Monday, December 31, 2012

African Influence on Mexican Culture

 One day, in my San Francisco office, there was Mexican couple seeking assistance in their job search. In my usual attempt to establish rapport with clients, I learned that they were from Mexico's Port of Vera Cruz. This really piqued my interest because there is a town in the province of Vera Cruz that I want to visit that was created by a Black runaway slave named Gaspar Yanga. This couple not only never heard of Yanga, but never knew that the Port of Vera Crux was an entry port for more than 500,000 African slaves who were scattered throughout Mexico and Central America between 1519, the invasion of Cortez. and 1810, the year of Mexico's independence from Spain..

Writer Jameelah S Muhammad in the book, “No Longer Invisible: Afro Latin Americans Today” by Minority Rights Press, the African presence in Mexico is a subject often denied, but people of African descent have influenced every aspect of Mexican life, culture, and history. They participated in the discovery and conquest, exploring unknown territories, and establishing communication between the indigenous peoples and the Spanish. Jameelah also added that Black people were not only crucial to colonial Mexico's economy (then known as New Spain), but made it the most successful in colonial Spanish America. Even during the Mexican revolution, Blacks maintained a high-profile in the ranks of Mexico's revolutionary forces.

This reminds me of the day I struck up a conversation with a Mexican woman in a restaurant. When she told me that she was from Mexico's state of Guerrero, my heart went out to her because I'm an admirer of Mexico's first Black president and liberator Vicente Guerrero for whom her home state was named. I was so surprised that she never heard of Vicente Guerrero who was born to an African slave mother and a peasant Mestizo father.

In fact, many Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals I talk to are not aware of the heavy Black presence during Mexico's early years. According to anthropologist and professor at Mexico's University of Vera Cruz, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, Black Mexicans made up 71% of the non-Indigenous population while the Spanish represented the remainder. Unlike the USA, where interracial marriage was illegal, Blacks over the centuries intermarried, shacked, and made love with the Spanish and the Indigenous population, which explains the considerably diminished Black population.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Leading Black Ecuadorian Poet

Antonio Preciado Bedoya, born in Esmeraldas, Ecuador in 1941, is the leading black Ecuadorian poet. He is currently Ecuador's Minister of Culture, and is a politically committed contributor to multiculturalism in Ecuadorian literature. His work reinvents the heritage of poor, oral black poets and contributes a sympathetic view to further support the ideas of Franz Fanon, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King.

Barrio de los negros de calles oscuras     
Black ghetto of dark streets bursting with spooks
preñadas de espantos que llevan, que asustan que paran los pelos
that carry, that frighten that make hairs stand
en noches sin luna          
on moonless nights

Barrio encendido de noche y de día           
Inflamed ghetto by night and day
infierno moreno envuelto en las llamas          
black hell enveloped in the flames
de son y alegría
 of rhythm and happiness 

~~Antonio Preciado Bedoya

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Spanish-Speakers and Smarty-Pants


I've been told many times by friends and relatives that I can practice my Spanish in Oakland's Spanish-speaking Fruitvale District or in San Francisco's Mission District. Not true! Although I've made it my business to shop and dine in these areas, I often run into bilingual smarty-pants who want to answer me in English, such as in the Mexican restaurant that I frequent where the cashier, who sounds American born but speaks very good Spanish. She appears more comfortable speaking to me in English, and Spanish to those who fit the stereotypical Latino profile. I say stereotypical because real Latinos come in many colors, including Black, and not just Brown. I think she got the message, when I simply addressed her co-workers in Spanish when placing my order instead of talking to her.

However, I found myself being as smart alecky as this cashier when I'm traveling to Spanish-speaking countries because my primary motive for being in those countries in the first place is to be totally immersed in the Spanish language. I'll never forget my first day in Havana, Cuba when I was on a bicycle tour of the city with a group of Americans. A Black Cuban rode up beside me and struck up a conversation in English. I felt so indignant that I made it my business to be the all-too-familiar smart-ass by consistently responding in Spanish. Finally, out of frustration, he asked me to stop responding in Spanish because he is trying to practice his English. Feeling compassion from being in similar situations myself, I complied with his request. Fortunately, I run into very few people whose English is better than my Spanish during my Latin-American travels. 

