Monday, December 8, 2014

Call Her Neither Black nor Latina

There was a discussion among a group of Afro Latinos about a published article entitled, Don't Just Call Them Afro Latino. The article was about a woman from Honduras, Central America named Sulma Arzu-Brown who was tired of her African-American friends referring to her as “black,” and her Latina friends referring to her as “Latina.” Sulma decided to “enlighten” her friends explaining that she is neither black or Latina—she is Garífuna (pronounced Gar-REE-Foo-Nah).

The Garífuna (Garinagu in the plural) are dark-skinned .African descendents, mostly Spanish speaking, mixed with indigenous groups of Central America, such as the Arawak and the Caribs. The Garífuna people can be found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Their first language, Garífuna, has its roots among the indigenous, the French, the Spanish, and a smattering of African languages. 

After slave ships were wrecked on the island of St. Vincent in the 1600s, Africans found refuge with the indigenous populations forming a whole new ethnic group, the Garinagu (plural of Garífuna). 

The Bronx, in New York City holds the largest community 
 of Garífuna people in the US.

There were Afro-Latinos in the forum who agree with Sulma Aezu-Brown stressing the fact that the Garingau speak a different language and eat different kinds of food from other blacks and Latin-American people. In fact, a woman Guatemala stated to me personally that the Garífuna people in her country are not real Guatemalans; they have their own culture.
What I gathered from the article, the discussion, and from my own interaction with Garinagu friends is the pride in their unique history and culture and fear of the loss of their identity and being absorbed into more dominant groups like African Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Dominicans. 

Certainly, the Garífuna (or Garinagu) people are “black.” After all, it was Sulma's mother who decided to leave Honduras because she was denied a promotion at her banking job because of her skin color. The Garinaagu are indeed Latino because they are citizens of Spanish-speaking countries. As one Garífuna man puts it, we are a very proud people who maintained our language, culture, and customs. Garífuna, Black, and Latino are all the same and we are proud of all three.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Nueba Yol”—the Dominican Republic in New York City

Washington Heights, an area of northern Manhattan in New York City is where many immigrants from the Dominican Republic live.

It was at a Latino Film Festival in nearby Berkeley, CA where the film Nueba Yol was being introduced. It was about a man from the Dominican Republic who moved to New York, known as Nueba Yol to his countryman. He was able to enter the US illegally and outsmarted the system to become legal. During the 1990's there was a heavy influx of legal and illegals from the Dominican Republic into the US, and about 41% of them arrived in New York City (Nueba Yol), greatly surpassing the Puerto Rican community as the largest Latino group in the city, and the fifth-largest Latino group in the US, after Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans (stateside), Cuban Americans, and Salvadoran Americans.

Recently, I took advantage of my long, overdue vacation to New York City where I grew up by visiting a community directly north of Harlem with over 150,000 residents (as of 2010) and where my mother attended church. I personally refer to this area as “Dominican Harlem.” I hopped on the A-train that used to drop me off at my old apartment building in Harlem to Washington Heights, the real name for this community known to Dominicans as Quisqueya Heights. Quisqueya is the original name of the Dominican Republic before the Spanish invaded the island.

Fortunately for me, my visit to this community came after the years of heavy crimes, such as drugs and gang violence died down. In 2011, Washington Heights became the fourth-safest neighborhood in New York's borough of Manhattan, according to one analysis of police records. However, I still made sure I went through Dominican Harlem in broad daylight, and out before nightfall. I had such great experiences interacting with members of the community (in Spanish), and with great customer service in two well-known Dominican restaurants; El Malecón and Albert's Mofongo House, which inspired me to leave larger than normal tips. In the Mofongo House, not only did I have a great seafood meal, there was jazz, salsa, merengue, and bachata music playing in the background.

Sadly, like other ethnic groups in the history of Washington Heights, and like other ethnic communities of color around the country, gentrification is slowly breaking up Dominican Harlem. Due to rising rents and other costs, families and friends who lived in this area for years are being scattered, and widening the gap between rich and poor. Dominican political power in the city is also being realigned. Even though Dominicans still make up 73 percent of Washington (Quisqueya) Heights, their moves to the Bronx have made room for other Latinos groups.

