The "Oh sh**, I traveled to 10 countries in 2014" Review- Part I (#1 Colombia & #2 Ecuador)

I started writing this intro in December :-) 

I’m writing on a plane en route to my final travel destination of 2014. Until I did a count this morning, I hadn’t even realized that this will be the 10th foreign country I’ve visited this year. Makes me feel like LL Cool J when he came out with his 10th album. So this trip to Mexico will be regarded as "10". These excursions are always filled with so much excitement, anxiety, messiness, beauty, discoveries and fails that I get so caught up in experiencing them all that I don’t document them in the manner that I always want to. So I’m going to attempt to really bring you all into what these journeys are truly like this time around with "10." But before I do, I want to provide  a proper review of insights, special moments and maybe some bizarre shit from this year’s excursions to these 10 countries on 4 continents.

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Okay, now back to the present. As mentioned in the Mexico posts (I actually did like I said I was going to do! Go me!), I’m still deciding how to buckle down and finish the travel memoir I started writing while I was living Chile in 2013. But since it’s still on the table, there are some juicier, messier, dirtier, and/or just more personal parts that I’m gonna save for the book. And when one such episode or detail comes up I’m gonna drop in a “LIBRO!” so you know.

#1 Colombia (January-May 2014)

Colombia has now become the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time outside of the United States. And when 2014 began I was in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. January 1, 2014 marked the second half of my trip, having arrived the previous August (2013) on a Fulbright award to conduct my 9-month dissertation research.  My girl whom I’d met in Cartagena in 2012 (and with whom I rolled to Mexico), Salma, and I had decided to get outta Cartagena to begin the new year in some place a little greener and with fewer people that we didn’t want to see. There was a whooole lot going on in Cartagena at the time. LIBRO. We’d heard a lot about Palomino and went to meet the male member of our parche (crew), Jhonatan, who'd arrived earlier. It took us forever to get to the bus station on the outskirts of Cartagena by bus and then we had to wait forever for another bus out of the city. But we ended up in Palomino late on December 30th with the intention of staying with a woman Salma had met in Cartagena. I’m going fast forward through some rather interesting details of our night and say LIBRO

Come morning time Salma and I were still on the fence about whether to stay or leave Palomino. We hadn’t bathed and after an encounter that reminded me that sometimes there’s no running away from shitty situations, we resolved to get the hell outta there. The hours were wasting away fast as we tried to figure out what to do and because it was New Year’s eve I wanted us to decide quickly so as to be situated come 11:59pm. We wandered about making phone calls and did end up in beautiful place where the river met the ocean. We then got our hustle on with Jhonatan, hopped on a bus and later the back of a truck.

Palomino, Colombia

We worked our way up the mountain to the town portion of Minca to meet Ana Maria who owned Finca La Semilla (The Seed Farm) further up the mountains. We waited for her for hours at a café, just happy to have made it that far at the last minute. Ana Maria’s finca was too far to go to that night and we were supposed to stay in the house of one of her friends who was away. But of course she couldn’t find the keys. The day turned to night and shit got ridiculous. We had nowhere to stay. Folks were charging a grip to stay in a sleeping bag on their property and use the cold water showers basically outdoors (mind you, it’s a good 45-50 degrees up in this mountain at this hour). Things were not looking good for the crew and my face showed how over it I was. Salma and I wandered to a hotel and they offered to let us pay way too much to share a twin bed. It just so happened that I left my wallet with my backback with Jhonatan so we couldn't pay right there. As we walked back I said, “maybe something amazing happened while we were gone.” And it did! Jhonatan had found a spot with a bunk bed and a double and kinda warm water! You would’ve thought the shit was the Waldorff at that point to us. We bathed, went to eat, drink and ended up at a woman’s house in town partaking in local festivities “of the earth.” We played instruments, danced and laughed so hard we almost died climbing up the trail to the few places we visited. It was one of the best New Year’s I’d ever had and I don’t even know why. There was a freeness. We didn’t care what we looked like. The jokes were plentiful and the company was warm.

 
 

The next day we slowly but surely got ourselves up.

 

 Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro de Minca, Colombia

 

And had to make our way up the mountain. We took motos at first.

Moto headed up mountain in Minca, Colombia

But then it got to the point where you have to hike up. The thing to understand about Minca too is that most places are without electricity. Ya go for the truly rustic experience. There are no grocery stores. So you've got to bring pretty much all the food you want to eat for your time there. Hence this grocery bag in my hand along with an overpacked bag. Smh. 

 

Hike up mountain to Minca, Colombia. Hey, Overpacker! Fml. 

 

Sierra Nevada Mountains, Colombia

We had a special time up at the finca.  Life sans electricity is a really interesting way of being. We built a fire but for all intents and purposes once that sun went down our day was over. At the finca we did yoga, climbed a waterfall, cooked and just enjoyed ourselves.

But we did also learn the importance about coming fully prepared when you make those kinds of excursions out to the middle of nowhere. Pack your meds. LIBRO. Smh.

Cartagena Festivals

Living in the center of Cartagena can honestly get pretty boring. Being by the beach and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture definitely makes for some scenic moments but on a regular basis there’s not enough going on to sustain my attention. What is a perk of living there are the various festivals that come up: the Mercado Cultural (Jan.), Bienal Art Festival, FICCI, Hay Literary Festival. Most of these seem like opportunities for the elite from around the country to get together and be “cultured”, but I too did appreciate the opportunity to partake in the artsy activities. They sometimes provided insights for the dissertation research I was conducting, which only really kicked into high gear in January (in spite of having arrived in August). I'm sort of glossing over sooo much of Cartagena but I write about it soooo much in my academic work that I feel myself not wanting to write about it here. But in due time, definitely more to come. 

Palenque de San Basilio (February 2, 2014)

I’d long wanted to travel to Palenque de San Basilio, the village established by formerly enslaved Africans who had fled bondage and started a community there during colonial times. During my second trip to Cartagena I went to a program at the Universidad de Cartagena and learned more about the Palenque language, declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.

