Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mexico's “Dark” Secret


Black Mexicans

I was on a local bus when I stepped passed a group of Mexican-American high school students conversing in Spanish. I politely said, “con permiso (excuse me)” as I passed, and they fell out laughing; not believing their ears; a black man (a pinche mayate) speaking to them in Spanish. When I snapped in annoyance, “¿qué es chistoso? (what the hell is so funny? They became very quiet, but kept their eyes on me in disbelief.

Vicente Guerrero, son of an African slave mother and a Mestizo father grew up to be Mexico's liberator before becoming Mexico's president and abolishing slavery.

Months later, a similar incident happened on that same bus line when I offered my seat to a woman engaged in a Spanish-speaking conversation. Again, the same reaction; loud, boisterous laughter. They too could not believe their ears; a black man speaking to them in Spanish. Irritated, I began to lecture them (in Spanish) on people of African heritage throughout Latin America who, unlike I, speak Spanish as a first language. I later learned that they too are Mexican-Americans.


Gasar Yanga, who's statue today stands outside the town of Yanga, Vera Cruz, México was assisted by another Black Mexican, Francisco de la Matosa, in establishing the first free black town in the western world after conducting guerrilla warfare against the Spanish.


I've even met Mexican nationals who are totally oblivious to black heritage in their own country. Historian Ted Vincent calls it racial amnesia. A married couple who were in my office from Mexico's Port of Vera Cruz were utterly astonished when I told them about African slave trade and slave revolts in their home state during the 14th and 15th centuries. 

The late professor of anthropology at the University of Veracruz in México, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, wrote in his book, “La Poblacion Negra de México (The Black Population of México)” that more than 500,000 African slaves were brought into México between 1523 and 1810, the year of México's independence.


After more than 400 years of interracial marriages, the black presence in México is not nearly as noticeable as those of Cuba, Colombia, or even Perú. Many Mexicans have been known to stubbornly deny any existence of African blood in their own family tree, let alone in the Mexican population at large. 

Yet, according to research done by Stanford University's cultural anthropologist Bobby Vaughn, the black population in México was up to three times as large as that of the Spanish during colonial times. The Schomburg Center for Research & Black Culture states that 75% of Mexican people have African strains in their bloodlines.

Lifetime Friendships through Travel----Cuba

Havana, Cuba

As a traveler (not a tourist), I prefer to stay away from tourist attractions and be among the everyday people of the places I visit. This, in my opinion, is the best way to experience the real culture; particularly if you want to master the language. In my case, Spanish.

The University of Havana, Cuba

Years ago, I was astonished to learn from an article I read that there are more black Latinos in the Americas than there are black gringos. What surprises me to the point of frustration is that too many Latinos I meet, from New York to California, do not know about the blacks in their own communities who speak Spanish as their first language. What a shame as they, of all people, should know better.

In the summer of 1998, vacation time, I was looking for a place to immerse myself in the Spanish language. I thought of places like Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico. Then it dawned on me---why not Cuba? I'm a salsa dancer and I wanted to get better at it. The word is out that Cuba is the place with the “culture;” a culture that attracts people from all over the world. Almost everyone I met who's been to Cuba had nothing but good things to say about the lovely island.

My date Denalys Fuentes of Havana

Even Vladimir, an Afro-Cuban immigrant who lived down the street from me, introduced me to his family and forewarned me that once in Cuba, I will not want to come back. I finally made the decision that Cuba would not only be a good place to improve my Spanish, but a great place to improve my salsa dancing skills with the best salsa dancers in the world, only rivaled by Puerto Rico.

Denalys and I dancing salsa at the Hotel Riviera

I found Global Exchange based in San Francisco and licensed by the U.S. State Department to send people to Cuba. Global Exchange had a partnership with the University of Havana where I took classes with non English-speaking instructors, hung out about town with non-English speaking tutors, and stayed with a non-English speaking family. Wow, talk about language immersion, this truly was it.

Upon arrival, I felt like I was in salsa music heaven. There was salsa music, timba music, and son-montuno music everywhere blaring from homes, business, and cars. At one point, I grabbed a woman in my group, as we were strolling through Central Havana, and we danced right there in public.
Meeting Denalys was only one of the high-points of my trip. Someone whom I would have loved to bring home to mommy and daddy, but that's another story. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of nice people as well as the Havana city slickers who seemed to have felt that all Americans had the same income as Donald Trump. From my growing up in Harlem, NY, I know a hustle when I see one and felt somewhat insulted when they tried to run a game on me.

José Martí Airport, Havana, Cuba

When my plane (Aero Cubana) landed in Havana, a rush of joy went through my whole body as everyone on the plane applauded. I myself was anticipating a whole new experience in life. As I experienced the island of Cuba, I felt so much closer to my African heritage because of its large black population and the strong influence of the Santería religion. Santería was developed when African slaves used Catholic saints to camouflage their worship of African deities (of the Yoruba tribe) to avoid retribution from Spanish slave owners.
On my last day, heading towards the José Martí International Airport to return to Oakland, I was fighting back tears because I felt so much at home in Cuba, yet there was so much of Havana I have not yet to see. I thought about how much I was going to miss so many down-to-earth, neighborly people I met. Havana, a city of two million people, where total strangers greet each other with “buenas” or “que bolá (what's up). ” I mourned for a long time after returning to Oakland. Vladimir was right. I did not want to come back from Cuba... at least not so soon.

Denayls and I continued to stay in touch by mail, depending on people traveling to and from Cuba through Mexico to get our letters to each other. This process took approximately 30 days at a time.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Misrepresentation of Black Perú

The late Ronaldo Campos, founder of the world renown dance troupe Perú Negro, the Ambassadors of Black Perú

It was in 2003 when I first saw the dance troupe Perú Negro (Black Perú) at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. In 2005, I made my first of four subsequent visits to Perú over a period of five years. With my having met more than my share of Afro-Peruvians, particularly in Southern Perú, and after hearing about the Yungas of Northern Perú, I've come to the conclusion that Afro-Peruvians, like African-Americans, come in a wide range of colors; from light, bright, and darn near white, to deep dark complexions. This was the Perú Negro I saw in Yerba Buena Gardens.

However in 2006 and 2008, when Perú Negro performed at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, I noticed something very strange. Most of the performers were of light complexion and did not show much of the diversity of skin tones, which represented the blacks that I personally saw in Perú. With racial discrimination being so prevalent against blacks, Asians, and descendants of the Inca and Aymara people, why is such racial discrimination being practiced against darker Afro-Peruvians; the very people for whom the late founder Ronaldo Campos promoted as the ”ambassadors of black Perú?” While I was in Perú, I seldom saw blacks working in shops, restaurants, hotels, or working in public transportation. Even in the province of Chincha, a heavily populated black area, blacks were underrepresented.

Afro-Peruvian dance

Any of these dancers from El Carmen, the hub of Black Peruvian culture, would jump at the opportunity to join Perú Negro.

Afro-Peruvian dance

An Afro-Peruvian friend, now living in Toronto, explained that there aren't as many black people left in Perú due to intermarriage. I thought she made a good point because I did see a lot of interracial marriages and interracial children. Personally, I think multi-racial performers with some African blood should certainly be included in Perú Negro, but not overwhelm it; just my humble opinion.

Related Posts on Black Perú

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Enjoy Travel Without Being Wealthy

Buying fresh-squeezed orange juice in the Pino Suarez District of Mexico City

I had just flown in from Panamá City, Panamá into Cartagena, Colombia. As soon as I got settled, I found an Internet café, and posted my arrival on Facebook. Timothy, who's been following my Facebook updates throughout my five-nation Latin-American tour had this comment, “Bill, you are a wealthy man.” I didn’t argue with him. I thanked him for the positive affirmation and for giving me a new idea for a blog topic: Enjoy Travel Without Being Wealthy.

I work for a non-profit organization, and my income is nothing to strut about, and that's why I'm qualified to tell you, first hand, that you don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy travel. All you need is a passionate, high-priority desire.

Going to local cultural events like here in Arica in Northern Chile does not cost one red cent!

This vacation included included trips to México, Panamá, Perú, Colombia, and Ecuador. I then flew to New York and stayed until Christmas, and finally flew back to Oakland, where I lived at the time. The cost of this wonderful vacation, including airfares and taxes, food and lodging, and entertainment and souvenirs cost me well under $1800. 

How did I swing that? I took advantage of about 15 online travel sites like,, I kept checking those sites daily until finally, BINGO, as quick as a cat, I snatched those cheap fares with my credit card before they changed their minds.

The most important part of planning a trip, especially if you are going to be on a budget, is to do your homework. 

Not only did I get the best deals booking my flights on a Tuesday, but even better deals scheduling flights to leave on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays, with a return flight on any day except Sunday. When I fly out on a holiday, prices tend to drop even more. For example, one Thanksgiving Day, my round-trip ticket from San Francisco, California to Lima, Perú cost $537. This included a seven-hour layover in El Salvador where my cab driver and I hung out at the beach and had a delicious seafood lunch before cruising around the sun coast sight seeing, and then returned to the airport to catch my next flight to Lima.

The home where I stayed in El Carmen, Perú

As a traveler, I enjoy a standard of living that will absolutely “annoy” your average tourist. As much as possible, I stay out of tourist areas, and look for places to stay in the barrio (or the hood). I use the same public transportation that the local citizens use, shop where local citizens shop, and go places where only local citizens go. As a result, I have more spending money to enjoy myself, and at the same time, the pleasure of treating others so they can enjoy themselves with me. It was a heartfelt pleasure, and worth every penny, to see such contented, happy campers (below).

Polla a la Brasa
Pollo Brasa

An Afro-Peruvian dance instructor asked me about my motive for staying in a poor, non-touristy area when most visitors stay in nice hotels like the Hilton, and visit famous tourist attractions like Macchu Picchu. My response was to improve my level of Spanish fluency and to experience African heritage. You don't get these things paying exorbitant amounts of money in five-star hotels and hanging around expensive tour guides. Speaking of tours, I've gotten a much better deal hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash. Being with local people has its advantages because they shelter you from the gringo tax. 

What is the gringo tax? It's when you are being overcharged by shopkeepers and taxi drivers because you are a gringo. What is a gringo? The meaning varies, depending on the country, but it basically means foreigner. In Perú, for example, if you are not from the South American continent, you are considered a gringo, and they don't care if you are from Mexico, Puerto Rico or Spanish Harlem. 

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

As quick as a cat, I snatched those cheap fares with my credit card before they changed their minds.

Of course, dressing down is important because you don't want to be marked as a tourist. Tourist outfits and bling-bling invite trouble! On two occasions I ventured into one of Lima, Perú's roughest neighborhoods, La Victoria, where one of my favorite soccer teams, Alianza Lima, has their stadium. Unlike the neighborhood where I used to live in Oakland, no one, I mean absolutely no one in La Victoria bothers to cross the street or behave defensively when they see me coming. Peruvian people themselves told me that I was crazy and warned me, Oye Guillermo, no vayas solo por La Victoria (hey Bill, man, don't go up in there by yourself), La Victoria is no joke!

When you live and hang out in local communities away from tourist areas, whatever little money you spend will go a long way.

What did I do? I put on some old pair of loose slacks, and some old running shoes just in case I needed to haul ass. I also wore my proudest souvenir; an Alianza Lima team jersey. Instead of being hassled, I was greeted with the words, ¿Que pasó familia (What's up, bruh)? Yo soy hincha de Alianza Lima (that's my team, baby!); people were shaking my hand saying, tú eres todo bacán, todo bacán (you are all-right). Others drove by honking their horns and giving me the thumbs up shouting, ALIANZA LIMA-A-A-A! I even felt comfortable renting a nice, clean room for 20 nueva soles (approximately $6.00 in Peruvian currency) per night. That's how I enjoy my travel experience.

She showed me all around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the gringo tax.

Before my Latin American trips, I've made valuable contacts on Facebook. For example, in the Spring of 2009, I opened a separate Spanish-speaking Facebook account making more than 200 friends throughout Latin America, and put the word out that I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team (I really am!), and that I wanted to visit the black community that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado (the Magic Johnson of Ecuador). Within a couple of days, I got a response from an Afro-Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. Her mother showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the notorious gringo tax, that is when you are being charged a higher price for items simply because you are not a native of their country.

I've actually enjoyed trips vicariously in preparation for the real trips.

The most important part of planning a trip, especially if you are going to be on a budget, is to do your homework. There are travel guides like Lonely Planet, Rough’s Guide, and Moon’s Guide. The $16-$22 that you invest in one of these books will pay for itself a thousand times over if you consistently use the information contained therein. I've actually enjoyed trips vicariously before taking the real trips by simply doing the homework. It is my experience and conviction that you can enjoy travel without being wealthy!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

English and Spanish and Stereotypes

One afternoon, on an elevator in my office building, I tried to strike up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a gentleman wearing a traditional Mexican outfit. Looking me up and down with contempt, he asked me in perfect English, "what, you're learning Spanish?" After motioning for me to bug off, he stepped onto his floor visibly agitated. I'm thinking, damn , what is "his" problem?

Ever since I was a child, I've always thought it was so cool to speak a second language. Because I lived around so many Puerto Ricans in New York City, Spanish was the most logical choice. However, as I began teaching myself Spanish out of a library book, I became flustered when my Puerto Rican neighbors and schoolmates consistently answered me in English (New York accents).

This frustration followed me all the way into my adulthood. I began thinking; perhaps, Latinos were ashamed of being Latino and simply wanted to assimilate into American society forgetting their language and culture. Finally, I began asking Latinos friends for the real story. Their answers varied. Many do not want to be stereotyped as Spanish-only or illegal immigrants. Others might get a sense that their English is better than my Spanish, thus would find it easier to answer me in English. And there was one response that made the greatest sense of all; if they are learning English, they needed to speak English in order to reach their desired level of fluency.

The big shocker, speaking of stereotypes, is that there are Latinos growing up in the U.S. whose Spanish is limited, and do not feel comfortable speaking Spanish unless they are talking with a monolingual Spanish speaker, preferably a relative. And there those who don't speak Spanish at all.

The University of Havana, Cuba, where I took Spanish language intensive training.
For these reasons, I chose to get out more. I mean, out of the country. My first experience of Spanish language immersion out of the country was in Cancún, México where I had a 24-hour layover before my next flight to Havana, Cuba. In Cancún, everyone was pleased that I was speaking Spanish; the people at the airport, the cab drivers, the hotel clerks, and the restaurant workers. By the time I arrived in Cuba, I was warmed up. In Cuba, I was taking a Spanish intensive course at the University of Havana through the Global Exchange organization based in San Francisco. Global Exchange sends Americans to Cuba for various programs such as language, music and dance, and bicycle tours.

One day, a Cuban citizen struck up a conversation with me in English. My mind flashed back to the gentleman on the elevator thinking he may have felt stereotyped and wanted to put me in my place. Well, I began to feel the same sense of indignation with this Cuban stranger assuming I’m an English-only gringo. I was gritting my teeth, saying to myself that I’m going to teach his young, narrow ass a lesson. For everything he says in English, I will respond in Spanish. Now, I’m getting a taste of my own medicine; how Latinos in the U.S. may feel when I speak to them in Spanish versus English.

As I kept answering in Spanish, he finally declared his frustration and demanded that I let him practice his English. Again, my mind went back to all the Latinos in the U.S. with whom I tried to practice my Spanish. I don’t know if I would have demanded that they'd let me practice for that is not my personality, but asking their permission and explaining why would have been a much better approach.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lifetime Friendships Through Travel----Ecuador

R1- 2A

Quito, Ecuador

As a traveler (not a tourist), I prefer to stay away from tourist attractions and be among the everyday people of the places I visit. This, in my opinion, is the best way to experience the real culture; particularly if you want to master the language. In my case, the language is Spanish.

Years ago, I was astonished to learn from an article I read that there are more black Latinos in the Americas than there are black gringos. What surprises me to the point of frustration is that too many Latinos I meet, from New York to California, do not know about the blacks in their own communities who speak Spanish as their first language. What a shame as they, of all people, should know better.

One thing I love about Facebook is the people I meet who can help make my travels more enjoyable. It was on my separate Spanish Facebook account where I met Alexandra, an Afro-Ecuadorian woman who lives in Germany with her husband and two children. Alexandra noticed a Facebook update expressing my desire to visit Ecuador being that I'm a fan of Ecuador's soccer team, which made an impressive showing in the 2006 World Cup Games.

Gloria of Quito Ecuador
After a few months of conversation and trust-building, she introduced me to her mother Gloria who invited me to her home, showed me around Quito, Ecuador and took me the equator where I had my photo taken with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other foot in the southern hemisphere (photo below). It was Gloria who introduced me to the panama hat of which I received so many compliments upon my return to the USA, I bought four more panama hats of different styles on my next trip to Ecuador.