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Here to HavanaOne of Ben Caldwell's young artists embarks on a cultural exchange trip. (Photo courtesy of Caldwell)

Here to Havana

Ben Caldwell, a filmmaker and founder of a community arts organization, wants to change attitudes about language and race.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

For some reason, in this country, people feel that if you're black-skinned that you don't speak Spanish.

A filmmaker still known for his student work at UCLA and a mentor to some 150 artists around Leimert Park in South Central Los Angeles, Ben Caldwell says he wants to "internationalize" the young people he works with. Between 1999 and 2004, he took five delegations of "hip hop heads" to record music with peers in Havana, Cuba, and filmed the interactions. More recently, he's screened excerpts from "LA to Habana Hip Hop" (co-produced by Tod Darling) for students at Crenshaw and Dorsey High Schools. Both campuses are majority African American with large Latino representation and few white students.

"Is that the only language they speak?" students at the South Central high schools asked about black Cubans in the movie, as Caldwell recalls it. At a Feb 9, 2007 talk at UCLA, he said, "For some reason, in this country, people feel that if you're black-skinned that you don't speak Spanish," no matter the number of exceptions to this faulty rule. Caldwell says he has encountered the same misconception around the country and regardless of students' race.

He brought the film to the high schools in part to defuse tensions, well known to him and widely reported in the L.A. media, between Latino and African American students. Having grown up black in New Mexico and been formed as an artist in the early 1970s in the (newly) multiethnic envirnoment of UCLA's film program, he is used to crossing boundaries.

When he brought audio back from Cuba, he couldn't find a translator for it. His first choice passed the recording back to him in defeat. "In the end the only people I could get to translate it were hip-hoppers who had lived in Cuba," he said at the event.

According to the artists, translation was not needed. In the film L.A. rapper Medusa says that a Cuban peer "passed the language barrier. I felt his hip hop through his attitude and the way he approached the mike." She never guessed Cubans' "more percussive," "more ancient African" hip hop could sound almost like it came from "up off of Sixth Ave., or up off of Wilton."

LA Language World