 

A conversation in the Palenque- "a Creole language based on Spanish lexicon, but with the morpho-syntactical characteristics of the African continent's autochthonous languages, especially Bantu. Researchers have also detected that the Palenquero lexicon includes words from the Kikongo and Kimbundo languages."

 

Merly Beltrán Vargas became a friend while in Cartagena and is the founder of Tu Cultura. She’s been organizing tours to Palenque for some time now and when she called me up saying she had a spot on a her tour leaving nice and early one morning in February, I jumped at the opportunity. As a Cartagenera, Merly has a love and appreciation for the richness of the culture and people of those on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. She has an awareness of the value of this sacred place, as well as a history of working with the people there. I HIGHLY suggest if you are interested in visiting Palenque you contact her at info@tucultura.co in advance. Her organisation promotes sustainable tourism and part of this is not having huge groups travel to the community so plan ahead to get a spot. Here’s a link to what I wrote shortly after my experience and of course, more pics and vid clips!

 

Maestro Rafael Cassiani the great sings to a group of us during a tour of Palenque de San Basilio #carmenjonessandiego

 
 

Me in Palenque de San Basilio

 

Barranquilla Carnaval (Feb-March 2014)

The whole Barranquilla thing was nothing like I anticipated. There were far fewer people. Very consistent color schemes of red, yellow, orange, and blue. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio or Trinidad. It was distinctly Colombian. There was an ABUNDANCE of that Negrita Puloy costume.

Loads of the Marimonda figure (what we call “penis face”), far more than during Cartagena Independence festivals in November.

Children in Marimonda costumes during Barranquilla carnival

Far fewer afro wigs but many more men painted black to represent Africans and boys in the street painted black and asking for money. Lots of spears and animal prints. Every poster was either Negrita Puloy, El Son de Negro, the Marimonda or the bull. The bull was the only thing that I wasn't really offended by and that’s only because I don’t know the history. If it involves murdering and torturing the bull then I’m offended by that one too.

I thought a lot about what I’d learned in my interviews in Cartagena where people spoke of the relationship between Cartagena and Barranquilla. The former being the more “Black city.” And I thought about someone from Quibdó telling me that the Black face practice didn’t go down in festivals on Colombia’s pacific coast. (This is really a big part of my future work)

We couldn’t even see the main parade because they’d built these bleachers so that only people who paid could get in to see it. It was so blatantly exclusionary. We saw more of it on the television back at the hotel.

People attempting to watch the main Barranquilla carnival parade from outside of the barricades and bleachers.

People attempting to watch the main Barranquilla carnival parade from outside of the barricades and bleachers.

I spoke with folks who, like us, were basically just listening to the parade outside of the bleachers and they said that the more “popular” parade was in another part of town. We made our way over to that and got to actually see a parade.

 

Snippet from one the parades at the Barranquilla Carnaval 

 

That night we took part in some street party where I ran into other expats I knew and got properly foamed and powdered as is apparently the tradition.

All of these festivals were a welcomed distraction from all the dude messiness. Oh man. But the reality is that the man situation was a welcomed distraction from the work. No matter how much I said I was going to avoid problems by focusing on the project and platonic friends, somehow they just kept calling me. And what happened? Pookie went runnin’. My romantic relationships from this time in Colombia are definitely strictly LIBRO material but I will say they made for rich, exhilarating and sometimes quite painful life experiences and a key element in Carmen Jones Sandiego tales.

#2 Ecuador  (March 2014)

I had plans to visit two countries I hadn’t been to in Latin America while living in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The political climate got a bit too difficult for me to make it to Venezuela but in March I made my way to Ecuador for 6 days. I Skyped with someone from www.myecuadortrip.com and he provided me with great info about the ins and outs of traveling around Ecuador. It really put me at ease. I got to my hostel, Blue House Hostel, in Quito on a Friday and was a bit obsessed with the idea of trying to get to Cusco to visit a friend I’d met there so that I could make up for the Machu Picchu trip I’d missed out on the year before. But in the end the tickets were just bananas for such a short time and distance. I was in a dorm and there was a girl in there that was knocked out when I arrived. I just wasn’t feeling the environment at the hostel. I felt really alone and unsure of how exactly I was going to work the trip. My driver from the airport provided me some options that would get me around some parts of Ecuador but at a pretty penny. I couldn’t make it all the way to the Afro center of Ecuador, Esmeraldas, but he did mention that there was another town with a large Afro-descendant population that was somewhat closer. When I awoke I decided I’d just hit up the sites in the historic center and figure it out. The sleeping girl awoke, a 22-year-old girl from Switzerland named Livia (Hey Liv!). We started chatting and just like that I had a traveling companion for the rest of the trip. And this is one of the beautiful things about taking excursions, especially solo; you end up befriending people whom you would likely never come in contact with and if you did you probably wouldn’t think there was much to bond you. But being out of your own regular space is enough to unite total strangers. And off me and Livia went!

 

Historic Centre of Quito

 

Basílica del Voto Nacional 

After leaving the Historic Center of Quito we jumped in a cab and headed to the center of the planet Earth, because why the hell not, right?

 

Museo de Sitio Inti Ñan

 

There are two different sites down the road from one another both claiming to be the official middle of the world. We went with Museo de Sitio Inti Ñan which the folks I spoke to from Ecuador said is legit. Plus they had cute little experiments. 

 
 

The next day we headed out to Otavalo via multiple buses. It’s about 70 miles away and just a really chill Indigenous town with an awesome market that's really jumping on the weekends. I bought some great textiles and original artwork. 

 

Otavalo, Ecuador

 

We met up with a woman Livia had met in another part of Ecuador, Pil from Copenhagen, Denmark. The next day we had a nice little hike out to the waterfalls. 

