Part 2 of My interview with Minnesota Hip Hop artist Brother Ali: On Race and White Entitlement

June 24, 2012 § Leave a comment


Part 1 of My interview with Minnesota Hip Hop artist Brother Ali: On Race and White Entitlement

June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Romneyland: My Lazy Sunday afternoon in Ohio

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ups and Downs

April 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Up and down…down and up…these are the two directions in Port au Prince.

It is an unforgiving place, this mountain of a town, one that plays out its history, its politics, and its complexity in this most raw of daily commutes.

The first descent starts before dawn, around 4 am.

It has to,

otherwise you won’t make it to market by 6 am, and you won’t get a prime spot to sell your mangoes, grapefruits, cell phone chargers, and t-shirts.

Step by step, hopeful sandals and dusty, dress shoes, the same used for weddings, baptisms, graduations, and every other occasion make their way down hill.

The shredded concrete of the long past its prime road meets local legs. This daily battle ultimately wears down both the path, and the feet.

Up and Down

Around 7 am the second commute begins, slowly pressing uphill. The gardeners, security guards, cooks, and nannies are heading up to the mansions that keep Port au Prince’s socio economic structure in place.

100 Gourdes (Haitian monetary unit) for their thoughts. Many would probably take that deal…times are tough in post earthquake Haiti. But they were tough before too.

Standing on the top of a cinderblock roof, just off the road, serenaded by roosters and feral dogs, the view is of dominoes disguised as houses, waiting for the next shift in the weather or the ground to start sliding down.

Carefully they ascend, one step, two step…

They shift from the road to a small sliver of dirt or grass, as their employers speed down with ease and abandon, smashing the road into pieces with Land Rovers and Toyota pickups.

Businessmen, politicians, foreign ambassadors, UN coordinators, and other elite are shielded from the emerging sun and growing heat by tinted windows, air conditioning, and designer sunglasses.

Some slow down and let locals hop in the back.

Mostly they check their Blackberries as they are escorted down hill by their drivers and bodyguards.

These beastly vehicles blast the economic pilgrims walking up the hill with a cloud of exhaust, a kind of dark, toxic ‘bonjour’ to bring in the day.

The smell of burning garbage and brush also covers what centuries ago must have been a crisp morning air.

Young schoolboys in pink dress shirts and grey shorts race downhill, followed closely by older sisters in blue blouses and grey skirts. Their book bags slap against their backs as they skip over potholes.

The children slide


slipping by women heading


carefully balancing baskets on their heads full of bread, mangoes, and bananas.

As locals head up Port au Prince’s winding spine, they hit Montagne Noir, the stretch of road known as the dark mountain.

A neighborhood that now hosts one of Haiti’s darkest heirs, the recently returned “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

Instead of prison, he’s freely allowed to gaze down on the mess he and his father wrought, during decades of dictatorial mayhem, human rights abuses, and self-enrichment.

And while impunity may reign on the dark mountain, the people still move, as they always have, up and down, down and up.

Like blood they flow through the veins of Haiti, keeping traditions, good and bad, alive, and giving this island a chance to keep breathing, and to keep changing, one step at a time.


March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote this five years ago—about a friend, German. He was deported last night, back to Colombia. He’s been in New York 11 years, working hard, waiting to find out about his citizenship case. He found out recently that immigration authorities rejected his petition, and so he agreed to leave. He left last night—more to come, but wanted to put this out. He’s somebody worth knowing. And while his time here in the US was quiet, it was memorable.

Gracias German. Suerte en Colombia.

Dated October, 2007

This snapshot is about my friend Carlos and his uncle German, or Germanies as he likes to call him.  Carlos is big on nicknames.  I sat in on a lunch with him once and he kept referring to somebody named Peacock.  I didn’t find out until after the meal that he was talking about his sister.

Carlos and German are both immigrants and they are also two very thoughtful people living, dreaming, thinking and contributing in America.

Carlos grew up in Caracas, Venezuela and then moved to the East Village with his family when he was still in grade school.  He is the product of an African American father and a Colombian mother. Dad picked mom up on a street corner in Bogota or so the story goes…

As a young kid Carlos and family lived amongst his mother Mimi’s other relatives in Caracas. Carlos’s father was diagnosed with cancer when he was still young and in an effort to take care of the family he moved them to New York City, dying shortly thereafter.

