Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Fight Against Racism In Cuba

by Marlie Hall


Rosa Parks refused to stand. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Barack Obama won the presidential election. America’ s plight for racial equality has had its struggles, its heroes and its progress. But on the nearby island of Cuba, some say modern-day racism against blacks is blatant, and fighting it isn’t as simple as public protest.

According to Afro-Cuban activists, racism against blacks in Cuba is systemic and institutional. They say, to this day, blacks are excluded from tourism related jobs, relegated to poor housing, have poor access to health care, are excluded from managerial positions and are more likely to be imprisoned.

Carlos Moore is an Afro-Cuban activist who has spent his life writing about racial injustice in Cuba and says race is the country’s most pressing issue. In 2008, he sent a scathing letter to Cuban leader Raul Castro demanding racial reform. In it, he states: “You are a descendant of Europeans born in Spain; I am a descendant of Africans born in the Caribbean. We are both Cubans. However, being Cuban confers no specific privilege on either of us as human beings”.

It was a luxury of civil protest he could only afford to write while exiled in Brazil. According to Moore, “There is an unstated threat. Blacks in Cuba know that whenever you raise race in Cuba, you go to jail. Therefore, the struggle in Cuba is different. There cannot be a civil rights movement. You will have instantly 10,000 black people dead”. He says a new generation of Cubans are looking at politics in another way.
That new generation is going the way of the world wide web. Henry Gomez, a White Cuban living in Florida, noticed that some of the most outspoken voices against racism in Cuba are bloggers. So he founded Bloggers United for Cuban Liberty (BUCL).

“We basically organize events, distribute press releases and try to obtain coverage to counter the official propaganda coming from the Cuban Government” states Gomez, a writer for Babalu, a website that he says is the most widely read English language blog about Cuba.

Cuba was a former Spanish colony and the destination of hundreds of African slaves. According to Gomez, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 did little to liberate blacks. Since then, he says, former Dictator Fidel Castro has been successful in portraying Cuba as a post-racial egalitarian utopia. For example, Gomez says “Cuba began to develop the tourist sector of the economy in the mid-90’s and blacks were kept out of many positions that interfaced directly with foreign visitors. Also, blacks are extremely underrepresented in the higher echelons of the Cuban government bureaucracy.”

Countless blogs by Cuban writers seek to disprove so-called propaganda authored by the Cuban government. The U.S. State Department estimates Afro-Cubans make up 62 percent of the Cuban population. However, the Cuban census registers that 65 percent of the population is White.

Gomez says the Cuban government pays lip service to the issue of race. “It’s frankly the government that is the biggest perpetrator of racism in Cuba. As for Afro-Cuban opposition leaders, many of them are in jail such as Dr. Darsi Ferrer and Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. Both are Afro-Cuban medical doctors who are rotting in Cuban prisons for their political beliefs.” Recently, an Afro-Cuban political prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died in prison after a lengthy hunger strike. “Remember, this is a totalitarian dictatorship that has essentially remained unchanged for 51 years,” added Gomez.

Last November, sixty African-American scholars and professionals condemned the Cuban regime’s apparent crackdown on the country’s budding civil-rights movement. They issued a statement called “Acting on Our Conscience” which also called for the immediate release of imprisoned Afro-Cuban civil rights leaders. Traditionally, many African-Americans leaders sided with the Castro regime and condemned the United States, which in the past, sought to topple the Cuban government. The public rebuke of Castro’s racial policies signed by prominent African-Americans like Cornell West, Ruby Dee and Mario Van Peebles just to name a few, may indicate a changing of the tide. However, pro-government Cubans rejected allegations of racism and repression on the island, calling the charges “delusional” and part of “an anti-Cuban campaign.” They went on to point out that Cuba outlawed discrimination in 1959 and promotes Afro-Cuban culture through museums, music, dance and other institutions.

But the lack of acknowledgment by Cuba’s government does little to contain the movement of racial equality that is gaining momentum among Cuban human rights activists who are using their computers as their main weapon in the fight against racism. With each blog entry or letter, they expose what they call one the most blatantly racist places in the world.

But at the same time they remain hopeful that some of the racial progress seen in America can take root in Cuba as well. “I have no doubt that when Cuba joins the world democracies that it will have many Afro-Cuban leaders and presidents,” says Gomez, who is leading the new voice of Cuban Activists online. While Moore, who has spent the last forty years in exile and published dozens of books and articles about race relations in Cuba believes it threatens the Castro regime, as more blacks in the country feel empowered by an Obama presidency in America. He says, “Something is happening in Cuba, making them more paranoid than usual on the race subject.”


Monday, May 21, 2012

Undercover Afro-Latinos

Any one or more of these young men could be Latino, but how would you know if they keep their heritage private while assimilating into the African-American community?
Antonio, a long time friend from Central America is of African heritage, and of course, speaks fluent Spanish. He blends well with African-Americans; after all, he was married to one, and his children are totally assimilated into the African-American community. However, with my being an admirer of Afro-Latino cultures, it's quite evident to me how Antonio tends to minimize his Latino heritage in his communication with others, and even with other Latinos. 
One evening, for my birthday, he took me to see an Afro-Peruvian dance performance, and I, not him, was the one engaging with the Peruvians who were present. For this event, I was wearing a t-shirt reflecting Afro-Peruvian culture as a conversation piece while circulating among the crowd. It worked as Antonio simply observed me with fascination as I answered people's questions in Spanish who thought I myself might be Afro-Peruvian. He showed no interest in engaging with others, besides eavesdropping. 
I've always been outspoken about the African presence in Latin America at local black heritage events and in my Toastmasters meetings. I feel that a lot of African-Americans, and surprisingly many Latinos, need to be educated to the fact that we African-Americans are not the only black population in the western world. In fact, we are indeed a minority because an overwhelming majority of the slaves ships went to Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries almost 100 years before they started coming the U.S.
When Antonio and I first met, I asked him why he is so reluctant to assert the Latino side of his heritage. Antonio only gave me a vague answer, and to this day, I still do not understand. He is not the only person of Latin-American heritage who tries to keep it on the down-low. I've seen Latinos of all colors do it, and I'm wondering why. I brought this topic up in a forum of which I'm a member, and here are are some of their comments: 
Dora: Sometimes you just don't want to be the representative educator. It's exhausting, and other times, it still doesn't matter. Adults with narrow minds will continue to have it.  I don't always broadcast my background unless I need to. My mother does the same. I usually lay low in Spanish speaking establishments to see if they'd talk !@#$ about me.
Rob: It could be that she identifies more with just being “black” due to discrimination she may have experienced in her country. I've had Afro-Latinos friends who  say that they were treated as second class citizens and not welcomed as fellow Hispanics, so they just align more with being “black.” 

Carlos: In America, so-called Black Latinos have to assimilate. We don't have a choice. Like my man Laz Alonso said, he is Cuban inside his house and African American outside. Its just the way it is in the US. 

Ayana: My dad is from Dominica, and my mother from St. Lucia,raised in French Guiana. When I started grade school I went to a school where the kids were mostly South American and Eastern European. My best friend was Colombian and I do have distant Colombian heritage as well. I speak Spanish fluently. I was always treated equally among my peers. 

In the 5th grade I went to a different school that was predominantly African American, West Indian, and Puerto Rican. I was treated horribly by the African Americans for being "an Oreo," a "Spanish girl wannabe," and other interesting things. One time, I got kicked in the head and blacked out.
I was very sorry to hear about Latinos who were severely persecuted in their youth by their African-Americans peers who resented their being different. That brings to mind of a black Panamanian who grew up in the hood in West Oakland. He told me that keeping his Latino heritage on the down-low was about survival and fitting in. 

Rob's comment about Afro-Latinos not being welcomed by fellow Hispanics suddenly triggered my memory of Juan, from Venezuela, who could not get a job in Venezuela after finishing journalism school because of his color. He then told me how Spanish-speakers in the U.S. would often answer him in English because they could not relate to a black guy speaking Spanish. This, of course, drove him closer to African-Americans.

I've known Antonio for over 10 years, and he never mentioned any of the abuses, mistreatment, or discrimination stated above. In fact, he seldom discusses his experience as an Afro-Latino, although at times, I've heard him talk about his background as Garífuna, a descendant of escaped African slaves who assimilated with indigenous people of Central America. Even then, he keeps such discussions to a minimum, even with me knowing that I'm planning trips to a couple of Garífuna villages. 

As one member of the forum puts it, there are many things out there that influence people's decisions to downplay an aspect of their heritage. My feeling is that people need to be made aware of the diversity in the “black” community. Right here in the U.S., I've met blacks who speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch; not to mention the various languages and dialects from the Caribbean and the African continent. My blog, African-American-Latino World, is only a minor contribution to promote this awareness.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Using Facebook for Latin-American Travel

As of this writing, I've traveled to nine Latin American countries, and before my trips, I try to network on Facebook, and establish rapport with the people who live in the countries I plan on visiting. Naturally, this makes my travel experience a lot warmer and more welcoming. And like anywhere, some people are more open to meeting new people than others. However, it was the friendlier ones who perceived my genuine spirit who were very good about helping me get connected and acclimated when I arrived in their countries. 

At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba

In the Spring of 2009, I opened a Spanish-speaking Facebook account, separate from my English-speaking account making more than 200 friends throughout Latin America. Because I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team, I posted a message on the Ecuadorian board stating that I wanted to visit the black community up in the Andes Mountains that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado, whom I refer to as the Magic Johnson of Ecuador. Within a couple of days, I got a response from Alexandra, an Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother, Gloria, who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. When I arrived, Gloria showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the gringo tax, i.e., being taken advantage of by merchants and cab drivers because I'm a foreigner (a gringo).

One of the things I notice about people in Latin-America using Facebook is that they seldom turn down a “Friend” request, even from a stranger. At least that's been my experience. However, to break the ice, I try to engage them by clicking “Like” on posts that I genuinely like, and make comments when appropriate. I frequently click “Share” and post messages of my own. Likewise, they click “Like” or “Share,” and make comments of their own. And, as on my English-speaking account, I keep track of birthdays. This, over time, helps me to make myself known and eventually establish the rapport that I seek.

For example, I befriended Maritza, an reserved Peruvian woman living in Toronto who, after about one year of Facebook friendship, introduced me to members of her family in Lima, Perú, and those members of her family, to date, are still introducing me to other members of the family being that I visit Perú almost every year. A couple of her family members arranged for me to get a nice clean room to rent during my stay in Lima for as little as $4.00 per night.

It was refreshing how Yolanda, from Ecuador's Pacific Coast, started a live chat discussion with me by asking where I am from because the Facebook name for my Spanish account, Guillermo William Smith, sounds so Un-Spanish. Today, she is one of my closes friends on Facebook, and I love how she corrects my Spanish, grammatically speaking. Per her request, I will return to Ecuador and pay her a the province of Esmeraldas where it has a history of escaped African slaves rising up to defeat the Spanish to earn their freedom before the rest of Ecuador earned theirs.

The Getsamane District of Cartegena, Colombia where I stayed

For me, having a Spanish-speaking Facebook account is an excellent way to practice my Spanish, considering all the room that I have for improvement. Increasingly, I've been sharing some Spanish-speaking posts, on my English-speaking account, and some of the English-speaking posts on my Spanish-speaking account, and translating those posts from English to Spanish, and vice-versa. I've even gotten into live, extensive Spanish discussions with people from Venezuela, Perú, Ecuador, Chile, Spain, and Colombia.

Before my 2010 trip to Colombia, I made plans to visit the landmark town of San Basilio de Palenque where African slaves won their freedom from the Spanish 216 years before the rest of Colombia and other South American countries won their freedom. I went on one of the Colombian message boards publicizing my plans to visit Palenque, as the Colombians call it, and within 24 hours, I got messages from five or six people giving me directions from the City of Cartagena where I was going to be staying, and even offered me personal assistance. 

Currently, I'm planning trips to Honduras, Guatemala, and Chile, and have already made my share of friends from those countries on Facebook..

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Afro-Colombian Heritage Month

In the year 2000, Colombia's black civil rights (or human rights) movement came up with the month of May as Afro-Colombian Heritage Month to promote black awareness.  Cali, the Afro-Colombian capital offers a variety of cultural agendas to commemorate this event; social gatherings, music performances, fashion shows, Afro-Colombian cuisine, and artifacts.


The purpose is to plant seeds in the hearts of the Afro-Colombian community and to spark their consciousness with pride in their identity; to celebrate African and Afro-Colombian heritage, past and present, with a focus on their struggles for civil and human rights in a country that systematically discriminates against blacks and indigenous people.

Colombia also has a magazine similar to the African American Ebony Magazine in the U.S. called Ébano Latinoamérica. Ébano is Spanish for Ebony. The subjects and people included in this magazine are of political, scientific, economic and artistic relevance, presented with professionalism and sobriety. This magazine is an integral part of Black Colombian heritage, which plays a major role in documenting the contributions and accomplishments, as well as the struggles of Afro-Colombian people.

