The Caribbean(s) Redefined (1997)
Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power.
The Caribbean, as a social space, has become a palimpsest of multiple writings and rewritings over the last five centuries. After Christopher Columbus’ founding text, which, for the first time, mapped out the territory for the Europeans, a series of chroniclers’ rewritings followed. They were the documents written by Las Casas, Oviedo and Pané, to name just a few. Each one of these rewritings apparently cancelled out the previous ones, although never completely since spiritual traces were always left which, by juxtaposing themselves, established what in Freudian terms is called the archi-writing, that is, those texts that are “hidden” or partially obscured but never totally erased.
The chroniclers’ multiple rewritings have been recovered by successive historiographical, essentialist, sociological, ethnocentric, resistant or reductionist new writings. Each one of these texts does violence to the previous one, but none of them cancels each other out. Just as in Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” the traces of the old writings change their meaning when they are read against the juxtaposition of other rewritings.
This issue of Latin American Issues has as its main goal the textual redefinition of the Caribbean(s) from a multiplicity of perspectives that bespeak the cultural diversity of this multifaceted social space. In his essay, Erik Camayd-Freixas analyzes the upsurge of the urban cult to the goddess Mita in Puerto Rico. Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín proposes in her essay a redefinition of Caribbean identities from the viewpoint of the region’s new female voices. From a philosophical angle, Holger Henke sets out to explore the possibilities of an ontology of Caribbean existence. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar’s work studies the multiracial identities in Trinidad and Guyana. Jaume Martí-Olivella articulates the historical and narratological subject of the post-colonial tourist in the Caribbean. Through the analysis of “merengue,” the most popular music in the Dominican Republic, Gus Puleo studies the conflicts surrounding identity and national politics in that Caribbean country. Finally, Fernando Valerio-Holguín analyzes the problematics of the Caribbean diaspora to the United States as they are represented in a story by Ana Lydia Vega. Each one of the essays included in this issue contributes a new, highly particularized, rewriting to the palimpsest of the Caribbean cultures.
Camayd-Freixas, E. The Cult of the Goddess Mita on the Eve of a New Millennium: A Socio-Anthropological Look at a Caribbean Urban Religion. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(1).
THE CULT OF THE GODDESS MITA
ON THE EVE OF A NEW MILLENNIUM:
A SOCIO-ANTHROPOLOGICAL LOOK
AT A CARIBBEAN URBAN RELIGION
Florida International University
“They say Mita is immortal, they call her goddess, and on Fridays those poor ignorant folks sign over their paychecks to her, to get back only what they need.” That was the word on one side of the invisible boundary between the two San Juan neighborhoods where I grew up in the late 60’s. Floral Park was then an affluent middle class subdivision which had been upper middle class over twenty years earlier, when the grand Catholic church building of the Holy Spirit was established in its midst. On the margin, one street over from my house, began the poor neighborhood of Cantera (Quarry), itself on the outskirts of Barrio Obrero(Workers’ Town). Three blocks in was the Temple of Mita, an old and humble two-storey house converted for worship and always freshly painted. Most of the little houses on the way bore the word “MITA” in small block letters over the front door, their dwellers always wearing white from their hat to their shoes.
It came to pass that the immortal Mita died in 1970 after a long illness. She had become so prominent that the island’s Senate suspended its sessions for three days in her honor (Javariz and Krüger). She was buried with great pomp and ceremony after she failed to rise on the third day as some had expected (Reguero and Rojas). The Catholic side rubbed it in with a triumphant “You see!”, writing off her cult as dead as well. Six years later, I, like other Floral Park kids, was bound for a U.S. college. My family, like others, moved to the newer suburbs of San Juan. When I recently returned to my old school and neighborhood twenty years later, Floral Park had aged indeed. The church of the Holy Spirit was still there, somehow less grand than it once seemed. On the way to Barrio Obrero, the little houses, as humble and neatly kept as ever, now read “MITA en AARÓN” over their doors. The small temple, though still standing, showed little activity. But down the street, in stark contrast with its surroundings, rose an ultra-modern, multi-storey, marble and glass building, bearing large M’s in golden calligraphy over its many doors. It was the new temple of a “Congregation” which now has chapters in major U.S. cities, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic; it also owns furniture and cinder block factories, cattle ranches, farms, stores, supermarkets, credit unions, and a lot of real estate. From its own cable TV program, the prophet Aarón, Mita’s heir, preaches fire twice a week into the hearts of thousands. Since financial independence, they no longer accept donations during services (an issue they proudly point out to the Catholic side), but instead give housing and jobs, and pay dividends to their members, as collective owners of their profitable business ventures.
Behind this success story, is the fascinating personal history of Mita herself, and a simple but compelling theology. Born Juanita García Peraza in 1897, “Mita” was raised a Catholic in a small town. Facing impending death from incurable ulcers, the 8-year-old was visited by a saintly old woman who nurtured her back to health through prayer, and ushered her into the charismatic Pentecostal church. Later, a wife and a mother of four, Juanita was visited by the Holy Spirit, who announced to her that her body was needed to carry out God’s work on earth. She accepted and was given the choice of persecution or illness as a life trial. She chose the latter. Shortly after, she was looking out of her bedroom window at a clear starry night, asking why she had been chosen, when a shooting star moving in the distance suddenly approached her and landed on her forehead, filling the room with light (Cruz). She had become the living incarnation of the Holy Spirit, who at that moment revealed to her the name of God in this new era: “MITA” or “Spirit of Life.” For it had been prophesied in Revelation 2.17 that “He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches: To him who overcomes, I will give… a white stone, and on the stone a new name written, which no man knows except he who receives it.”1 Thereafter, she began to “speak in tongues” and perform healings.
As she became more outspoken, problems arose with the Pentecostal leaders. One day, in a rapture, the Holy Spirit, acting through her, anointed a young boy as the First Prophet of God in the new era. Teófilo Vargas Seín, renamed “Aarón,” was to become thirty years later Mita’s heir and is still today, at age 75, the spiritual and material leader of the congregation. But back then, a woman taking on the authority to anoint and passing judgment upon the patriarchal elders brought her a trial for blasphemy in front of the whole Pentecostal assembly, whereupon the Holy Spirit began to speak through her and led her out of that church with eleven followers (herself being the twelfth apostle), to found in 1940 a small congregation initially named “The Free Church.” A subsequent series of visions signaled the spot, in the middle of metropolitan San Juan, for the “Temple of Mita” that was to become, in 1949, the seat of the growing cult (the near-by Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit being only a coincidence).
A unique theology would set the Mita apart from Christian sects, as a new religious movement.2 Following an ancient church dogma regarding the Trinity, Mita theology divides universal history in three eras: that of Jehovah, God the Father, acting through His prophets; that of Christ, God the Son, acting through Jesus of Nazareth; and that of the Holy Spirit, God the Mother, whose newly revealed name is “Mita,” acting through the person of Mita (Juanita García) and, lately, through her prophet Aarón. As “Christ” was the revealed name of God acting through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the faithful distinguish between “Mita” (God, Spirit of Life) and the “person of Mita” (the woman born in 1897, deceased in 1970). Indeed, after the person of Mita died, the faithful were stricken by fears that the congregation might fragment or dissolve. Then Aarón, anointed 30 years earlier, became infused with the Holy Spirit and spoke thus after their return from the funeral: “It is I, Mita. I have not forsaken you.” Mita is said to live in Aarón much like Jehovah lived in his prophets and Christ in Jesus. Hence, the mystery ciphered in the phrase “Mita en Aarón” which marks the doors of the chosen.
