Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fond Memories of Venezuelan Women

The friendly, pleasant demeanor of Venezuelan women was one of the most memorable part of my trip.

It was Thursday, December 1, 2011, when I stepped off the plane in Caracas, Venezuela; got cleared by security and immigration, and made it onto the main floor of the Maiquetia International Airport. It was so refreshing to notice how friendly, conversational, and relaxed the women are as one had no qualms about asking me about my luggage. Mind you, there is not a city in the United States that comes close to the crime statistics of Caracas, and that includes Detroit, St. Louis, and Oakland. In fact, I have a co-worker from Caracas who feels “safe” in Oakland.

As I passed through the airport, I noticed a Black Venezuelan woman looking at me intently. I gave her a joyful smile, not out of flirtation, but out of happiness to see a sistah (a soul sister). Because of my smile, she looked at me even harder seemingly thinking we might know each other. I didn't have time to stop and chat because I was looking for someone who arranged to pick me up.

While I was riding the metro train, a white Venezuelan woman overheard me speaking English with my friend and guide, María, and I couldn't help noticing this woman watching me with a delightful smile. I immediately greeted her in Spanish and made lightweight conversation of which she seemed very pleased. “Buenas días, buenas tardes, buenas noches,” I would say to various women in my presence, and they would all respond with genuine warmth; not lust, not romantic interest, simply warmth. Almost every time I'd smile at a woman, she'd give me a happy, enthusiastic smile in return; not in a come-on kind of way, but out of friendly enthusiasm. The last time I smiled at a woman in San Francisco, CA, where I work, she immediately picked up the pace of her stride, and created as much distance from me as possible.

In the predominately Black Region of Barlovento, one woman referred to me as primo when I greeted her on the street. Primo literally means cousin, but in Venezuela, it is a colloquial expression suggesting familiarity. As I was heading back to the airport to catch my flight to Miami, a woman who doesn't know me from Hugo Chávez sat next to me on the bus and made conversation with me until she reached her stop. 

During my whole trip to Venezuela, I encountered no negative attitudes, defensiveness, nor the paranoia that I'm so accustomed to experiencing in the United States of America. The friendly, pleasant demeanor of Venezuelan women (next to eating empenadas) is the most memorable part of my trip.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Black Venezuelan War Hero

Simón Bolívar's famous Lieutenant

Black Venezuelans played a decisive role in their country's War of Independence. South American liberator Simón Bolívar thoroughly understood the strategic importance of black soldiers and abolished slavery in 1812 and again in 1816. Bolívar being a slave master himself freed 1,000 of his own slaves, and recruited 5,000 slaves into his army.

One of Bolivar's most famous lieutenants, Pedro Camejo, is known in Venezuela's history books as "El Negro Primero (The First Black)," because he was always the first to ride into battle. The only statue commemorating a black person in Venezuela is that of Pedro Camejo, one of Simón Bolívar's famous Lieutenants. A statue of El Negro Primero today stands in the Plaza Carabobo in Caracas.

Pedro Camejo's picture also appears on Venezuelan's currency  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Black (and Brown) Ghetto in Venezuela

During my trip to Venezuela, I had two caring Couchsufing hosts. One picked me up at the airport and we hung out all over Caracas before going to his home where I met his family and his girlfriend. He hooked me up with an exchange rate of eight Bolívares Fuertes to a US dollar. The next day, after lunch, he passed me on to my other couchsurfing host who had me sleeping on a “real” couch (no problem at all). She then woke me up at 6am and accompanied me on a two-hour bus ride to Higuerote in Venezuela's Region of Barlovento where her family lives.

The Region of Barlovento is west of Caracas, the nation's capital, in the state of Miranda going towards the Caribbean Sea. It is famous for its cacao and is considered to be among the best in the world. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Spanish imported slaves from Africa to work on cacao plantations, from which cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate are made and exported to Europe creating wealth for the slave masters. Barlovento eventually became one of the many runaway-slave settlements called cimarrónes. By the time slavery was abolished in the 1820s, a significant number of free blacks were settled in Barlovento. Most of these ex-slaves and descendants of these ex-slaves continued the legacy of cacao production in the region.

This was my primary purpose of visiting Venezuela and I wanted to spend most of my time in Barlovento. As a hobby, I explore black cultures in Latin American countries and I wanted exposure to Afro-Venezuelan culture. It is of my understanding that Jesus “Chucho” Garcia, author of the book “Africa in Venezuela,” grew up in Barlovento and started an Afro-Venezuelan Network in this town of Higuerote.

Higuerote, from my two-day observation is like any hood in the US, primarily black, brown, and poor. Only the poverty is much worse in Higuerote. The most outstanding difference between Higuerote and the hoods in the US is that they speak Spanish Ebonics and listen to Latin music. I say Spanish Ebonics because in every community where there is a history of the African slave trade, be it in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Dutch, you can hear a certain dialect, an accent that is different from white or mestizo society. Other than that, the energy was the same; poverty, oppression, attitudes, and survival, along with Chinese and Arab store owners.

