Friday, June 28, 2013

Roots of Mexico's Black Population


Since grade school, I was under the impression that the first African slaves who arrived in America in 1619 were the 20 or so slaves from Angola who stepped ashore in Jamestown, VA. What they did not teach us in grade school was that by 1609, 11 years before the Mayflower, the first black-ruled town in North America was granted its status as a self-governing municipality by Spain. This town is called Yanga in Mexico's state of Veracruz where a statue of its founder, Gaspar Yanga, a former runaway African slave, graces the town square today.

According to the historian Herman Bennett in his book, Africans in Colonial Mexico, the Black population was equal to, if not more than, the Spaniards throughout Mexico, then known as New Spain. And in the State of Veracruz, African descendants made up of 63% of the non-indigenous population. By 1810, the year Mexico declared her independence from Spain, there were 624,000 free Blacks making up10% of the total population, and making Mexico the second-largest slave nation, and the largest nation with free black population in the Western world.

Mexico's Black population traditionally was concentrated along its two coasts, one around the port of Veracruz (where most of the slaves landed) on the Gulf of Mexico, and the other in a district known as the Costa Chica, on the Pacific Ocean near Acapulco. The primary reason why the Black presence in Mexico today is not as plentiful as during the colonial era is because of interracial marriages over a period of over 500 years, which unlike the USA, were never outlawed. Many Mexicans and Mexican=Americans would deny that they have any strain of African blood. According to the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York City, 75% of Mexican people has a Black great grandmother/father in their closets. There is more to Mexican culture than the Spanish and the Indigenous; there is the African--the third root.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why Am I Not Considered “Black” All of a Sudden?

 I'm in the back (2nd from right) with members of a Black 
family in El Carmen, Perú, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture

My Spanish is far from perfect, but apparently good enough to make some Latin-American people think that I too might be Latin-American. When I was in Perú, for example, I got into a conversation with an Afro-Peruvian who thought that I was from his home state (province) because of a t-shirt that I was wearing. When he picked up on my foreign accent, he just assumed that I was from another Spanish speaking country, perhaps Panamá. He was so surprised when I told him that I'm African American.

Many Latinos living here in the US question me in Spanish as to whether I'm Puerto Rican or Cuban as my Spanish speaking accent has a Caribbean flavor. In fact, a Puerto Rican whom I met recently actually thought that I was Puerto Rican. When I say that I'm an American, they then ask where I was born, still trying to probe for Latin-American roots. I tell them St. Louis, MO. Then they ask where are my parents from. I tell them Florida and Missouri, LOL. Finally, they give up and realize that I'm really American born and raised, and that I just happened to be exposed to the Spanish language, and salsa music during my New York City upbringing. .

However, one day I came to work, and an African-American co-worker asked me to clarify my ethnicity. She wanted to know where I'm originally from because a couple of Latino co-workers who heard me speak Spanish told her that I am not “Black.” The two Latinos, a male and female who made this statement, burst out laughing when I explained to my African-American co-worker that Latin-Americans come in all colors. The female (Latina) asked me sarcastically, red and blue too? How is it that my skin color automatically changes just because I can rattle off some Spanish?

Friday, June 21, 2013

An Awesome Travel Network for People of Color

I was at a party when I got into a conversation about my travels to Canada, nine Latin American countries, and four Asian countries, and the first question out of their mouths were, wow, were you in the service? Why is it that the only way I can travel is through military service? A woman, added, how else could I have traveled? Duhhh, I make reservations, hop on a plane, and fly! There seems to be an assumption that if you are Black, you don't travel. Yes, I was in the service, but only four of the 14 countries to which I traveled were service related. 

It was five years ago when I stumbled upon a very active travel group on Yahoo made up of Blacks from around the world,  and suddenly, the traffic among its members slowed to a complete halt. I posted a message inquiring of everyone's whereabouts, and that's when I learned that members have been defecting to Nomadness Travel Tribe on Facebook.   

Nomadness is a community nearly 9,000 members of which 85% are African-American and Latino who consistently shatter the myth that people of color don't travel. These folks, ages 20-60, from all walks of life, share stories, advice, photos, and conversation about their personal travel experiences in almost every country in the world. This community, better known as “The Tribe,” has meet-ups all over the world, one of which I hosted here in Oakland last summer.

The “Tribe” was founded by Evita Robinson, a young genius from the Bronx, NY, who has traveled to considerably more than 100 countries around the world. Evita found herself feeling somewhat lonely as the only Black face she'd see for weeks during her travels, and through her longing to interact with other travelers of color, created the Nomadmess Travel Tribe.

