It’s common for a Black person in South Florida to receive a “double take” when they speak in a tongue that is as familiar to them as the rice and beans on which they were raised. But why does the average passerby judge this as peculiar?
Between 1502 and 1866, 11.2 million Africans disembarked from slave ships in the New World during the Middle Passage. Of those 11.2 million people, only 450,000 came to the United States. The rest who survived the journey were taken to the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
In Miami-Dade County, though, these Black faces seem to belie the traditions of music, dance, art, speech forms, and even religious practices brewed south of our peninsula.
“People tend to think I’m Black American even though I’m Dominican. Even Latinos. Some of the members of my family will just let people who are jerks think we don’t know what they’re saying and then shock people by saying, “Yo hablo espanol. Oiste?’” said Miami-based Urban Spanish musical artist Reymon Gratereaux, known popularly as Rey Cruz.
In South Florida, a Black person could potentially hail from Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or any one of the other Latin countries with a high population of Blacks rather than from Opa Locka. It’s just rare because there are fewer emigration patterns of Blacks from these countries.
There are over 150 million African descendants in Latin America, according to the World Bank, but they are the poorest and most marginalized groups in their countries, making their prospects of traveling abroad much slimmer.
Alta Hooker, vice-chancellor of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN), told IPS NEWS in 2010 that “people of African descent in Central America and Mexico are among the most vulnerable, poor and excluded on the continent.”
“When White Latinos migrated to the U.S., they left Black Latinos in their country as maids, cutting the grass, cleaning their buildings; they think we couldn’t possibly come to the U.S and drive a Benz,” said Black Panamanian William Duguid who is known as Willie Panama the King of Salsa Rap.
Poverty, though, tends to serve as the ultimate motivation for an Afro-Latin when they do arrive in the U.S., says Danila Hutchinson, who moved to the United States from Panama in 1972 when she was about 18.
“If you look at the outskirts of Panama, there is a lot of poverty….we came to better ourselves and we’re not afraid to make it. We work, we don’t get help from the government,” said Hutchinson. “Most of the people I know accomplished something for themselves.”
About half of U.S. black immigrants from Central America arrived before 1990, the largest share of any regional group, according to the Pew Research Center. And nearly half of those immigrants were Panamanian or Belizean.
Panamanians came in large waves in the 1980s due to the Panama Canal Act, granting U.S. admission to Panamanians who worked on the canal, while others fled because of the Manuel Noriega regime.
Hutchinson, like many other Afro-Panamanians hails from a city on the Atlantic Coast called Colon, which is vastly different from the country’s capital Panama City where more of the residents tend to be of European descent.
And that’s not the only difference. While Panama City boasts state-of-the-art high-rises, a new subway system and fancy restaurants, Colon is home to dilapidated buildings, sewage-filled alleyways and rampant crime.
Things weren’t always like that, however. Before the ultimate closing of American military bases because of the canal’s transfer to Panama in 1999, Colon was a much more vibrant city with gainful employment opportunities that enticed people from all over the West Indies.
“That was how my grandfather got there. He was leaving Barbados to head to England but stopped over in Panama. He found work at the canal and just stayed,” said Hutchinson.
Her husband, an American soldier who was stationed in Panama for a few months out of the year, decided to court, marry and move her to the U.S. – even though she said her English at the time was “horrible.”
As all children in Panama do, Hutchinson received her formal education in Spanish but she learned English at home from her father, who was of Anglo-Caribbean heritage.
After moving to South Florida, she remembers calling a “ditto” a “dildo” during a class presentation she gave at Nova Southeastern University. Everyone couldn’t stop laughing, she said.
“It was so embarrassing,” said Hutchinson. “But my English now is much better.”
From his dialect to his skin color, Duguid claims he’s received discrimination here in the U.S. from many of the groups with which he identifies.
“Latinos think I’m too Black. Black Americans think I’m not Black enough because I speak Spanish. West Indians think I speak English with a strange accent,” he said.
Many Central Americans living on the Atlantic Coast speak a Creolized English because of the various historical influences on that coastline.
