People – yesterday, May 16th marked one month since a catastrophic, devastating, merciless earthquake shook the tierra we call Ecuador. My heart has been broken in ways I’m not ready to recount right now, but I will use this platform to ask you to support my people in our time of need. Just hours after the quake hit, while I was still waiting to hear back from family (they are all alive and well) an ad-hoc team of activist and artist Ecuadorian immigrants and Ecuadorians-in-diaspora organized to form the initiative Chicha Radical, to draw attention to the sociopolitical consequences of this disaster and to fund social justice-minded aid to the communities we know would be further marginalized by such a disaster – the Afro-Ecuadorian, Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, trans, intersex, femme and sex worker communities living in the affected zones.
I personally coordinate with our activist organizers on the ground in Ecuador to ensure that every cent from our GoFundMe campaign makes it directly into their pockets. We are also funding rebuilding efforts for the Echeverria Guerrero and Menendez Ortiz families who lost everything and are homeless right now, making sure that these individuals, who are workers living in rural areas with kids, elders, babies, etc. aren’t overlooked by the mainstream channels of aid that never quite make it to the people who need it the most. We are still about 11k away from our goal and trust me when I say that the situation is still dire and the need is still urgent. Please donate any amount of money and share our campaign link with your networks. If you have ever traveled to my country as a tourist, it’s now your job to give back. You can read about our sister organizations and collectives in-depth on our GoFundMe page as well as find us on Facebook as Chicha Radical and on Twitter @Chicha_Radical. If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch; my e-mail is on my About page.
And let me just say one last thing: if you see anyone insisting that tourism will somehow benefit the people of Ecuador right now, they are dead motherfucking wrong. This is not the time to capitalize off of our suffering.
I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
Bani Amor: Alright so let’s get into it! Please introduce yourself, what you do, what AfroLatino Travel is and your place in it.
Dash Harris: I’m Dash, co-founder and team member of AfroLatino Travel, the travel and culture resource of the African Diaspora in the Americas.
Bani: Can you give us some background on AfroLatino Travel? How it started and why.
Dash: I’ve traveled extensively throughout Latin America over the past six years for my documentary series [Negro: A docu-series about Latino identity]. I’m personally and professionally drawn to predominant Afro-descended communities and regions and I noticed when I would inquire about how to get there, most people would immediately question why did I want to go *there* or remark that it was “very dangerous.” Basically code for too Black.
It was especially jarring when I inquired about how to get to Palenque de San Basilio. I was told it was “dangerous,” so I asked if they knew the reputation that Colombia has on a global scale and if they were perturbed by it, why impose that thinking on a particular town that actually does not even have a police presence as it is tiny and everyone knows everyone. Crime is almost non-existent in Palenque de San Basilio.
To find out how to get to most Afro-descended regions, it was a feat of information-gathering from many many sources, mostly personal blogs, and I thought that there has to be another way for folks to access information, especially other Afro-descendants interested in connecting with the wider Diaspora. Being from one of those “too black and dangerous” regions in Panama, I thought it was time for a way to do tourism that was not exploitative and actually is led by locals who are consistently blocked from access in the industry.
Gabino, my tour guide in Palenque said the only tourists that visit are white, and he would love to have more Afrodescendant tourists visit.
Besides, these regions are always the most beautiful – beautiful weather, great food, great people and with profound and powerful history not only to the greater country they are in but also the Afro root that has sustained its very existence. And it’s more of an “adventure” because these places are hard to get to, which is a blatant exhibition of the marginalization and neglect of the state toward the population that resides there.
Bani: Reaching Black(er) regions in Latin America can be such a relajo.I remember my first time traveling in Ecuador I opened up a Lonely Planet guidebook and was reading the Esmeraldas section. It came with a warning not to visit there and to watch your shit if you go cause you’ll get robbed and in the same sentence mentioned that it was a majority Black area. If we think about the extent to which anti-Black racism affects travel and access, it’s pretty extreme.
Dash: I’ve been trying to get to Esmeraldas for theee longest. Oh yea the anti-Blackness in travel guides. Fun! One time I picked up a few travel guidebooks on Panama and sat down with Lamar to read the section on Colón together to see how obscene they could get.One woman had never heard of the Black christ of Portobelo (Panama) and I was like WHO THE HELL DOESN’T KNOW ABOUT THE BLACK CHRIST? The same with El Chota (Ecuador), a soccer player-making region that the state doesn’t invest in. It makes no sense. Fútbolbeing a religion – invest in that!
