Friday, June 26, 2015

Coming Out as “TRANS...!”

I was in my favorite El Salvadorean restaurant called Los Cocos on Fruitvale Avenue here in Oakland, and ordered my favorite dish, pescado frito—fried fish with rice and a salad, and tortillas. While waiting for my meal, I heard some heart-warming, romantic, Spanish music airing over the radio system that was so touching, I had to ask the waiter what station it is because I intended to start tuning in myself when I got home. 

This was during the time when Bruce Jenner just completed his operation coming out as transgender; asserting the fact that he feels more like a woman than that of a man, and that she will go by the name of Katelyn.

As I felt the beautiful music encompassing my whole being, it influenced me to get in touch with my own feelings as it dawned that I need to stop this internal battle that has been going on since I was 10, and simply man up and accept myself for who I am and what I am. That is when I decided to come out as trans in a “cultural” sense. 

My co-worker was surprised at my love for old-school soul music.

One day at a company party, someone threw on an old-school song by a group known as the OJays, and I started rocking to the beat and grooving to the melody. An African-American co-worker asked me, “Bill, you like this music?” She asked because she knows about my deep love for Latin music, especially salsa, bachata. and Afro-Cuban, and of course, the fact that I was getting bilingual pay to communicate with monolingual Spanish speakers. This gave her, and so many others, the impression that I might have some Latin-American blood flowing in my veins.

By birth I'm African-American, and I grew up jamming to the likes of Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and James Brown. However, I told this co-worker that if R&B music had not changed from the days of the Motown Sound producing the likes of the Temptations, and Stax Records producing the likes of Isaac Hayes, I would never have crossed over to Spanish music as heavily as I did.

I'm primarily self-taught in Spanish, inspired by my Puerto Rican neighbors and classmates at a young age.

In the fifth grade, I started teaching myself Spanish out of a children's library book, and began practicing on my Puerto Rican neighbors and school mates, who by their very presence influenced me to want to learn Spanish in the first place. I later befriended, Carlos, a Puerto Rican classmate, and hung out at his house everyday after school where Spanish was spoken in the home. His mother was benevolent enough to invite me to her church in Spanish Harlem so I can get a real baptism in the Spanish language.

It came as no surprise when I was in Ecuador, South America just a few years ago, a cab driver asked me if I was from a Spanish speaking country in the Caribbean. Evidently, he heard some words come out of my mouth that sounded Puerto Rican, or more accurately, Newyorican (New York Puerto Rican).

During my teen years while listening to the popular African-American radio station, WWRL in New York City, I noticed how the DJs gave airtime to Puerto Rican musicians playing Latin jazz and Latin soul music. This planted a seed in my heart, and from there my tastes in Latin-American music expanded to music from countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Perú, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia.

My Spanish and my hobby of exploring the black Latin American experience made me Trans-“cultural” without my realizing it.

It was well into my adulthood when my interest in the Spanish language resurfaced from my childhood. And my late Mexican-American friend, Yolanda, who noticed the progress that I was making, admonished me to learn the culture if I'm going to speak the language!

I took that advice and ran with it. As years passed, I developed a brand new hobby of exploring black cultures in Latin-American countries through travel and research, thus the primary motive behind this blog.

So far, of the nine Spanish-speaking countries that I've visited, the two that had the greatest emotional impact on me were Cuba and Perú. In Cuba, I felt like a long lost member of the community who finally came home. And upon my return to the U.S., a part of me felt exhilarated for having taken the trip, and another part of me was heartbroken for having to return to the U.S. And Perú, which I visited several times, I had the honor of staying with the family of the late, great maestro, Amador Ballumbrosio, the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance.

As an African American, my name is “Bill;” and I speak English. However, when I'm in Spanish-speaking country, my name is Guillermo where I speak only Spanish, and if anyone approaches me speaking English, I'm always quick to respond in Spanish just to drive the point home that I, Guillermo, has come out as trans-“cultural.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Determining One's Ethnicity

 A statue of Pedro (Primero Negro) Camejo, a high-ranking officer in Simón Bolívar's army in Venezuela's liberation from Spain.
Today, I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. The customer in front of me, an olive-skinned woman, ordered in Spanish and the cashier responded likewise. When my turn came, I ordered in Spanish and the cashier responded in broken Spanish and English. After responding this way for the third time, I pointed to my Caracas, Venezuela baseball jersey I was wearing and told her in Spanish that in Caracas people speak Spanish as well. Suddenly, thinking that I'm from Venezuela, her Spanish became fluent.

No, I am not from Venezuela, and I never told her that I am from Venezuela. I bought that baseball jersey when I was visiting Caracas, and simply stated that Venezuelan people speak Spanish as well, not just Mexicans—that was the point that I was trying to make. I wanted to teach little miss smarty pants a lesson that you cannot “LOOK” at people and determine their ethnicity.  

