Oct. 8, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
A Sunnyside restaurant came under fire for recently posting a now-deleted photo of one of its staff members in blackface, which it maintains is part of a cultural tradition.
Cumbia & Sabor, the Colombian restaurant by 45th Street and Greenpoint Avenue, posted a photo about two weeks ago to its social media accounts depicting a staffer with his face painted black and lips drawn in red, who was posing outside the restaurant with two other staff members.
The post, accompanied by a separate image of the staffer in a different costume, was a type of promo that indicated the staffer, who recently began putting on song and dance shows at the restaurant, would be doing a parody performance at the site the following evening.
The photo was deleted as of last Thursday after staying up for several days, where it received comments from people who took offense to the image and called it racist.
“This is not ok or funny,” wrote one user in a now-deleted Instagram post.
“Black face? Really? This is incredibly offensive,” wrote a Facebook user.
The restaurant, like others, however, said the blackface character was anything but racist, and defended it as a part of Colombian culture. It wrote at the time that the character was a “representation of Colombian folklore,” and part of Colombia’s Blacks and Whites’ Carnival.
The event, celebrated in late December and early January, is on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The carnival includes people donning “black cosmetics” and white talcum to “symbolize equality and integrate all citizens through a celebration of ethnic and cultural difference,” according to UNESCO.
“…Not everybody understands the meaning behind it,” one Facebook user wrote, later adding that in Colombia, “…nobody gets offended because we don’t pull the race card at all.”
Some, however, did not buy the restaurant’s explanation.
“So where are the Afro-Colombian people with their painted faces?” read a response on Facebook. “Or any indication that has anything to [do] with carnival other than a way to justify this as ok?”
But in the new post uploaded after the photo was removed, the restaurant said the staffer, wearing fake breasts and a wig, was in costume as La Negra Tomasa (“the black woman Tomasa”), a well-known blackface archetype in Latin America and Spain that frequently appears in carnivals and other festivities.
The staffer, who was also wearing a Colombian soccer jersey, appeared in this character in anticipation for a Colombian soccer match in September, the restaurant said.
While the image was removed, the restaurant continued to defend its use of blackface, noting that they took the photo down to “avoid further controversy,” among other reasons.
They lamented that the community wasn’t more open minded to learning and understanding others’ traditions.
“We too have the right to express our cultural traditions, even if you believe them to be outdated,” reads Cumbia & Sabor’s post. “It is not up to you to decide which parts of our culture we embrace or not. Ignorance of others’ traditions is not an excuse for attack.”
The restaurant’s note included an apology written in Spanish to the Colombian community that “knows and understands this character.”
“People from other cultures felt it was in their right to attack a representative part of Colombian tradition and culture,” they wrote. “Ignorance is bold.”
Jessenia Burgos, who helps run the family business with her father, told the Sunnyside Post that negative reactions to the image came as a “complete surprise” to her and staffers at the restaurant.
“We were embracing a long-standing tradition from our culture, which is very common and generally accepted, and that was the extent of it in our minds,” Burgos wrote in an e-mail. “While we understand the backlash, its reasoning, and the history behind it, we still can’t help but feel misunderstood by the few who were offended.”
The staffer dressing in that character, she said, was a way to further root for Colombia during the soccer match. Patrons at the restaurant reacted positively, with many asking to take pictures with him, she said.
It was the first time the staffer had appeared in blackface, Burgos said.
Blackface, while taboo in America, is still seen widely throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Danielle Roper, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, whose research focuses on blackface in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Some characters, like La Negra Tomasa, are known across Latin America and Spain, while others are more regional. A part of Ecuador, for instance, holds the festival of La Mama Negra (“black mama”), typically featuring a man as the archetype character in blackface.
“In Latin America, these types of racial caricatures are actually incredibly common,” Roper said.
While the restaurant and many others say that blackface is embedded in culture and not considered racist, it is increasingly becoming a subject of controversy and critique in the region.
Television shows and networks, for instance, have recently dropped blackface characters after mounting resistance from activists groups. “El Negro Mama” and “Soldado Micolta”, both dim-witted, buffoonish caricatures of Afro-descent on popular variety shows in Peru and Colombia, respectively, are two such cases.
Blackface, Roper said, tends to be defended as a playful costume or something done as a joke, much like what the actors portraying the blackface characters have said.
But jokes, Roper says, carry a certain function.
“Jokes are ways in which we confirm and consolidate assumptions that we have about marginalized groups of people,” she said. “These jokes always seem to draw upon common assumptions about blackness—exaggeration of black features, blackness as operating as outside standards of beauty.”
Evoking tradition, she says, is also a common defense for the practice.
“Nationalist posturing is part of the course for how some Latin Americans tend to respond to critiques of blackface,” Roper said. “The fact of it being tradition does not mean that racism is not operative here. In fact, I would say traditions are precisely where understandings of race are ritualized and solidified.”
Ray Charrupi, founder of the Chao Racismo (Goodbye Racism), the Colombian-based organization that was instrumental in taking Soldado Micolta off the air, told the Sunnyside Post that he considers Latin America several decades behind in terms of its understanding of race and blackface, resembling attitudes once prevalent in the states.
He rejected Cumbia & Sabor’s blackface photograph and responses, and said the restaurant was engaging in racism whether it wanted to or not.
“Culture is not an excuse,” he said to the Sunnyside Post. “Blackface is damaging to the dignity of a human being.”
Burgos, while aware of how blackface is seen in the states, still stands behind the staffer’s use of blackface “as a Colombian character and longstanding tradition.”
She said, however, that the restaurant will not be engaging in that representation again.
For Melissa Escuerdo, a 26-year-old Colombian-American and Sunnysider who denounced the restaurant’s use of blackface, the fact that it happened in her neighborhood is especially troubling.
“This community really raised us to be well rounded,” she said. “This is why we immediately felt so angered and frustrated. This doesn’t represent us.”
She hopes the situation could be a learning experience for all.
“The only way that we’re going to grow as a society is if we help open each other’s eyes to true empathy and compassion for everyone.”