Monday, October 29, 2012

Peruvian Imitation of Mr. Jim Crow

El Negro Mamá 
(Dumb Black guy)

A White comedian by the name of T.D Rice in the 1820s wore a black face dancing and grinning, and masqueraded as a happy sambo making mockery of African-Americans in theaters by behaving in the stereotypical coon fashion. TD Rice became known as Jim Crow, setting off the rave of the times--the black face minstrel shows.

Thanks to Afro-Peruvian human rights activist Mónica Carrillo, a similar racist TV show was taken off the Peruvian airwaves, which promoted negative stereotypes of Afro-Peruvians. Mónica's organization, LUNDU, has received insults and even bomb threats for their role in eliminating this show. And to this day, I'm baffled why so many Peruvians insist that there is no racism in their country. The same day El Negro Mamá was taken off the air, LUNDU was celebrating the Day Against Racism by denouncing over 1000 racist news reports in the Peruvian media attacking Afro Peruvians with slurs such as "monkeys, gorillas, and baby maker stallions.

Comedian Jorge Benavides

The popular TV show El Negro Mamá was played by Peruvian comedian Jorge Benavides (above), who like T.D. Rice, donned black on his face playing the role of a mentally retarded, dingy thief, reinforcing stereotypes against Blacks. Benavides, a mestizo actor wearing a rubber mask playing the wild-haired character, sports silly clothes and speaks slowly with an exaggereated accent and bulging eyes. El Negro Mamá is not only portrayed as lazy and stupid but simmering with criminal intent. He is often involved in thievery, drug dealing and common thuggery and even occasionally a rape.

Mónica Carrillo, founder and leader of LUNDU, 
an Afro-Peruvian civil rights organization
So, what attracted me to Perú? As one who loves to explore the Black experience in Latin-American countries, while working to improve my Spanish; Perú was at the top of my list because of singers like Susana Baca and drummer/choreographer Rinaldo Campos who is the late founder of the internationally acclaimed dance troupe Perú Negro, Perú's answer to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of Harlem, not to mention the famous family of Amador Ballumbrosio, with whom I stayed on two of my trips. It was Afro-Peruvian singers, poets, and writers like Nicomedes Santa Cruz) who inspired my first trip to Perú.

Related Posts on Black Perú

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tipping Big in Latin-American Restaurants

O-h-h-h-h, my! I can image the surprise on the waiters face when he sees the 50% tip I left on the table at my favorite Mexican restaurant here in Oakland, CA---Mexicali Rose. I've been going to this restaurant for years, and in general, depending on the waiter or waitress, I generally leave nicer tips. I doubt if the any of the wait staff know why I leave larger tips. It's because they engage me in Spanish even though they may speak perfect English, such as the gentleman who waited on me today. It was only a $10.00 meal, and I searched my pockets to leave two or three dollars. When I noticed the smallest I had was a five, I said to myself, oh, squash it, and left him a five dollar tip.

I remember years back in San Francisco, I went into a Mexican restaurant, and the waitress was very nice when she approached my table. But when I ordered in Spanish, she responded loudly and indignantly in English as though something is inferior about the Spanish language. Her tone and demeanor sent a strong message to me that we are going to speak English. Needless to say, I did not tip her very well, if I tipped at all. I just don't remember for it was so long ago.

When I went home to New York City to visit, I made it a point to go into Mofongos, a Dominican Restaurant in the heavily populated Dominican community of Washington Heights, and was not only greeted with a smile, but in Spanish the minute I walked in the door. When I left, the waitress was extremely grateful for the tip I left, and I was grateful to her for giving me a lot of practice on my Spanish. I think everybody thought I was Latino in that restaurant. The background music of jazz, bachata, merengue, and salsa also contributed to my good mood.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fun Way to Improve My Spanish

Alberto of Chincha Alta, Perú

I can't think of anything more fun (as well as challenging) than learning to speak a new language in a country where that language is spoken, and to do it very inexpensively. During my last trip to South America, there were places, like Ecuador, where you can get private Spanish lessons for as little as five dollars per hour. Of course, you have to pay for your own flight to get there.