Bani: Nope, those are always the most underdeveloped areas, especially touristically. Ecuador’s current #AllYouNeedIsEcuador tourist campaign leaves places like Esmeraldas and El Chota in the dust, for instance.
Dash: Per usual, and it isn’t until our regions are recognized nationally or somewhere else that the state then says “yea that’s us.”
Bani: The fact that folks don’t usually correlate Blackness with Latin America has something to do with how the tourist industry still markets these places.
Dash: Absolutely – BUT wanna partake in Black cultural manifestations – the music, the food, the party. We are allowed to do that, fine, just don’t go beyond that – the sports, the sex tourism. When I was in Managua I was a SPECTACLE which was so mind-boggling to me as there are Afro-Nicaraguans. The mestizos pointed and stared like I had five heads. That never happened to me in my entire life and I’ve traveled to many places with under 10% afro-descendants. In even the whitest places, it didn’t compare to the othering in Managua.
Bani: What did you make of that experience?
Dash: That Nicaragua has a lot of work to do. When I mentioned I was going to the coast, a hostel owner said, “Oh yes, that culture is really about partying and they do the maypole and eat fish but here in the capital it’s more calm, more laid back,” and I’m like, “So they do the maypole everyday or just on May 1st for the annual maypole celebration?” It is severe othering, which is interesting because I saw a lot of afro-descendants among those mestizos.
Bani: Leading into my next question, which I hope is not redundant, what would you say is the significance of what you’re doing with AfroLatino travel?
Dash: Helping to connect the African Diaspora (in the Americas) in ways that benefit all involved. Now of course we’re mindful that not all can travel so we are speaking from a privileged perspective. Afro-descendants don’t own their labor when it comes to their access in the tourism industry and limited access is getting even more limited because of multinationals encroaching on and even running them off their very land. So AfroLatino travel connects travelers to locals because locals can explain and show their own culture better than anyone else can.
Bani: Of course. What do you see as a result of bridging diasporic folks and locals? What change, if any, do you think it brings about?
Dash: That’s the best part!! OK so I have a short anecdote. I was in Orinoco chatting with a Garifuna drummer; my partner is a drummer and I was talking about the Batádrums. I came back with videos I shot in Cuba and it turned into this really dope dialogue about Afro-Cubans, Garifunas and Afro-Panamanians. They were loving it and so was I. All of that is to say: magic happens, man. When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens. I don’t know what else to say really.
When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens.
On a cultural level, socially, psychologically, mentally, and yes, economically, the goods and services paid would be going to the afro-descendant community and not the establishment. That’s the malembo element of AfroLatino travel. (Malembo were the friendships Africans made whether in the crossing of the Atlantic or in the Americas; they were bonds that made them feel a deep obligation to help one another, and that’s just how I feel, serving and building with my community continent-wise, because America is a continent *ahem* as we all know lol.)
Bani: Jaja. I think it’s that affirming of each other’s experiences that’s so powerful, in the face of violent rampant erasure.
Dash: Yes! You’re more eloquent with it lol. I remember one time in Utila, Honduras, I’m sitting on the corner chilling with some elder men and a young girl selling mangos and one of the guys was shocked that I was hanging out with them because tourists never talk to us. They were English-speaking afro-descendants in a Hispanophone-dominant country; my family shares that history in Panama, so it was like, ok, I’m among family. I don’t really feel like a tourist.
Bani: Like I started out saying at the beginning of this talk, white tourism is (generally) mad different from what POC experience when the travel. In your story, you were a part of the community in a way. And from that comes a dedication to tell stories about those places and their people with some justice.
Dash: Absolutely! Yes! Exactly! I said this with the travel guides saying “don’t step foot there” it’s like, um, there are actual human beings that live in these places. It is disgusting. Whites always gotta insert themselves in every corner or crook ever. Just leave us alone!
Bani: And centralize themselves in every single thing. The majority of travel writing books should just be called The White Experience in X Country. Alright, let’s wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts? Plans for the future of AfroLatino Travel?
Dash: Just that aside from our trips, tours and informational content, expect more accessible afro-diasporic travel, cultural exchange and sustainable community building coming to an app near you.
Bani: Can’t wait!
