Tag Archives: Panama

“Don’t Step Foot There” #Dispatch: AfroLatino Travel

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.

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Dash Harris grew up in Panama, Brooklyn and the Poconos. She attended Temple University for broadcast journalism, business and French, and is the owner of In.A.Dash.Media, a multi-media and video production studio. She is a co-founder of AfroLatino Travel and Negro, a docu-series about Latino identity and the African Diaspora.

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 Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.32 AMopened 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. Fútbol being 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?

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.12 AMDash: 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 Batá drums. 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 Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.41.00 AMsome 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 heyitsbani@gmail.com via paypal

3rd World Writing, 1st World Gaze #Dispatch: Negrisimo

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.

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Aliyya Swaby is a newly minted freelance journalist currently chasing stories and adventure in Panama. After graduating from Yale last May, she received a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship to report on race, gentrification, and Afro-Panamanian culture. She uses her writing to explore the local effects of urban development. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Ozy and Racialicious. Check out her blog at aliyyaswaby.com and tweets at @AliyyaSwaby

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Aliyya Swaby:  I’m a freelance reporter, at least for now, reporting in Panama on a travel fellowship from Yale, my alma mater. My project here explores social and cultural issues in Afro Panamanian communities, obviously a very broad topic.

I’ve used it to explore parts of Panamanian culture that mainstream US media isn’t covering. I think a lot of articles in major publications talk about the steep growth rate of the country. Fewer talk about the positive and and negative effects of this growth on everyday people, especially low-income and minority groups.

I’d like to think that my writing is very grassroots oriented. I think the most interesting topics are the ones that are the most local. But that doesn’t help me get published. So I’ve been working on finding a balance.

BA:  Right on. Why did you choose Panama as the setting and the Afro-Panamanian community as the subject of your reportage?

AS:  I’d been awarded Yale fellowships before and used them to research similar issues in Latin American indigenous communities (specifically in Ecuador and Peru). I majored in environmental studies, and I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of forest conservation and indigenous rights in the Amazon. But I felt uncomfortable doing that sort of research. I’m not indigenous and ultimately my few months of reporting/research didn’t really give much back to those communities.

I chose to report on Afro-Panamanian communities, because it felt more personal. My parents are from Jamaica and Trinidad, and many black Panamanians are of Caribbean descent.

I’ve learned a lot about the West Indian diaspora being here in Panama. Actually, I have an article coming out soon about Marcus Garvey in Central America — not too many people know that he was inspired to start the UNIA after traveling and working in Panama and Costa Rica.

BA:  I didn’t know that!

AS:  Yeah, I spoke to my dad about it — he’s well read on West Indian and black American history — and he didn’t know either. I feel like there are millions of stories like these being passed over constantly. I love stumbling across them.

BA: Exactly. Those are exactly the kinda stories I wanna read.

AS:   It’s sad that there aren’t too many places to publish them.

BA:  Tragic, really. But then I think about the pre-internet age, and how folks went about distributing stories and information themselves because the mainstream didn’t provide a place for them.

AS:  Right. And it seems like you take advantage of different media outside of the mainstream to publish your work. I really admire that. I’ve enjoyed keeping a blog throughout this fellowship — though it’s still online, I feel less powerless having a self-curated space. At the same time, I’ve been trying to force my way into mainstream media. It seems backwards, but I think many people only have access to certain publications. Maybe they lack the connections or time or resources to search for alternative news sources. I want my work to be widely read. (And I want to be paid for it.)

BA:  The thought of bending my words to fit into mainstream travel writing kinda freaks me out. While it’s very important, crucial even, that certain stories get attention through a mainstream audience, it’s just not the type of attention my work needs. I don’t know. I’m still trying to carve out my own space and find my own voice. You’re coming from this academic, journalist background, and I can def see how that needs a different kind of attention. And you should get paid for it!

AS:  That makes total sense. I don’t know how far I’d be willing to bend my writing to fit it into certain slots. So far, I’ve mostly been published in smaller online magazines. I haven’t had to give up much. But I’ve definitely researched and pitched way more ideas than I’ve been able to publish. I do think, though, that there should be more opportunities available for this kind of writing than exist.

BA:  It’s part of the game, people say. But I notice which editors turn down which pitches, and I’m like, really?

AS: Also, we talked a bit before about the term “travel writer”.

BA: Yes, I wouldn’t corner you into that genre. That’s just me.

AS:  I just think it’s interesting. I’ve shied away from the term and that kind of writing. But reading your work is making me think about it differently. There’s definitely something to be said for creating your own path and your own definition or brand of travel writing.

It’s just been really frustrating throughout this fellowship to see a bit more of the behind-the-scenes of the journalism industry. There’s a lot of opportunities for uninformed diatribe.