My friend, María, who accompanied me to Higuerote from Caracas kept warning me to be careful. She cautioned me not to hang out at the beach at night and to keep my eyes open to what is going on around me. María went on to explain that even thought I may look like I'm part of the community in terms of skin color, my accent and my mannerisms are a dead giveaway that I'm a foreigner, and people might try to take advantage of me or even rob me.

In all fairness, I have to say that I was only in Barlovento a couple of days. I didn't get a chance to see the Afro-Venezuelan Network, Afro-Venezuelan tambor performances, or cacao plantations like I had planned. I had to get back to the airport to catch my flight to Miami.

Friday, December 9, 2011

NEGRO: Docu-Series on Latino Identity

Part I

by Britni Danielle 

The African diaspora is vast. Because of the slave trade and natural migration, African-descended people can be found living in and influencing cultures all over the world. A new series, ‘Negro,’ takes a look at another part of the diaspora and explores issues of culture, ethnicity, colorism and the media’s portrayal of Latinos. If we used the media as a guide, we’d think that all Latinos were the same: Fair-skinned, stereotypically “hot blooded,” catholic, and tending to come from a particular region. But the truth is far deeper.

Latinos are incredibly diverse, live all over the globe, and have a range of experiences that have yet to be shown in the mainstream media. Because of this, journalist and filmmaker Dash Harris has set out to tell her story, and those of other Latinos. Born to Panamanian parents, Harris says she wanted to make this documentary to show the world that Latinos are not a monolith. “We have a complex history that shows we come in all colors and hues and the denial of that history really upset me growing up,” Dash explained. In ‘Negro,’ Harris travels around the world chronicling the Latino experience and its historical roots.

Although the documentary takes a look at the ways in which African-descended people have influenced Latino culture (and how some Latinos self-identify), Harris finds the term “Afro-Latino” redundant. “I do not identify as ‘Afro-Latino’ because to me, it’s redundant,” Dash explained to me. “The definition of ‘Latino’ is African, indigenous and European. So to me it’s just repeating what we already are. I am Latina and I am a Black woman.” So far, Harris has traveled to the Dominican Republic and Colombia to interview people on the Latino experience, and she’s hoping to raise $5000 to visit Salvador, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Cuba to continue to tell the story. Whether you can or cannot relate to Harris’ background and experience, encouraging (and supporting) her to tell her life story helps other women do the same.

Watch the first part of Harris’ docu-series, ‘Negro’ and check out her GoFundMe page to learn how you can donate for future episodes.

by Dash Harris
InADash Media

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Photos of Afro-Peruvian Dancing

While staying with Perú´s famous Ballumbrosio family in 
El Carmen (Chincha), Perú, I was treated to live Afro-Peruvian 
performances under my own vacation rooftop.

Amador Ballumbrosio
The late, great maestro Amador Ballumbrosio,
master of Afro-Peruvian music and dance.

Zapateo (Afro-Peruvian Tap Dance)
 Afro-Peruvian tap dancing known as “Zapateo”

Afro-Peruvian dance
 Afro-Peruvian dance

Mamá Adelina's birthday
Mamá Adelina, wife of Amador Ballumbrosio on her birthday

Ronal Ylleacas
R1- 2A
The Ballumbrosio Home in El Carmen de Chincha Perú

 The jawbone of a donkey is standard
in Afro-Peruvian Percussion

Roberto Ballumbrosio
César Ballumbrosio, 
Ronal Yllescas
Camilo Ballumbrosio


Where My Birthmark Dances

*The following is a guest post by writer Octavia McBride-Ahebee, whose poetry collection, Where My Birthmark Dances, was recently published by Finishing Line Press.   http://omcbride-ahebee.blogspot.com/

Sculpture by the African-Puerto Rican artist Samuel Lind  http://samuellind.com/

 I always thank my C- shaped spine for alerting me early to the fact that black folk existed in other parts of the world other than just Philadelphia and that they had other narratives, told in other languages of what we share and how we are distinct.   The idea, the possibility, the fact that we were everywhere, opened me to the whole of the world.
 As a child, I had scoliosis –curvature of the spine-and I received, for many years, medical treatment in the form of braces and physical therapy and finally a spinal fusion at Shriners’ Hospital for Children.  Children from all over the world came to  that strip of Roosevelt Blvd, in Northeast Philly,  to be treated and I was fortunate to have the foundations of my  little girl worldview shaken at its core while having my spine stretched and supported.   During the decade of the 1970s, when I was both an outpatient and inpatient at Shriners, I was one of very few African-Americans who received care there.  Seeing another kid of color was always a pleasure for me. On one visit, when I about 10, I was startled to see, what I thought to be, a US African-American girl.  She was younger than I, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, and she was unusually small and unable to walk.  She was in a mobile crib-like contraption.  She appeared to be without her parents and a nurse was escorting her to radiology, where we both were to have x-rays taken. She must have felt very alone, because she started to cry and then to babble.  But quickly, my ears were able to discern that there was a method and a purpose and lyricism to her outburst.  It was almost poetic.   My father, who had accompanied me that day to the hospital, said the girl was speaking Spanish. WOW, I thought, a black person, a child, speaking another language. 
I remember the care and precision with which my father proceeded to enumerate the seemingly endless possibilities of where that beautiful, black girl –immobile and all alone-might be from in the world-North Philly, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, Peru, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea…. She and her Spanish-speaking-self, though seemingly caged, unleashed my sense of wonder about the world.  She marked the beginning of my wanderlust.  That propitious meeting happened almost 40 years ago.  In honor of that girl and her lasting impression on me, I share with you the following African singers whose tell their stories in Spanish:  Concha Buika from Equatorial Guinea/Spain,   Choc Quib Town from Colombia and Susana Baca from Peru. 
1.       Concha Buika
      2.  ChocQuib Town