International development professional and anthropologist Gayle McGarrity has studied Afro-Latin communities for years and cites Jamaican fishermen as primary influencers along the Atlantic Coast of Central America. Some would boat over 1,000 kilometers to Nicaragua, Honduras and even Guatemala for fishing.
“When I lived in Nicaragua, I would go to parties on the Atlantic coast and I would be amazed that they were playing music that we were playing in Kingston,” said McGarrity, who is originally from Jamaica. “The fishermen would bring cassette tapes. They even shared the same dances.”
McGarrity claims that, as a result, these Atlantic Coast Blacks sound a lot like old world Jamaicans.
However, Nicaraguan native Ana Guthrie Ndumu says many Afro-Nicaraguans from her Atlantic Coast town Bluefields do not want South Floridians relegating their dialect and way of life to just an off-spring of Jamaica.
“We feel we are our own community. We don’t feel our Creole sounds the same as Jamaican patois,” said Guthrie Ndumu, who earned her doctorate in Information Studies from Florida State University. “I sort of resist the notion that we are simply descendants from Jamaica because, one, there is very poor documentation and, two, there have been many cultural mashups. It's just not that simple, even though there are definite ancestral ties.”
Guthrie Ndumu, whose doctoral research was on “Reimagining information overload: African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin voices across the U.S.,” said influences such as the “Spanish acquisition during the 18th and 19th century, British colonization and slavery, German Moravian missionary work, American pseudo-colonization in the early 20th century, plus transnational migration between the Caribbean islands all led to a mixing of Blacks, Mestizos, Whites and Amerindians” forming today's Bluefields -- a vibrant, multicultural society that is now a part of an autonomous region in Nicaragua.
Like most Bluefielders in Miami, Guthrie Ndumu was raised in the Norland area where a local Moravian church and alumni branch of Bluefield’s Colegio Moravo have made their home.
Growing up in the Christian faith is common for most Bluefielders, and although their families identify as Hispanic, they don’t always share the same values as Latinos in Miami.
“We are more Caribbean than we are Hispanic,” said Guthrie Ndumu. “The values that we have are a little bit more conservative, a little more traditional, so growing up I associated with friends that had backgrounds similar to mine. So, I’m talking Bahamian, Trinidadian, Jamaican.”
She says while they do speak Spanish and hold traditions like quinceaneras – a popular rite of passage ceremony and celebration for teenage girls in Latin America – Afro-Nicaraguans tend to cook similar foods to and have similar superstitions as Caribbean islanders.
“What Haitians call sos pwa, we call it bean stew. What Trinis call roti, we have that as well. Even some of the superstitions…you spit on a piece of string and put it on a baby’s forehead to cure their hiccups. I saw a friend from St. Thomas do it and another from Guyana,” said Guthrie Ndumu.
Edingston Jackson is an Afro-Colombian living in Miami who also identifies heavily with the Atlantic Coast Central American and Caribbean communities in South Florida, mainly because he grew up in closer proximity to that region than he did to the South American country of Colombia.
Jackson grew up in San Andres, an island in the Atlantic Ocean just 140 miles east of Nicaragua that is Colombian territory. In fact, it is considered one of the top vacation spots in Colombia.
“When people meet me, they don’t know what to think of me,” said Jackson, who said San Andres Islanders speak English and a Creole at home but learn Spanish in school. “A lot of people are surprised when they find out I’m Colombian. Maybe because 85 percent of Colombians do not look like me. I’m 6 feet tall with brown skin and when I speak Spanish I don’t sound Colombian at all.”
In South Florida, Jackson says people assume he is Dominican when he speaks Spanish, an Anglo-Caribbean islander when he speaks English and Samoan when they see him.
“South Florida is a place where I can blend in with everyone. I can go to a Caribbean event like I grew up with them. I can go to a Latin grocery store and I can speak the language,” said Jackson. “Our dialects are different but for the most part, I can connect with anybody.”
An Afro-Latin person’s facility in both English and Spanish can often times make things easier for them in the both the work and academic worlds once they migrate to South Florida.
Jackson’s ability to speak three languages has benefitted him immensely in his line of work as a well-known local party DJ named Mr. E with entertainment company Soul Movement Crew.
