Friday, July 25, 2014

My Inspiration To Explore Afro-Latino Culture

If you are going to speak the language, learn the culture!
A tribute to my late Mexican-American friend...
Yolanda Gutierrez (RIP)

Richard, a black friend from Panamá had the following question for me regarding my ardent interest in Afro-Latino cultures:
“ it fair to say that your forays into Afro-Latin and African cultures is helping you reclaim a piece of your Africanness lost in this Euro-American mix-up?”

My response was that, initially, I did feel a sense of reconnection when I went to Cuba where many of the blacks have strong, cultural, and linguistic ties to Western Africa. In fact, it was a Nigerian who told me that the Cubans he met with those strong, cultural, and linguistic ties speak the old, historic Yoruba tongue, and not the Yoruba spoken in West Africa today. I've heard it said that many Afro Cubans are more African than the today's African. Thus, the implication behind Richard's question to me was that, culturally speaking, Afro-Latinos are closer to their African roots than African Americans.

However, the primary motivation for my intense Afro-Latino cultural exploration was inadvertently ignited by a good friend whom I met on the salsa music dance floor—Yolanda Guttierez, a Mexican American who appears to have no traces of African ancestry. 

One evening she and I arrived at a club early and chatted over a drink. A male friend of hers passed by and mentioned to her in Spanish that he would ask her to dance but she is with me. Yolanda immediately responded with, no se preocupe es mi amigo. She then told me of her concern about running off potential dance partners because they think we are together. I told Yolanda, I know, I heard you tell him not to worry that's my friend. Yolanda humorously expressed her surprise saying, geez, you not only dance salsa, but you speak Spanish too? I'm scared of “you!”

A year later, I forget the topic of our phone discussion, but it reminded Yolanda of my Spanish. She strongly insisted that if I'm going to speak the language that I need to learn the culture. 

That made perfect sense, but there was a problem. With so many Spanish-speaking cultures covering Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, and countries all the down to Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, where was I supposed to begin? 

It suddenly dawned on me that while growing up in New York City and being influenced by the New Yorican (New York Puerto Rican) community, thus, my love for salsa music and my attraction to the Spanish language, I felt this would be a perfect place to start my cultural exploration. 

As I explored the Puerto Rican experience and the history of salsa music, I soon traced it back to Cuba, and was enlightened to the fact that salsa music has a strong West African influence. There is a salsa band out of Dakar, Senegal in West Africa, known as Africando who stated on one of their CDs that their mission is to bring salsa music back to its African roots.

My cultural exploration spread to other Spanish-speaking countries with their own African influence as a result of the slave trade that began 100 or more years before that of the US. Then came my greatest revelation—in the western world, there are more Spanish-speaking black folks than English-speaking ones.

This is why I often shake my head, derisively, every time I think of a conversation shared by an Afro-Latino friend that he had with an African-American bank teller who noticed his name was Jesús Diaz. She asked where he is from. When Jesús told the teller that he is from Cuba, she said, oh, I thought you were “black!” Was she kidding? I myself heard a similar comment from a woman who asked me to confirm that I too am black when she saw my Afro-Latino travel photos hanging on the wall in my office.

My desire to improve my Spanish coupled with my willingness to comply with Yolanda's admonition to learn the culture, inspired trips to nine Spanish-speaking countries to date. Eventually, I want to visit a black community in every country in Latin America, including Mexico where so many Mexicans, surprisingly, are oblivious to the existence of Afro Mexicans.

As the years passed, I left the bay area salsa scene for more diverse forms entertainment; the symphony, the opera, jazz clubs, travel, and various other multicultural activities. Later, I received some very sad news; my friend Yolanda Guttierez passed away. 

I will always remember how Yolanda embraced me as a friend and how we became a part of each others' growing social circle consisting of salseros (salsa dancers) as we continued to hit the clubs; how she regularly invited us over to her house for parties, dinners, and barbeques. She often often cheered me up with her awesome sense of humor, but most importantly, I will always remember how she inspired me to explore Latin-American culture, which I now love and appreciate as much as my own.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Avoid English Speakers in Latin America

 When traveling , I drift toward the barrios where you 
find the real culture, such as in Juncal, Ecuador

Fortunately in my Latin American travels, I run into very few people who speak English. I'm sure they are out there, especially among some college students, some of the upper class, and some of those in the tourist industry; all of whom I make a special effort to avoid. I'm much more attracted to the barrios (the hood) where I can be among the everyday common people; that way I remain totally immersed in the Spanish language, which forces me to improve my own Spanish and get a better sense of the cultures.

Reflecting on my last blog post, It's Nice Meeting “Proud” Spanish Speakers,” I vividly recall times in Latin-American countries where I responded in Spanish to anyone who spoke to me in English in the same way so many US Latinos respond to me in English when I try to speak to them in Spanish.

Felix of Caracas, Venezuela took me in like family

One summer, in Havana, Cuba, I was  with a group of 25 Americans who were there for Spanish language intensive training at the University of Havana, sponsored by Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco, CA. Upon our arrival, we were loaned bicycles for a guided tour of the city. 

As we rode along Havana's popular Malecón (the waterfront), an Afro-Cuban gentleman rode up along side me and struck up a conversation in English. I felt insulted because I thought that he was assuming that I was just another gringo who can't speak Spanish. I decided to show him differently by responding to everything he says to me in Spanish. After several of those exchanges, he finally snapped in frustration, “MAN, STOP SPEAKING SPANISH; I'M TRYING TO PRACTICE ME ENGLISH!” 

 Dancing salsa with D. Fuentes in Havana, Cuba

At that point, my feelings of insult turned into compassion because I remember so vividly how crushed I used to feel in the US trying to practice my Spanish with native Spanish-speakers who insisted on responding to me in English. Therefore, I gave him a break.

In Caracas, Venezuela, I was hosted by Felix, a friend I met on, a web site for travelers. Felix showed me the city, then took me into his home in the barrio with his family and fiancé where I dined and slept. The only drawback was that Felix and his fiance's English were better than my Spanish, so there was no way I could resist. My only alternative in using my Spanish was with his family members who speak no English. The next day, Felix turned me over to another friend whom I also met on, María.

While in Cartagena, Colombia, I purchased the 
South American version of Ebony Magazine

María, who also went the extra mile to ensure that my stay in Venezuela was a rewarding one as she escorted me on a two-hour bus ride into Venezuela's region of Barlovento to explore Afro-Venezuelan culture. María speaks Spanish, Swiss, and English. However in this instance, my Spanish was better than her English, but out of appreciation for her hospitality, I permitted her to practice her English on me until she got stuck in translation, then I would intervene in Spanish. 

If I were to move to a Latin-American country as an expat, I would not have the attitude that I demonstrated with the Cuban bicyclist. I would be willing to speak English with anyone who is learning it or already proficient.  

María escorted me into the black (and brown) 
region of Barlovento, Venezuela 

However, all of my travels have occurred during my vacations from work lasting two to three weeks. Thus, giving me limited time to take advantage of every precious moment of being totally immersed in the Spanish language with no opportunity to fall back on my English when I get stuck in translation. In such cases, I have no other choice but to face the challenge head on and work through it. 

I was in a restaurant in the Barranco district of Lima, Perú, where I was so disgusted with the customer service that I demanded to speak with a manager. My irritation almost made me forget all the Spanish I learned up to that point, and I was disappointed when the manager told me that he didn't speak English. I then felt compelled to register my complaint in Spanish. It is cases like this where the “real” learning takes place—not in the classroom—and believe me, I'm still learning!

Friday, July 11, 2014

It's Nice Meeting “Proud” Spanish Speakers

Here in the US, I reached a point a long time ago where I generally feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish to native speakers who are also fluent in English. So many seem to have a complex about speaking Spanish to someone who is not stereotypically profiled as “Latin-American.” 

Today at my local grocery store, I experienced a surprising, positive reaction from a Spanish-speaking cashier. I noticed her conversing in Spanish with another store employee bagging the groceries. As I stepped up to check out and not wanting to interrupt her Spanish flow, I immediately greeted her with buenas, an abbreviated expression for good morning, good afternoon, or good evening.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way she responded to me as though I too were a native Spanish speaker. We then exchanged parting words, ¡que te vaya bien (have a good one)!, ¡igual (you too)!, common in the Latin-American community. I felt proud of her, and of course, pleased at the opportunity to use my own Spanish. 

Any time that I'm in a Latin-American restaurant, I tip better when staff members interact with me in Spanish. At work, there are colleagues from various Latin American countries who generally communicate with me in Spanish and are always open to giving me advice and answering my questions concerning proper grammar. Unlike so many bilingual people I meet, these gentlemen greatly appreciate my efforts to improve my Spanish.

In my quest to develop Spanish fluency, I get my best opportunities vacationing in Latin-American countries. Here in the US, I reached a point a long time ago where I generally feel uncomfortable speaking Spanish to native speakers who are also fluent in English. So many seem to have a complex about speaking Spanish to someone who is not stereotypically profiled as “Latin-American.” They forget that real Latinos come in all colors and are members of varying ethnic groups, not just Spanish, Mestizo, and Indigenous.

I had a good laugh one evening in San Francisco when a friend from India and I were walking to a local restaurant to get a snack. A mono-lingual Spanish-speaker got right in her face (not mine) asking if she speaks Spanish because he needed directions. You should have seen the look on his face when it turned out to be I who gave him the directions he needed. My Indian friend does not speak Spanish.