For me, it has been a joy to get extensive advice from people who have traveled or lived in places I want to visit as well as for me to get people connected with the friends and families I've personally met during my own travels. I too have offered extensive advice to others. In my two years as a member of the Tribe, I can testify that you are guaranteed to get your questions or concerns addressed as you plan your next trip by simply posting on the Tribe's Facebook message board. This is a forum where everyone is glad to help, and if they cannot, they will certainly connect you with those who can.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The “Cool” Versus the “Ugly” American

 In all of my travels, especially to a third-word country, I try to the best of my knowledge to behave as the “cool” American, interacting and learning from everyday people, and incorporating myself into the country's culture. I even did this when I was a young US Navy sailor overseas. For example, while waiting for my flight to Mexico City, I approached a group of Mexican men with a question. Not only did I approach them in Spanish, but I used basic Latin-American etiquette I learned while in Perú by preceding my question with buenas noches (good evening). After about five minutes of chatting, they asked where I was from. I was flattered when they didn't believe that I am American. I had to show them my passport and bust some English to prove it. It's not that I am not proud to be an American; I am proud to be a cool American versus the ugly American.

A woman in Cuba told me in a letter that I'm one of the few Americans who try to stay in touch with people after visiting. If I visit a country and people take the time out to make my stay pleasant, why not stay in touch? Why “do” so many Americans return home and forget the friends they made? As I'm writing this blog post, the birthday of a woman who showed me around Quito, Ecuador is approaching, and as I so every year, I'm calling her to wish her a happy birthday. Friends that I meet during my travels are friends for life.

One day, in my home away from home, Chincha, Perú, I just happened to stop in one of my favorite restaurants for a meal. When the waiter learned that I'm an American he asked me point blank, in an inquisitive tone, if we Americans think we are superior. Obviously, he met as well as heard about The Ugly American who visits and behaves arrogantly when interacting with locals. I explained to him that in the USA there are people who feel superior to other Americans, and that feeling of superiority is nothing more than inferior feelings in reverse. Unfortunately there are people who need others with whom to feel superior in order to validate their self worth, and this is not just an American issue. It happens all over the world.

Friday, June 14, 2013

How I Learned to Speak Spanish in My “Spare Time”

It took me a couple of years to bring my Spanish to the level where I felt comfortable holding extended conversions, primarily with the use of homemade flash cards made from index cards, which were cut into four pieces enabling me to easily hold 50 of them them in the palm of my hand. I put those cards to use studying Spanish vocabulary, phrases, and grammar while waiting for a bus or commuter train, while waiting on line, or sitting in a doctor's office; always finding the spare time to drill, drill, drill. Yes, I am old school and found the use of homemade flash cards to be my best friend when it comes to passing exams, learning computer application shortcuts, or giving presentations.

Sure, I had Spanish in school, but like anything in life, the classroom is no match for the real world. Nothing improves foreign language skills more than interacting with native speakers regardless of how little you know at the time you begin. I've known people who had eight years of foreign language in school, but cannot hold a simple conversation primarily due to the old adage, you either use it or lose it. As soon as I acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, I began reaching out to Spanish speakers, both strangers and acquaintances. I didn't bother with the bilingual folks because too many of them wanted to get cute and respond in English. My steady progress came from interacting with monolingual Spanish speaking immigrants, many of whom were flattered and pleased that a “gringo” was making an effort to learn their language.

During my interactions with Spanish speakers, I often screwed up, got corrected, and even got laughed at. For example, one day at a taco truck, I blurted out my order like a native speaker using what I learned from my flash cards. The vendor responded with ¿para aquí or para llevar? I didn't understand, and tried to play it off by saying que (meaning what did you say?) thinking that might miraculously help me figure out what he was asking. Finally, the vendor smiled and let me off the hook by repeating in English, for here or to go? Spanish speaking customers who happened to be standing by resisted laughing at me so openly, but one guy acknowledged in a friendly tone how funny that was. Instead of my being embarrassed, I took it as a learning experience and my Spanish went up just a notch.

