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!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Passing Through El Salvador

The interesting thing about learning to speak a foreign language is that when you are in a country where only that language is spoken, your level of fluency goes up a few notches by default. I had a seven-hour layover in El Salvador before my next flight to Lima, Perú. I took advantage of those hours by getting a tourist card ($10.00) and leaving the airport to explore the surrounding areas. I hired a taxi at $60.00 for three hours. Our first stop was Café Yessenia in Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) to have lunch.

The beauty of this popular tourist attraction was the fact that it was early and we, the cab driver and I, were the only ones there. I try to avoid crowds when I can, which is one of the reasons I no longer live in New York City. Also, I always pick a slow season of the year to travel. We had a great meal as he was filling me in on the people and culture of the area.

El Salvador's Costa del Sol (Sun Coast)

We then proceeded to drive around stopping at beaches and towns. When I travel, I prefer to see the "real" country and its people versus highly populated tourists areas. This is how you learn the true culture of the country, and in my case, develop fluency in the language.
While hanging out with this cab driver, I felt so relaxed speaking Spanish without struggling to translate in my head. I was actually "thinking" in Spanish and not English. Of course, this is not my first time being in a Spanish-speaking country so I understood how this phenomenon works. When I was in Cuba, I even had a couple of dreams in Spanish. Now, that's what I call progress! :-)

My cab driver got it made in the shade
He gets cab fare and a seafood lunch on me

We stopped in a grocery store to get some inexpensive goodies. Perhaps, something I could take on my flight to Lima, Perú. I was amused by the looks I was getting from the store clerks; it's like they never seen a black person before. Speaking of black people, I was wondering if the people in the coastal areas of El Salvador had an African presence at one time like other areas of Latin America because so many people were so dark. Then I realized that it was not that they had African blood in their veins; they spent too much time working in the sun.

To make sure that I did not miss my plane, I instructed the taxi driver to get me back to the Comalapa Airport two hours before my flight to give me time to get through security and get settled. The taxi driver gave me his business card and encouraged me to call when I pass through El Salvador again.

R1- 7A
I'm headed back to Comalapa Airport
to catch my flight to Perú

However, just recently, I was introduced to a web site giving the facts on El Salvador and her black history. As in other Spanish colonial territories enslaved Africans were also brought to El Salvador to work in labor enterprises and eventually became absorbed into the mestizo mix.
Their historical presence has never been officially acknowledged in a society that does not recognize ethnic diversity. Nevertheless the genetic legacy can still be determined by the appearance of distinctive hair texture and darker skin tones in some members of the population as a whole as well as within marginalized indigenous groups.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Who Was That Ecuadorian Goddess?


It was 11:00 at night when I had just flown into Quito, Ecuador from Guayaquil after an 18-hour bus ride from Lima, Perú. I checked into a hotel and went out to take a look at the city I was going to be visiting for a few days. The area where I was staying is called La Mariscal, better known as Gringo-Landia (Gringo Land). So named because this is where people from all over the world come to stay and hang out. It is a very congested part of town, and on Friday nights, it's like a parking lot with all the heavy traffic. Fortunately for me, everyone I ran into spoke Spanish. My primary reason for my being in South America in the first place was to be immersed in the Spanish language. The second reason was to get connected with the Afro-Latino experience.

Being hungry, I stopped in the first restaurant I saw. Upon leaving, there was a black Ecuadorian male hanging out. Thinking he might turn me on to Quito's black community, I tried to make conversation. He asked me to get him something to eat, which I did. But when I returned with the food, I saw him down the block throwing a "pitch" at some white tourists. Realizing he was hustling, I left him alone. Meanwhile a black woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I immediately introduced myself. I can tell by the way she spoke that she was local, and figured she might turn me on to some Afro-Ecuadorian action. But I got a little suspicious of her vague conversation coupled with the fact that she was hanging out in Gringolandia (La Mariscal) alone at night, seemingly doing nothing. She seemed overly elated that I even stopped to talk to her.

As I gazed into her eyes, I did not get the impression that there was an attraction other than what's in my wallet. I figured she could be hustling or setting me up for a robbery. Quito has a long-standing reputation for tourists being hustled and/or harmed by locals. This explains why I saw so many heavily armed militia maintaining a visual presence in the area. A local Spanish school encourages their foreign students to never walk around Quito alone. I thought of Gloria, an Afro-Ecuadorian friend whom I met through a FaceBook friend; someone whom I was supposed to meet the next day. It was at that moment I said, adios, and went back to my hotel--- alone!

