Friday, July 17, 2015

Black on Black Racism in the Dominican Republic

Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans 
confront racism on a daily basis.

Here in California, I don't meet too many people from the Domincan Republic as most of them are on the east coast of the USA. However, I did recently meet a couple of light-skinned Dominican woman at a bus stop where we got into a brief conversation. Both were fine looking and rather friendly compared to what I hear about Dominicans and their attitudes towards black people.

One thing that stood out about them is that their hair looked as though they were fresh from a beauty parlor. This is a big deal in the Dominican Republic, making your hair look as straight and Eurocentric as possible. Although, these two women were of color, I thought they would have looked just as good with curly or frizzy hair. However, anything making reference to an Afro-centric or Haitian look is beneath the average Dominican.

In a country where 90% of the citizens have African ancestry, the self hatred among Dominicans of color is unfathomable. Black Dominicans have gone as far as lynching black Haitian-Dominicans trying to drive the Haitians, even though they were born in the Dominican Republic, back into Haiti. 

The African-American woman who wrote the article below is black and proud, and describes a conflicting experience living in the Dominican Republic. 

My only question to her would be why did she choose the Dominican Republic to live and teach English versus other Latin-American countries where racism and internalized racism is not nearly as steep? She says, going to the Dominica Republic would give her a break from the racism that she experiences in the US. Wow was she mistaken.

Below is the link to the article followed by a copy of the actual article itself.

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, there was a point when the jeers from the streets, shouts of “Arréglate ese pelo!” (Fix that hair!) and mocking gestures about my prominent pajón (afro) became too much to deal with. In a country of complex racial dynamics, where straightened hair is a social currency and billboards depict curly-haired women with the headline Your hair deserves better,” natural or curly hair, colloquially referred to as pelo malo (bad hair—also a term used in the black American community), is sometimes viewed as a marker of Haitian identity. While many Dominicans vehemently deny the role of race in the current controversy over the deportation of Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants, the treatment I received while living in the Dominican Republic (and often being mistaken as Haitian) suggests the contrary.

As a black American from the South, I initially (and perhaps naively) thought I’d catch a break from the daily racism I experienced in the U.S. As with black Americans, there are Dominicans (and Haitians) of every shade. I welcomed the idea of living in a country where most people looked like my family members and me, as 90 percent of the Dominican population has black ancestry.
However, it wasn’t long before I encountered a familiar, yet foreign, racism. While I realize that experiences vary and my story is one of many, it is certainly not the exception. Whether in the form of racial slurs or extreme violence, both Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans alike confront racism on a daily basis. After continuously feeling like a walking target with my sizable pajón, I decided to carry hair ties for the days that the taunts became unbearable.

I arrived in Santiago, Dominican Republic as an English professor one month before Sentencia 168/13, a Supreme Court ruling that revoked the citizenship of Dominican residents whose parents were born outside of the country as far back as 1929, unless they could regularize their status. In the months that followed, lynchings of Haitians became more frequent, according to media reports. Black American friends that had come to study abroad were harassed and interrogated by police about their nationality. After my friends explained that they were Americans studying abroad, the officers scoffed at them, laughing that “esa se cree americana pero es haitiana” (this one thinks she’s American, but she’s Haitian). Even my Dominican host sister, whose surname was French in origin, encountered complications with government agencies that questioned her Dominican identity. I began to realize that the recurring treatment my colleagues and I were receiving was probably a result of intensified anti-haitianismo following the Supreme Court ruling.
Most of my fellow U.S. English professors condemned the ruling, though others viewed it as the Dominican Republic exercising its sovereign right to regulate immigration within its borders. Some of my Dominican and Haitian students criticized the ruling as discriminatory, while others adamantly defended the court’s decision. However, few dared to denounce it as racist.

I was no stranger to discrimination in the Dominican Republic, having endured taunts, repeatedly been denied entry to clubs, and received regular slights during my time there. With both the history of Hispaniola and my own experience in mind, I know the court’s ruling was founded upon anti-haitianismo that the country has yet to reconcile. In the words of Junot Díaz, “if we do not begin to practice the muscles of having a possessive investment in each other’s oppressions, then we are in some serious trouble.”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

To Havana I Shall Return Someday

My travel group and I entering the José Martí terminal 
of Havana, Cuba after off-boarding our plane

 Global Exchange, Inc., based in San Francisco, had a legal partnership with the University of Havana where people like me can improve our Spanish-speaking skills through an immersion program where the instructors, tutors, and host families speak only Spanish. And being the salsa music lover that I am, which is an offspring of Cuban music, this program with Global Exchange was right on time. 

