Monday, August 20, 2018

An Object Lesson on U.S. Latinos

In a hot Havana heat in July, I'm chilling
out on a mojito, Cuba's national drink.

On my first day in Cuba, I learned an object lesson as to how so many bilingual U.S. Latinos feel, when we non-native speakers try to practice our Spanish on them.

I was bicycling along the malecón (waterfront) in Havana, and this brother rode up beside me striking up a conversation in "English." I got insulted because I felt that he thinks "this gringo" can't speak Spanish. To teach his narrow ass a lesson, I decided to respond to everything he says to me in Spanish; just as U.S. Latinos respond to me in English when I speak to them in Spanish.

Finally, the brother snapped and shouted, "MAN, STOP SPEAKING SPANISH, I'M TRYING TO PRACTICE MY ENGLISH!" My empathy and compassion suddenly kicked in, and I gladly complied :-)

The same thing happened in Lima, Perú. When a man whom I kept responding to in Spanish inside of a restaurant asked me politely if its OK to practice his English, I granted his request knowing that I will be overwhelmed with plenty of other opportunities to practice my Spanish. 

I just wished that more of my U.S. Latino neighbors and schoolmates had the same compassion for me in my attempts to improve my Spanish.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fast & Fun Spanish Language Development

Chowing down on a Peruvian dinner with a 
glass of pisco sour, Perú's national drink

Normally, I am very confident and perform impressively during job interviews, but this time, the hiring manager asked if it was OK to switch our conversation to Spanish. This was unprecedented, and for once, I felt quite nervous as always around bilingual Latinos. Reluctantly I complied, and surprisingly, passed the interview with flying colors.  The company wasted no time bringing me on board.

I credit a recent trip to Cuba (legally) where I spent two weeks at a Spanish-language intensive training sponsored in partnership with Global Exchange, Inc. based in San Francisco, California and the University of Havana offering beginning to advanced Spanish classes to foreigners.

Receiving my Advance Spanish certification 
from El Sol School in Lima, Perú

Being primarily self-taught in Spanish, I've been encouraged to try a Spanish language immersion school for more rapid development. Such schools can be found in every Spanish-speaking country. In Perú and Ecuador where I've made several visits, you can get private lessons for an equivalent of $5.00 - $7.00 per hour vs. the $30.00 - $40.00 per hour charged here in the U.S.

An Afro-Cuban guest speaker (sitting wearing pink) discussing Cuban 
issues my student group from the U.S. England, France, and Germany

I chose the immersion schools in Cuba and Perú because I love and appreciate the music of both countries. You don't learn textbook Spanish in an immersion school as your focus is strictly on "conversation." In my opinion; however, you get the best results if you've had at least one semester of Spanish in high school or college or have been self taught such as I. 

In an immersion school, your instructors do not speak English, neither do your tutors, nor your host family. After one week, I started waking up in the morning "thinking" and even had a couple of dreams in Spanish.

Jaime, of Chincha, Perú who charged me under $5.00 per 
hour to drill me on my Spanish as we roamed about town

In Havana, Cuba, I made it my business to mix with Cuban citizens after school where I visited and dined with the family of a Cuban expat friend living in the U.S., dated and went salsa dancing with neighborhood women, and was invited to the home of a vendor at the University of Havana. A bicycle taxi driver I hired taught me Cuban slang words on our way to my destinations. All of this supplemented my Spanish training at the University of Havana.

University of Havana campus

In Perú, I did the same thing, especially on weekends where I stayed with an Afro-Peruvian music and dance family who lived three hours south of Lima, the nation's capital where they had numerous dance performances in their home. I never had to go anywhere for entertainment because there was always something going on right there in the community. This family treated me with so much love that, to this day, they inspire and welcome me to make repeated trips to Perú, and I did.