According to a study conducted by the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York, about 90% of the contemporary Dominican population has ancestry from West and Central Africa. However, most Dominicans do not identify themselves as black. The colonial and political events in the Dominican Republic directed against Afro Dominicans have left emotional scars causing a rejection of their "blackness."

Also, during Haitian rule of the Dominican Republic between 1822 and 1844, Afro-centrism was pushed, which the Dominicans refused. The Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled between 1930 and 1961, tenaciously promoted the anti-Haitian sentiment and used racial persecution and nationalistic fervor against the Haitians. He is considered blamed for creating the many racial categories that avoided the use of the word "black," and in 1955, he promoted an emigration from Spain to his country to "whiten" the Dominican population. Afro-Dominican poet Blas Jiménez states: under Trujillo, there was nothing worse than being black.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ghetto-Fabulous Hip-Hop from Colombia (South America)

Barring few exceptions I've never been a fan of hip hop, however; due to my ardent interest in the world of Black Latin America, I sought to explore and take a look the Colombian hip hop scene being they have the third largest black population in the western world behind Brazil and the US. This Latin Grammy Award-winning Afro-Colombian rap group is from the Colombia's predominately black department (state/province) called Chocó in western Colombia where the capital is Quibdo, thus the ghetto-fabulous name of the rap group—Choc Quib Town.

The group consists of Carlos "Tostao" Valencia (rapping), his wife Gloria "Goyo" Martínez (singing and rapping), and Gloria's brother Miguel "Slow" Martínez (production and rapping). Gloria Martinez got turned onto hip hop when she spent some time in the seaport town of Buenaventura where she met African-American sailors. When the band play live they are joined on stage by Milton Jurado (guitar), Jhon Sanchez (electric bass and backing vocals), Larry Viveros (tambora, congas and marimba) and Andrés Zea (drums).

The band named themselves after the city and department that they had grown up in:The band played at the "Hip Hop al Parque" festival in Colombia's nation capital of Bogotá in 2004 and won the competition for best band at the festival, their prize being 10 million pesos (~$500.00).
Their first album, Somos Pacífico (We are the Pacific) (2006), was recorded and released independently. Their music and live shows were gaining a reputation, and in 2008 ChocQuibTown signed to Nacional Records and released their second album, Oro (Gold). The album also became their first international release.

The group undertook an extensive world tour in 2010 (including over 40 dates in Europe alone.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Spanish-Speaking African Nation

The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a small former Spanish colony in West Africa near the equator. The nation is divided into two parts; the mainland, which borders Cameroon and Gabon along with several small offshore islands. 

The Fang people constitute 80% of the population and are themselves divided into 67 clans. The Bubi, who constitute 15% of the population, are indigenous to the nation's off-shore island of Bioko. In addition, there are coastal tribes, collectively referred to as Ndowe or "Playeros" (Beach People). Together, these groups compose 5% of the population. Two small groups of pygmies also inhabit the country, the Beyele and the Bokuign, Their population is dwindling..

The Portuguese explorer Fernão do Pó, seeking a path to India, was the first European to arrive in Equatorial Guinea via its island of Bioko in 1472. He called it Formosa (Beautiful), but in 1778, the island, adjacent islets, and commercial rights to the mainland were ceded to the Spanish Empire in exchange for territory in the American continent. 

From 1827 to 1843, the United Kingdom established a base on the island to combat the slave trade which was then moved to Sierra Leone upon agreement with Spain in 1843. By the year,1959, all three regions were united as the colony of Spanish Guinea. Equatorial Guinea gained independence from Franco's Spain in October 1968.

Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of sub-Sahara's largest oil producers behind Angola and Nigeria. The country has all the ingredients to be a success in Africa with big oil reserves, low debt, fertile land, and a small population of less than 800,000 people. Driven by oil and natural gas production, Equatorial Guinea boasts the highest level of per capita income in all sub-Saharan Africa, at $22,300 per year, or roughly four times more than South Africa and about the same as Portugal, according to the International Monetary Fund. 