Single with three young children Carlos’s mom started to eek out a living, first cleaning apartments, then working at McDonald’s, and eventually in school cafeterias.

Carlos recounted the McDonald’s years as we walked up 1st Ave. near his mom’s apartment one day.  It was a McDonald’s that delivered food and because his mom worked there, he could just ring up and say, “this is Mimi’s kid, Carlos, I want a double cheeseburger and fries,” and it would get sent right to his apartment. One memorable summer soft serve icecream was 29 cents. Carlos remembers getting half way home and realizing his ice cream cone was already gone, so he’d go back and get another one. This continued two or three times. Carlos admits he got fat.
When Carlos’s dad died, his mom had the chance to petition for her brother come from Colombia to help the family out.

Tio German Marino came to visit New York City a bunch of times over the years and moved permanently in 2001 to live withCarlos and his family in the East Village(a period he refers to as 6 LONG years(años largos)).

German is a small, amigo sized man with a quick smile.  When he and Carlos stand next to each other German looks like he could easily fit in the palm of his nephew’s hand.

German wears tshirts and khakis.  One of his more frequent shirts is the classic I heart NY shirt, which he seems to wear with great pride.  His english is menos que mas, so we speak mostly in Spanish.  I get him going about Colombia’s political situation and the now more than 40 years of civil unrest there. He speaks with the eloquence of a sociologist about how none of the sides had the interest of the people in mind. Not the guerillas, nor the paramilitaries, nor the government. His passion and equal frustration show as his frases end with desperate Porque’s? and Cuando’s?  Not surprisingly German has a degree in sociology and also studied political science and social work. Like a recent graduate finding his way in the real world, he refers to his college years longingly, ” one of the most beautiful times in my life.”  German says he still dreams about his home country.  “I miss the mountains, rivers, lakes, beaches, and the beautiful Colombian women.”

As he looks out from the 20th floor veranda of Mimi’s apartment at the awe inspiring Manhattan skyline, German muses about his new home.  He says he had a “revolutionary” period in his life, and that when he came to the US he had a relapse of this “mental disease” and felt animosity towards what he calls ”yankee imperialism.”  He’s better now though he says.  No more yankee hating.

German says he can now see New York for the amazing place it is, a place where people from all classes and cultures can come together and work, and make money, and take vacations when they want to.  He says in Colombia these kinds of opportunities are only for the wealthiest classes, and that for the working class a vacation is imposible.  German says there are things he doesn’t like about the US as well.  He says he hates to see the freedoms that define American culture and society be challenged.  German blames those in power for “arrogance, a superiority complex and racism.”  He says this frustrates him because they are things he thought he left behind in Colombia.

Still, he says he thinks that 80 percent of people in the US are good people and have a strong faith in God, “ante Quien toda la humanidad somos hermanos sin distingo de color, de lugar o de situacion económica.”

In New York German does service jobs.  He worked on the cleanup of Ground Zero for a while and now he has three part time maintenance jobs at different buildings. German says he makes half of what he used to make when he was a “slave” to restaurants, working 72 hours a week, Monday to Saturday, 7 to 7 every day. Now German works a lot less, and makes around 15 bucks an hour, but he is happier and has time to take English classes.  German says thanks to Mimi this better life is possible.  If it wasn’t for the generosity and free rent Mimi gives him he would also not be able to send money back to his family in Colombia.

German Marino’s world is small and simple. His physical footprint could be wiped out in a heartbeat. He sleeps on the floor of Carlos’s childhood bedroom laying down a small mattress every night. The mattress is placed up against the wall again during the day so people can pass through the room. Aside from a change of clothes, which he washes and dries in Carlos’s bathtub, he has next to no possessions. Carlos gave him a laptop which he uses to read Colombian newspapers. At night he sits silently at the desk in Carlos’s room and writes, sometimes free hand, sometimes on his computer.  I asked him if it was a novel.  Taking my joke seriously he replied, “no,” “es otra cosa…”  He then smiled and turned back to his thoughts.

German says in any interview people arrive at a question they prefer not to answer, for him, it is age.  He says he still feels very young and when people asks how old he is, he tells them…

“When I turned 17 years old I decided that I would never add another year, so I am 17 now and I will be 17 on the day that I die.”  Here’s to being 17 again, or if you are wise like German, staying 17.