Thus, while Jehovah created the world in an act of love, and Christ’s redemption brought freedom from sin, the work of Mita, the Holy Spirit on earth, is to gather the herd, the dispersed children of God. Hence, the three pillars of the Mita religion: Love, Freedom, and Unity. “The Mita” (as they call themselves) do recognize the divinity and teachings of Christ, for they hold that Christ, the God of Abraham, and Mita are all the same person, “Mita” being only the last revealed name for the ultimate dispensation in God’s universal plan. Much like Christ superseded Jehovah, the Mita, nonetheless, see the teachings of Christ as pertaining to a bygone era of human history. They constitute, so to speak, a “post-Christian” religion. Purportedly, a new era has begun –by coincidence or not– on the eve of a new millennium.
This positively hopeful idea of a new beginning distinguishes the Mita from the many charismatic sects which share the apocalyptic view that the end is near, that these are times of reckoning with the impending second coming of Christ and Judgment Day. For Mita’s followers, the work of the Holy Spirit on earth has just begun. Yet, this is different from the Adventist belief in the Millennium of righteousness promised in Revelation, which some believe will precede, and others that it will follow, the second coming of Christ (Miller). For the Mita, the second coming has already occurred, precisely, in Mita herself. They claim that traditional Christians have misread the Scriptures, that Christ did say he would return, but not in the same form, not in the person of Jesus. They quote John 14-16, where Jesus says: “And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Comforter to be with you forever” (14.16); “But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom my Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of everything which I tell you” (14.26); “It is better for you that I should go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I should go, I will send him to you (16.7); “I have many other things to tell you, but you cannot grasp them now. But when the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak from himself, but what he hears he will speak; and he will make known to you all that is to come” (16.12,13). The Mita find evidence that God would in fact return in the form of a woman, in verses such as Revelation 12.1,2: “And a great sign was seen in heaven, a woman clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars; and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” That woman is interpreted as the person of Mita, in her role as God the Mother.
The Virgin Mary, who enjoys a preeminent role as an advocate in the Catholic tradition, plays no part among the Mita, who consider her an instrument of God whose role was fulfilled in the times of Christ. They pray to Mita herself, with no advocates or mediation. When they heard Mita speak, as when they hear Aarón today, the faithful hear the Holy Spirit directly, not just an interpreter of the Scriptures who urges them to believe in deeds that happened over two millennia ago. This sense of immediacy, of the sheer presence of God today before them, is difficult to overestimate as a most powerful allure of the Mita cult. The thousands who knew her feel as spiritually fulfilled as if they had shaken hands with the Virgin or with Jesus himself, both of whom have in a sense been replaced with the presence of Mita, in the spiritual imaginary of the people. The same sense of immediacy is reflected in every aspect of their cult. Their temples bear no images, no saints, no cross, except the photographs of Mita and Aarón. They practice no symbolic rituals or sacraments. Baptism has been long discontinued, since they believe that the faithful are baptized by hearing the living word, which is also their Communion. Even marriage is seen as a civil institution left to a justice of the peace, after which the newly-weds come to Aarón for a blessing.3 Large numbers of believers have come to Mita through an immediate personal vision or revelation they call “life experiences,” or through miraculous healings from AIDS, leukemia, and other infirmities. Of their three weekly services offered from 7:00 to 9:30 pm, Tuesdays are devoted to the youth, Thursdays to testimonials of such “life experiences” brought forth by dozens from the audience, while on Saturdays Aarón speaks prophecy and performs acts of healing. The age of miracle and wonder continues today as in Biblical times, for the Mita live and interpret their daily lives, as well as world events, in constant parallels to the ancient deeds and prophecies of the Scriptures.