Then came the summer when I had the opportunity to take a Spanish language intensive course at the University of Havana in Cuba through Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco The bulk of my learning, I might add, took place outside the classroom where I interacted with members of the community, and was pleasantly surprised at how my Spanish flowed like a river as though the environment itself raised my level of fluency by default. I spent very little time with my English speaking classmates because I wanted to immerse myself with native Spanish speakers. When a Cuban citizen approached me in English, I too got cute and answered in Spanish. My trip to Havana inspired me to visit other Spanish speaking countries where I had grandiose times being totally immersed in Spanish while making new friends, establishing family-like connections, and even going out on dates. As of this writing, I've been interviewed for bilingual jobs in Spanish, and even received bilingual pay. GO FLASH CARDS!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dominican Teen “Comes Out” as Black

A lot of teens ask themselves, "What am I?" For multiracial teens, the answer gets especially complicated. It's something that Elaine Vilorio has thought about a lot. She's a high school senior, originally from the Dominican Republic. Over the course of her life, people assumed that she was black, and that bothered her. But two years ago, after she stopped chemically straightening her hair, the change in her appearance made her rethink her roots. She wrote about this in a Huffington Post and talked about it Thursday on Tell Me More with guest host Celeste Headlee. You can read the . Highlights from the exchange are below.

Interview Highlights

On the difference between US and Dominican perceptions of identity:
When I came here ... I was really, really small. I never had gotten the question of what I was. I never really understood what that was. So when I encountered other kids who had grown up here more than I had, and they asked me ... what was I. And I was a little confused. I was like, "Well, I'm from the Dominican Republic," you know. They always said, Oh, well, you know, I thought you were black. And I had never gotten that.

[For] Dominican kids, it's always ... You're Dominican. So national identity was placed above racial identity, whereas here I found that racial identity was pinpointed first.

On 'black-on-black' racism: I've seen ... Afro-Latinos, to use that phrase — Latinos who have obvious Afro-descendency — separate themselves from blacks by putting them off ... using stereotypes, like, Oh my goodness, they're so uneducated and blah blah blah. And I've always thought, "Well, you look like 'them.' And they're referring to ... American blacks. And I'm just thinking, So you look like them, you're putting these people in, you know, this category, but what about you? And that's always been something that's bothered me.

On being 'racially black and culturally Hispanic':

My parents raised me and the values that they grew up with. And then also I had, ... growing up in America and in the American school system so I had ... that bi-cultural influence. But racially I'm black, you know. I can say that I'm black and being black and being Hispanic, Hispanic being a culture and black ... being associated with a culture, yes, but also with a race. You can be racially black and you can be culturally Hispanic and that was something that I wanted to combine, that I want to explore further and talk about more.


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The question of, what am I, is one that a lot of teens ask themselves and the answer can be quite complicated for multiracial kids. It's something that Elaine Vilorio has thought a lot about. She's a high school senior, originally from the Dominican Republic. Over the course of her life, people assumed she was black and that bothered her. But two years ago, after she stopped chemically straightening her hair, the change in her appearance made her rethink her roots. She wrote about that in a Huffington Post piece titled "Coming Out as Black," and Elaine Vilorio is now here to tell us more.

Welcome to the program, first of all.