In 2009, I went to Chincha Alta, Perú and met Alberto who offered to help me with my Spanish for as little as 10 nueva soles per hour (about $3.50 USD). We spent three hours per day walking around the city, hanging out in the plaza, and dining in restaurants (on me). We spoke only Spanish. In fact, Alberto does not speak any English at all. Therefore, if I got stuck in interpretation, he and I had to work it out between ourselves. During the course of our conversations, Alberto would correct my grammar, stretch my vocabulary, and even teach me some Peruvian (or Latin-American) manners.

This learning-by-doing, or immersion, is the best way to improve your ability to speak any language. It's a fun experience as you gain better insight into cultures other than your own. However, I would not recommend an immersion program unless you've already had at least one year of classroom, individual, or private study in your language of choice; just my humble opinion if you want to get more bang for your buck..

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cartagena, Colombia and the “Blues”

Those dances were called "therapy" because of their ability to help people relax and free themselves from the economic problems of the country.

I just fell in love with new genre of music called champeta, which originated among Colombians of African decent in and around the city of Cartagena de las Indias, better known as simply Cartagena. Although, I was in Cartagena in 2010, I did not learn about champeta until recently (2012) when I met one of my new Facebook friends, Denís who who lives in Cartagena and explained a youtube video to me featuring this music.

Although, champeta is new to me, it was first used as a culture in the 1920s; identified as a dance in the 1970s, and as a musical genre in the 1980s. Before the 1920s, people in Cartagena's poor Black communities called it 'champetudo'. Like African-American blues, the upper class citizens used this designation as an attempt to devalue this vibrant culture and was associated it with vulgarity, poverty, and blackness, having a historical past marked with slavery and mistreatment.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Champeta culture became more visible at a national level in Colombia through a series of diverse and complex dances set to the rhythms of Caribbean music. Those dances were called "therapy" because of their ability to help people relax and free themselves from the economic problems of the country.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Father of “BLACK MEXICAN” History

Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán 

One day a couple from Vera Cruz, Mexico, was in my office . I was so surprised that they never knew that their hometown was once an entry port for over 500,000 African slaves. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the Mexicans I meet know nothing about their country being in the midst of the slave trade more than 100 years before the USA got involved.

In the USA, Carter G Woodson is known as the Father of Black History, however, in Mexico, I give that label to the late anthropologist and professor at the University of Vera Cruz, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán. Since 1492, the history of the Americas has been forged by three cultures: Indigenous, European, and African - the third root of all of the Americas, states Beltrán who was considered Mexico's foremost expert on the African influence on Mexican culture. Not generally taught in history books is that during the colonial era, there were more Africans than Europeans in Mexico, according to Aguirre Beltrán's pioneering book, La Población Negra en México (The Black Population in Mexico), published in 1946.

Where are the Black people today, you might ask. Note that, unlike the USA, interracial marriage was never outlawed in Mexico or any other Latin-American country. After more than 500 years of interracial marriages and birth of mixed children of Indigenous, European, and African heritage, a new ethnicity was created. However, in Mexico's states of Vera Cruz where Beltrán was born, and the states Guerrero, Coahuila, and Oaxaca, there are still visible remnants of Mexico's Black Heritage.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Havana City Slickers

I grew up in New York City, so I know a hustler when I see one. I don't care if I'm in Tokyo, Montreal, or Havana; a hustler is a hustler, and they give off the same vibes that is instantly recognizable--usually!. At the time of my Havana visit, I only brought $250 worth of spending money to last me two weeks. This was money for souvenirs, dating, and entertainment. Although, I was successful stretching my money to last a couple of weeks, I only had $10 in my pocket when I arrived at Havana's José Martí International airport heading back to Mexico City, before catching my flight back to Oakland, where I now live. Because Cuba does not recognize American banks, I could not use a credit card or an ATM until I arrived in Mexico.