I'm standing in the back, 2nd from the right, with Perú's famous 
Ballumbrosio family who gave me a room during my visits

Practicing your Spanish with U.S. Latinos is not generally the best option because too many have issues speaking Spanish with non-native speakers, especially if their English is equally fluent. There are others who are so Americanized that they are more comfortable with English, and may not speak any Spanish at all. And still, there are others who are so determined to perfect their English that they find we Spanish learners to be an irritating distraction. 

Thus, an immersion school in a Spanish-speaking country would be worth the investment; even if it's just for a vacation, which is exactly what I did in Cuba and in my first trip to Perú. I also vacationed in six other Latin-American countries while noticing an obviously huge difference in my Spanish, which was often used on my various jobs.

An Afro-Cuban dance class in Havana, Cuba

Finally, for those of you who've had Spanish in school way back in the day, and think you've forgotten everything, I would challenge you to just spend a few days in a Spanish-speaking country where no one speaks English, and you will be pleasantly surprised at how much of what you've think you've forgotten suddenly rises to the surface.

In terms of travel expenses, you can get cheap airfares through and These fare get even cheaper when you book your flights weeks or months in advance, and again, even cheaper when you schedule your takeoff date during a slow off-peak season.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mexican Independence Day: What Blacks (& Mexicans) Should Know!

Along with Spanish explorers, Moroccan born Estevánico was one of the first native Africans to reach what later became Mexican territory before this territory was taken over by the United States after the Mexican-American war, namely Arizona and New Mexico. 

Some years ago while riding a city bus in Oakland, California; I found myself lecturing a group of Mexican-American high school students (in Spanish) who apparently were not accustomed to meeting black folks, not to mention Afro Latinos, who can speak their language. They laughed hysterically when they heard me. The little "lesson" that I shared with them was a brief history of “Black” Latin America, which of course, includes Mexico.

Equally frustrating were some of my fellow African Americans, again in California, who questioned my racial identity because of my Spanish and love for Afro-Latino culture, especially the music. They'd snicker and make comments, such as, “listen to this black Mexican,” facetiously implying that the existence of black Mexicans is a mythical joke. 

Let me begin by sharing one, hardcore, historical fact; there is a strong black heritage stretching from south of the border 
all the way down to Argentina. This black heritage started a century before it started here in the United States of America. Popular Latin music sounds, such as salsa, cumbia, tango, merengue, punta, and festejo, among many other genres, share African roots.

The National Park Service of The U.S. Department of the Interior documented the following regarding some of the Spanish explorers who happened to be of African ancestry:
Africans and their descendants were a pertinent part of the settling and developing of Spanish colonial societies. The infusion of African culture into the Spanish colonies and the Americas as a whole can be seen in African techniques for fishing, farming, cooking, building construction and other trades and crafts (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:15).

Gonzalo Aguirre Beltán
author of

"The Black Population of Mexico"

In 2006, the Chicago National Museum of Mexican Art opened a groundbreaking exhibition, “the African Presence in Mexico.” During the early years of Spanish colonialism, the black population was much larger in Mexico than that of the Spanish population until those black folks began intermarrying with the Spanish and the Indigenous for over a period of 500 years. Who knows, any of those Mexican-American students on that bus could unknowingly have African blood in their veins.

According to the late anthropologist and professor at Mexico’s University of Vera Cruz, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, who published in his book, La Población Negra de México (the Black Population of Mexico), more than 500,000 African slaves were brought in through Mexico’s Port of Vera Cruz from 1519, the time of Cortez's invasion, until the day of Mexican independence in 1810. The Spanish relied on the slavery of Africans to expand their empire and increase their wealth in Mexico and stretching all the way down through Argentina. 

A statue of Mexico's rebel slave leader Gaspar Yanga

In Mexico's state of Vera Cruz, an African slave rebel named Gaspar Yanga, born in what is now known as Gabon, West Africa, joined forces with another rebel slave leader named Francisco de Matosa in battles against Spanish forces to establish Mexico’s first free town, a free Black town independent of Spanish rule, 200 years before the rest of Mexico won her independence.  

