Sunday, September 17, 2017

Thoughts of Defecting to Cuba!

Long before President Obama reopened diplomatic relations with Cuba, I arrived on the island legally by permission of the U.S. State Department to attend a Spanish language intensive training at the University of Havana. On my first day there, I had thoughts of defecting from the U.S. and becoming a Cuban citizen. I was so overwhelmed by the weather, the beautiful women, and the folksy, down-to-earth demeanor of the people; not to mention what I considered a heavenly world of salsa and Cuban music that passionately moved my soul. Being in a whole new Afrocentric world, I was rebellious and in love with Cuba.

However, I was recently listening to a song by singer Gloria Estéfan, Oye Mi Canto (Hear My Voice). The words alludes to her feelings about the current Cuban government and its effect on the people giving me a realistic, ambivalent reminder about the land I fell in love with.

Estéfan who herself is Cuban born knows the side of Cuba that we visitors who are having the time of our lives do not see or even care to see. People do not have the right to speak their minds as the Cuban government dictates what is right and what is wrong. They assert only one way—the Cuban way in the name of the revolution. And that revolution, they say, is eternal. Anyone who openly expresses their dislike of Castro the way the way so many Americans express their dislike of Donald Trump would be expeditiously imprisoned. Cuban nationals do not have the freedom to speak out orally or in writing or read literature not government approved.

Francisco, one of many black Cubans who happily left Cuba for the U.S. through the 1980 Mariel boatlift, told me that had I defected, Cubans on the island would have been surely hating on me. They would view me as a damn fool because so many Cubans long to be in my shoes to the point of risking their own lives on rickety rafts, sailing through shark infested waters, to escape Cuba for the U.S. He added, unless I was a revolutionary like Huey P. Newton or Assata Shakur escaping political vengeance, Cuban people would have never understood why I would make such a stupid-ass move.

Couch surfing in Havana
In the living room of my Havana homestay 

In the beginning, it was primarily wealthy, white Cubans and only a sprinkling of black Cubans who fled the island, which lead me to the one thing I admired about Fidel Castro. He is the only Latin-American leader that I know of who stood up and spoke out against racism in his country. Since he took office, there has been a surge in the number of black professionals, many in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine. But as decades passed, and a new generation of blacks, such as Francisco, grew up seeing that this so-called “revolution” has gotten them nowhere; thus, more and more Cuban blacks began to flee the island.

Upon my arrival in Havana, I befriended, Luisa, a woman whom I thought would help me get immersed in the Spanish language and Afro-Cuban culture. However, it was no more than a minute after she and I were alone when she begged me to bring back to the U.S.A. I was so blinded by my exhilaration with this new Cuban experience, which was off limits to the average American, I never bothered to inquire as to why she would want to leave. Instead, I told her that I preferred to stay in Cuba and help support the revolution. She did not respond, but looked me seemingly wanting to tell me, geez, if you only knew, bruh; if you only knew!

Hot summer in Havana
Chilling in the hot Cuban sun over their national drink—
The Mojito

The poverty was evident as the average salary did not exceed $25 per month. Many professionals are forced to moonlight as cab drivers, entertainers, and hustlers to make ends meet. There were nights when I had nothing to do, and I would take Luisa to a local El Rápido restaurant, similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S., where as far as I was concerned, we were just “kicking, it” in Spanish, but to Luisa, she was being well fed. With my American dollars, which at the time was exchangeable for 20 Cuban pesos per dollar, I was in the best of shape, and Cuban people treated me royally. But had I defected, run out of money, and had to survive on a Cuban economy, I too would have been very unhappy and ready to leave.

Upon my return to the U.S., many Cuban-Americans were highly upset with me for taking the trip and supporting the Fidel Castro regime. Lydia, a black Cuban woman pulled me aside and suggested that I read the book, “Hijack” by Anthony Bryant, a former Black Panther with a criminal record who hijacked a plane to Cuba in the name of the revolution and ended up spending 12 years in a Cuban prison for robbing the passengers, one of whom was an undercover, Cuban official.

Former Black Panther Anthony Bryant wrote about his Cuban experience in his book entitled “Hijack.”

In his book, Anthony describes a Cuba we visitors will never see or experience because the country wants the tourist dollars. He even described the Cuban prison system as one that would make U.S. prisons look like Five-Star hotels. However, when Bryant was finally able to return to the U.S., he was no longer a black revolutionary, but a right-wing republican.

