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Posts from the ‘Puerto Rico’ Category

A Lesson In Love & Locks

Los Afro-Latinos is pleased to feature Marshalla S. Ramos, author, educator and mother. This interview will also appear in the Los Afro-Latinos Children’s Supplement which will be published later this year.

Marshalla’s extensive teaching background, kindergartners to adults, taught her a valuable lesson. Humanity shares similar life experiences; differences occur on an individual basis. That’s why for Marshalla it is essential to focus on the fact that “we are all one.” Elaborating on this theme, Marshalla explained the importance of embracing others for who they are.  According to Marshalla, this point of view serves as an essential ingredient for wellbeing.

Three years ago, around the time she began writing, Isabella’s Hair and How She Learned To Love It, Marshalla, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, made her first visit to her family’s homes in Santurce, San Juan and Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Her debut book, tells the story of Isabella, an Afro-Boricuan, who lives in Carolina, Puerto Rico. With loving support from her abuela (grandmother), Isabella learns self-love and self-acceptance.

isabellashairbookWhy did you decide to write this book? Skin color and hair texture constantly come up in the classroom. As an educator it was important to create a narrative from a child’s perspective. The voice of the protagonist (Isabella) was more than that of a child speaking. It included the expressions of a female who is of Afro-Latino heritage. During the editing process, a lot of memories resurfaced. Through family stories, I had the impression that my grandmothers, both with dark complexions, were strongly persuaded to marry  to “better the race.”  This book is my attempt to offer a debt of gratitude to my grandmothers and to honor the lives they lived.

Do you consider the book autobiographical or semi autobiographical? I think every book a writer writes is based on something they’ve experienced.

Describe the main character Isabella? She’s a beautiful 7-year-old growing up in Carolina. She likes to color each day and draws her family, and wonders why she looks a certain way. She enjoys the view of her yard and playing. People in the community say (negative) things about her color and hair.

What role does Isabella’s grandmother play in the story? Abuelita comes to visit one day and overhears how Isabella is upset that her mother made her a brown dress that matches her hair and skin. She’s sitting under the coconut tree and wondering why everyone thinks brown is beautiful. Abuelita asks Isabella questions about the things in Puerto Rico that are brown like cocoa beans, soil etc and what they do. These natural things enrich us and so does Isabella’s presence.

Isabellas Hair

An illustration by Michael Murphy from Isabella’s Hair.

What messages did you learn about your hair growing up? In my immediate family, my mom embraced me and taught me I was beautiful. But, my sister has typical Puerto Rican/ Spanish hair, and comments were made by other relatives that I wasn’t as beautiful, or Nuyorican as my sister. I would get teased. It was painful.

As an adult, do you accept your hair? If so, how did you arrive at that point of acceptance? I have locks now. I love them, I love my hair. Around 2007, I stopped relaxing my hair, and felt it was time to embrace my hair texture and who I was, and embracing the term Afro-Latina. I decided it was necessary to understand my African heritage, not to deny this part of me. I wanted people to see the real me. It’s very empowering to feel your own hair texture. It’s much healthier.

Is it important for children of color, particularly Afro-Latino children, to have books that feature Afro-Latino children? If so, why? I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Every month, a magazine is published. One article was about protagonists in children’s books. Less than one percent represent children of color. Even when I was teaching kindergarten and you asked Scholastic (world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books), they don’t have these books. If you look at a child of color, they need to see characters that represent a similar experience to them. Children pick up books that interest them or they can relate to. If they don’t find them, they don’t gravitate to literature as much. Why not have books like this available? It’s important – not just for numbers, but for children’s self-esteem.

What kind of response/reaction are you receiving from the book? I’ve participated in a couple of book fairs and was at La Casa Azul (New York City Bookstore) for Book Day.  My book always sells out and people love it. It was picked up by People enjoy the story, and wish they had it when they were young. A young lady bought my book for a friend who adopted a black baby. The book is especially valuable for adopted children and girls.

