Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Black Population of Nicaragua

It was at the Caribee Dance Center, my salsa music hangout in Oakland, CA, where I noticed a black guy consistently dancing so smoothly with the ladies. Every time I see a black salsero (salsa dancer), I usually figure that he may be from New York, Puerto Rico, or Cuba. Eventually, he and I met and got into a brief conversation. I asked where he is from. When he responded with... Nicaragua, I snapped in utter astonishment, you’re kidding! The brother was speechless because I was just one more American letting a piece of my ignorance slip out into the open. I really should have known better because other Nicaraguans told me of a sizable black population in their home country. I even saw a film on Black Nicaragua at a Latin-American cultural center. But none of that stuck in my mind until I myself met this black Nicaraguan brother staring me in face. Now Bluefields, a predominately black community on the east coast of Nicaragua, is on my list of places to visit.

The predominately black city of Bluefields, Nicaragua

Blacks make up at least 10% of Nicaragua's population (almost 600,000 according to the CIA Fact Book). They mainly reside on the country's sparsely populated Caribbean or Atlantic coast, better known as the Mosquito Coast. The people are mostly of descendants of indentured laborers brought mostly from Jamaica when the region was a British protectorate. There is also a smaller number of Garífuna, a people of mixed African and indigenous heritage who originally came from the island of St. Vincent where they rebelled against British slave traders, migrated to the Honduran coast, and from there, spread to the rest of the Central American coast, which includes Nicaragua.

Slaves first began arriving in Nicaragua as servants of the Spanish Conquistadors and of civil and religious officials in the early part of 16th century. Most of the Spanish who emigrated to the Americas were men who interbred with indigenous and black slaves. So, as early as the eighteenth century, most of the Nicaraguan slaves were mulattos. By 1820, those with a quarter black blood and other mixtures made up 84% of the population. After the British withdrawal from the Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, it remained an autonomous region for 44 years with its own laws and regulations before the president of  Nicaragua, José Santos Zelaya, reintegrated the area and built the Nicaraguan government institutions and structures, forming schools, police, government, etc.

  Black Nicaraguan Group known as Soul Vibrations

Friday, October 25, 2013

Barrio Spanish (of the Hood)

 El Carmen block party

Cuba:  ¿qué bola, asere (what’s up, bruh or dawg [dog])?
Perú: ¿qué pasó, familia? (what’s up bruh [primarily used by Afro-Peruvians])?
Venezuela: ¿epa, primo? = What’s up, cuz (short for cousin)

I started getting into barrio Spanish (of the hood) when I first saw the film “American Me” where I I picked up on words like órale (cool, all-right) and ¿entiendez mendez? (you know what I’m sayin’?). Because I currently live in a region of the US where there is a large Mexican-American population, I decided to buy a dictionary of Mexican slang entitled “El Libro de Caló.”  However, I stopped using such words in my communication with Spanish speakers who are not of Mexican ancestry because a friend I went to school with in New York got very upset as he reminded me that he is “Puerto Rican,” not “Mexican,” and that he does not use such words nor does he appreciate my using those words in addressing him. Perhaps, he would have felt better if I had used some Puerto Rican slang words like Que es la que estapa?,Que es la que? (what's up?) .

When I was in Cuba, people in the community taught me some of their slang words, like ¡consorte monina mongo! (it’s all good, bruh!).” Then there was one of my favorite Cuban songs entitled Hay Que Estar Arriba de La Bola, (you have to be on top of everything.
After my Cuban trip, I took it upon myself to go on the Internet and download slang words for each country that I planned to visit. That way, when I hear such words, I’ll understand the true meaning in its context. For example, in my first trip to Perú, there was a woman whom a new friend wanted me to meet, and he described her as toda bacán, (a wonderful person). Were it not for my slang research prior to my trip, he would have been unwittingly talking way over my head.

However, I began to realize something very disappointing. The slang words that are so popular in the barrios (the hood) of class-conscious Latin-America are considered trashy among the well-educated and the economically well-to-do. I remember on the University of Havana campus where I was undergoing Spanish-language intensive training, I greeted a classmate with ¿qué bola (what’s up)? The Spanish teacher approached me wagging her finger in my face admonishing me not to talk like that in her class. 

Now, when I travel to a Latin-American country, I realize that I have to use discretion with the words I use in reference to whom I’m addressing. Personally, I love barrio Spanish (hood lingo). I love the culture in the barrios, and as my longtime friend, Juan from Venezuela puts it, “the barrio is where the real culture is.” I agree because the Latin-American music that I enjoy most and that has gained such wide-spread notoriety like son-montuno of Cuba (the mother of salsa music), bachata of the Dominica republic, and landó of Perú were all born in the barrios, and were all at one time considered trashy and low class by those born with silver spoons in their mouths. Today, those genres of music are national treasures.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Faux Pax in Panamá

After traveling to five consecutive Latin American countries in December 2010, I was a little tired and felt that I could use a break from speaking Spanish. When I got to Panama, I approach a couple of black airport workers, and asked if they speak English. I assumed such because I’ve met an enormous number of black Panamanians who speak perfect English. However, that was in the US, not Panamá. Both men copped an attitude. One of the workers simply walked away leaving his co-worker stuck to deal with what they perceived as an English-only gringo. The one left behind reacted more positively when I continued my inquiry in Spanish.