After the cry for Mexican independence by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810, Spain’s worst nightmares became reality. The first to respond to Father Hidalgo’s plea was liberal Spaniards who were born in Mexico (creoles) along with black and indigenous slaves seeking to earn their freedom as soldiers.

Father Juan Hidalgo

During the Mexican War of Independence, which lasted from 1810-1821, it is estimated that 30-40 percent of the rebel army was comprised of mixed-race Mexicans and black folks. According to writer/researcher Jameelah Muhammad, a contributor to the book, "No Longer Invisible: Afro Latins Today by Minority Rights Press," it was the Ejército Moreno (the Colored troops) who launched the independence struggle on behalf of Mexico.

When a mule driver named Vicente Guerrero, who happens to be the son of an African slave mother named María Guadalupe Saldaña, and a mestizo peasant father named Juan Pedro Guerrero joined the Mexican revolution, he distinguished himself in major battles achieving the rank of captain, then colonel, and finally general showing superior tactical ability and outstanding courage. With weapons and supplies captured from Spanish forces, Guerrero took his little gang of fewer than 100 men and built it into a strong, disciplined military force of over 1,000 warriors.

 Vicente Guerrero
Mexico's Liberator  & First Black President

One by one leading Mexican revolutionaries such as Father Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, Mariano Jimenez, and Javier Mina were slain or made prisoner. The rest accepted the king's pardon. But General Vicente Guerrero remained the only major rebel leader still at large and became the "Soul" of Mexican Independence.

On April 1, 1829, Vicente Guerrero became Mexico's second president. and at once abolished slavery. This is just one of reasons that the Mexican state of Tejas (pronounce Tay-Hahs) became the Lone Star state of Texas and revolted against Mexico and joined the American Union.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Too "Black" to be Latino and too "Latino" to be Considered Black

VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra is from the Dominican Republic

A 19-year old Chicagoan of Afro-Mexican ancestry does not feel fully accepted by his Mexican-American community because of his color. Even when he visits Mexico speaking his first language, Spanish, he is marked as different, which often tempts him to embrace the African-American community where he encounters another problem; he is too Latino to be black. Other Afro Latinos in the U.S. feel forced to choose which side they are on, black American or Latino.

My lady friend whom I will call Antonia, also a Spanish speaker of Honduran (Garífuna) ancestry, grew up living as an African-American. She was once married to one and her children blend perfectly into the African-American social circle. Despite my ardent interest in Afro-Latino culture, she always appeared very reluctant to discuss the Latina side of her bloodline. 

One evening, she and I went to see a live performance of the Afro-Peruvian dance troupe Perú Negro. Although, I myself was engaging the Peruvian patrons in Spanish, she simply eavesdropped refusing to let other Spanish speakers know that she speaks the language seemingly preferring to be a downlow Latina.

Then there is Mariela who could easily pass for black American, but chooses to only identify herself by her nationality, Puerto Rican. One day, she snapped at me stating, “what you’ve got to understand, Bill, is that when people say “black,” they mean African American.” When I tried to give her some historical facts about black heritage around the world, and even in Puerto Rico, she literally flew off the handle hurling personal insults in an attempt to distract me from the main point of our discussion.  

Mariela practices what is known in Latin America as “mejorar la raza (improving the race)" or “blanquemiento (whitening)” where she sought and found a Puerto Rican marital partner who is of fairer complexion so her children will appear to be something other than black. "Our culture has to move forward," she asserts.

Below is a link as well as a copy of the original article about the Afro-Latino dilemma:

ORIGINAL ARTICLE—Bringing Attention to What's Between the Lines: The Afro Latinx Community in Chicago