BA:  It’s endless.

AS:  But not much for carefully researched articles on local issues. Or for writers who have a different audience in mind.

BA:  Speak, speak. It’s the truth. But I do think there’s a place for your work to be read by a wide audience, and that’s how I stumbled onto your writing, through your Racialicious piece, ‘Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama’.

AS:  That’s true! I just was going to say: It’s hasn’t been all bad or frustrating. Racialicious is a great example of a publication with a LOT of very informed readers who are interested in hearing different voices. I’m really grateful to have been published there. The exposure was priceless. And I actually have been contacted a few times by editors who have read it and were interested in hearing what else I was working on.

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BA: That’s awesome. Also, I related to something you touched on in that article. For me, I’m Ecuadorian-Guatemalan-American, I live in Quito, and a lot of non-Ecuadorians (mostly white expats) feel like they can confide their anti-Ecuadorian sentiments/complaints in me, because I’m ‘exceptional’. This idea, that you are exceptional, is interesting to me.

AS:  Yeah, that definitely happens. In the article, I wrote about a journalist who told me how black people in Colon are just lazy freeloaders. And it happened to me in Peru and Ecuador, but it was a different dynamic because I actually didn’t see very many people like me in the capital cities.

BA: I’ve seen African-American expats in Ecuador treated very differently than Afro-Ecuadorians, for instance. When it’s convenient for folks.

AS:  Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a weird space to be in. I have a lot of white European friends here who don’t like that they stand out so much. I definitely can pass through certain areas more easily than they can. But also standing out, for me, is a good thing because otherwise I’d be treated poorly.

BA:  I’m so over white travelers complaining about how they stick out. Have fun being the ‘Other’, for a change.

AS: Yep, it’s a hard thing for white people to deal with, especially if it’s their first time in a “black” country. In a way, Panama is a black country.

BA:  There’s just a lack of reflection when white people complain about it, which leads me to my next question. In that Racialicious article you mention trying to be careful about framing other people’s stories in your gaze as a an American journalist. I’m going to go ahead and say that most travel writers and journalists are definitely not reflecting on Western privilege when they report abroad.

AS: Right. And that’s a problem, for sure. But it’s also a really difficult thing to do.

BA: How so?

AS:  First of all, as we talked about earlier, certain angles are going to be published more often in mainstream media than others. Too often, those angles replicate common misconceptions about global south/Third World countries or follow similar trends. For example, there were a few articles criticizing the news cycle surrounding the Boko Haram kidnappings.Articles on violence are readily published.

BA: Yup.

AS: Articles on local artists/cultural pioneers are not, for example. I think I’ve been lucky in finding publications interested in some of my ideas. And then I was able to do the research necessary to make sure I wasn’t presenting misinformation or an incorrect angle. But there are so many steps in the process and so much competition.

Many people don’t want to think about privilege, especially if there’s nothing forcing them to. That’s why I think there needs to be more space for people who do think about it. Those perspectives should be valued and should be adequately compensated to make sure that they stay in journalism. A problem right now is that many would-be journalists can’t afford to be. And freelance work is becoming less and less lucrative.

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BA:  Absolutely. Mad writers can’t just get fellowships, can’t get funding to travel, can’t afford to be an unpaid intern, etc. A space needs to be made for them.

AS:  Definitely. Diversity in mainstream media is at the root of many problems in the industry. Like anthropology, it’s the sort of medium that’s always been “white man’s thoughts on x other group” And it shouldn’t be like that anymore. But factors like unpaid internships and lack of pay for freelancers really keep most people out of the business. Some radical change needs to be made, but newer sites like Vox, for example, have been criticized for the same lack of diversity as older historic publications.

BA: So what advice would you pass on to those of us who do manage to stay in the game and are pursuing this kind of work,  how not to be just another privileged foreigner who pops in, takes what they need, and leaves? For travel writers and journalists reporting abroad, I mean.

AS:  Well, really, I need this sort of advice. I’ve only been freelancing for eight months — I don’t feel qualified enough to give any definitive rule or plan. But one thing that has helped me during my time here is focusing on building real relationships with the people I meet, whose groups I’m reporting on.

There’s a fear in journalism that being too chummy with your sources leads to biased reporting. But I think journalists should be more afraid of the opposite — that they won’t get deep enough into understanding a new culture or community to be able to represent it well in writing. And I think doing that well takes a lot of energy, effort and time. I’ve decided to stay in Panama longer than my allotted fellowship time, because I don’t think I’m done here. I’m learning how to make these connections and how I fit into this culture. I need more time to do it.

BA:  That’s awesome! I know you’ll make the best of your time there.

AS:  I hope so!