What projects are you working on? A story about an Afro-Latino boy, titled Leon’s Courage. I’m still figuring out the setting, but it will deal with being smart and the implications of being smart in a neighborhood where kids don’t celebrate that. Leon learns to change negatives into positives with the help of his cousin, Isabella.

Marshalla dreams of returning to Puerto Rico to read her book at schools and bookstores throughout the island.

Isabella’s Hair and How She Learned to Love It was published by Create Space and illustrated by Michael Murphy.

Connect with Marshalla on Twitter and the Facebook page for Isabella’s Hair.

From Loíza, Puerto Rico: A lovingly curated children’s book selection

By Kim Haas

I’m so pleased to present this guest post. It was thoughtfully written by one of our favorite librarians, Daniel Pizarro. Daniel is the consummate gentleman. Plus, he’s smart and cares deeply about Loíza and the library’s patrons.

I met Daniel three years ago at Loíza Public Library in Puerto Rico. Our meeting represented a wonderful culmination of a series of emails and an eventual conference call solidifying a sister library collaboration between Loíza library and the Jersey City Free Public Library; which is my local library.

So, Daniel is my go-to-guy when I’m in need of a little inspiration and great recommendations for Afro-Latino and Afro-centered children’s books.

Los Afro-Latinos is currently working on an Afro-Latino Children’s Book Supplement. Until every “ i is dotted and t is crossed” and we publish the collection, we thought we would share with you Daniel’s contribution to the Supplement. And September is a great month to post Daniel’s selections as we shepherd our children back to school for the new year. Read more

Rosa Clemente: 1st Afro-Latina U.S. Vice Presidential Candidate Talks Politics and Purpose

by Nicolle Morales Kern

It may be three years until the next presidential election, but it’s never too early to explore politics and the people who focus on making a difference through our political system. For those of us who aren’t active in the day-to-day aspects of politics, from lobbying to campaigning, it can be hard to understand how much dedication politics requires. To get an idea of what politics is like behind the scenes, we interviewed Rosa Clemente, the first Afro-Latina Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate. During this interview, Rosa discusses her identity as an Afro-Latina, her experience during the 2008 election campaign, and the importance of political engagement.

Rosa Clemente is a community organizer, journalist, Hip Hop and political activist.  Five years ago, as the Vice Presidential Candidate for the Green Party, she and Cynthia McKinney, Green Party Presidential Candidate, formed the first women of color ticket.

The daughter of a mother from Ponce, and a father from Rio Pierdas, Rosa Clemente was born and raised in the Bronx. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Albany and her Masters of Professional Studies at Cornell University. She is currently in her second year of a doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and her dissertation focuses on the Black Latino, Hip Hop culture. Read more

One-On-One with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda

Our April article for Being Latino features a Q&A with Afro-Rican Jazz Creator William Cepeda. This article was originally published on the Being Latino site

Since 1992, William Cepeda has been bringing Afro-Rican Jazz to the world. The music he shares with us is a combination of world music, progressive jazz, and traditional Afro-Puerto Rican roots and folk music and dance.

A Grammy-nominated artist and composer, and the protégé of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespsie, William continuously advocates for research and documentation of Puerto Rico’s musical, dance, and cultural history. This dedication has won him numerous awards, grants, and recognition around the world, but is also a part of his family history. The Cepeda family was recently featured on an episode of CNN’s Inside Africa about Bomba dance.

Born and raised in Loiza, known as the heart of little Africa in Puerto Rico, he was always surrounded by music and dance. His love of music led him to seek formal education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, and the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees (one in jazz composition and arranging and one in music education) and a master’s degree in jazz performance.

In 1997, William created his own record label, Casabe Records.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing him about his interest in music, why he decided to create his own label, and his latest project La Música de Puerto Rico: Raíces y Evolucíon (Races and Evolution). Read more

Chef Eddie Cotto: A Missionary for Puerto Rican Cuisine

Our December article for Being Latino focuses on Chef Eddie Cotto, owner of the restaurant Me Casa in Jersey City. 

