Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Stubborn Weakness with the Spanish Language

My friend Delicia who currently lives in Colombia’s predominately Black state of Chocó was telling me how she got into a conversation with an African-American woman who happened to be visiting from Brazil. This woman insisted that the two maintain a Spanish-speaking conversation.  With my being a self-taught Spanish student, I had to ask Delicia how much Spanish has she had in school before moving to Colombia. I asked because I personally cannot resist the temptation to fall back on my English when I’m conversing with another native English speaker. This is the primary reason why when I’m in a Spanish-speaking country, I go where English speakers and tourists generally do not go. This keeps my Spanish flowing without interruptions.

Delicia had 12 years of Spanish before moving to Colombia (wow!), and even then, she had to get used to not only the Colombian style of speaking, but the accents and style of the Blacks in Chocó. Just as British and American English have their differences, and just as various regions and ethnic groups of the US have their differences, so it is in the Spanish-speaking world.

Although I find myself comfortable mixing with monolingual Spanish-speakers, as demonstrated in my Latin American travels, I get nervous and self-conscious around those who speak both Spanish and English, like the woman Delicia met in Colombia, thus having difficulty gathering my thoughts in Spanish, not to mention expressing them.  I’ve had bilingual friends who encouraged me to practice my Spanish with them, and I couldn’t get myself to do it.

However, I have a friend in Perú’s predominately black District of El Carmen who speaks no English, and I recently made arrangements to use my Latin American phone card to call him on a weekly basis to chat. While chatting, he will be correcting my grammar, bringing me up to date on Peruvian idioms and slang, and of course, helping me to learn some proper Latin-American manners. My Spanish is at a level where I can do this, and at a monthly fee that would be equivalent to what I would pay hourly here in the US for the same type of assistance.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Black Contributions to Peruvian Independence - July 28, 1871

In school I learned about the Boston Massacre, but not about Crispus Attucks as the first to die in that Massacre, not to mention all the other Black American revolutionaries who fought in the Continental Army to help the US win her independence until long after high school. However, I did learn about the South American liberator Simón Bolívar, but never learned about one of his chief lieutenants, a Black man by the name of Pedro Camejo. And of course, I never knew about General Vicente “El Negro” Guerrero who freed Mexico from Spanish rule, and later became Mexico's first Black president. I didn't learn any of these things until late in my adulthood as I began to do my own research. Just about every country in the western world, Blacks played a role in their respective country's independence, whereby many were able to earn their freedom from slavery.

As Perú celebrates her 191st anniversary as an independent nation on July 28, 2013, I had to dig for information about the Blacks who contributed to Peruvian independence because that information that is not readily available. Writers José Luciano and Umberto Rodriguez Pastor of Minority Rights Press disclosed in the book, No Longer Invisible - Afro-Latin Americans Today, a collection of works by scholars from Mexico and Puerto Rico, and all the down to Argentina about the Black history and experience in their respective countries. In the passage below, Luciano and Pastor discuss how slave rebellions and anti-slavery agitation helped lead to Peruvian independence from Spain:

In the central coastal region, the best-known refuge for runaway slaves was El Palenque Huachipa. Huachipa existed as a stronghold for escaped slaves for more than half a century, from 1712 to 1792, and its greatest leader was the well-known ex-slave Francisco Congo, also called Chavelilla.

On some occasions these African rebels created strong alliances with the indigenous population, such as that of the rebel Juan Santos Atahualpa and the indigenous chief Tupac Amaru in 1780. Their insurrection was the first to include the liberation of slaves as part of its demands.

The long struggle for freedom gradually combined with the criollo and mestizo struggle to liberate the cities from Spanish control. From the seventeenth to the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, then the majority of urban insurrections included in their demands the freedom of Afro-Peruvians, who were usually well presented among the participants.

