Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Mastermind Behind the Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú

 Ronaldo Campos de La Colina

The Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú

When I saw the world's famous Perú Negro (Black Peru) perform live for the time in San Francisco, CA's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the group danced while singing the melodic refrain with captivating rhythmic accompaniment “RINALDO CAMPOS DE LA COLINA!” They were paying tribute to their late founder Ronaldo Campos, a renown percussionist and dancer born in San Luis, which is in the Peruvian Province of Cañete, the Capital of Afro-Peruvian Folklore. Personally, I've passed through this province many times on my way to and from El Carmen, an hour away—another strong Afro-Peruvian community. Cañete is a place I first learned about through songs by Susanna Baca, another world-famous and world-traveled Afro-Peruvian artist.

At the age of 12, Campos moved the Perú's nations capital of Lima where he joined several groups, among them, Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú (Peruvian Black Theater & Dance). I remember reading somewhere that Ronaldo Campos was inspired by the 1960s black pride movement in the USA, and in 1969, founded Perú Negro, then consisting of only 12 family members. That same year, the group Perú Negro took first place in the International Festival of Dance and Song in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rinaldo Camplos also organized various events in the Cañete's II Festival of Black Arts. He accomplished an important work in researching and bringing to light the different folkloric Afro-Peruvian dances creating different rhythms for each one. .

 I've passed by Ronaldo Campos' home province many times on my way to 
another hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, the District of El Carmen, an hour away.

Eventually, Perú Negro broke into US cultural territory, and with each visiting year, their tours extended in time and space and the ensemble’s visibility in the American performing arts scene settled into a fixture. After visiting hundreds of universities and schools across the North America, audiences, including black audiences, are still surprised to learn that the African diaspora extends to Perú.

This group is known worldwide under the title “Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú.” The mission of Peru Negro, from its inception to date, is to use the language of music and dance to expand the understanding, knowledge of the African influence in Peruvian culture. Today, their repertoire includes el festejo, which the slaves danced after they had harvested a good cotton crop. They also do zapateo (Afro-Peruvian tap dancing).

 When authorities outlawed African drums fearing uprisings, the slaves turned to the heavy wooden boxes of cargo they carried called the cajón. Today the cajón is a cultural heritage of Perú.

I've often made friends with non-black Peruvians in salsa clubs here in the US, and remember how they bragged to me about the black culture back home in Perú. At first many of the white Peruvians were wary of Afro-Peruvian music and dance, but today, it is in vogue and is playing a role in shaping Perú's social agenda. Peru's Roman Catholic Church once frowned on the zamacueca, a seductive courtship dance performed by African slaves, but today it lives on in the whirling sensuality of the celebrated national dance of Peru, the marinera. When Peruvian authorities outlawed African drums, fearing they could be used to organize slave uprisings, slaves turned to the heavy wooden boxes of cargo they carried, and in 2001 the cajon, or "big box" drum, was declared a Cultural Heritage of Perú.

The stubborn survival of Afro-Peruvian music makes Peru Negro more than just a Grammy-nominated Peruvian music and dance ensemble. It's a celebration of the triumph of those performing arts over disapproval, disdain and disenfranchisement. Black Perú showcases the roots of a cultural heritage that has been forgotten or ignored. The rhythms are borrowed or handed down from an African tradition, in a form that is uniquely Peruvian.

In the beginning of 2001, Ronaldo Campos suffered a stroke, and in August of that same year, he died of a heart attack. After the death of Don Ronaldo, his son Rony Campos took the lead in the third generation of the group. Although the body of Ronaldo Campos de la Colina lies in Lurín Cemetary in Lima, his memory lives, thus the melodic, rhythmic refrain in the song and dance of Perú Negro, “RINALDO CAMPOS DE LA COLINA!”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Missed Some Good Black Music in Colombia

When I was in Cartagena de las Inidas, better known as Cartagena, Colombia, I was quite disappointed that the people were not so much into Cumbia, which began as a courtship dance practiced among Colombia's black population, which was later mixed with Amerindian steps and European and African instruments. Cumbia is much more popular in the Andean region and the Southern Cone of Colombia. I was also disappointed to not hear Salsa music, which is popular in cities like Cali, a city that I now consider to be the salsa music capital of the world. It used to be New York City.

