Tag Archives: Black in Latin America

Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru

An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.

In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.

Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.

Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.

There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.

Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.

Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.

More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.

So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?

In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.

A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.

The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.

So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?

A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.

To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.

Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.

That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.

Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.

In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review of Part 3 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Brazil

Montage of tourist images of Rio de Janeiro, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Growing up, I had two images of Brazil: one with godlike athletic ability, the other with a fruit salad on her head.

As different as they were, both soccer legend Pele and entertainer Carmen Miranda projected an image of Brazil that, on the surface, was what everyone wanted—a harmonious mingling of European, African and Native American cultures into a purely American form. It was known as “racial democracy” and became the official established cultural ethos of South America’s largest country.

That combination of athleticism, musical prowess, and outright joy seemed so normal back then. Too bad that they mask severe economic, political and social problems that still weigh heavy with racial overtones.

This, of course, is taking place in a country that, like Cuba, has no “official” racism.

Black in Latin America recently explored Brazil, a country that imported more slaves than any other colony in the New World. It has the second largest African population on the planet, after Nigeria. Slavery was even more brutal here than in North America and the Caribbean, and ended even later.

Like in other places, Brazil’s acceptance of its African heritage was, at least officially, a top-down affair. Being a hotbed of intellectual thought, Brazil also became a center for an academic blossoming of Afro-centric and Afro-Brazilian cultural study and self-identity. From the universities of Bahia, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro came a new amalgamated understanding of what it means to be Brazilian. This intellectual ferment gets some much-needed light through this series.

Unfortunately, the façade of “racial democracy” was just that. Once you scratch the surface of carnival floats and samba music, the racial divide becomes much clearer. The elites, as in so many countries, tend towards the lighter shades. Those at the bottom rung have little, if any, opportunity to rise above their desperate condition.

It’s an old saw, but one that’s sharpened to a razor’s edge when seen against the stark realities of Brazilian life.

Gates does a pretty fair job covering the racial history of Brazil and the intellectual development of “racial democracy.” Yet as in the other episodes, one hour is simply insufficient to adequately cover the realities, and possible solutions, of Brazil’s very real racial divide.

Two areas in particular fall noticeably short: one a simplification, the other an outright omission.

Brazil’s experiment with affirmative action was not explored sufficiently. Towards the end of the episode, Gates sat in on a college discussion about the recent move by universities in Rio to establish affirmative action policies in college enrollment and faculty placement. The debate took a familiar tone: proponents pointed out the large disparity in income and enrollment between black and white, while opponents lamented decreased standards for the sake of racial equality.

Yet there was no indication that Gates would explore if Brazil would work with such quotas any further than the college classroom. Even without official racism, would Brazil’s government, social services, and especially its mushrooming industries tinker with affirmative action as well? Have similar programs been attempted before? What is the official government response to the university’s quota policy?

More importantly, how willing would the Brazilian economy—now a white-hot engine of progress—react to policies that may threaten their levels of production and profitability? Gates’ lack of exploration into how race played a role in Brazil’s economic boom is a gross omission.

Furthermore, Gates omits the growing racial divide in an area that once saw promise for Brazilians of color—sports.

Brazil’s greatest ambassador in history, by far, is its national soccer team, arguably the most successful national team on the planet. 5 World Cups, numerous awards and trophies, players that populate the top leagues in Europe and South America: Brazilian soccer has stood as a model to all the world.

Even more importantly, soccer was a way for Brazilians of color to really shine. Brazil’s national team first integrated in the early 1950s. Ever since, the style, culture and success of Brazilian soccer had the distinct flavor of the favelas, the slum areas around every Brazilian city populated largely by blacks. Pele, Tostao, Jarzinho and others rose from the slum streets to create the uber-successful and exciting Brazilian game.

From 1958 to 1970, the face of Brazilian soccer was black. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, was the smiling ebony face of Brazil and its powerhouse squad.

Today, Brazil’s face is markedly different.

Looking at recent Brazilian squads, one notices a distinctly whiter group than those generations ago. The faces of the team, players like Kaka and Pato, are as white as the driven snow. Black players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Rivaldo and Emerson are either retiring or on their way out.

Much of this change has to do, clearly, with money. European soccer is big business, and scouting has largely moved away from the tumble-down alleys of the favelas to state-of-the-art football academies. These academies are large, expensive, and difficult for poor applicants to enter. Thus, the talent pool reflects those who can afford to send prospective candidates to these schools.

European soccer, furthermore, has taken many Brazilian players and adapted them to more “European” methods. The flash and dash of the favelas is largely frowned upon, even though most Brazilian players rely on them for their occasional flashes of brilliance. In fact, the street style is today largely confined to the national Brazilian league itself, where local players cut, dash and dribble in the hope that a scout from Arsenal or Real Madrid picks them up.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this development. Nor is there any shortage of black players to grace Brazil’s squads in the future. Yet it seems odd that the pride and joy of Brazil looks less and less like the country itself, even as the country struggles for more cohesion and equality.

Once again, Gates missed a huge opportunity. To research Brazil’s racial history and not mention the influence of soccer deserves a huge red card.

Three episodes into the series, “Black in Latin America” is getting into a familiar pattern. While it highlights information that may seem illuminating to the average viewer, it doesn’t have the time or concentration to really look at race problems in depth.

With a theme—and a country—as vast as Brazil, this approach offers very little and discovers even less.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review of Part 2 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Cuba

Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba. Image via Wikipedia

The first episode offered some promise.  The second left me completely unsatisfied.

I just sat through an hour of the second part of PBSBlack in Latin America documentary series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates.   It was supposed to document how the Cuban Revolution of 1959 affected race relations on an island that has had a tumultuous history with its own identity.

Instead, I got a whole lot of pap about cultural phenomena I already knew about, and very little information on what I wanted to know.

I will grant Dr. Gates one handicap: since he was filming directly in Cuba, there is little doubt the authorities were controlling his footage.  There was little chance he was going to capture–nor did he seem to want to capture–the real essence of Cuban society today.  If you wanted to get a snapshot of the Afro-Cuban experience before 1959, this was a good start.  Then again, most of it wasn’t new to me.

Cuba had been a port of entry for African slaves since the 17th century, although the brunt of Cuban slavery would come in the late 18th and early 19th century, as the island surpassed Haiti as the main supplier of sugar in the Caribbean.  Slavery was abolished late, in 1886, and independence would come after two long wars and a stifling US intervention (1870s-1902).  During that time, the plantation economy translated into society as well, as a caste system kept African culture in the background.

In the 1920s, Cuba began to accept its African heritage, first among intellectuals and then among the populace through music such as son–the forerunner of mambo and other Latin musical forms.  Yet society, the economy and the government had grown largely segregated, in the typical pattern: whites had a lot, blacks not so much.

Then came a bunch of white guys–two of them really white (one had a Spaniard father and one was a quarter Irish)–who decided to start a revolution.

It took 40 minutes of a one-hour program to finally get to the good stuff–you can guess how well it was covered.

Since 1959, the Cuban government under the Castros, Fidel and Raul, had declared racism to be non-existent in revolutionary Cuba.  On paper, at least, there was no distinction between white and black for housing, jobs, education, health care, etc.  Gates interviewed two Afro-Cuban participants in the Revolution who lauded its egalitarian spirit with regards to education and health care.  To be sure, these are advances (though possibly superficial, as I implied in my earlier study of Cuba) would make any Cuban proud, especially those of color who were on the outside looking in.

Today’s Cuba, where tourism and the “double currency” of the CUC and the Peso Nacional rule the roost, has caused a re-emergence of latent racist tendencies that are supposedly “illegal”, since even acknowledgement of racism in Cuba is seen as counterrevolutionary.  Gates interviews young artists and musicians who are trying to bring these concerns to the Cuban public.  The tourism industry, they acknowledge, has pushed darked Cubans back into the background.  Furthermore, the double currency creates a rift between state workers and those in tourism,who often make up to 20 times more.

I could have told you this in my travelogues on Cuba.

So why was I unsatisfied?  Apart from social programs to lift up the Cuban masses, Gates did not address the one issue I had with the Revolution:  how “white” is the ruling elite of Cuba now?

Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos: the main actors of Cuban revolutionary history were as white as Robert E. Lee.  Have any blacks come anywhere close to such positions of power and influence?  In the 53 years since the triumphal march into Havana, how many blacks have sat on the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party?  How many have sat in the Congress of People’s Power, the rubber-stamp legislature?  How many sit on the Council of Ministers?  Are there any black Cubans in real positions of power in government, in state industries, in diplomacy, or in the armed forces?

In short, how far down the totem pole do we have to go from Fidel and Raul to find a powerful, influential Cuban of color?

As much as the rhetoric says so, there clearly still are haves and have-nots in Cuba.  Gates seemed so caught up in the rah-rah of the social agenda that he neglected to investigate whether a black person in Cuba had any chance of real political or economic power.

Maybe it was too sensitive a topic to fly in the face of Cuban censors.  To have Cubans acknowledge a lack of blacks in power, especially on record, is tantamount to admission of racism, which leads to charges of treason and all the fun activities that come with it.  At the very least, he showcased a black commander in the armed forces and discussed the “whitewashing” of independence hero Antonio Maceo (Did they tell you about the reason his statue’s turned around, Skip?).

Nonetheless, in a place where power is paramount–especially political and military power–to not research African entry into the machinations of the revolutionary state is a grave omission on Gates’ part.

Next week, Gates will be covering the African experience in Brazil.  Although he gets only an hour, I sincerely hope it’s a more prudent use of time.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic

A Tale of Two Countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.

One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition.  All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them.  From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.

Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility.  “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.

(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)

Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America.  Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences.  The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity.  On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.

The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade.  Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching.  On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.

Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.   Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness.  It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.

This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor.  Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population.  Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior.  When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting.  Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.

Haiti seems almost the exact opposite.  Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black.  Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents.  Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.

Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence.  Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas.   One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.

This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.  Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans.  Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence.  Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.

The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants.  While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World.  Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.

Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States.  Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors.  Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.

Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized.  As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more.  As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.

There is no shame in being of African descent.

Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized