Saturday, February 28, 2015

First Black President - 180 Years Before Obama

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña
Mexico's First Black President

He was the son of an African slave mother and a mestizo peasant father who grew up to be a mule driver before joining Mexico's revolutionary forces to win his county's independence from Spain. He consistently distinguished himself in major battles ultimately achieving the rank of General. In 1829, he became Mexico's second president and immediately abolished slavery in Mexico.

Like Barack Obama, Mexico's president Vicente Guerrero tried too damn hard to please the very people who disliked him as he received stubborn, heated political opposition because of his African ancestry. As Obama received more death threats than any other US president, Guerrero's term, on the other hand, didn't even last a year before conservatives threw him out of office, convicted him of treason, and put him to death.

Vicente Guerrero, like Barack Obama, was inexperienced when it came to political leadership. Obama, at least, served as a senator before being formally elected president. Guerrero, on the other hand, with the aid of a general and a politician, bullied his way into the presidency by staging a coup d'etat years after he freed Mexico from Spanish rule on the battlefield. Obama, unlike Guerrero, is Harvard University educated. Guerrero did not have a formal education or the social grace of Barack Obama.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Black Perú—Souls of Our Ancestors

Mariela in Lima

I'm hanging out with members of Makungu Para El Desarrollo,
Mariela (center) and Alberto (right) at Starbucks in Lima, Perú.

While black Peruvians have preserved African culture in the nation of Perú, they took a cue from the U.S. Civil rights and black pride movements, and started movements of their own. One such movement is Makungu Para El Desarrollo (Developing the Soul of Our Ancestors). The word Makungu is a Bantu word named for this organization whose purpose is to strengthen the identity of young Afro-Peruvians and to reassess and strengthen black culture with special emphasis on education. This is in addition to fighting  discrimination, racism and exclusion from Peruvian society.

Makungu Para El Desarrollo sponsors educational scholarship programs born in response to the problems of access of young blacks in higher education and aiming to promote professional development of young Afro-Peruvians with limited financial resources

This program was born after the initiative of one of the founders of Makungu, who bears the name the program, taking as inspiration the thinking of Nelson Mandela, who said: "education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a miner can become head of the mine, a child of farm workers can get to be the president of a great nation.”

Because of my frequent trips to Perú, it has been a heartfelt pleasure for me to connect with members of the Makungu Para El Desarrollo which unites Afro-Peruvians in the capital city of Lima. When visiting any Latin American country, I try to learn as much as I can about the country's black history and try to get as close to the black experience of that country as possible.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Mexico, accustomed to brown and olive-skinned Central Americans passing through on their way to the U.S. is now noticing a new type of migrant, the Garífuna, an Afro-Caribbean population.

As one who enjoys travel to Black Latin America, Travesía, Honduras was among my list of places to visit. Travesía is one of the many black communities of Garífuna [people along beautiful beaches on the nations east coast. The Garfuna people are descendents of both Africans and indigenous Arawak people of the Caribbean. 

In Garífuna villages, you can see traditional architecture, such as houses of wild cane or palm leaves. You can find traditional foods like machuca—mashed green plantains with coconut milk soup and fried fish, and many kinds of traditional bread –cassava bread, buns, banana bread, and pumpkin bread. The women wear both modern clothes and traditional Garifuna clothes which include headscarves and brightly colored dresses.

I am disturbed to learn what is happening to the Garífuna in Honduras where a proud culture is being slowly destroyed. For centuries, the Garfuna people lived peacefully in their seaside towns. There’s always been a trickle of migration from the community to the United States – especially the Bronx in New York City, where the largest Garifuna community outside of Central America lives.  

As lately as the spring of 2014, however, the trickle of migrants became a flood. Thousands embarked on the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border; mostly mothers with small children seeking refuge with family members. As they pass through Mexico often carrying only the bare essentials, such as cash, some clothes, and a cell phone (if they can afford one) standing out among the migrant population in Mexico and Central America because they are black.

Honduras has reportedly become unlivable, and is one of the most violent nations in the world with an estimated 19 murders a day on average in a country of fewer than 8 million people. Some Garifuna say their Caribbean communities are in a bad spot when it comes to attracting criminal activity—key corridors for drug traffickers  

The Garifuna are migrating for other major reasons; racial discrimination that makes economic advancement really hard along with the ongoing seizure of traditional lands by government business interests. Racism plays out in academics and in work opportunities. It is evident in those who have the capacity to do better for themselves, and who is not prepared, academically, or in terms of job experience. 

Honduras doesn’t have many resources, there is work but it’s poorly paid. People wonder why the president has not moved a single finger for this madness to stop. The government has shut every single department related to Afro-Descendant and indigenous rights. Either they no longer exist or they have been folded into some minor ministry that will not give priority to their concerns.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mexico's Historic Aid to Black American Freedom Struggles

In 1829, Mexico's president, Vicente Guerrero, son of an African slave mother, inadvertently spawned a Mexican underground railroad for African-Americans by signing a decree banning slavery in the Mexican Republic.