 
 

Livia, Pil and I headed back to Quito the next day. Livia and my original hostel, Blue House Quito, had two sites and the three of us went back to the second one but it was just awful. We were staying in a dorm that wreaked of mold and when I looked up at the wooden planks above my head from the bottom bunk I literally saw all the mold. Ilk. The folks working there tried to be accommodating but i wasn't 'bout that dying from spores life. The next day Pil left to head home and Livia and I went to BoutiQuito Design Hostel, which was slightly more money and had great reviews. But it was much further out from the center. But at that point Livia and I had figured out how to navigate public transpo and cabs were cheap enough that we were willing to sacrifice convenience for comfort. And BoutiQuito Design Hostel was damn fabulous (just don't get the breakfast, it seems like a waste of $).

 

BoutiQuito Design Hostel

 

And it’s at BoutiQuito Design Hostel that we met our next travel buddy, Rishan. We all spent the next two days traveling around Quito, eating and watching movies in the hostel. And Livia just happened to be leaving out of Ecuador on the same day, around the same time, and near the same gate. So we were able to share a cab back to the airport and see one another off. It was such a solo-traveller’s win! 

 

Ecuador- Ama la vida

 

TelefériQo

 

Park in Quito, Ecuador

 

Back to Colombia (March-May 2014)

I returned to Cartagena from Quito and everything was a whirlwind. I was doing everything I’d been doing for the 7 months prior but at an accelerated pace. I of course had to get my arts festivals on. 

Bianal Festival Cartagena

Had to party and bullshit with folks. (Don't worry. No lovely New Zealanders were harmed in the making of this picture)

 
 
 
 

I, of course, had to continue my work as an ethnographer, documenting happenings in the community and grinding on these interviews, reminding myself on the daily that that's why I was actually in Cartagena. 

Backpackers and tourists late night in Getsemaní

Presidential campaign commercial filming in Getsemaní

Redevelopment on Calle Media Luna in Cartagena

Oh and I got painted! 

Bogotá, Colombia (April 26-28, 2014)

I ran outta Cartagena one weekend in April to make my final presentation before Fulbright staff and my fellow Fulbright US student award winners in Colombia. I had skipped the orientation for the awardees in Bogotá the previous July because I wasn’t ready to go back to Colombia from NY and I’d already been there twice before. This meant that everyone had gotten to know one another before moving on to their respective cities 8 months earlier so I was the new jack to the crew. I gave the presentation on my work. 

HU alums & Fulbright awardees!  

Then it was time to enjoy Bogotá for a few days. I hadn't been there since my first trip to Colombia in 2011 and while I’m not a fan of the weather, or shit the crime, I'm a big fan of big cities, the diversity, the energy, all the different shit there is to get into. I definitely enjoyed this visit to Bogotá. LIBRO! 

Fulbright Flyness

 Sara, me and Meghan at Matik

Back to Cartagena...

I hit the ground running and got back on my work grind. One day I was having a slow start and the universe was on my side because like I somehow often do, I ran smack into the start of a protest. This one was with street vendors contesting a public space ordinance that would put them out of work. Me being me, I rolled with them. This has also become another major part of my dissertation project. I have video footage that I will eventually add here, but for now here are pics I captured from the event. 

And this is what a protest around Cartagena at high noon leaves you looking like. 

 
 

A few days later I had to give my final presentation (in Spanish) at Unitecnológica, one of the universities that housed me during my stay.

 

En route to my presentation about my research findings at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar.

 

I would provide you with all the great pics since I had my friend there holding my digital SLR. But here goes the photographer for the university, “Oh don’t worry about taking any! I’ll send you all the pics!” This dude sends ONLY these pics.

I was punked in classic Cartagena fashion. Smh.

So carrying on, the thing about living anywhere is that you often take for granted things people visit on short jaunts. So in my last few weeks in Cartagena I also decided to do a few things I’d just never done. For example hit up the Gold, Inquisition and San Pedro Claver Museums. 

Then there was the Botanical Gardens further out in Turbaco (El Jardín Botánico Guillermo Piñeres). 

I still had my routine. I got my yoga and Zumba on. The last ones are Zumba pics in La Plaza de la Trinidad from 2012 but they capture the spirit and energy that the woooonderful instructor Ervelyne Bernard evokes. I just adore her. Seriously, if you’re in Cartagena you have to check out the Zumba studio she started, Activao Ztudio Fitness. She and Sarita are awesome instructors!

I made time for friends and laughter.

Got in more local art and culture. 

El Coredor Cultural with Soukustek, hosted by Centro Cultural Ciudad Movil- La Muralla de Getsemaní on Avenida el Pedregal in Cartagena, Colombia #carmenjonessandiego

El Coredor Cultural with Javier Castillo ft. Tales Crew - La Muralla de Getsemaní on Avenida el Pedregal in Cartagena, Colombia

El Coredor Cultural with Soukustek - La Muralla de Getsemaní on Avenida el Pedregal in Cartagena, Colombia

Corredor Cultural w/ Coro Social- Universidad de Cartagena hosted by Centro Cultural Ciudad Movil 

Corredor Cultural w/ Gravedad Crew hosted by Centro Cultural Ciudad Movil #carmenjonessandiego

Modern dance performance by Periferia on Avenida el Pedregal in Getsemaní in Cartagena, Colombia

 

Corredor Cultural w/ Las Estrellas de Rawad hosted by Centro Cultural Ciudad Movil in Cartagena, Colombia 

 

Of course I continued to hit up the beach every weekend. 

 

These boats coming back from Playa Blanca are no joke! #carmenjonessandiego

 

I gave one more presentation to students from the Universidad de Cartagena.  I really regret not spending more time with the students. I forgot how much I love working with young, eager students of color. Like it really changes my outlook on life. They were soooo excited to talk to me for over an hour after my presentation. If I could go back in time I would’ve been a little more relaxed about getting my research done and made time to have a weekly seminar with students interested in sociological issues and the research process. Next time.