Upon arrival in Havana, I was deeply touched by the culture and the vibes of the people, which made me feel like a long, lost member of the community who finally came home. It was pure joy to just walk the streets hearing the music of son-montuno, charanga, and timba blaring from cars, homes, and businesses. 

I had the pleasure of dancing with a smooth salsa 
dancer in the Callo Hueso District of Havana

In a city of over two million people, I found the Habaneros (Havana residents) to be very neighborly and down to earth. You don't feel that sense of paranoia and fear among the people like we are so accustomed to here in the US. Havana is much, much safer than any US city mainly because the crimes that can get you a slap on the wrist in the US can easily get you 10-20 years in a Cuban jail—first offense.

One day in downtown Havana, a street hustler, who saw me as a mark, aggressively approached me, and my not being in the mood, I snapped, ¡ya, no me moleste! He immediately backed off, not because he was afraid of me, he was afraid of those who were watching me. In Cuba there are hordes of undercover agents on the street known in as Seguridad del Estado (security of the state), making sure, among many other things, that visitors like me, were safely circulating their money into the Cuban economy. Castro did not want any of us messed with!

Although, Fidel Castro is no angel, I have to give the man credit for being the only Latin American leader to openly address racism in his country versus sweeping it under the rug. Since he took office there has been a surge of black professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Castro developed a 100% literacy rate in Cuba.  And in addition to free healthcare for all citizens, he sponsored a free medical school for anyone in the world who is willing to practice medicine in poor communities, and that includes the US. 

I attended the University of Havana through a cultural 
exchange program to improve my Spanish

When the time came for me to leave Cuba, I was acutely heartbroken and homesick for an island that I only visited for two weeks. I felt there was much more to the island that I wanted to experience, but missed. This leads me to a bad side of Cuba that I want to address.

I’ve met many Cuban Americans who bitterly resented me for going to their country having the time of my life, when people are suffering under an oppressive government. Cuban citizens are working their tails off for an average of $20 per month. To make ends meet, people have to hustle after work by selling goods, driving cabs, and practicing vice with tourists as the government looks the other way because that too is income that eventually gets into government hands.

Vladimir a Cuban neighbor of mine, who among thousands of others, risked his life on a rickety raft sailing through shark invested waters where unknown numbers of people perished to escape Cuba. And when he saw the glow of joy on my face upon my return, all he could do was shake his head and laugh because he knew all the distasteful things that I missed out on because I was only a visitor and not a citizen.

In the late 1960s a thug who turned Black Panther by the name of Tony Bryant, hijacked a plane to Havana in solidarity with the Cuban revolution. And in doing so, his thug instincts kicked in as he and a couple of his fellow panthers robbed the passengers, which included a seguridad del estado, a security of the state personnel. Once he arrived in Havana preaching the revolution, Cuban authorities, who had the utmost respect for the Black Panther Party, sent him directly to jail.

In Tony Bryant’s book, Hijack, he wrote how the Cuban prison makes San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom State Prison, where he also did some time, appear to be luxury hotels. Tony learned so much about the harshness of Cuban life that by the time he returned the USA, he was no longer the leftist revolutionary, but a right wing, anti-Castro Republican. Tony Bryant, after 12 years saw more than I could ever see in my two weeks in Havana.

An Afro-Cuban dance class in the El Vedado District of Havana

But my love is not for the Cuban government, but for the people whom I connected with. Despite all that I didn’t see, I saw  first hand the effects of this US trade embargo against Cuba that has been going on for more than 50 years. A lot of the little things that we take for granted like cooking oil, meat, and bread, are hard to come by for the average Cuban citizen. I remember a family serving me spaghetti, which had no meatballs, but chopped up frankfurters because they had no access to beef.

Relaxing on a hot summer day in Havana

This embargo is not hurting the Castro government nearly as much as it is hurting innocent, everyday people, especially children. On my last day in Havana, I gave a 7-year old kid a set of ink pens and a ream of writing paper. The way that boy high-fived me with so much excitement and exhilaration you would thought that I had given him a $100 bill.

I truly appreciate Obama for taking the steps that he is taking to restore relationships with Cuba, as did the US with Communist China back in 1971. I just hope that when this is all over that Cuban people do not veer too far from their wonderful, seductive culture to embrace ours.  

I say this because when I was in Havana, I noticed an insatiable hunger among the people for anything American; t-shirts, CDs, old clothing, whatever. A dance instructor gave me an hour’s worth of private lessons in exchange for an oldie, but goodie jazz CD. And to return to see a Mc Donalds restaurant on every corner will be a painful eyesore.