This experience came to mind after reading a recent  travel article entitled, “Five Things You Don’t Say While Traveling,” one of which is “do you speak English?” The writer pointed out that there are basic foreign-language expressions that every international traveler should learn before crossing borders. Even if you're light-years away from fluency, a rudimentary grasp of simple phrases in the regional tongue—like "please," "hello," "thank you," "no thank you," and "where is the bathroom?"—will work wonders. It's a show of respect. And locals will likely be more responsive and helpful to anyone who doesn't behave as if all citizens of the world ought to speak English.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Latin American Travel (and my Job Loss!)


Once again, I was ready to take advantage of my accrued and approved 30-day vacation at a reputable San Francisco social service agency. Already well ahead in my quarterly productivity goals as a workforce development specialist, I gleefully clicked “send” on an e-mail reminding my colleagues not to refer any new clients for another month. 

The company's executive director, in an extremely rare person-to-person e-mail, asked where I was going—this time. With excitement I responded, Miami, Lima, and Caracas. She followed up with a comment that hinged on sarcasm, and even jealousy about my annual travel experience. I immediately dismissed such thoughts as my imagination because my logic strongly dictated that she makes twice my salary. How in hell could she be jealous?

Naively, I thought that I was impressing her, not only with my work-performance, but also by spending my vacations improving my Spanish and immersing myself in Latin-American culture; thus, better serving my company’s Spanish-speaking clientele. After all, one of the reasons I was hired in the first place was because of my Spanish.

However, there was some discussion among members of my predominately black travel group, Nomad-ness Travel Tribe, stating that it is not a good idea to talk so extensively about your travels in the workplace. It can cause some hard feelings because you are living your dreams and others aren’t. 

This, I must confess, is where I’m guilty as sin. One of my co-workers stopped speaking to me altogether. It's not that I was bragging about my travels; I was overflowing with joy, excitement, and anticipation. On Friday's, I proudly sported soccer jerseys from Ecuador and Perú, and a baseball jersey from Venezuela. Even my office was filled with pictures, currency, and artifacts from the countries that I’ve visited. 

An African-American CEO who himself, at one time, experienced a nasty termination from a job, is in agreement with my travel group. He pointed out that my company’s management may have been wondering where does this n… (expletive) get the means to do all of this traveling. 

Wow, I could have told them if they had only asked! I know how to travel very cheaply. In fact, I wrote a blog article entitled, Enjoy Travel Without Being Wealthy. The cost of my round trip tickets to Miami, Lima, and Caracas from San Francisco was only $917.

Unfortunately, two months after my trip, I was terminated from my job. Did this have anything to do with the jealousy that I sensed from the executive director's e-mail, who knows? The formal reason given was the result of “one,” lousy honest mistake that I made in my four years with the company. Although, I certainly do not defend the error, my intentions were well-meaning and pure, and I was expecting a strong reprimand, or at worst, a write-up. 

However, the reason given publicly for my termination was that my position was being “restructured” due to downsizing, which made more sense because I was never replaced. Meanwhile, the vacation time of the remaining employees have been reportedly cut. Hmmmm!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Is There a Black Granny in Their Closet

It was in the fall of 2009, when I crossed the border from Ecuador into Perú, and was aggressively stopped by a suspicious Peruvian National Police officer. After he thoroughly checked my documents, he followed up with the routine question, “¿que hace usted en Perú (what are you doing in Perú)?” I explained to the officer that as hobby, I explore black cultures in Spanish-speaking countries, and that I am on my way to El Carmen, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, to stay with the Ballumbrosio family, the well-known musical family in the Afro-Peruvian music industry. The officer, now much calmer, seemed to be truly “feeling” me; in other words, very understanding and appreciative of what I was doing. You can't tell by looking at him, but who knows? He himself may have an Afro-Peruvian granny or grandpa in his family tree.

Elena, an Afro-Ecuadorian friend who showed me around her city of Quito, Ecuador, has two interracial children by a white man, and those two children themselves got married to Europeans; one German, and the other Dutch. And from looking at those children, you would never know that they are of African heritage. 

All of this could be by design because it has been brought to my attention that a lot of Latin Americans combat racism through what is known as blanquemiento, that is to slowly, over generations, whiten the population through intermarriage, or through a practice called mejorar la raza, “improving the race” by which many blacks reject other blacks as potential mates and seek someone white or much lighter in complexion for marriage and childbearing. What I myself found so weird during my Latin American travels is that while I’m looking and admiring the sistahs (black women), it was generally the white and mestizo women who were looking and admiring “me.” A couple of these women even talked about setting me up with one of their friends.

I saw quite a few brown people with black babies and black people with brown babies. Many of these blacks who intermarry feel that their children will have better opportunities when they come of age because darker skinned people are restricted to working in certain types of jobs such as nannies and security guards. In Cartagena, Colombia, where I visited in 2010 for example, a city heavily populated with blacks and browns, I went into a bank and noticed that all of the employees were lily white, only the security guard was of color, and he himself was of very light complexion.

Many Latin Americans with black grannies and grand dads do not even acknowledge that part of their bloodline, and their children and grandchildren often have no clue that they have actually have an African connection. Then there are others, like Damisa, an extremely light-skinned 18-year-old daughter of a black Peruvian woman and an absent white Peruvian father who not only acknowledges her African heritage, but is attracted to black men. She speaks good English and embraces the African-American hip hop culture as if it were her own. As a friend of the family, however, I’ve tried to caution her about using that N-word, trying to act ghetto; and mimicking the buffoons she sees on rap videos. Hopefully, she will grow out of that, because as far as I’m concerned, she went off on another extreme.