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.