Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Issue With the World-Renoun Afro-Peruvian Singer Susana Baca

It was in 2010 when I posed a question about the world-class Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca in my blog post entitled, A Question about Susana Baca, who by the way, was the first Black cabinet minister of the Peruvian government.  

To me, she is the Spanish-speaking version of Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith with upbeat rhythm sections along with fluid dance moves as she combines Afro-Peruvian, Afro-Cuban, and jazz in her music.

As I stated in my prior blog article, I was on a natural high for six months, after seeing her perform for the first time in 1999. This experience inspired several future trips to Perú where I established solid Afro-Peruvian social connections.

With all that said, here is my issue with Susana Baca:

She travels the world singing about Perú's “African” culture, but seldom hires black Peruvian musicians in her five-to-six-piece bands. I've seen her perform on three occasions and saw only one black person in only one of those three performances. With black Peruvians suffering enough racial discrimination when it comes to jobs, why is she perpetuating it through Afro-Peruvian music? Several people responded to my blog article mostly in agreement with my concern. Others wanted to withhold any judgement until they get more facts on the matter.

Finally, after three years, I get to hear some facts from Timothy, an African-American friend living in Perú with his Afro-Peruvian wife. He says that the US visa system is partly to blame. He explains that it is tough for Afro-Peruvians to get a visa because many are below the poverty level, and that Susana has to redo her entourage for each country with visa restrictions. Timothy added that there have been issues with members of her band who paid $1000s for an entertainment visa to a foreign country and later defected. The visa requirements for the US alone is set far above the income levels of Afro-Peruvians. Some need to own property to assure that they have a reason to return to Perú.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Black Folks of Costa Rica

About 8% of Costa Rica’s population is of African descent. Most of them are English-speaking descendants of 19th century black Jamaican immigrant workers. However, the first blacks to arrive came with the Spanish conquistadors, originating from Africa’s Equatorial and Western regions. They were thought of as ideal slaves because they had a reputation for being more robust, affable, and hard-working than other Africans. However, by the time of the Independence of Costa Rica from Spain in 1821, slavery was a disintegrating institution. 

The two large Jamaican migrations occurred at the time of the railroad construction and in the next century, for the banana plantations owned by the United Standard Fruit Company. If it hadn't been for this influx of black population, Costa Rica would not have become the world's largest producer of bananas in 1911. By the 1920's, the black population had improved its economic status dramatically, through their own farms or through their jobs with the banana company. However, since they weren't even considered citizens of Costa Rica, they didn't possess legal rights to own land until black workers organized strikes and labor unions, and even participated with Figueres (revolutionary leader) in the 1948 Civil War, and won citizenship and full guarantees. 

The most important black community of Costa Rica is on the Caribbean coast, which today constitutes the majority of the black population. Costa Rica has the largest Jamaican diaspora after Cuba and Panama and its development as a nation is witness to this contribution. Many Jamaicans intended to return home, but most remained in the province of Limón on the Atlantic Coast. In 1890 the railways suffered a financial crisis, forcing many workers to sustain themselves by working in agriculture. This in turn saw the laborers establishing relationships and cultural exchanges with Indigenous populations of these areas. Today, Afro-Costa Ricans are spread in all the seven different Costa Rican provinces, and are part of different disciplines and fields.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Not Latino Enough and Not Black Enough

The Need for Bi-Cultural Awareness
I have so often entertained the idea of bringing my Afro-Peruvian goddaughter to live with me in the US, and wondered how well she would fit with US blacks and US Latinos considering that so many in both communities are unaware of the existence of millions of Afro-Latinos.

While doing business with a vendor who was simultaneously chatting in Spanish on his cell phone, I noticed how he insisted on speaking to me in English even though he acknowledged that I can speak Spanish. I said to him, “hey, I didn’t want to interrupt your flow; you were speaking Spanish!” His reaction to me, however, was understandable because I am indeed not Latino. 

What is not so understandable is when Latinos react the same way with fellow Latinos who do not fit the stereotypical profile of a Latino. It never ceases to amaze me how people who come to the US from Spanish-speaking countries could be so oblivious to the racial diversity in their own communities. As I stated in another blog article, I’ve personally met native Spanish speakers of African, Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, and Middle Eastern ancestries during my own travels. So, where have these folks in the US been all of their lives being so quick to judge fellow Latinos based on looks?

Juan, an Afro-Venezuelan, told me that many brown and olive-skinned Latinos do not want to relate to him in Spanish and make it a point to respond to him in English. Vladimir, an Afro-Cuban healthcare worker in a Spanish-speaking community of Oakland approached a patient offering assistance in his native tongue, Spanish, and the patient's response was, “I need to talk to someone who speaks Spanish, Duh! Latin-American media also reinforces their lack of racial diversity.
Unfortunately, we have the same lack of awareness in the African-American community. In my own experience, more than one black American have looked directly at me and asked if I’m black due to my ability to communicate in Spanish and my having a large collection of salsa music. Joaquín, an Afro-Colombian, was told by members of the African-American community that he is not black enough. I wrote a blog article about the baseball player who referred to black Latino ball players as imposters, and of a black, adolescent Panamanian girl being referred to by her African-American classmates as a “confused n…(expletive)” simply because Spanish is her first language.

I asked Afro-Latino friends, like Antonia of Costa Rica who grew up immersing herself in the African-American community, why aren’t they speaking out and educating people, and the general response I get is that they’ve been doing it all of their lives and are a bit worn out trying. Mariela of Panamá.is slow to reveal her Latin-American ancestry around non-black Latinos to see if they would talk trash about her, and if they do, she would assertively let them have it in Spanish.

I grew up one block away from a major black research and cultural center  in Harlem, NY, which was named after a Puerto Rican of African ancestry who specialized in Black history. As a blogger and public speaker (Toastmasters), I’m very outspoken about Latin-American diversity, particularly the African heritage. I find myself inadvertently educating both Latin-American and African-American people on bi-cultural awareness.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Going to Ecuador? Watch Your Back!

 Scopolamine a dangerous drug used by criminals.
It was 11 PM on a Thursday  evening when I had just arrived in the Mariscal District in Quito, Ecuador. After checking into a little neighborhood hotel, I went out to get a glimpse of the city I was going to be visiting for a few days. The (La) Mariscal, better known as Gringolandia (Gringo Land),  where people from all over the world come to stay and/or hang out, and where businesses cater to an international clientele. 
As I strolled the neighborhood, I noticed a black Ecuadorian male hanging out. Thinking he might turn me on to Quito's black community, I tried to make conversation. He asked me to get him something to eat from a restaurant across the street, which I did. When I returned with the food, I saw him farther down the block throwing "pitches" at passing tourists. Realizing that he had some kind of hustle going, I left him alone not wanting to be involved. 
Meanwhile a black woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and I immediately greeted her and introduced myself. I can tell by the way she spoke that she was local, and again, I figured she might turn me on to some Afro-Ecuadorian action. But I got a little suspicious of her vague conversation coupled with the fact that she was hanging out in Gringolandia alone at night. She seemed overly elated that I even stopped to talk to her.
As I gazed into her eyes, I got the impression that she was truly interested in what’s in my pants (wallet). I figured that she too might be hustling, and perhaps working for the brother down the street. Maybe she wanted to set me up for a robbery. Who knows? I quickly reminded myself that Quito has a long standing reputation of foreign visitors being harmed by its criminal element, and that Gringolandia in particular, attracts such criminals because gringos (foreigners) are considered easier and more lucrative prey. With that thought in mind, I tactfully excused myself and headed back to my hotel calling it a night.
Looking back on this encounter, I wonder what would have been in store for me, had I continued to hang out with this woman. It has been brought to my attention that there is a dangerous drug known as scopolamine that is increasingly gaining popularity among Ecuadorian robbers, thieves and rapists. This colorless, odorless, and tasteless drug is slipped into drinks, sprinkled onto food, and even absorbed through the skin when holding tainted documents, such as pamphlets. Victims become so docile that they have been known to help thieves rob their homes and empty their bank accounts. Women have been drugged repeatedly over days, gang-raped, or rented out as prostitutes. Most troubling for police is that scopolamine completely blocks the formation of memories where it is usually impossible for victims to ever identify their aggressors.

The tree which naturally produces scopolamine grows wild around Bogata, Colombia, and is popularly known as borrachero (gets you drunk). The alkaloid from this drug is used legally in medicines across the world to treat everything from motion sickness to the tremors of Parkinson's disease. 

Because I have personal friends in Ecuador, I do plan to return, however, to avoid being drugged, I will not accept drinks, food, or even documents from strangers, no matter how sweet and innocent-looking they appear. I did that once and simply was lucky that the stranger I just met and chatted with didn't have evil intentions (that time!). And I certainly will not leave my drink or food unattended in public places, such as bars and restaurants.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pssst, A Gringo is Paying!

While on vacation in Ecuador, I made an appointment to meet with an Afro-Ecuadorian Studies Consultant at the Simón Bolívar University of the Andes in Quito, the nation's capital. I offered to take him to lunch to show my appreciation for the black on black cultural exchange. 

Well, his girlfriend popped in about 15 minutes before our scheduled lunch. Not a problem! We hugged and continued to chat. A nutritious, filling lunch in Ecuador is as little as $2.00. When I told the couple that I’m paying, they both chuckled as though this was expected. After all, I’m the “gringo” here.

In addition to Ecuador, I've been to eight other Latin American countries. If there is one attitude that so many people throughout Latin American have in common is that they view every North American and European as always having their pockets bulging with money. 

A retired police officer living in Ecuador explains that over many years, he and his wife would have a night out with a group whom they have invited. Word got around that a gringo is paying, and invite other friends to join them. 

They normally don’t show up at the beginning of the night, but straggle in without having any qualms about joining the party. It would have been considered bad manners to turn them down; thus, he and his wife felt put on the spot, and wound up spending considerably more money than initially planned.

With my repeated trips to Perú, and as people got to know me better, thefelt bolder in treating me like a walking ATM. When I first arrived in Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, I approached a black guy working in one of the shops to get some directions. When he heard my foreign accent, he became gleeful as it was evident that I am a gringo. He immediately stopped what he was doing, took a self-appointed break from his job, and said, ¡Vamos, un moreno tiene que ayudar un moreno (come on, man; a brotha gotta help a brotha out)!

He took about 30 minutes of his time to show me around. Out of appreciation for his hospitality, I invited him for a delicious seafood lunch, and towards the end of our little tour, he asked me for some money. I reached in my pocket and handed him 10 nueva soles (Peruvian dollars), and we parted ways.

On another occasion, I invited my nine-year-old Afro-Peruvian goddaughter and her older sister out to a local restaurant. Her uncle instinctively tagged along for a free meal, so I had to (reluctantly) include him in the dining bill. The older sister mysteriously disappeared and returned with four more of her family members. 

Like the retired police officer, I felt put on the spot. If I had more cash on my person at the time, or if this particular restaurant accepted Visa or Mastercard, or at least had an ATM; I too would have fallen for that blatant manipulation. 


Instead, the four other family members simply had to be left hanging. My goddaughter felt hurt and disappointed. The older sister was absolutely appalled. I later pulled her aside and explained to her that I am not one of those rich Americans; I live on a budget, and unfortunately, I don’t have the money to be spending on everyone in Perú on her whim or mine.

I thoroughly enjoy interacting with Spanish-speaking members of the African diaspora, and have even established family-like relationships with free room and board, such as the occasion when I got very sick on one of my trips, and two different families looked after me and nursed me back to health so I can continue my travels. 

As a general rule, however, no matter how well I connect with the people,  the indisputable fact still stands… I’m a gringo with a pocket full of money first, a “brotha” second.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mexican Cuisine - African Roots


 It was on a city bus in Oakland, CA when I found myself, out of frustration, lecturing (in Spanish) to a group of Mexican-American high school students who seemed to have felt that it was so comical to hear a black guy speaking Spanish. Although I personally am not of Latin American ancestry, I'm fairly knowledgeable of black history throughout Latin America, and  I’ve met very few people, including Mexicans, not to mention Mexican-Americans, who are aware of Mexico's third root in addition to the Spanish and the Indigenous—the African.