“I will rock a party and appeal to mostly everyone in the room when I get on the mike because I’m familiar with their cultures and their language,” said Jackson.
Guthrie Ndumu calls it a “triple consciousness.”
The original term, “double consciousness,” was coined by W.E.B. Dubois to describe how the Black American’s identity is divided into two facets: Black and American.
For Guthrie Ndumu, she believes Afro-Latins also have many different vantage points and as a Black Nicaraguan, she sees herself as Black, Hispanic and Caribbean living in Florida.
“When Donald Trump or even Ben Carson say something about immigrants, we get riled up. When Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz decided to run, it was a celebration for us. We can look at them from a distance but we can also look at them and say that they are one of us,” she said.
She claims that when the Trayvon Martin and Ferguson tragedies happened, Afro-Latins were deeply saddened, but when the rioting began, they grumbled: “Why Black people have fi gwan so, dem a burn up the place.”
At first, Jackson found it hard to identify with Americans when he arrived because of the severe political correctness to which they adhered.
“In Colombia, we describe people by their features and it’s not a bad thing. But, when I first got here, I remember identifying a girl to a male friend of mine by calling her ‘the fat girl’ and my friend told me I can’t shout descriptions out loud like that here,” said Jackson.
Gratereaux also believes that Americans can be far too sensitive, especially as it pertains to issues of color.
“It’s common for us to refer to someone or even make jokes with someone about their skin tone. It’s not a big deal in our country and we don’t see it as that,” said Gratereaux, who was the only Black child among his playmates in the Dominican Republic before moving to Miami in the fifth grade. “I came here when I was young so I understand the struggles of Black Americans but some tend to think they are the only ones with a Black experience and they set the standard for what is politically correct or not. There are many other Black people in the world, though.”
Evelyn Pineda, a Dominican-American, had a similar experience with American cultural sensitivity after she met and married a Tennessee-born Black American man.
She remembers how frustrated he would get when her entire Dominican family would have get-togethers and speak only Spanish. It would sound like gibberish to him, she said, and he considered it rude.
“But, I was not going to force my mom to say “Pass the salt” in English just because a non-Spanish speaker was present. We’re going to say: “Pasame la sal” like we always say it. We weren’t going to change things just because he was in the room,” said Pineda.
Pineda has observed that the very thing American men love about Dominican women is exactly what poses a challenge for them in a marriage.
“Americans love Latin women, how they look, the chocolatey caramel skin, soft curly hair, but they don’t want to embrace everything about us like the language and the food. But, if you want one thing, you’re going to have to embrace the whole thing. It takes effort, but you have to try,” she said.
It wasn’t until Pineda and her husband both decided to attend medical school at the Universidad Ibero Americana-UNIBE in the Dominican Republic that he began immersing himself in Pineda’s culture and learning her language because of a Spanish immersion program built into the medical program.
Although they are now divorced, Pineda says she has no qualms about dating outside of her culture.
“I dated a very dark-skinned guy from Zimbabwe when I was in college. I love all Black men,” said Pineda, who has always considered herself an Afro-Antillean – a person from the Antilles or West Indies who is of African descent.
Still, she seems to always be praised by fellow Dominicans for her hair’s length and loose curl pattern as well as her Indian features such as her high cheekbones; while Pineda claims she is “morena,” Dominicans correct her and tell her she is “india.”
She remembers how her grandmother, who was a lighter-skinned Dominican, warned her when she discovered Pineda was dating a Zimbabwean while in college.
“She tugged at my hair and said ‘You see that hair, it reaches to your butt. Do you know how long that took to come out in our family? If you marry that African, vas atrasar la raza,’ When people have hair like mine and look Indian, they love that,” said Pineda.
To “atrazar la raza” means to hold the race back in Spanish and it is a prevalent idea in Dominican society, dating back to the “Anti-Hatianismo” ideology and subsequent slaughter of about 12,000 Haitians at the orders of President Rafael Trujillo in 1937 who hoped to “Whiten” the race in the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti and comprises a wide variety of phenotypes ranging from those with dark-skinned Afrocentric features to those with fair-skinned Eurocentric features, is actually predominantly a mixed race population. The country made the news in July for the enforcement of a 2013 ruling: the children of illegal Haitian migrants are to be denied Dominican citizenship.