Chef Eddie Cotto

Chef Eddie Cotto

“I’m here because I love to cook.” To say that Chef Eddie Cotto is passionate about Puerto Rican food is an understatement. He’s on a mission, plate by plate not just to change, that’s too simple, but to revolutionize how Americans view his familial cuisine.

The Brooklyn born and raised former financier says, “I dream big, never small.” 

Chef Cotto aspires to see Puerto Rican food as ubiquitous as Mexican and Cuban food is throughout the United States. According to him, Puerto Ricans have not tooted their horns loud enough and have fallen short marketing their cuisine to a crossover audience as Mexicans and Cubans have. “Have we really made a mark on the world, culinarily, to really claim our spot? That’s where I think we haven’t.” The result, according to Chef Cotto is that many Americans identify and categorize Latino cuisine as either Mexican or Cuban. Read more

Introducing Alejandro Fernández: Afro-Bolivian Activist

Imagine being just 17 years old when your mother dies. Your entire life transformed in 24 hours.

Before her death, she’d been raising you and your two siblings alone. You take her to a hospital to be treated. And the doctor denies her care, not because her condition was incurable but because you are unable to pay the cost of her treatment.

That’s exactly what happened to Alejandro Fernández Gutiérrez. At the hospital, before his mother could receive care, he was asked for $100 (approximately 700 Bolivianos). Unfortunately, he did not have the money to save his mother’s life. Nor did Alejandro’s family have health insurance which was unavailable to Afro-Bolivians. At this time in Bolivia’s history, Afro-Bolivians were not recognized in the country’s constitution.

We needed help from the system, but the system wouldn’t respond to us,” says Alejandro.

Alejandro bundled on his mom’s back, sister seated. Photo courtesy Alejandro Fernández.

So his mother, Elena, described as a kind and peaceful woman, who had been cleaning houses since she was nine years old died that fateful day.

That was the day when I decided to do something for my country and that was the day I changed my whole life and my whole perspective,” says Alejandro.

Since then, Alejandro has earned recognition from the United States Department of State and The Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. He’s published works on HIV/AIDS prevention and graduated from the University of San Andres (Bolivia) with a degree in Social Sciences. At 26 years of age, nearly a decade after his mother’s death, Alejandro is a prominent voice advocating for Afro-Bolivians and a human rights activist.

Although his mother’s death inspired him with a new outlook, changes didn’t happen overnight. Alejandro was hesitant to join the Afro-Bolivian movement, along with his uncle.
I remember mentioning that I couldn’t join because I wasn’t Afro. I told him, ‘I’m not black enough to be in the group,’” says Alejandro, who saw himself as a mix of races because his father is Aymara Indian (one of Bolivia’s indigenous ethnic groups) “For me, to be black in a country where discrimination happens because of your color…I didn’t want to be a target.”

However, Alejandro was becoming increasingly interested in his mother’s culture – a culture she never knew.

He started by participating in workshops and festivals. He was 18 when he was featured on a Bolivian reality TV show. On the program, he was asked to dance, “Something like Saya, but stylized like Caporales, Tundiqui, Negritos or Sambos,” says Alejandro. “I said, ‘No, I will dance Saya even if it’s not commercial enough.’” (Saya is a folkloric dance and musical tradition performed by Afro-Bolivians. It fuses African percussions with Andean instruments.)

When the program was over many people associated me with Saya and the voice of Afro Bolivians because I mentioned cities of The Yungas,” says Alejandro. (The Afro-Bolivian population is concentrated in a region called Los Yungas, 55 miles north of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.)

While gaining recognition as an advocate for Afro-Bolivians, Alejandro began university studies. He was the only Afro-Bolivian in his class. The only other Afro-Bolivian, at the college, was a female professor.

Alejandro with his mom after winning first scholarship. Photo courtesy Alejandro Fernández

She told me, ‘You are getting better education, you can lead the movement and be a model for your generation,’” Alejandro says of Professor Monica Rey. “Those words really touched me.”

Alejandro attended meetings and protests with the faculty. With Professor Rey, Alejandro was invited to meetings with The United Nations, Human Rights Commission and Bolivia’s Parliament.

I realized that those people did not have any idea of the needs we [Afro-Bolivians] had and they did not even know how many Afros there were in the whole country,” says Alejandro. “They needed to know and understand our needs. I had personal experiences and they could learn from that.”

He felt compelled to share the lack of treatment his mother was provided at the hospital as well as the discrimination she experienced in her daily life.

Alejandro describes his mother, Elena, as dark-skinned with short coarse, coily hair. She was so tall and her hair was so short that people on the street would sometimes call her a “señor.” They would also call her “El otro, (The other)” because they hadn’t seen a black person before. Alejandro’s mother suffered daily humiliation, even falling victim to the local discriminatory act of pinching.

When people see a black person, they pinch themselves because they believe it brings good luck, “ says Alejandro. The act stems from slavery. Indigenous people pinch themselves as a reminder that when Africans were brought to Bolivia as slaves, their presence alleviated some of the discrimination and hard labor that had been previously performed by the indigenous population.

That’s probably why we didn’t go out too often,” says Alejandro. Even going to a hotel or restaurant was a struggle. “They didn’t believe that a black woman or indigenous people could have money to pay for their meal in a restaurant.”

But this was the culture in Bolivia. When Alejandro was growing up, Bolivian children weren’t even taught about slavery in schools. It was almost as if Africans just showed up one day. The connotation was that being Afro meant being a slave, being “el otro.” The country had created an atmosphere in which Afro-Bolivians and indigenous people were not only inferior, but also invisible. They had no rights, no insurance and little access to education.

I knew what had happened to me wasn’t the only [incident]. I had friends who were Aymara and the same thing happened. Their mothers died because they didn’t have insurance,” says Alejandro who also knew stories of young boys and girls who died of Hepatitis B without access to a hospital because they did not have money for treatment. “What happened wasn’t an isolated case.”

Fueled by these struggles, Alejandro has worked to better the lives of Afro-Bolivians and Bolivia’s indigenous populations. He worked with The Bolivian Foundation for Multiparty Democracy, The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) whose mission is to promote the right of every individual to health and equal opportunity, and other organizations. He has also written articles and has become an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and education.

For five weeks, Alejandro interned with Peace and Culture in the American Embassy in Bolivia, working for Silvia Dáttoli. He developed two projects – “Juventud, Identidad e Integracion en la Diversidad (Youth, Identity and Integration in Diversity)” and “Manos para el Desarrolo (Hands for Development)” – that were widely successful and received tremendous amounts of attention.

Alejandro at Arcadia University. Photo Courtesy Alejandro Fernández

Alejandro is currently a graduate student and Fulbright Scholar at Arcadia University, Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is studying International Peace and Conflict Resolution. And when he’s not studying, Alejandro writes regularly for the “We of the Saya” blog with friend and filmmaker Sisa Bueno. (see Sisa’s Story)

Alejandro & Filmaker Sisa Bueno

In the ten years since his mother’s passing, Afro-Bolivians have helped to craft a new Bolivian Constitution, which includes the most basic of human needs – recognition. Alejandro agrees that Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has worked to change perceptions about Aymara Indians and Afro-Bolivians, particularly in the field of education. However, Alejandro notes that President Morales still has work to do in many fields to help improve the lives of both groups, including access to health care. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done, the benefit of having Alejandro as an advocate for the community cannot be overstated.

After graduation, Alejandro is weighing the possibility of working at UNFPA or the United Nations. Or, maybe even Bolivia’s Department of Justice. While he’s not certain where he’ll work next, Alejandro knows one thing for sure, “This world needs leaders and I am one of them.”


Children’s Summer Reading: Inspiring Big Dreams in Little Readers

Sometimes it’s a bit tricky to encourage children to read, especially in today’s world when fierce competition comes from television, video games and everything and anything that can be found on the internet. However, we know that reading is powerful. Time spent with a book inspires imagination, creativity and increases literacy.