Afro-Mexican Pumpkin Soup

Mexico, then known as New Spain, was a key port of entry for slave ships, according to the 1946 book, La Población Negra de Mexico (The Black Population of Mexico), by the renowned Mexican anthropologist and professor at Mexico’s University of Vera Cruz, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán. During the colonial period, there were more Africans living in what we know today as Mexico than Europeans. Do you think these Africans just, “POOF,” disappeared? Not hardly. Instead they took part in forging a great racial mixture with European and the Indigenous people over a period exceeding 500 years. Therefore, Western and Central African cuisines contributed to the origin and evolution of popular Mexican culinary arts.

In Guanajuato, Mexico, which at one time had a substantial black population, blackeyed peas, which is closely associated with African cooking, is still a culinary legacy.

One of the most important contributions of African cooking was the widespread use of the peanut. Although the peanut originated in the Americas, it was not widely used by the Indigenous people of Mexico, but brought to Africa by the Portuguese. The peanut was then brought back with African slaves who had eagerly adopted it as a satisfying addition to their diet. Peanuts were used by Africans in meat stews, fish and vegetable dishes and in seasoning pastes for grilling. Ground with onions and chiles, they formed sauces something like the table salsa found in nearly every restaurant and homes in Mexico’s state of Veracruz. The colonial slaves who escaped from the Spanish often fled into the hills, and their culinary influence is particularly noticeable in the mountain regions of Veracruz. Today, peanuts are used throughout the country in desserts, baked goods, in drinks, ices and ice cream, and in sauces for chicken and pork. 

Empenadas de Plátanos (Plantain Empenandas) are among the most popular menu items at Mexico City's El Bajio, considered by many to be the best regional food restaurant in the city.

Another significant part of African cooking that became incorporated into Mexican regional cuisine was the use of plátanos (plantains), which came with the Africans via the Canary Islands. Plátanos are also found throughout the state of Veracruz and used to make dough for gorditas, tortitas, empanadas, and other goodies, which are now appreciated all over the country, and plantain empanadas are among the most popular menu items at Mexico City's El Bajio, considered by many to be the best regional food restaurant in the city.

Peanuts were used by Africans in meat stews, fish and vegetable dishes and in seasoning pastes for grilling. 

Tropical roots, such as yucca, malanga, taro, and sweet potato, collectively known as viandas, were other ingredients in the African kitchen that became important and traditionally provided readily available nourishment. Viandas are inexpensive and easy to grow, requiring no expensive fertilizers. They are also versatile and can be used in dishes ranging from croquettes in garlic and tomato sauces to dessert fritters and sweet tamales. They combine with tropical fruits, such as coconut and pineapple, to make delicious desserts.

One of the most important contributions of African cooking was the widespread use of the peanut.

In Mexico’s state of Veracruz Africans have profoundly influenced people, cuisine, and music, and even the names many towns like Mocambo, Matamba, Mozomboa and Mandinga. Yet, African recipes have become part of Mexico's national cuisine well outside of Veracruz.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Black Director of One of Worlds Most Popular Salsa Groups

Ithier Nadal (above)
El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico (below)
For over 50 years, Ithier Nadal has been director, pianist, and composer in one of the world’s most popular salsa groups that ever existed formerly known as El Gran Combo (the Great Salsa Combo) of Puerto Rico. Today, he is the last remaining originals of the group and continues to tour with the group. In 2012, El Gran Combo celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a grand world tour through five continents.

In Colombia, South America where salsa music is big, El Gran Combo became known as La Universidad de la Salsa (The University of Salsa) because of so many famous salsa stars, including Andy Montañez, Celia Cruz, and Hector Lavoe developed their careers singing with the group.

In the beginning, Ithier Nadal became an expert guitarist and was later inspired by his sister to play the piano. He was of the Tito Henriquez group, Taone. Rafael Cortijo’s orchestra (an old friend from childhood), called “Cortijo y su Combo,” and a New York group named the "Borinqueneers Mambo Boys." Borinquen is the old name for Puerto Rico before the invasion of Christopher Columbus.