“Sometimes someone would come along and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that. There was no reason to run up north. All we had to do was walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande.”

 Felix Haywood, a Texas slave, as quoted in 
“The Slave Narratives of Texas” 

Beginning in 1822, more than 20,000 slave owners settled into Texas. Even though Mexican Federal Law clearly reasserted the nation’s commitment to defend the right of enslaved Africans to liberate themselves, slave owners in Texas pressed for an extradition treaty which would require Mexico to return runaway slaves. After Texas gained independence from Mexico, the slave population in Texas as well as the number of runaways across the border into Mexico mushroomed

Mexicans living in Texas took great risks and invested enormous resources toward facilitating the escape of enslaved Africans. The Texas-to-Mexico routes to freedom constituted major unacknowledged extensions of the Underground Railroad. 

The Tejanos (Texas Mexicans) were accused of tampering with slave property, consorting with blacks, and stirring up a spirit of insubordination among the slave population. Mexican Americans stood their ground refusing to return runaways and continued to support slave uprisings.

In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved African who had sued for his freedom on the grounds that his owner forfeited any claim to him after taking him into a free state, the Mexican Congress declared that enslaved people were free the moment they set foot on Mexican soil.

During the 1890s, hundreds of Black migrants fed up with slave-like conditions and segregation, left Alabama for Mexico and established 10 large colonies. Shortly thereafter, during the period of the Mexican Revolution, large numbers of black people migrated from New Orleans to Tampico, Mexico, as the oil industry prospered. These Africans in Mexico established branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). 

Sadly today, we hear of conflicts and polarization between African Americans and Mexican Americans in communities around the country. Gone are the days when César Chávez established relationships with Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; gone are the days when the Black Panthers were allies with the Mexican-American Brown Berets, and gone are the days when blacks in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) allied with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a Mexican-American student organization on college campuses. I cite ignorance in both communities.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Latino Lynchings

Some years back, I attended a lecture at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA where the Mexican-American presenter spoke of Mexicans being lynched during the same time period as black Americans. Although this was the first I heard of such a horror happening to Latinos, I was not surprised!

Below is a summary of Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article entitled, The Unknown History of Latino Lynchings. The article addresses Latinos, mostly Mexican-Americans, primarily in the Southwestern U.S. states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada who were lynched between the years of 1846 and 1925. 

Mexicans, like African Americans, were not only lynched for being “uppity,” taking jobs away from whites, making advances toward white women, cheating at cards, practicing “Witchcraft,” and refusing to give up their land because whites wanted it, but Mexicans, were also lynched for acting “too Mexican;” i.e., speaking Spanish too loudly or proudly showing off aspects of Mexican culture. 

The Unknown History of Latino Lynchings

Although research on Latino lynchings is relatively new, circa 2006-2009, lynchings have a deep rooted history. Such acts can be described as mob violence where person(s) are murdered/hanged for an alleged offense usually without a trial. Through reviewing of anthropological research, storytelling, and other internal & external interactions, there is believed to have been roughly 600 lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beginning with the aftermath of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (this document essentially ended the Mexican-American war, where Mexico surrendered half of its land to the U.S.). 

This grim fate of Blacks and Mexicans in the U.S. was intertwined; both groups were lynched by Anglos for reasons such as “acting uppity,” taking jobs away from Anglos, making advances toward Anglo women, cheating at cards, practicing “Witchcraft,” and refusing to leave land that Whites coveted. 

Additionally, Mexicans were lynched for acting “too Mexican;” for example, if Mexicans were speaking Spanish too loudly or showcasing aspects of their culture too defiantly, they were lynched. Mexican women may also been lynched if they resisted the sexual advances of Anglo men. Many of these lynchings occurred with active participation of law enforcement. In fact the article reiterates that the Texas Rangers had a special animus towards persons of Mexican descent. Considering that Mexicans had little to no political power or social standing in a “new nation,” they had no recourse from such corrupt organizations. Popular opinion was to eradicate the Southwest of Mexicans.

Many of these lynchings were treated as a public spectacle; Anglos celebrated each of these killings as if the acts were in accordance with community wishes, re-solidifying society and reinforcing civic virtue. Ringleaders of such lynchings often mutilated bodies of Mexicans, by shooting the bodies after individuals were already dead, cutting off body parts, then leaving the remains on display perhaps in hung trees or in burning flames.

These lynchings took place in the Southwest U.S., in present-day Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, amongst other states. The killings were carried out by vigilantes or other masked-men, as a form of “street justice.” These killings became so bad that the Mexican government lodged official complaints to the U.S. counsel in Mexico. 

