Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Afro-Latino Films for Black History Month and Beyond


When discussing black history, the subject is too often limited to black Americans as black history can be traced even to places like Russia. There is much more to the black race as it extends through many languages and cultures around the world. Therefore, when I think of black history or black heritage, I think globally. 

I feel fortunate to have grown up in the vicinity of the Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research & Black Culture, which is part of the New York City public library system named after a black Puerto Rican researcher who as a child was told by a school teacher that black people have no history. Since childhood, he felt inspired to prove his teacher wrong by researching black hstory worldwide.

Here in the western world, the largest population of the black race are in Spanish speaking countries. As one who takes an ardent interest in Afro-Latino cultures, I've been searching high and low for Afro-Latino films. Lo and behold, I ran across this article containing a list and synopsis of 15 films for Black History Month and beyond.

Link to original article:
1. They Are We
A Cuban Afro Reunion Story

Director Emma Christopher
Country Cuba
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on
Emma Christopher’s ebullient They Are We began with a simple question “Can a family separated by the transatlantic slave trade sing and dance its way back together?” Tracing back the origins of the Afro-Cuban songs and dances brought by an ancestor during the trade to Perico, Cuba, Christopher eventually found a remote village in Sierra Leone where, upon watching a recording of the Cubans’ songs and dances the people exclaimed, “They are we!” Christopher’s film is a colorful celebration of Afro-Cuban culture, rhythmically pulsing with the percussive songs that have survived through centuries.
Manuel Betancourt

 2. Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)

Director Mariana Rondón
Country Venezuela
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on Amazon & YouTube.
Junior is a young boy whose outward appearance just doesn’t match up with what he feels inside. He fervently hopes for “pelo bueno” instead of “pelo malo”– for him this means elusively straight, free flowing locks that he can only achieve by applying enormous amounts of effort and sometimes oil or mayonnaise to his naturally curly, kinky hair. As the darker-skinned older boy of his mother’s two children, it’s not just his more African features but also his more effeminate ways that make him the brunt of her anger. However, his grandmother understands and even encourages young Junior’s differences. She helps him blow out his hair and encourages him to sing and dance along to saucy 60s tunes.
Maria-Christina Villaseñor

3. Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus)

Director Marcel Camus
Country ItalyFranceBrazil
Production Year 1959

Available to stream on Amazon & iTunes.
Marcel Camus’ retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set during Rio’s Carnival won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. (It’s also Barack Obama’s mother’s favorite film of all time!) Scored by a who’s who of bossa nova composers, including Antônio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá and João Gilberto, the vibrantly-shot film follows trolley driver Orfeu who, despite being engaged to be married, falls for the young newcomer to the city, Eurydice. True to the myth it is retelling, their love story is doomed from the beginning, but French director Camus finds plenty of joy in their many scenes together, including the colorful dance sequences during Carnival, which map the Greek iconography of the Orpheus tale onto Afro-Brazilian and Candomblé traditions.
Manuel Betancourt

4. Ventos de Agosto (August Winds)

Director Gabriel Mascaro
Country Brazil
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on NetflixiTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Brazil’s tropical coastline provides the stunning backdrop to documentary director Mascaro’s first dramatic film, which unfurls as a series of revealing accounts in the lives of Shirley and her boyfriend Jeison. When the latter finds a human skull while dive-fishing, it sets in motion a meditative sashay through themes of life and death, most poetically summed up by an elderly man: “Those who die here don’t end up in heaven or hell. They end up in the sea.” It is just one moment that captures the relationship between people and their environment, with the inevitability of death returning us to the elements from which we emerge. A mesmerizing and beautiful portrait of our place in the greater order of things.
Nick MacWilliam