Many of the Havana hustlers, or jineteros (pronounced Hee-neh-teh-rohs), as they are called in Cuba, are Black like me. However, they viewed me as a rich tourist first and a Black man second. All I could do was play with their minds when they approached me with their little games. I even got to the point where every time a jinetero would approach me, I would say something like, ¿qúe bolá? ¡Quiero ser jinetero como tú, asere! (what's up, I want to be a hustler like you, man).  They would always give me a nice little chuckle and move on.

The most interesting case of my being hustled, and not knowing it was when I hired Ernesto, a Black bicycle-taxi driver with whom I began to establish rapport and get advice on things to do about town. I'd arrange for him to pick me up at certain places at certain times. One day, as he was taking me to my Spanish language intensive class at the University of Havana, he told me that this Wednesday night, there was going to be a birthday party for his little niece. He also told me that he wanted to introduce me to a nice woman. He even introduced me to someone whom he claimed to be his brother, and his brother looked at me as though I were a gold mine; a Black gold mine, thus easier pickings.

Wednesday evening came around, and I forgot all about this little party as I was with Luisa, an attractive woman whom I met the first day I arrived in Havana. As Luisa and I returned from a local restaurant, heading back to her house, we ran into Ernesto who had just stopped by the place where I was staying. He was visibly annoyed. His so-called brother was in the car with a group of other guys driven by one of Ernesto's friends. It certainly looked like a set-up. They wanted to party hearty with plenty of food and liquor at my expense.

When I returned to the place I was staying, which was across the street from Luisa's apartment complex, I was told by several house-hosts that it is very unusual for anyone in Cuba to have a party for a child on a Wednesday night, and they vehemently warned me about fooling around with jineteros, people who hustle foreigners, most of whom have regular jobs, white and blue collar, and moonlight hustling tourists. This is big business in Havana

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Message to My Blog Readers

I recently attempted to make a comment on another blog and was appalled at the hoops I had to jump through. Although, I can understand the purpose of CAPTCHAS (or Word Verification) to prove that I'm not a robot, CAPTCHAS go too far in making their characters so difficult to read that I had to make four or five attempts before I was successful getting through.

I'm one of the few bloggers that consistently engage my readers by accepting and responding to comments. Thus, I checked my own system and disabled my CAPTCHA (Word Verification) feature to make it easy for you to post your comments.

My first line of defense against spam is that all comments are first e-mailed to me for approval. As long as it is not spam, I will post your comments right away.

W Bill Smith

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Afro-Peruvians and the “N” Word

In my first trip to Perú, I visited the predominately black District of El Carmen where I engaged in conversation with a young man who, like everyone else in the district, speaks no English. He appeared Afro-centric as he was wearing a woolen cap with Africa written across the front. He looked at me curiously and asked, ¿Nicao? I said, ¿como? (huh?). He repeated, ¿Nicao? 

I finally realized that he was trying to say nigga and was wondering if he was pronouncing it correctly.  I explained to him what a lot of African-Americans simply don't get; this is not a word we want to identify ourselves with and should not be in our vocabulary. He thoroughly understood. However, I was not surprised, but at the same time, very surprised that the word nigga made it down to this sleepy, friendly District of El Carmen in Southern Perú.     

Then there is Tía, a teenage daughter of a good Afro-Peruvian friend in Lima, who is a diehard fan of hip-hop and seem to have adopted the word nigga the same way a lot of clueless African-Americans do. I nicely told her once before  about the use of that word, but she too is hooked. Below is one of her Facebook threads among some Afro-Peruvian friends:

Tía:  Amo a mi loca familia, Niggas (I love my crazy family, Niggas)
W Bill Smith:  SMH, LOL!
Tía:  “Like”
Xiomara:  Niggas are the best and you know it my sistah!
Rayza:  Tú con tus niggas y yo aquí con los mios (You with yo' niggas and I'm here with mine.

:::::::Sigh::::::: I don't know whether to laugh or go off!