As of this writing, it's been almost a year since this strange encounter, and I always wonder who she was and what was she really about. Was she working in cahoots with the Afro-Ecuadorian male hustling the white tourists, or was she just an innocent passerby? Who was that Ecuadorian goddess?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chota, Ecuador: “The Hood”

Valle de Chota in the Andes Mountains. The Home of 2000 Afro-Ecuadorians.

For several years, I wanted to visit Ecuador's black communities of Esmeraldas and Valle de Chota while immersing myself in the Spanish language to improve my level of fluency. My time finally came in December 2009. After spending a week in Perú, I took a bus into Ecuador to hang out for a few days. I didn't have time to visit Esmeraldas because it was six hours away from the nation's capital of Quito, besides, I heard stories about the heat, the malaria, the drugs, and the crime. Perhaps, one day I'll find out for myself because you cannot always trust hearsay.

R1- 8A
Local teens gave me the 411 on their little community.

However, Valle de Chota, or Chota for short, was only two hours from Quito where I was hanging out with Gloria, an Afro-Ecuadorian friend whom I met through a FaceBook friend. Chota is the town that produces a lot of Ecuador's soccer stars like Augustin Delgado (see his soccer plays at the bottom of this post). They even have a soccer training school for young boys who aspire to be professional soccer players. The beauty of this school is that these boys must be willing to be tutored in academic subjects and keep their grades up while training.

R1- 9A
Future world class soccer stars involved in a pick-up game.

My reception by the people of Chota was mixed. The fact that I was a total stranger entering the area cold, and speaking Spanish with a funny accent made some people nervous. One woman went to get the police. The police station, next door to her business, was the size of a three-bedroom apartment manned by two cops. They called me over with a pleasant smile to ask me what I was doing in their town. I tried to keep from laughing as I struggled with my Spanish and explained to them that I'm a fan of Ecuador's soccer team due to the fact that most of the soccer stars are from this little town and made Ecuador proud in the 2006 World Cup Games. The officers seemed pleased and let me finish my personal tour.


People were suspicious of me until we began to chat


As I kept touring the town on foot, I met some friendly families, took their pictures, and chatted. Finally, I stopped in a little store and ordered a can of beer. The lady at the counter seemed quite fearful giving me that “WTF-is-this” look. As I sat and chilled in the shade sipping the beer, some teens came over to make conversation. They asked me about blacks in the USA and I asked them about Chota, especially their soccer stars.

Chota's soccer school, which produces many of Ecuador's star players.

I was also told about some venues where I could party that evening and get a better feel for their culture. Unfortunately, I already made plans to be back in Quito with Gloria who was having a family get-together at her house. After chatting with the teens, I proceeded over to the very soccer field that produced so many of Ecuador's stars and conversed with the young boys practicing their game. They seemed excited about my visit and the fact that I was taking snapshots.

Cops wanted to know what I was doing in their town.

Finally, I made my way back to the police station to get directions to the bus stop for my trip back to Quito. I chatted with the cops, who seemed to have nothing to do in this seemingly crime-free town as I took their pictures and gave each one a Barack Obama post card. Everywhere I went in Latin-America, people seemed to really appreciate the Obama postcards as souvenirs. I left Chota feeling exhilarated to have to have connected with friendly men, women, and children in this famous town----a travel-dream-come-true.

Valley de Chota's own Augustín Delgado gives Poland a thrashing in the 2006 World Cup Games

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Recognition of Afro-Ecuadorian Heritage Day

Note: This information was released by the Afro-Ecuadorian Cultural Center, posted on Facebook by an Afro-Ecuadorian friend May Perlaza, of which I translated into English.

Alonso de Illescas (1528-1585)

In 1997, the National Congress of Ecuador declared October 2, the national day of Black Ecuadorians giving formal recognition to Alonso de Illescas (pronounced O-lone-zo Day EE-yes-cahs) a native of Senegal, West Africa. He 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.

Afro-Ecuadorians remember Alonso de Illescas, the national hero.

Alonso was also a diplomat, who on one hand, fought against the Spaniards, and on the other hand, knew how to make friends. He assisted other Blacks who were on shipwrecked slaves ships and nursed them back to health, then recruited them into his revolutionary force against Spanish troops.

Esmeraldas is on the Northwestern coast of Ecuador, a six-hour drive from Quito, the nations capital.

He was also a true governor of what is now Ecuador's province of Esmeraldas; never subject to bribes, and even rejected the title of governor when many politicians gave up their properties to take on the title of governor of Esmeraldas. Olonso IIlescas trained new leaders starting with his son Alonso Sebastian de Illescas and his grandson Jerónimo (Geronimo) so that they be loving of justice and liberty and keep their territory free of Spanish rule. Although, Esmeraldas was the first province invaded by the Spanish, it was the alliance between Blacks and Indigenous people that kept the Spanish from taking full control.