He is a self-proclaimed Afro-Latino living with his Mexican immigrant mother, Veronica Hernandez, on the north side of Chicago.
"Growing up, my twin brother would burn his curly hair straight just to try to fit in. We’ve never felt a part of the black community or even the Mexican community; it’s a shame.”
Tyson Hernandez is not alone in feeling isolated and confused as an Afro-Latino.
In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016 —which focused on Afro-Latinx for the first time in history— it was reported that 24% of Latinos, almost a quarter of the 57 million, identify as Afro-Latinos, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent, but only 18% said they were Black, 24% identified as Hispanics and the majority, 39% said they identify as white. That is perhaps, an example of the convoluted nature of identity hanging on the Latinx population.
After much deliberation, Tyson believes he is “more Black.”
“But I’m definitely Afro-Latino. My mom used to take me to Mexico, and even though I was able to speak Spanish, the kids didn’t like me. After that, I figured I needed to try to be more Black because the Mexicans don’t like,’ he said. “I’ve always felt like I have to be one or the other.”
The Afro-Latinx plight is unique because prejudice and stereotypes historically shackle it. It dates back to the colonization of Latin America when about 15 times as many slaves were taken to Latin American than the United States, according to historians.
And although there are roughly 130 million people of African descent living in Latin America, that is 25% of the population, the legacy of colorism has maintained them at the margins.
Veronica Hernandez, 50, Tyson’s mother, was born in Mexico and moved to the states at the age of 8, she recalls how her father was worried and scared for her children.
“He said that Mexicans weren’t liked here in the states and Blacks either,” she said. “He felt very sad that my children were going to be double discriminated.”
Still, few people acknowledge the term Afro-latinos and the struggles they face beyond identity issues.
“Some people still don’t recognize that there’s such a thing as Afro-Latinos,” said Ana Vicky Castillo, an Afro-Colombian educator, and historian in the Chicago area. “That’s our central struggle, our ethnicity is Latino, our race is Black, but we are too Black to be a Hispanic and too Latino to fit in with the Black community.”
In Chicago, an attempt to create an organization to bring visibility to issues affecting Afro-Latinos was founded in 2006. However, The Afro-Lati@ Insititute of Chicago (ALIC) lost momentum and did not proceed.
Later, Castillo, who had been a founder of ALIC, created the Afrolatinos Historical Society, a non-for-profit organization intended to advocate for the issues impacting Afro-latinos. Their purpose is to “bridge” the gap between Afro-Latinos and the African diaspora “so that people, in Latin America and in in the United States understand the legacy of this group of people and make them visible.”

 “That invisibility is the cause of the racism and discrimination within the Latino community towards Black Latinos,” Castillo said. And while the organization looks to strengthen Black and Brown relationships, “first we must look to strengthen the relationship between the different afro-latinos in the United States and the within Latinos overall in Latin America.”
“Latinos are terribly racist to one another based on the color their skin,” Castillo said. “We have to fix that within our community to bring visibility to the Afro-Latinx.”
In Chicago, the presence of Afro-Boricuas, those Puerto Ricans with an African-decent, is significant, Castillo said. But there is also Afro-latinos from Panama, Afro-Colombians, Afro-Cubanos and a few Afro-Mexicanos, like Tyson.
“We’ve never really felt a part of the black community or the Mexican community it’s a shame,” said Tyson. “Some of the Mexicans I around call me ‘Negro’ and I don’t like that. They say it like it’s something nasty. Or, they say it in a nasty way. No show or movie about black people is going to make people less racist.”
VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra, a self-identifying Black Dominican, is using her platform to speak on the need for more Afro-Latina representation in mainstream media.
In an interview on The Real, Amara La Negra said, “It doesn’t matter where you go, there are black people, but why aren’t we portrayed in the magazines, movies, the novelas?”
Castillo asks the same question and says she is committed to change that. While she works to find a headquarters office for AHS to continue with their mission, she is looking to compile data of the Afro-latinos living in the area to create those connections.
“Afro-panameños have events, Afro-Colombians, Afro-Cubanos, Afro-Boricuas already do have their individual events, it’s a matter of working together, inviting each other and finding that common ground,” Castillo said. “We must first recognize ourselves amongst each other, then with the Black community and then globally, pointing our presence in history books.”
Samantha Cook is a fourth-year journalism student at DePaul University. She collaborated with HOY's Laura Rodriguez on this story as part of the Define American Film Festival coverage for VOICE IT.