In my opinion, these hip-hop artists are aiding the media in delivering negative stereotypes of the African-American community to the whole world, and at the same time, are winning over a lot of wannabes as their fan base continues to expand. I've even overheard young Asian guys and White guys referring to each other as niggaz because, thanks to hip-hop, they think it's cool.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Argentina Officially Recognizes Black Heritage

Argentina's Chamber of Deputies of the Province, the lower house of Argentina's congress, approved October 11 as the day of Afro-Argentine Culture. This initiative was driven by Afro-Argentine organizations, which claimed this day to commemorate Black culture. Ricardo Martínez, of the Black cultural group La Cabunda de Ensenada, said this day culminates 150 years of struggle for a law favoring recognition for what Blacks have done for Argentina, particularly her liberation and her defense against British invasion. This day was selected in homage to María Remedios del Valle, Black captain of Argentina's Northern Army, which one major battles in Argentina's war of independence. 

Black Argentines, not only fought for Argentina, but for other Latin American countries, like Chile and Perú in exchange for their freedom.
More on this if you can read Spanish...

Learning Latin-American Manners

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


My late Mexican-American friend, Yolanda, once told me, Bill, if you are going to speak Spanish, learn the culture! I agreed because every country has their culture and customs, and we grow as human beings by familiarizing ourselves with those cultures and customs in a world that is getting smaller by the minute.

 In the fall of 2009, I  remember walking into a store in Southern Perú, and couldn't understand why the store owner was getting an attitude. You would think that she would be delighted that I'm spending money in her store versus the other store down the street. But when I finished my transaction and left, someone from the community who has been observing me, stopped me. In Spanish, and in his own Peruvian manner, he said to me, “señor, come hear and let me holler at you for a minute. When you go into a place of business, he continued, you greet people with buenos días, buenas tardes, or buenas noches first, then you discuss whatever business you want to handle. And when you're done, you say permiso (an informal way of saying, “excuse me, gotta run”).

 I never forgot those words of advice. In my 2010 trip to Mexico City, I tried what this Peruvian man told me on a group of Mexican nationals at the airport. Lo and behold, I had trouble  convincing them that I'm American, and not Cuban, because I put into practice a Latin American custom I had just learned. To this day, when I approach a Latin-American or go into a Latin-American place of business, I apply the same greeting, whether I'm in Colombia, Panamá, or a Latin-American community here in Oakland. There is more I need to learn and am waiting to be schooled.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Columbus Day Fallacy

Closed for 
 Indigenous Peoples Day
(Columbus Day)

I do pro-bono consulting work at career center in Oakland, CA. As I stopped in today, I was appalled to learn they were closed for Columbus Day. With the serious financial problems this agency, and so many other city, state, and federal agencies are having, why do they continue offering a 'paid' holiday in honor of an invader, murderer, and robber of the Americas? Fascinating! The last time I worked for an agency that took this day off, I posted a sign on the front door with a picture of a Native American with these exact words, closed for Indigenous Peoples Day (Columbus Day).

We were taught in school that Columbus discovered the Americas, but there were people already living here. People who were forced into slavery. So many of these people died from overwork and disease, that Queen Isabella of Spain authorized the African slave trade. As a result, more Africans went to Latin-America than the USA.

Salsa in the Hood

It was at Cosmos Night Club, a hole-in-the-wall salsa club in East Oakland's Fruitvale District where an African-American man was routinely and intensely checking on his wife who worked there as a cocktail waitress. He wanted to know why I was there every Friday and Saturday night. This is little Tijuana, he uttered in contempt. He then looked me in the eye and asked, you are not one of those Black Puerto Ricans, are you? I explained to him that I grew up in what used to be the salsa music capital, New York City (Now, it's Cali, Colombia). He simply could not believe a brotha could be this deep into Latin music, and thus, did not buy into my story. He accused me of fooling around with his wife or scheming to do so.

This poor, insecure man did not understand that I'm from an entirely different world. My first exposure to Latin music was during my childhood through a New York City radio station, WWRL, which directed it's programming toward young Blacks. The song El Watusi by the late, great Ray Barretto was a #1 hit on this R&B station for weeks, and thus, gave me my first taste of Latin music.

