Friday, February 28, 2014

Mourning the Loss of an Ecuadorian Friendship

Gloria Chalá of Quito, Ecuador

She was a traveler's dream! Upon my first visit to Ecuador in December 2009, Gloria took me in, a total stranger as she was  introduced by her daughter, a Facebook friend living in Germany whom I never met in person. Gloria took time between her work hours to take me out, show me around, and even escorted me to the Center of the World, the equator, better known as La Mitad del Mundo. The following December of 2010, I stopped in Quito during a five-nation Latin American tour, and she took me home to be among her family. In Each of my visits, she saved me an enormous amount of money in travel expenses.

Gloria escorted me to the Center of the World—the equator
better known in Ecuador as La Mitad del Mundo 

I was very sad to get an e-mail from Gloria's daughter, Alexandra, in Germany telling me that her mother passed away. At the same time, I felt happy that I stayed in touch with her, made sure to call her yearly just to wish her happy birthday, and even wired money to her on a couple of occasions. Today, as I write this piece, I'm wiring money to her daughter as an expression of my condolences. 

Real friends, wherever they may be in the world, are precious. Unlike your average traveler, I never want to forget the wonderful people I meet, like I did when I was a young sailor in the US Navy. People who take the time and the energy to host us in our travels need to know how much we really appreciate them, and they love it when we take some time from our hectic lives and simply say “hello.” Gloria María Chalá Anangonó, REST IN PEACE.

Women's History: Fighting for Equal Rights of Black Puerto Rican Artists

Women's History Month is an annual declared month celebrated during March in the United States, corresponding with International Women's Day on March 8.

Sylvia del Villard
February 28, 1928-February 28, 1990

 Sylvia del Villard, an outspoken Afro-Puerto Rican activist who fought for the equal rights of Black Puerto Rican artists, was also an actress, dancer, and choreographer. In 1968, she founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, which was recognized by the Pan-American Association of the New World Festival as the most important authority of Black Puerto Rican culture. The Theater group was given a contract which permitted them to present their act abroad and in various universities in the United States.
Del Villard received her primary and secondary education in the Santurce section of San Juan, Puerto Rico where she was born, and upon graduation, the Puerto Rican government awarded her with a collegiate scholarship. Sylvia went on to study Sociology and Anthropology at Fisk University in Tennessee. However, after enduring so much anti-black discrimination and segregation prevalent in the southern US during that time, she returned to Puerto Rico and enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico where she earned her degree.

After graduation, Del Villard traveled to New York City and enrolled in the City College of New York where she developed a passion and love for her African heritage. She joined the song and ballet group called the "Africa House," and even traced her African roots to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Sylvia took dance and voice lessons with Leo Braun at the Metropolitan Opera, and launched an extensive acting career in Puerto Rico and abroad.

In New York where she founded a new theater group which she named Sininke making many presentations in the Museum of Natural History. In 1981, she became the first and only director of the office of the Afro-Puerto Rican affairs of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture. In 1989 in California, Del Villard was diagnosed with lung cancer and returned to the island of Puerto Rico where she passed away on February 28, 1990 in San Juan.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sneaky Suspicion (Peruvian Family Connection)

La Calle San José (St. Joseph Street) in El Carmen, Perú

Although, I have not been to Perú in the last couple of years due to my work situation, I stay in touch with my goddaughter Daniela, her family, and the family next door who gives me a place to stay during my visits. About a month ago, I contacted Daniela in El Carmen, Perú by phone and asked how many times she and her family and friends would like to go to the beach in that given month so I’ll know how much money to wire the van driver. She excitedly stated three times. 

I have so much love for Daniela that I try to do things, even while here in the USA, that I think will make her happy. However, I became very suspicious when I called Daniela again and asked her if she wanted to continue going to the beach. She responded yes, but asked that I  wire the money to her mother and not the van driver. She explained that the van driver will not be able to do it, and there was no I that I could talk to him. Daniela added that her mother will find another driver. Sending money directly to Daniela's mother for Daniela's entertainment was what I was trying to avoid. I want Daniela to enjoy her childhood, and not have her family members pocket that money to pay their dad-gum bills.

Last year, I told Daniela that I wanted to buy her another bicycle because the one I bought for her a year or two prior was sold by her family. Daniela was exhilarated by that offer. I got her uncle on the phone and explained that I was willing to pay him a fee if he took Daniela to the shop to buy her a bicycle. I emphatically told him “not” to sell it this time. It is strictly for Daniela's enjoyment. After wiring the money, I followed up with a phone call. Her grandmother got on the phone sounding excited, and assured me that Daniela was extremely happy.

However, when I finally got hold of Daniela, the excitement that she initially expressed was no longer there. She sounded very sad, and told me that she needed $100 for school supplies, Hmmmm—very strange. With my travel experience, I know how adults play games to fleece gringos. It’s just a shame that they would train an 11-year-old to be so dishonest. if my father ever caught me doing such a thing at that age (and he did!), that was an automatic “ass-whipping.” I have a sneaky suspicion that Daniela did not receive the bicycle. Just last week, I asked her if she would like me to buy her a bicycle. She said, “yes.” Then I immediately asked, “what happened to the one that I bought you.” She then realized, so it seemed, that she spilled her own beans, and insisted that it's in the house.

During my visits to Perú, I would always take care of Daniela personally. I bought her many gifts that she no longer has. What happened to them? I remember teaching her how to tell time when she was 7, then bought her a clock for her room. That clock immediately disappeared. Did her family sell all those gifts for cheap profits, or what? At one point, I was sending money directly to Daniela’s mother and grandmother with the understanding that the benefits of those funds will trickle down to Daniela. Maybe this is so, and maybe not. Meanwhile, I’m trying to think of creative ways to bring more joy to Daniela's life without people capitalizing on my generosity. Sooner or later, I will think of something!!!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bridging the Gap Between African-Americans and Afro-Latinos

Above: Afro-Latino Felipe Luciano was member of the Last Poets who arose from the late 1960's civil rights and black nationalist movement. Below: Luciano started a New York Chapter of the Young Lords, a  Puerto Rican ally of the Black Panther Party. He later became a journalist, and media personality.

Nia, a member of an Afro-Latino forum that I belong to, asked a question that provoked a lengthy discussion among its members:“ In your opinion, she asked, what are some solutions for bridging the gap between African Americans and Afro-Latinos?” With my having grown up in a mixed African-American and Latino community near Spanish Harlem in New York City, and having worked professionally with large numbers of Latinos in San Francisco and Oakland, where I now live, I see quite a few things that we African-Americans and Latinos have in common. 

Times has obviously changed since my youth when I observed and experienced many social interactions and community and political alliances between African-Americans and Latinos, mainly Puerto Ricans. This was especially true on the campus of the City College of New York (CCNY), several blocks from where I grew up, and at my old university, the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA). In fact, by my junior year, our Black Student Alliance changed its name to accommodate the many Latinos who joined us.

I have black friends in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina who identify with the black struggle here in the US and bear Afrocentric Facebook names such as Martin Luther Shabazz and Kissie Black Panther Olivera, and Misibamba AfroArgentina. I’m sure if they were ever migrate to the US, they would be willing to bond with US blacks, but they will face some challenges: 

(1) As Richard, a black Panamanian points out, their loyalty to the Latino community overall will be questioned by fellow, non-black Latinos because they are friendly with those "morenos” and “cócolos” (black Americans). In other words, they will have to choose, will it us or “them.”
(2) Too many African-Americans think only Africa-Americans are black, and if you come from another country and speak another language, then you simply “appear” to be black but really are not.
(3) There are non-black Latinos who do not want to relate to black Latinos as fellow Latinos. Juan, from Venezuela told me that many Latinos refuse to speak to him in Spanish even though Spanish is his first language.

As an 18-year-old college freshman, I was naive and shallow enough to tell an Afro-Dominican to his face that he is not black when he joined our group of black American students on campus to network with the local black American community in town. Fast forward to today, better educated and well traveled and exposed to Afro-Latino language and culture, some African-Americans I meet sometimes look at me and ask if I myself am “black” just because they overheard me speaking Spanish.

I thoroughly relate to Karen who says, “big ups in my Jamaican accent. Living in two worlds is really difficult. For Latinos, my skin is too dark. For blacks there is just something a little different about me that they don't fully understand. Frankly there is a lot of ignorance coming from both African-American and Latino communities,” she adds. As another member of the forum, Kapulani states so succinctly—education, education, education—that's what's needed. Karen points out that a lot of Black Americans aren't even aware that slave ships stopped in the Caribbean and Central and South America. I was talking to a couple from Vera Cruz, Mexico, and they themselves were so surprised when I told them that their hometown was a major slave entry port for Africans being distributed throughout Mexico and Central America.

Personally, my most positive relations with Afro-Latinos occur outside the US in places such as South America and Cuba, where I went legally as part of a cultural exchange program. Here in Oakland, there is a fairly large Afro-Cuban community whom I found to be friendly, but distant. They respect the fact that I've traveled to their country, speak their language, and love their music, but I can feel the invisible line being drawn between them and me because I'm not Cuban, let alone Latino. I remember once reading about Afro-Cuban members of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) who emphatically reminded Garvey that they are Cubans first and foremost and black people second.

Ariel, a black Puerto Rican, had me rolling on the floor laughing as she kept reiterating vehemently her frustration with African-Americans trying to teach her how to be “black.” She stresses that she and other Afro-Latinos would love to connect with African-Americans but there needs to be mutual respect for each others' cultures.  “So are we supposed to listen to the same music and eat the same food? She asks. “We have millions of Afro Latinos that follow an African religion. How many millions of African-Americans follow a European religion?” Wow!

I’ve known other Afro-Latinos who crossed over and immersed themselves exclusively into the African-American community, and are extremely reserved about discussing their Latino heritage, even with me—one who enjoys exploring Afro-Latino culture. One black man who was born in Central America and grew up in West Oakland, a rough black community, and told me that his immersion among black Americans was about survival—he needed to fit in. However, Tonio, an Afro-Latino who himself grew up in the hood with African-Americans saw no reason to cross over. He asks, “why do I have to redefine my blackness? Regardless, I stay true to my being "Spanish fly" and “Latin swag” with a multicultural flare.”

Tony, another member from Panama, stated that while studying in Spain, he was out with a diverse group of blacks from Brazil, the African continent, and various Spanish-speaking countries, and spoke of how they were all denied entrance into a club without a logical explanation. He talks about how they were also mocked several times in public or simply denied service. That experience helped him realize that in order to bridge gaps between any groups of African descendants we need to embrace our differences and work together to eradicate hatred that society throws at us including our own self-hatred.  Rosa feels fortunate that her Afro-Peruvian mother raised her to embrace the African part of her bloodline rather than hide it as so many other Latinos do.

James, half Trinidadian and half Venezuelan, born in the US, along with Jíbaro, an Afro-Puerto Rican, and Joe all agree that people tend to observe and focus on the differences and remain blind to our similarities. Finally, John from the Dominican Republic,  states that it should be obvious to all that people of African descent, regardless of nationality and ethnicity, are the most devalued group of people throughout the world. What we must do is face the fact that we're all in this boiling pot together!