Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Career & the Spanish Language

I was being interviewed for an employment specialist position at a prominent agency in San Francisco, and passed the interview with flying colors. Being that I'm so passionate about the Spanish language and proud of the fact that I'm self taught, I made it a point to emphasize my experience working with Spanish speakers and my travels to several Latin American countries. The job announcement itself stated that the ability to speak Spanish is a plus. Sure, I had Spanish in school, but like anything in life, the classroom is no match for the real world. I once had a supervisor who minored in Spanish in college, and I was so surprised when she asked me to help her with her Spanish. The difference between her progress and mine was that I made it a point to seize every opportunity to converse with monolingual Spanish speakers outside the classroom.

Just How Fluent Am I?
When I returned for my second interview, I was very confident like I am in every interview. However, this time, there were two Latino managers waiting for me. That made me unusually nervous because I knew my Spanish was going to be tested. Fortunately, the two interviewers spent almost the whole interview in English until they were satisfied that I was a good match for the open position. Then one asked me a question in Spanish. For the first time in my working life, I started stumbling over my words as I attempted to respond in Spanish. Finally, I just let it all hang out and said the following:
Hay un problema. Yo hablo mejor español con la gente que habla solo español y nada de inglés, cuando yo hablo con la gente como tú, yo me pongo muy nervioso.
There is a problem. I speak better Spanish with people who speak only Spanish and no English. When I talk to people like you (who are bilingual), I get very nervous.
They both laughed and commented how fine my Spanish sounded, let me off the hook, and told me not to worry. What I said to them was very true. I do find it difficult to speak Spanish to bilingual Spanish/English people even after having several years of experience working with those who speak only Spanish or very little English. I've written résumés and taught workshops for Spanish speakers. I've even received warm comments from Spanish-speaking colleagues, orally and in writing, on how pleased the Spanish-speaking clients were with my services. Most people I work with, including Spanish-speaking clients, think that I'm more fluent in Spanish than I really am.

To date, I've traveled to nine Latin-American countries to improve my Spanish.

This is a question I'm often asked in job interviews. How fluent am I? In all honesty, I am far from fluent. I always put on my résumé, English-Spanish communication, but never “bi-lingual.” In regards to the workshops I taught, I simply wrote out my presentation in Spanish, had it edited by a Colombian immigrant; I rehearsed several times, then delivered the presentation on schedule.

When I apply for positions where the use of Spanish will be an asset, I want the employer to know that I'm functional enough in the language to make conversation, conduct some business in banks and shopping centers, but most importantly, do my job as an employment specialist..

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guatemalan Black Folks?

Black Caribs (Garífunas) of Guatemala

Black Guatemalans? Absolutely! Even many Guatemalans themselves are unaware of the Black community in their own land. I've always known that the African diaspora was widespread but when I heard about Blacks in Guatemala I was not at all surprised. As one who loves to travel and be exposed to black communities in Latin America, Guatemala is on my list of places to visit. Livingston, Guatemala, is home to over 6,000 Black folks, also known as Garífuna. The rest of the Blacks are Afro-Caribbeans who live in Puerto Barrios and Morales on the East Coast. Also many blacks live in Amatitlán, San Jerónimo, and Jutiapa.

Teodoro Palacios Flores 
Former Olympic High Jumper

During the 1700's, the Europeans brought Africans to the Americas as slaves, and it is believed that this particular group of Africans were from Ghana. Many of the slaves came to Guatemala to work on cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee plantations. The national folk instrument, the marimba, has its origins in Africa and was brought to Guatemala and the rest of Central America by African slaves during colonial times. The melodies played on it show Indigenous, West African and European influences in both form and style. 

Rainey Street in Livingston, Guatemala

In 1795, the African slaves, led by Marcos Sanchez Díaz, revolted on the island of St. Vincent and fled to the island of Rotan in Honduras. Most of them eventually intermarried with the Indigenous population. Slave importation did not last a long time as the conquistadors became very nervous due to the uprising of the Blacks they captured. Slavery became less important to the conquistadors and was abolished in 1823. The language these African descendants speak is called Garifuna, a mixture of French, indigenous languages, Creole, Bambu, and Patua.