Other Latino artists who also got airplay on WWRL or simply 'RL, as we called it back in the day, was Joe Cuba, Hector Rivera, and Willie Colón who is still active in the salsa music scene today. With the exception of the big hit, El Watusi, all the Latin songs played on 'RL were in English. Then, of course, there were Puerto Ricans like Hector Rivera and Ralphi Pagán who sang straight-up R&B love songs.

In high school, I noticed a lot of African-Americans listening and dancing to Latin music, and others walking around singing the chorus, I'll Never Go Back to Georgia, from one of Joe Cuba's greatest hits. Rumor has it that Joe felt inspired to write this song when he passed through the State of Georgia before integration and thought he'd be cut some slack because he is Puerto Rican. Those dixiecrats allegedly gave him the same treatment as African-Americans.

There was another radio station, WBLS, which directed its programing towards a mature African-American audience. This Inner City Broadcasting station was owned by former Tuskeegee Airmen and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, who by the way, spoke at my graduation at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School in East Harlem. WBLS focused on jazz, and included Latin jazz artists such as Willie Bobo, Eddie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto.

One afternoon, a cool brotha from the hood, turned me onto this album, and to this day, I'm a fan!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Latino Haters

What is it?... Whatever you might want it to be!
What is it?... Why you wanna hate on me?
What is it?... I ain't even trippin' dog!
What is it?... I mo' show you how to fall! 
                                                             -- Frontline, 2003

An overwhelming majority of the e-mails and comments I get regarding my blog posts are positive, uplifting, and most of all, appreciative. However, every now and then, I get harsh correspondence from non-Black Latino haters who have stereotypical issues with the African-American community and/or feel because I'm African-American that I should only be listening to hip-hop and not bachata, eating collard greens and not pupusas, or reading the works Langston Hughes and not Nicolás Guillen. 

In other words, I must hate being African-American or simply bored with my own ethnicity for me to be learning Spanish and exploring Latin-American cultures. I can only suspect that these haters have had bad experiences with a few African-Americans, casting an evil shadow on the rest of us. Life has taught me that in every community, regardless of color or ethnicity, you will meet the open-minded and the closed minded, the well-informed and the ignorant.

I received one anonymous message from a hater who went on to say how we Blacks are a mess and that he does not want to be associated with Black people, even though he has a Black Haitian grandmother. After making his remarks, he left his e-mail address in case I wanted to debate him. I not only responded to his comment on my blog, I sent him two e-mails taking him up on his offer of a debate; thinking that I might learn something, or at least, expand on my awareness. He never responded.

A Puerto Rican man from Minnesota complained about a museum in San Juan that is dedicated to Puerto Ricans of African ancestry. He felt the museum should be dedicated to the Spanish and the French. I reminded him that if he did not want to celebrate Black heritage that there are many more museums on the island that specifically excludes Black Puerto Ricans. His only response was about the young, fatherless African-American males he observed walking and holding their crotches at the same time. He too declined to debate me on his stereotypes. He did not want to hear about the respectable African Americans who actually are hard working, studious, and family oriented. If I can only get him to visit my church where there are Black professionals, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and of course, spiritual leaders.

Then there was Alvaro, a former co-worker from Chile who made negative comments about Blacks in the ghetto saying they don't read. My mind went back to the days when I was growing up in the largest ghetto in the US, Harlem, NY, when I acquired my first library card at the age of nine. These libraries were well-patronized. Even my fifth-grade teacher, Ms Lawson, made everyone in class not only get a library card, but stroked us by putting stars next to our names on the bulletin board every time we finished reading a book, and mind you, this was a “public” school. 

My supervisor twisted Alvaro's arm to apologize, shake hands, and make up, but because Alvaro could not articulate a rationale for painting all Blacks with the same brush, I called him on his insincerity and dismissed him. 