I said goodbye to the wonderful people whom I shared office space, time and ideas with at the Universidad de Cartagena and Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar.

I sold off my desk and bicycle. (sniffle, sniffle, BICIIIIIIIIIII!) 

 

9.21.13 Me and my new bici after I brought her home from the bike shop

 

And then it was time for my despedida (farewell party)! 

I was set to fly out of Cartagena exactly 9 months from the day I arrived, on May 14, 2014. But ya know, sometimes things get interesting…and you miss your plane…and you stay in Cartagena for another night. LIBRO! 

5.12.14 Full moon and sunset on my home away from home, Getsemaní. #filterfree

5.15.14 Cartagena Airport: It’s ColOmbia, not Columbia!

Now that I’m done with this reflection I’m reminded of their importance. This one represents just the last half my experience in Colombia. And I didn’t realize how rich it was. There’s so much more that took place before this. It's clear I’m going to have to write about it. I forgot how many people I was actively engaged with on a regular basis. How many things that were completely new to me at first became a part of my regular life. In spite of all the frustrations, how much I learned from living in Cartagena for 9 months. I'm happy that that moment is over but boy was it a formative moment! ¡Hasta luego, La Fantastica!

Africa Through the Latin American Lens

* A similar version of this post can be found on the afrolatin@ forum blog.

El Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) ended here in Cartagena, Colombia a few weeks ago. It was an incredible opportunity to enjoy some cinematic gems from around the world (Pelo Malo from Venezuela is excellent!!). I recently watched La Grande Belleza, an Italian film that deservedly garnered a number of awards last year. Truly a thought-provoking, visually beautiful work of art. But oftentimes what’s most captivating about a film is the audience’s response to it.

There was one scene where a Mother Teresa- saint like character was supposed to be visiting Rome. Religious figures from around the world gathered to greet her and the camera cuts to a white nun staring at a man whom we are supposed to assume is African. Well, the (primarily Afro-descendant youth) audience I was surrounded by just found that hilarious. But not more hilarious than when the larger group of Africans was taking a photo with “the saint.” That’s when the audience really had a good, hard laugh. Nothing like images of Africans wearing what people believe is the “traditional” dress to add comic relief to any program. ***le sigh***

During the festival I got to witness another common strategic use of representations of African people: to invoke fear. I watched the movie Default as part of the film festival and within moments of watching it I began to cringe. It starts with fictitious news coverage of Somali “pirates” and the reporter says something to the effect of questioning “the making of the modern African criminal.” What, pray tell, is that? We’re talking about the second largest continent in the world (NOT A COUNTRY!). Replace any other continent with Africa and it would sound ludicrous to most. Yet these kinds of statements are made regularly and go uninterrogated.

I have been collecting data for my dissertation in Cartagena for the last seven months (10 months over the course of the last 2.5 years). What has become patently clear is that, like most of the world, there is a very limited understanding of Africa here in Cartagena. Thanks to a history or colonialism, slavery and the media (both national and international), Africa is viewed as being nothing more than a place of primitivity and violence. I watched four different independence parades in Cartagena in November with “Africanness” represented repeatedly by animal prints and spears (see below). When asked why the participants were dressed as they were, the director of one group told me, “to represent the African fantasy.” Oh, your fantasy of Africa you must mean.

I’ve watched blackface performances, replete with red lips, “cooning” faces, exaggerated clown-like bodily movements, the whole nine yards. Minstrel show 101. And when I asked one performer (see below) why he was making such faces his response was that they represent “African violence.” Again, what, pray tell, is that?!? At a minimum if they were talking about African warriors and attempting to bring some dignity to a painful history of struggle, that would be one thing. But these crude representations are nothing but mockery and a perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes, no matter how many ways you attempt to slice it. In practice, they don't mock the Spanish slave owners, as it has been suggested. They belittle the people they attempt to represent and perpetuate a continued assault on the dignity of Africans and their descendants. 

So here we are watching an entire film about the African criminal and the white victim. Yes, they made pitiful attempts to make it more critical and  give one character cause and depth, but at the end of the day the damage was done and you simply had the violent Africans, the Black woman servant, and the white victims of the African violence. In that auditorium I could almost feel as the idea of the African as a violent criminal got solidified in the minds of the audience. In La Grande Bellezathe principle character, Jep, during an interview with an artist asks her to explain something about her work and she says “I’m an artist. I don’t have to explain jack shit.” This license to create without consciousness or criticism is highly polemic. But images, particularly through cinema, have a way of entering the psyche and the consciousness of people. Representation matters. So how do we work to deconstruct and alter this African fantasy and move beyond “Africanness” as something to be feared or mocked (and can’t forget the third part of the misrepresentation trifecta, sexualized)?

The Turn Around

One of the reasons I'm a fan of romantic comedies is not just because typically everything works out in the end, but because of that turn around process to get there (see Legally Blonde, Bridesmaids, Clueless You've Got Mail, Bridget Jones' Diary etc.-blonde white women have this shit on lock apparently). You know it, where basically everything the protagonist holds dear turns to shit. One way or another they are heartbroken. They fail miserably in their jobs, careers, school. They have a fall out with friends. They are emotionally broken, often looking a hot mess. And then classic climax. They see something or have an important convo which leads to this epiphany, followed by a video montage set to music of them finally coming out of their funk, going inward and doing all the things best for them, all the things they should've always been doing. It often involves some sort of class or learning, some physical/health activity, spending a lot of time by themselves and maybe with people who truly love them whom they may have previously neglected, them working really hard on some sort of big career life-altering project, typically to make up for one that turned to shit. You see seasons change to suggest this isn't an over night process. And then boom! Suddenly everything gets better. They make up with friends. The grand project comes to fruition. They finally get over the partner who left them or that person comes crying back to them realizing the err of their ways. But often times they end up having a magical new relationship with someone who was probably there the entire time. They have a great sense of happiness and satisfaction and largely because they were able to say “fuck this” and got their minds right.

