The latest chapter in Mexican pop singer Kalimba's life saddens us for a number of reasons, but the possibility of never hearing his music again is not one of them.
If you haven't heard, while recording his latest album in El Paso, Kalimba was held by the U.S. Border Patrol on suspicion of violating immigration laws last Thursday, and then sent back to Mexico on a government plane to face charges that he raped a 17-year-old girl in a hotel room after his concert in Chetumal, Quintana Roo, this past Dec. 19.
The El Paso Times reports that El Paso attorney Sib Abraham and Houston lawyer Mike DeGuerin represent Kalimba, and that the singer, 28, stopped in Houston to consult with his attorneys before leaving the U.S. Thursday.
According to CNN, hundreds of the singer's fans marched outside the Mexican prison where he is being held to show their support. Some carried signs while others yelled, "Let Kalimba out!" and "He is innocent!"
Rocks Off is not a fan of Kalimba, whose real name is Kalimba Marichal Ibar. If the allegations are indeed true, by all means let justice be served. We're not going to Michael Jackson-pardon or R. Kelly-support and totally disregard those charges just because thousands love his music, or for the simple fact that we share the same heritage.
In fact, last year a San Antonio radio station invited us to his concert, and unlike the hundreds of others who packed the sizable nightclub that night, we didn't even bother to stay to see the performance. We just showed up to socialize and mingle with co-workers.
So why the long face? Because his story rings all too familiar, and could potentially have bigger social than musical implications.
When we read Kalimba's story, we think of one of the greatest Tejano singers of all time, Joe Lopez, now serving a prison sentence for a similar charge. We think of Carlos Coy, aka. South Park Mexican, the underground hip-hop trailblazer on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough in the early 2000s, now serving a 45-year bid for the same type of offense.
We think about other Latino musicians who probably got in their own way. Outside conspiracy or not, the decisions they made (or didn't make) could have allowed them to steer clear of any perceived musical career sabotage by "the man."
We even think of Selena. Though her ending was completely unrelated to the aforementioned, it's just as tragic for one umbrella reason. All of these artists had careers that ended way before their time - a sudden stop at the "what could have been?" train station.
We hope the same doesn't hold true for Kalimba, who probably hasn't reached comparative icon status in the Mexican pop world. But his story is important for another reason: His African heritage.
In a country where the population claiming African heritage is treated as a dirty little secret by some - a native Mexican intern once told us "not in my country!" when asked about these Afro-Mexicans - and mocked by others, Kalimba is perhaps one of the only musicians belonging to this minority who commands a major spotlight.
As such, he is a cultural trailblazer in his own right and an inspiration to his fellow Afro-Mexicans, making his current situation much less inspiring and more deflating for himself and all his supporters. Like Lopez, like SPM, like Selena, everything he has achieved for himself and his people could vanish even faster than it came.
"Black Mexicans are rarely seen in the public light, and the Mexican census does not identify people by racial group -- only by their Spanish or indigenous language," wrote Ioan Grillo in a recent article for the Global Post about the cultural dynamics of Kalmiba's case.
"But activists say there are some [one] million Mexicans with African blood."
Despite all of that, one Mexican newspaper's handling of this story threatens its own credibility, at least in the eyes of American pundits and bloggers - and, perhaps now, its readers.
As a Mexican-American, we have lots of reasons to be disappointed in the country where our family came from some three generations ago, but the media has never been one of them. In our eyes, at least, the Mexican media has always been admirable, willing to make tremendous sacrifices to build what you might think is impenetrable journalistic integrity.
Mexican journalists have written about the country's greatest national crisis, drug violence, with the bravery of soldiers charging into battle with a sure chance of danger and death to themselves and maybe even their families. Many of them have paid the price with their lives, and yet this courageous fraternity continues to do its job.
Rocks Off knew one Mexican journalist who commuted between Mexico and Washington, D.C. who was stabbed almost 20 times in the neck and chest for doing what American journalists do every day with no fear of reprisal - call out the system.
Yet it only takes one outlet - La Prensa, to be exact - which, in New York Daily News fashion, chose to use the Mexican cliché, "Se Las Ve Negras" - using the word "negra" to imply it will be a dark period in Kalimba's life - as a double entendre to capture Kalimba's recent plight and in doing so change, however unfairly, how Americans regard the Mexican media. For now, at least.
Ironically, the same goes for Mexican and Mexican-American artists. The legal troubles of SPM, Lopez and now Kalimba that refresh themselves in the news cycle every few years can reinforce stereotypes and create new ones that taint an entire community. And we now learn that if they happen to be black and from Mexico, guilty or not, that too will be used to throw salt on the wound.
Rocks Off went to one of the most brilliant men we know to sum up this whole thing: CNN.com contributor Rudy Ruiz, who comes from Brownsville, one of the poorest areas of the U.S. along the Texas-Mexico border. Ruiz left Brownsville to nab a couple degrees out of a little university called Harvard, and built a multimillion-dollar company that solely focuses on socially conscientious multicultural marketing, meaning they won't help sell soda to Latinos.
Ruiz understands the cultural nuances of Mexico and the U.S. better than anyone we know.
"It's sad to see yet another ugly side of Mexico," he tells Rocks Off. "One wonders when an uplifting story will emerge from this great country again. Racism is deeply embedded in Mexican culture but it tends to be kept quiet, long tied to class stratification and more evident in the social class differences between white Mexicans of European origin, the vast masses of mixed heritage and typically brown skin, and the Indians.
"The African Mexican population is so small that racism towards this group rarely makes the news, but this incident and the subsequent media reaction shows that racism against people of African heritage is very much alive, and that Mexico's mainstream media is yet to develop a sophisticated and fair approach to covering news stories where race is at play."
Check out the blog Guanabee, which provides spicy coverage on Latino issues for continuing coverage of this story.
Email Rolando Rodriguez at rolandorodriguezjr22 (at) gmail (dot) com.
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