Here in the US, many Latinos (and African-Americans) think it is odd to hear a Black person speak Spanish. Little do they know that in the Western world, there are more Black Spanish-speakers than English-speakers. I've observed African-Americans and US Latinos reacting humorously when they hear me speak Spanish. A Black co-worker of mine accused me of wanting to be Mexican. On the other hand, there was an incident in Ecuador where I was on an intercity bus with a lot of Black Ecuadorian passengers with whom I struck up a conversation. A Mestizo woman overheard me telling them that I grew up in New York City, and asked me a question in English. When I responded in English just to entertain the Black Ecuadorians, they roared with laughter like they never heard a Black person speak English before. The need for cultural enlightenment goes both ways!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Avoiding American Culture While Traveling

A page from Colombia's version of Ebony Magazine, which 
I picked up from in a Black owned shop in Cartagena.
REVISTA ÉBANO (Ebony Magazine)

 One evening, about 11 P.M. in Cancún, México, a cab driver dropped a group us African-Americans and one Latina at a hotel as we were spending the night before catching our flight to Havana, Cuba the next day.  As we were entering the hotel, we heard loud rap music coming from a restaurant inside. I thought this gesture by the restaurant management was so stereotypical. If I wanted to hear African-American music, I could have stayed in Oakland where I live. My purpose for travel, especially to a Spanish-speaking country, is to learn the culture of the country I'm visiting.

However, I notice during my discussion with other travelers, many prefer to go to beaches, tourist attractions, visit night clubs to hear American music, and meet other Americans. Although I respect their interests and personal preferences, I'm always quick to assert the fact that I generally avoid tourist areas and anything American. In fact, I generally avoid other English speakers, like I did in Cuba, even though I went with a group. Every chance I got, I ventured away from the group and entered deep into the Havana community. Being able to speak, read, and write enough Spanish to get around and mix with the locals made all of my Latin-American trips that much more interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is It Just My Imagination?

When I first met my goddaughter Daniela during my first trip to Perú, she was only 3 years old. It seemed to be an instant connection between the two of us. I will always remember the exhilarating wave of goodbye and the smile that she gave me as I headed back to the US. It would be another four years before I'd see her again, but I never forgot her. While back in the US, I've called from time to time to say hello and hear her voice. By the time she turned five, she would always ask when I was coming. She even asked if she could be my daughter, which to me was very fulfilling. From that day forth, I referred to her as my goddaughter, but in Perú, I refer to her as mi niña (my child). Her family gets a good laugh when I say that because they, not Daniela, know who her real father is. I generally wire money to her family with my motive being to benefiting Daniela. She was always excited and uplifted when I'd call.

I will never forget my first return to Perú when Daniela was seven, and the loving, ecstatic greeting she gave me. We used to go places holding hands like father and daughter, along with her friends and members of her family.

Today, the rapport that I have with Daniela is not as close as before. On my last trip, the excitement was no longer there, although I could still see it in her eyes. I don't know if she is just getting older (10) and more reserved, like her older sister (17), or is her family planting seeds reminding her that I am not family, only a gringo from America with a pocket full of money. It was strikingly strange for Daniela to hustle me into buying gifts for family members that they don't plan to use, like the bicycle I bought, per her request that ended up being sold by a family member. I was already warned by a Peruvian-American whose exact words were, those people are living in abject poverty and are strictly about the benjamins, moron! Time will tell! Meanwhile, I still feel unconditional love for Daniela, and hopefully, this is just my imagination.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Black Argentine Tango Composer

Enrique Maciel
 Guitarist and Tango composer 

Enrique Maciel born  to an Afro Argentine family in Buenos Aires, July 13, 1897 was a versatile and sensitive composer, lyricist, pianist, and guitarist, which identified him permanently in the memory of tango listeners. Maciel received his early musical instruction in a local parochial school, and his first public performance was in 1915. His first tango, "Presentación," remains unpublished. He joined small groups acting in houses and dance halls, touring the provinces.