I periodically envision my own little turn around montage set to some Jilly “Slowly Surely” as I come out from the dark, followed by some “Inside You” (of course from the Last Dragon) as I start doing the necessary “stuff” to get my life together, and closing with something from my “Sweet Little Ditty” playlist, probably involving Ne-Yo. But the reality is when I attempt to actually execute the turn around, somewhere I get stuck. If I even do get out of “the funk” (a nice name for depression which at some point I'll have the courage to frankly write about) enough to consider what it would look like, the execution seems impossible. I had a quasi- George Costanza moment yesterday afternoon. But instead of thinking that all my instincts were wrong and doing the complete opposite of what I would do normally, I realized that my instincts are in fact typically right. Where I fuck up is by doing the opposite of my instincts. It usually goes something like this: “This would be a bad idea.” ***Do it anyway*** “I immediately regret that decision.” So now I'm thinking WWTBVOVD? What would the best version of Valle do? What would I be doing if I went with what I know is best for me right now, in this space, to carry out the turn around? I love me some lists and so do you, so here's one.

  1. Get the fuck to work. I'm in Cartagena for a short ass period of time. I need to be writing field notes every single day. Interview the hell out of people. Read and write every day like my career depends on it. Oh wait, it does.

  2. Drink more. Bet you didn't see that coming. But seriously, I know myself. I know how my brain's on 10 when I go out. How I'm sociologically analyzing every party goer and every interaction. I am not having the fun and brain quiet time I need. Mo' rum. Mo' shakin' like no one's watching.

  3. Check Facebook 3x a day and no mas. I look to it for news, which only further depresses me. And while I do genuinely get happy periodically from some of folks' posts which are funny or beautiful, for the most part looking at FB all the time just makes me feel like I'm off my game, professionally, financially and romantically. Fuck that.

  4. Cook more. While I don't enjoy cooking, I enjoy eating, feeling my food won't be the obvious cause of my demise, and not having to figure out what the devil I'm going to eat for major meals. Thank the heavens for Tupperware.

  5. Expend no energy thinking about those who aren't 'bout that supportive life. Living abroad is tough. Doing dissertation field research is hard as hell. Battling depression is ridiculous. Trying to do all of the above simultaneously feels like trying to win the big prize in a carnival game. While a few nail it and leave with an arm full of fluffy Tweety birds, for most it feels damn near impossible. I've been living in Cartagena for almost 4 months and haven't heard a word from some of the folks who understand what I'm up against and I thought were supposed to give a shit. Fuck 'em.

  6. Have regular convos with the real riders in my life. These talks go a long way and are coming from sources I hadn't even necessarily expected. Cheers to the riders.

  7. Work out. No montage is complete without exercise. I don't really enjoy it and never seem to get that adrenaline rush that others do from working out but I'm going to find something that I actually enjoy doing that will still get the heart racing. Riding my bici around town is stressful and feels like I'm fighting for my life every time I hop on that seat, but maybe I need to find a route further out. Maybe go back to Zumba. Somethin'.

  8. Get all of these experiences down on paper more. There's so much happening and I've been a chronicler of my own life since I started a diary in 1988 that I've actively maintained for the last 25 years (counts on fingers. Yep, 25). But the deeper I get into this Bizarro World the less I can articulate what's happening. I said I would blog about the travels but I get caught up in the words. I just need to get 'em down and if I feel compelled I can play with them later. Maybe I can swap tears for words in some kinda cathartic process.

  9. Avoid goddamn “situations.” This one is huge for me. Situations are those messy little romantic stints that grand scheme of things mean nothing but somehow end up meaning everything while you're in them. They're easy to fall into and hard as hell to get out of. Now don't get me wrong. I truly believe experience for experience's sake has real value. It keeps life interesting and makes you a hit at parties as you run down how you ended up in Naples, Italy to see a man you met in Cartagena the year before, only to find out he bagged up a girlfriend 8 days prior to your arrival (true story). I can look back and laugh at a lot of situations, but depending on what I have to do in my life or where I am emotionally, they can be just way too taxing. If I were able to emotionally disconnect and just enjoy moments for what they were I'd be far better off. But I'm not that person. Which leads me to my final turn around task.

  10. Remember who the fuck you are and play your position. I am fuckin' awesome. Like for real. Yet soooomehow I lose sight of this and end up in spaces that are far less than awesome, and by that I mean they blow. And I may be dope but I'm also HELLA fallible, so playing my position also means knowing my limitations. For example, I have recently come to realize that there ain't an easy breezy bone in my body. And unless I get exposed to radiation, making me a mutated comic book hero, that's not likely to change. So I therefore can't engage in exhausting and frustrating conversations with people who will unlikely never even understand what I'm saying or spend time with enervating people who just take take take. Because I just end up pissed off. And I don't look good in Bitter Blue.

So how do I go from the mental movie montage to actually improving the quality of my life? I certainly can't stay on my present course for much longer. But shit, the fact that I even have the desire to make a change is a step up from the last few months' sense of hopelessness. But this is about baby steps. For now I'll have to be content with asking myself WWTBVOVD?

Traveling with a Vulnerable Black Woman's Body

*A version of this post can be also found at http://bknation.org/2013/11/vulnerability-black-female-body/

While walking from the supermarket with a male friend from Spain recently in Cartagena, Colombia, a man in a group purposely threw a fish head at my feet. Yeah, you read correctly, dude threw a fish head at me. As if this weren’t vexing enough, the man I was with did nothing. I couldn’t tell with whom I was angrier, the fish hurler or the mute. After a few days of letting it stew and fester, I had to bring it up. First off, my friend claimed that he didn’t even realize it had happened. He could afford to be oblivious apparently. Secondly, his response was “I’m not your body guard.” What the?? My homies from home would NEVER stand for that shit! What was a play here? His white Europeanness? His lefty politics? My brown skin? My Afrodescendancy? My Latinidad? My Americanness? Suddenly I felt ashamed for even expecting him to take a stand for me.