“Social scientists, following assumptions rooted in Marx and Durkheim, tend to study religion solely in terms of its fulfilling a certain social function. In so doing, they neglect its popular and informal expressions outside the mainstream” (Peterson 237). While I will consider the congregation’s socio-economic structure, I first wish to look at its cultural function, in terms of what it contributes to the individual and what it tells us about its host society, the popular classes of Latin America and the Caribbean. If one thing has become evident to me in my study of the Mita, it is its spontaneous popular character. This is not a phenomenon that can be replicated at will, but one which is “naturally” born out of specific cultural circumstances, which it at once reflects. Thus, the Mita cult offers a unique opportunity to study the origins and growth of a religion which is both recent and mostly home-spun. While it maintains traits of its Pentecostal origins, it owes nothing to the wave of Latin American Protestant missions issuing from the United States in recent years. The Mita call themselves “the only truly Puerto Rican religion,” while at the same time affirming its universal character among Latin Americans and U.S. Hispanics. Within these cultural parameters, I am particularly interested in two things: the matriarchal origins of the cult and the utopian underpinnings of its current social mission.
The motherly aspect of the Goddess Mita undoubtedly exercises a powerful attraction. Women have reason to feel vindicated in a society often portrayed as machista, where both Catholic and Protestant traditions have equally denied them a place in the hierarchy. But men too have gained something, as both genders learn to relate to the divinity as mother. This relationship calls to mind Octavio Paz’ cultural analysis in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), where he observes that a sense of orphanhood, of having been torn from the origin, from the divine womb, is the preeminent existential condition of modern man, and particularly of the poor and the colonized, twice torn: first from their indigenous gods and, after Independence, from the tutelage of Catholic Spain, the mother country, by the empty promises of the civil state.
Certainly, the figure of Mita has parallels in the non-Western tradition of the Caribbean, such as with the Taino Indian matron, Anacaona, or with the neo-African water deity, Yemayá, variously represented in syncretic Western symbols as a mermaid and as the Virgin. Regardless of its origin and explanation, matriarchal spiritual authority, acting overtly or latently under a patriarchal material structure, has a strong prevalence in Latin American societies. The figure of Mita taps into this cultural source, the religious substrate of its host communities being its only link to indigenous and neo-African traditions.4 Theologically, however, the cult of Mita issues entirely from the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, and its closest analog remains the (displaced) figure of the Virgin Mary. Hence the parallels: the distinctive “M” anagram, the annunciation of the Holy Spirit, the shooting star reminiscent of Bethlehem, and the expectant woman with the moon under her feet from the Revelation of Saint John which traditionally belonged to the Catholic iconography of the Virgin.
Indeed, Mita’s immediate precursor was the enigmatic Catholic figure of Mother Elenita, a beautiful young woman who appeared in the mountains of Puerto Rico when the person of Mita was only a child. Hundreds of disciples affirmed that Mother Elenita was the Virgen del Carmen, patroness of Puerto Rico. But this was no plain apparition, for Elenita actually lived in the mountains for 10 years, between 1899 and 1909, preaching and performing miracles of healing. She initially lived as a hermit under a rock; then in a hut built for her by neighbors. Memorial chapels were later erected near the site. Her origin, family, and real name are unknown. Some claimed that she washed ashore on a wooden plank after the San Ciriaco hurricane devastated the island in 1899, although I suspect this may be an assimilation of the Yoruba water deity, Yemayá, since there were several families of former coffee plantation slaves who lived around Elenita’s “holy mountain.” The young woman died of “weakness” (probably malnutrition) and was buried in 1909. Toward her final days she distributed locks of hair and other relics to the faithful. Years later, an ecclesiastical investigation attempting to exhume her remains found that her body had disappeared (Reyes).