5. Dólares de Arena (Sand Dollars)

Production Year 2013

Available to stream on HuluAmazoniTunesGoogle PlayYouTube & Filmatique.
The Dominican feature Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), by husband-wife directing duo Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, features none other than Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie and a brilliant actress in her own right) as an elderly French tourist who falls in love with a young Dominican woman and makes plans to move her back to France. Not your typical story of tropical romance told through the eyes of a white foreigner, this film is equally interested in exploring the predicament of the young Dominican woman, played by Yanet Mojica, and the shady power dynamics that may be at work.
Andrew S. Vargas

6. Cicade de Deus (City of God)

Country Brazil
Production Year 2002

Available to stream on AmazoniTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Like the plucky little chicken that escapes death despite all odds in the film’s opening scene, so do a lot of the street kids depicted in Cidade de deus (City of God) get by on bravado and dumb luck in the tough favelas of Brazil. But mostly they die since their guns are not the make believe ones of child’s play but the real deal on the mean city streets of Cidade de deus, an incredibly rough favela on the edge of Rio. Rocket, a budding photographer whose way out lies in his camera rather than the gun, narrates the story of the gangs of children and youth he grows up with, armed to the teeth, who thieve and threaten their way through daily life to survive in a place that holds no other options. Ignored by the cops and social services their lives and livelihoods grow harder as petty pot dealing turns to major drug trafficking and the stakes get higher. With clever narration by Rocket that works in counterpoint to the violence onscreen, a soundtrack that makes shootouts seem like dance sequences, and virtuoso editing and cinematography that shows the Carnival-like craziness of these little kids larger-than-life lives of crime, Cidade de deus is a hyper-original epic of tragic proportions.
Maria-Christina Villaseñor

7. Tango Negro: The African Roots of the Tango

Director Dom Pedro
Country France
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
Tango is generally believed to have originated in mid-19th century Argentine slave societies, and the man widely recognized as the country’s first tango musician, Rosendo Mendizábal, was Afro-Argentine. Yet many Argentines are loath to accept the African origins of their most cherished and internationally recognized cultural expression. To set the record straight, an Angolan filmmaker by the name of Dom Pedro took to the streets of Buenos Aires and beyond to get the lowdown on tango’s African roots. Along the way, he discovered a nation deeply ambivalent about its African heritage.
Andrew S. Vargas

8. O Dia Jerusa (Jerus’ Day)

Director Viviane Ferreira
Country Brazil
Production Year 2013

Available to stream on KweliTV.
As its title promises, Jerusa’s Day aims to present a day in the life of a woman living in the neighborhood of Bela Vista in São Paulo. Dealing with her loneliness in a community filled with widows and single women who live day to day, this short film offers a glimpse into what Jerusa’s world looks like with surprising candor and empathy.
Manuel Betancourt

9. Manos Sucias (Dirty Hands)

Director Josef Wladyka
Production Year 2014

Available to stream on iTunesGoogle Play & YouTube.
Executive produced by none other than Spike Lee, Josef Wladyka’s debut feature follows two brothers, a desperate fisherman and a naive young man, who embark on a journey trafficking drugs up the Pacific coast of Colombia. And as they tow a narco-torpedo filled with million of dollars worth of cocaine, their differences will soon make their already dangerous trip: while Jacobo, still reeling from being left by his wife and losing his young son, wants to make enough cash to head to Bogotá, his younger brother, would-be rapper Delio, aspires to the glitzy gangster life. Both a thriller and a character study of these two Afro-Colombian young men, Wladyka’s film breathes new life into the Colombian drug flick, away from the busy streets and out into the green and oceanside outdoors.
Manuel Betancourt

10. Favela Rising

Country BrazilUnited States
Production Year 2005

Available to stream on Amazon.
Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas are the setting of this moving documentary. Focusing more on the sociology than the music per se, Favela Rising exploits the post-City Of God first world fetish for Afro-Brazilian slums culture by following the charismatic Anderson Sa, a reformed street kid who finds in music the power to transform his life and, subsequently, the lives of thousands of other kids who grew up, like him, seeing drug-trafficking as the only viable source of income and respect. Unfortunately, the trite movie scoring doesn’t match the favela aesthetics at all and Anderson’s musical accomplishments and the subculture of baile funk are barely glanced over in favor of grimy stories of drug lords, blood, guns and corrupt police.
Juan Data