A lot of people in the Cartagena area, I found, are into Vallenato, which did not move me at all. I even stopped in an Afro-Colombian bar, and Vallenato was all they were listening to. Surprisingly, I found that Vallenato was even popular in Colombia's famous African village of San Basilio de Palenque, located two hours south of Cartagena.

I learned much later, after my return to the US that I did miss out on some good black music that is also popular around the Cartagena area. This genre of music is called Champeta. It was introduced to me by an Afro-Colombian Facebook friend.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Champeta culture became more visible at a national level in Colombia through a series of diverse and complex dances set to the rhythms of Caribbean music. Champeta music has the same legacy as US Blues music; it was called “therapy” used to help oppressed Afro-Colombian relax and get through difficult times.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Are Black Men Exotic to Women in Latin America?

A female Peruvian dancer pulled me on stage to 
dance with her at an upscale Lima supper club.

They say that black men are considered exotic to women in foreign countries. I found that it all depends on the country and with whom I'm around. Although, I've been to Canada and four Asian countries, my travels as of late, has been focused on Latin America.

In Cuba, a country that is predominately black, I was not considered so exotic until people heard my foreign accent and asked where I'm from. However one evening, I was dumbfounded when a group of us Americans who were studying Spanish at the University of Havana went to see an Afro-Cuban dance performance in a suburb of the city. I was the only black in the group of American spectators. Towards the end of the show, the dancers came off the stage; the men grabbing the women, and the women grabbing the men to dance. I was left sitting all alone.

Word on the streets of Havana about me was because of my color, I was perceived as being “too Cuban,” therefore not exotic or touristy enough to want to entertain. In fact, before my trip, an Afro-Cuban neighbor told me that when I arrive on the island, people will automatically assume that I'm Cuban until I open my mouth. Cubans can very easily tell by my Spanish that I'm a long, long way from being Cuban.

Throughout my Latin-American travels, while I'm admiring the black women, it's usually the white and mestizo women who are admiring me.

However, things took a different turn when I went to a live show in an upscale supper club in the Barranco District of Lima, Perú where I was one of two black spectators. Towards the end of the show, one of the  mestizo female dancers came off the stage, bypassed several tables, and walked directly over to mine to bring me on stage to dance with her. Interesting!

In many cases throughout my Latin-American travels, while I'm admiring the black women, it's usually the white and mestizo women who are admiring me. On a metro train in Caracas, Venezuela, my friend María and I went chatting in English and Spanish, then we noticed a white Venezuelan woman eying me with an admiring smile. She seemed very pleased when I struck up a lightweight conversation with her in Spanish. At a restaurant where I often frequented in Cartagena, Colombia, a sexy mestizo woman seemed to be giving me some action.

What stands out about my Latin-American trips is once people recognize me as an American visitor, and not a black local citizen, all perceptions change.  To many Latin-American women, I'm not necessarily exotic because I'm black, but because I'm a gringo. One woman whom I just met begged me to bring her back to the USA.

During my travels, I generally shy away from relationships and stick to my original purpose—cultural immersion, the development of my Spanish, and that of lifetime friendships. If a love connection were to develop from there, fine. However, when a woman takes an immediate interest in me, I need to look at the motive. Is it a real attraction or does she want what's in my pants (wallet)?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racist Encounter of the Peruvian Kind

In my first trip to Perú where I was undergoing Spanish-language intensive training for my advanced certificate, I experience a subtle but, rude awakening to Peruvian racism. Perhaps, as a black person from the USA, I should have been used to it, such as the evening I was in the predominately Latino Mission District of San Francisco. I was on my way to teach a résumé-writing workshop in Spanish at the Central American Resource Center. It's been a while since I was in this area as I live across the bay in Oakland; thus, I was somewhat lost. I saw two white patrol officers walking their beat, and I thought to myself that they would surely know which direction to take. And they did.

A queasy feeling came over me by the way one of the officers reacted to me when I approached them. It was as if he perceived me as a potential threat even though I was loaded down with a bag filled with workshop materials. The officer, without saying a single word, pointed in the direction that I should be walking with his nightstick. It was so unlike the manner in of someone who is sworn to protect and serve.Unfortunately, this behavior does not seem to be restricted to the USA

One evening, in the Barranco District of Lima, Perú where I was staying, I was in the mood to go out and party. I started walking the streets looking for a place to exchange some of my American dollars into Peruvian currency. Down the block, I saw a police car parked at the corner of the main square. Surely, they would know, I thought to myself. As I got up close to the police car, I noticed their window up and shut tight as they simply looked at me. I motioned for them to roll down the window because I wanted them to hear my question. The officer on the drivers side lowered the window about an inch. As soon as they heard my foreign accent and request to exchange my American dollars, they realized that I was not Afro-Peruvian. The police car's window was immediately rolled all the way down, and both officers suddenly became jovial as they happily gave me the directions that I needed.

