Friday, April 25, 2014

Tourist in the Hood—VENEZUELA

I saw so many resemblances of “the hood;” impoverished blacks (and browns), businesses owned by Asians and Middle Easterners, and young black men with hats on backwards and baggy pants. There were even men hanging out on the corner; not to the extent of that in the US, but they got my attention because they were listening to salsa music instead of hip hop. As a salsa music lover, I joined them and was thrown off by their Ebonics [Spanish Ebonics] to which I have found challenging to understand throughout my trips to Black Latin America.

As I walked the streets of the community, no one suspected that I'm American with the exception of one Middle Eastern store owner. This was good because I did not want to attract hustlers, con artists, and robbers erroneously getting me mixed up with a someone from Beverly Hills. I was told by a Venezuelan engineer that a white person speaking Spanish with a foreign accent is perceived as an international traveler, but a black person like me who also speaks Spanish with a foreign accent will be perceived as an immigrant from the Caribbean, like those of  nearby Trinidad and Tobagoi. He encouraged me to take advantage of this perception for my own safety.

This was the city of Higuerote (pronounced EE-GAY-ROTE-TAY) in Venezuela's region of Barlovento, the hub of Afro-Venezuelan culture. Higuerote is the current home of Jesus “Chucho” Garcia the father of black Venezuelan history. It was his published book that I read years ago entitled “Africa in Venezuela” that planted a desire in my heart to visit Barlovento. The book addresses the history of black Africans being brought to Barolovento to work the Cacao plantations supplying manufacturers with the ingredients to produce chocolate goodies to sell to the world during the 16th Century . Today, Afro-Venezuelans continue to carry on their African traditions, which can be heard in their music called Tambor.

Unlike so many places in the US, blacks and browns live in harmony, and in many cases, are family. This is the case in many other parts of Latin America as well. For example, my goddaughter Daniela in Perú is the only black in her family and is equally loved. Many of the brown-skinned Venezuelans have African blood in their veins. The late-president Hugo Chávez, has African blood from his father's side, and wore an Afro hairstyle in his youth.

Another trait that I found in Higuerote that reminded me of the hood was the indifference and lack respect that the average storekeeper and street vendor show their customers in the community. It seems that they feel that they are doing their customers a favor by being in business when in reality, it's the customers who are putting food on their tables. And just as in the US ghetto, people continue to patronize those businesses versus demanding respect and seeking other places to spend their money if they don't get that respect.

An Asian grocery store clerk aggressively shouted the price of an item at me with her hand stuck out, and did not bother to give me the professional courtesy of a “thank you” after paying her. On another occasion, I bought an empanada, which was indescribably delicious, from a black street vendor, who also did not demonstrate any professional courtesy for patronizing her business. In both instances, I shouted gracias/de nada (thank you/you're welcome) thinking they might get the message. I thought to myself that if this were my business, I could make an awful lot of money because I know how to treat customers who are putting money into my pockets; thus, attract and maintain more customers—this is hardly rocket science.

As a man, I found the women, of all colors, to be very curious, friendly, and conversational. Almost every time, I'd smile and wave at a woman, I'd get a happy, enthusiastic smile and wave in return. One woman referred to me as “primo (cousin or cuz)” when I greeted her on the street .  There were other women who gave me strong eye contact and became cheerful when I made conversation. It was just too bad that I was only there for short time as there was a lot more to Venezuela's region of Barlovento that I wanted to see. There was Rio Chico, Curiepe, San José, and Chirimena with all of their fine beaches and live music. I wanted to visit cacao plantations and the Afro-Venezuelan Network, but I had to catch my flight back to San Francisco, CA. There is still much, much more to explore in Black Latin America.

Black Beauty in Venezuela

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Young Generation of Afro-Latinos Tackle Their Race & Ethnicity

Born on one island and raised on another, Kelvin Rojas grew up with a racial identity that he is still learning to define as a college senior at Columbia University. Moving to Harlem in New York City when he was 4 from the Dominican Republic, Rojas became bilingual and grew up in both cultures, visiting the island country every summer. “I consider myself an Afro-Latino of mixed background… Most Dominicans are Afro-Latino,” Rojas told Fox News Latino last week. "They just don't want to see it.” In the United States, Latino youth are developing a consciousness of their Afro-Latino identity as unique and separate from the strictly black, white and Latino labels that traditionally have defined American racial attitudes.

The racial thinking that has been engrained in older generations of Latinos is not as pronounced in younger generations, who are pushing to recognize, learn about and define what it means to be Afro-Latino.
“I wasn’t conscious until I started listening to a rapper called Immortal Technique. In an interview he said, ‘Dominicans are black.’ Hearing him say that opened my eyes,” Rojas told Fox News Latino. It pointed out to him the tendency of many Latinos to shy away from their African roots and deny being black.
“Because my skin is very light I am considered ‘Trigueño,’” Rojas said, “That's someone that is mixed but on the lighter side.” That kind of categorization of different racial mixtures and skin tones is rooted in Latin America’s colonial history. Guesnerth Josué Perea, the communications coordinator of the Afro Latin@ Forum, explained that, “the supremacy that happened produced a process we call pigment-ocracy: Splitting people up socio-economically by skin tone.”