Elenita identified herself as “Thy Mother Redeemer” –a daring title which anticipated the personal revelations received by Maria Valtorta in Italy during the 1940’s. Accordingly, the Virgin Mary is said to be the co-Redeemer and, perhaps, even the agent of the second coming (Valtorta). But the roots of these Puerto Rican phenomena go way back. Mariolatry, the “divinization” of the Virgin, has been a notorious trait of folk Catholicism in Spain since the Middle Ages, sanctioned at times by the official church (Miller). In the Spanish colonies, Mariolatry was strengthened not only by syncretism with indigenous and neo-African female deities. Spanish settlers experienced a severe absence of white women with which to establish a European descendance (and, hence, their very legitimacy) in the New World. This led to a fetishization of woman in her role as mother, which –sublimated from a genetic to a spiritual plane– served to reinforce the cult of Mary. The legitimacy for Spanish colonial rule continued to rest solely on this spiritual claim, the conversion of the heathen. Unable to provide them genetically with a white mother, the Spaniards did so symbolically and spiritually, by instilling in the “orphan” Indians and mestizos the veneration for the Virgin Mother which, after all, ran so deep within Spanish religiosity. In time, a syncretic iconography would develop, as in the cult of the mestizo Virgen de Guadalupe, revered in Mexico since the 16th Century, and honored in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where a cathedral was erected in her name.
Again, regardless of origin and explanation, the “divinization” of the Virgin is a fact of folk Catholicism repudiated by Protestant sects. Thus, the arrival of Pentecostalism to Catholic Latin America, as experienced by the person of Mita herself, signified for the converts a new orphanhood: the loss of the quasi-divine mother figure of the Virgin they had been raised to revere. It is this void that the figure of Mita has filled and perfected, by replacing the symbol with the person, the advocate with the judge, and the “unlawful” worship of the woman with the “legitimate” worship of the goddess. For the rest, Mita, the Mother, supplied that important dimension in the anthropomorphic conception of God, which had been missing in the Judeo-Christian patriarchal tradition, completing the Father-Son-Mother triangulation suggested in the hypostatic union of the Trinity.
Significantly, if one follows Octavio Paz’ concept of historical orphanhood, Mita’s birth (1897) and Elenita’s apparition (1899) coincide with Puerto Rico’s loss of her mother country in the Spanish-American war of 1898. The orphan island’s relationship with her North American stepmother, not always a smooth one, need not be recounted here. It suffices to say that adapting to the tutelage of a predominantly Protestant foreign power, its culture and language, meant a certain loss and confusion of identity. The transition years were marked by social anarchy, as administrative control proved slow and ineffectual beyond the capital city. The ministry of Catholic priests, who traditionally had come from Spain, declined sharply after political ties were severed and administrative support from the church became increasingly difficult. Thus, as her biographers point out, Mother Elenita appeared at a time when the Puerto Rican countryside had been “spiritually abandoned” to moral anarchy (Santaella, Reyes). The island needed a spiritual mother, its very own Virgen del Carmen, but Elenita’s holiness was never recognized by the Roman Catholic church. Her cult virtually died with her. In turn, Mita prevailed as redeemer from social and spiritual orphanhood. Far from a hermit, she was a gifted organizer who recognized early on the importance of moving to the capital city and, later, of expanding to New York, following the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Thus, while Protestantism spread in the island’s countryside and Catholic parishes retreated to city affluence, Mita, rather masterfully, found a niche among the urban working class. As I walked now through my old neighborhood, the familiar landmarks became icons, vessels of time, in a semiotic map which told a story all too easy to read. Behind the outline of the old Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, one can see the skyline of the nearby Hato Rey banking district which once flourished alongside Floral Park. In the opposite direction, after two blocks of aging houses, one finds my old Catholic school of the Holy Spirit, now completely fenced-in, “bunkerized” against inner city elements. Another two blocks and one arrives at the old boundary, América Street, my old street; then, on the other side, as a sort of mirror image, come the smaller houses of the Mita, leading to the new magnificent temple, surrounded by congregation businesses and the Mita school. To the right, the oldest section of Cantera, small turn-of-the-century dwellings of what was then the middle class, now fit only for the poor. Down across Barbosa Avenue, yet another layer of poverty: the tenements of squatters who eventually received property deeds from the government under one of those amnesties which were common near election time. How these layers came to be is the subject of René Marqués’ famous play, The Oxcart: as San Juan began to embody the promise of modernity, the peasants left the fields and began to swell the city slums. First came the landless, then the dispossessed who could not pay their taxes, then the hungry who sold cheap to both native and foreign opportunists. Many stayed in the slums, many went to Spanish Harlem, but many rose to the fast-growing San Juan working class, from which Mita drew her constituency. For some, the Mita congregation was a way out of poverty.