Given that this region of the U.S. was at one time Mexican land, and it was shared with Indian/Indios, Mexicans, and Anglos, protests against the lynchings emerged. As legend has it, Joaquin Murrieta took matters into his own hands by murdering the Anglos responsible for the death of mythical figures Juan Cortina and Gregorio Cortes. Such acts were short-lived and perpetuated the conflict between Mexicans and Anglos.

Delgado goes on to cite that only some U.S. historians have written about these Latino lynchings and have pointed out that they occurred due to racial prejudice, protection of turf, and Yankee nationalism left over from the Mexican-American War. However, it has been concluded that such lynchings are a relatively unknown history due to a global pattern of shaping discourse as to avoid embarrassment of the dominant group. Those in power often have the ability to edit official records.

Further exploration reveals that these lynchings were not only edited & minimized outright, but were also ignored or misrepresented due to primary accounts in community newspapers being written in Spanish. Since very few mainstream historians read Spanish or consulted with these records, they were left to flounder. Also, many Latinos knew of these lynchings; their accounts were maintained, shared, and solidified as Mexican lore through ritualistically songs (corridos, actos, and cantares). 

Many oral cultures have equivalences of such interpretations. Today, Latino scholars are not surprised by history’s ignoring of such events; postcolonial theory describes how colonial societies almost always circulate accounts of their invasions that flatter and depicts them as the bearers of justice, science, and humanism. Conversely, the natives were depicted as primitive, bestial, and unintelligent. Subsequently, colonialists must civilize the natives, use the land & its resources in a better fashion, and enact a higher form of justice. The “official history” is written by the conquerors, thus showing them in the best possible light.

Delgado questions whether such remnants of Latino lynchings may still be present in society today. This can best be exemplified through movements to make English the official language of the U.S., forcing immigrants to assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture. Such actions can be illustrated in movements to end bilingual school opportunities and enforce English-only speaking at jobs, businesses, etc. Postcolonial scholars argue that such movements facilitate children to reject their own culture, acquire English, and forget their native language. These actions have far dire [documentable] consequence, like social distress, depression, and crime. As such, Delgado ventures to say that these actions are an implicit form of lynching.

Delgado ends the piece by saying that hidden histories of aggression, unprovoked war, lynchings, and segregation are corroborated/proliferated today by the mass media and entertainment industry. These groups, along with other scholars, have the opportunity to redress this history and reject further practices against Latinos. Otherwise, marginalized groups find themselves in a position where they are alienated from their family/identity/culture, co-opted, and unable to resist further oppression.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Exposure to Ghetto Street Spanish

I was in a job interview for an employment counselor position where the clientele would include some monolingual Spanish speaking immigrants. When the subject of my Spanish came up, I explained to the interview panel that my Spanish was influenced by a large Puerto Rican population in New York City where I grew up. People as far away as Perú and Ecuador where I traveled thought that I myself might be Puerto Rican (or Cuban).

One of the panel members who is not even Latino immediately began frowning, and asked is this street Spanish? Although, I thought that it was very prejudicial for this panelist to assume that all Puerto Ricans speak street Spanish, all of the panelists were very understanding when I explained that Puerto Ricans speak Spanish with a Caribbean accent just as Jamaicans speak English with a Caribbean accent. However, a woman directly from the island of Puerto Rico told me that I sound more like a New-Yorican (a New York Puerto Rican).

Naturally, Spain gets all the glory for speaking the highest form of the Spanish language. While Spaniards have been known to to look down on Latin Americans and their version of Spanish, Latin American people have been known to look down on the Spanish that has more African influence, such as that of the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, and the Dominicans. This point is clearly expounded upon in an article entitled Do Puerto Ricans Speak The “Ghetto Version” of Spanish?

A Latina acquaintance spoke of a time when she was being interviewed for Spanish tutor position. Once the Argentinian hiring manager heard Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as the source of her Spanish, she knew that she did not get the job, and needless to say, she never got a callback.

Many overlook the fact that language is a fluid, human creation that changes and evolves over time. The Spanish spoken in Spain has its own diversity depending on the region of the country. There is Castellano, Gallego, Galician, Asturian, Vascos, Catalán, and other dialects. Thus, Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America have their own dialects as well.  

During my interactions with Latino-American people in the US and in my travels, I came to realize that every country has its own ghetto street talk as well as formal. When I was in Cuba, I heard the Spanish of common, everyday people as they spoke in super-rapid fashion, but when I was on campus at the University of Havana, the Spanish spoken among students, staff, and faculty was formal and clearly understood. 

People, including some blacks, on campus, frowned and turned their heads in embarrassment when they heard me using some slang that I learned from a cab driver. I thought I was impressing them with my knowledge of local ghetto speak, but in Cuba, like any other Latin-American country, speaking formally or speaking the dialect of the barrio (the hood) is an indication of your level of class.

As much as I enjoy using the every day Spanish of the common people in the countries that I visit, I learned to discern the difference between formal and street talk and when to use them. Just as I would not use street talk in a formal environment in the U.S., like a job interview, the same applies to a formal environment in Latin America.