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.

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