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 bicyle-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 penalties are so harsh, 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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ugly Side of Panamá

 Entrance to the Tocumen Mall in Panamá City

Mario, a Panamanian with whom I hung out in college proudly wore his Converse All-Star sneakers with the scribbling of his hometown of Colón, Panamá. Marjorie, a former co-worker of mine was also highly nostalgic of her country, Panamá, as well. Like Mario and Marjorie, an overwhelming majority of the Panamanians I met in my life were black, proud, and very down-to-earth.

Finally one day, while traveling from Lima, Perú to Cartagena, Colombia, I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of Panamá as I took advantage of a six-hour layover in Panama City. Unlike other Spanish-speaking countries I've visited, I felt very much at home with the high visibility of black employees in the airport. 

Having limited time I hung out at the Tocumen Mall, less than a five-minute cab ride. I spent my time checking out the shops, looking at the women, and just absorbing as much of the language and culture as I could. It was around Christmas time, thus everyone seemed mellow and content. This inadvertently enhanced my first impression of the country.

According to International Living, Panamá is rated as the world’s best retirement haven in 2014. With a spate of deserted islands, the Caribbean sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best in the world of beaches.

However, as in every country, despite its beauty, charm, and attractions, there is an ugly side to Panamá, which I'm learning from personal testimonies of fellow African-Americans who, unlike I, spent considerable amount of time in this tropical paradise.

One wealthy, black business woman from Brooklyn, NY stated so eloquently in her blog post, Traveling with Racism, how she was deeply disappointed upon her arrival in Panamá to find the sheer amounts of black people who were visibly poor, living in makeshift homes along feces infested rivers, children playing bare foot and begging for food, and the vast amounts of heavily-armed police officers pushing black folks aimlessly on the streets. 

She then could not help but notice the palm trees that lined the president's home, which sits right across the highway from some of the most deplorable living conditions she has ever seen. 

One day, she attempted to enter a store that sold exclusively Western goods like Lancome makeup and Dior fragrances. The black security guard stood front and center and stopped her. He accused her of being a good-for-nothing negro trying sneak her way into a high end store. After presenting her passport and telling him that she is an American, the otherwise arrogant guard apologized profusely, and allowed her access. 

The one thing that this sister and I have in common is that during our travels, we prefer to connect with members of the African diaspora without having to use our American passports to distinguish ourselves from our brothers and sisters unless it is absolutely necessary. Such as the evening, I took a bunch of friends out to dinner and found it more convenient to use my credit card. Handing over my “American” passport along with the card gave me top credibility.

Then we have Bishop, an African-American English teacher who described in his blog post, Locked Up in Panama—Walking While Black, how he was at a neighborhood parade where everyone was dancing to percussion instruments. As the evening progressed, the party died and the people dispersed.

Bishop was heading back to the family home where he was staying when the police hopped out of their patrol cars like the gestapo with M16s and Uzis drawn demanding to see his ID. Bishop presented his US passport and explained, in English, that he is an English teacher. Speaking English, and not Spanish, when stopped by the police was advice given him by his white co-workers, which has gotten them off the hook. There was no such luck with Bishop. 

The officer then demanded “plata” (a cash bribe to be let go). Because Bishop had less than a dollar on his person at the time, he was hauled into the back of the police truck at gunpoint and handcuffed to another detainee. A detainee who was apprehended while walking down the street with his three-year-old daughter.  The cops took him and left her in the street.

After being thoroughly searched at the station, there were no charges, no rights being read, and no phone calls. When the officer opened the cell door, Bishop looked at the officer and asked “por que (why)?”  The officer motioned with his Uzi to enter the hot, smelly, 8ft x 8 ft cell that he shared with 6 other men. 

Panamá, like many other countries has its share of racism and human rights violations. This could have happened to me in when I crossed the border from Ecuador into Perú as I was stopped by the the Peruvian National Police because they thought I was either an illegal alien or a drug trafficker.  Cops in Latin-American countries are terribly underpaid and often depend on bribes to make ends meet, which was the case with Bishop.

Had I known better, I would have responded to the aggressive officer in English, and not Spanish. However, I was still fortunate. Although this officer himself appeared desperate for a bribe, he also seemed to be touched by my story of traveling to explore black cultures in Latin-American countries, and the fact that I was staying with a prominent Afro-Peruvian family. 