I walked away with feelings of frustration and empathy on behalf of black Peruvians and how I could certainly relate to their experience of racism in their own country. Racism to which so many Peruvians I've personally heard vehemently deny exist. What Perú and other Latin-American countries do have over the US, however,  is that you hardly hear of any hate crimes or police brutality motivated by race.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Afro-Mexican Community of La Costa Chica

There is a restaurant in my community where I dine from time to time, and where I kept noticing a black woman of my complexion, but with much longer hair stretching down her back speaking fluent Spanish with her co-workers. 

One day, I finally got around to asking her, “¿de dónde eres? (where are you from?),” and I immediately began guessing countries with large black populations like Cuba, The Dominican Republic, or Colombia. She shook her head and got right in my face, and with a big wide grin, she proclaimed “Mexico” expecting me to react in utter astonishment like so many other people, including a lot of Latinos, and even many Mexicans. I was not one bit surprised!
My first knowledge of Black Mexico came upon reading personal accounts of an African-American anthropologist named Bobby Vaughn out of Stanford University who immersed himself in the black villages of La Costa Chica, a 200 mile stretch of land on Mexico’s west coast covering parts of Mexico’s states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The black woman in the restaurant is from Guerrero.

My younger brother, who himself has traveled to 38 or more countries around the world, also visited La Costa Chica. He entered several of the black villages and was welcomed, fed, and given a place to sleep. In fact, everyone that I know who visited La Costa Chica tells me that the closer you get to the remote black villages, the friendlier the people are.

My co-moderator of the Facebook page, Brothers and Sisters in Latin America, which deals with the Latin-American experience from a black person’s perspective of living, traveling, working, or studying in Latin America, had this to say about her travels to La Costa Chica:

 I had the privilege of meeting this wonderfully adventurous woman when I was in Oaxaca as well. She is from Oklahoma, 71 years young, and offered me the wise council and shoulder to "cry" on that I sorely needed at the time. Check out her blog and pics when you get a chance, as it is packed with lots of interesting tidbits about the region...scroll down to see the photos (there are many) at the bottom of the post or use the slide show function.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Must Have a Latin Soul

Many Latinos I talk to, here and abroad, have had trouble believing that I'm American, born and raised. In a way, it is a compliment because it says a lot of what they think of my Spanish and how well I immerse myself into their culture.

In Ecuador, people thought I was from somewhere in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic). In Peru, some thought I was from Panamá or Brazil. And because my Spanish is perceived to have a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) accent, one woman simply assumed that am Puerto Rican. Even in Mexico City. I had to show my passport and bust some English because a group of men I was conversing with did not believe that I'm American. They thought I was a Cuban immigrant.

Here in the US, Latin-American immigrants with little knowledge of English really tried to dig into my roots. They wanted to know if my parents or grandparents are Latino. I would simply tell them that my father's family is from Mississippi, and my mother's family is from Georgia.

Today, I was riding a commuter train to my job in San Francisco and noticed a family speaking to each other in clear, well-articulated Spanish. I figured they were tourists, and I asked one of them, con permiso, ¿de dónde son ustedes (excuse me, where are you all from)? When she said Ecuador, I reacted like she was a home-girl as I told her of my personal experiences in her country and of my plans to go back.She immediately asked me where I am from. I assured her that I'm from the US.

It just so happened that another passenger on the train joined in on the conversation (in Spanish) saying that she too has been to Ecuador. One of the men in the family made me bust out laughing when he shouted out to everyone one the train, in perfect English, “ANYONE ELSE BEEN TO ECUADOR?”  As I departed the train at Montgomery Street station, the same gentleman and another family member told me that they hoped to see me again (in Ecuador!).

As I walked from the train station to my job, I began to take note of my feelings and how uplifted I felt after talking with that family. I then thought of my feelings of exhilaration that comes over me when I hear salsa, bachata, and other forms of Latin-American music. A friend brought to my attention of how my eyes would light up when I start speaking Spanish.