Mita arrived in San Juan in 1949, with the wheels of change: growth, industrialization, modernity, and rural exodus. The U. S. military occupation of the first quarter century had led to the Platt Amendment protectorate in the second quarter, with its bizarre form of limited colonial democracy, and a political stability which primed the island for economic growth after the Great Depression. But the 1940’s saw the formation of the Commonwealth, the modern Puerto Rican “Free Associated State,” a political middle ground between independence and full statehood, which made possible an attractive economic formula: no federal taxes and full state tax exemption for industry. It was during this time that Floral Park became established and that a Catholic mission from the U.S. came to develop the parish church and school of the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, the turn-of-the-century middle class moved to newer and bigger homes, making space for some newcomers. The Mita congregation grew with the working class, and became an echelon in the social layers that went from the countryside, to the tenements, to Cantera, to Floral Park, and beyond. Mita had become such a prominent figure, that the founder of the modern Commonwealth and long-time governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, often came to visit her and seek her advice.
As Floral Park aged and became more affordable for the prosperous Mita, the old boundary began to break down. Today, several houses with the distinctive “M” on the door can be seen spotting the semiotic map on the Catholic side. This is not merely an economic crossover. Traditionally, the Puerto Rican working class had been much closer to the poor, separated from the middle and upper classes by a sharper boundary that was not only economic, but cultural, racial, educational, and even religious. Many factors of modernity have since made this boundary less rigid; but in any case, the Mita crossover can be considered a social one, in the broadest sense. While the congregation remains anchored in the working class, it now has members from all walks of life.
As soon as Mita found her niche among the urban working class, she quickly addressed the material needs of the community. Social activism has been common among Pentecostal and other religious communities in Latin America (Boudewijnse et al.; Levine; Haynes; Loreto). Yet, Mita went a step further, organizing her followers socio-economically into a cooperative. This mixture of religion and business is often criticized by Catholics. The once politically powerful Catholic Church, excluded from state business since the 19th Century, has maintained a policy of limited socio-economic involvement in parish life. Latin American liberation theology, which has had to wage a philosophical battle with the Catholic Church for decades in order to justify its social activism, has never taken solid root in Puerto Rico (Silva). Yet, the Mita congregation takes care of both worldly and spiritual affairs in a parallel and pragmatic fashion, allowing a time and a place for each. As long as business, politics, and other “facts of life” remain outside the temple, they see no contradiction. They do not preach a liberation theology nor any social reform beyond their own community. They do not even criticize the social system nor support “in block” any political party or particular agenda. Thus, they feel no need to reconcile the eternal and temporal aspects of salvation or to justify their involvement in both. Aarón has continued this philosophy and led the congregation through 25 years of impressive growth. His international ministry operates through a non-hierarchical network of anointed pastors, sharing the same rank and significantly called “workers,” all of whom hold regular jobs whether in congregation businesses or in society at large. Even Aarón himself has a dual role: when he is not ministering as a prophet, he is presiding over the board of directors of Congregación Mita, Inc., the holding company for a diversified array of cooperative ventures.