Believing that the liberal ideas of the independence struggle would give them the freedom, equality and fraternity that for centuries had been denied them, Afro-Peruvians played a decisive role in the battles of Junin and Ayacucho (1824). Here the Husare del Perú battalion, formed of libertos, slaves and mestizos, won a decisive victory that helped secure not only independence of Perú but also that of the South American continent.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Afro-Latin American Women Celebrate the African Diaspora

 “Commemoration of the Day of the Afro-Latina, 
Afro-Carribean & Women of the African Diaspora”

I was browsing my Spanish-speaking Facebook account, and learned for the first time that today, July 25m is the day that Latin American and Caribbean women celebrate women of the African diaspora. As I was browsing, I ran across a message from one of my Afro-Chilean friends stating, 25 Feliz Día Internacional de la Mujer Afrodescendiente a todas las mujeres LUCHADORAS (Today we celebrate all women of African descent in the struggle).

A more empowering message that I read was one of Sofia Carrillo, younger sister of a popular Afro-Peruvian civil rights leader Monica Carrillo where she stated,  Feliz Día (Happy Day)! This is a day to celebrate our struggle with conviction for a more equal world without sexism and racism and with true liberty! And an Afro-Argentine women wished all the Black women a happy day.

As a member of the African diaspora, and as one who purposely make connections with African descendants in Latin America through travel and friendship, I too, am joining in on the celebtration.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Undisputed Star of Black Peruvian Music

About six months after my first trip to Perú, visiting the Afro-Peruvian cultural hub of El Carmen, and hanging out in the Barranco District of Lima, where many Afro-Peruvians work and perform for a living, I then happened to stumble on a CD by Afro-Peruvian singer Pepe Vázquez, which contained the hit song “No Valentín,”and that song, to this day, became a hit with me. In fact, he wrote the song, and the famous Susana Baca sung it. However, about six months after my trip, I was delighted to have met Pepe Vázquez, and had a brief conversation with him before his performance at the Fina Estampa Restaurant in San Francisco. He even gave me some dap when he came out singing.

On the Pacific coast of Peru, a Black music culture has survived in spite of repression by the Europeans. Drums and marimbas were forbidden because they "generate trance-like states and are the work of the devil." As a substitute, unique instruments were created out of everyday materials and developed into unique instruments, such as the cajon (a wooden box) and the jawbone of an ass, that have remained a staple of Afro-Peruvian rhythm. 

Vásquez, with his smokey voice is the undisputed star of Afro-Peruvian music. He is also a composer mixing traditional Afro-Peruvian folk forms with Afro-Carribean. The son of musician and researcher Porfirio Vásquez, singer/songwriter, Pepe Vásquez started singing and playing guitar at a very young age, performing a folk genre originated in black Peruvian communities to preserve African heritage. He made his international debut with the release of Ritmo de Negros in November 2000. Afro-Peruvian music has really caught on since Susana Baca first broached the subject to our ears. It's the black music of Peru, handed down by former slaves for centuries. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

George Zimmerman and His Latino Roots

When I listen to the news and read articles addressing George Zimmerman's race, it amazes me how educated people who should know better get so confused. Some argue that he is White, and others argue that he is not White, but Latino. Even George Zimmerman himself appeared confused; or at least trying to win the sympathy of the non-White public by describing himself as Latino, a fellow minority, and not White. Why can't he be both, considering that White is a color and Latino is a culture?

Based on my own travel experience, and my growing up in a mixed African American and Latino community, I've observed that Latin American people are collectively made up of White, Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and of course, Indigenous. Oops, I forgot to mention Jewish people. George Zimmerman is the son of a Mestizo mother from Perú and a White father whose name, Zimmerman, derives from the German last name Zimmermann, which means carpenter. In essence, George Zimmerman is White and half Latino - a no-brainer! 

In terms of racial views, no one is born racist; not even George Zimmerman. Racism generally originates with family and community influences. Even in the Latin American countries I've visited, I've noticed blatant racial discrimination against people of color, particularly against the Indigenous and the Blacks. I remember walking into a bank in Cartagena, Colombia, a city filled with Blacks and Browns, but the bank employees, including the security officer, were so white that I felt that I needed sunglasses to see what I was doing.

