timba music and danzon music blaring from homes and businesses. One day, a group of us were strolling through Central Havana when we heard this loud salsa song coming out of a restaurant. I couldn't take it anymore. I literally reached out and grabbed a woman, and we danced right there in public. Of more than 150 cities and towns in 16 countries that I've visited in my life, Havana is the only place from which I returned feeling homesick; I mean very homesick!

I was born in St. Louis, MO, and lived in a closely knit African-American community called “The Ville.”

Does this make me Cuban? Well, total strangers in Havana assumed I was one until I opened my mouth (LOL)! They couldn't tell by my Spanish where I was from. What was clearly evident to them the moment I spoke----I am NOT Cuban! I can't even fake a Cuban accent. At a popular Havana night spot, I was so flattered when a lovely woman asked my date if she could cut in to dance with me. I took her into my arms and busted one of my favorite salsa moves. She was NOT impressed. She blurted out in astonishment, ¡tu bailas como extranjero/you dance like a foreigner!), and motioned for me to go sit down--go back my woman. I guess she thought I was Cuban too :::::::chuckle:::::::.

Even Cuban people thought I was Cuban until I opened my mouth!

The Cubans have a name for people like me. It's called “Yuma,” a slang word for an American, and rightfully so. I was born in St. Louis, MO and lived in what I remember was a closely knit African-American community called “The Ville” before moving to New York City. It was in New York, where I developed a love for classical music and jazz. But I developed and even greater love for salsa and became a salsero por vida (a salsa music lover for life).. The Spanish that I learned was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors, or should I say my New-Yorican neighbors (Puerto Rican born and/or raised in New York). Even a friend from the Island of Puerto Rico, told me that my Spanish has a New-Yorican accent. When I was in Perú and Ecuador, comments were made about my Spanish sounding Caribbean.

So, I have to ask----when was I ever Cuban? Could it have been in another life? I tend to think that just might be the case.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Humorous Encounter with Afro-Ecuadorians

A funny thing happened while riding the bus from Quito, Ecuador's capital to Valle de Chota, a black community of 2000 people in the Andes Mountains. As I made my way towards the back to use the restroom, I struck up a conversation with one of the many black passengers who was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. Being a native New Yorker myself, I had to ask if he knew what he was wearing. I asked because it has been my experience from traveling to different countries that people will wear hats and t-shirts with English writing with no clue to its meaning.

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These young brothas of Chota Valley gave me
the scoop on their peaceful little hood.

For example, when I was in Cuba, I saw a woman walking along the beach wearing a New York Knicks jersey. Out of excitement, I shouted to her ¡Ay ¡es mi equipo (Hey, that's my team)! She looked at me as if she were asking, what are you talking about? Well, it turned out that she didn't know what she was wearing. Similarly, a lot of African-Americans wear African garments with no clue as to the specific tribal or cultural meaning behind the color and design-patterns of such garments.

This young man knew what he was wearing, and he pronounced “New York” well. As our conversation continued, everyone in the rear section of the bus noticed my funny accent. My Spanish is obviously not Ecuadorian, least of all, “Afro” Ecuadorian. They really paid close attention when a non-black woman who guessed that I am an American asked me a question in English. When I responded in English, all the blacks roared with laughter. It was like they never heard a black guy speak English before.

Juncal, the largest town in Valle de Chota (Chota Valley).

Immediately, my mind went back to the U.S.where Americans, even Latinos (who really should know better), are not used to blacks speaking Spanish. I myself have seen Latino (and African-American) people chuckle or go into shock when they hear me make statements or ask questions in clearly understood Spanish. Others look at me in utter astonishment as though I'm supposed to be limited to English and Ebonics. I'm wondering if the Afro-Ecuadorians on that bus feel that blacks should limited to Spanish only, or perhaps the Afro-Ecuadorian dialect. Hmmmmmmmmmmm!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Do All Latinos Look Alike?

Any one or all of these folks could be Latino.

 One day while riding the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) from San Francisco, where I work, to Oakland, where I live; I was engaged in conversation with two other black guys. One was Cuban and the other Colombian. Since the Colombian brother spoke limited English, we carried on our conversation in Spanish. These two guys didn't notice, but I got a real thrill out of observing whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos (who really should know better) reacting in surprise because three “brothas” were conversing Spanish.