Today, people like Pineda and Gratereaux understand the ruling but do not agree with discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic or in The United States.
“I dance with Haitians, I go to parties with them, I would even date one,” said Pineda, who attends classes and socials to learn a dance style called kizomba that originated in Angola but has roots in Haitian music. “I personally love to dance and I love French. I even want my kids and I to be fluent in it,” said Pineda.
His City Barber shop owner Rafael Sprouse says he services many Haitian clients at his business in Pembroke Pines and they offer great reviews about his work.
In South Florida, Dominican barbers are assigned a great deal of street credit for their skillfulness, but Sprouse claims that their reputation stems from that fact that, in their country, hair is one of the easiest trades for a Dominican to learn and to earn a living.
“That’s what we do for a living in DR. So, when we come here, we put a lot of passion in our work. We also like to look good, so we like to make people the same way we look. So, it’s part of our tradition,” said Sprouse. “You will find people who say they are looking for a Dominican barber because Dominicans cut better. But, it’s not that, it just has to do with passion.”
It was Dominicans who coined the term: Papi Shampoo. It is slang for a guy who dresses well, whose hair is slick and freshly cut and attracts attention from women as a result.
“I get Papi Shampoos in my shop all the time,” said Sprouse.
Sprouse, 32, discovered his passion for hair at a young age when he used to help his mother, a hair stylist, with her business.
He says as notorious as men in their culture are about the upkeep of their hair, Dominican women are equally as religious about receiving regular relaxer treatments coupled with the famous Dominican blow out.
“Some do it because they are trying to soften their roots but others are just stuck on looking exactly like the celebrities they see on TV,” said Sprouse. “Then some end up destroying their hair because of so much chemicals and treatment on the hair.”
Pineda believes it is because Dominicans have a difficult time accepting that they’re of African descent.
“Some Dominicans want to hide their African descent and play up their Indian descent. A lot of women will hide it with their blow out. They will never let anyone see them with their hair curly,” she said.
Sprouse claims that it is the nature of human beings, not just Dominicans and Blacks, to desire a hair type that isn’t their own.
“People want what they don’t have. A lot of White American folks see Dominican girls and they like that type of hair. They want it because it’s exotic,” said Sprouse. “Every hair has its own beauty. It just has to be treated in a certain way.”
He recalls that back in the Dominican Republic, he – like many children – were exposed to foreign television images of woman with green eyes and long hair. As a result, he became more attracted to White women.
Duguid claims that this is not uncommon due to the prevalence of White icons in Latin TV, movies, commercials and music.
“There is lack of opportunity for Blacks in these industries. The same way that White Americans have closed the door on lack Black Americans, White Latinos shut out Black Latinos from public platforms,” he said.
Today, Sprouse is married to an American-born, half-Puerto-Rican, half-Cuban woman with fair skin who has always found Black men attractive.
In the same vein, both Jackson and Guthrie Ndumu are married to people who are of different cultures and possess different features than their own. Jackson married a Jamaican woman and Guthrie Ndumu married a Ugandan man.
As much as he tries to embrace various communities in South Florida through his cross-cultural awareness, Jackson can’t help but notice the separation of the various sub-cultures within the Black community as well as the other communities and he wishes things were different.
“We are all in this one boat making splashes. We have to row together to get to our destination. My father always says, ‘one hand washes the other, both hands wash the face’ and that is something I live by,” said Jackson.
Guthrie Ndumu said that she marks the “Bring Back our Girls” rally she helped spearhead in 2014 was one of the first times she felt the Black community truly rally around a common cause.
“At the rally, we had Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, African Americans come together. Everyone was all hands on deck. But these are too few and far between,” she said. “There’s too much sectionalism. And for me, that’s the same as tribalism in African countries. We’d accomplish more if we were to work together.”
Tiffani Knowles is the managing editor and founder of NEWD Magazine. Her hope is to become as "newd" as possible on a daily by embracing truth, authenticity and socio-spiritual awareness. She is bi-vocational as she is the owner of two businesses and a professor of Communication at Barry University in Miami, Florida. She is also the co-author of HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant.