Friday, August 31, 2012

Black American Playing with Spanish-Speakers' Minds


I was recently in a pizza parlor near my house in Oakland, CA, staffed by mostly Spanish-speaking employees. As I was eating at a table, a gentleman walked in and got into a Spanish-speaking conversation with one of the female staff members. He kept emphatically asking her ¿tu los conoces? (Do you know them?). After eating and as I began to leave the facility, I couldn't resist saying to the gentleman, yo los conozco tambien! (I know them too). First he looked at me stunned and was about to take me seriously before he burst out laughing realizing that I was just playing with his mind. He asked me where I was from; I told him New York City. He then began to compliment me on my Spanish.

I've always found it irresistible to play with the minds of Spanish-speakers who assume, because of my color, that I don't speak or understand their language. A lot of native Spanish-speakers, especially Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, seem to assume that there are no black folks who can speak, or at least learn Spanish.

I'll never forget the time at a company-wide staff meeting where it was brought out that I work with Spanish as well as English speakers. One Spanish-speaking woman who did not believe I could speak Spanish demanded in a feisty tone of voice that I sing a song in Spanish, which she seemed to have felt would have been an impossible task. I happily sang a few lines and a chorus from my all-time favorite salsa song, Pastorita tiene gurararé, which invoked a nice, hearty applause from all the Spanish speakers, including this feisty woman. She was both shocked and impressed.

Why did it take all of that song-and-dance to convince her? Why did she make an off-handed assumption,considering that she doesn't know anything about me? I asked her these questions and she lied telling me that she didn't know why. In other words, she did not want to admit that she was judging me by the color of my skin.

The interesting thing is that I never experience such doubt and astonishment when I'm visiting Spanish-Speaking countries; only here in the United States of America. Why?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Peruvian Public Transportation

  The “combi,” a common form of pubic transportation in Perú

With so many tourists traveling to Lima, Perú, I've never seen one ride the most common public transportation vehicle, the combi. Combis are vans redesigned on the interior to function as buses transporting people around the city or to nearby towns. Tourists, for the most part, take taxi cabs. I, as a traveler, and not a tourist, do not use a taxi unless it is absolutely necessary. I seldom, if ever, go to tourist attractions. I'm too busy mingling and living among the everyday common people. Being that I speak enough of the language to get by, I'm able to make friends, go out on dates, and develop extended family relationships.

Motorized tricycles are cheaper forms of public transportation 
in smaller towns, like Chincha Alta, Perú (above)

In the smaller towns, like Chincha, where I usually stay when I'm in Perú, the combis do not leave until it is filled, thus making them quite cramped. They do not run on a schedule, and wherever I'm going, I have to allow time for some lateness. They often go off course to pick up passengers before getting back on course and head towards their final destinations and rest stops.

Another cheaper, and more common form of public transportation are found in the smaller towns, like Chincha Alta, where I spend much of my time. They are tricycles with two-seats in the back for passengers. Once I'm in Chicha's business district, I generally take a tricycle where ever I go, as long as I'm not carrying anything too big or heavy from shopping. For example, I often go grocery shopping for the family I stay with in nearby El Carmen, and find it more convenient to catch a cab back. Otherwise, I stick with the combis and tricycles.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Studying Spanish in Cuba

The University of Havana, Cuba 

It is so interesting to meet people who migrated to the U.S., and how they get so indignant when Americans try to learn and speak to them in their native language. I found this to be true among many Spanish-speakers. Evidently, the best way to learn and practice a new language is to visit the country where that language is spoken. Being that I'm in love with the Spanish language along with salsa and Afro-Cuban music, Cuba was a logical place to not only develop my salsa dancing skills, but to develop my Spanish as well. This was my first experience, and certainly not the last, at being totally immersed in the Spanish-language, not having to worry about smart-asses answering me in English.

Everyone on campus and in the community was friendly and welcoming, especially when I told them that I was from the USA. To me, this was an indication that there is no animosity among ordinary, everyday Cuban people towards Americans.

My trip was sponsored by Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco, CA, which had a partnership with the University of Havana where I spent four hours in the mornings in the classroom with non-English speaking instructors. After school, I got to hang out with non English-speaking tutors where we would simply chat in a restaurant, a coffee shop, or on the waterfront, and get one-on-one feedback on my progress. Finally, I got to live with a non-English speaking family, so there was no way that I could fall back on my English when I get stuck in translation. I was forced to simply work it out in the moment. As a result, my Spanish improved to the level where after my return to the US, I was interviewed for a new job in both English and Spanish, and passed with flying colors.

Although, I had quite a few classmates from the US, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Japan., I spent as little time as possible with any of them. As a result, most of my learning took place in the community where I made friends, went out on dates, shopped, and attended cultural events. Like anything in life, the real learning takes place in the real world; not in the classroom!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dominican Republic's Black American Descendants

Frederick Douglass addressed a crowd of 200 African-Americans who migrated to the Dominican Republic, January 28, 1871.

The Samaná Province in northeastern coast of Samaná Bay in the Dominican Republic is a destination for nature lovers, honeymooners, and whale-watchers. 

The Samaná Province is also home to what is known in the Dominican Republic as Americanos de Samaná (Samaná-Americans) where descendants of free black Americans immigrated beginning in 1824. They took advantage of the pro-African immigration policy when Samaná was under Haitian rule. 

This migration to Samaná began with 34 African-American families that distinguished themselves from the rest of the Dominican Republic as they maintain many elements of 19th century African-American culture, such as their English, food, games, community organizations as well as African-American names, manners, music and some recipes that have been preserved. Most are of the African Methodist Episcopal and Wesleyan faith.

So many free Blacks moved from the United States to the Dominican Republic, not only because of the weather and beautiful beaches, but to get away from a racist society. Today, it is estimated that 80% of the population in Samaná, Dominican Republic is of African-American descent. 

While it is difficult to estimate the number of Samaná Americans today due to intermarriage and emigration from Samaná, the number is estimated to be around 8,000.  

There are no monolingual English-speakers anymore; all Samaná-Americans are bilingualEnglish and Spanish. As a result of the influence of mainstream Dominican culture, including compulsory Spanish-language education, many of the old markers of African-American culture are gone.

Comparatively speaking, these Black folks succeeded in escaping racism. Blacks in the other parts of the Dominican Republic are looked at as having a lower social status than the lighter skinned and the more stereotypically Spanish looking people. 

This is even more prominent closer to the Haitian border because of Dominicans' dislike of Haitians who are mainly of very dark skin. But all the way across the island, in Samaná, almost all of the people who live there are very dark skinned as well where their skin color is not an issue.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Romantic Love Between Blacks & Latinos

When I met Gwen, a fair-skinned Puerto Rican woman of mixed racial ancestry at the church I used to attend, there was a strong mutual attraction. The first time I asked her out, she cheerfully and excitedly gave me her phone number. When I called, her passionate response was, name the time, name the date! And it was on—so I thought! 

After our date, Gwen became very distant refusing to go out with me again saying that it was only an attraction; nothing more. Yet, other church members and I consistently caught her watching me intently from a distance. She even acted somewhat hostile toward another woman whom I started seeing. Word got around the church that Gwen's mother did not want her getting involved with black men; only whites and non-black Latinos; preferably a fellow Puerto Rican.

I've heard of other cases where Latino parents threatened to disown their daughters if they were to marry a black man. As disgusting as this sounds, it seems to be only a minor example of Latin American racism, which so many Latinos I have met deny exists.


Happy marriages between Blacks and Browns, such as the Ormeño family (above) in Perú are much more common and accepted in Latin-American countries than here in the USA.
While growing up in New York City where there were a lot of social interactions, cultural exchanges, and political alliances between African-American and Puerto Rican communities, I knew of African-American boys and girls dating Puerto Ricans. I wonder; however, how many of those Puerto Rican boys and girls took their African-American girlfriends and boyfriends home to meet their families over dinner.

In the book Boricua: Anthologies of Puerto Rican Writings, it was pointed out that many Puerto Rican parents told their sons and daughters not to bring blacks home. I'm not sure if that included black Latinos or just African-Americans.

I do know that a lot of black Latino families, not all, encourage their children to improve the race, as they call it, by marrying someone lighter or white so their children will experience less racism. From my personal interactions with Latin-American women, here and in Latin-American countries, it is usually the fair skinned ones, like Gwen and the white ones who seem to take more of an open interest in me. The black ones, as a rule, didn't seem to take me too seriously, with the exception of a couple who wanted what was in my pants [wallet] because I'm a gringo.

Through my own travels to various Latin-American countries, I've observed a lot of interracial dating, marriages, and mixed children through marriage as well as wedlock. However, from my own observation, the interracial relationships are primarily among those in the lower portions of the economic ladder being that “class” is a bigger issue in Spanish-speaking countries than race. 

It was brought to my attention that many non-black, upper class Latin Americans discourage their children from from getting involved with blacks in their own countries, although some do as was alluded to in the first chapter of Laura Esquivel's best-selling novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), when the father died of a heart attack upon learning that his daughter had a baby by a black Mexican man...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Volunteer Work While Traveling?

Would you “pay a fee to do volunteer work 
in a foreign country while on vacation? 

A community center in the predominately Black district of El Carmen in Chincha, Perú where I can volunteer free of charge... makes perfect sense!
I used to seek out volunteer work in Spanish-speaking countries I planned on visiting because I figured that it would help improve my Spanish and be culturally immersed, but was appalled to learn that these agencies are charging $100 to $1400 to work for “free.” One year, while planning my vacation to Ecuador, I contacted an agency asking about the logic of paying them to volunteer your time to help with a worthy cause. This person responded with an arrogant tone explaining his logic, and to this day, it still does not make any sense. And with his attitude transmitted in the tone of his e-mail, I would have thought twice about paying him a dime, if anything at all, even if I were willing to pay a fee. You would think that these people would be happy to have someone work for free vs spending their money enjoying their vacations.
I'm having trouble believing that people are actually paying these fees, but they are out there. I've spoken to them in forums, such as and on other travel sites. They too could not give me a logical explanation for their motive when they could be spending their hard-earned dollars on enjoyment and souvenirs.  Would YOU do it, and why?   I heard the argument that these fees help with operational costs, however, seeking donations and seeking volunteers are two different things.
I brought this up in a forum and one comment that stood out for me was, in my humble opinion I can make more of a difference walking into a school, orphanage, community organization that needs help that day/week and just get it done! I am in total agreement, for example, there is a black community in Southern Perú that I know very well who can use my skills in tutoring children in English and developing their literacy and math skills. Upon my return to Perú, I will definitely volunteer my time, and even buy refreshments for the kids and staff. These people will not even think of being unethical enough to charge me a fee.

Some well-traveled acquaintances of mine agreed on the fact that "volun-tourism (volunteer tourism)" is one of the most notable, lucrative, and corrupt hustles. Often times the money does not go the project or the people it is supposed to be serving. Sadly, this is the case in many "underdeveloped" countries.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why I Chose a Spanish-Speaking Godchild

When I made my first trip to Perú, my only interests were improving my Spanish and being exposed to Afro-Peruvian culture. I stayed with a reknown Black family, right in the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture--the District of El Carmen, in Chincha, Perú.

I brought a lot of small gifts and candy to distribute to those with whom I established rapport, including the children. I have no idea why, but my heart went out to three-year-old Daniela who was struggling to remove the wrapper from the candy I gave her. As I went over to help her, I felt a strong, inexplicable feeling of kinship and attachment. And obviously, the feeling was mutual because she asked me over the phone after my return to the USA if she could be my daughter. Her mother, who was standing by and seemingly feeling embarrassed, took her off the phone, and instructed Daniela to say cuidate (take care), and hung up.

When I returned to Perú, her mother, Karina, was happy that my return made Daniela very, very happy. Karina asked me if I had any children, I said only Daniela, and Daniela just looked at me with extreme delight. She and I have a father-daughter relationship. When I'm in Perú, I take her, her cousin, sister, and friends to the beach, play centers, and to dinners and ice cream parlors. I taught Daniela to play the Spanish version of Scrabble and Monopoly, and chess.