3.       Susana Baca

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My First Travel Experience Using Couchsurfing International (couchsurfing.com)

In the Barlovento Region of Venezuela

CouchSurfing International, today, has millions of members in over 246 countries and territories around the world. I myself joined Couchsurfing back in March 2010 while planning my vacation to Perú, Colombia, and Ecuador. Before I could join, however, Couchsurfing conducted an identity check and residence check: a standard practice to help ensure the safety of its members.

Rosa, my Lima, Peru Couchsurfing host

At first, I found the couchsurfing.com website to be so vast and overwhelming that I was not sure how to go about finding places to stay in the countries I was going to visit. Slowly, I began to explore and learn to navigate my way around, but not in time to meet the needs of my 2010 vacation to Perú, Colombia, and Ecuador. I decided when I get back, that I was going to commit to learning and getting more involved with couchsurfing.com in preparation for future trips. 

My first task was to make Couchsurfing friends and get references. Good references play a vital role in your ability to find people who are willing to host you, a total stranger, in their homes during your vacation. Especially if those references are people you hosted in your home, or people who hosted you in their home.

My next move was to get involved with Couchsurfing's message boards. I joined groups pertaining to my 2011 trip to Lima, Perú, and Caracas, Venezuela. This way, I can make myself known so that people would feel more comfortable hosting me. It worked. Even if I didn't find a place to stay; even if I was satisfied paying $400 per night at the Hilton Hotel, I found Couchsurfing.com to a great site to get inside information on any place in the world from  people who actually live there. For example, I've been to Lima, Perú six times already, but I never been to Lima's Chinatown. I posted a message on the Lima board asking for recommendations for a good Chinese restaurant, and the unanimous choice was a restaurant called Wah Lok.

Felix, my Caracas, Venezuela Couchsurfing host

When I arrived in Lima, my Couchsurfing host, Rosa, gave me my own bedroom, a kitchen, and a computer in her home located in the ritzy part of town; all for free. Couchsurfing International prohibits hosts from charging surfers, and I was told that offering money to hosts can be insulting. There are other ways to compensate hosts like helping to buy groceries and household goods, or even taking them out to dinner. Rosa herself was excited about going to the Wah Lok restaurant in Lima's Chinatown.

When I got to Caracas, Venezuela, Felix, like Rosa, has been observing my posts on the Caracas message board. He granted me a bed in his cramped family home in the hood (or the barrio). He was good enough to not only pick me up at the airport, but show me the city as we came across a band playing live Venezuelan music. Many of you know how much I love salsa, but I was definitely feeling the newly exposed genres of music; tambor, parranda, and gaita. Like in every country, Venezuelan music is diverse. 

Then there was María who saw my post on the Venezuelan national board about my desire to visit the Region of Barlovento, the hub of Afro-Venezuelan culture where her family lives. She took it upon herself to accompany me on a two-hour bus ride from Caracas to the Region of Barlovento, where I spent the rest of my South American vacation.

Maria, my Caracas and Higuerote, Venezuela couchsurfing host

As a couchsurfing rookie, I was deeply touched by what I experienced from Rosa, Felix, and María. I felt inspired to follow their examples in carrying out the mission of Couchsurfing International, which is not all about getting your personal needs met during your vacation. Couchsurfing International is not meant for people who just want a free place to stay. You are expected to interact with your host for a cross-cultural exchange. Every country has their culture and customs, and we grow as human beings by familiarizing ourselves with those cultures and customs.

In the fall of 2009, I  remember walking into a store in Southern Perú, and couldn't understand why the store owner was getting an attitude. You would think that she would be delighted that I'm spending money in her store versus the other store down the street. But when I finished my transaction and left, someone from the community who has been observing me, stopped me. In Spanish, and in his own Peruvian manner, he said to me, “señor, let me holler at you for a minute. When you go into a place of business you greet people with buenos días, buenas tardes, or buenas noches first, then you discuss whatever business you want to handle. And when you're done, you say permiso (a formal way of saying, “excuse me, gotta run”).

I never forgot those words of advice. In my 2010 trip to Mexico City, I tried what this Peruvian man told me on a group of Mexican nationals at the airport. Lo and behold, I had trouble  convincing them that I'm American, and not Cuban, because I put into practice a Latin American custom I had just learned.

When a savvy  couchsurfing host looks at your profile on couchsurfing.com to screen you, a total stranger, as a potential couchsurfer in their home, they want to see that you too are doing your part to help fulfill Couchsurfing International's mission by building meaningful connections across cultures. 