How can you possibly look at people and know for sure which language they can and cannot speak?

History tells us that more slaves ships went to Latin America than the U.S., thus there are more Spanish-speaking black folks than English-speaking black folks. Furthermore, I've had the pleasure of meeting Latinos of Asian, Middle Eastern, German, and Indigenous ancestry. So, why do so many people feel they can simply look at someone and determine which language one speaks? WELL, I'M LISTENING!!!

Please the comment section below and educate me.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Valued Souvenir from Perú

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. Peruvians told me 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 Alianza Lima. 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 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, or Alianza Lima Grone (Grone is Negro spelled backwards) is that this historically black team has won over 20 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.

Related Posts on Black Perú

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lucrecia: A Young Celia Cruz?

Afro-Cuban Singer Living in Barcelona, Spain

"First I am a musician, and I'm Cuban."

Some of Lucresia's music has included a mix of traditional Cuban music with the modern beats of today. Lucresia, who has recorded nine CDs have done traditional music, salsa, and boleros. After phenomenal success in Spain and throughout Europe, he is looking forward to similar success in the American market.

Born in the El Vedado section of Havana, Cuba and raised in Guanabacos towns of Cuba, Lucrecia seemed to have been born with music in her heart. At the young age of six, she began her musical studies with a concentration in piano at El Instituto Superior de Arte de Cuba (The Superior Institute of Art in Cuba). In order to complete a well-rounded musical structure, she also took voice classes. As a result, she received many awards as a vocalist in different competitions in Cuba including the Joseito Fernandez Award, acclaim at the Benny More Festival, and an award in el Concurso Jovenes Compositores y Instrumentistas (the Young Composers and Instrumentalists Competition). She was also the lead vocalist and keyboard player for the famous Cuban female orchestra "Anacaona." It was with "Anacaona," that Lucrecia participated in tours around the world, which brought her to Barcelona, Spain where she stayed and now resides.

In 1993, she finally gained wide recognition in Cuba as an artist having her songs play in the Hit Parade of radio and TV. That same year she participated in the Havana International Festival of Boleros, where she was one of the distinguished guests. In 1994 she released her first album in Spain entitled "Me debes un Beso" (You owe me a kiss), for which she was the producer and musical director. Her second release in 1996 was entitled "Prohibido" (Forbidden), where she brought the song "La Noche de la Iguana" (the Night of the Iguana) by Juan Pablo Silvestre. La Noche de la Iguana was dedicated to oppressed people all over the world. The song also served as the lead single of the Sonora band in the movie "Balseros." Lucrecia's third album "Mis Boleros" (My Boleros) came out later that same year.

Celia Cruz

October 21, 1925 - July 16, 2003

In 1997 she released "Pronosticos" and in 1999 "Cubaname," for which she once again served as producer and musical director. Also in 1999, Lucrecia made her debut as an actress in the movie "Ataque Verbal" (Verbal Attack) directed by Miguel Albadalejo. In 2001, Lucrecia released a single entitled "Amparame," which has been rerecorded for her latest album "Agua." In addition to her musical and theatrical credits she has also written a children's book called Besitos de Chocolate (Chocolate Kisses), and has appeared on a children's program in Spain.

Throughout the last few years she had also met and collaborated with some of the best in the industry including artists that have personally influenced her like Celia Cruz with whom Lucresia had many encounters and began a friendship. Lucrecia will always remember Celia Cruz for her strength and dedication at all hours, and the beauty of her music. Unfortunately Lucresia couldn't immediately leave to be at Celia's side at her death because she had shows scheduled, but a soon as it was over she left for the burial in New York. The night of her concert, a wake was being held for Celia in Miami, and during the show fans lifted up signs that read "Agua con Azucar," linking the two artists with their famous catch phrases. At the cemetery, Lucrecia sang a song dedicated to Celia entitled "Noche con un Angel" (Night with an Angel), and composed a song for Celia called "Agua con Azucar y Ron (Water with Sugar and Rum).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Latino and Proud

Journalist Felipe Luciano (below), born in New York's Spanish Harlem, is proud of both his African and Puerto Rican heritage.

