Nontraditional Traditions with Leonardo Benzant

Leonardo Benzant knew that his calling in life was to create.

“I always felt that I was different and didn’t fit in… I knew that my path was to become an artist,” said Benzant, who lives in Richmond Hill, Queens with his family.

Born in Brooklyn to Dominican parents, Benzant’s mixed media work centers around ritual and transformation. Over the past few years, he has been exhibiting all over the country. His work includes painting, performance, sculpture, beading, sound, and installation.

As a visual artist, Leonardo digs deep to produce work that has been described as “otherworldly” and “transformative.”

What most people don’t know is that it’s been a long road for him to gain the respect from his family, his Mother in particular, when spirituality is involved. She is a devout Christian and Benzant is an initiate within the Yoruba religion, one of the largest African traditions south of the Sahara Desert.

Benzant has always been attracted to practices connected to his African heritage. Many members of his family have dabbled but he is the most devoted within his immediate family. He was called to the Yoruba religion years ago and chose to trust the direction presented to him.

The traditions and beliefs of the early Yoruba was influenced in part by the prominent objects of nature around them. While in a forest near his home in Queens, Benzant shares the painful memory of being shunned by his family after he announced his decision to practice traditions related to the ancient African religion.

As Benzant success in the art world has grown, his mother has become more accepting of his religious practices.

Towards the end of our meeting, she said while stringing beads for her son’s latest body of work, “it must be working, so we just leave him alone.”

Featured image by Kalalea

Gaby Moreno on Blues and Guatemalan Folk Music

From Guatemalan folk songs to the blues, Gaby Moreno creates music that sounds fresh and new while drawing from the past.

On a vacation trip to New York City as a teenager, Moreno discovered the blues and once back in her home country she sought that sound everywhere she went.

Since then she has been mixing sounds that draw from her Guatemalan roots.

“It comes through mainly I think through my lyrics I have a few songs that I’ve written about my experience as an immigrant coming to the states and leaving everything I knew behind, missing my home country, missing my family and I just feel it in my music and in my lyrics, how I was brought up,” Moreno said.

One song in particular, “El Sombrerón,” talks about a Guatemalan folk story that goes back many generations.

Gaby Moreno stopped by our studio in Harlem to tell us a little more about the somewhat creepy folktale.

Her new album Ilusión comes out September 9.

Featured image by JC Olivera/Getty Images for Latinos de Hoy Awards.

The Age-Old Tradition of Ditch Digging

In northern New Mexico, Hispano subsistence farmers rely on irrigation ditches to water their crops. So once a year, the farmers come together to clean out the ditches so that their crops can get watered. The act of cleaning out the ditches, or acequias, and using them to water crops, is a tradition that is hundreds of years old. It’s a technique used by Native Americans, and was also implemented in Europe and the Middle East.

Cleaning out the acequias is more than just a once-a-year spring cleaning. The tradition reinforces communal bonds and their commitment to treating water as a precious shared resource, rather than as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Featured image by Deborah Martinez

The Geopolitics and History of Kissing in the US and Latin America

Why is it that in Latin America we kiss on the cheek as a greeting, but in the United States, we don’t? It turns out that there isn’t one specific answer and it’s very complicated. But looking at the history of kissing on the mouth can give some helpful context.

Marcel Danesi is a professor of Anthropology and Semiotics at the University of Toronto and the author of the book The History of the Kiss!

He discusses how in the medieval period in Europe, kissing was a common greeting between spouses. At the time, marriage and the involvement between the sexes was viewed as a business transaction, but towards the end of the medieval period, the way courtship was portrayed began to change. There was poetry and ballads, and no longer were women described as objects to be sold, but rather angels to be adored and worshipped. Kissing was central to this new courtship that was not sanctioned by the church.

The taboo nature of kissing is why more puritanical cultures not only looked down on, but often banned kissing. There were a series of laws now known as blue laws that were enacted in colonial New England. One such law was that women could not kiss their children on the sabbath.

So while cheek kissing is not a common greeting in the U.S., in Latin America, it can also be complicated. In some countries, men kiss other men on the cheek and in others, it’s frowned upon. In most countries, you kiss only once, but in some cities you kiss twice.

Featured image by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

The Soundtrack to Jeurys Familia’s Life

Dominican relief pitcher Jeurys Familia threw Mets fans a bit of a curveball this year when he ditched his former (intimidating) walkout song for a hopeful, fun and uplifting track created specifically for him. Written and performed by his childhood hero, Dominican bachata Zacarías Ferreíra, Familia opted for walking out to a song that would remind him of his childhood love of the game rather than one designed to instill fear or bolster ego. And so far, it’s working.

A special thanks to the team at ESPN for this collaboration.

Featured image by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Head Shaving and Ear Piercing, Totally Normal Baby Traditions… For Some

Turns out that some of the “traditional” things my parents did to me when I was little, like shaving my head and piercing my ears, are not as normal to other people as they are to me.

And that’s the thing about traditions: what’s totally fine and expected to some, can be strange to others.

After sharing the stories of my mom shaving my head when I was a year-and-a-half old so that my hair would grow back thicker, and getting my ears pierced at the hospital just hours after I was born, I wanted to hear from other Latino USA staff about their traditions.

Featured image: Fernanda Echávarri at her grandparents’ house in Mexico in early 1987. Courtesy of Fernanda’s mother. 

Pew: 61% of Americans Oppose Building Wall Across Entire Border with Mexico

A new report from Pew Research Center about immigration and immigration policy said that 61% of Americans oppose the construction of a border wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

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Pew also concluded the following:

Differences across demographic and political groups remain stark. While more whites say they are opposed (54%) than say they are in favor (43%) of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, they are far less likely than blacks and Hispanics to oppose the proposed wall. Roughly three-quarters of both blacks (76%) and Hispanics (76%) say they oppose the proposal, while just about one-in-five favor the wall.

When categorized by political ideologies, 63% of Republicans or Republican-leaning individuals favor a new wall, while 14% of Democrats or Democrat-leaning respondents say they support it. The issue of a border wall has still remained a central tenet of Donald Trump’s immigration  platform, even with reports that he is pivoting on other immigration policy points.

The Pew poll also looked at other immigration-related topics, including how the government should address the nation’s undocumented population. Here is what Pew said: “29% of the public prioritizes ‘creating a way for immigrants already here illegally to become citizens if they meet certain requirements,’ while (24%) say the focus should be on ‘better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws.’ However, when given the option, a 45% plurality does say that both should be given equal priority.” In addition, when asked to decided which option should have the bigger priority, 55% of respondents said it was for undocumented individuals to become citizens if they met certain requirements.

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The Pew poll also added that “71% say undocumented immigrants living in the United States mostly fill jobs citizens do not want, while just 24% say they mostly take jobs citizens want. About three-quarters of Americans (76%) say undocumented immigrants are ‘as honest and hard-working’ as U.S. citizens, while 67% say they are no more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes.”

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To read all the findings from the Pew report, click here.

Will Trump’s Sudden Immigration Pivot Earn Him More Support From Latino Voters?

Just 24 hours after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told a Fox News town hall in Texas that he would consider “softening” his initial position on immigration (a position that clearly went more extreme than any of those from the Republican primary candidates he defeated), he was polling Sean Hannity’s audience to see what it thought about whether to deport every undocumented person in this country. The impromptu focus group had some detractors, but the vast majority of participants pretty much agreed with Trump’s new proposal, which if you really think about it, is exactly what candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were promoting during the height of the primary season.

The same Trump who was once mocking Bush for being “weak” on immigration and slamming Rubio for betraying Republicans when he supported a Gang of Eight immigration reform bill, is now literally lifting from the Bush-Rubio playbook and presenting it as some amazing market research revelation. Never mind that Trump also made sure to tell the Hannity crowd that he will still build a bigger wall and share the same unfounded generalizations that most Latinos in this country are criminals: why has the Trump campaign made such a highly-publicized effort to shift his position from that of a “humane” deportation force to one that is more moderate in Republican circles?

The answer is simple: Trump is not winning over Latino voters. Not even close. With less than 80 days until the election, he needs to pivot and pivot quickly, even if it upsets his most fervent “send them all home” supporters.

Latest polling numbers indicate that if the election were held today, Trump would have the lowest Latino support of any presidential candidate since 1980. Right now, Mitt Romney’s 27% Latino vote support from 2012 would be a miracle for Trump. Trump is polling at Bob Dole numbers, and we all know how 1996 turned out for Republicans in their quest for the White House.

How has Trump been doing recently in polls that have sampled Latinos? Here are the latest numbers from the past three weeks:

NBC News/SurveyMonkey: Hillary Clinton 73%, Trump 22% (in May, this same poll had it at Clinton 61%, Trump 31%)

FIU/Adsmovil: Clinton 75%, Trump 13%

Fox News Latino: Clinton 66%, Trump 20%

Is it just coincidence that with Trump’s Latino numbers dropping dramatically after the conventions, not only did his campaign create a Hispanic advisory board, but his immigration views are starting to move away from the extreme alt-right and more to the right? These are not the moves of a campaign that is downplaying the importance of the Latino vote and relying solely of winning a lot white male voters, as some analysts would want to tell you. In addition, people who are following the race should examine whether Trump’s official immigration platform will indeed shift or whether calls for an end of birthright citizenship, for instance, will not change.

Yet the questions still remain: can a Trump candidacy balance a full year of enforcement-heavy rhetoric with a new tone that is more in line with conventional Republican thinking? Will Latino voters buy this change in swing states like Florida and Colorado? Will there be a “self-deportation” moment at a future debate that would end it for Trump, just like it did for Romney?

And more importantly, will Latino voters gloss over Trump’s initial words about Mexican and Latin American immigrants that earned scorn from people across all political stripes, even from members of his current Hispanic advisory board?

As this 2015 open letter from prominent Latino Republicans (including Mario Rodriguez, who is now a Hispanic advisor to Trump’s campaign) stated:

As such, not only have you lost our respect and our buying power, but you have lost our vote. We will never support you, your candidacy or your enterprises. Without the Hispanic vote you will not be the Republican nominee, much less the president of our great nation.

If not Trump then, will more Latino conservatives cozy up to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who is making “inroads” with Latino voters? It is not crazy to think that Johnson could poll better with Latino voters than Trump, as more and more Latino conservatives begin to explore Johnson’s platform.

Will Trump’s Latino numbers creep up to a Romney level (remember, Romney didn’t win in 2012) or will they hover in the Bob Dole range?

Are we seeing a Trump Latino comeback due to his two nights on Hannity or will he eventually earn the label of the politician who garnered the least amount of national Latino support in 36 years?

So far, current numbers would indicate that Trump will never regain trust with Latinos, but this election has been so unpredictable, the notion of a more “compassionate” Trump on immigration might still appeal to those Latinos who would never vote for Clinton.

Will it be enough or is it too late? If you ask Javier Palomarez of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Trump’s latest overtures won’t have any impact.

What do you think? Tweet me your thoughts to @julito77.

Puig: Winning First Gold Medal for Puerto Rico ‘Most Rewarding Moment of My Life’

Olympic gold medalist Mónica Puig said her victory in the tennis competition this month in Brazil was the “most rewarding moment” of her life, admitting that she didn’t realize how much her victory meant to Puerto Rico until she went back home and was greeted by thousands of supporters.

In an essay Puig wrote Thursday in The Players’ Tribune, she reflected on becoming Puerto Rico’s first gold medalist ever:

Winning the gold medal for Puerto Rico — the first Olympic gold in the country’s history — was the most rewarding moment of my life. But I didn’t even begin to realize how meaningful that moment was until I stepped onto the tarmac at the airport in San Juan.

Ten thousand people were there. Waiting for me.

The feeling of happiness that filled me is indescribable. It was the most amazing moment, to see so many of my countrymen. As soon as I got off the plane, I was greeted by the governor of Puerto Rico, Alejandro García Padilla. A tiny press conference took place. The whole time, though, I was watching all the people who were lining the streets, who were getting out of their cars or who were running across the street to greet me and wave.

It was a moment I could live inside forever. There were so many people there to support me. To see that I’m setting a good example, well, it was validation for all the hard work I’ve put in over the past year, and proof that I’m doing things the right way. It was one of those moments that you dream about, and you get so fixated on the fantasy that you get goosebumps just imagining it — believe me, when that I won the gold medal, the same goosebumps came right back.

And this was all before the parade started.

Read more at The Players’ Tribune