When will I return to Havana? Well, I love the way it is put in a song recorded by the salsa music icon Eddie Palmieri:  ¡Pa la Habana, voy a volver algun dia volvere —To Havana, I shall return one day!i

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cheap Travels Through Latin America

Here I was working with a non-profit organization earning a modest income. And the day before my 30-day vacation was to begin, I received a surprise e-mail from my company's executive director wanting to know where I was going “this time.” Excited, I responded with my list of travel destinations. She quickly responded back with a border-line, snide comment about my ability to do all of this traveling on my salary. Well, let me tell you my story!

This particular vacation included trips to México, Perú, Panamá, Colombia, and Ecuador. From Ecuador, I flew to New York to visit family. Finally from New York, I made it back to Oakland just in time to return to work the following day. How much did all of this cost me? $1,422! How did I swing this?

Airfares have been known to drop on certain days

First of all, I began planning my vacation about four to six months ahead of time. I went on line to check the travel booking sites such as,, and, among others. I found that when you schedule your flights to leave on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and return on any day except Sundays, prices drop even more. And when you are flying out on a holiday, you are just asking for it! 

My cabbie and I on a beach on the Sun Coast of El Salvador

One Thanksgiving day, my round trip ticket from San Francisco to Lima, Perú cost me $537, and that included a 7-hour layover in El Salvador where my cab driver and I spent that time hanging out at the beach gulping down fresh coconut juice and chomping on a scrumptious seafood lunch. We then cruised the Sun Coast of El Savador before  making it back to the airport to catch my next flight.

 Beach on the Sun Coast of El Salvador

Once I reach any of my travel destinations, I make it a point to bypass tourist areas and head straight for a local community where I can rent a nice clean room, eat good food, and buy items of interest at a much cheaper cost.

The Ballumbrosio family of El Carmen, Perú.
I'm standing in the back with the fellas, second from the right. 

I try to stay with families, such as that of the late, great maestro Amador Ballumbrosio, the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance. This family showed me so much love that they influenced to adopt their home as my home away from home whenever I'm in Perú. On my second trip, I tried to pay the mother like I did on my first trip, but this time, she simply laughed at me and brushed me off. That old Spanish saying, mi casa es tu casa (my house is your house) certainly applied here.

My god-daughter Daniela (wearing pink)
and members of her family (Perú)

My god-daughter Daniela (front right)
and members of her family

Thus, with all of this frugality going on in my travels, I was left with enough money to thoroughly enjoy the country that I'm visiting, and at the same time, reach out to local citizens so they can enjoy themselves with me.

 Popular Travel Guides

The key to big savings in your travels is doing your homework. These are some excellent travel guides: Lonely Planet, Moons Guide, Rough Guide, and Go Girl. Although Go Girl was written by a black woman for black women, I found that a good 80% of the information contained therein will benefit anyone, including me. 

The $18 - $22 that you invest in any one of these books will pay for itself many times over as you learn sophisticated techniques to stay out of trouble, stay safe, and get the best bang for your buck in the midst of your enjoyment.

 Gloria of Quito, Ecuador whom I met through Facebook

Facebook is another method I use for travel networking. Because my Spanish is at a level where I can fairly take care of myself in a Spanish-speaking country, I created a separate Spanish Facebook account from my English account, and made over 300 friends in the countries that I want to visit, so when I arrive, I will at the very least, have some warm contacts. My late, dear friend Gloria, of Ecuador, was an example. She took me in like family, and showed me the ropes of her hometown of Quito, the nations capital and surrounding areas. RIP Gloria María Chalá Ananganó!

Felix of Caracas, Venezuela whom I met through is a must for all budget travelers. It is an international network of more than 10 million people in 230 countries around the world. Felix of Caracas, Venezuela and María of Barlovento, Venezuela were couchsurfing hosts from heaven. They not only gave me free places to stay and showed me around per couchsurfing guidelines, they went above and beyond by making sure all of my personal needs were met while in their country.

To show my appreciation, as I did with Gloria in Ecuador, I paid for all of their meals, public transportation, and drinks while we were out and about. And before my departure, I bought them all gifts. To date, I stay in touch especially on their birthdays. Such show of appreciation was a small price to pay considering how much I saved in travel expenses.

María of Barlovento, Venezuela whom I met through

I could have explained all of this to my executive director if she had only asked. All you need is an ardent desire to engage in such a gratifying adventure we call travel, which broadens the mind and nurtures the soul. Travel is more than just seeing of sights. It's a journey within igniting deep and permanent changes in the ideas of living. Regardless of your income, you can indeed enjoy travel.

 You can indeed enjoy travel!