This historical process of separation by skin tone has caused a denial of African roots for many Latinos.
“There is a big difference between the U.S. and Latin America, and this goes back to the one-drop rule," said Edward Morales, professor at Columbia University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. "If you have one grandparent who is black, you’re black. In Latin America it is the opposite. If you have any white, you are not black.”

The slave trade lasted longer in Latin America than it did in North America, so more Africans were brought to the region. Morales pointed out three key distinctions that contributed to the development of Afro-Latino identity: Greater opportunities to buy one’s way out of slavery, the development of a large number of towns full of freed slaves that served as de facto centers of African culture and, finally, the lack of laws banning interracial relations.

“In the U.S., Afro-Latinos have the dual problem of not being accepted into either community [black or Latino],” Morales said. The marginalization of African roots in the U.S. may reflect an attempt to fit in with the dominant white racial category.

“Some Latinos lean towards the white side of society … to become the model minority,” said Perea. “They say they are trying to ‘better’ the race or ‘improve’ the race, but really they are just saying they want to pull away from blackness. And I think that is tied to a lot of self-hatred." Groups like the Afro Latin@ Forum are trying to promote the visibility of black Latinos in the U.S. and raise awareness about the issues that the community faces.

One of the places in which Afro-Latinos find receptive audiences are college campuses. The Afro Latin@ Forum responded to the news that "Hispanic and/or Latino" would be available as a racial category on the 2020 U.S. Census with a campaign to exhort Afro-Latinos to "check both" black and Latino so that a more accurate count of Afro-Latinos can be made and issues facing that specific community can be better addressed. “We have to do better in terms of self-educating about the diversity within the Latino community,” Perea said.

Rojas pointed out that many groups on and around campus at Columbia that are now promoting education and awareness of "Afro-Latinidad," which is for him a welcome change. “In a lot of conversations with my family about it, they would firmly reject that they were black,” Rojas said. “I asked my older brother why he thought this way and he said in school he was taught that Haitians were inferior to Dominicans because Haitians were of African blood and Dominicans were of Spanish and Taíno blood. It’s very taboo to acknowledge you have African roots.” Those sorts of attitudes toward race will continue to be challenged as Afro-Latino youth continue to explore, and establish, what it means to be mixed race. Rojas remains optimistic about things improving, but cautiously so. “I feel with the generations it gets better," he said. "The youth are not so adamant against [African roots] – but they aren't so proud of it either."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Young Latina's Introduction to the African Diaspora

It was during my first trip to El Carmen, Perú when I met thee-year-old Daniela. My heart automatically connected with her. Although, I'm generally a very logical person, I have no explanation as to why I developed such an immediate fondness.

After returning to the US, I would call Daniela's family from time to time. When Daniela got to be about five years of age, I told her over the phone that she is my “niece.” She immediately asked me if she could be my “daughter.” I was so touched by that request that I now refer to her as “mi hija (my daughter)” to members of her community, and Daniela refers to me as “su papi en Estados Unidos (her daddy in the United States).” 

Daniela at age 7 and me during my second trip to Perú

I always try to find creative ways to educate and enrich Daniela's life during my limited contact with her by phone and during my Peruvian vacations. I teach her a little English and basic computer skills. I have even drilled her on her math, and taught her to play Scrabble, Monopoly, and Chess.

When people contact me through my blog or on my Facebook and Couchsurfing accounts expressing a desire to connect with Peruvian members of the African Diaspora, I always connect with them Perú's famous black musical family, the Ballumbrosios; Daniela's next door neighbors. This is the family I stay with when I make my my visits to El Carmen, Perú. Each of the visitors that I refer to the Ballumbrosios are encouraged to meet Daniela and show her some love; even buy her favorite ice cream. These visitors, primarily are blacks from the United States, England, and Nigeria.

Daniela at age 8 with Danielle of Great Britain

I want Daniela, in particular, to connect with African-Americans and get a good feeling about my community here in the US. So many people around the world, including blacks, are fed a lot of negative stereotypes about black Americans. Blacks from foreign countries have told me that the reason why so many of them keep African-Americans at a distance when they come to this country is because they believe what they see and hear through the media and through personal messages.

Kumbi (R) of Nigeria with Daniela's next 
door neighbor Maribel Ballumbrosio (L)

Fortunately Afro-Peruvians, from my experience, have positive views African-Americans. Many, like Rinaldo Campos, the late founder of the world famous dance troupe Perú Negro (Perú's version of Alvin Ailey's Dance Theater of Harlem) was inspired by the African-American black pride movement of the 1960s. And there is Monica Carrillo, leader of Lundú—one of Peru's civil rights organizations who was inspired by the US's civil rights movement..