Unlike Alvaro, most hateful Latinos I've met, seldom ever make these comments to Black people directly, unless it is behind the shield of the Internet. Alvaro seemed to have felt because I speak some Spanish and often travel to Latin American countries that I was not “Black” enough to be offended. Even his country, Chile, has a history of Black heritage due to slavery (see my blog post African Heritage in Chile). 

It is of my humble opinion that good, honest communication with an open mind can solve a lot of these hateful issues.

Monday, October 1, 2012

October 2--National Day of Black Ecuadorians

In an effort to raise awareness of Afro-Ecuadorian culture as well as political and economic issues, Black communities in Ecuador organized the Afro-Ecuadorian Cultural Week in Quito, the nations capital, in October 1997. That same year, the Ecuadorian National Congress declared October 2 to be the National Day of Black Ecuadorians. During the festival, leaders introduced a proposal to improve the economic, political and cultural status of Ecuador's Black communities.

Slave ships first arrived in Ecuadorian ports in 1553 for work on plantations and in gold mines. Although slavery was abolished at the time of Ecuador's independence from Spain in 1822, the descendents of enslaved Africans continued to suffer the consequences of that socio-economic system. One of the first Afro-Ecuadorian organizations, Asociacion de Negros Ecuatorianos (Association of Black Ecuadorians), was founded in 1988 to reassert Afro-Ecuadorian dignity.

In 2006 the existence of Blacks in Ecuador was brought to center stage when it was revealed that two-thirds of the Ecuadorian World Cup soccer team was of African descent.

According to the 2001 census, Afro-Ecuadorian population is 604,009, or 5 per cent of the total population. However, Afro-Ecuadorian organizations argue that this number is inaccurate due to problems with self-classification (there are Blacks who don't consider themselves Black). They estimate Ecuador's black population at ten per cent, living mostly in the northern coastal province of Esmeraldas and in the south-central coastal region. About two-thirds of Afro-Ecuadorians now live in urban zones. Although Afro-Ecuadorians have distinct cultural traditions, there is little recognition of their contribution to Ecuadorian society. In 1998, a government agency was created to address issues facing the Black population. In 2006 the existence of Blacks in Ecuador was brought to center stage when it was revealed that two-thirds of the Ecuadorian World Cup soccer team was of African descent. This was the first time in history that Ecuador qualified for the World Cup.

Black activists have been effective in advocating for rights for Black Ecuadorians as well as raising consciousness among this group. Key umbrella organizations such as the National Afro-Ecuadorian Confederation and the National Coordinator of Black Women have had a presence in domestic politics as well as international policy circles. Afro-Ecuadorian women's organizations have been particularly effective, raising other important issues to address the specific concerns of black women. This has included the elaboration of innovative programs related to health, violence, work conditions, and self esteem among Afro-Ecuadorian women.

Song, Dance, & the Spanish Guitar

When I started this blog about my exposure to the Latino world, I didn't mean to include Spain. My primary focus was on Afro-Latinos from Puerto Rico, all the way down to Argentina. However, because Spain is the mother country of Latin-America, and because I have a musical appreciation for the Spanish guitar, I started taking a personal interest in flamenco, a genre of song, dance, and the Spanish guitar from Andalusia in southern Spain.

As a salsa dancer wanting to add new dance moves to my repertoire, I got together with Jesús, an Afro-Cuban dancer to teach me some basic rumba moves. In doing so, he shared some history that made perfect sense; rumba was born when the music of West African slaves merged with Spanish flamenco in Cuba. It's the result of a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar, as Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso puts it.

Just recently, I went to my second flamenco performance directly from Spain at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, and like the first performance, I felt moved and connected to the music. This time, the performance contained a whole family following the tradition of their Gypsy ancestors. One of the young boys in the group seemed to be imitating Michael Jackson to flamenco rhythms. Either that, or Michael Jackson incorporated some flamenco moves into his dance repertoire. Although, I could enjoy the Spanish guitar as background music. I have not yet reached a point where I can just sit and listen flamenco on CD and enjoy it the way I enjoy a live performance. I've tried.