Saturday, January 31, 2015

My US Afro-Cuban Connections

Oakland, California

Being a lover of music from Cuba, along with a strong desire to use my Spanish made me want to be closer to the fairly large Afro-Cuban community in Oakland where I spent most of my adult life before returning to hometown of New York. This was especially true after my two week trip to Cuba where I was deeply touched by the culture and the hospitable nature of Cuban people.

My professional connections with Afro Cubans in the U.S. was a result of my work as an employment counselor as I started meeting a large wave of immigrants called balseros (Spanish for rafters) because they escaped the Island of Cuba on makeshift rafts. 

One such balsero was Miguel who invited me to a party so I could meet his family. We used to have long conversations in my office as he enlightened me on the things I observed during my Cuban visit. There was also Jesús, a very outgoing Cuban musician whom I interviewed for a salsa music magazine where I served as a part-time staff writer.
My social connections with the Afro-Cuban community is different and surprisingly limited due to, unfortunately, the cultural comfort zone of the average Cuban immigrant who naturally wanted to be around other Cuban immigrants or Latin Americans. I had a much easier time mingling with Cuban men and women on the island of Cuba.

One exception was Vladimir, another balsero, whom I met at the Caribee Dance Center in Oakland where we hung out on salsa nights. Due to our frequent patronage of the center, our rapport grew. It was about this time when I was planning my trip to Cuba, and Vladimir was good enough to hook me up with his family in Havana where I was welcomed like a member of the family and well fed with Cuban food.

One year after my trip to Cuba, Vladimir's mother, Julia, came to Oakland to be with her son for one year. I used to stop by the house often to keep Julia company in my appreciation of the family-like way she and her family treated me during my Cuban visit. What was strange was that Vladimir spent a lot of time away from the home doing his thing. That would have never happened in Cuba. 

One evening, I just happened to be coming home late from work and found Julia stranded outside of Vladimir's apartment. She was locked out, and she had no idea of the whereabouts of her son. To help Julia, I managed to climb into the first-floor apartment through a side window, and provided Julia her needed access.

After Vladimir's mother Julia returned to Cuba, Vladimir soon moved out of the neighborhood without even telling me. He never even called me with his new contact information or anything. I interpreted that as a break in our friendship, which abruptly ended any rapport that I had with the Afro-Cuban community in Oakland.

It was a Saturday afternoon in nearby Berkeley, CA when I was browsing a Flea Market proudly wearing my Cuban baseball cap. I just happened to pass a stall run by Afro-Cubans selling video and stereo equipment. They were strictly business and not too friendly even though I spoke Spanish and expressed genuine appreciation for the loud Cuban music they were playing in the background. 

One of them gave me a hard, curious look before reluctantly asking, ¿Cubano? (Are you Cuban?). As I tried to explain in Spanish that I visited the island, he simply turned his back and walked away while the owner stated with a smirk on his face, “¡él no es Cubano (dude ain't Cuban)!” I just laughed and moved on to get away from the not-so-welcoming cliquish vibes.

I don't meet too many black Cuban woman in the US, and I'm guessing because not too many of them take the risks of crossing the Gulf of Mexico on makeshift rafts. However, when I was in Cuba, I was drooling over all the attractive black women I could choose from if I lived on the island because so many Afro-Cuban guys seemed to be attracted to white and mestizo women.

Finally, there was Lydia, an Afro-Cuban woman who hated on me for a long time because she felt that my love for the island of Cuba and its music was making me swing to the beat of Castro, a man whom she and many Cuban refugees despise with a passion. Lydia and I used to verbally cut each other up in English and Spanish.