If enough of us have these kinds of experiences, we begin to see a world where people feel a greater sense of connection, in spite of differences.  CouchSurfing International's goal is for the people of the world to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation, and respect while creating a global community one couch at a time.

See my Couchsurfing profile by clicking here Bill Smith Jr

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Miami--A Latin-American City

 The Spanish-speaking Mecca of the U.S.

The first time I was visiting Miami, more than eight years ago, an Afro-Puerto Rican friend showed me around Little Havana, then showed me Little Haiti, and Overton, a historic African-American community. This time, as I passed through Miami before flying out to San José, Costa Rica, I lost my friends contact information after being out of communication for so many years, thus, I was on my own.

When I address people in Spanish, without hesitation, they respond in kind, unlike the Spanish speakers I meet in New York, San Francisco, and other parts of the country.  
The major thing that stood out for me about Miami is the feeling that I was already in a Latin-American country where people are very comfortable with their language and their cultural heritage. Spanish seems to be the predominate language of the city. Of course, with my constant work on developing Spanish fluency, I felt very much at home. When I address people in Spanish, without hesitation, they respond in kind, unlike the Spanish speakers I meet in New York, San Francisco, and other parts of the country.  Elena, a former co-worker, from Nicaraugua was telling me that in Los Angeles, Latinos would often say to her, “I´m an American - I don´t speak Spanish.” What is so wrong with an American speaking Spanish or four or five other languages, for that matter? Who says it´s un-American to speak more than one language? Elena would have never experienced this in Miami where Latinos, mainly Cubans, are in your face proud of who they are.

I felt good about another opportunity to practice my Spanish as if I already were in a Spanish-speaking country.
I myself decided to walk into a Cuban-run cafeteria, and the cashier immediately asked me in in broken English if she could help me. Sensing her struggle with the English language, I told her (in Spanish) that she is welcome to speak to me in Spanish like everyone else in the restaurant. This made her, her co-workers, and even customer feel good about my presence, and I felt good about another opportunity to practice my Spanish as if I already were in a Spanish-speaking country.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Afro-Peruvian Salsa Music Star--Antonio Cartagena

I first learned about Antonio Cartagena when his hit song Niña aired on KIQI Radio in San Francisco. What I didn't know was that he was a black man from Perú until I saw his picture posted on a billboard advertising his local performance. After his show, he stopped by the Salsa club 650 Howard (Boppers), where I used to hang out, to relax with members of his entourage. Being the Afrocentric Latin music lover that I am (see my post My Top 10 “Black” Latin Music Stars), I had to go over and shake his hand. Unlike most artists who make it big, he was very personable with the fans who took the time to greet him. At that time, my Spanish was not at the level it is now, so the producer, Pepe, who happened to be standing by was serving as our interpreter. There were other Afro-Peruvian members of his band who were curiously watching me dancing salsa and merengue and I only wished that my Spanish was better so I could engage them.

Antonio CartagenaAntonio Cartagena was born in a poor Afro-Peruvian family in Callao, Perú and having attended the Peruvian National Police Academy and the University of San Martín (a school named in honor of an Afro-Peruvian priest canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church,  before focusing on his music and producing his first hit song "Sin Ti" 

His romantic-style salsa hits, some of which were mixed with traditional Peruvian-style music, resulted his being contracted for tours in South America, North America, and Europ.before being signed onto a prestigious record label RMM headed by Ralph Mercado, one of the world's greatest salsa producers where he recorded his first international CD Díme Que Sí.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Black Gringo in Latin America


What makes my travel experience so different from your average tourist, especially to a Latin American country, is my preference to be with local people, and as far away from other gringos as possible. This way, I can be totally immersed in the Spanish language as I seek to explore the Latin American black experience, history, and cultures.

Marion, a member of my Toastmasters club, asked me how do the blacks in Latin America view me, considering that I'm black like they. My response was that I'm seen as a Gringo first, with a pocket full of money, and as a fellow black person second. The fact that I'm black seems to make them feel that I would be an easier and more sympathetic mark. This is not to take away from the good relationships with many of the black people I meet, like Gloria, a friend I met in Ecuador who treated me like a long, lost brother and made my visit a rewarding one. Overall, I have been embraced and made to feel at home without expecting even a ten-cent tip.

Street hustlers, known in Cuba as jineteros, got frustrated trying to set me up when a lady friend got my attention and lured me away from them.

On the other hand, however, I'm often seen as a quick hustle, a glorified ATM machine. For example, there was Javier, a black Peruvian whom I befriended and who eventually got around to making it a habit of asking me for money. To this day, he sends repeated e-mail requests, which now goes directly to my spam folder. In Colombia, a black cabbie wanted to charge me extra for a fair that I knew cost considerably less. Street hustlers, known in Cuba as jineteros, got frustrated trying to set me up when a lady friend got my attention and lured me away from them. They weren't going to rob me or anything, just wanted to entice me to spend money so they, and supposedly I, could have a good time. On Facebook, I met a man from Venezuela, where I'm planning my next trip, who immediately tried to lure me into reserving an expensive tourist hotel with a kitchen so he can get a kickback from the hotel manager.