I do this for free but my tip jar is open – send $ cash money $ to email@example.com via paypal
SAMO Is Dead
I was born at home in a Brooklyn ghetto. After arriving late, our Taína midwife passed this Nigerian belief to my Ecuadorian mother: wherever the placenta be buried, there would my soul return after death. Uncertain of where to inearth my eutherial twin in the pits of East New York, she stowed it in a freezer until the summer of ‘88, when Jean-Michel Basquiat OD’d, a riot went on in Tompkins Square Park and the Burkina Faso filmmaker Gaston Kaboré shot Zan Boko, ‘the place where the placenta is buried’, about a farming family’s resistance against urbanization from the wealthy of Ouagadougou. Then came the blackout.
Imagine the stink of afterbirth three days into a power outage in August. A moving bruise making its way from the kitchen in waves. Naturally, my moms ended up chucking that shit down the tenement chute, Tupperware and all. Knowing that I’d be dawdling away the whole of eternity in a Brooklyn landfill with my other half, pursuing a life of long-term travel in my corporeal days seemed like the thing to do. Soon after turning 15, I ran away from the studio apartment where my older sister, younger sister, her father, my mother and I all slept on two mattresses on the floor divided by a three-panel ‘Chinese’ partition, leaving behind a note that read ‘’I’M DONE WITH CAPITALISM, I’M MOVING TO CANADA.’’ Then Portland, then China, then Ecuador.
Then back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn. Brooklyn.
Basquiat grew up middle-class in Park Slope and East Flatbush. He is almost always classified as ‘an American artist’ even though his moms was a black boricua from the BK and his father a Port-Au-Prince native with Ivorian roots. He sends a drawing of a gun to J. Edgar Hoover the same year his mother is institutionalized. By the age of 11, he could fluently speak, read and write French, Spanish, and English, and synthesized all three into the written language he so famously coded into his paintings, teasing the globe like a Rubik’s cube.
Jean-Michel spent his early teens in Miramar, Puerto Rico, where he becomes the victim of rape. Soon after returning to Brooklyn, his father catches him having sex with another guy and, after trying to kill him, kicks him out. He’s 15. Basquiat is arrested in Washington Square Park and brought back home, but after throwing a cream pie in his high school principal’s face two years later, drops out and lives on the streets full-time. He hustles: sleeps with men for money, loads up on All of the Drugs and sells postcards to tourists. He sleeps in parks, boys’ homes and girlfriends’ beds and forms one half of the street art project SAMO (Same Old Shit) along with City-As-School friend Al Diaz. “I thought I was going to be a bum the rest of my life,” he once said. His noise band, Gray, plays at the Mudd Club a lot.
At 20, he is invited to join Anina Nosei’s SOHO gallery and works in a studio for the first time. Artforum runs Rene Ricard’s The Radiant Child, an interview which brings Basquiat to international acclaim. While achieving maximum success in the great white art world, he becomes a millionaire. A junkie millionaire, actually; two important requisites if you’re looking to get paranoid. At 25, he takes his first and last trip to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and befriends Ivorian painter Ouattara Watts. They plan a trip back to the country together for a shamanic ceremony meant to save Basquiat’s soul from addiction, but he backs out at the last minute. After dying of a heroin overdose at age 27, he reaches legendary status.
In Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban writes about the late artist’s Brooklyn burial, where a CitiBank spokesman delivered the eulogy:
Blanca Martinez, Basquiat’s housekeeper, was struck by the alienated attitude of the mourners. “They were all standing separately, as if it were an obligation,” she says. “They didn’t seem to care. Some looked ashamed.” People began to leave the cemetery before the body was buried. Ignoring the objections of the gravediggers, Martinez tearfully threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin as they lowered it into the grave.
Boom For Real
I wasn’t a good Ecuadorian girl. Simple stuff like getting out of bed and readying for school were always quantum tasks that earned me the belt each time. Getting whipped across the back to the tune of that old NY1 theme song (with the sax) was my morning routine for years. Mami really blew up when I turned 12 and totally refused to return to school, leaving algae-colored bruises all up and down the right side of my body like I’d passed out on a lakebed somewhere. Her guilt eventually worked in my favor and I was permitted to stay home most of the year under the condition that I care for my new baby sister. By now I know I’m gay but think nothing of it.
We lived like nomads in Jackson Heights, Queens, moving every time rent became beyond unaffordable for my single, working, immigrant mother of three. When it got real bad, we were sent to live with our grandparents in Orlando, Florida, shuffling between the two states annually for the next couple years. The summer house had plenty of cubbyholes to hide from my grandfather’s wandering fingers, but results in an all-consuming claustrophobic. After getting into art school down south, I drop out and move back to New York.
