Saturday, August 15, 2009

Diáspora Negra: The African Presence

This weekend La Pena Cultural Center is hosting a wonderful program, La Peña presents: Diáspora Negra: The African Presence in Latin America. I attended the symposium on Friday evening before the show. The guests were: Nancy Ramierez, Bolivia; Monica Rojas, Peru; Jorge Alabe, Brazil (with company member acting as interpreter),and Virgilio Guevara, Columbia.

I'd hosted a show earlier in the day about the weekend series and was interested in finding out more about Diaspora Negra. The symposium was a huge disappointment, though Avotcja acting as emcee filled in many of the gaping negative spaces in the "expert" discourses earlier that evening for Bolivia and Columbia, particular. I don't know if it was the microwave fashion the moderator used to keep the guests on the tight time schedule or the panelists really believing the hype they presented as truth to the gullible or not so gullible audience.

I was up for a few hours when I returned home researching the African presence in Latin America: Columbia, Bolivia and Peru in particular. I am familiar with the African presence in Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico....not so much Uruguay and Paraguay and Argentina.

What I didn't understand in the panel presentation was why the presenters knew so little about the African presence, that is, how the culture reflects the spirituality of the community--it's not just a performance. I wondered if any of them knew the remarkable film, "When the Spirits Danced Mambo." It wasn't just ignorance; it was misinformation. On panelist when asked about the intersection of the sacred and profane in secular performance, said the Africans in Peru were reconstructing a history they didn't know, that they were making it up.

She was challenged by a member of the audience, who didn't claim to be an expert, yet knew many Peruvian songs where Orisha were named. How could this be a coincidence? How is it possible that the singer didn't know the reference, especially when the dance was one the mirrored this deity?

I am on a list-serve for Runoko Rashidi, a scholar and expert on the Global African presence. When I got home and looked at the sky--cloudy, so no visible meteor showers for me...I turned on the computer and did a search for Bolivia and read about eight articles he posted.

I read about an African president of Columbia, Jose Nieto Gil. Not only has he been hidden from sight literally--his portrait was painted over white, he is not in the official line-up of chief executive officers on state walls and except for a few interested scholars, Afro-Bolivins and others are still ignorant about former governor's service as president in 1861. Overlooked in all the history books, unless one subscribes to BBC, a government which suppressed this information for all these years is certainly not going to make PSAs announcing this wonderful information to citizens who have been marginalized and exploited for most, if not all of their sojourn in this nation. See

No one mentioned the first African Bolivian king, Julio Bonifaz Pinedo descendant of Bonifaz, who "was brought to Bolivia as a slave in the 16th Century to work in the silver mines of Potosi. Like most slaves who survived the mines, Bonifaz was later traded to estate owners in the plantations of Los Yungas, where the climate is more akin to sub-Saharan Africa. Today, more than 35,000 Afro-Bolivians continue to feel overlooked in a country that recently approved its first 'multi-ethnic and multicultural' constitution" (Andres Schipani BBC News, Murarata, Los Yungas).

I reread so much information about Peru, from Saint Martin De Porres, the African saint, canonized May 16, 1962, to Runoko's linguistically descriptive jaunts into historic Peruvian civilization and the early African explorers who he says accompanied Spanish invaders as soldiers and translators in the sixteenth century, followed by enslaved Africans in 1550s and slave revolts, a famous one led by Franciso Congo. Most of the Africans in Peru lived on the coast in Lima which developers are trying to take. I haven't even mentioned the famous city, Machu Picchu.

Runoko writes: "Contrary to popular belief, the first Africans to come to Peru did not come as captives, that is enslaved people. Rather, the country that is now called Peru in all likelihood became home to many of the first waves of Blacks who crossed into the Western Hemisphere tens of thousands of years ago. We have already found the bones of these ancient Blacks in Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil. Why would Peru be an exception? And then there is the Moche civilization.

"Peru is probably the most archaeologically rich country in South America and one of the most important phases of its history is the Moche period. The Moche (or Mochica), a militaristic people little known to all but a few of us, erected their empire along the Peruvian coast around 100 C.E. and were not eclipsed for seven hundred years. They built their capital in the middle of the desert around what is now the city of Trujillo. It featured the enormous pyramid temples of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (The temples of the Sun and the Moon). The Temple of the Sun, one of the most impressive adobe structures ever built in the Western Hemisphere, was composed of over a hundred million mud bricks." He also says that Afro-Peruvians are almost invisible in Peruvian society, numbering "about two million people out of a total population of about twenty-three million." Runoko was able to find one black taxi driver, he writes whose English was limited to the words, "black power." Was that a sign (smile).