In 1920, he along with a poet, released their collaboration with the tango "La Tipa." Enrique became a contractual guitarist with RCA-Victor. Maciel's skill as a pianist earned him the tripling of an otherwise modest salary. His first new tango under this arrangement was “Grief.”

In 1925, Macial with other musicians formed a popular group, which received a lot of airplay on Argentine radio, particularly on Radio Buenos Aires. The group gradually fell out of favor with listeners, and the group disbanded during the 1950s.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Greatest Exponent of Peru's Black Culture

Nicomedes Santa Cruz 
 Born June 4, 1925 
February 5, 1992

 Born in Lima, Peru's, rough La Victoria District, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, the ninth of ten siblings, was the greatest exponent of black culture in Peru. He was the first poet to treat black issues highlighting the important and unequivocal contribution of Blacks to Peruvian society. Santa Cruz was an Afro-Peruvian musician who, in the 1950s, began helping to raise public awareness of Afro-Peruvian culture.

After finishing school he decided to work as a blacksmith, which he did until 1956 when he began his calling of reviving Afro-Peruvian folklore through a theater company that he and his wife, Victoria, organized, and through radio broadcasts and collaborations with Peruvian daily newspapers Expreso and El Comercio as well as other publications.

Santa Cruz made his theater debut in 1957 in a show called Black Rhythms of Peru. During his travels, he continued to participate in events promoting Afro-Peruvian folklore, notably his address at the first Black Arts Festival, held in Cañete, a heavily populated black area in Southern Lima, in August 1971. In 1974 he traveled for the first time to the African continent, specifically Dakar, Senegal, where  he lectured in the Afro-Latino symposium on Black Peruvian folklore. He later traveled to Cuba and México, participating in a series of television programs, as well as later trips to Japan, Colombia, Cuba, and Panamá.

In 1980 he moved to Madrid, where he lived until his death, working as a radio journalist. He died of lung cancer on February 5, 1992. His birthday, June 4, has since 2006 been celebrated as a Day of Afro-Peruvian Culture. The Peruvian hip-hop group Comité Pokoflo released a tribute song to Nicomedes in their mixtape El Grito.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Is it Un-American to Speak Another Language?

 What is so UN-American about
speaking two, four or six languages?

Years ago, I went to a language-learning workshop in San Francisco, California and the instructor shared a joke he heard while in Europe. He asked, what do you call a person who speaks several languages? We answered multilingual. He then asked, what do you call a person who speaks two languages? We answered, bilingual. Finally he asked, what do you call a person who speaks only one language? We answered, monolingual. He said no, an American!

Yes, I had a good laugh, but what is even more interesting is the number of children of immigrants from Latin America, Europe, and Africa that I've met personally whose parents did not permit their children to learn their native tongue because they wanted their children to be real Americans. What the hell have these people been smoking?

What is so UN-American about the ability to speak two, four, or six languages? I myself was born and raised in the USA to African-American parents. My father and I both served this country in foreign wars. Yet, I have been knocking myself out for years trying to master a second language, Spanish, and am also able to greet and meet in more than six other languages. Does this make me any less American? I don't think so!

One day, I went to a dry cleaners where the owner, an elderly woman of Mexican-American ancestry, told me that she didn't learn to speak Spanish until she was in her 40s. Her motive was to get reconnected with her original culture. Unfortunately, her parents didn't want her speaking Spanish in the home. They insisted on English-only so she can be a fully indoctrinated American. 

One of my fellow church members of Castillian Spanish ancestry asked me why I was learning Spanish. His tone of voice indicated to me that there is something wrong with the language. To date, I've traveled to nine Spanish-speaking countries being totally immersed in the language and still don't see any reason why Spanish has such a bad rap among so many native speakers here in the US.

I strongly believe that mastery of more than one language helps us to expands our consciousness, awareness, and compassion in many ways. Here are the Top 10 reasons of Learning a Foreign Language. 

Let's remember from our history books, Spanish was spoken in what is now known as the United States of America long before the United States of America was born. This precious language stuck with our nation through the centuries, which means Spanish is as American as cherry pie.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Who's Planting the Racial Seeds?