11. Black in Latin America

Country United States
Production Year 2011

Available to stream on PBS.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a Harvard professor, an expert in African and African-American history, and the host of Black in Latin America. Gates has taken his knowledge of African history and racial dynamics in the U.S. and focused his attention on the rest of the Americas in this four-part PBS documentary series. He uncovers the hidden history that most Americans, African-Americans, and even Latinos don’t know about. In the series, Gates teaches us that that more than 11 million africanos were taken to Latin America as slaves. That is 25 times the number sent to the United States. He visits Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. He discovers the similarities in religion, food, and music – tracing their common origin to Africa.
Vanessa Erazo

12. On Our Land: being Garífuna in Honduras

Country Honduras
Production Year 2012

This short ethnographic documentary looks at the Indigenous Garífuna culture in Honduras. Making use of interviews with community members, local politicians, and members of the Garífuna diaspora in the United States, On Our Land tries to give some history for this Afro-Caribbean group which continues to find itself neglected in a country they’ve inhabited for centuries.
Manuel Betancourt

13. De Cierta Manera

Director Sara Gomez
Country Cuba
Production Year 1974

Available to stream on YouTube. Catch it on the big screen in Brooklyn at BAM Rose Cinemas on February 18, 2017.
Sara Gómez’s groundbreaking film blends archival footage of poor neighborhoods in Havana following the Cuban revolution with a fictionalized romantic plot centered on a schoolteacher and a factory worker who butt heads and eventually fall in love. The hybrid film was one of the first projects in the island to really interrogate issues of race and gender in a post-Castro world. Gómez, a celebrated Afro-Cuban filmmaker who’d been working mostly on shorts prior to shooting One Way or Another died just after finishing principal photography for this feature project. Released posthumously, the film was finished by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García-Espinosa and Rigoberto López, and has become a classic in its own right, offering a rare look at mid-century Havana through a social lens.
Manuel Betancourt

14. La Playa D.C.

Country ColombiaFranceBrazil
Production Year 2012

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
This hip-hop scored coming of age tale in Bogotá is told through the eyes of a trio of Afro-Colombian brothers who have been pushed out of their home in the Pacific coast by the war. Growing up in a city that remains openly hostile, young Tomas finds inspiration in his brother’s fly hairdo which he got while visiting ‘El Norte’ (aka USA), and he realizes he has a knack for giving neighbors and friends alike elaborate hair designs. But when their younger brother goes missing, he’ll have to face the concrete jungle that is the Colombian city on his own, navigating its bustling streets and confronting its own prejudices that’ll lead him to grow up quicker than he’d like.
Manuel Betancourt

15. Las Manos de Dios

Director Delia Ackerman
Country PeruUnited States
Production Year 2005

Available to stream on Reelhouse.
Noted Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman (Voices That Heal), turns her eye to the Afro-Peruvian musical rhythms of Julio “Chocolate” Algendones Farfán. Chocolate was a world-renowned jazz percussionist, one of the most important interpreter of Afro-Peruvian Folk Music. He’s considered the master of the Peruvian cajón. With the use of archival footage and probing interviews with those who knew the famous musician, Ackerman traces his life story and his impact.
Manuel Betancourt

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Root of Latin-American Racism

A black American male got into a friendly conversation with two black women in Oakland, California's Eastmont Town Center. When the subject of race came up, both woman politely asserted their racial and cultural confusion with a pleasant smile stating that they are not black; they are Puerto Rican.

I remember in my youth when I, in jest, referred to a white friend who happened to be a heavyweight boxer as the “Great White Hope;” one who boxing promoters were looking for to dethrone a long series of black heavyweight boxing champions. His immediate response to me was, “I'm not white, I'm Puerto Rican!” 