As Daniela grows into maturity, I want her to have the same positive views of the African Diaspora outside of Perú, and above all, the African-American community. I want her to remember the love that she received from cultured, African-American people who visited her, and if she ever hears any of the negative stereotypes, she will know better from personal experience.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Spain and the Latin-American Slave Trade

What a lot of Americans, particularly many African-Americans, do not know is that Spain started bringing Africans  across the Atlantic to countries, now known as Mexico and all the way down to Argentina, almost 200 years before the United States. In 1442, Pope Eugene IV gave the Portuguese sailors the right to explore the African continent,  and attempted to protect their findings from the Spanish, who were beginning to explore the continent as well. Spain was then occupied by a Muslim power and the Catholic Church felt threatened. Thus, in 1452, in an attempt to protect the church, Pope Nicholas V issued a Dum Diversas, giving the Spanish the right to enslave anyone not practicing Christianity. This bull, or ruling, was used by the Spanish and Portuguese Christians to enslave Africans.

Mexican of African descent working as a cobbler

In an attempt to settle disputes during the invasion of the western world, the Pope created the Treaty of Tordesillas and the line of demarcation, giving the Portuguese ownership of everything to the east of the line and the Spanish ownership of everything to the west, which is why Brazil today is a Portuguese speaking nation and other nations to the west of Brazil are Spanish speaking.. The line also gave the African continent to the Portuguese and stopped the Spanish slave trade in Africa, forcing them to find a new way to access slaves. 

The Spanish government then created the Asiento system, which functioned between 1543 and 1834. By the 16th century, the Asiento allowed other countries to sell people, mostly of African descent, to the Spanish as slaves. Thus, black African people have an ancient presence in both Spain and Portugal.

Monday, April 7, 2014

I Aroused Suspicion at a Peruvian Party

It was almost one year after my first trip to Perú, and was exhilarated to learn about a Peruvian event in San Francisco, across the bay from where I live in Oakland. The party was at the Fina Estampa Restaurant featuring, directly from Perú, popular singer Pepe Vazquez.

I arrived at the front window early to get a good seat, and paid my $35.00 entry fee to a heavy-set Peruvian gentleman who seemed to be either the manager or owner. Upon entering, I immediately set my bag and over coat down in the chair where I wanted to sit, then ran up to the second level to order a meal—arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). Having eaten Peruvian food at other venues in the US and in Perú, I was not impressed with my meal, but it was enough to energize me for a full night of partying.

 Fina Estampa Restauran, San Francisco, CA

After eating, I went back downstairs and ordered something from the bar that I had not had since visiting Perú—a pisco sour (a cocktail made from Peruvian brandy). As I went back to my table, I noticed that the heavy set Peruvian manager/owner was eying me suspiciously with that familiar look of fear and concern. Perhaps, he was wondering what interest would a black American have in a Peruvian environment. Did he think I was casing the place planning a robbery?. There were other blacks in the place, but they are Afro-Peruvian. In fact, the lead singer Pepe Vazquez and one of his band members whom I met a week prior to this event at a pollada (chicken dinner-party) are also Afro-Peruvian. I also had the opportunity to introduce myself and chat with singer Pepe Vazquex while dining in the upper level.

I brushed off this man's reaction to me because, with a picso sour in my hand, I was filled with fond memories of Perú. Other than Cuba, Perú was my most memorable and heart-warming experience out of the nine Spanish-speaking countries that I've visited.

 Singer Pepe Vazquez

When I think about it, I would have happily and gregariously explained my interest in Peruvian culture if that manager/owner had the intestinal fortitude to simply “ask!” He was totally unaware of the time I spent in Lima, the Peruvian capital, where I took a Spanish-language intensive course, and  hung out in various parts of the city, This gentleman was clueless to the fact that I spent weekends with Peru's famous black musical family, the Ballumbrosios. This suspicious gentlemen did not know that I would be taking many more trips to Perú on my vacations because I fell in love with the country, the culture, and the people.

However, despite the judgement of this poor, frightened individual, I had a wonderful time. When Pepe Vazque to came out to sing, he gave me some “dap“ (a type of greeting when two men knock their fists together in lieu of a handshake). In between sets, the dj played salsa music, which gave me a chance to go on the dance floor and show off what I can do. Yes, this black American can definitely “throw down” on some salsa. That gentleman did not know that I grew up in what used to be the salsa music capital, New York City (now, it's Cali, Colombia). He didn't know anything about me . He certainly wanted to know, but lacked the moral fiber to simply “ask ” Meanwhile, I partied hearty until 3 AM.