Inronicaly, despite the country's good financial standing, a good three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line. A dictatorship, fosters corruption and undermines economic development.  It is very common to see officials asking for bribes around the the country.  Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president. Human Rights Watch describes the problem bluntly, saying that “corruption, poverty, and repression continue to plague” the nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Be Careful About Getting Sick in Latin America

I don't know if this applies to every Latin American country; I traveled to nine, but in Perú, I inadvertently ingested a beverage that made me very sick. My biggest mistake was not going to a farmacia (a local pharmacy) where, unlike in the US, you can explain in detail what's going on with you and the pharmacist will provide the appropriate remedy—no prescription needed. Such a procedure has been known to work for many, many people over the centuries. This is something that I should have done early in my illness instead of thinking it will go away naturally with proper rest.

Upon arriving in my room in El Carmen, Perú, without undressing, I crashed on the bed. The next morning, I woke up in a lot of pain. Fortunately, someone heard me moaning and groaning and called the local medical clinic. They didn't have the equipment to deal with my illness so they took me to a hospital in the city of Chincha Alta, 30 minutes away. 

Here is the catch about receiving medical treatment away from a big city in Perú and most Latin American countries; somebody has to pay cash up front; no debit or credit cards. My friends didn't have the money, so the hospital staff had them wake me up while I'm totally incapacitated demanding “plata” (cash money). Fortunately, unlike in the US, medical treatment in Latin America is not expensive so I managed to swing some cash asking for a receipt in order to later file a claim with my travel insurance company to get reimbursed.

The next day, it was determined that I needed more professional treatment, but first, the hospital contacted the American Embassy, which is policy when an American citizen is hospitalized in their country. The American Embassy got in touch with my travel insurance company, and arranged for me to be transported by ambulance to Lima, the capital city, which was a little over two hours away.

Before, the ambulance could take me, however; I had to come up with another 100 nueva soles in cash (about $33.00, still barely a fraction of US cost), but I didn't have that much cash on my person. It was a good thing I had friends in the community who went to an ATM for me to withdraw cash. Yes, I had to give up my pin number! I would not have been surprised if they took out more than needed. Fortunately, I didn't seem to miss anything.

As I plan future trips to Latin America, I will certainly make sure I have adequate travel insurance as I do on all of my trips. Most importantly, I will take precautions to make sure I stay in good health while traveling, which includes being vigilant about my food and beverage intake. And finally, I will make sure I have enough cash hidden on my person in the event of the unexpected.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Expats in Ecuador

 Avenida Colón in Quito, Ecuador, which borders the Mariscal District 
(Gringo Land)

It was my first morning in Quito, Ecuador where I rented a room in the city's Mariscal District, better known as Gringolandia (Gringo Land). The name Gringolandia is due to the large number of foreigners from around the globe who either live in the area or are on vacation. The businesses in Gringolandia cater particularly to those foreigners. 

I stopped in a bookstore looking for works by one of Ecuador's famous black writers. Upon entry, I could not help but to notice the confederate flag on the wall. It didn't upset me, but I did wonder what interest would a confederate have have in a third-world country filled with people of color.

The neighborhood where I stayed 

in Quito's Mariscal District

 When the owner got off the phone, he was very respectful; even greeted me as “sir.” He was the first American expatriate (or expat) I've ever recall meeting in a foreign country, and I've been to 14. It turned out that he didn't have what I was looking for because the books he was selling were in English to accommodate the English-speaking expats in the community.

Many of these expats are economic refugees from North America and Europe taking advantage of Ecuador's much cheaper cost of living. This includes medical costs, which are only a fraction of those in the US.

The place where I rented a room at $12 per day.

An added benefit to being an expat in Ecuador, as well as many other countries, I'm hearing, is that because of the lifestyle changes in a new environment, people lose excess weight, and their overall health improves. The produce is organic, and the food does not contain a lot of foreign substances like here in the US. In fact, people have been known to get sick when they return to the US because of the Standard American Diet (SAD). Also, with public transportation being so plentiful, people do not drive. There is a lot of walking in cleaner environments. 