From my travels through Latin America, it dawned on me that unlike the USA, regardless of the racism practiced in their respective countries, people are still viewed by their nationalities first and their color second. Just as they all viewed me as an American first and a black man second.
The article below gives a detailed description of how racism flourishes among Puerto Ricans (and to varying degrees many other Latin-American countries) behind the mask of mestizaje, the claim that all Puerto Ricans are a mixture of Spanish, Indigenous, and African, and that they are all one regardless of race. 

Link to article:

How “Mestizaje” in Puerto Rico Makes 

Room for Racism to Flourish

Transcript of the Article

“Somos de tres razas! La blanca, la india, y la negra!” is a cliched response you can almost always count on hearing anytime you bring up race or racism in Puerto Rico or Puerto Rican Diaspora communities. It’s cute, easy to remember, and also a lie.

Ironically the European root, which is most often mistaken as the backbone of Puerto Rican culture, is mentioned first. The indigenous, Taíno root, which is often recognized strategically (yes, strategically) in front of blackness is named second. Oh, and the third? African or Black! Last but not least, right? I’d like to think so, but I know better.

The blending of these three races or roots in Puerto Rico are what we refer to as “mestizaje”, or mixture (1). This “mestizaje” is what causes Puerto Ricans to believe that we all are racially mixed the exact same way therefore there can be no “true” difference. While mestizaje is a part of Puerto Rican society and even exists in the heritage of many Puerto Ricans, the way in which mestizaje is recognized in Puerto Rico makes room for racism and white supremacy to flourish because it gives us a false historical analysis on race.
Where does this mestizaje narrative come from? We are all taught, whether in school or through conversation with our elders that Spaniards came to Puerto Rico, encountered Taínos, killed most of them off with diseases and weapons, subsequently brought slaves from Africa (or more accurately, African peoples who were then later enslaved), and eventually everyone got married and generations later we have what is now referred to as the Puerto Rican racial admixture of African, Taíno, and Spanish. That’s the irresponsible and also inaccurate way to tell our history. Let’s discuss what is wrong with it because our history is, of course, the foundation for our present state.

The first African encounter with Puerto Rico had nothing to do with slavery. Africans traveled to the Americas including Boriké (present-day Puerto Rico), long before Christopher Columbus and “friends.” In fact, it has been documented that many traditions, which are today considered to be that of Taíno culture can be found throughout ancient civilizations in Africa (2). 

Secondly, it is documented that Africans traveled with the Spanish conquistadores as free men to Boriké. One of the most recognized examples of this was a Black man by the name of Pedro Mejias who reportedly married the Taína Cacica, Yuisa (3). Thirdly, there existed African heritage among the Spanish conquistadores. While carrying with them white supremacist/ white saviour ideals, many conquistadores in fact had African heritage directly from North African countries as a result of both African immigration to Spain and the occupation of southern Spain by the Moors beginning in 711 AD (4).

The first people to become enslaved under Spanish colonialism and rule, were the Taínos. It soon proved unsuccessful as the Taínos, being indigenous to the land, were able to escape from captivity. It has also been documented that the Taínos resisted colonialism easier and arguably stronger than the Blacks who were brought years after Taíno enslavement. The Africans brought to Puerto Rico were much more easily christianized and colonized because they weren’t in a land they knew and were convinced they would be able to soon return home to their West African communities (possibly) upon “good behavior” (5).

In 1570 the Puerto Rican gold mines were depleted and the criollos, who were European, primarily Spanish descendants born and living in Latin America (in this case, Puerto Rico) relocated to other Spanish colonies like México and
This hereby left Puerto Rico as a Spanish garrison and the population was mostly Black/ afro-descendant and Mulatto (6). 