Here in the US, I've met Latinos of all colors who mix well with African-Americans having the understanding that, despite language and cultural differences, both communities face similar issues of American racism. Yet, I've met other non-black Latinos who are only prejudiced against African Americans, and not Afro-Latinos. The question that lingers in my mind is do these Latin American immigrants dislike African Americans, in general, or is it just the ghetto types who exhibit all of our negative stereotypes (maybe someone reading this can help me get more clarification). When I'm shopping in Oakland's Spanish-speaking district to practice my Spanish, I can't help but notice how some people warm up to me thinking that I might be Afro-Latino, and not African American. And of course, there are non-Black Latin Americans who dislike all Blacks, regardless of ethnicity.

While African American people, including I, are disturbed over the George Zimmerman case, I'm equally disturbed by the actions of some Black people who are contributing so heavily to the oppression of the African American community? Yes, there are a lot of George Zimmermans out there; some even in police uniforms, but it is mostly Black people who are doing the George Zimmerman dirty work. Where is the outrage, here? When will the African American community wake up and realize that we have enemies within our own borders?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Learning Spanish Improved My Communication Skills in “English”

Today, at work, I got into a Spanish speaking conversation with a vendor who assumed that I have a Latin American blood line. He was pleasantly surprised when I explained to him that my whole family is American and that I'm self taught in the Spanish language. I was only 10 years old when I first began teaching myself Spanish out of a children's book borrowed from the New York Public Library. In my excitement and exuberance of speaking a second language, I kept sharing new Spanish vocabulary words that I was learning with my father. Suddenly, he stopped me to discourage me from learning any more Spanish, insisting that I learn English first. I'm thinking to myself, what is he talking about? English is all I know.

Being influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors and school mates, I continued to study Spanish behind my father's back. I used to sneak Spanish learning materials into the house as though they were drugs or some other type of contraband. I even hung out at a Puerto Rican classmate's house after school where Spanish was regularly spoken. However, as I got to be a little older, I began taking on other passionate interests, like music and sports. Girls started looking good to me, and I drifted away from my Spanish. Even when I finally had to take Spanish in school, the interest was not there because it was too “academic” and lacked the soulfulness of the Spanish I heard in the community.

It was quite late into my adulthood when my passion for the Spanish language resurfaced. Due to my work schedules and other things going on with my life, I didn't have the time to take Spanish classes. Thus, I had to go back into my spare time, self-teaching mode, like I did in elementary school. As I began to teach myself from a mature perspective, I was astonished to realize that I developed an appreciation for English grammar. The books that I was using to teach myself Spanish kept making references to the things that bored me to tears in my English classes in school, like verb conjugations and moods. I found that the better understanding I have of English grammar, the easier it was for me to grasp the grammar of the Spanish language.

I've met Spanish speaking immigrants who've been in this country for 10, 15, and 20 years, and still can't speak a word of English. As I began to establish rapport with these immigrants, I learned that so many of them lived in agrarian societies back home, and had to drop out of school before the sixth grade to help their parents earn a living. Therefore, not being educated in your own languages creates a major roadblock in learning a new one. This is what my father was trying to say when he insisted that first I learn English first, grammar and all.

As I immersed myself more in Spanish grammar, I began to pay more attention to how I was expressing myself in English, particularly in my writing because today, I make money as a professional résumé and cover-letter writer. I'm certified by the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches to create job search success stories of clients on paper. At the same time, I've visited nine Latin American countries where I put myself in areas where I was least likely to meet anyone who speaks any English at all. If I got stuck in translation, and I have at times, too bad. I took this experience as an opportunity to bring my language skills up a notch.. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Esmeraldas: Ecuador's “Black” Capital

In 1533, the first African slaves reached Ecuador when a slave ship heading to Peru was stranded off the Ecuadorian coast. The slaves revolted and overpowered their captors, and started a maroon colony in what is now known as of Esmeraldas (Emerald City), which became a safe haven for runaway slaves. 