We are still talking about Diáspora Negra, the point is despite great odds Africans still exist, they are still present in the Latin Diaspora, a place which unlike America, does not even pretend to celebrate African culture. It is amazing that these communities have been able to celebrate life and spirit and their Africanness via dance and music and song.

This context was not completely missing from the discussion, but the context of "greatness" was, that these people are great people whose music and dance are but a reflection of the strength they have to endure despite the odds. It is their spiritual traditions which allow them to exist in a climate --politically and socially and certainly economically which would rather they disappear, vanish, be gone.

I used to love attending Cine Accion in SF because the films would explored aspects of the African Latin Diaspora unexplored previously. I also liked the discussions such films would prompt the audience to explore. I saw a film about Columbia in this festival and it was about these community radio stations which were produced clandestinely--in houses, on rooftops, because the government wanted to shut them down--these DJs were the voice of descent. They bravely told the stories of the black people who didn't have access to jobs, land, or housing. They would report the police brutality, the deaths and also what was going on in the community people should support.

The Afro-Columbians were exiled in the mountains or desolate and poor regions, pushed out away from public view. The comparison would be the favelas in Brazil.

So anyway. I was disappointed in the shallowness of the presentations last night at La Pena. I was also disappointed in the absence of black faces, people who looked like me, people who could not pass the brown paper bag test, people who could not choose to ignore their African descent because they wore it daily and were responded to daily based on that physicality, often negatively.

I would have found it amusing, but the matter is too serious for laughter, espcially when one of the panelists said a movement was underway to invite all Peruvians to acknowledge their African roots even if they are not visible. She joked about her invisible legacy. This policy reminds me of the flawed policy at MoAD: "Everyone is African by origin." It's as if the definition of African or blackness is expanded to include people who had never thought to claim it, because of the skin they are in, then perhaps this inclusion of "other" will make the powers that be, who also look like "other" claim the darker siblings?

I am not holding my breath. The premise is the world is colorblind when of course it is not. I think those of us with means should spend them helping our brothers and sisters in the Americas--here and elsewhere. If the Bolivians are trapped physically in an area of the country, albeit beautiful, cut off from roads and transportation, limited to work in the plantation fields, then African people with means should meet with them and see how we can help them out of poverty. The days of waiting for municipalities to save us are over. Isn't 500 years enough time to realize that the 40 acres are not coming? I am not saying let America off the hook, but none of these western nations, here, in Latin America or elsewhere is giving up anything without a court battle and though it is already happening in the United States, I don't know if there are any cases pending in any courts in the rest of the Americas.

I am going to host another show to talk more about Diáspora Negra (probably in October, Maafa Awareness Month). Runoko will be traveling in this region if all goes according to plan, so maybe I'll have him on in September for a preview.

The radio show Friday was good. My guests were from Peru, Bolivia, Cuba, and Columbia: Diana Suarez, Colombia, Pedro Rosales, Peru, Guido Moscoso, Bolivia, Sandy Perez, Cuba, and artistic director, Gabriela Shiroma.

I enjoyed the conversation, especially, Diana's voice in our discourse, the shift when she began to talk about what was happening in Columbia to the black people. When I've spoken to Pedro in the past he has spoken about the history of African people in Peru and the connection of the music and dance to that experience. I just assumed that the artists would also be the panelist later on. I was mistaken. Gabriela wasn't even on the panel and this is her vision.

I am really interested in how our African legacy is replicated regionally in this hemisphere despite linguistic differences and geographic separation. I think those of us in the western hemisphere have more in common than we differ, more in common with each other than with those Africans on the continent who never left--enslavement was different from colonialism.

Although the two systems are brutal and share other similarities, slavery is to colonialism what house arrest is to incarceration. Those who remained stateside also lost, but they have linguistic access we whose first languages are those of the captor, do not have.

There are places in our consciousness we cannot go unless it is through a rhythm or a melody--a trigger which captures something lost --something inexplicable cognitively, yet so right we catch it like a fleeting memory, a fragrant we want to savor, wear and show off and revisit again and again.

Energy cannot be just changes, it adapts and it keeps on keeping on, so it is with Diáspora Negra: The Global African Presence.

The second, and final day begins at 6:45 p.m. with another panel,this one featuring guests who will speak about Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Sandy will be on the panel, so I know it will be good. I don't know the others. The show starts at 8:30 p.m.


Post a Comment

<< Home