Although, Castro made a gallant effort to crush racism in Cuba, racism persists to this day. In fact, a form of apartheid is practiced where black Cubans are required show IDs when entering popular tourist areas. Even black American and black Canadian tourists have been stopped and carded because they were thought to be Afro Cuban. Lydia also brought to my attention an Afro-Cuban civil rights leader, Oscar Elias Biscet, who was given a 25-year prison sentence for starting an organization similar to the NAACP in the U.S. He was eventually released under pressure from the UN and various international human rights organizations.

Rumba dancing
An Afro-Cuban (rumba) dance class on the porch of my homestay for American visitors.

Vladimir, an Afro-Cuban neighbor of mine who also escaped Cuba on a rickety raft connected me with his family back in Havana. However, when he saw the glow of joy on my face upon return, wearing my Cuban t-shirts and baseball cap and listening to Cuban music, all he could do was shake his head and laugh because he knew first-hand the despicable things I missed out on simply because I was only a visitor.

As I sit here writing this blog post years later, I declare that my love is for the Cuban people and not for the Cuban government. Thus, I trash all those wild thoughts of defecting to Cuba. Yes, the U.S.A. has issues, but here we can vote, protest, boycott, and write letters and other correspondence to make changes where such actions would not be tolerated in Cuba.

I truly believe that we who enjoy visiting Cuba should be thinking about what we could be doing to help every day Cuban people economically while we are there without breaking the bank. For example, when I gave Luisa's seven-year-old son a pad of writing paper and some ink pens, he was so thrilled that he high-fived me as though I gave him $50 bill. 

We Americans also need to be pushing strongly for the end of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which I saw first-hand how it is hurting innocent men, women, and children much more than it is hurting the Cuban government. We are talking about people who feel no animosity towards Americans, yet they are the ones bearing the major brunt of the Washington-Havana conflict.

To the land of Cuba and it's lovely people, I can only say to you: 

¡Cuba, que lindo son tus paisajes, 
que lindo TU eres, 
que viva tu CULTURA para siempre!

Cuba, how beautiful are your countrysides, 
how beautiful YOU are, 
may your CULTURE live for ever and ever!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Argentina’s Forgotten Black Hero, Dubbed as the Mother of Her Country

The first news of María Remedios del Valle on the battlefield goes back to her participation of her defense against the English invasions as she attended and kept the soldiers’ backpacks to lighten their march to battle wrote, the combat corps commander.

On July 6, 1810, María joined her husband and two children in the ranks of the auxiliary army and stood out in three other battles before falling into Spanish hands with six gunshot wounds to her body. She was whipped in public for nine days; survived the punishment, and escaped and rejoined the fight for Argentina again.

On September 23, 1812, on the eve of a major battle, she went before the general and begged him to let her help the wounded that were piling up on the front lines. The general refused stating that the battlefield was no place for women. Remedios del Valle defied the general’s orders and soon became legend among the troops, which began to refer to her as the mother of their country. The general finally gave up and admitted the only woman into his militia.

On 11 October 1827, the deputies of the Board of Representatives of the province of Buenos Aires called her a heroine, and were it not for her race, gender, and impoverished condition, she would have become nationally renowned. It was later recommended that her biography be written and a monument made in her honor, but that was too much for Argentina. They could not handle a poor, black female getting all the glory that should go to white men. 

However, a street in the city of Buenos Aires and one in two other cities were named after her. In addition, three schools and a woman’s house were named in honor of Maria Remedios del Valle as well.

She died alone and in misery begging in Buenos Aires on November 8, 1847. It should not be forgotten that the black population of Buenos Aires in 1810 was more than 20%. The Argentine blacks were a substantial and essential part of the independence struggle covering 65% of the battle stations for independence.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Diversity of Black America

When I speak of America, I speak of Canada, the USA, and countries all the way down to Argentina. When I speak of Black America, I speak of blacks in Canada, the USA, and countries all the way down to Argentina.
It was a Spanish-speaking member of an Afro-Latino forum of which I am a member who pointed out what I have been preaching throughout my seven years of blogging. Black Americans face the same struggles as black Latinos. He asserts what even I as an African American have witnessed is that many American blacks as well as many black Latinos have trouble accepting the fact that the black experience in the U.S. come in many cultural flavors; American, Cuban, Brazilian, Jamaican, Nigerian, Puerto Rican, Bajan, Panamanian, Ghanaian, Dominican, Belizean, Columbian, Canadian, British, Aboriginal, etc. 

He stressed to other Afro Latinos in the forum that they need to give us African-Americans time to catch up to this new reality. After all, we are all stronger together than we are apart, and we, collectively speaking, should not let the old divide-and-conquer ploy destroy our progress.

He, among many other foreign born blacks, feel that a large portion of the African-American population have a blind spot when it comes to members of the African diaspora. That is true in one sense, but historically, we have also been the most supportive. It is so ironic when members of the diaspora want to throw rocks at African Americans while standing on ground literally made fertile by the spilled blood of African Americans over centuries of struggle. Blacks like Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Malcolm X (USA), and Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) generally have been the most Pan-African among the diaspora.

I find it comical that my own blackness from time to time gets questioned by a few fellow African Americans because I speak Spanish and have a love for Spanish music (as I do R&B, jazz, folk, classical, and Haitian). I believe such confusion lies in our lack of knowledge of the black diversity in the western world. In the U.S., we African Americans were taught in school about slavery and Jim Crow, but what we were never taught that slavery of Africans started in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South American over 100 years before that of the U.S. 

Collectively, there are far more Spanish-speaking black folks scattered throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America than there are English-speaking black folks. We blacks in the western world also speak Portuguese, French, Creole, Gullah, Dutch, Garífuna, and Gullah as a first language.

As an admirer and explorer of Afro-Latino culture, I do not discuss race with Afro Latinos unless they either bring it up first, or until I realize how they define themselves. When a black Puerto Rican tells me he is not black, but Puerto Rican, they are saying that they do not know or do not want to know the difference between their race and their ethnicity. Black people in Latin America, even the ones who migrate to the U.S. view themselves by their nationalities first.

One Afro Latino with dual citizenship with Panama and the U.S.A. pointed out that no matter where he goes on this earth, his blackness is what people see before they hear his accent, his language, or his ideas. Interestingly, during my travels through Latin America, people of every race saw my skin color and assumed that I was just another black from their country until they heard my foreign accent and saw my passport. Then, my skin color faded and I was seen as nothing more than an American.

At the recent Dominican Day parade here in New York, a black man whose roots are in the Dominican Public asserted that he is black first and foremost because of the racism he experienced based on his skin color. When he orders his grocery items in fluent Spanish at the local bodega owned and staffed by light skinned Dominicans, he says that they do not see him as a fellow Dominican because of his color and always respond in English.

Just as many African Americans are not aware of the cultural diversity of the black race in America, many Latinos are not aware of the racial diversity among their fellow Latinos. During my travels, I met Latin-American people of African, Asian, Jewish, European, and Indigenous; all of whom speak Spanish as a first language.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I Am Proud of this Historically Black Peruvian Team

Proudly wearing the jersey of a Historically Black Peruvian Soccer Team

As I strolled through one of Lima, Perú's most dangerous districts, La Victoria, where a stadium is located housing Perú's famous Alianza Lima soccer team, no one gave me a second look, let alone tried to harm me. Word on the stree is that no one messed with me because they though I was “familia” (Afro-Peruvian). 

The Alejandro Villanueva Stadium where Alianza Lima play their home games.

Instead, people came over to me jubilantly shaking my hand; others drove by giving me the thumbs up and honking their horns shouting ALIANZA LIMA-A-A-A-A-A-! These folks, are hard-core fans of their local soccer team. It was the jersey that I was wearing that attracted so much positive attention for I too, like Barack Obama, by the way, am a fan of Alianza Lima.

Alianza Lima, winner of 22 national titles.

Before my first trip to Perú, many warned me about venturing into La Victoria, particularly alone. They told me that I was crazy and that this district is no joke. When I arrived in Perú, the family with whom I was staying also warned me about La Victoria. But I had to go. 

To help ensure my safety, I flagged down three different taxis. When I told them that I wanted to see La Victoria. They simply looked at me trying to keep from laughing, then drove off shaking their heads. I finally hired a taxi to show me around. The only time I got out of the taxi was to take pictures of Alianza Lima's stadium, named after the black superstar Alejandro Villanueva, considered the first great soccer player in Perú's history.

El Nene (the Kid) Teófilo Cubillas, Peru's all-time leading scorer and two-time world cup soccer star.

Several days later, I got a little bolder and took a combi (van serving as a bus) into La Victoria's main square and started walking around. Someone greeted me with the word's, ¿Qué pasó, familia? (what's up, bruh?) I just smiled, waved, and kept stepping. He most likely thought I was Afro-Peruvian, I didn't want my gringo accent to reveal otherwise.

The stadium which Alianza Lima play their home games is named 
after superstar Alejandro Villanueva, pictured above.

The reason I'm so fascinated with La Victoria and its team Alianza Lima Grone (Grone is Negro spelled backwards) is that this historically black team has won over 22 national titles. This is the team that produced black superstars such as Alejandro Villanueva of the 1930s and Teófilo Cubillas who was part of the Peruvian national team that won the 1975 American Cup, and reached the quarter finals at the 1970 and 1978 World Cup competitions.

After several trips to Perú, I made friends with a black family from La Victoria, and rented a room on their property for several nights. In this community hardly anyone speaks any English so all of my communication was in Spanish. However one evening, I happened to pass by a Peruvian National Police officer; as our eyes met, I guess he can tell by the way was was walking (swag movements) that I am black American, he blurted out in English, "how ya doin, man?” LOL.

Nowadays, Alianza Lima is no longer a black team. After so many black athletes proved themselves on the soccer field decade after decade, other teams that did not recruit blacks started bringing them on board.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Colombia, South America “Dissed” Their First and Last Black President

A portrait if Colombia's first black president was doctored to make him look whiter.

A Colombian woman once wrote on my blog that we Americans are too preoccupied with race, but when I pointed out all the racism I observed when I visited the hometown of her country's former black president, she had nothing to say. A lot of Latin-American people deny racism even exist in their respective countries as they traditionally sweep it under the rug, and get annoyed when you call them out with the facts.
Juan José Nieto Gil (June 24, 1805 – July 16, 1866) was a Colombian politician, army general, and writer who held several political offices before becoming the first Afro-Colombian to rise to the office of president at the end of the 19th century. Yet you will not find him in a single history book. 

While many Americans, with their own racial issues, are proud to let the world know they've elected their first black president, the Colombians kept theirs hidden for over a century. He was finally rediscovered in the late 1970s by a Colombian historian and sociologist who spent his entire life trying to do justice to the forgotten politician, it was not until his death that the Colombian media recognized their first black president.

The red portion of the map of Colombia, South America is the prdominiately black province of Chocó were former president Nieto was born.

When his portrait was painted just before he became president, it was immediately sent to France where it was whitened and altered to make Nieto Gil appear more "worthy" for the elite of his home town of Cartagena who were racially very closed. The painting was then "re-darkened" in 1974, when the Colombian historian and sociologist found it. But it was only recently that it was displayed in a Cartagena museum.

It was not only because of the color of Jose Nieto Gil’s skin that his legacy was disrespected, but because he came from Colombia’s Caribbean coastal province of Chocó, which is largely populated by people of African descent and has always been considered marginal by the central power in Bogota, the nation’s capital. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Funny Ecuadorian Memory

 Juncal (Valle de Chota), Ecuador

While riding a long-distance bus into the Andes Mountains in Ecuador to visit a small black community that produces many of Ecuador's best soccer players, I struck up a conversation with a young black teen wearing a New York baseball cap. I asked him in Spanish if he knew what he is wearing. 

 Retired Afro-Ecuadorian World Cup soccer star 
Augustín Delgado

I found that in many of the foreign countries I have visited (14 to date), people like to wear American garments with English writing across as a fashion statement not knowing what is written. Wisely, this young man pronounced “New York” very well versus the Spanish name Nueva York. I continued the conversation in Spanish telling him that i grew up in New York City. 

Afro-Ecuadorian Cultural Center

That got the attention of other Afro-Ecuadorians riding the bus as they looked at me astonished that a black American was riding among them. A mestizo woman who also overheard me asked me a question in English. When I answered her in English, there was a roar of laughter so loud and hard that I thought my eardrums were going to pop.

My dear, late friend Gloria Chalá who showed me
 the ropes while visiting her country (RIP)

What was so funny? These young Afro-Ecuadorians never heard a black man speak any other language than Spanish, let alone English. For me this was just another indication that we members of the African diaspora throughout the western hemisphere have a lot to learn from and about each other.

My place of residence in Ecuador's capital, Quito

In Oakland, CA where I have been living for many years, I received similar reactions from African Americans (and Mexican Americans) who are not used to hearing a black man speak Spanish. People would look me right in the face and ask me if I am black. Duhhhhhh! What else could I be? A Mexican woman told one of my black co-workers that I was not black.

Freddy Cevallos, a university Afro-Ecuadorian Studies Consultant who met with me on my second trip to Ecuador

We black folks in the western world, from Canada all the way down to Argentina speak English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Creole, Patois, Geechee/Gullah, and Garífuna. We have a lot to learn about how our African roots evolved in our respective environments since the slave trade.

The soccer field where young black youth train to become Ecuadorian superstars.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Afro Latina Bashes African Americans

In response to one of my blog posts, Confusing Afro-Latinos with African Americans, a hurt and embittered Afro Latina whom I will refer to as Liliana, posted her comment:
 “This is the problem, African Americans want to believe that we Afro latinos and Caribbean peoples are the same and the only thing dividing us is a boat stop. No it's more than that. We act differently, our culture is different and our morals. There is nothing similar about us. The only thing we share is skin color and we wish not to associate with African Americans. They have no culture, respect, morals, values, nada. And "slavery" was very different in Latin American and the Caribbean. We aren't scarred like African Americans...”
This black immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Stephen Hotesse, was included among the famed African-American fighter-pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

In once sense, Liliana is right. African-Americans and Afro Latinos, regardless of national origin, are indeed different as of result of our respective cultural environments. What we do have in common; however, is the perpetual racism that affects the whole African diaspora. Here in the U.S., racism is much more blatant and not swept under the rug as done in Latin America.

One white woman from Colombia, South America commented on another one of my blog posts that we Americans make a big deal out of race as if Colombian people do not. I pointed out to her that when I visited a predominately black and brown city in her country, Cartagena, how I noticed that the best jobs were held by whites and the most menial jobs were held by blacks. If this is not making a big deal out of racism, then what is?

Receiving his inspiration from the U.S. Black Pride movement of the 1960s, Rinaldo Campos organized what is now the world famous Afro-Peruvian dance troupe Perú Negro (Black Peru).

When I reached out to Liliana to inquire of her home country, I knew instinctively that she was going to tell me the "Dominican Republic." Historically, Dominicans, including many of the black Dominicans, appear to have deeper race issues than than those in other Latin-American countries. And many Dominicans have an even deeper hatred for Haitians for historical reasons where race was made to play a role by the Dominican government.

I explained to Liliana that I traveled to nine (9) Spanish-speaking countries going on 11, and not once have I experienced the hatred that she is preaching from fellow blacks because I am African American. In fact, quite the opposite as I experienced admiration because of our historical stand during the civil rights and black power movements that are now being emulated throughout Latin America today. 

In Colombia, South America, a magazine similar to Ebony Magazine of the U.S. is published monthly by black Colombians.

Black organizations have sprung up in places most would not imagine, such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. In Peru, I myself became an honorary member of Ashanti and Makungu Para El Desarrollo, two black civil rights organizations.

I explained to Liliana that it sounds as though she herself has been scarred by a very ignorant segment of my community (African-American), and want to paint us all with the same brush. After some probing, it turned out that my assumptions were right on target. She says, a majority of African Americans are not kind to foreigners, especially Caribbean and Afro Latinos. 

I heard the same complaint from immigrants from the African continent who say that once an African American realize they are from another country, they suddenly become distant, and in many instances, hostile. A young black man from Brazil shared his experience in school how he was bullied by African-American students because he was "different."

In Caracas, Venezuela I was taken in, fed, given a place to sleep, and treated like family by Felix and his extensive family, and am always being invited back.

If I had experienced the same unpleasant welcome from black Latin America as Liliana experienced from black America through my travels, I am sure that I too would have been as hurt and embittered as she. I assured her that if there was anything I could do to console her, I would be happy to accommodate.

I am by no means defending the ignorance  of fellow African Americans who rebuffs black foreigners as I see them as not privy to what Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X tried to instill in the minds of black Americans during their heydays let alone not knowing their own history. The black race is much, much bigger and more diverse than black America will ever be.

I long to visit Bolivia where their Black community strongly embraces black pride and the freedom struggle.

On the other hand, blacks from other countries, as Liliana pointed out to me, are warned to stay away from African Americans. My ex-girlfriend from Eretria, East Africa heard the same warning, which only made her want to get to know us even more fervently. This seems to be a divide-and-conquer tactic by those in power who do not want to see a revival of what Marcus Garvey attempted to establish, a united African diaspora.