Gloria, a lifetime friend, I met in Ecuador treated me like a long lost brother and made my visit a rewarding one.

Then you have the gold diggers, the women (men too) who think every American is in the same income bracket as Bill Gates or Donald Trump. They would woo gringos into marrying them so they can come to live in the USA legally. I mysellf have been to 13 different countries, and have been approached by women from nine wanting to marry me for this reason and this reason only.

All in all, I'm very much in tune with my own travel purposes; language and cultural immersion, and to explore the black experience. If this means giving to the needy (and not the greedy) along the way, I'm more than happy to do that as long as I'm not being hustled. In fact, the money that I do circulate, for noble and empathetic causes, are of far greater value to me than the money I could be spending on myself in a fancy, resort hotel or on expensive tour guides.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Learning Spanish in an Immersion School

The University of Havana in Cuba had a special
Spanish language immersion program for foreigners.

I've had formal Spanish classes in school, and have literally taught myself to speak Spanish out of books. But I've found the most efficient way of learning to speak Spanish, or any new language, is by total immersion.

In July of 1998, I was on a two week vacation in Havana, Cuba to study Spanish at the University of Havana. I was able to get into Cuba legally through the Global Exchange organization based in San Francisco, CA. Through this partnership with Global Exchange and the University of Havana, I got to stay with a family who speaks no English, took a class from a Cuban instructor who speaks no English, and was assigned tutors who speak no English. They don't call this an immersion program for nothing. The whole idea is to be so immersed that you cannot fall back on your English and have no other choice but to speak Spanish. In about a week, I started having dreams in Spanish, and still do to this day from time to time.

Wedding Party
I spent my weekends with an Afro-Peruvian
family while studying Spanish in Lima, Perú.

In October, 2005, I went to an immersion school for the second time in Lima, Perú at the El Sol Spanish school, where only Spanish was spoken. What I had going in my favor, in both Havana and Lima, was that I was already self-taught to the level where I could converse socially and professionally on the job. However, my Spanish still has a lot of room for improvement. Speaking of which, I would not recommend an immersion school for anyone who has not had a least an equivalent of one year of Spanish language learning whether self-taught or in a formal classroom setting. I just think you'd get more bang for your buck with a solid foundation on the fundamentals.

Receiving my Advanced Spanish certificate
from El Sol Spanish School in Lima.

The advantage I had over many other of my immersion school classmates is that I was able to get more Spanish speaking experience by going out into the community to either sink or swim in the Spanish language. I went on dates, went to parties, and even spent weekends with families. When I'm here in the U.S, my level of Spanish fluency, on a scale of one-10, is a “six.” When I'm in a Spanish-speaking country, my level of fluency (by default) goes up to an eight because I have no other choice but to speak Spanish. I was so pleasantly surprised to see how easy it was for me to converse and interact with so many people, unless I ran into someone who's English is better than my Spanish, and that was rare.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gift Giving While Traveling

Street in El Carmen
El Carmen, Perú
They say be aware of strangers bearing gifts. What about strangers being aware of to whom they give gifts?
It was October 2005, when I made my first trip to Perú. I was staying in an impoverished, but tranquil, District of El Carmen, a predominately black community to immerse myself in the language and the culture. As in most of my travels, I brought gifts, such as pens, writing tablets, clothing, post cards, and electronic gadgets that I didn't need.

The first weird gift-giving experience occurred when I stopped by the home of a family where I already established rapport. I brought them electronic gadgets and some stationary supplies for the children who were asleep at the time. When I told the children the next morning, they told me that they “never” received the gifts, and they reminded me repeatedly about those gifts. I was not in the mood to confront the mother; I just felt she would get around to giving it to them eventually. I also gave away Luther Vandross and Tupac Shakur t-shirts to some friends I met, and those items, too, disappeared.

When I returned home to the U.S., I discussed my gift-giving escapades with Joe, a Peruvian-American who laughed hysterically and told me that in impoverished areas like that those items I gave as gifts were most likely sold. ”Those people are about the benjamins, moron,” Joe concluded. Although, I took his words with a grain of salt, they remained in the back of my mind during future trips, such as the time I taught a young girl to tell time, then bought her a clock. That clock, too, disappeared.

However, on my last trip, I bought this same little girl, per her request, a brand new bicycle of which she seemed to enjoy.. Joe's words crept back into my mind about the possibility of it being sold. Sure enough, when I returned to Perú the following year, the bicycle was no where around. When I asked about it, I heard a lot of vague reasons. The final last straw was when I bought the best quality fresh fish for several families. The next day, I saw one woman walking down the street with the fish chopped in pieces trying to sell it. Finally, lesson learned

I still love El Carmen, Perú. I get free rent where I stay and am treated like family. The experience helps my Spanish and helps me relate to Spanish-speaking clients at work. Overall, the money that I spend is relatively a cheap, inexpensive, and fun way to get the language and cultural immersion that I need to help me professionally, and perhaps, end up with an even better job in the future because of this ezperience..

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Was He Mexico's Barak Obama?