In New York City, a few days after my arrival from Caracas, Venezuela. I was walking from my cousin's house to the subway station, and passed by a housing project where a Latino gentleman was vehemently explaining something in Spanish to a couple of friends. He suddenly stopped and looked at me with fear in his eyes, seemly hoping that I was not a robber. After all, this was in the notorious South Bronx—at night. 

Again, not wanting to interrupt a Spanish-speaking flow, I said con permiso (excuse me) as I walked by. In eloquent English, he responded with “certainly!” Now, in a city with a relatively large Afro-Latino population, you would think that he is accustomed to seeing blacks who can speak Spanish. Why did he respond in me English?

I once read a blog post by a Mexican-American woman in Arizona who was deeply disturbed about receiving information from a business that was written in Spanish. She states that she understands Spanish very well, but would have preferred English. What's the matter, does she think her Spanish makes her less of an American? If so, she is fooling herself. Spanish was spoken in what we know today as the United States before the United States was born. Appalled by her self-snobbery, I posted the following comment on her blog:
“Here I am knocking myself out daily trying to develop fluency in Spanish, and am always amazed at people who are blessed with the knowledge of both Spanish and English who appear to be so ashamed of it as though it is some sort of a curse.”

The woman never responded. I hoped that she would have because I'm always open to seeing opposing views. Who knows, I may learn something.

There is, however, one city in the US where the Spanish speakers are in-your-face proud—Miami. The Cuban people who populate  the area love their language and culture. I entered a Cuban restaurant and the manager greeted me in English with a thick Cuban accent. When I ordered in Spanish, he and his staff happily made me feel very welcome. Even the customers who overheard me were pleased. 

I've always considered Miami to be an honorary Latin American city where no one feels a need to get cute and answer you in English. Miami Cubans don't care who you are; they are always ready to roll in their native tongue.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Any Guilt Feelings Among Black Americans Traveling in Latin America?

Terri, an African-American member of a Facebook forum, Brothers and Sisters in Latin America, posed a question to those of us who have lived or visited a Latin-American country. She wanted to know if any of us felt any guilt or felt badly that we, as Americans, get better treatment and more respect than the black citizens of the countries we visit.

The reason I personally do not have guilty feelings is because, as much as possible, I try to connect with the black community in the countries to absorb as much as I can about their black experience and history. Monetarily, I offer support in ways that I can afford, but at the same time, I do not allow anyone to take advantage of me. 

In the commercial district of Cartagena, Colombia, I came across a black woman selling her wares. Although, I saw nothing that I wanted or needed, I handed her some money just to be helpful. There were other times, in certain countries, that I blended so well with the black community that I too sometimes experienced disrespect due to racial prejudice. 

In Chincha, Perú, an Afro-Peruvian friend escorted me to a bus station to inquire about the price of a ticket to Ecuador. The man shouted the price at me in a tone of voice expressing doubt that I could even afford it. In Quito, Ecuador, I had trouble catching cabs in certain parts of town, especially at night, because I was profiled as an Afro-Ecuadorian thug. One Friday night I saw a cabbie drop off a white couple, and when I tried to enter, he wagged his finger in utter defiance. I then waved two $5 bills, LOL; he changed his mind instantly. Once in the cab, he was pleased to learn that I'm an African-American traveler and not an Afro-Ecuadorian native...sigh!

Tamara, another one of our African-American members, was generally treated with warmth and respect in her travels, however, she spoke of one isolated incident in a department store in Lima, Perú. She saw some soccer jerseys that she wanted to get for her nephew. She tried to get the store clerk's attention, but the clerk turned and walked away. Within minutes, the store clerk returned with a man who was possibly a security officer. When Tamara addressed her in English, the clerk's attitude changed abruptly giving Tamara a very pleasing smile. Tamara was so turned off by the obvious racial profiling that she decided to shop somewhere else (good for Tamara!).
Thierry, an Afro-Latino member of the group stressed that in Latin America, tourists of “any” color get treated better than local Latin-American citizens, regardless of their race. I tend to agree. I believe that if I stayed in a fancy hotel speaking English only, and perceived as having a pocket full of money, I would not have experienced any racism. In Latin America, money “whitens” your skin.

He [Thierry] also added that the great hospitality that visitors from other countries receive from Latin Americans may also be a way for them to take advantage of you, i.e., to charge you much higher prices—the famous gringo tax. Fortunately for me, my attempts to establish bonds with local citizens and immerse myself in the language and cultures of the barrios (the hood) results in cheaper prices for food, lodgings, entertainment, and souvenirs, which always saves me an enormous amount of money.