It wasn’t until 1815, just a few years after the Haitian Revolution, that the population of Puerto Rico began to whiten, or increase in number of Europeans. That year the Spanish Crown under King Ferdinand III passed the Royal Decree of Graces, which encouraged Spaniards and Europeans from other countries to populate Puerto Rico as well as Cuba so as not to have a “Black colony” like Haiti that defeated their French colonizers. This is referred to in Spanish and by many Puerto Rican scholars and historians as “blanqueamiento” or “whitening” (7). 

These white settlers were provided free land, and even monetary incentives to populate Puerto Rico. This allowed for the creation and resurgence of cañaverales, and other plant producing plantations based on African slave labor, especially in coastal regions like Mayagüez, Ponce, Guayama, Loíza, Arroyo, Patillas, Salinas etc.(8)

On March 22, 1873 slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico but this didn’t necessarily “free” Blacks in Puerto Rico and make them equal to their white (or whiter) counterparts. Once freed, Blacks were forced to work under contracts (most likely doing the same work that they did as slaves) for a minimum of three years and were denied political rights for five years (9). 

Each municipality has it’s own history with how afro-descendants in respective regions economically developed (if at all) post slavery but over all, the post-abolition laws allowed for very little upward economic mobility, the effects of which can still be seen today. A large majority of marginalized communities in Puerto Rico are primarily of afro-descent.

Puerto Rican schoolchildren are taught that regardless of physical appearance they all individually derive from the same aforementioned roots. Regardless of whether this is true or not hasn’t eradicated in Puerto Rico structural or personal racism. Belief in mestizaje silences conversations about white supremacy and doesn’t force those with privilege to take responsibility for it. 

This allows white Puerto Ricans to appropriate, steal, and taint Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and exploit afro-descendant communities with no repercussions or consequences because “we are all Puerto Rican so all parts of Puerto Rican culture belong to all of us.” Not acknowledging the fact that a racial construct exists in Puerto Rico allows white privilege, white saviourism, and finally racism to flourish.

The PNP (Partido Nuevo Progresista), for example, a corrupt, pro-statehood political party with mostly white leadership, never acknowledges race or their privilege. They go into municipalities like Carolina, Loíza, and Canóvanas, with large, historically Black communities, bribing people for votes in exchange for a household appliance they may need. 

This behavior is “accepted” because in Puerto Rico, such privileged people are allowed to say “my ancestors were Black” or “but we are all Puerto Rican” and allow them to claim to want to eradicate marginalization and invisibility. There’s no limit to what white privilege in Puerto Rico can do when no one acknowledges that it exists. But again “if we’re all Puerto Rican, why does color matter?”

Colorblindness is convenient for people when it comes to remembering that we are one and can unite over traditions, but it’s the easy way out of the “race talk”, especially when you factor in the fact that some of us have hermanos or primos or even parents and grandparents that are totally different “races” (for lack of better terms we can say color here) than ourselves. It seems easy. 

A Puerto Rican is a Puerto Rican (yes) but colorblindness doesn’t resolve anything. It simply suggests that Puerto Ricans as a whole live in a magical utopia (colony, mind you) of fairness, equality, and justice. Poverty in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, invisibility in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, and racial discrimination in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, so if you choose to not see color you are responsible for not acknowledging the marginalization and struggle of others, possibly your own struggles. 

I wouldn’t blame any single Puerto Rican or single out a group of Puerto Ricans for the existence of white supremacy because it began during the times of Spanish colonialism but I do dare say that anyone who uses the mestizaje “somos de tres razas, somos iguales” narrative as a way to silence conversations on deconstructing white supremacy and racism in Puerto Rico, is an avid supporter and fan of it, regardless of color. They may even have an obsession with white supremacy.

Acknowledging that white supremacy is deeply ingrained in Puerto Rican society is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for equality, but equality is deeper than how you personally see others. There is a difference between your indiscriminate kindness (bless your heart), and the system’s “kindness”. Al pan pan y al vino vino, we must call the problems in Puerto Rican society what they are. 

