6 March 2018
Concession Through Conversation
Giving visibility to people of the African diasporic culture is an issue that is significant yet not visible in itself to many people. However, throughout history, there are countless people who decided to get involved in the movement to give recognition to people of color and their contribution to our history. The most effective way to do this is by word of mouth and passing culture on to generations to follow. Two authors that have shared their experiences for the sake of preserving and giving visibility to the Afro-Latino culture are Eric Velasquez and Arthur Schomburg. Whether it be essays that discuss the influence of important historical figures, or a children's book that teaches young people about Afro-Latino culture, there is no doubt that these pieces of literature play a major role in shedding light on a part of society not only in America, but worldwide, that may be in the shadows of our history.
Eric Velasquez was born in Harlem, New York to two Afro-Puerto Rican parents. He was gifted with natural artistic abilities and interests which led him not only to be enriched in his culture, but to be able to write about and illustrate his culture within children's literature. His book, “Grandma's Records,” tells the story of his time spent at his Grandma's house and the way she opened him up to both her world of music and her own personal experiences of living in Puerto Rico. Velasquez incorporates these stories into his book by using Spanish phrases mixed in with English, making cultural references, and incorporating different shades of skin colors in his illustrations in order to share with the young reader the significance of oral tradition and culture in his own family.
The use of the Spanish language in the text is notable to the meaning of the story. The use of his Grandma's native language creates an interesting storytelling technique that adds to the authenticity of the story. Some criticize the use of the spanish language in texts because it is seen as lacking depth and meaning. In Maria Acevedo's article about the representation of Puerto Ricans in children's literature, she explains that some authors “strategically cushion Spanish words to add cultural flavor,” (Acevedo, 25). However, since Velasquez has a genuine cultural background, the bilingual text only enhances the authenticity of the work. She confirms this later on by stating that “Velasquez plays with Spanish in order to shape the bilingual interactions between Eric and his Grandma,” (Acevedo, 25). These interactions were what so deeply inspired Velasquez to connect to young readers to the family traditions he was raised with.
Aside from the use of the Spanish language, Velasquez also includes different elements of his Grandma's Puerto Rican heritage. The inclusion of a famous meal that Grandma makes, arroz con gandules (which translates to “rice and pigeon peas”), is a small detail that only adds to the authenticity of the story. Grandma's storytelling of her life in Puerto Rico is also representative of how passing down culture is influential in the life of a young man. However, the main theme of the story is the importance of music in Grandma's life and how it ties her back to her home in Puerto Rico. This is shown in the inclusion of real-life musicians Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, and Sammy Ayala. Cortijo especially played bomba y plena, which is a mix of Puerto Rican and African music. The fact that Grandma's records and love for music was passed down to young Eric first hand is important to the development of his own identity as an Afro-Latino. Specifically, Grandma's song, “En mi viejo San Juan,” is a song about leaving Puerto Rico behind for a “foreign land.” The song itself is filled with emotion and sorrow of being separated from the homeland, but Grandma's emotional ties to the song only adds to the meaning. It is apparent that Eric was receptive Grandma's emotional response to the song, telling that she “would put her hand over her heart and close her eyes as she sang along,” (Velasquez). The exposure of music that Velasquez got from his Grandma clearly moved him in a way that inspired him to write and illustrate books in her memory, and in turn giving visibility to his own culture for young people to learn from. His story was one of few that actually focused on Afro-Latino culture and the effect the African Diaspora had on real people.
To complement the text of the book, Velasquez also illustrated images that included people of different skin tones to represent the diversity of the Afro-Latinos. This is a subtle way to show that there is a spectrum of people who come from Puerto Rico and that, although there is a shared culture between the people of the island, that there are still a variety of different backgrounds and mixes of race that make up the population. Although it is argued that “the way Afro-Puerto Ricans have been depicted suggests a strategic marketing technique,” (Acevedo, 24), Velasquez's intentions were to shed light on the heterogeneity of the Afro-Puerto Rican people. It is no doubt that oral tradition played a major role in influencing Velasquez to share his roots with the world and to give young Afro-Latinos a story to identify with.
While Velasquez's interest in his heritage was sparked by a member of his own family, Arthur Schomburg was fueled by a negative, outside influence. Schomburg was a Mulatto; he was born in Puerto Rican from a white German father and a black St. Thomian mother. His quest to research his culture began when a teacher told him that “blacks had no history and no heroes,” (Stevans et al, 371). From that point on, Schomburg set out to prove his teacher wrong by illuminating an entire history that was once in the dark to many people. Also in contrast with Velasquez, Schomburg moved to New York City himself and became a tabaquero, or a cigar maker, and took much pride in what he did. Therefore, he is familiar with the bittersweet struggle of leaving home in search of better opportunities first-hand. Although having been born in Puerto Rico, he eventually became more concerned with exploring his African heritage in his works, namely “The Negro Digs Up His Past” and “Juan Latino.” These two essays are involved in giving recognition to black history and culture, catalyzing the African American studies movement in the 1960's and 70's.
“The Negro Digs Up His Past” is an essay that covers the issues of giving credit to people of color throughout history where they have been previously ignored, stressing that African Americans must do their own digging to learn of their history and shed light on it, and to recognize African American achievements as brilliance in itself and not in comparison to the rest of the race. The common theme here is the importance of speaking up and communicating in order to unveil the history of African Americans as it truly was and to put an end to racial misrepresentation. Schomburg writes about how change can only occur when someone takes it upon themselves to disseminate that change, especially in the case of “the Negro.” He names multiple scholars who do just this: Jupiter Hammon to the State of New York, Phyllis Wheatley to students of Harvard, and John Marrant in a eulogy in Boston. He states, “such things and many others are more than mere items of curiosity: they educate any receptive mind,” (Stevans et al, 373) to conclude that influencing others is as simple as communication and creating a conversation.
In addition to stressing the importance of revealing the truth about African American history and culture, Schomburg writes about how the spread of misinformation can lead to an unjust and incorrect public attitude toward the the role of African Americans in history, as seen in his essay, “Juan Latino.” The blame for this inequality falls upon influential figures and politicians throughout time who fail to give recognition to people of African descent for their accomplishments. For example, Thomas Jefferson claimed “they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely that he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly,” (Stevans et al, 377), which completely undermines the capabilities of African Americans. If ideas like these are being communicated to the American people by their own leader, there is much room for error in judgement of African Americans and their worth in society. It leads the people in the wrong direction, one that welcomes bias and racism. The solution, according to Schomburg, is to find the real truth about what these people have achieved, especially under racial oppression, and to make that truth known. Impressively, Juan Latino, a Spanish poet, has taken such oppression and turned it into “one of the rarest books in the world,” and “one of the most remarkable illustrations of the intellectual faculties and possible accomplishments of the African race,” (Stevans et al, 379). Schomburg praises the recognition that Latino gave to African Americans for all of their feats and achievements.
In order for change to be made, one must first start a conversation. The cultural identity of African Americans and Afro-Latinos throughout history runs the risk of being undermined and not getting the recognition deserved for the role they have played not only in the colonization of America, but its development as a nation. It is authors like Velasquez and Schomburg who stress the significance of spreading the truth to any audience that will listen. It is important to reach all demographics from Afro-Latino children to caucasian adults with a lack of understanding of how important those involved in the African Diaspora have affected history. Whether the inspiration to reach out comes from the love and strong culture in one's own family, or the criticisms of other people, the message remains the same: it is crucial to give visibility to people of African culture to be able to discover the truth about our history so that racism and discrimination can come to and end.
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