Now even though I do regularly think of myself as Vanity from Berry Gordy’s Last Dragon (but come on, who doesn’t?), I don’t need an actual bodyguard. But, ya know what? I am a Black and Latina woman trying to survive in a world that often sees me as an undervalued, and consequently a very easy target for all forms of assault. Yes, I am strong. I am capable. I am powerful. But that doesn’t somehow change the skin I’m in. It doesn’t change the fact that people feel that they can attack me without fear of societal or legal retribution.

In the United States, few differences exist in the rates of sexual violence across racial and ethnic groups over time [1]. However, male perpetrators receive less severe sentences and are convicted less often when the victim is a Black woman as opposed to a White woman [2]. Black women can be harmed with fewer consequences because they are deemed to be less credible, more desiring of sex and more at fault when an assault does occur [3].

"Negrita Puloy    "

"Negrita Puloy"

While I don’t know what the statistics are in other countries, I do understand how similar the stereotypes of women of African descent throughout Latin America are to those in the United States. These pervasive attitudes have very real consequences for the vulnerability of Black women and of their bodies. Latin American versions of the stereotypes often blend the asexual subservient “Mammy” figure and the hyper-sexualized, seductive, amoral “Jezebel”. Black women are perceived as tough and impervious to pain compared to other women; they are subservient, with an insatiable animal-like sexuality. Stereotypes easily translate into the notion that violating a Black woman isn’t an assault at all because she’s not actually hurt by it, or because she was deserving of it. And even if it is technically an assault, who will stand up to care?

Two years ago in Cartagena, I was leaving a bar with two male Brazilian friends when an Irishman leaving at the same time cocked his hand back and smacked me on the bottom for all to see. I was livid. I tried to yell at him but could barely find the words. My male companions did nothing but usher me into a cab. I felt mortified that the violation had an audience and hurt by the fact that my friends did nothing.

When an elegantly dressed gentleman in his late 30s, standing with his back to me during rush hour on a train in Santiago, Chile, started to graze my crotch with his thumb, I uncomfortably assumed that it was an accident and tried push myself away as best I could. As his thumb moved with my every move, I began to panic as I realized this dude was tryna cop feels. I shifted and wiggled, anything to get away. I couldn’t. Then I looked around with this sense of shame, like I’d done something wrong…wondering who was watching and if I had allies. Scenarios quickly ran through my mind of what would happen if I were to confront this vile opportunist.

The scenario that dominated my thoughts was something out of The Color Purple, akin to when Miss Sophia, played by Oprah Winfrey, is slapped by the white man who she then knocks out. A hostile crowd of white people quickly descended upon her, shouting at her until she was knocked unconscious with a firearm. I pictured a slightly less dramatic version, sans firearms, in Spanish, and me with an inability to understand all the voices amidst the frenzy. The scenario seemed more frightening than the actual violation. It spoke to my fear of victim-blaming that I assumed would ensue, not just because I had dared to wear shorts in the summer (crazy, right?), but also because I was a Black woman who had done so.

My understanding of what it meant to be a Black woman in Chile made me believe that the little old ladies staring at me would say I asked for it; that the men already with their eyes transfixed upon me would somehow sympathize with the pervert; that the women of my own age group would think that it served me right for wearing sex so prominently. So I slid away as soon as I could and said nothing, contemplating what I could’ve done differently, bearing this sense of shame, as he left the subway car unscathed and possibly with some sick sense of satisfaction. I was likely wrong about the presumptions that I made of my fellow commuters. But they speak to the fears of someone feeling that she is alone in the fight to protect her vulnerable body.

[1] U.S. Department of Justice-Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvsv9410.pdf

[2] Cassia Spohn & David Holleran- Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/199720.pdf

Gary D. LaFree:-Rape and Criminal Justice: Social Construction of Sexual Assault http://www.amazon.com/Rape-Criminal-Justice-Construction-Assault/dp/053411055X

Marvin E. Wolfgang & Marc Riedel- Rape, Race, and the Death Penalty in Georgia, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1975.tb01193.x/abstract

[3] Gail Elizabeth Wyatt- The Sociocultural Context of African American and White American Women’s Rape http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1992.tb01158.x/abstract

No, my name ain’t “yo’” and I ain’t got ya baby.

*A second version of this post can be found at: The Shadow League: Analyzing The Street Harassment Epidemic

I write this entry on a plane to Brasil (sidenote, at this moment the only male Brasilian flight attendant is taking photos wth passengers. It’s weird). I’ve had the great fortune of being on three continents other than my own since May. Brasil will be the fourth country where I’ve spent my time and Portuguese will be the fourth official language I will have heard spoken since May. The last few months have been thrilling, to say the least.  Egypt, Italy and Colombia were all rich and unique experiences and I value each and every moment. Hol’ up. I retract the aforementioned statement. I value ALMOST every moment. In reality I could’ve done without most of the street harassment.

Cairo, Egypt

 Graffiti in Zamalek | Cairo, Egypt | June 23, 2012. Photo taken by @mayaalleruzzo

 Graffiti in Zamalek | Cairo, Egypt | June 23, 2012. Photo taken by @mayaalleruzzo

My girl told me in advance that if I wanted to minimize the harassment by men in Cairo I needed to rock a long tunic that covered the hip, thigh and derrière regions, long sleeves, no cleavage. Wow. I literally went from a beach club in Naples where women with weird fake tans wore thong bikinis one day to a place where showing too much forearm was deemed provocative the next. Gotta love travel. I can’t imagine what the harassment would’ve been like had I not dressed as my friend suggested, because it was intense when completely covered. But the harassment there felt unlike any I had experienced before. Somehow it felt scarier, more threatening. I’d been told in advance that men grab and touch in Egypt, so this was one of the sources of my fear. Talking shit to me can be annoying but touching any body part is taking the violation to an entirely different level. But the other source was the way in which men stared and spoke. There was this air of disdain or contempt that I’d never really experienced and found very worrisome. My own defensiveness, coupled with the fact that my homegirl is a fellow spitfire, had me wondering at point we were going to get into some kind of fight with the men of Cairo. Fortunately I made it out unscathed (although my girl did get into an argument with some men who were ogling lasciviously while on the women’s train car when I wasn’t around).