I once worked for a Manuel Cabello. He was educated, bi-lingual of Chilean ancestry, and proud. So proud that he insisted that everyone pronounces his last name correctly: Cah-bay-yo, not Cuh-bello like we Americans tend to do. Americans screw up a lot of mainstream Spanish names when it comes to pronunciation. For example, cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles are not pronounced correctly by American society, not even among the highly educated. What really surprises me is when I meet American-born or raised Latinos who also insist on corrupting their names in order to sound non-Latino. Is there something is wrong with being Latino?

The other week, I had to scratch my head because a white Spanish-speaking co-worker appeared too ashamed to disclose her country of origin. I have a black-Latina friend who grew up assimilating into the African-American community and purposely distorts the spelling of her first name, and even stopped me from spelling it correctly. Again, I had to scratch my head wondering what the heck is going on. Why do so many Americans forget that this country is made up of immigrants, and that the only true Americans are the so-called Indians. Why are do many Americans want to forget their roots?

As an African-American, I know there was a time when we had a movement of ethnic pride and James Brown came out with the song Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud! Unfortunately, not all African-Americans got the message of ethnic pride either.

One of my favorite actors Edward James Olmos who practices his ethnic pride in films, has also been involved in social activism, especially that affecting the Latino community. Olmos co-founded the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and co-founded with Kirk Whisler the non-profit organization Latino Literacy Now that has produced Latino Book & Festivals around the USA, attended by over 700,000 people. In addition, he founded Latino Public Broadcasting and currently serves as its Chairman. Latino Public Broadcasting funds public television programming that focuses on issues affecting Latinos and advocates for diverse perspectives in public television. That same year, he starred in The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, a comedy that sought to break Latino stereotypes and transcend the normal stigmas of most Latino-oriented movies. Olmos was one of the driving forces that created Americanos: Latino Life in the U.S., a book project featuring over 30 award winning photographers, later turned into a Smithsonian

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's the Birthday of My Peruvian Goddaughter

Daniela, My Afro-Peruvian Goddaughter

17 de Agosto...(August 17)

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From left to right: Daniela, Alma, Mariana, Yomira, Zenaida Mendoza, Ruth Alama, Javier Castillo

I first met little Daniela on my first trip to El Carmen, Perú. As she sweetly took some of the candy I offered her, I felt a strong connection that I never felt for a child. Even after my return to the USA, I often thought of Daniela and looked forward to seeing her again. Every so often I would call the family to speak to her, and of course, send money of which I thought was well spent.


By the time Daniela was five, she and I began to establish rapport over the phone. I reminded her of who I am and how we met. I was surprised that she seemed to remember me because she was only three at the time. When I told her out of affection that she was my niece, she asked if she could be my daughter. A few phone conversations later, after some thought, I started referring to her a mija (my daughter). After having grown up without my mother around, I could only empathize with Daniela who doesn't have her father around. She often asks when am I coming back to Perú. I was having so many job challenges since my last trip to Perú that I could not give her a straight answer. I heard later that Daniela cried at times wondering if I were coming at all.

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Daniela and her family and neighbors at a bus (combi)stop in El Carmen, Perú headed to Grocio Prado for some fun and food.
From left to right: Mariana, Christina, Alma, Zenaida, Ruth, Daniela.

I'll never forget the joy in her voice when I finally called and gave her the date of my expected arrival in Perú. She gleefully echoed the date two or three times to family and neighbors within earshot of her voice.

Finally, on November 27, 2010, I arrived at the home of my host family in El Carmen, Perú. After they greeted me, sat me down to chat, I hopped up and told them that I wanted to see my daughter Daniela. I went next door and Daniela hugged me as though I were her real father. It was time for us to bond.

Daniela and I at the Plaza de Armas (main square) in Chincha Alta, Perú.

Today, August 17, 2010, I called to wish her a happy birthday. Daniela is eight years old. I promised to buy her a bicycle when I arrive again in November. In addition, I bought a book that Daniela and I will read together by a famous Cuban singer Lucreasia entitled Besitos de Chocolate (Chocolate Kisses), about stories of her childhood.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Afro-Latino Ring Warriors

My All-Time Favorite Black Latino Boxers

#1. Mauro Mina
, Perú
The best known boxer to ever come out of Perú. I had the pleasure of visiting his hometown of Chincha, Perú three times. Mina was known as the Bombadero de Chincha (the Chincha Bomber), is the former South American champion and was ranked #1 in the world by Ring Magazine.