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña
Mexico's First Black President

President Vicente Guerrero of Mexico (1829) and President Barack Obama (2008-2016) have some things in common as well as differences. Both are of African heritage; Obama on his father's side, and Guerrero on his mother's side. Like Barack Obama, Vicente Guerrero tried too damn hard to please the very people who disliked him as he received stubborn, heated political opposition because of his African ancestry. When Obama was elected, my hope was that he would watch his back, and not surprisingly, Obama receives considerably more death threats than any other president in the history of this country. Guerrero's presidential term, on the other hand, didn't even last a year before conservatives threw him out of office, convicted him of treason, and put him to death.

Vicente Guerrero immediately set out to improve the conditions of Afro-Mexicans and indigenous people.

Guerrero, like Obama, had a thorough understanding of the Constitution of the United States. Guerrero was inspired by the Constitution to order the immediate release of every slave in Mexico, be they black or indigenous. Unlike Obama, who is getting heat from blacks, like the Congressional Black Caucus for overlooking the needs of the black community, Vicente Guerrero immediately set out to improve the conditions of Afro-Mexicans and indigenous people.

Mexico does not have a one-drop rule.

Vicente Guerrero, like Barack Obama, was inexperienced when it came to political leadership. Obama, at least, served as a senator before being formally elected president. Guerrero, on the other hand, with the aid of a general and a politician, bullied his way into the presidency by staging a coup d'etat years after he freed Mexico from Spanish rule on the battlefield. Obama, unlike Guerrero, is Harvard University educated. Guerrero did not have a formal education or the social grace of Barack Obama.

Mexico, historically, does not keep statistics on race. According to my understanding, Vicente Guerrero was responsible for this policy because he wanted all of Mexico united regardless of race, economic standard of living, or class. Whereas, the U.S. not only kept racial statistics, the one-drop rule was included where one drop of black blood makes you black. Mexico does not have a one-drop rule.

Barack Obama
United States of America's First Black President

Related Post
The “Soul” of Mexican Independence

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Shame and the Spanish Language

Camilo, a friendly, outgoing security officer in the office building where I work, is a Spanish-speaking immigrant from Costa Rica. Although, he has a fairly good command of the English language, he constantly seeks to improve it by speaking as much English as possible. Because of my ability to speak Spanish, Camilo and I greet and converse in English and Spanish. However, this past Friday I passed his desk and he refused to say anything to me because a non-Spanish speaker was present. This isn't the first time I noticed such reluctance under the same scenario, giving me the impression that he doesn't want to be heard speaking Spanish in front of English-only speakers. Why can't he get a clue that, in a city like San Francisco, over 100 languages are spoken? Why is he so ashamed of his?

Why can't he get a clue that, in a city like San Francisco, over 100 languages are spoken? Why is he so ashamed of his?

When I was in Ecuador, I was laughed at by some Afro-Ecuadorians because they heard me speaking English with a bilingual mestizo. They were so freaked out you'd think they had never heard a black man speak English before. Does this give me a complex about speaking English in a Spanish-speaking country? No! What it does mean is that those people who laughed so hard, reminded me of so many Americans who have a narrow view of the world and don't get much exposure outside of their own communities. Some people may argue, and I heard this from Spanish-speakers, that English is considered higher class. Bull! Who is feeding people this and why are they buying into it? The Spanish language is no less inferior or any more superior than English, Arabic, Mandarin, or Swahili.

Meanwhile, it will be English only with Camilo from now on.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Maria Chiquiquirá of Ecuador

 The Museum of Nahim Isaias in Guayaquil, Ecuador features the portraitof Ecuador's first freed slave.

Maria Chiquiquirá Díaz was an Afro-Ecuadorian woman enslaved in Guayaquil, Ecuador in the 1700’s and was the first slave in Ecuador to win her freedom. She was enslaved by Presbyter Afonso Cepeda de Arizcum Elizondo. Maria Chiquinquira entered a legal battle for her and her daughter’s freedom in May 1794 and changed the course of her history and for thousands of black women in Ecuador.

Although she was a slave, she was aware of some of her rights and fought for her freedom based on that information. Maria (along with other female slaves in Latin America) won her freedom by accusing their masters of dishonorable acts including, siring children with slave women, requiring work on Sundays, withholding time for mass, and failing to provide instruction in the faith.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

National Afro-Ecuadorian People's Day

In the combative spirit of María Chiquinquirá, we advance together in the struggle for our rights. --Luzmila Bolaños

Today, the first Sunday in October, Black Ecuadorians honor their ancestors by celebrating the National Day of Afro-Ecuadorian People. The festivities include athletic competitions, concerts and an Afrocentric religious services. This day was established by Ecuador's National Congress for the purpose of improving human rights conditions of Afro-Ecuadorians. Various civil rights organizations, such as Corporación de Desarrollo Afroecuatoriano (Corporation of Afroecuatoriano Development) sprung up to preserve Afro-Ecuadorian culture and to pursue equal rights as members of Ecuadorian society.

R1- 9A
Afro-Ecuadorians in Valle de Chota (Chota Valley) of the Andes Mountains are descendants of emancipated slaves, unlike those in the western Province of Esmeraldas.