Marva Weatherhorn
Miss Guatemala 2004 
In 1804, Marco Diaz founded Livingston, popularly known as La Buga, a Garífuna word for “mouth,” located between the mouth of the La Dulce River and Amatique Bay. Traditional fishing fishing has been a longstanding way of life in Garifuna culture. Livingston is only accessible by boat, and, as a result, air pollution is almost non-existent. The only cars in town belong to the police, and those are few in number. To get around, most people ride a bicycle or walk. With the beach only a few steps away from almost any part of town, life here is wonderfully laid-back. No one is in a hurry to do anything.

Today, the Garífuna people and the Afro-Caribbean people organized ONEGUA, which stands for The Organization of Black Guatemalans, a community group that provides educational and cultural support for Black Guatemalans and receives no financial support from the Guatemalan government.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Black Heritage: Perú

Afro-Peruvian writer, poet, and musician Nicomedes Santa 

While African-Americans are celebrating Black Heritage during the month of February, Afro-Peruvians begin their Black Heritage celebrations in late February and into March. They celebrate with music, dance, poetry, and Afro-Peruvian cuisine. ¡VAMOS PA' CHINCHA, FAMILIA! (LET'S GO TO CHINCHA, BROTHERS and SISTERS!) is the slogan for Perú's celebration known as Black Summer as February is a hot summer month in Perú.. The word, familia, which literally means family is a colloquial expression for Afro-Peruvian.

Afro-Peruvian dance
Afro-Peruvian Dance Performance

Chincha, located on the Southern Pacific coast of Perú, is recognized as the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture where Blacks have been living since 1521 when Black soldiers arrived with Spanish Conquistadors. African slaves didn't start arriving to work the cotton fields and sugar plantations until 1529, and that all ended in 1856. However, it was in the late 1950s to1970s when a cultural revival brought back old, forgotten African music that inadvertently merged with Spanish and indigenous music resulting in a whole new genre--Afro Peruvian music. By the end of the 19th century, music and dance had become the principal expression of Black Peruvian culture.

Percussionist and dancer Ronal Illescas

I've been visiting Chincha annually since 2005 to immerse myself in the Spanish language and to explore the black experience. I stayed with a prominent black family of the late, great maestro, Amador Ballumbrosio, the Godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance. Today, his adult children and grandchildren are carrying on his cultural legacy. During my visits, I have the pleasure of eating home cooked Afro-Peruvian meals as well as meals served at the famous Mamainé Restaurant. This “soul food,” if you will, is prepared with recipes that only black women have saved since the time of slavery.

 Restaurant owner Mamainé and me at her famous 
restaurant in Chincha's District of El Carmen

According to unofficial estimates, 10-15% of Peruvians have African ancestry and face perceptual racism and discrimination. Monica Carrillo, head of the civil rights organization LUNDÚ is pushing for Peru’s rich African heritage to be an equal part of Perú's national identity. Some of the well-known Blacks who contributed to Peruvian society include St. Martin de Porres and his tireless work on behalf of the poor; Nicomedes Santa Cruz, a writer, poet, and musician who helped raise public awareness of Afro-Peruvian culture. Then we have Teófilo Cubillas, Perú's greatest soccer player ever, and of course, the world renown singer Susana Baca, the Peruvian Minister of Culture. In 1969, a man by the name of Ronaldo Campos founded the world famous dance troupe, Perú Negro, which is billed as the Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why I Blog African American-Latino World

It was in East Harlem where I experienced a cultural exchange with primarily the Puerto Rican community.

Tynesha, a client, who happens to be African-American, was in my office for some employment counseling, when suddenly the conversation shifted to a topic directed at me. “So you are Black,” she says. I shrugged and said, “the last time I looked in the mirror I was, why?” She says because you got all this Latin stuff on your wall. I then pointed out pictures of Booker T Washington, which was on my office door, and John Coltrane and Muhammad, which were on my wall. Her response was, “yes but those pictures are overwhelmed by your pictures from Perú, Cuba, and Ecuador, and these other Latin countries.” Well, I have to admit that I've always had an interest in Latino cultures, which is why I blog, African American-Latino World.

The Lenox Terrace on New York's 5th Avenue in Harlem, where I lived as a child, was the dividing line between East and West Harlem.

