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Posts tagged ‘Afro-Latina’

Welcome to Gullah Country!

by Kim Haas

Los Afro-Latino’s mission is to bring our readers closer to the people, places, events and movements that impact the Afro-Latino Diaspora. Periodically, we will enlarge the tent, sharing stories of the Great African Diaspora, whatever the topic, whatever the issue, whatever the cause to inspire and to enlighten.

Hilton Head – The Island and The Gullahs

Our inaugural post covering the Great African Diaspora took me to South Carolina’s Low Country this past August, a pilgrimage to the heart of Gullah Culture. It was a late summer visit to Hilton Head Island – a 12 mile long and 5 mile wide barrier island along the Atlantic Coast.

The Gullahs trace their ancestry to enslaved Africans, forcibly brought to the eastern Atlantic seacoast from present day Angola and Sierra Leone, West Africa. Spreading across nearly 500 miles, from Cape Fear, North Carolina in the north to Jacksonville, Florida in the south, Gullahs were enslaved along the Atlantic coast. They were highly skilled and knowledgeable farmers with an expertise in rice cultivation. It was these competencies that made them ideal labor to toil the rice, cotton, sugar cane and indigo plantations of the Sea Islands.

Today, the Gullah population is concentrated in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia. Geographically, the area represents the quintessential old South with Spanish moss draping from centuries old oak trees, picturesque antebellum plantations and homes. All of this is punctuated with the slow sway of the Islanders’ drawls and warmly exchanged salutations.

The tight knit Gullah population, with four centuries of existence on Hilton Head, lived in a spirit of community—taking care of the group and the individual—promoting and supporting self reliance. The Gullahs are the oldest surviving African based culture in the United States. They are credited with being the first freed Africans owning land, establishing free public schools and founding the first African free village.

A combination of factors including Hilton Head’s physical remoteness, low elevation and a malaria outbreak prompted the majority of Europeans to flee the island for more comfortable living on the mainland. For the Gullahs these isolating conditions strengthened their community and preserved their language, traditions, religion, herbal medicine, music, storytelling and cuisine, safeguarding their cultural bond to Africa, their homeland.

James F. Byrnes Bridge

In 1956, a crucial change took place on the Island when the James F. Byrnes Bridge, a two-lane toll swing bridge opened Hilton Head to automobile traffic. Along with the bridge’s opening came housing development and tourism. Twenty-six years later, 1982, a larger highway construction project was completed. This time it was the opening of a 4 lane highway, bringing increased development and tourism.

Reflecting on the bridge and highway construction’s impact on island living, many Gullahs credit these two transportation projects with the profound emigration of the community from Hilton Head Island. Yet, despite these shifts the Gullah community is committed to preserving its heritage and sharing it through island tours, arts and crafts, quilting, music and the annual Gullah Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina.

 Gullah Chef David Young

And of course, sharing Gullah culture would be incomplete without sampling its cuisine which uses rice as a premiere component, one pot meals and an array of seafood dishes at Low Country restaurants on Hilton Head and the mainland, particularly in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nowadays, any conversation about Hilton Head’s Low Country Gullah cuisine includes talk about native son Chef David Young, who graduated with a culinary degree from Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wisconsin. His popular restaurant, Chef David’s Roastfish and Cornbread is located on the island’s south end at 70 Marshland Road, specializing in revered rice dishes, seafood and vegetarian (vegan) food. Chef David’s  ancestors have been living on the island for 175 years. Now, nearly two centuries later, Chef David is one of the island’s hottest chefs.  His star is steadily rising.

He began his voyage into gastronomy at age six, guided by his Gullah great-grandmother, Mary Cohen, who prepared food by memory. For David, her repertoire for Gullah cooking was built on aromas, flavors and tastes. While Mary Cohen’s recipes were never written, her great- grandson’s 2008 cookbook, Burnin Down South is a compilation of Low Country recipes featuring savory dishes like red rice,  She Crab Soup and collard greens.

Burnin' Down South

A big part of Gullah cuisine means taking advantage of nature’s bounty and the abundant seafood of the nearby waters. Seafood has played an integral role in island life. Shrimp burgers, made of ground shrimp and seasoned with herbs and spices on wheat bread, are one of the restaurant’s most requested offerings.