Her older sister, Ruth (17), is our chaperone ;-)  ...just making sure that I'm not one of those... “pedophiles.” Of course, she knows better than that but it's better to be safe. I too felt safe because I didn't have to worry about being accused or suspected of anything. When I'm not in Perú, I call Ruth and Daniela to say hello and wire money. I don't know anything about Daniela's real father, other than some gossip I heard about his being a ladies man or a mac-daddy.

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that I have to be careful about the gifts that I buy for Daniela because members of her family will take it and sell it. I was flabbergasted and irked six months or so after I left Perú to learn that the brand new bicycle I bought for Daniela was sold by an adult member of her family. Now, I feel that the best I can do is just show Daniela the love I have for her with my time. As of this writing, she is approaching her 10th birthday. I told her that upon my return that I want to teach her pre-algebra and some English.

I'm very happy and honored to be that male figure to fill the void that Daniela needs in her life. I love her as though she were my own daughter, and I often tell her yo te amo, mija (my daughter, I love you).

Friday, August 10, 2012

I Will Miss Jairo Varela of Grupo Niche

Jairo Varela, Leader of Colombian salsa band
December 9, 1949-August 10, 2012

It was by accident as I was browsing the profile of a Facebook friend on my Spanish-speaking Facebook account when she had a background photo of Jairo Varela, with the words, 1949-2012. I've never felt such  intense grief for someone I never met personally. Jairo and his band Grupo Niche brought so much joy to my life with his music over the years. Long before the Internet, I used to buy his albums without hearing musical tracks and was never disappointed. It's one thing to enjoy the music, but being able to “feel” his music took my enjoyment to another level. I don't think Grupo Niche will be the same without Jairo Varela. rest in peace, my brother!

Don't Use Vayama for Cheap Travel!

The most common words on regarding Vayama are “Beware” and “Caution,” along with some profanity. 

In November of 2010, I made reservations for flights to Lima, Cartagena, Quito, and back to San Francisco. Vayama sold me the reservation, but left off my return flight back to San Francisco. When I called Customer Service, I was told that I would have to make another reservation because I did not catch the so-called error in time. Thus, to avoid being stranded in Quito, Ecuador, I had to resort to Travelocity to find a cheap fare back home.

Once I got back from my South American trip, I went to to warn others about Vayama, and found that there were many others complaining about this travel service. Eventually, the Vayama forum monitors on began deleting all posts  complaining about Vayama. They have people there who defend Vayana and claim those who are getting dirty deals are simply inexperienced travelers. Why aren't other on-line travel sites getting these levels of complaints as Vayama?

On, Vayama is averaging one and one-half stars. That's because only two or three people gave it more than three stars. One person upgraded it from one to two stars when Vayama made a settlement. Everyone else gave it one star to date. The most common words on Yelp regarding Vayama are“Beware” and “Caution,” along with some profanity.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Colombia's Black Slave Liberator

Benkos Biohó also known as Domingo Biohó, ancestor of the late Afro-Colombian singer, composer and drummer, Paulino Salgado Valdez, was the leader of runaway slaves Colombia during the 17th century. Said to have been born in what is now known as Guinea Bissau of Western Africa in the late 15th century, Biohó was captured by a Portuguese slave trader and sold to a Spanish businessman, then sold again to another Spaniard in 1596 in Cartagena, Colombia.

Biohó, a former African king,  escaped from the slave port of Cartagena with ten others  by boat and founded San Basilio de Palenque, the legendary village of rebel, runaways slaves in 1713. He organized a strong army pf more runaway slaves and formed an intelligence network that, eventually, the King of Spain gave up sending troops on what turned out to be useless attacks their heavily fortified mountain hideaway of rebel slaves, and San Basilio de Palenque earned their freedom from the Spanish more than 200 years before the rest of Colombia.

However, in 1619, while walking carelessly, Bioho was caught by the Spanish forces and hanged on March 16, 1621. By the end of the seventeenth century in the area of San Basilio de Palenque had over 600 black rebels, under the command of Domingo Padilla, who claimed for himself the title of captain while his wife Jane adopted that of viceroy..

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Visiting the Center-of-the-World; the Equator (Ecuador)


Standing on the equator, which is English for 'Ecuador,'  with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other foot in the Southern.

As a rule, when I travel, I avoid the tourist areas and as much as possible try to mingle with every common people of the country that I'm visiting; especially in a Latin American country. This is for the purpose of being totally immersed in the Spanish language and the cultures. And as Juan, a friend from Venezuela told me, the barrio (the hood) is where the real culture is. I believe it! However, when I visited Ecuador, I could not resist wanting to have my picture taken with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern.

Gloria, whom I met through a friend on Facebook became my friend and guide. We caught a bus in downtown Quito for a 40-minute ride to La Mitad del Mundo (the Center of the World), a major tourist attraction with restaurants, a planetarium,  a monument museum celebrating Ecuador's cultural diversity, including Afro-Ecuadorian, and plenty of shops selling souvenirs competing for tourist business. On weekends, there is a musical entertainment

Being that the equator runs through the Andes Mountains, it was not very hot. In fact, I was very comfortable wearing a long-sleeve shirt. It was so windy that my brand new panama hat I just purchased was blown off my head more than once.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Racially Profiled at Peruvian Border

It was in the Northern border town of Tumbes, Perú where I had just crossed over from Ecuador, where I spent the last six days, by private taxi. I was on my way back to El Carmen in Southern Perú to reunite with my extended family and goddaughter.

My cab entered a rough-looking area of town, and I felt a little concern for my safety. When I saw a Peruvian National Police (PNP) officer standing watch as we approached an intersection, I breathed a sigh of relief. As soon as he saw my black face and Ecuadorian license plates on my private taxi, he motioned for my driver to stop. This cop was so determined to bust an illegal alien that he called for backup to further scrutinize my documents. I just happened to be wearing my Obama t-shirt, and I told them that I work for Barack Obama, LOL. In a way, I do work for Obama considering that my company receives federal money to carry out government business. The officers got a little concerned and let me go without further questioning.

I just happened to be wearing my Obama t-shirt, and I told them that I work for Barack Obama, LOL.

It wasn't even another five minutes as I was on my way to their airport in Piura, Perú when my cab was stopped by yet another PNP officer. This dude seemed desperate for a bribe or bust, and I was irritated. Trying to hold my temper, I asked, what's the matter officer? He snapped, I want to see your passport, that's what's matter! Almost losing it, I snapped at him in Peruvian slang, ¡Despacio, mi español es monse! (slow down, man, my Spanish is whack).  My cab driver chuckled; I was not laughing! The officer was pleasantly surprised that I had a U.S. passport, but thinking it might be fake, he took my passport back to his patrol car to run a check. Once he learned that my passport and tourist card were valid, he began questioning me to see if my responses would be consistent with the data contained in those documents.

As he proceeded dejectedly toward his patrol car, I shouted “¡GRACIAS POR LA PRÁCTICA EN ESPAÑOL (Thank you for helping me practice my Spanish)!

Still not satisfied, he asked me what I was doing in Perú. I explained to him that, as a hobby, I explore black cultures in Spanish-speaking countries, and that I was staying with a reknown Afro-Peruvian family in El Carmen. The officer, at last, realized that he was wasting his time trying to make a bust (or collect a bribe). As he proceeded dejectedly toward his patrol car, I shouted “¡GRACIAS POR LA PRÁCTICA EN ESPAÑOL (Thank you for helping me practice my Spanish)! The cop responded with, "¡YA (meaning yeah, yeah, yeah!), My cab driver contained his laughter to avoid any more trouble.

The driver explained to me what was going on. I was suspected of being one of the many Africans who were involved with the drug trade. Many of them come to Perú and Ecuador to buy drugs to sell in Europe. And to show that he knew what he was talking about, he named specific African countries. A lady-friend in Ecuador confirmed this fact as she herself met and was romantically interested in a French-speaking African who turned out to be involved in drugs.