The Lower East Side became my stomping grounds, when we all still called it Loisaida. I’d wander around talking to strangers in Tompkins Square Park, checking out the free punk matinees at ABC No Rio and reading zines at Bluestockings or St. Marks Bookshop. I knew no one my age. Finally, I drop the anti-capitalist Canada bomb and hitchhike upstate, starting at the Co-Op City projects in The Bronx where I’d been crashing. It is illegal to drop out at 15 or something and the cops are after my moms for neglect. After court, I’m forced back into high school in the hood, but take the train into the LES instead. When a blank report card arrives home, I’m kicked out. The thing about sleeping in Washington Square Park is them damn sprinklers.
We try homeschooling, then City-As-School, an alternative set up where you accumulate credits through internship programs around town, though a few hours of class a week is mandatory. My poor record disqualified me for fall enrollment so summer school became the only option – half in class, half at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx. I never went to class, but always showed up to the garden on time, eager to dig like I had a hot date with the earth. I take up graffiti, get arrested a few times, join a band and move away.
A new shopping mall, two apartment complexes and a park are built on a 297-acre landfill in East New York, Brooklyn. It is home to retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Marshalls, the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Boulder Creek Steakhouse, Target, The Home Depot, and BJ’s Wholesale Club. But it turns out that the landfill in question – Fountain Avenue – ceased receiving refuse three years before my birth, meaning my soul will probably be rerouted to Fresh Kills in Staten Island.
WHILE I WAS traveling north on the Ecuadorian Pacific coast last month, I met a group of local artisans in the town of Súa who work with natural materials and, through their community organization, educate youth on Afro-Ecuadorian culture. They weave, sew, carve, collect, and create traditional instruments from resources that wash onto shore or grow in the mangrove forests surrounding town.
The space they’ve been using for a decade is rustic at best, and without any help from the government, they’re struggling to make ends meet as artists. Due to a chance encounter with the in-country project director for the Heartful Giving Project, an international development organization, the group have been able to launch a crowdfunding campaign that wraps up on August 1. They’re raising money to build a sustainable community art space to work, teach classes in, and use as a showroom to promote positive tourism in Súa. Read more about the campaign at theheartfulgivingproject.com.
When Spanish conquistadors first landed on Ecuadorian soil, they were so astonished to be greeted by indigenous leaders adorned with precious emeralds that they named the region Esmeraldas. Centuries later, the name still suits it. From its stretch of the Pacific to the dense, endangered mangroves that spread north toward Colombia, and hills feathered by palms and other flora endemic to the Chocó biogeographic region, Esmeraldas is recognized throughout Ecuador as the “Green Province.” But despite its wealth in natural resources, the area remains neglected in terms of basic infrastructure and vastly marginalized at the expense of its 70% Afro-Ecuadorian population, the greatest concentration of blacks in Ecuador.
Ten years ago, Alphonso ‘Toto’ German and a group of his friends formed Manglares de Súa, the Súa Mangrove Center, and set out to work in this bamboo, wood, and straw space gifted to them from its previous owner. “He gave it to us — not the government or municipality — under the condition that we use it for the people and for the arts. These are traditional handicrafts incorporating natural materials from our Green Province. We want to present a better space to attract positive tourism to Súa.” Their income is seasonal with the (meager) influx of tourists that overflow from the nearby surf and party city Atacames during peak months, but they also sell through the fair-trade company Adonya Imports. From left to right: Ismael, Cesar, Alphonso ‘Toto,’ Antonio, Edwin, and Martin.
The first thing I noticed upon walking onto the uneven dirt floor of the community art studio were crafts wet from the rainfall of the night before. The roof is made of layered banana leaves punched with huge holes over time, and a slight breeze streams straight through the shelter’s walls. “I’ve made everything. This guitar, by hand. That marimba, by hand. Those maracas too. When it rains, it leaks through the holes in the roof and destroys our work.” Though it’s beautiful and relaxed, the center is clearly no longer suited to meet the artists’ needs.