Who knows, perhaps this officer himself may have blacks in his own family. A large proportion of brown and white Latin Americans have an African presence in their family tree than most are willing to admit.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Acting” Latino

Where Are All the “Latino” Movie Stars?

In one of my favorite classics, West Side Story, George Chakiris who played “Bernardo,” a Puerto Rican gang leader, is of Greek ancestry.

One Sunday afternoon, I went to see a play about Puerto Rico during the World War II era. The playhouse was right in the middle of the predominately Latino Mission District of San Francisco. During the intermission, I just happened to be standing outside for some fresh air when one of the few Latino spectators walked by, looked at me, and threw his hands up in the air in disgust. I asked him, “what do you think of the play?” Again, he threw up his hands up and left the area—never to return.

It finally dawned on me as to why he was so upset. The play consisted of American-born actors trying to  “act” Latino. They obviously knew nothing about being Latino, let alone Puerto Rican. I myself could have done a better job, especially with my Spanish.

I wrote the “Latina” play director expressing my disappointment. I explained to her that I grew up close to a Puerto Rican community and did not feel a Puerto Rican connection from the actors. I asked why she could not find real Puerto Ricans to play Puerto Rican roles considering that they were performing in a predominately Spanish-speaking community. She never responded, and fortunately, never returned to produce another play.

Al Pacino, an Italian-American played the role of a Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem in the film Carito's Way.

Although, I've been noticing more and more Latinos such as Zoe Saldaña, John Leguizamo, and James Edward Olmos starring in films involving Latinos, I never understood why Hollywood and the stage industry always used non-Latino actors to star in Latino roles in the first place.  

The late Natalie Wood who played María, in the classic film and musical West Side Story was born to Russian immigrants. Her real name is Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko. Although Natalie made her mark with her excellent performance, I would have felt a greater sense of authenticity with someone of Puerto Rican ancestry taking on that role.

The same applies to the 2000 version of the film Shaft where African-American Jeffrey Wright played the role of a drug lord from the Dominican Republic. I have to admit that Jeffrey Wright did fool me with his performance. He had me believing that he was a real Dominican.

African-American actor Jeffrey Right (R) did a tremendous job playing the role of an immigrant from the Dominican Republic as he was confronted by “Shaft,” played by Samuel L Jackson.

There was some talk about the film in the making where Whoopi Goldberg will play the late singer Celia Cruz and Samuel L. Jackson will be play Celia's husband and manager, Pedro Knight Caraballo. What's the matter, no one thinks that Afro-Cuban actors are good enough to play those roles?

The argument I hear for non-Latino movie stars taking on roles of Latinos in film is that they are a bigger box-office draw. My argument for Latinos taking on Latino roles is that no one knows what it is like being Latino except for a Latino. Many new stars are born when given the opportunity.

I don't care how much I travel to Spanish-speaking countries, or how much of the Spanish language I learn. I don't care how much reading I do about being Latino, I will never know what being Latino is like the way a naturally born and raised Latino does. This is why when I watch a film or play about Latinos, I want to see Latino performers keeping it real.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

He Wants to Live in Perú

Parque Kennedy (Kennedy Park) in Lima, Perú

I get e-mails from my blog readers with compliments, rebuttals, and requests for advice. Today, I received an e-mail from a gentleman who wants to live in Perú for one year and wanted to know how he will be treated as a black person. He also asked about job opportunities and cost of living. Here was my response, and it's based solely on my personal experience and observations:

I assume you speak Spanish. I met very few people who speak any English at all, but then again, I've always made it a point to stay away from tourist traps, English speakers, and other gringos for the purpose of being totally immersed in the language and the culture.

Overall, the people are pleasant. You will most likely be treated better because you are a gringo, i.e., perceived as having a pocket full of money. I remember walking into an expensive clothing store in Southern Perú. The store clerks, assuming that I'm Afro-Peruvian, did not pay much attention to me. The owner was intelligent enough to notice my foreign accent, my Muhammad Ali sweatshirt, and realized that I'm American. His attitude changed as his wife looked at me seemly astonished that a black American was in the house.

In terms of getting a job, please realize that it is hard enough for native Peruvians to find work, and if you are black, your work opportunities are even more restricted. The fact that you speak both English and Spanish can open some doors, especially if you are applying for a position that is hard to fill locally. You might want to consider teaching English—many lucrative opportunities there; even more lucrative if you have a degree or, at least, a certification to teach English as a foreign language.

Perú has a very low cost of living. The minimum wage in Perú, as of June 2014, is equal to roughly $571 per month. A retired US citizen can live very comfortably on social security alone. Their produce is organic and cheaper than the non-organic foods here in the US. I have a friend who moved to Perú with his Afro-Peruvian wife. He not only lost weight, but felt much more healthy, alive, and vibrant. Medical and dental expenses are dirt cheap. I was in Peru's best hospital for six days and the bill came out too $4000, which my insurance paid.

If you are serious about moving to Peru, I would suggest that you buy Moon's, Rough's, and Lonely Planet guides to Peru. Those books are around $18 each. They are filled with wisdom and will save you thousands of dollars during the course of a year, and equally important, keep you out of trouble. It's also a good idea to log on to Expat Perú where you can network with others who are already living or plan to live in Perú. Let me know if you have any more questions.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Mastermind Behind the Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú

 Ronaldo Campos de La Colina

The Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú

When I saw the world's famous Perú Negro (Black Peru) perform live for the time in San Francisco, CA's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the group danced while singing the melodic refrain with captivating rhythmic accompaniment “RINALDO CAMPOS DE LA COLINA!” They were paying tribute to their late founder Ronaldo Campos, a renown percussionist and dancer born in San Luis, which is in the Peruvian Province of Cañete, the Capital of Afro-Peruvian Folklore. Personally, I've passed through this province many times on my way to and from El Carmen, an hour away—another strong Afro-Peruvian community. Cañete is a place I first learned about through songs by Susanna Baca, another world-famous and world-traveled Afro-Peruvian artist.

At the age of 12, Campos moved the Perú's nations capital of Lima where he joined several groups, among them, Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú (Peruvian Black Theater & Dance). I remember reading somewhere that Ronaldo Campos was inspired by the 1960s black pride movement in the USA, and in 1969, founded Perú Negro, then consisting of only 12 family members. That same year, the group Perú Negro took first place in the International Festival of Dance and Song in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rinaldo Camplos also organized various events in the Cañete's II Festival of Black Arts. He accomplished an important work in researching and bringing to light the different folkloric Afro-Peruvian dances creating different rhythms for each one. .

 I've passed by Ronaldo Campos' home province many times on my way to 
another hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, the District of El Carmen, an hour away.

Eventually, Perú Negro broke into US cultural territory, and with each visiting year, their tours extended in time and space and the ensemble’s visibility in the American performing arts scene settled into a fixture. After visiting hundreds of universities and schools across the North America, audiences, including black audiences, are still surprised to learn that the African diaspora extends to Perú.

This group is known worldwide under the title “Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú.” The mission of Peru Negro, from its inception to date, is to use the language of music and dance to expand the understanding, knowledge of the African influence in Peruvian culture. Today, their repertoire includes el festejo, which the slaves danced after they had harvested a good cotton crop. They also do zapateo (Afro-Peruvian tap dancing).

 When authorities outlawed African drums fearing uprisings, the slaves turned to the heavy wooden boxes of cargo they carried called the cajón. Today the cajón is a cultural heritage of Perú.

I've often made friends with non-black Peruvians in salsa clubs here in the US, and remember how they bragged to me about the black culture back home in Perú. At first many of the white Peruvians were wary of Afro-Peruvian music and dance, but today, it is in vogue and is playing a role in shaping Perú's social agenda. Peru's Roman Catholic Church once frowned on the zamacueca, a seductive courtship dance performed by African slaves, but today it lives on in the whirling sensuality of the celebrated national dance of Peru, the marinera. When Peruvian authorities outlawed African drums, fearing they could be used to organize slave uprisings, slaves turned to the heavy wooden boxes of cargo they carried, and in 2001 the cajon, or "big box" drum, was declared a Cultural Heritage of Perú.

The stubborn survival of Afro-Peruvian music makes Peru Negro more than just a Grammy-nominated Peruvian music and dance ensemble. It's a celebration of the triumph of those performing arts over disapproval, disdain and disenfranchisement. Black Perú showcases the roots of a cultural heritage that has been forgotten or ignored. The rhythms are borrowed or handed down from an African tradition, in a form that is uniquely Peruvian.