One day, while in one of her civil moods, she turned me on to a book entitled “Hijack” written by Tony Bryant, a former Black Panther who hijacked a plane to Cuba. Tony wrote about how his experience in Cuba converted him from a leftist black revolutionary into a right-wing republican by the time he returned to the USA 14 years later. When I expressed an interest in reading this book (a good read, by the way), she immediately felt love for me as a brother.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Travel Tragedy in Panamá

I'm a member of an awesome network known as the Nomadness Travel Tribe. When I'm in an airport, foreign or domestic; roaming a city, foreign or domestic, I can be immediately recognized by my attire and ID card by other members of this urban, new age travel movement that spans 9,000 members with a love and passion for an activity which broadens the mind and nurtures the soul—travel.

In the “Tribe,” as we call it, we share stories, advice, photos, and converse about our personal travel experiences in every corner of the planet earth. There is not a place in the world where a member of Nomadness Travel Tribe has not been and cannot give you advice from personal experience. If you plan on moving or traveling to another city, foreign or domestic, business or pleasure, you can get tons of advice from the Tribe. 

We are primarily on Facebook, but have live meet-ups all over the world, one of which I hosted here in Oakland two summers ago. In one word, the Tribe is family; a place where strangers become friends in one meeting. I would venture to say that the Nomadness Travel Tribe is the largest and most efficiently run forum on Facebook.

The tribe sponsors group trips to various places around the world. 

However, I am very sad to hear of two members of our Tribe who lost their lives in a bus accident in Panama. They were Nigel Christopher and Nneka Fritz. Several other members were hospitalized with serious injuries. 

Nigel Christopher, someone I never met in person as we lived 3000 miles away from each other. However, Nigel made me feel very welcome and at home when I first joined the Tribe three years ago. He had a way of making me feel like we've met in person and became the best of friends. Thus, his passing had me grieving the hardest. 

The Tribes follow-up and concern for the victims and the families of the victims in this horrific accident made me feel much closer to all the members of the Nomadness Travel tribe. To date, The Tribe raised over $64K to help the victims and their families.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The “Latin” Piano

When I say “Latin” piano, I'm referring to the role that the piano plays in giving flavor to salsa music and son music from Cuba (pronounced sewn) on which salsa music is based. In my younger years, before the term salsa was coined, the music was simply known as “Latin.”

Ever since my teen years in New York City, which was then the salsa music capital of the world (now it's Cali, Colombia, in my opinion), the most uplifting and pleasurable listening experience in salsa music was the piano; especially when featuring such artists as Eddie Palmieri and his late brother Charlie.

The “Latin” piano is the underlying base of salsa music containing sophisticated harmonies, syncopated rhythms, and various chord progressions. Although the piano is technically a percussion instrument, it gives the rhythm section a melody with riffs, or what they call in salsa music, guajeos, which drives the rhythm section with seductive, hot, and spicy Afro-Latin beats.

Here is a classic played by my favorite “Latin” pianist of all time; my New York homie Eddie Palmieri:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Spanish Word for Black People

“Tú no eres negro; tú eres moreno!”
(You are not black; you are colored!)

To my surprise, this statement was made to me personally by an Afro-Peruvian dance troupe leader in a predominately black district of Southern Perú. She reminded me of the time when calling a black American “African” or “black” were fighting words. We used to insist on being called “Negroes” or “colored folks.”

Wherever I am in Latin America, I always refer to myself as “negro (black)” or “afro-estadounidense (African-American).” However, During my Latin-American travels, I often heard the word moreno used when referring to black people, even among the black Latin Americans.

I remember in my first trip to Black Perú, I ran into an employee of a cell phone store and asked for directions. Realizing that I was a visitor, he stopped what he was doing and stated, "un moreno tiene que ayudar un moreno," in other words, LOL, a brother got to help a brother out! He was hoping to get a tip, and I gladly gave him one and treated him to a seafood lunch.