As I write this post, I just learned that Inter-Nations, an international online community for people who live and work abroad, recently ranked Ecuador as the top expat spot overall. What this means to me is that, sooner or later, Ecuador will get to be so saturated with gringos that the cost of living will eventually rise.

If I were to live in Ecuador with my Spanish-speaking skills, I would avoid communities where to many gringos live and reside in communities where there are only native Ecuadorians. That way I would avoid, not only the gringo taxes, but where prices are lower to meet the economic needs of the community.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Cuba's Love and Respect for American People

One of the most joyful moments in my life was entering the José Martí Airport in Havana after off-boarding Aero Cubana airline.

Some years back, a group of us American students had the opportunity to attend the University of Havana for Spanish-language intensive training. We went legally through the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, Inc., an international human rights organization. We flew to Cancún, spent the night, and at noon the next day, we caught our 45-minute flight to Havana where  Cuban hosts welcomed us.

If you talk to just about anyone who traveled to Cuba, they will tell you how much the common, everyday Cuban citizen love and respect American people despite the long-standing conflicts between US and Cuban governments. 

 Cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans

As I made my way around Havana, people assumed that I too was Cuban until they heard my foreign accent (in Spanish), and asked where I'm from. When I told them the USA, they generally shook my hand saying, “nice to meet you.” I've been invited to people's homes for dinners, shown the town, and introduced to new friends while dancing salsa.

I felt so out of place wearing my University of Havana and other Cuban t-shirts that I bought as souvenirs because they were dead giveaways that I'm a tourist. T-shirts with English writing on them donated by American and Canadian visitors over the years are hot items to be attained among Cuban people. I saw a woman wearing a New York Knicks jersey, and out of excitement, I shouted in Spanish, “that's my team! She gave me a confused look because she did not know what she was wearing. The fact that it was in English made it a fashion statement, and that was all that mattered. 

 Attending a lecture on Cuban Culture on 
the porch of the Che Guevarra house.

If you think the US economy is bad, you should see Cuba's where basic things we take for granted are in short supply and rationed out. It's not uncommon for people to wait an hour or two on a long line to buy a loaf of bread, for example, only to find that it is sold out. The US trade embargo against Cuba that has been going on for more than half a century has a lot to do with Cuba's economic woes. And it's not the Cuban government who is suffering nearly as much as innocent men, women, and children who feel no animosity whatsoever against American people.

If you have a chance to visit Cuba be it legally or through other available means, it's a good idea to take some items that you don't need and give them to the people with whom you establish rapport. Items such as CDs, T-shirts, clothing, toothbrushes, soap, and USB flash-drives would be greatly appreciated. When I gave a seven-year-old boy a set of pens and writing paper, he high-fived me with such excitement that you would think I gave him a $20 bill. 

One of my salsa music dance partners in 
the Barrio Habana Vieja (Community of Old Havana)

Havana, like every big city, has its share of city slickers who find legal ways hustle the increasing number of tourists. A bicycle-taxi driver supposedly invited me to a party for one of his little nieces. He and his friends were to lure me into the home and have me buy all the liquor and the food so they (and I) will have a good time. The hosts at the Che Guevarra house, next door to where I was staying, pulled my coat-tail to the scheme.

The crime rate is very low in Cuba because the penalties are so harsh that would be criminals are not willing to take the chance. What would get you a slap on the wrist for a first offense in the US can easily get you ten, or more years in a Cuban prison. There are secret police who keep a close watch on their citizens and surreptitiously report the slightest infractions to the authorities. They also identify and keep watch on visitors making sure they stay safe. This is all to build their growing and lucrative tourist industry. I remember how one aggressive person approached me, and I said to him, ¡no me moleste (don't bother me)! He immediately backed off, not because he was afraid of me; he was afraid of who was watching me.

While so many Cubans admire American culture, people around the world love Cuban culture, especially the music. Cuban music, food, and the Afro-Cuban religion, Santería, are international attractions. I just hope when this political conflict between the Washington and Havana governments are finally over that the Cuban culture continues to flourish.