Javier Wallace is such a Caribbean name ––the mix of Spanish and English is an allusion to the history of colonization of the region. To be specific, Javier Wallace is a Panamanian name. One that belongs to a Black American, who is also at once Panamanian and Caribbean.
I initially met Javier Wallace in 2014, when he was visiting from Panama during La Feria de Cali. He and his friend Terry were in Cali to enjoy the December festivities the city is famous for. Over the years I’ve watched at a distance as their friendship expanded to include a business (Blackpackas), and a transition back to school for a PhD program and law school respectively.
When Javier returned to Cali last August for the annual Petronio Alvarez festival, we chatted about entrepreneurship and Blackness in Latin America.
Your dad’s from Colon, right?
My dad is from Colon. Rainbow city, Arco Iris.
I’m still trying to get there but I was told I shouldn’t go unless I knew people there.
Yeah, they say that all the time.
But it was someone I rated who told me that, so that made me think I should actually listen. Usually I take that warning with a grain of salt.
Colon is… You usually have a reason to go. Seriously, I remember learning about Buenaventura when I came here. I was volunteering in a hostel and they had an aerial shot of Buenaventura. I thought it was Colon because Colon is just like that. It shoots out into the water and it’s connected to the mainland by a little strip. And what you think of Buenaventura is what you think of Colon. It’s super Black, a huge port, historic poverty, criminalization of the area. It has a great past ––one of the richest ports in the country, in the region. But years of neglect, years of racist policies… And now it’s really messed up.
What’s up with the Blackpackas stuff you were doing?
Me and my homeboy Terry started Blackpackas. In Panama we met on the road through Facebook, and it so happens that we actually come from the same part of Texas. Both from that small part of Texas, and somehow we came together in Panama. Two young Black men with very distinct experiences in Latin America, we felt like we wanted to share that with people and give different tips about how to travel. Like what we went through as a Black men, and people of color. Thinking about it, it’s different.
This homeboy from Rhode Island, Nigel, branded this thing called “complexion protection.” It speaks to how in Latin America in particular, because of our complexion, we get some protection because people can’t really tell who you are, or where you’re from unless you really start talking and identify yourself in that way. So you get to go into different areas without calling too much attention, and you get the Black head nod wherever you go. So it’s great, but there’s always that flipside to it too, especially in these types of countries where there is an Afro presence. The same type of stereotypes, the same type of criminalization. You probably won’t get taxis on the street. I’ve been patted down I-don’t-know-how-many times, asked for a cedula [I.D.] many times, pulled off buses many times. Unfortunately it comes with being a Black person in these areas.
Typically Terry does bags. We do travel bags and we got some pretty good hits on the bags. We’ve gotten a few NFL players to vibe with us, they like them for the locker room. We do custom made patches, we do group trips…
Where are some of the places you’ve taken groups?
I do more travel with groups through AfroLatino Travel, but BlackPackas, we did a Panama group trip. Thinking about Jamaica.
Tell me about your work with AfroLatino travel.
AfroLatino Travel is another company, a travel collective. I work with a partner named Dash Harris. Both her parents are Panamanian, she was born and raised in New York and lived in Panama for a few years.
I was living in Panama, and I had people who used to come and say, they wanted to go certain places, and I would say cool I’ll take you. And they started saying, Javier can tell you about the history of that blade of grass. I would tell people different things that I knew, that I had learned through talking to people and different communities. Somebody told me, you should put a price tag on it. So I threw a price tag on it, and offered it out to the world.
We do Afro-centered tours in Panama and Cuba as well. Dash does more of the Cuban tours. A lot of Black Americans come through us when they go to Panama or Cuba. That has been amazing. We really try to disrupt narratives and that circle of money that’s in tourism, making sure that we put some into the hands of different community members that we work with, those who aren’t registered in the tourist registry of the country but have so much to offer: who they are as people, what their culture is.
And with AfroLatino travel we also donate Black and Brown dolls and books for Black and Brown kids. Usually we ask our clients if they could bring a doll that’s a Black doll or a Brown doll, or a book that has Black or Brown characters in them so we can get them to different kids, communities and school. I don’t know how it is in Colombia, but in Panama, a super Brown and Black country, go to any toy store and the only doll that you’ll find of color is Doc McStuffins. And you know she’s there because she’s on Nickelodeon.
Dash set up the Black Doll Expo in Havana, Cuba. This is the second year we’ve done it. She works with Cuban hip hop group Obsesion. At one of the public libraries in Havana, through the dolls that we collect, they do an expo to create awareness. We did a workshop with a woman from the States who creates paper dolls —it’s a whole thing of self-worth with kids. In Panama when I get the dolls and the books, I go to some communities and give out the books, make community connections. So yeah, we come into Latin America and we go to the Black part.
And generally what has been the reaction of African-Americans when they go to Latin America and see people who look like them speaking Spanish? Because I feel like a lot of people don’t make that connection. They don’t think of Latin America as having Black people, just like the United States has Black people, just like Jamaica has Black people…
I get mostly women, and I think the reaction that I get from most African-American women, that answers your question is, “girl, that look like my aunty!” [laughter]
Like, she look like my aunty but I would have never known. Where they been? Why am I just thinking about this? Why haven’t I seen this image before? Panama does it to them, but Cuba blows people away. Because in the States, our idea of Cuba is Miami. And Miami is White Cubans so you don’t think about Afro anything in Cuba. But when you get off the plane in Havana, you want to check your boarding pass make sure you got on the right plane.
Where’s your favourite place to take people?
Panama hands down. I’ll do Cuba because I can, but Panama [taps chest]. I would love to bring people to Colombia. It’s like when I heard the Currulao, but more with the women started singing… My mom is from Austin, I grew up in a Black Baptist church. Not no big mega church, no praise dance team. You have the deacon in his robe, cowboy boots stomping on that ground screaming to the Lord. So I felt it in here [taps chest]. When I heard that currulao, I thought, this is where I’m from. So I would love to bring people here because there are not too many places where I feel like that.
Any advice for people interested in doing similar work?
You got to do it yourself. That’s what we did. I wasn’t going to pay one cent for any type of business license or anything not knowing if this was going to work. Airbnb and all these ride shares, that’s the market right now. So if you have an idea, you offer it, and somebody might buy. And if it goes well, cool, then you can legalize the business. But as you’re trying to build the team, who better than you? You got the information.
To be honest with you, the team’s the hardest part. Because the question is, how do you replicate yourself to the point where you can offer the same service to somebody else? I’m back in Texas now and I get a lot of inquiries. I have people who want to go to Panama and I lose business because they’re like, “We heard about you and we want to go to Panama with you.” But I can’t go all the time. I say that to say, you are your best product. You get your team when you need it.