A large amount of socioeconomic inequality is a result of white supremacy that has existed in Puerto Rico since before Puerto Rico became a United States colony. This inequality throughout Puerto Rico is an intersection between both race and class, with race unfortunately being the largest determining factor. 

Colorblindness may be the way in which you prefer to see things in Puerto Rico, and again I say, colorblind folks are avid supporters of white supremacy, but it doesn’t recognize intermittent problems that exist within Puerto Rican society, those problems being racially charged. If true colorblindness existed, race would not exist. Well, it does.

To be clear, race is a social construct that originates in the Columbian era in the Americas. Race separates people based on physical appearance (keyword physical), mostly by skin color. Unfortunately due to the way that our societies have developed and white supremacy has controlled most of the world, race matters and we are forced to deal with it whether we admit to it or not, whether it is convenient or not. But just to be clear, your race doesn’t necessarily define what roots you carry (though it may), rather your race defines how the white supremacist system treats you, how the system sees you. 

Some Puerto Ricans are racially identified as Black and some are not identified as Black, regardless of what one may mark when it comes to the census. This does not mean you cannot have blonde hair, green eyes, and white skin and have African ancestry and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t have kinky curly hair and darker skin and have white ancestry. 

You can but regardless of what roots you truly have, society treats you according to what they see. You can identify as you please but society will treat you according to what you look like. Racial identification is difficult to understand in a country with mestizaje so deeply entrenched and when you add in mulatto representation, it becomes even more confusing and we therefore have to factor in the “tragic mulatto syndrome”, but it matters. 

The tragic mulatto syndrome refer to when people really don’t know what to call themselves or understand how the white supremacist society will treat them. Even if I am half white or even 75% white, I am physically an afro-descendant with kinky curly hair and piel de canela, and will be treated (or mistreated) as such regardless of what I decide to call myself or mark on a census survey.

If the advocation for “mestizaje” throughout Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities was successful in its effort to make it seem as though racism in Puerto Rico does not exist, I am sure there wouldn’t be terms in everyday vocabulary like “pelo malo”. 

I am sure travel agencies wouldn’t tell African Americans who want to see and tour historically Black communities in Puerto Rico like Loíza to stay away because of violence, and I am absolutely sure Blacks and other historically Black communities would be more proportionally represented in the Puerto Rican senate and other governmental organizations, but it’s not like that and that is an uncomfortable truth that we must understand.

Being intentionally conscious about race in Puerto Rico, and denying the mestizaje “somos de tres razas…” nonsense isn’t about having a US American separatist mentality. It is about recognizing the ills which exist in our society and using our own effort to get rid of them. Talks about racism and articles like this one may seem inconvenient, even uncomfortable, but imagine how inconvenient racism is especially for Black people living in Puerto Rico. 

One cannot pretend that there is enough water and life is great because they are not thirsty and can happily ignore the fact that there is a group of people who are dehydrated and also trying to fix the leak because it doesn’t affect them. One also can’t believe that those of us working to fix the leak have to listen to anyone who refuses to even look at the leak because they are drinking perfectly fine.
Vamos a ponernos claros, El boricua es boricua hasta el más blanco y el más negro but to ignore the implications and effects of white supremacy in Puerto Rican society especially through concepts like colorblindness would be inconsiderate and irresponsible of any Puerto Rican who wishes for Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities to thrive to be the very best that they can be. 

The mestizaje “somos de tres razas” silences work to deconstruct racism in Puerto Rico, pretends that white privilege does not exist in Puerto Rico, pretends that everyone is visible, it interrupts movements against anti-Blackness, silences conversations about racial discrimination, removes acknowledgement of white privilege in Puerto Rico hereby allowing for racism, the main component of white supremacy, to flourish.

If you want to understand why advocates for racial equality, like myself, seemingly single out specific groups as Black ask not us but the marginalization via white supremacy that has done so.