In the beginning of 2001, Ronaldo Campos suffered a stroke, and in August of that same year, he died of a heart attack. After the death of Don Ronaldo, his son Rony Campos took the lead in the third generation of the group. Although the body of Ronaldo Campos de la Colina lies in Lurín Cemetary in Lima, his memory lives, thus the melodic, rhythmic refrain in the song and dance of Perú Negro, “RINALDO CAMPOS DE LA COLINA!”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Missed Some Good Black Music in Colombia

When I was in Cartagena de las Inidas, better known as Cartagena, Colombia, I was quite disappointed that the people were not so much into Cumbia, which began as a courtship dance practiced among Colombia's black population, which was later mixed with Amerindian steps and European and African instruments. Cumbia is much more popular in the Andean region and the Southern Cone of Colombia. I was also disappointed to not hear Salsa music, which is popular in cities like Cali, a city that I now consider to be the salsa music capital of the world. It used to be New York City.

A lot of people in the Cartagena area, I found, are into Vallenato, which did not move me at all. I even stopped in an Afro-Colombian bar, and Vallenato was all they were listening to. Surprisingly, I found that Vallenato was even popular in Colombia's famous African village of San Basilio de Palenque, located two hours south of Cartagena.

I learned much later, after my return to the US that I did miss out on some good black music that is also popular around the Cartagena area. This genre of music is called Champeta. It was introduced to me by an Afro-Colombian Facebook friend.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Champeta culture became more visible at a national level in Colombia through a series of diverse and complex dances set to the rhythms of Caribbean music. Champeta music has the same legacy as US Blues music; it was called “therapy” used to help oppressed Afro-Colombian relax and get through difficult times.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Are Black Men Exotic Among Women in Latin America?

A female Peruvian dancer pulled me on stage to 
dance with her at an upscale Lima supper club.

They say that black men are considered exotic to women in foreign countries. I found that it all depends on the country and with whom I'm around. Although, I've been to Canada and four Asian countries, my travels as of late, has been focused on Latin America.

In Cuba, a country that is predominately black, I was not considered so exotic until people heard my foreign accent and would ask where I'm from. However one evening, I was dumbfounded when a group of us Americans who were studying Spanish at the University of Havana went to see an Afro-Cuban dance performance in a suburb of Havana.. I was the only black in the group of American spectators. Towards the end of the show, the dancers came off the stage; the men grabbing the women, and the women grabbing the men to dance. I was left sitting all alone.

The word on the street was, because of my color, I was perceived as being “too Cuban,” therefore not exotic or touristy enough to want to entertain. In fact, before my trip, an Afro-Cuban neighbor told me that when I arrive on the island, people will automatically assume that I'm Cuban until I open my mouth.

While I'm admiring the black Latin-American women, it is generally 
white and mestizo women who are admiring me. 

However, things took a different turn when I went to a live show in an upscale supper club in the Barranco District of Lima, Perú where I was one of two black spectators. Towards the end of the show, one of the  mestizo female dancers came off the stage, bypassed several tables, and walked directly over to mine to bring me on stage to dance with her. Interesting!

In many cases throughout my Latin-American travels, while I'm admiring the black women, it's usually the white and mestizo women who are admiring me. On a metro train in Caracas, Venezuela, my friend María with whom I went back and forth conversing in English and Spanish just happened to be speaking English when suddenly, I looked up noticing a white Venezuelan woman eying me with an admiring smile. She seemed very pleased when I struck up a lightweight conversation with her in Spanish. In Cartagena, Colombia at a restaurant where I used to frequent, a sexy mestizo woman made herself available showing herself quite friendly.

What stands out about my Latin-American trips is once people recognize me as an American visitor, and not a black local citizen, all perceptions change.  To many Latin-American women, I'm not necessarily exotic because I'm black, but because I'm a gringo. One woman whom I just met begged me to bring her back to the USA.

During my travels, I generally shy away from relationships and stick to my original purpose—cultural immersion and the development of lifetime friendships. If a love connection were to develop from there, fine. However, when a woman takes an immediate interest in me, I need to look at the motive. Is it a real attraction or does she want what's in my pants (wallet)?