Today, Ecuador has a population of over 1,120,000 African descendants, many living in Quito, the nation's capital, Guayaquil, and further up in the Andes in an area called Valle de Chota. However, the bulk of Afro-Ecuadorian culture is found primarily in the country's northwest coastal province of Esmeraldas, La Capital Negra (the Black capital) , where the City of Esmeraldas is the capital, and where Blacks form a 70% majority. Esmeraldas is a major seaport town and it lies at the mouth of the Esmeraldas River. The City of Esmeraldas is the principal trading hub for the region's agricultural and lumber resources. 

Marimba is a traditional African art form from Esmeraldas and the Colombian Pacific coast. It consists of music, dance, and theatrical expressions. Marimba was once a declining art but is now enjoy a revival due to Afro-Ecuadorian pride and resurgence movements. Catholic worship is distinctive in Esmeraldas, and sometimes done with marimba music.

Famous Blacks from Esmeraldas, Ecuador
  • Monica Chala: the first Afro-Ecuadorian to win the Miss Ecuador beauty pageant
  • Nelson Estupiñán Bass: famous writer/poet expressing great concern for Afro-Ecuadorians
  • Alex Quiñónez: Ecuadorian Olympic sprinter; finalist in 200-meter dash at 2012 Summer Olympics 
  • Segundo Mercado: former world middleweight and super-middleweight boxing contender

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Growing Up Puerto Rican and Black

Journalist Roberto Santiago talks about how he 
came to grips with his race, culture, and nationality.

Roberto Santiago, a Puerto Rican journalist raised in New York City's Spanish Harlem, is the son of a dark skinned mother and a white-skinned father, and has been told repeatedly by fellow members of the Puerto Rican community that there is no way that he can be Black and Puerto Rican. Roberto insisted that he is and always have been both. 

Having learned to speak Spanish in the home before he spoke English, his life has been shaped by his Black and Latino heritages, and despite other people’s confusion, he feels that choosing one over the other would be denying a part of himself. While attending Xavier High School in New York, Roberto was called both nigger and spic by his White classmates and the institution's Jesuits looked the other way.

Growing up in East (Spanish) Harlem, Roberto was aware that he did not act Black, according to African-American boys on the block. His lighter-skinned Puerto Rican friends were of less help. “You’re not Black,” they would whine shaking their heads. “You’re a Boricua (Puerto Rican). You ain’t no Moreno (colored boy).” If what his Puerto Rican friends were saying were true, his mirror defied the rules of logic, he thought to himself. Acting Black, looking Black, Being Black. The fact is that he is Black, so why does he need to prove it?

The slave trade ran through the Caribbean basin, and virtually all Puerto Rican citizens have some African blood in their veins. His mother’s side of the family was black as carbon paper, but officially not considered black. There is an explanation for this, but an explanation that does not makes sense or a difference to a working-class kid from Harlem. 

Puerto Ricans identify themselves as Latino—part of a culture that originated from sons of Spanish conquests—mixture of Spanish, African, indigenous, which categorically is apart from Black. In other words, the culture is the predominant and determinant factor. But there are frustrations in being caught in a duo-culture, where your skin color does not necessarily dictate what you are.

His first encounter regarding race occurred when he had just turned six years of age. He ran toward the bridle path in New York's Central Park as he saw two horses about to trot past. Yea, horsie, Yea, he shouted! Then the White woman on horseback shouted, shut up, you F*cking nigger, shut up! She pulled  back on the reins and twisted the horse in his direction as he felt the spray of gravel that the horse kicked at his chest.  

He told his Aunt Aurelia who explained what the words meant and why they were said. A month before Aunt Arelia passed away, she saw that Roberto was a little down about the whole race thing, and she said, Roberto, don’t worry. Even if Black people in this country don’t, you can always depend on White people to treat you like a Black.