It all started when I was a little boy living on the dividing line between East and West Harlem in New York City. East Harlem contains a large Spanish-speaking population, mostly Puerto Rican. I began noticing some cultural exchange between some African-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the community, mainly New York born Puerto Ricans (Nuyoricans). Even I started picking up on some Spanish at the age of 10. We went to the same schools and community centers. Some of us dated each other. 

In the spring and summer months, it was common to see African-American and Puerto Rican musicians in Marcus Garvey Park, across the street from my old Junior High School, James Fenimore Cooper, in East Harlem. Guys brought their conga drums, bongos, flutes, and other percussion and wind instruments to jam to jazz and Latin jazz tunes. By the time I became a teenager, I felt myself getting culturally turned out! Walter, an African-American school friend came to my house and noticed my large collection of salsa and Latin jazz albums in my room. Walter just chuckled, scratched his head, and told me that I was turning into a Puerto Rican.

My old elementary school, P.S. 197-Manhattan, also on 5th Avenue; dividing East and West Harlem.

Even people in the Spanish-speaking countries that I've visited have assumed that I too am Latino. In Ecuador, a cab driver asked me, “es usted caribeño?” In other words, am I Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Dominican. When I later crossed the border from Ecuador into Perú, I was stopped by the police three times because they thought I was an illegal alien from either Ecuador or Colombia. One cop, who figured my American passport might be fake, started asking me a lot of intense questions. I said to myself, my Spanish can't be this good? Why is this cop tripping? 

When he first approached me I snapped at him in Peruvian slang, despacio, mi español es monse--slow down, my Spanish is whack! When the officer was finally done interrogating me, I said to him, sarcastically, gracias por la práctica en mi español (thank you for helping me practice my Spanish). The officer responded with, ¡Ya!, meaning  yeah, yeah, yeah as he walked dejectedly back to his patrol car. I think he think he was looking for a bribe.

What Walter, who said that I'm turning into a Puerto Rican, did not realize, and neither did I at the time, was that this hot Latin music that was turning so many people on, including me, not only has Spanish roots, but African roots as well.What my client, Tynesha, don't realize is that during the slave trade, the overwhelming majority of Africans went to Latin-America, not the U.S. 

I was working on a term paper for my African-American studies class at the Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem, which by the way, is named in honor of a Black Puerto Rican, There, I learned about the African presence and influence on Latin-American cultures from Mexico and the Caribbean, all the way down through Argentina.

The Schomburg Center for Research & Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library
However, it wasn't until late into my adulthood when I decided to adopt Spanish as my second language. My late Mexican-American friend, Yolanda Gutierrez, encouraged me to learn the culture as well as the language. As badly as I wanted to take Yolanda's advice, I was confused. There must be at least 18, 19, or 20 different Latin American cultures. Exactly where was I supposed to begin?

It was my love for salsa and Afro-Cuban music that reignited my desire to learn to speak Spanish.
Well, I took the easy way out. I started reading about the Latin American cultures where Africans had an influence on the music I enjoyed most; son-montuno from Cuba, bachata from the Dominican Republic, and jarocho from Mexico. Then I expanded to tambor from Venezuela, saya from Bolivia, and marimba from Ecuador. I began traveling to selected Latin American countries to explore their black experience. For example, in Colombia, I visited a landmark African village where their descendants freed themselves, Nat Turner style, from Spanish rule more than 200 years before the rest of the nation of Colombia won their independence.

As of today, I've visited 30 Latin American cities and towns in 10 countries, including Miami, which I consider to be an honorary Latin-American town where people, especially Cubans, are in-your-face proud of their language and culture. I remember walking into Cuban restaurant, and the cook asked me in broken English, “can I help you?” When I told her in Spanish that it was OK to speak to Spanish, she, her co-worker, and a even a customer were so cheered that they made me feel right at home. I don't always get that reaction when I'm in New York where I grew up, San Francisco where I work, or Oakland, where I live.

My next trip includes Honduras and Guatemala where I want some exposure to the descendants of Africans slaves who revolted against the British, escaped, and found refuge among indigenous people; then I'll be going to Chile, where the City of Arica has a historic African presence.  The way it looks, I'm going to continue learning the Spanish language and various Latin-American cultures, particularly those of African ancestry until I'm on my death bed. Thus, my blog, African American-Latino Word continues.