February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”


The Sunset Over Key West

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the very tip of Key West, Florida there’s a monument proclaiming the “Southernmost point,” in the continental United States. That spot is approximately 90 miles from Cuba, and if you squint, it almost feels like you can see the geographically close, but ideologically remote island.

Everybody from Chinese tourists to Hell’s Angels wait in line to get a photo next to the “Southernmost” monument with the horizon and ocean blending together into one seamless blue landscape. What’s often missed is a smaller plaque nearby, commemorating all of the Cubans who have made the trip to Florida, by boat, raft, and anything else that can float, since Fidel Castro took control of the island in the 50s.

There’s no similar plaque on the Cuban side of the sunset, of Americans who headed south 90 miles looking for something a little different. And while I’m not suggesting the economic downturn in the US will prompt laid off factory workers to brave shark-infested waters. I do think it’s time to study our Cuban neighbors and learn something.

A few weeks ago a group of 26 people arrived in the Florida Keys via boat. A fairly unremarkable sight considering more than a million people, many of them arriving via cruise ships, disembark in the Keys every year. But in this case the mode of transportation was a speedboat, and the human cargo, trafficked Cuban refugees.

According to Coast Guard statistics, the number of Cubans setting sail for Florida is up from past years. In the past four months 316 Cubans have been intercepted in the Florida Straits, and returned home. The US Government’s policy known as “wet foot-dry foot,” simplifies things to, if you make it to dry land, you are fast tracked to stay, and if your feet are still wet at sea when you are discovered, you go back to Cuba.

Growing economic uncertainty, and the continued strain of lifetimes spent under a communist regime certainly get at the root of the continued Cuban exodus. An additional 5,000 Cubans are said to have crossed into the US via the Mexican border last year.

But looking out towards Cuba from Key West, it’s a bit of a wonder what Cubans must think before they set out for this life changing adventure, and their reaction when they arrive dry footed at their desired destination.

I’ve been on both sides of that view in the past year. First in Cuba, looking back from Havana’s historic and majestic sea wall, north towards Florida. I remember sunsets off of the Vedado neighborhood. A few families gathering to listen to some local musicians play a song and maybe even dance a little. Mist from the aquamarine sea spraying up and cooling everyone just a little as they sip beers. I feel a sense of calm just thinking about a long Havana stroll.

A few weeks ago I landed on the other end of the telescope, looking back at Havana from the colorful, crowded tip of the Keys. The serenity I felt a year ago was obliterated by a complicated mix of tanned pleasure seekers riding around in ramped up golf carts looking to consume “southernmost” tattoos, beers, and offensive t-shirts. For somebody coming from a country void of capitalistic beacons like McDonald’s golden arches, the Florida Keys must stir some new emotions. Kind of like trading your sip of rum at the unadorned corner stand in Havana for a world that looks like it was organized and decorated by Hooters.

These recently arrived 26 Cuban migrants are very different than the original dry footers, who were fresh from watching their businesses and haciendas expropriated by Fidel Castro. The newer migrant crowd has largely not known wealth, only socialism. But they are aware of the world outside, from a mixture of relatives who escaped and from pirated National Geographic channel DVDs. And they aren’t so sure about Florida, even though 60 % of the Cubans in the US live there.

One rental car employee, who noticed my Cuban baseball hat (purchased at a game in Havana last year), was overjoyed to talk about his home country. He misses it he says, especially the camaraderie and sense of community. He told me he’s dying to get out of the US and head to Spain. “I’ve lived here in Miami for a few years and I’ve never met my next door neighbor.”

I guess, having had the view from both sides of the Florida Straights, I’m left wondering, what if 26 US citizens washed up on the shore of Havana, and were absorbed into Cuban society. What would they feel like in a world void of fast food chains and box stores? Would they stay? Would they choose the unobstructed, low-key view of the sunset from the Havana malecón? Or would they miss the light beer sponsored sunset circus on the Key West pier. I know it’s not that simple, and like many Westerners, it’s easy for me to idealize a very complicated island after a visit.

But while talk in the US continues to revolve around economic downturns, and struggling American families, it might help to look south 90 miles to put things in perspective. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to consume a little less, and have a little less money to focus on. While Cubans continue to suffer greatly in many ways under a dictatorial government, they also have learned a few things that we might embrace. Like knowing and relying on your neighbor, and enjoying the unencumbered version of the sunset, the one where that last brilliant light of day isn’t overshadowed by a billboard.

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