ELAINE VILORIO: Thank you, I'm happy to be here.
HEADLEE: First of all, let me ask you, why did you phrase it that way, coming out as black?
VILORIO: Well, people have always asked me, you know, like you said, you know, if I was black consistently, and I've always denied that. So I thought that was a very fitting way, a very dramatic way to say that I finally have admitted, you know, this Afro identity, so to speak, when it's always been there. Coming out, I finally can say it out loud, and I can finally explain to people, yes, I have African roots in me and that's okay.
HEADLEE: Well, when you talk about racial identity, it's something you've written about quite a bit as well.
HEADLEE: What is racial identity for you? Is it about the way you see yourself or how others see you?
VILORIO: I mean, it's a combination of both. I think people perceive me and they separate Afro-descendancy from, you know, the Hispanic identity. Hispanic identity doesn't really take into account that African racial root. You know, I see myself as a predominantly black Hispanic. And then other people, you know, they just see a mixed person, just mixed. Blackness isn't really, you know, acknowledged.
HEADLEE: You know, the Dominican Republic has kind of an uneasy relationship with race and...
HEADLEE: ...and the darkness of one's skin. What did you learn about this issue, black versus Latina, during your time in the Dominican Republic?
VILORIO: When I came here, you know, I was really, really small. I never had gotten the question of what I was. I never really understood what that was. So when I encountered, you know, other kids who had grown up here more than I had and they asked me, you know, what was I?
And I was a little confused. I was like well, I'm from Dominican Republic and you know, they always said, oh well, you know, I thought you were black. And I had never gotten that. I'd never, for you know, for Dominican kids it's always, you know, you're Dominican. So national identity was placed above racial identity, whereas here I found that racial identity was pinpointed first.
HEADLEE: Although Dominicans, they identify - if you want to talk about black, they usually identify black as equivalent to Haitian.
HEADLEE: And that's not seen as a positive thing. Being black is not considered to be positive in the Dominican Republic. How did that attitude affect the way you answered that question?
VILORIO: I had never consciously thought about it until a couple years ago when I stopped chemically straightening my hair. But I had always, you know, grown up with those subtle phrases like, stop being such a Haitian and you know, that's an equivalent to, let's say, stop being so stupid. The other day, I came home really, really tan and my mother was like, oh my goodness, you look like a Haitian, this is horrible. So you know, my mother was...
HEADLEE: What did you say to her?
VILORIO: Oh, I was like, oh my goodness, mother, you know, it's not a big deal, I'm just a little tan. But I was - it's something that I was used to. And I was thinking about this. I was like, man, you know, this just keeps coming up, this whole, you know, subtle racism type of thing. I've seen, you know, Afro-Latinos to use that phrase, Latinos who have obvious, you know, Afro descendancy separate themselves from blacks by putting them off, you know, using stereotypes like, oh my goodness, they're so uneducated and blah blah blah.
And I've always thought, well, you look like them. And they're referring to, you know, American blacks. I'm just thinking, so you look like them. You're putting these people in, you know, this category but what about you? And that's always been something that's bothered me.
HEADLEE: Well, when you say you acknowledged it, last year you actually wrote an article, "Another Latina Nerd Tells Her Story." In that, you talked about the confusion you've had over your racial identity and you identified very proudly, very firmly as Latina and Hispanic.
HEADLEE: This year, you wrote another very firm, very confident, again, article, again in the Huff Post, in which you say, I am black.
HEADLEE: So what changed?
VILORIO: I mean, I still identify strongly as a Hispanic because, you know, that is my culture. I - you know, my parents raised me on the values that they grew up with. And then also I had, you know, growing up in America and in the American school system. So I had, you know, that bicultural influence. But racially I'm black. You know, I can say that I'm black. And being black and being Hispanic, Hispanic being a culture and black, you know, being associated with a culture, yes, but also with a race, you can be racially black and you can be, you know, culturally Hispanic. And that was something that I wanted to combine and that I want to explore further and talk about more.
HEADLEE: I'm glad to hear you say explore this more, Elaine, 'cause, I mean, as a 40-something mixed race person, I can tell you that your journey into the world of racial identity is just beginning. Where do you go from here? What's your next step in kind of determining this? Or is there going to be a point at which you say, look, call me what you will, I know who I am?
VILORIO: I would like to educate people and breaking down, you know, a little bit of the stereotyping and the racism that goes on with people that are Hispanic and are racially black but then try to separate themselves from, you know, other black people here in the United States.
HEADLEE: Are you about to graduate, Elaine?
VILORIO: I am, yes. This June.
HEADLEE: Well, congratulations.
VILORIO: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Moving on to college?
VILORIO: Yes, that's right.
HEADLEE: Well, good luck in the future.
VILORIO: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Elaine Vilorio, a high school senior, for just a few more days, from New Jersey. She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much.
VILORIO: Thank you for having me.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Not All Latinos Speak Spanish

I felt a little odd and out of place when Carl, my Latino co-worker, nudged me to assist monolingual Spanish-speakers when I thought that he being Puerto Rican would naturally assume that responsibility. However, it was a nudge that I gladly accepted because I love practicing my Spanish. Carl happens to be from New York's Lower East Side, an area of Manhattan with a large Puerto Rican population, and I erroneously assumed that he speaks Spanish. I learned otherwise when I offered him an apology for a work-related misunderstanding, and to reinforce my apology, I told him in Spanish that it would never happen again. He simply gave me a blank look indicating that he didn't know what I was saying. His reaction was a surprise, but at the same time, not a surprise.

Throughout my life, I've met Americans of Latin-American ancestry who speak little or no Spanish. In fact, I know Latinos today who have just enough of a command of the Spanish language to communicate with their monolingual grandparents but are more comfortable with English. I have met other Latinos who feel that they are being racially profiled when total strangers speak to them in Spanish when their English is just fine. I myself was guilty of that until I got a clue. Then there are other Latinos whose parents want their children to be English only. I wrote a blog post entitled Latina Learns English While in Her 40s, which is about a woman whose parents felt that her speaking Spanish would make her less of an American (wow!), and how she so badly wanted to reconnect with her Mexican heritage that she took it upon herself to learn Spanish. Good for her! I never understood how speaking a second, third, or fourth language makes you less of an American. SMH.

A friend, Elena, told me that when she first moved to Los Angeles from Nicaragua that she too would speak Spanish to Latinos, and they would respond with, Oh, I'm an American - I don't speak Spanish! Elena too had to learn the hard way that not all US Latinos speak Spanish.