(Africa in Colombia)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Just Five Days in Venezuela


Years ago, when I decided to seriously adopt Spanish as a second language, I used to randomly make conversation with those whom I perceived to be monolingual Spanish-speakers. Because I'm black, they'd usually assume that I'm from Puerto Rico or Cuba. So, just to play with their minds, I used to tell them I'm from Venezuela; in other words, there are blacks all over Latin American, not just Puerto Rico and Cuba. Pretty soon, I started taking a genuine interest in Venezuela and have always wanted to visit. My opportunity finally came in December 2011. 

Although I was only going to spend five days, I wanted this trip to be a smooth, drama-free, five-day learning experience. Therefore, I spent months doing research on Venezuelan culture and lifestyle. I studied their currency, and their public transportation. However, my main reason for visiting Venezuela was to explore the predominately black region of Barlovento where African slaves were brought to work the cacao plantations in the 16th century, and where many of those slaves escaped and found refuge in heavily armed fortresses called cimarrones. 

In order to get to Barlovento, however, I had to pass through the notorious capital city of Caracas where the crime statistics makes cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Oakland look like they are having church. Naturally, I did my research on safety measures as well. I had a co-worker from Caracas who tried to discourage me from going to Venezuela at all, and told me that he himself feels “safer” walking the streets of Oakland. Thus, I had no intentions of spending no more than a few hours in Caracas, either going or coming. 


Caracas subway system; The Metro

On Thursday, December 1, 2011, I flew in from Perú where I spent the last two weeks and landed at the Simón Bolívar International Airport, which is about a two-hour bus ride from Caracas. Unlike other Latin-American countries I've visited, it was nice to see more than one black person working in immigration as they and the security staff cleared me and let me onto the main floor of the airport where I was to meet Felix, my host whom I met on, a website for travelers. 

Of nine Spanish-speaking countries I've visited, including Cuba, where people talk so fast that they chop their words, Venezuela is the first country where I had to tell people, more than once, to slow down because Spanish is not my first language. I've heard Spanish speakers complain about their difficulty in understanding Cubans and Puerto Ricans, but the everyday working-class Venezuelans are literally “off-the-hook!”
After picking me up at the airport, Felix first showed me the city, and we came across a band playing live Venezuelan music. I was definitely feeling these genres of music; tambor, parranda, and gaita. I really like llanero music from the plains of Venezuela, which is equivalent to the US's country and western. Like in every country, Venezuelan music is diverse. After the musical event, we took a bus to his home up into the hills. 

In Caracas, as in many South American cities, the barrios (or the ghettos) are in the hills, not in the flat-lands. Felix granted me a bed in his cramped home where I met his family and his girlfriend. He also arranged for me to exchange my American dollars into twice the standard Venezuelan exchange rate.


As I dined at the dinner table with the family, for the first time, I ate a popular Venezuelan dish called arepas, made of thick corn tortilla filled with chicken, beef, cheese, or anything you want. The next morning, after eating a breakfast-arepas filled with scrambled eggs, Felix and I took the Caracas metro train around the city, and he finally handed me over to a woman whom I also met on, Maria, who has family in the Region of Barlovento, the place that I've always wanted to visit. However, I ended up spending more time in Caracas than planned, as María and I wined and dined as she showed me the city. 

The next morning, María escorted me to, what I heard, was the biggest and the “baddest hood” in Caracas—Barrio Petare. This was the most convenient place to catch a bus to Barlovento, the hub of Afro-Venezuelan culture. It was in the town of Higuerote in Barlovento where María and I again dined, went shopping, and toured the area. After she got me settled in a place to stay, she had to return to Caracas for personal business, but she was worried about my safety.

Higuerote reminded me of a typical “hood” in the U.S., cool dudes strutting with their hats on backward, stores owned by Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, and guys hanging on the corner on Friday nights. The big difference is that the people don't listen to hip-hop, they listen to salsa; they don't speak Ebonics, they speak Españolbonics (Spanish Ebonics), which was difficult for me to understand as one guy gave me a hard thuggish look seemingly wondering where I was from.  María already warned me about appearing too touristy. I assured her that I'm from Harlem and I live in Oakland; I can handle myself. She just shook her head and bluntly reminded me that I am now in Venezuela, and it's risky enough that my Spanish has a foreign accent.


Venezuelan empanadas are so delicious they will make you scream


Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see the more cultural aspects of the Region of Barlovento with its African tambor music and cacao plantations, and the opportunity to meet progressive members of the Afro-Venezuelan Network. My five days were almost up, because again, I spent more time in Caracas than planned, and I had to head back to the airport.

A memorable part of my trip was a dish called empenadas, an indescribably delicious pastry, baked or fried, that I had for the first time, and like arepas, they are filled with meat, vegetables, cheese, or anything you want. The tastiest ones were made and sold by street vendors. I was hooked. 

Another memorable part of my trip was the friendly, pleasant demeanor of the Venezuelan women I encountered. “Buenas días, buenas tardes, buenas noches,” I would say to various women in my presence, and they would all respond with genuine warmth. Almost every time I'd smile at a woman, she'd give me a happy, enthusiastic smile in return. One woman whom I greeted on the street smiled and referred to me as primo, which literally means cousin, but in Venezuela, it is a colloquial expression suggesting familiarity.

Overall, I was deeply touched by what I experienced from both Felix and María, which goes to show that you will always find good people anywhere, regardless of the reputation of the places you visit. As a practice, I always pray and get prayed for before every trip, and my five days in Venezuela was surely an answer to prayer.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Immerse Yourself in the Culture of a Country When Traveling

Traveling abroad is many people's dream and one of life's adventures that shouldn't be taken lightly or forgotten. The scenery and way of life in different regions can give you a new perspective of the world and help you appreciate the uniqueness of foreign places.

However, vacationing to a region across the globe isn't at all similar to reading about it in a book or hearing someone else's travel experiences. The best way to get the most out of your trip is knowing how to prepare early so that you don't run into any unpleasant surprises.

Lost on how to begin? There's no need to fret. Here's a few tips to help you eliminate culture shock and completely turn your fantasy of visiting another country into the perfect reality:

  • Be Respectful – Remember to mind your manners when you're visiting other parts of the world. Keep an open mind and don't let judgments get in the way of you getting to know other cultures. In order to do this, it's best to put yourself in a foreigner's shoes. Try to imagine how offended you'd feel if someone from another country came to your home and looked down on your way of life, forming negative opinions about you without putting forth the effort to fully get to know the makeup of your culture. If you've realized this isn't what you'd want to experience from anyone else, you'll make it a priority to avoid inflicting your criticisms on others from different countries.

  • Do Your Research – It's also important to review the general information about the country you plan to visit beforehand. Various books and online resources will help you get acquainted with the history, nightlife, aesthetic views, political backdrop, and cultural norms that resonate with a particular region. Knowing these details will make it easier for you to navigate through your intended destination. 

  • Learn the Language – You'll have difficulty understanding and processing what people say if you don't learn the native tongue of the community that you meet. There's several classes that'll allow you to expand your horizons. If you're pressed for time and can't find it in your schedule to physically attend onsite lectures, you can consider online courses at universities to help you reach your goals.
    Additionally, several online courses can help you learn foreign languages so you can communicate with citizens of the country that you're visiting. Additionally, you may have acquaintances or friends that you can practice with before you go on your trip. If you want to go an extra mile, it never hurts to learn the lingo or specific slang of communities as well.   

  • Unravel Misconceptions – Most people have preconceived notions about other regions that are inaccurate. It's crucial to be willing to eliminate stereotypes that about a foreign country and get to know people of different cultures for yourself instead of letting misconceptions influence the way you interact with others during your excursion. Also, you may find that the communities of people that you come in contact with have misguided opinions about your country. Don't let this isolate you. Remaining patient and communicative will enable natives of the country you're visiting to form a new positive view about the region you represent. 

  • Student vs. Tourist Perception – In order to not remain distant from the culture you're experiencing, it's best to think of yourself as a student rather than a tourist. This mindset will help you move from the role of a detached spectator to an involved newcomer. As a result, you'll seem more approachable and create new lasting connections with people. 

  • Get Familiar with Local Laws and Conditions – Be sure to observe the regulations and overall conditions of the country you're traveling to as well. Not knowing a community's laws can result in consequences, such as crime and warranted penalties that you could've otherwise avoided if you had taken the time to investigate. 

  • Have Fun – Lastly, remember that smiles and genuine kindness is the same language everywhere you go. The harmonious environment that you want to see starts with you and the way you responded to things. You can make the most out of your vacation by enjoying yourself and staying surrounded with uplifting vibes. Your positive attitude will be infectious, causing more people to be drawn to you.


Temple University: Education Abroad and Overseas Campuses (2012).

U.S. Department of State: Travel.State.Gov (2012)