While waiting at the checkout line in a store one evening, I engaged in a conversation with an El Salvadorean woman, and her child who could not have been more the 6 years old. The little girl asked me, what is a black guy doing speaking Spanish? I can tell by her warm demeanor that she did not mean any harm. In fact, the minute she saw me, she gave me a friendly, but curious gaze. Although, her mother calmly scolded her for making that comment, I high-fived the child wondering who planted the racial seed in her heart. In any event, I would love for this little girl to meet my goddaughter Daniela who is Black and speaks Spanish only!
On another occasion when I used to do recruiting for a federally sponsored job-training program for youth a young Latina came into my office with her mother who did not speak any English. Out of fearful concern for her daughter, she asked me if there were a lot of Blacks in this institution. I just bit my lip to keep from laughing. The mother must have thought I was “different” because we were speaking Spanish (LOL).
Fortunately, her daughter was not concerned and obviously did not buy into the racial prejudice of her mother. She went into the training program and got along well with everyone, regardless of color.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ebonics in Latin America

About a week before my last South American trip, I got into a discussion with a co-worker telling her how well I function in a Spanish-only environment but found Latin-American Ebonics to be a major challenge. Surprised, she remarked that she didn't know they speak Ebonics in Spanish-speaking countries? I explained to her that wherever there was a slave trade, there was a reflective dialect among the Blacks living in those respective countries, be it in English, French, Dutch, or Portuguese. In the USA, we call it Ebonics.

One of my Black Facebook friends in the Dominican Republic posted a message, which I knew was not standard Spanish. It reminded me of the Spanish I heard growing up near Spanish Harlem and the South Bronx of New York City, where she too once lived. Facetiously, I posted in response, ¿Ebónicos (Ebonics)? She clicked “Like” and responded, yes, it's Dominican Ebonics?

My brother and I, who have travel experience in Spanish-speaking countries, got into a conversation about being able to communicate with upper and lower class people, and in my case, the Black people in the countries I've visited. My brother speaks just enough Spanish to squeeze by in a Spanish-speaking country whereas I'm more functional. He tells me that the impoverished people can understand him but the upper class people cannot.

In my case, I can understand the upper class, educated people much better than I can understand the everyday working people of the Spanish-speaking countries I've visited. However, because I make it a point to be around Blacks to immerse myself in Afro-Latino cultures, I find myself struggling to understand because they speak so fast and chop their words into itsy-bitsy pieces. However, I  find that they can understand me pretty well. They never ask me to repeat as much as I ask them to repeat.

Imagine someone who is learning English and can comprehend a statement like, I want some eggs, but can they understand the Ebonic translation of  Ah wont me som' ayggs? This is what I deal with when I'm listening to Spanish Ebonics, or what my brother calls poverty Spanish.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ecuadorian Woman Proposes to Me

I'll call her Yola (not her real name). She's an attractive woman who lives in Ecuador's predominately Black City of Esmeraldas, a city on my list of places to visit and experience the Black heritage, and learn more about their Black writers and poets llike Nelson Estumpiñan Bass and Antonio Preciado Bedoya. Yola often posts gorgeous pictures of herself on Facebook with her blackberry, and I would often flirt because of it. I heard through the grapevine that she liked me, and I even toyed with the idea of bringing her back to the US or even staying with her in Ecuador where the cost of living is so cheap that you can live comfortably off a social security check. In fact, Ecuador is considered one of the best places in the world to retire.

Well, after more than three years of Facebook friendship, Yola pops the expected proposal, telling me that she wants me to bring her to the US. I've always been suspicious of foreign women when it comes to relationships as I've been approached by women from 10 different countries, including India, of all places, who wanted to marry me for a green card. In fact, I have developed a special line for foreign women who express a serious interest in me. If they are up front telling me they just want a green card, I charge $100K. No one is going to pay me that kind of money so the conversation ends. In Yola's case, I told her that I would like to stay in Ecuador with her so she can be with her family, and I too will be a part of her family. She became very quiet. What else is new...?