Yes, I'm African American, but as far as she, a total stranger is concerned, I could have been an Afro-Spaniard, Afro-Nicaraguan, or even an Afro-Mexican. An Afro-Colombian recently wrote on my blog stating how frustrating it is that in Miami, of all places with a large Afro-Latino population, people still assume that because he is black that he cannot speak Spanish.

The same thing applies to my fellow African Americans. One evening in Richmond, Calfornia, I gave an African-American woman, whom I met for the first time, a ride in my car. She noticed my New York accent and asked me if I am African. Confused, I answered no. She then asked me if I am a “regular black”. Now, what is a “regular” black, considering there are black people all over the world?

  A few African Americans who hear me speak Spanish would look directly at me and ask me if I am black. Of course, I am, what else could I be? Still, others ask me to confirm that I'm African American and not a member of another black ethnic group. Now, that I take as a compliment because it speaks to my global mindset.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Do Latinos Not Recognize Their Own Racial Diversity?

I had just returned from a five-nation Latin-American tour where my level of Spanish fluency climbed a few notches, seemingly by default. Before heading home to Oakland, I stopped in New York City where I grew up to visit my brother who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a cousin who lives in the South Bronx.  

One night, as I left my cousin's house for the subway station, I came across some guys speaking Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. Suddenly they stopped talking and looked at me with some concern, seemingly hoping that I was not packing a weapon with intentions of robbing them. After all, this was the South Bronx!  Because they were already speaking Spanish, I politely said, con permiso (excuse me), as I passed. One of the fellows responded in eloquent English—certainly! 

With New York having such a large Afro-Latino population, how did this gentleman know that I was not Afro Latino prompting him to respond to me in English? It seems to me that many (not all, thank goodness) Latin-American people here in the U.S. are oblivious to the racial diversity in their own communities. 

In response to one of my blog posts entitled, So Few Latinos of Color on Spanish TV, a Latino who goes by the name of Chaz Perez made the following bigoted comment:
* Give it a break! There are enough black faces on U.S. television to satisfy the world's demand for black faces on television. How many Hispanics or Asian faces do you see? Yet, are we crying? You Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Barack Obama keep the U.S. happy and in black faces. Don't worry about us.
*I had to edit his writing for grammar and spelling for his verbiage to make any sense.
What this person obviously overlooked when he asked me how many Hispanics or Asian faces do I see on U.S. TV is that many Hispanics are black as well as Asian. He appeared clueless to the fact that real Hispanics come in all colors and represent various ethnic groups. I also explained to him that the black faces we see on TV include Afro Latinos who are locked out of the Latin-American television industry, which consistently caters to those of European persuasion.

One evening I was coming from an Afro-Peruvian dance performance,  and I ran into an black friend whom I have not seen in a couple of years. Immediately, we greeted each other in Spanish. I then noticed two olive-skinned guys who appeared to be Latino freaking out and looking at us in astonishment, not taking into consideration that the black man I was speaking to is also Latino; a Peruvian who speaks limited English. Why was our Spanish conversation so entertaining to them?

While vacationing in Lima, Perú, I ate at a Chinese restaurant known as a “chifa,”  and had some of the best Chinese food I ever had. If I had not ordered in Spanish (or Cantonese), I would not have been fed. In Higuerote, Venezuela, two hours from the nation's capital of Caracas, I went shopping in a meat market owned by Middle Easterners. After surprising them with my basic Arabic, I began placing my order in Spanish; otherwise, I would not have been served.

I have personally met Latinos who are Jewish, black, Asian, white, indigenous, Middle Eastern, and of course, a mixture of various races. If a “gringo” like me can see the racial and ethnic diversity in the Latin-American community, why is it that so many born and raised Latinos are deprived of such awareness? Is it Spanish television like Univisión and Telemundo, or Spanish newspapers like El Diario in New York City and La Opinión in Los Angeles, California that fail to represent Latin America's realistic diversity? 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Michelle Obama “Dissed” on Spanish TV

Rodner Figueroa, the Emmy award-winning host of a major Spanish television station known as Univisión, was fired after comparing first lady Michelle Obama's appearance to that of someone from the cast of the "Planet of the Apes." This inflammatory comment occurred during his live segment on the entertainment news show "El Gordo Y La Flaca." Because he is the son of a black man from Venezuela, he didn't think his comment would create such a reaction.

After his firing, Univisión made a public statement that Mr. Figueroa's comments about the First Lady, Michelle Obama, was reprehensible and does not reflect the views and opinions of Univisión. 

But, here is the irony behind Univisión's statement;  Univisión and other Spanish television networks perpetually discriminates against Latinos of color in their programing as pointed out in my earlier blog post So Few Latinos of Color on Spanish TV? It is as though Univisión wants to sweep their racism under the rug by firing and disassociating themselves from Rodner Figueroa.