When 23 African men and women aboard a wrecked Spanish slave ship headed for Perú liberated themselves and created a free Black community, in October 1553, they set a standard of resistance and empowerment that would in spire their descendants hundreds of years later. Traditionally, as a country colonized by Spain, blacks were victims of racist conduct, social insults, and considered inferior. Today, employers advertise for job applicants with a "good appearance," a code-word for White or European characteristics. Landlords openly reject applications from Blacks looking for housing in middle-class areas. It wasn't until 1998 until Ecuador's constitution acknowledged Afro-Ecuadorians as a distinct group.

Most of Ecuador's blacks, descendants of runaways from an abandoned slave ship bound for Perú, live in the province of Esmeraldas on Ecuador's Pacific Coast.

Yet, Afro-Ecuadorians have many examples of the rich cultural heritage of black people that has been shown in all scopes of society, such as politics, sports, literature, music, etc. Their ancestors arrived from Africa and its contribution in music with traditional instruments like the marimba; colorful attires, their prolific dancers, their history, traditions, and their own customs. Government statistics say that the black population in the country constitutes on three percent, but in reality, more like nine percent. In Ecuador, there are black communities in provinces of Imbabura, Carchi, Loja, and Esmeraldas. Social activists say the stereotypes and lack of opportunity are slowly changing as the numbers of Afro-Ecuadorians finishing high school and going on to college have increased over the past decade.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Down These Mean Streets

by Piri Thomas
1928 – 2011
===========An Autobiography
of a Black Puerto Rican
from Spanish Harlem

“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. Too many goddamn Negroes all over this goddamn world feel like you do. 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!”

This paraphrased excerpt came from Piri Thomas' best-selling auto-biography Down These Mean Streets published in 1967. Piri was born in Harlem Hospital as Juan Pedro Tomás (before adopting the Anglicized version of his last name) to a dark-skinned Afro-Cuban father and a light-skinned Puerto Rican mother. He talks about his life of poverty, street gangs, drugs, crime, and racism that plagued him while growing up in Spanish Harlem in New York City.

Piri Thomas was born
in Harlem Hospital
as Juan Pedro Tomás

As a Harlem raised kid myself, where my father taught school (P.S. 170 Manhattan) just blocks away from where Piri lived and roamed the streets, I can understand why my father did his best to shelter my brother and me from the mean streets that hooked Piri Thomas.

Despite Piri's Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage, he was often viewed as African-American and not Afro-Latino. His father, an Afro-Cuban, hated his own black skin as well as others with black skin. Other members of his family disowned the African aspect of his culture and bloodline, causing Piri to spend much of his childhood and early adult life confused about his true racial and ethnic identity, until one night, he ventured in to the Italian section of Harlem, and was chased by a gang as one shouted, “we are going to get your black ass!” He then wondered, did they mean him?

One night, as he was being chased out of an Italian neighborhood by a gang, one shouted, “we are going to get your black ass!” He then wondered, did they meant him?

Finally, at the age of 17, as he was about to leave home for the Merchant Marines, he experienced a very painful revelation that he was not only Puerto Rican... he is “black.” He learned to embrace both his color and his culture, and became a successful writer and poet. When I finally met Piri Thomas for the first time, he was living in Berkeley, CA with his wife and did a presentation at the César Chávez Public Library in Oakland, CA. I felt honored to receive an autographed copy of his book so many years after reading his book as a sailor in the U.S. Navy.

Click here for the Official Piri Thomas web site

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Racial Prejudice of a Latino-American Immigrant

It never ceases to amaze me how people of color can consistently exhibit the same racial prejudice that has been historically practiced against themselves by non people of color. I have to admit, I've observed the same stupidity among some African-Americans. However, Emilio, a co-worker of dark-brown complexion from the South American country of Ecuador is obviously not too fond of African-Americans, despite the good working relationship he has with three of us in our office. It took an out-of-office company activity for his prejudice to show.

One Friday morning, he and I were sharing a ride with Samantha, a white-American co-worker driving to a company-sponsored event. We were riding through an African-American community in what is known as Deep East Oakland. This is when Emilio began making snide remarks about “the ghetto.“ Although, I felt uncomfortable with his racially charged comments, I kept quiet because I've heard similar sentiments from professional and working class African-Americans. Emilio even expressed surprise to see a public library--a library that I myself once patronized. Then as we passed another library, inside of a beautiful building, Emilio asked why this community has so many libraries when “these people don't read!”

Emilio asked why does this community have so many libraries when “these people don't read!”


Now, it was my time to vent, considering that I grew up in a black ghetto and spent more than my share of time in libraries; libraries filled with black patrons, I might add. I explained to him that not everyone in the black community are gangsters. It's the people who patronize libraries, especially as children, who generally end up leading productive lives; regardless of color.

I myself grew up in “the ghetto” and spent more than my share of time in libraries filled with black patrons.

I believe that Emilio felt because I speak some Spanish, travel to Latin-American countries, and like Latin music that, perhaps, I'm not black enough to be offended by his culturally insensitive remarks. Samantha, the white driver, immediately changed the subject to keep the discussion from escalating into heated argument. Although, I have no intentions of going into the black militant tirade that Samantha may have feared, I reported the incident to the management of our company under the conviction that, considering the communities our company serves, that sensitivity to race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation is paramount. In addition to reporting the incident, i suggested that we should all take sensitivity training to heighten our awareness.