Recently, I observed a discussion among Afro-Latinos as to what black people are called when speaking Spanish. The responses differed depending on location, generation, and Latin-American country of origin. Here are the responses:

  • Moreno in my area is usually used in reference to an African American.
  • I was taught that moreno is offensive.
  • I'm dark skin and I'm referred to as moreno
  • Moreno is seen as better or more polite than negro.
  • My aunt in Costa Rica is a linguist and she goes into a panic attack when someone calls her a morena.
  • I think moreno used amongst Latinos to refer to people of African descent, but I know my black Cuban grandparents would not want to be referred to as negros.
  • I learned that negro refers to people of black skin where moreno is someone who was born very light skinned and have been tanned by being out in the sun, or someone who is darker by a few shades from the rest of their family. 
  • In Puerto Rico, I was always taught to refer to blacks as moreno. However. At one time I was speaking to an older Afro-Cuban in her 70's and she told me not to refer to black people as morenos. I was thoroughly confused but she was my elder and I said, "yes ma'am." 
  • An African-American who lived in Perú with his Afro-Peruvian wife states that moreno is the proper name for a black person. He insists that it is formal, especially if you do not know the individual.
The term moreno was the term used by the Christian Spaniards referring to the Muslim Moors who were of darker complexion and had occupied the Iberian peninsula of Spain for over 800 years. However many Afro-Latinos use the term negro, such as the late black Queen of salsa music Celia Cruz and the world famous dance troupe Perú Negro (Black Peru).  

Today, more and more Afro-Latinos who are waking up to their heritage are referring to themselves as Afro-descientes (African descendents).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Some Black Men's Facination with Latin Women

A black American male posted a message in Latina Magazine's on line forum asking if Latinas like black men. I thought how clueless this gentleman was with such a stereotypical question. The responses from the forum's female participants were, as expected, mixed as to whether or not they would date a black man.

However, I reminded this youngster that, like any other ethnic group, Latin-American people are not a monolithic group of people you can paint with the same brush. I added that he needs to check with the individual Latina in whom he may have an interest. The interest may or may not be mutual for any number of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with ethnicity. 

From my personal experience at various salsa, merengue, and bachata music clubs where I have been hanging out for a number of years, I've met three types of women of all races; those who blew me off because I'm black; those who were engaging specifically because I'm black, and those who did not care one way or the other as long as I can show them a good time on the dance floor. The latter was an overwhelming majority.

It's been a while since I lived in New York City, but it has been brought to my attention that a lot of African-American men in New York have hot desires for a Latin-American woman. A Peruvian-American female once told me directly that such black men are a dime-a-dozen in New York.

Another Latina from Brooklyn whom I will refer to as Maribella shared in her blog, “Is Latina, the New Thing?”  that African-American women tell her that she should not have a hard time dating because being Latina is the “in thing,” and that it's harder for black women to date. As a single black American male with personal preference for the darker woman, I would beg to differ.

Maribella asks a very good question, though: what is up with this social stigma that Latinas are these exotic creatures? She adds that this over-sexualized view portrayed by reality TV shows and the media is bull. 

As one who traveled to nine Latin-American countries, and lived and worked among Latinos in the U.S., I would be the first to tell these brothers (AND sisters) that not every Latina looks like the ones you see on the cover of Latina Magazine. Maribella stated it well, beauty is not granted due to race or ethnicity.

I was a bit annoyed by her comment; however, when she said that she “looks” Latina. What does that mean? What she and so many people overlook is that the so-called “Latina look” is just another stereotype portrayed by the media. Real Latinos come in all colors, including black, and represent many ethnic groups, including African. When I was in a Chinese restaurants in Perú, South America, I had to order in Spanish (or Cantonese), or I didn't eat!