Súa is all flip flops softly smacking the dirt road or occasional concrete sidewalk laid out in the pattern of a honeycomb. Black men drive blue taximotos along the seaside promenade, and since it’s Saturday, couples stroll along its cove-like stretch of beach. The water is a translucent green stretching toward a blue band at the top, held at each end by high cliffs where mangroves grow. The trees are seriously threatened due to overproduction of the town’s #1 export: shrimp. I ask Toto what he thinks the new center will do for Súa: “We’re relaxed people, but the situation is bad for the kids. They drink a lot, work hard, then drink. The next day it’s the same. With this [he gestures to the pavilion around us] we can play music and dance. That’s what the people really want.”
“I’ve always been buena onda with everyone in town. I’ve always wanted to better Súa, and my community in general.” Walking along the beach, it was clear that everyone knew and respected Toto. A young single father of two girls, Toto never set foot in any kind of learning institution and relies on seasonable income to support his family. Throughout our interview, he spoke softly, passionately, and only averted his gaze once. “I’ve never really told anyone that, just now, to you.” It was clear that, though I’d spent most of my life organizing for social change movements, Toto had more spine in his left pinky than most people I’ve met have in their whole bodies.
The marimba is the xylophone’s great, great African grandmother, made of different materials in the regions it has passed through over time. Most in Ecuador look like this, thick bamboo tubes tied to strips of African palm tree trunk that resonate with a light echo when hit with mallets. Accompanied by shakers, call-and-response singing, and a traditional dance called currulao, the music creates a wandering, joyful ambience. Afro-Ecuadorians descend from the 23 slaves that escaped from a shipwreck in 1533, those who escaped via the Colombian jungle, and those who were brought over from Spain. For many Esmeraldeños, marimba music is the ultimate expression of freedom.
This is a type of Spondylus, a sign of wealth, sacred power, and a form of currency for the pre-Columbian peoples of what are now parts of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts. The ancient trade route runs through some of South America’s best Pacific beaches, where you can buy shells like this from early-rising collectors.
Walls are eroding away with the help of a devastating termite infestation.
Ismael talks to neighbors from the inside of Manglares de Súa’s art center.
Toto learned to weave coconut tree leaves into all sorts of forms as a kid from his elders. He taught the other members of his organization, but besides them, no one else in town knows how to create traditional dress or make marimbas. With a better space, they hope to host classes for local kids, and stir up a kind of renaissance in Afro-Ecuadorian culture.
I grew up in a single-parent household in New York City, but as my mother is a music-obsessed Ecuadorian immigrant, the sounds of obscure Afro-Latino bands coming from our stereo and the feel of traditional, handmade instruments became the stuff of the familiar for me. There are a few famous marimberos from Esmeraldas that are known as ‘The Greats’: Papá Roncón, Remberto Escobar, and Escolástico Solís Castillo.
In May of this year, Súa’s mayor, Freddy Saldarriaga Corral, hired foreign engineers to pave over a lot of wild land and replace it with a concrete park. They were bulldozing trees when Martin (pictured above) and other members of Manglares de Súa began assembling to halt construction, or at least express their discontent over the changes. No one in town was consulted over the park, and the destruction of tropical vegetation right in front of the cultural center came as a complete surprise. Thanks to the organization’s protest, three trees were spared, but that was after police arrested Toto for “disrupting the peace.” Behind the melodic sounds of the marimba in Súa, a concrete mixer can always be heard in the background. Here we see the site wrapped in green plastic.
I ask Toto if there are any blacks in power in the national (or even local) government to appeal to for the needs of Esmeraldeños. “No. None. No blacks in power. They stomp on us! [He enacts this with his right foot.] We’ve always been marginalized. The government doesn’t help Esmeraldas; they’ve always neglected us. All of these places — Atacames, Muisne, Tonsupa, Esmeraldas, Súa — they’ve abandoned us all. Afro-Ecuadorians just try to survive.”
I spent a lot of time taking macro photos at the seashell table, fascinated by the itty-bitty galaxies that seemed to gather there. These are the exoskeletons of marine mollusks that drifted onto shore, each one marked by its own exclusive history of waves, sand, and time. It was strange to visit this poor town studded by such beautiful things that just happened to be lying around.
Toto brings it home as the sun begins to set over Súa: “I don’t do anything industrial. You see the kids selling in Atacames or Montañita — they buy those industrial materials and sell jewelry made with them for more. They’re cheap and rot. These [gesturing to the crafts above] are made by hand from natural materials only found in Súa; each is one-of-a-kind. This is natural, from here and only here. It’s made to last, and made with love.”