He came into my office offering an apology, but could not explain why he would make the statements we made. Personally, I think he was just afraid for his job. Being that we both like our jobs, and management wanted to overlook the issue, I considered our discussion to be a truce, letting him know that I see him as prejudiced against African-Americans.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How I Got Hooked On Salsa Growing Up in the Hood

The album that pushed me over the edge to be a salsa music lover

After all these years of listening to the late, great maestro Ray Barretto, I finally get to meet him personally when he visited the Caribbee Dance Center in Oakland, CA where I used to hang out and dance salsa. I had to walk over and shake his hand. I tried to tell him (before he brushed me off) that his album, La Moderna Llegó, pushed me over the edge to be a salsa music lover. Little did I know that he was literally sick of salsa. He even hated the name--calling it the “S-word.” In fact, some one quoted him as saying, I don't play salsa, I play son. Son is Cuban music that gave birth to what we know today as salsa. It's the “S” word that helped him to earned the millions of dollars over the years, not jazz--his true love.

Little did I know that Ray Barretto was so sick of salsa that he called it the “S-word.”

Barretto was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York looking for a better life. Being raised in Spanish Harlem, he was influenced at a young age by his mother's love of music and by the jazz music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. At the age of 17, Ray joined the Army, and while stationed in Germany, he got into jam sessions with African-American soldiers. Then he heard Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" with Afro-Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo, that was when he realized his true calling in life.

In 1961, Barretto recorded his first hit, "El Watusi.” Not only did this song hit number one on New York City African-American radio station WWRL but was the first Latin song to enter in April 1963 the Billboard charts.

After Ray Barretto returned home from the Army, he started to visit clubs and participated in jam sessions, where he perfected his own conga playing. On one occasion Charlie Parker heard Barretto play and invited him to play in his band, as well as Tito Puente, for whom he played for four years. Barretto developed a unique style of conga playing and soon was sought by other jazz band leaders. Barretto also played in recording sessions for the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. In 1975 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for the song "Barretto." In 1990, Barretto finally won a Grammy for the album Ritmo en el Corazon ("Rhythm in the Heart") featuring the vocals of Celia Cruz.

In my opinion, Guararé was the best song he produced; way better than the original Cuban version.

I heard him in an interview on KPFA Radio in Berkeley when he said it was time for him to move on. He made his money in salsa, now he wants to pursue his real love--jazz. On Febrary 17, 2006, Barreto passed away at New Jersey's Hackensack University Hospital of heart failure and multiple health complications. His body was flown to Puerto Rico, where Barretto was given formal honors by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture; his remains were eventually cremated.

My other top Ray Barretto tunes:

Canto Abacua Indestructible (featuring Tito Allen) El Chisme (featuring Celia Cruz)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Black, Proud, and Beautiful Colombian Activist

During my last trip to Colombia, I would have loved to have met, or at least, kissed the hand of Colombia's most prominent, political figures Piedad Esneda Córdoba Ruiz in a formal greeting, and chatted in a coffee shop; such wishful thinking! This gorgeous woman has a busy life filled with community and political and goals and some serious drama.

During my early research years of the Afro-Latino experience, I was pleased to learn that Colombia had a black female senator, but was also appalled to learn that she was caught up in all the kidnappings that were prevalent in Colombia during those years.
After several weeks she was freed and exiled with her family in Canada. Then after a little more than one year in exile,, she started receiving reports that Colombian security had improved. She, therefore,returned to resume her political duties. She has since been victim of two assassination attempts.

As senator, Pieadad Cordoba has been a strong legislative advocate against discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

This outspoken liberal, who served four terms as a Colombian senator, was born January 25, 1955, in Medellín, Colombia to an Afro-Colombian father and a white Colombian mother. She is better known by her nom de guerre Teodora de Bolívar or Gaitán. Cordoba has a labor law degree from a major university in Medellín, and a degree in Public Opinion and Political Marketing at a major university in Bogotá, the nation's capital.

As senator, Pieadad Cordoba has been a strong legislative advocate against discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Córdoba evolved into one of the most notorious figures of the Latin American feminist movement in Colombia. Through congress Córdoba gained national notoriety for taking controversial radical and radical positions, as she promoted debates focused on minorities and communitarian mothers groups, as well as the resolution of the Colombian armed conflict through peaceful negotiations.

She was finally elected to the Senate for the 1994-1998 period receiving most of her votes from the Departments of Antioquia and Chocó, a predominately black province in Colombia.

Cordoba began her political carrier in Medellín working as a community leader in many neighborhoods before being appointed to her first public office job, working as a municipal sub-controller. Then successfully ran for Deputy to the Antioquia Assembly, and finally elected to the Senate for the 1994-1998 period receiving most of her votes from the Departments of Antioquia and Chocó, a predominately black province in Colombia. As part of two separate and distinct investigations, she was striped from her seat in Congress in 2005 and again in 2006.However, not only did she regain her seat in the Colombian Congress, she continued to be re-elected.