This post originated from an inquiry of a reader, Marisel. Last month she contacted Los Afro-Latinos for a listing of children’s books about Afro-Latinos. We were intrigued by the proposal. I reached out to Daniel Pizarro (in above photo), Head Librarian at Biblioteca Pública de Loíza (The Loiza Public Library) for recommendations. Considered the center of Puerto Rico’s African heritage, Loiza maintains strong cultural traditions originating with the island’s African descendants. Read more

Don Ricardo Alegría: Keeper of Puerto Rico’s History and Culture

I feel comfortable saying no individual in contemporary times embodied Puerto Rico’s history, its traditions, was more revered by his countrymen, or more closely associated with telling its story than the incomparable Don Ricardo Alegría.

This post honors Dr. Ricardo Alegria at the first year anniversary of his passing on July 7, 2012. He lived a long, accomplished life and  deeply loved his homeland, Puerto Rico. To say his knowledge and memory of Puerto Rico, the island he called home for 90 years, was encyclopedic would be an understatement. Known as “The Father of Modern Puerto Rican Archaeology,” Don Ricardo Alegría spent his life exploring, investigating, researching, writing about Puerto Rico’s history, including its African legacy. Read more

Culture and Community Bloom at The Festival de Bambulaé

There’s a garden nestled on Palethorpe Street within North Philadelphia’s narrow, twisting roads. It’s called Las Parcelas. There are houses painted in vibrant yellows and blues dotting the landscape. The garden has carefully placed stepping-stones, hanging lights and colorful wall murals. There’s even a pit for pig roasting.

This is no ordinary garden. Formally, the space was occupied by 21 row houses and is now the home of 32 garden plots. It’s a product of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (Norris Square), which has used its programming and six vast gardens to invigorate and feed the community for four decades. And on June 16, it was the site for Norris Square’s Festival de Bambulaé, a vivid garden celebration and fundraiser.

Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

“It’s an opportunity for the Puerto Rican community to share its culture with people throughout Philadelphia,” says Rafael Álverez, Norris Square’s Director of Garden Programs.

While youth leaders help community elders lay out table clothes, make guacamole and test microphones for the many Philadelphians to come celebrate later that day, it’s difficult to imagine what Norris Square’s gardens looked like 40 years ago.

“All of this area was houses and lots that were dilapidated, torn down and abandoned,” says Reed Davaz McGowan, Executive Director of Norris Square. “Demolition companies would come by and dump their trash here. Community members were depressed. It was a lot of violence, drugs and you’re taking people from this incredible Afro-Caribbean environment of Puerto Rico and all these colors and foliage and you’re putting them in a very urban environment where there’s cement and brick everywhere.”

Something had to be done to counter the violence, the trash dumping and the destruction families were experiencing. And that’s where Iris Brown and Tomasita Romero came in.

They started with some bright paint and a few flowers to bring the magic and beauty of Puerto Rico to Philadelphia. Romero received a fence through a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to keep the garbage out. And then they started planting trees.

“Now it’s a thriving sanctuary for these birds and butterflies,” say McGowan, adding, “Iris wanted to do what she could do. She had a lot of support, but it shows how one person with an idea can make a big impact on their community.”

Tomasita Romero and Iris Brown are photographed.

For decades, Iris Brown has been instrumental in promoting the African influence in Puerto Rican culture. In a city which is racially and ethnically diverse, just a few blocks away, the community is predominately African American. Norris Square’s goal – aside from youth development, sustainable farming and community engagement – is to bridge the gap between these two communities.

“We’re more connected than we think,” says Álverez, who is Puerto Rican. “It’s very important to look at the African Diaspora within Puerto Rico and talk about how much it influences this entire culture, from the way we eat to the music we listen to.”

In recognition of Africa’s influence , Norris Square has created The Villa Africana Colobó, a small African village in one of its garden spaces. It has brightly colored huts and interior walls are decorated with African masks. During the  the Festival de Bambulaé, instrument making and leaf printing instruction were available to attendees.

Across Palethorpe Street, there is another garden called El Batey with grapes growing above an arbor and an enormous colorful butterfly wall mural. There are Bomba dancers from two troupes. Members are young and old, swishing their colorful skirts, swaying their hips, tapping their feet and rhythmically beating drums. Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican dance whose origins trace to enslaved Africans on the island.