I also noticed that in my trips to Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panamá how excited I felt before, during, and after my visits. In the El Vedado District of Havana, Cuba, and along the malecón (waterfront), I was engulfed with feelings of déjà vu. When I returned to the US, I felt so homesick for Cuba that it took several years before I could stop talking about it. I thought that, perhaps, I may have been Cuban in another life.

Many African-Americans also get confused about my ethnicity as well; asking if I'm black,” not taking into consideration that Latinos come in all colors, including “black.” I faithfully tell them that I'm African American, born in St. Louis' famous black community known as The Ville and raised in the world famous black community of Harlem, New York. I suspect that I simply must have a Latin soul.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The New Diversity of Latin New York

A lot has changed since my childhood in New York City, particularly where the Puerto Rican community gave me an abrupt introduction to the Spanish language and influenced me to begin learning that language as young as the age of 10. Many of us in the New York African-American community were turned on to salsa music, which in those days, was simply known as “Latin.” Some of these “Latin” tunes were broadcasted on African-American radio stations like WWRL and WBLX.

I left New York at the age of 17 to go to into Job Corps, and later to college. After joining the Navy to see the world, I ended up in Oakland, CA where I lived most of my adult life. My visits to New York City were non-existent. It was later on in my adult life when I actually returned to reminisce my childhood community, which happened to be walking distance from Spanish Harlem, and at that time, it was very Puerto Rican.

El Watusi by Ray Barretto was #1 on African-American
radio station WWRL back in the day

I remember in many of the grocery stores and candy stores you could hear bomba and plena music, which was born in heavily populated black cities of Loiza and Ponce, Puerto Rico. Neighborhoods were sprawling with cuchifrito (fried dish) vendors selling their delicacies ever so popular on that enchanted island of Puerto Rico. Anytime I would hear Spanish spoken by folks be they black, white, or brown, they were most likely Puerto Rican. Those days are long gone!

From my perception, Spanish Harlem lost that strong ethnic flavor due to gentrification that is occurring in many communities of color across the country. A former Puerto Rican classmate told me that a lot of the Puerto Ricans moved out of New York City.

Salsa music, which itself was born in New York, is no longer the prevalent form of Latin music to be heard these days.  New York, NY lost its title as the salsa music capital of the world to Cali, Colombia where people live and breathe salsa music. Upon my return to New York, I heard a lot of reggaetón (yuck!), and thanks to the very large Dominican community, bachata, and meringue.

Today, unlike yesterday, bachata music is very popular in Latin New York

Besides the heavy influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic living in New York, there are many immigrants from Perú, Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and to my greatest surprise, Mexico. I was shocked to learn that Mexicans are now the third largest Latino community in City of New York. In my youth, I only met one person of Mexican ancestry and he happened to be a co-worker of my mother at a federal agency.

It wasn’t until I left New York when I had my first real live contact with the Mexican-American community. In fact, I never heard of tacos, burritos, or jalapeños until I came to California. Of course, times have changed. You can now find those items almost anywhere, even in New York, NY—the big apple.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What’s Wrong With the Spanish Language?

One evening, in a local restaurant near my home where I am accustomed to speaking Spanish with an all-Latin American staff, the shift manager happened to be working at the register. When I began to order in Spanish, she snapped at me with a heavy Latin-American accent, “I don’t speak Spanish, sir! That was very interesting because she is supervising six or more workers who speak primarily Spanish and little or no English. Was this something I should take personally, who knows? I do know that it would have been a good customer service policy to flow with my Spanish, at least, until it became evident that my level of fluency is limited. I make it a practice of giving larger tips to restaurant personnel who interact with me in Spanish without getting offended like this manager.

Brenda, a friend from El Salvador was telling me that she often meets US Latinos who claim that they do not speak Spanish, but really do. This reminded me of a conversation that I had with Mariana who told me that when she first came to Los Angeles from Nicaragua, many Latinos would respond in English when she spoke to them in Spanish saying, “oh, I’m American; I don’t speak Spanish!” I asked Brenda what she thinks is the reason for their apparent shame with the Spanish language. She could not tell me.