Monday, June 3, 2013

June 4 - Afro-Peruvian Culture Day

Nicomedes Santa Cruz 

In October of 2005, I made my first, but certainly not my last, trip to Perú primarily to connect with Afro-Peruvian culture. As a music lover, I was attracted to Perú by a CD entitled The Soul of Black Perú. The CD features leading Afro-Peruvian artists such as the prolific writer, musician, poet, and Black cultural icon Nicomedas Santa Cruz.  Thus, the date of June 4, Santa Cruz's birthday,  was chosen as Afro-Peruvian Culture Day in his honor, and this celebration will carry on for the rest of the month. Perú has several Black heritage events throughout the year, such as Verano Negro, Santa Efigenia,  and Yunga. 
 Mamainé, Peruvian soul food restaurant 
in Perú's District of El Carmen.

According to unofficial estimates, Perú's Black population makes up 10%-15% if you count the one-drop of Black blood rule that is applied here in the US. The majority of Afro-Peruvians live in the nation's capital of Lima and in the port city of Callao but there are also large communities in the Northern and Southern regions as well, especially in the area known as Yungas where the plains meet the Andes.

St. Martin de Porres, noted for his tireless work on behalf of the poor. A district in Lima is named in his honor.

The first Africans arrived in Perú with the conquistadors in 1521 serving as soldiers, personal servants, and body guards. Later, when African slaves arrived in the urban areas of Perú, they served as cooks, laundry persons, maids, handymen, and gardeners.  Cañete, Perú, just South of Lima, and Chincha, Perú, about three hours South of Lima, are where a large portion of African slaves were brought to work the cotton fields and other plantations. Both Cañete and Chincha are recognized as the hub of Afro-Peruvian music and dance. However, due to a heavy influx of indigenous people migrating from the Andean areas, and so many Blacks leaving for the bigger cities in search of jobs, the Blacks in Cañete and Chincha are no longer the majority. When I pass through Cañete, I don't see any Blacks at all as they are concentrated in Cañete's District of San Luis. In Chincha, I don't see a large concentration of Blacks until I get to the District of El Carmen, where I stay with Perú's famous Ballumbrosio family.

I am in the back, second from the right with the family of the late, great maestro, Amador Ballumbrosio, the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance.

As in every nation that was involved in the slave trade, an important part of Perú's history and heritage have been built with the efforts of Black people who have influenced and contributed heavily to Peruvian culture and identity, especially in music, food, athletics, dance, arts, science, and religion.



 Teófilo Cubillas
Perú's all-time leading scorer in soccer 




Mauro Mina
The “Chincha Bomber” - Former South American Light-Heavyweight Champion, ranked #1 in the world by Ring Magazine.
Lucila Campos, one of the original members of the world's famous dance troupe, Perú Negro (Black Peru) also became a solo artist of Afro-Peruvian music.

Ronaldo Campos de la Colina
Founder of world's famous Perú Negro (Black Peru) dance troupe 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

LOIZA: A Black Community in Puerto Rico

I first heard about Loiza, Puerto Rico from my brother who traveled there years back and told me about this Afro-Puerto Rican town and how much he enjoyed himself and how well he connected with the people. Because of my interest in learning and exploring the African diaspora in Latin America, Loiza is on my list of places to visit.

The municipality, Loíza, (pronounced LO-EE-SAH) is a small town on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico; 18 miles (29 Kilometers)  east of the island's capital of San Juan. It is said that, back in the 1600s, the Spanish crown mandated that African slaves to be sent to the region now known as Loiza, named after the Indigenous/Taina Chief Yuisa.. The population of the municipality was 39,565 at the 2006 census

One of Loíza's district's (or barrios) known as Loíza Aldea, is famous throughout Puerto Rico for its talent pool of dancers and artisans. Formerly a center for black Puerto Rican music, it is said to be the traditional birthplace of the musical genre called plena along with the city of Ponce. Today, plena's popularity had been replaced salsa, although some revivalist groups, such as Plena Libre, continue to perform in their own lively fashion, while "street" plena is also heard on various occasions. Each year there is a celebration in Loíza where people parade around wearing Máscaras de Vejigante, a type of mask made in Loíza, made of coconut, and painted in multiple colors. Loíza is known as "La Capital de la Tradicion"- "The Capital of Traditions" for its "bomba" music, traditional Taíno (Indigenous) and African dishes, artisanry, and distinct culture.

Residents of Loisa Aldea, Puerto Rico prepare to join the parade at the Festival of St. James the Apostle which has been staged since the 16th Century.