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The Adventures Of A White Latino In Africa

I just got back from an eye-opening trip to Tanzania in East Africa. My wife and I went on vacation and while I expected to learn about lions and elephants, I didn’t know that I would also learn about the similarities between their cultures and my own Cuban heritage and the way we are perceived in this country. As you can tell by my picture at the bottom of this page, I am white with a small w. Most of my ancestors come from Europe where they keep the white people. But in the U.S. I’m not big W White. That’s reserved for people of Northern and Central European ancestry. Here I am this other thing, a Latino or Hispanic. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud to be Latino but that’s an ethnic distinction and not a race. The truth is that Latinos come in all colors and backgrounds. But when I was in Africa, those distinctions were not made. When my wife, (who is big W White), and I went to the beach, the local kids gathered around to watch the “Mzungus” bathe in the water. Mzungu means white person. To them I wasn’t a Latino or Hispanic. To them there was no difference between my wife and I. We were just white people.

It reminded me of when my mother first came to the U.S. in 1959. She was filling out a form at immigration and back then there were only three racial designations: black, white, and other. She checked white and was told she was other. They literally othered her. The way we are categorized in the U.S. has always been fraught with subtle bigotry. It was once the same for Italians and Irish people who were considered “not White”. Jewish people only recently were accepted into the fold after World War II. Perhaps one day white Latinos will make the jump to big W white. Though I’m not holding my breath. The truth is I am very happy being a Latino, whatever that means. I have much more in common with my Black and Mestizo Latino brothers than I do with someone whose ancestors come from Sweden.

I also noticed a lot of similarities between the culture in Tanzania and my own Cuban background. It’s not surprising because Cuba is a mix of Spanish and African cultures. But when I was growing up, again as a white Cuban, the African part was downplayed. We were from Spain originally and that was where the bulk of our heritage came from. Latinos, and Cubans in particular, are just as good at categorizing race as the United States is. I kept hearing the Tanzanians saying the word Mambo, which of course is a famous type of Cuban music. It means crazy in Swahili. The food also smacked of Cuban cuisine, spiced rice, yucca, fried meats, etc. What it said to me is that even though I may not have a racial ancestry to Africa, (beyond human origins), culturally this white Cuban owes a lot to Africa.

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