The chicken coop and other sites at the garden in Las Parcelas.

Maribel Lozada from Philareyto Dance describes the beauty of Bomba saying, “No hay mucho coreografía ; es más de sentido y como tu sientes.” Lozada has been teaching Bomba to neighborhood kids for decades, carefully explaining Bomba’s “influencia Africana.”

Her granddaughter was one of the dancers who performed with her in El Batey at the Festival. And Guillermo — who is only 10 years old, but has been Bomba dancing for nearly four years —  sits with Lozada echoing his love for the dance and the confidence it gives him. He says, “I like that I kind express myself, my movement and just be me.”

Back in Las Parcelas, beyond the guitar player and lessons on composting with worms, people are touring the garden space and feasting upon Napoleon, the pig who was roasted for six hours by McGowan’s husband, Nat, who happens to be a chef.

Two women munching happily at a table across from an oregano garden work at the PHS. They’ve come here every year since the late 1980s. And PHS has had a strong partnership with Norris Square Neighborhood Project for decades.

The Villa Africana Colobó

“PHS was right there at the beginning. And I think it’s one of the things we’re most proud of. This is why we do this,” says Lisa Stephano. She says of Norris Square, “I think the way they engage children, young people, and give them such meaningful skills and a place to really be together and get a sense of community is really special.”

“I think the gardens really did transform this entire community,” adds Maitreyi Roy who says that Las Parcelas is her favorite garden in the entire city. “They gave a sense of community.”

In the five years that McGowan has been Executive Director, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project has developed its youth program, which boasts impressive high school graduation rates in a community where less than 70% of boys graduate. Now they’re turning all their energy to these gardens. This Festival will raise money to help Norris Square develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. And through generous donations – given over the decades to create and maintain this program – Norris Square can throw movie nights and happy hours and plant more fig trees.

Reed Davaz McGowan and her husband Nat

Around 7:00 p.m., the festivities for the Festival were well under way. People are huddled beneath the fig trees and pear trees with plates of mango salsa, chicken and Napoleon the pig in all his delicious glory.

Out on Palethorpe Street, which is blocked off for the event, neighborhood children are seen playing basketball, riding bikes and drawing with sidewalk chalk.  A man named Modesto is here with his two sons. He works for Taller Puertorriqueño, a Philadelphia Latino arts and culture institution, and his wife serves on Norris Square’s Board of Directors. They come here every year to celebrate their culture and to support the work of Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

Modesto and his son drawing with sidewalk chalk.

His son Sebastian is drawing a robot with blue, green and yellow chalk. He’s drawing in the middle of a street in North Philadelphia, which wouldn’t have been possible years ago. It feels safe now.

He begs his father for more colors. And he’s earned them; after all, he spent his morning weeding the gardens of Las Parcelas. It’s already become his second home.

The Festival de Bambulae raises money to help Norris Square Neighborhood Project develop community stewardship and cultural preservation. Visit their site for more information and ways to help.  You can also “Like” them on Facebook.

The Afro-Latino Kitchen

“Food is everything,” we were once told. At Los Afro-Latinos, we couldn’t agree more. It’s food that binds us across countries and generations. That’s why we’re starting The Afro-Latino Kitchen.

Once a month, we’ll post about a chef, cook, restaurant, ingredient or Afro-Latino dish. The best part is we’re asking you to share your food memories with us by suggesting favorite restaurants, kiosks, festivals and more. Whether you live in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; Cartagena, Colombia; or Chicago, Illinois, or anywhere else in the world, we’re asking you to share your food and stories.

With any luck, we’ll be able to cover your favorite Afro-Latino dishes and cooks and share them with our community.

Check back at monthly for a new story from Afro-Latino Kitchen. And send us suggestions on Facebook and Twitter.

Kiosko El Boricua outside of Pinones, Puerto Rico. They’re cooking alcapurrias de jueyes (crabmeat fritters). Many kiosks like this one have been run by the same family for generations.