Rome and Naples, Italy

Before I ventured out to Rome and Naples I was told by many how aggressive Italian men can be, what lovers of women they are and about their perceived attraction to Black women. And to be honest, I was not terribly vexed by the attention I got from men in Rome. And trust this is not me giving them a white-man pass. They just never seemed overly aggressive or obnoxious. They did however express their appreciation of my physical attractiveness. And I’m not going to front like this is not something that I value. Herein lays one of those internal contradictions I struggle with. I’m totally aware of the beauty myth. The idea that beauty as we know it is socially constructed and is used to disempower women by making us compete against one another and constantly struggle to meet unattainable standards (check out Naomi Wolff for more). I understand how beauty is used to make some of us appear powerful with regard to men but that in reality anything we attain from physical attributes can be seen as a Pyrrhic victory due to all that we must sacrifice in order to achieve it. But at the same time, I would be bullshitting if I didn’t say that I DO NOT want to be invisible. I want to be aesthetically appealing, sexually attractive. I want to have a fan club full of  fawning men. But fawning in a way which doesn’t demean me or minimize all of my other attributes that I feel are far more important. The way that Italian men expressed an appreciation was tolerable to me. I could deal with the intense staring, comments, and teeth sucking because it wasn’t incessant, loud or overwhelming. And quite honestly it didn’t seem like there was any less interest than in other places. It was just expressed differently. I was in Rome alone and while my East Coast armor wasn’t allowing me to be too open to folks there, I never felt threatened. During my last day in Rome this guy tried to pick me up around the Coliseum and win me over with the idea that he was an archaeologist once he found out that I was a budding sociologist. And as nice as it would’ve been to go out my last night, I didn’t trust him or the other two men who asked me later. But one, Giovane was quite interesting, very forward and honest. He spoke English and despite my firm “I don’t want to talk to you stranger” demeanor, he proceeded to try and chat me up. As a result of this demeanor he said that I was very hard and that if I didn’t want men to approach me then I shouldn’t dress sexy. Um, mi scusiiii?? Despite the fact that I really wasn't doing the most, he basically said that he could see my booty from down the street. “Italian women don’t have all that” (they really don’t, flat as boards) and gestured around his hip, thigh and derrière regions (must be a source of power judging by how much it’s emphasized everywhere). Besides the fact that I am never going to support the notion that I need to change so that grown men know how to control themselves, his forwardness was throwing me all off. And this is where I realized how even in NY folks are just not this direct. I was particularly taken aback by his openness with discussing race. He said “you’re black but you’re white white white. I’m darker than you.” Uh, say what?? He was darker, but still. Who feels the need to point that out after 3 min. of discussion? He said “white men in The States don’t approach you do they, only black men? Italian men aren’t like that.” Correct, sir. We discussed this for a while then he tired of me and my standoffishness and said he was leaving because I was too tough. Deuces. I later spoke to an Italian friend about the conversation and he shared that in reality there aren’t a lot of women of African-descent walking around there who weren’t prostitutes. That hurt to hear. Because no matter how much I go back and forth about my feelings about sex work, it never feels okay that people equate dark female bodies with prostitution.

Cartagena, Colombia

I often tweeted my frustrations about the harassment in Cartagena. Last summer when I spent a month there I was floored by it. My first day there I was walking around by myself and at some point it was so intense that I had to go home. When you’re in a new country you never quite know what the line is. Do people grab here? At some point I realized that men there in general didn’t grab, they just stare, comment and slurp. Interestingly enough, last year I was touched twice and it was not by Cartageneros but by two people who thought they had license to do so: one drunken Irishman leaving Havana Café at the same time as I was and who had looked like he had been waiting all night to smack me on the bottom, and a massive female prostitute who pinched my leg as I walked through her turf when coming from the beach.  Those two experiences sucked, particularly with the Irish dude because I felt humiliated and undefended by my male friends. This summer I returned to spend two months in Cartagena and wanted to hit someone with a little Puerto Rican judo pretty much every day. In the neighborhood where I lived there was a lot of curiosity about where I was from for a while, most assuming I was from Brazil or a daughter of Colombia who had returned. As I came to know more people in the neighborhood the word seemed to go around that I was coming from New York. And this was obvious when I walked through La Plaza from yoga and one idiot screamed out for all to hear in English, “Beautiful ass!!” Grrrr! This type of foolishness I just can’t adapt to. And I shouldn’t have to. A friend in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia for my non-uuureah readers) asked “oh they are worse than here?” HAHAHAHAHA. Trust, Cartageneros would get the gold were “hollering” an Olympic event. And not because they are good at it but because they are persistent. They make 125 in Harlem look like an oasis of respect for womanhood. And these distinctions are where I start to notice what makes daily harassment tolerable. I’m harassed everywhere Black men are found in mass. So it’s not as if I came to the coast of Colombia a virgin to this. But the way it’s done there appears compulsive. If I walk by ten men at least eight of them seem COMPELLED to speak, like their manhood depends on it. And what was even more pitiful was the damn script. The power of the word is a big deal on the East Coast. Spitting game is literally a game folks are trying to win. And while you do get a lot of the same dirty “God bless you, Ma”s folks mix in a lot of other lines so at least you don’t get bored. Not in Cartagena. It’s like they are given a script at 15 years old and that’s pretty much what they are going to use until they die. Because harassment knows no age limit. “Hermosa, belleza, la reina, saborosa, modela, blah blah blah.” Every guy, in the exact same rhythm too. Oh and the PSSTing and SSSSSing. I ignore once, he does it louder. I ignore twice, three times and he continues, getting louder every time as if the reason I’m ignoring him is because I didn’t hear him.  This kind of daily work just to get through the streets is taxing. My rule is that if you don’t address me respectfully I ignore the shit out of you. And men really do seem to have a problem with basic greetings. There were very few “hello, how are you?”s. Always some extra nonsense. And what was most unfortunate was that you get to the point where it is impossible to make eye contact with men because then they take it as an invitation to go even harder. I couldn’t even see an elder and greet him because he too would turn around and make me feel absolutely disgusting. It’s beyond an appreciation of the female form or a love for women. You begin to wonder whether men see you as anything else but a sexual object. People will tell you “oh that’s how men on the coast are.” Well what’s that about? Then it begins to seem like the men are feeding into some stereotype about hypersexuality and Black maleness, which makes the whole production even more frustrating. 