Throughout my life, I noticed many Latinos (not all as I’ve met a many proud Latinos as well) who were born or raised in the US with a high level of discomfort with the Spanish language. Even Judge Mathis on one of his shows openly criticized a Latino witness for trying to camouflage his ethnicity. He was literally was bragging about his little knowledge of the Spanish language as though that makes him more American.

What is so un-American about speaking Spanish? This language, among several others, was spoken in the US long before the US was born. And unlike Dutch, German, French, and other languages spoken here in US history, Spanish has remained a silver lining throughout the history of this country. In other words, Spanish is as American as cherry pie! People who speak it need to quit letting xenophobes  dictate where they place their cultural loyalty. The USA is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual nation and always will be. In my city alone, Oakland, more than 88 languages are spoken.

When I served in the US Navy, I served among people who speak Samaon, Tagalog (Filipino), Cantonese, and Spanish. I think there should be a Spanish-speaking “Pride” movement here in the US, with parades to wake people up.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Experiencing Poor Customer Service in Spanish-Speaking Countries

My cab driver in Comalapa, El Salvador treated me royally; after all, I paid him enough for a three-hour tour of the area before catching my next flight to Perú.

One morning, near a busy intersection in Higuerote, Venezuela, I decided to buy an empananda snack from  a street vendor. The empanada was so delicious I could literally scream. However, there was one disturbing problem. The vendor did not bother to acknowledge me as a customer, nor did she give me the professional courtesy of a “thank-you.” For her, I was just another routine piece of work and no longer visible once the business transaction was completed. 

This is not the first negative customer service experience I’ve had during my travels into Latin America. I’ve experienced it in Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, and Perú. 

Upon walking away from this woman’s empanada stand, I immediately imagined myself in her place; producing and selling such a superior product and how much more money I could make accompanying that superior product with top-notch courtesy, a smile, and genuine appreciation for customers’ patronage. Who in their right mind would not be appreciative of someone putting money in their pockets?

I found customer service to be decent in certain parts of Quito, Ecuador

Here in the US, most businesses will try to give the best customer service to keep their businesses growing. We even have savvy business owners will monitor their YELP ratings to make sure they are customer satisfactory, and try to learn and grow from whatever negative reviews they receive. On one occasion, I've been offered a $300 refund from a business I was dissatisfied with if I removed the negative review. Another offered me a free meal in her restaurant.

Unfortunately, many Latin American businesses are not motivated to provide better customer service to beat their competition. The mentality is if they lose one customer, another will come along; no sweat! Maybe in more upscale areas or in tourist areas where you are more likely to be charged gringo taxes (higher prices than what ordinary citizens would pay), things might be different. 

This type of customer service drives many foreigners who stay in Latin America for any length of time nuts. As one Canadian expat puts it, “it bothers me a lot when I’m paying for a service and someone rolls his or her eyes at me, or just refuses to help…it’s pretty aggravating.” Another expat in Panamá states that he has always found customer service to be a serious issue, but notices that it seems to be about the area you’re in. If you go to a popular restaurant near a lower income area, the service just seems worse. Then, you go to the same restaurant in an upscale mall, and it’s a totally different experience.

Timothy, a friend who bought a home in northern Peru with his Afro-Peruvian wife says he often pays store clerks a little extra so he'll be remembered the next time and get treated with more warmth and respect. My only question is why must you have to pay extra to get treated with the warmth and respect that you already deserve for patronizing that establishment? 

Posing with owner of Mamainé Restaurant in Guayabo, Perú
who provides exemplary customer service for Peruvian soul food.

A businessman who taught customer service techniques in Central America was told by many of his students that the reason they didn’t provide great service is that tips are always low. Employers do not make the employees feel like they have a vested interest in the company. They get paid a very low salary. Many work more than 5 days a week, and they go home just to do it all over again. You’ll rarely see sales initiatives in places or rewards for employees. 

We visitors and expats have the opportunity to completely change things, he insists. As customers, we can help by smiling, being friendly to the person serving our food, leaving good tips, and making sure we’ve actually tell the server that we appreciate their great attitude and a job well done. Doing that, we might be able to change the poor customer service mentality.  

If I were to own a business, I would not only provide a great service, I would teach my employees how to do the same. I would make them feel a part of a growing team that cares, and above all, pay decent wages. They will in turn feel motivated to go the extra mile, provide the best customer service, which inadvertently attracts more customers, and naturally, bring in more money.