While he’s not a vegetarian, Chef David is building a reputation on the island as one of the few proprietors to include an extensive variety of vegetarian (vegan) dishes on the menu. Chef David’s riff on the quintessential New Orleans Po-Boy, a sandwich filled with roast beef, dripping with gravy on French bread, is a vegetarian delight.  It’s loaded with lentils, sautéed and chopped baby bella mushrooms, onions, peppers, asparagus, broccoli, topped with acai-pomegranate vinaigrette and served on brown bread. The beautifully presented sandwich is complemented with a riotous explosion of colors and flavors including pineapples, berries and watermelon.

Vegetarian Po Boy

Vegetarian Po Boy

Whether vegan, vegetarian, carnivore or locavore, Chef David proudly speaks to the universality of his restaurant, “There is something for everyone here.” Roastfish and Cornbread is dazzling crowds with its steamed chicken, brisket, shrimp burgers and, one of his signature dishes – sweet potato cornbread.

True to his Gullah island upbringing, Chef David is committed to serving fresh, local food. “When I grew up here, everything was organic. People sprinkled potash to keep bugs away.” So, what is Low Country cuisine? According to Chef David, “If you can grow it here and catch it here, it’s Low Country.” The Gullah shrimped, farmed and hunted using the surrounding waters, lands and forests for sustenance. This was the island way of life. “The food is really simple. Anything from chicken, cows, pigs, corn, tomatoes, beans, peas, watermelon, and okra – this came directly from Africa.”

Living with Gullah culinary heritage which is older than the United States is a valuable legacy for Chef David.  “Our Gullah food is older than this country.  We were here before America was a country. It’s the oldest food in this country. We cooked for everybody.” Gullah cuisine is one of the oldest surviving African based cultures in the United States.

With such a strong, powerful culinary past, how does Chef David envision his culinary future? “Keep doing what I’m doing and just keep doing it better. Do it to the best of my abilities, for as long as I can do it.” 

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Exploring Venezuela’s African History with Evelyne Laurent-Perrault

by Nicolle Morales Kern

Evelyne Laurent-Perrault was born to Haitian and Venezuelan parents in Caracas, Venezuela, a city she loves for its beauty and the warmth of its people. Evelyne’s father was an engineer and her stepmother was a pharmacist. She grew up in an area of Caracas where few people looked like her family, and her peers perceived her as a minority. Evelyne described the experience as “a double-edged sword, an illusion of inclusion, but the inclusion had its limits.”

While growing up, she didn’t have the language to describe her situation nor was she able to express the range of emotions she felt in a world where being black was not appreciated. Yet, something changed when her Licenciatura degree in Biology, from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, led her to an internship at the New York Zoological Society. As part of the internship, she lived in South West Cameroon working in wild life conservation. During her African sojourn Evelyne witnessed many cultural similarities between Africans and Venezuelans.

For example, in Venezuela, when someone asks you where something is, you don’t point with your finger to show them, you signal with your lips; a custom also common in some parts of Africa. Another example can be found in expressions used. While engaged in conversation with a friend from Angola, Evelyne used the phrase en fua, describing when something comes to an end. Her African friend understood the term, defining it in his language, Kikongo, as meaning dead.

It was this and other experiences that helped her realize that African contributions in Venezuela were deeper than she initially thought. These contributions aren’t taught in Venezuelan schools. For instance Venezuelan schools recognize September as the month devoted to celebrating both Columbus Day and Spain as Venezuela’s mother country.

With the weight of those experiences, Evelyne hasn’t stopped questioning what and how the story of Africa is told. Her dissertation, as a PhD candidate at New York University’s History Department- African Diaspora program, explores the intellectual contribution of Afro-descendants in Caracas-Venezuela, during the end of the colonial period, 1770-1810. A topic she chose “because this was the last stretch of the colonial period, a lot of changes took place at that time, but I thought that this moment represented also the zenith of people of African descent’s demands.” Read more

Christina Mendez Rocks the Runway

Our February article for Being Latino focuses on Christina Mendez, model, advocate for Autism Speaks, and granddaughter of Joseito Mateo.

Christina Mendez loves to perform. She’s bubbly and warm. And when your grandfather is the greatest merenguero in Dominican Republic history, it might be safe to say that performing runs deep in your blood.

Christina was an aspiring singer as a teenager, performing in the school choir. Interestingly, merengue was never part of her repertoire. Perhaps, because she’s lived her entire life on New York City’s Upper West Side, in a neighborhood where the name Joseito Matteo probably would not have carried much weight.

However, she is quick to point out that if she had grown up just a few blocks north in Washington Heights, the epicenter of Dominican culture, she almost certainly would have been inundated with “free cake, free everything.” At age 92, no other Dominican singer is more revered than Joseito Matteo.

While Christina is exceptionally honored by her family’s musical legacy, “I’m always proud of his (her grandfather’s) success,” she never wanted to ride the coattails of her famous grandfather. She is charting her own course but her journey to the ascendency of Plus Size modeling has taken a few detours.

When I was in school, I had a problem with cutting class. They couldn’t keep me in school. I was a hot mess. It was hard to control me,” says Christina. It took a clever Spanish teacher, Jose Melendez, to keep her in the Humanities High School building. He tempted her with opportunities to model in after school fashion shows in an effort to keep her and her friends from being truant. Christina describes Mr. Melendez’s approach to the catwalk, “He hit the runway like he was Naomi Campbell; he taught us how to walk the runway.” Christina was hooked and continued to model. Inspired, she graduated from high school and enrolled at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, one of the United States’ historically black colleges.

As she recounts, Christina selected Morris Brown for two main reasons: First, “I love black people…. I consider myself a Black Latina. I don’t fit the standard look  (Latinas in the media). My grandfather is very dark and my mother is very dark. My mother had a lot of issues about being black. She has said statements like, ‘You are light. You are going to get more opportunities.’ And I would say, I love your color. I tan to be your color. You are crazy. You look great.” Second, Christina wanted to live as far away from home as possible, spread her wings and be independent.

Read the full article on Being Latino.

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Ynanna Djehuty’s Path to Identifying as an Afro-Latina

by Nicolle Morales Kern

The journey to self-discovery can be a long one, often involves exploring outside of the boundaries provided by family, and can lead to a new identity.

Such is the case for Afro-Dominican poet, writer, and birth doula Ynanna Djehuty (born Carmen Mojica). Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Djehuty didn’t start referring to herself as Afro-Dominican until she started researching her heritage at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she studied Black Studies and Television/Radio Productions. On this journey, she realized that there was a part of herself that she hated.

“The community in U.S. doesn’t like to recognize African heritage. I can only guess that in the Dominican Republic it might be the same. In the U.S., there is a clear black and white line; our society doesn’t understand there is a mix of things and you have to define if you’re black or white, and when I was growing up I didn’t realize that was happening, and always saw white as better.”

During her last semester in college, Djehuty took a class on Women in the Caribbean, which not only focused the racial aspects, but on the entire experience of women and how colonization has impacted their lives. After reading the article Latinegras: Desired Women – Undesirable Mothers, Daughters, Sisters and Wives by Marta Cruz-Janzen, she recognized who she is and how she feels about herself. As a result, Djehuty wrote a 20-page paper on the Afro-Latina identity. One thing she discovered during her research is that there are not many voices contributing to the subject.

“I decided I wanted to add to the voices of Afro-Latinas, to share information with other Afro-Latinas who don’t have words for their experiences,” says Djehuty on her decision to write her first book Hija De Mi Madre (My Mother’s Daughter), published in October 2009. The book is “a combination of memoirs, poems and research material that explains the effects of race on identity from an academic standpoint. She shares her personal story as a metaphor to place a common cultural experience into context.” Read more

Learning from “Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora”

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega has been leading the charge for Afro-Latino recognition and cultural identity for decades. As Founder of New York City’s Caribbean Cultural Center’s African Diaspora Institute, she has a distinguished career as an activist, scholar and filmmaker advocating for Afro-Latino issues.

Marta Moreno

Dr. Marta Moreno Vega

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{Latina Magazine} Negra & Beautiful

We recently found the article “Negra & Beautiful: The Unique Challenges Faced by Afro-Latinas” on Latina.com. Read more