Beso de Negra

I was in the check-out line of a Target-equivalent last year in Bogotá, Colombia when I came across this candy. I couldn’t help but to start looking around like “No one else thinks this is nuts!? Am I taking crazy pills??” Blank stares as far as the eye could see. These kinds of things still leave me nonplussed even though at this point I should’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the many overt displays of racism that people seem to find acceptable throughout Latin America. This little delight is produced by Nestle and as much as I complain about the treatment of race in the US, I’m fairly certain a chocolate covered candy called “Kiss of a Black Woman” could not, in this day and age, fly at home. And just two weeks ago I came across this advertisement on an ice cream delivery truck in Cartagena. It reads “Rejoice with chocolate kisses” and below “Share the taste of the people, buy yourself Mimo’s.”

Mimo's advertisement

Mimo's advertisement

Now of course many will assert “oh no, things like that aren’t racist” (as they did last year in Facebook comments). But this notion seems related to an inability to believe that racism is still quite alive and well and due to a lack of understanding of the many forms in which racism presents itself that don’t necessarily involve burning crosses and nooses.

Can you imagine something white being called the equivalent of “Kisses of a White Woman”?? Heavens, no. THAT would be ridiculous. O_O But the image of the Black woman can be exploited at will. Two of the most pervasive archetypal characters depicting women of African descent in the United States have been the “Mammy” and the “Jezebel.” The “Mammy” figure is characterized by the physically large and overweight woman with distinct African facial features, tight, kinky hair and darker skin, that is an asexual subservient being whose life revolves around tending to the needs of whites (think Aunt Jemima before the perm). The “Jezebel” is the hypersexualized, seductive, amoral and promiscuous woman who is often slightly lighter in skin complexion with less African facial features and straighter hair that uses her sexual prowess to exploit men (think Birth of a Nation). Both of these stereotypical characters emerged in the US South during slavery.[1]

Latin American versions of these archetypes are often blended. Take for example this advertisement I saw at an airport café in Cartagena last summer:

La Negrita Rhum

La Negrita Rhum

The product is called “La Negrita Rhum” which basically means “Little Black Woman Rum.” The woman featured is of African descent, darker-skinned and reflects a sense of subservience and domesticity. She is slightly bent over and smiling, suggesting she is pleased with her role in this position. What distinguishes her from the typical Mammy archetype is that here she is sexualized. Her stance, the fact that her blouse is somewhat open and her bare feet suggest a domestic worker who could also serve in a sexual capacity for the person she is serving. 

Mi Cañita

Mi Cañita

The combination of text and image in this photo suggest the “Jezebel” archetype, even though the drawing appears to be of a young girl. The name of the product ““Mi Cañita” means something to the effect of “little cup of beer or wine,” which suggests intoxication. Yet because it is made of cream, fruit and sugar it is conveying the idea of sweetness. This small girl of African descent is almost sweetly intoxicating. The use of “Mami!!” at the end of the tagline is common in Latin culture and does not typically refer to a mother, but is a way to refer to a woman and is often sexualized. It reflects the trope of the “Spicy Latina.” The way she is peering through what appears to be sugar cane suggests a sort of jungle-like quality, typical of stereotypes of women of African-descent. The manner in which the ice cream is near the figure’s mouth could also be seen as phallic. 

The combination of text and image in the “Beso de Negra” photo also suggest the “Jezebel” archetype, but far more blatantly. Just the name of the product alone reflects the hypersexualization of the woman of African descent. In order to attract consumers, this chocolate product has been dubbed “Kiss of a Black Woman.” The character’s lips are pursed. She is wearing a strapless top, exposing her cleavage and large breasts. 

The fact that all characters are adorned in a similar fashion suggests that a stereotype exists of what women of African descent in Latin America typically wear. They are all in bright red lipstick, large hoop earrings and a head scarf to match their attire like it’s some sort of Afro-Latina uniform. And what does each of these things represent? The red lipstick historically implies that the woman is a vamp. The head scarf could be similar to a kerchief, which suggests domesticity. The earrings could imply a certain degree of loudness and “Latinidad.”

When taken collectively, we see the repetition that both naturalizes the myth and reveals the intentions of the creators of the myth. We see an assertion of Eurocentric aesthetic values and white male hegemony. We have been fed these types of images so often that they have been normalized. No one accidentally puts a brown face depicting a woman of African-descent on a package. Someone had to sit there and think that these are appropriate representations that could be effectively used for pushing products. Before you know it you are seeing such images and not even recognizing that they are constructed. And that’s the magic of myth-making. You won't ever feel like you're taking crazy pills. This foolishness will seem normal and even acceptable.[1]

Carolyn M. West, “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical images of Black women and their implications for psychotherapy.,”Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 32, no. 3 (1995): 458-466.