Here is something that I'd like to share with some of you brothers who are so crazy about Latinas. Check these “Latina” beauties out:

 Mónica Chalá, former Miss Ecuador from 
Ecuador's black capital of Esmeraldas

An Afro-Colombian Model for South America's 
version of Ebony Magazine called Ébano

  Mónica Carrillo, Peruvian civil rights activist
(the one I like)

Marva Weatherhorn, former Miss Guatemala

Concha Buiki, flamenco singer from Spain by way of Equatorial Guinea, West Africa

If I had to make a choice between two attractive women, one Latina and the other African American, I would look beyond the outer appearance and look at the heart. Is she down to earth, a good communicator, unselfish, and easy to get along with? I would definitely want to know about the common interests that we could enjoy together as a couple. Choosing a woman for looks and ethnicity alone would be quite shallow and will certainly backfire in the long run.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Celebrating Puerto Rico's Little Black Angels

I recently gained a greater, heartfelt appreciation for an album I purchased years ago by salsa music icon Willie Colón. It was an instrumental album that is very pleasing to the ear called “El Baquiné de Angelitos Negros” (celebration of little black angels) in which I learned the album's cultural and traditional meaning upon consultations with some Afro Boricuas (Puerto Ricans of African ancestry).

A Banquiné (pronounced Bah-Key-NAY) is a type of funeral celebrating (versus morning) the death of innocent little black children entering heaven to be with God. The evening before the child's funeral, family, friends and loved ones would gather for the event. Traditional games and songs would be shared long into the night until the sun came up, followed in the morning by the burial.

The Baquiné, which is part religious and part festive, is an old and vanishing tradition not widely known outside of the predominately black town of Loiza Aldea, Puerto Rico. In fact, a Baquiné has not been celebrated in over 20 years. Because of modern medical advances, the death of young children is not so common anymore.  

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Confusing Afro-Latinos with African Americans

“I really wish more people in the U.S. knew about Afro-Latinos. I'm tired of the stereotypes towards Black people—black people eat fried chicken, black people only speak English, black people eat soul food, etc. 

Not all Black people have the same culture. And I need more Afro-Latino friends. It's hard to find Afro-Latinos in Texas. 

I hang around Hispanics that are not black and they wonder if I'm mixed with black and how do I know Spanish. I need to surround myself with my people more.”

San Marcos, Texas 

The shame in the above statement is that even a lot of non-black Latinos are just as guilty of pigeon-holing black people as any other ethnic group, including African-Americans. Latin-Americans, of all people, should be aware of the racial diversity in their own community, and many, I found are not. To me, that is baffling. 

I recall many instances in my personal life where I had to educate U.S. people of Latin-American ancestry that real Latinos come in all colors. From my travels and interactions with Latinos in the U.S., I've met Latinos of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, European, and Jewish ancestries. When I was in Lima, Perú, I could not go into a Chinese restaurant without ordering in Spanish (or Cantonese) if I wanted to eat.

 Ironically, there is a segment of the Afro Latino population who speak Spanish loudly in order to differentiate themselves from African-Americans. It is as if to say, I'm different; I'm not like “those” black people. Doris, a former salsa dance partner of mine, once told me when she first moved to Brooklyn from Puerto Rico that she did not associate with black people. I reminded Doris that she too is black. She then tapped her arm twice saying, “I mean black-black people. I then reminded her while tapping my arm twice that there are black-black people all over the world. 

Too many blacks in the western world from the USA all the way down to Argentina forget (or want to forget) that we come from the same Africans whose bodies line the ocean floor and whose blood left a trail that moved the shark population into the Western Hemisphere. I recently read a sign saying the only difference between a Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Cuban, Bahamian, and an African American is a boat stop. Yet, most of us blacks in the western world are divided or misguided amongst ourselves as to who we are and our history. 

Then, I met other Afro-Latinos who are quiet and reserved about their culture and ethnicity in order to fit into the predominate African-American community in the US. I tell the ones that I'm close to that people need to be educated, which is why I've been blogging African American - Latino World for five years. Although my blog attracts African Americans, Latinos, and others, I'm only one person. More Afro-Latinos can do more to educate because, sure enough, people need it!

We all have the power and the responsibility to tell our own stories and stop fussing about people's ignorance like passive victims. I would like to see more Afro Latinos write their own stories and control the narrative.