2. Kid Gavilan, Cuba
Former world welterweight champion. Famous for the “bolo punch.”

3. Ismael Laguna, PanamáFormer two-time lightweight champion of the world. A flashy, flamboyant fighter with blinding speed was known as El Tigre Colonense (The Colón Tiger) because of his hometown of Colón, Panama. He is the former two-time lightweight champion of the world.

4. Rodrigo Valdez, Colombia
Former two-time world Middleweight Champion

5. Wlfredo Benitez, Puerto Rico
Former world's light-welterweight, welterweight, and light-middleweight champion known for his aggressiveness and exceptional defensive skills. He is best remembered for his battle with Sugar Ray Leonard in which he lost a 15-round decision. He is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

8. Vicente Pablo Rondon, VenezuelaFormer light-heavyweight champion, Known as Muchachote de Barlovento. Barlovento is a predominately black area in the coastal region of Venezuela.

9. José “Mantequilla” Napoles, México (by way of Cuba)
Former two-time world's welterweight champion. Known as Mantequilla (butter) because his boxing style was smooth as butter. He was adopted as Mexico's national hero.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Legacy of an Afro-Boricua

The Puerto Rican Father of Black History

The Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library.

I was in the fifth grade, attending my new school, P.S. 175-Manhattan in my new neighborhood Harlem, New York City. One day, while playing, I just happened to drift across the street, and noticed a bust of a black man in front of a two-story brownstone building specializing in black literature. Little did I know that it would years before I learned that this site was a the cornerstone of The New York Public Library's Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, which would later grow into the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
January 24, 1874 (San Juan, Puerto Rico)
June 8, 1938 (Brooklyn, NY)

 It all started in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when a school teacher told a young black kid that blacks have no history and has never accomplished anything of note. This young black kid was so inspired to prove his teacher wrong, that he began his own readings and collected books on the accomplishments of black people all over the world. As he grew older, he got into debates with his classmates about the contributions of blacks.

The old Schomburg Collection located on 135th Street in Harlem, across from my elementary school P.S. 175-Manhattan.
 As an adult, he moved to New York City, where at first, he was involved in the revolutionary movements of immigrant Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Meanwhile, he met an African-American journalist who introduced him to New York's black intellectual community and continued to increase his knowledge and expanded his personal collection of books by and about black people. During this time he got involved in the Harlem Renaissance (originally the new Negro movement), a black social and literary movement that spread through black communities nationwide.

Arturo Alfonso loaned objects from his personal library to the New York Public Library until his total collection of 10,000 items was purchased by the Library with the assistance of the Carnegie Corporation. Today, at the current site of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, there are more than 5,000,000 items such as artifacts, recordings, manuscripts, motion picture films, newspapers, periodicals, photographs, prints, recorded music discs and sheet music. In addition, there is an 11,000 item digital library that can be accessed world wide by computer where you can browse more than 11,000 relating to African the African continent and the African Diaspora going all the way back to the 17th century.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What, Soul Food in Perú?

Yes, There Is An Afro-Peruvian Cuisine

This black owned restaurant known as La Anticuchería is located in the beautiful, touristy section of Miraflores in Lima, Perú with another one in Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture. This establishment is an estate house replica of the time when the black Peruvian people were creating what today is their Native (Soul) food. Their old-fashioned costumes, give them a very special touch.

This Soul Food has its roots in the southern province of Ica where African slaves were brought to work the plantations. Their dishes are prepared with ancient recipes that only black women have saved since the time of slavery.

Peruvian "Soul Food" at Mamaine Restaurant in El Carmen de Chincha in Southern Perú, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture. Maria Cruz and her 14 year-old son Gianfranco of El Carmen, Perú took me to the classic Mamaine Restaurant in the Guayabo section of El Carmen. 

I finally get a chance to meet Mamainé herself a year later on my second trip to her restaurant.

I thought it was interesting how, despite my black skin in a predominately black community, the owner spotted me as a traveler and welcomed me. I didn't get a chance to meet Mamaine for whom the restaurant is named as she was too busy entertaining other visitors; that is until my next trip to Perú one year later.

Young cajón players from Guayabo in El Carmen, Perú entertain the diners.