A look at the types of businesses the congregation has established through the years shows a long-term planning whose strategy is clearly that of community self-sufficiency. Their inland farms and cattle ranches supplement the name brands in the congregation’s supermarket, drugstore, and community restaurant. Their cinder block factory, hardware store, and furniture outlet–plus residential real estate holdings which include a modern apartment building and dozens of single family homes– address construction and housing needs. Shoe and garment workshops supply the congregation’s own department store, which also handles uniforms and school supplies. The rank and file, who began by putting their paychecks together, now share in the profits. They have access to congregation housing, jobs, and dividends, as well as financing, venture capital, and insurance through their own credit union. Their community outreach center is staffed with professional nurses and social workers from their own ranks, providing primary health and counseling services to the community, including programs against drugs, alcohol, and smoking, all of which are outlawed by the Mita. An “orientation office” coordinates social, educational, and charitable events, as well as public relations. Indeed, the congregation provides a lifetime of services and ties to the community, from a modern school for the children to a high-rise nursing home for the elderly. The diverse array of stores, offices, and buildings, surrounding the Temple along Duarte and Los Mitas Streets, gives the community a sense of cohesion and autonomy. Yet, these are only the more visible signs of a socio-economic fabric in which a myriad of goods and services are exchanged informally as well, in the marketplace, through flyers, advertisements, bulletin boards, and personal contacts.
This unique congregation, intent on carrying out God’s work on earth, does not segregate itself from society as utopian communities do. Instead, it has succeeded in forming a semi-autonomous network in a modern urban setting, remaining spiritually, socially, and economically integrated, and yet with no visible boundaries of its own (except, perhaps, the all-white dress code still adhered to during services by the more devout). There are no fences, no “bunkerization” of public buildings; rather, volunteer guards in plain civilian clothes patrol the neighborhood. The neatness of the buildings, the meticulous upkeep, the evident communal pride for what they have built out of very humble origins, mark the only true physical separation from the neighboring neglect of the adjacent streets and congested thoroughfares of this poorer section of metropolitan San Juan. Their social organization may indeed be described as a non-insular utopian cluster, one which has clearly empowered a formerly disenfranchised community.
The word on the Catholic side is now: “As soon as they join the Mita, you see them prosper” –a comment suggesting they join for the money, not the soul. The Mita simply claim they endeavor to live like primitive Christians. There is, however, nothing primitive in their strategies. Their original San Juan community serves as a developmental model for the newer congregations abroad which, in turn, communicate with the center through all modern media. Active members have swollen to over 30,000 world-wide. The new San Juan temple alone seats 6,000; but actually the largest following is in Colombia, which has now surpassed Puerto Rico as a whole; the Dominican Republic ranks third, with 65 congregations.
In the face of increasing institutionalization, it remains to be seen what will happen to the cult’s allure: the sense of immediacy and hopeful new beginnings, the mother figure’s deliverance from orphanhood, the empowerment of the poor –and, of course, the issue of Aarón’s succession.5 I posed these questions to minister-worker Ramón Díaz Reyes in a two-hour meeting. He said that, man or woman –for the Holy Spirit of God has no gender– Mita’s next heir would not be picked by a council, a bureaucracy, or other human institution, but by a sign of divine revelation. It seems, however, that just like religious fervor has been good for business, fostering loyalty and spurring productivity, so will the sheer material force of their socio-economic fabric ensure the spiritual cohesion and continuity of their cult. Brother Ramón simplified it for me: “We are a simple, happy people. We live in plenitude and face the new millennium without fear.”
- The Mita subscribe to a version of the Bible based on ancient Eastern manuscripts in Spanish translation. All biblical quotations in this paper have been adapted from the corresponding English edition by G. M. Lamsa. The Mita’s only written account of their own history and doctrines is a book independently produced by Carmín Cruz, a member of the congregation. Besides this, they have produced no official body of writings; rather, they continue to rely on the leader’s inspiration and the preaching of the “living” word. return to text
- Aside from its unique theology, the cult’s formative process resembles that of many Pentecostal congregations in Puerto Rico, in which a leader claiming divine inspiration interprets the Scriptures with great latitude and breaks away to form a new Pentecostal assembly based on personal charisma. The difference with Mita is that she claimed to be God herself, not just an inspired interpreter. This process suggests that the rapid growth of Pentecostalism throughout Latin America constitutes a fertile ground for what is technically referred to as new religious movements. return to text
- Reactions to the Mita are strong among neighboring Catholics I interviewed. First of all, they consider blasphemous their dismissal of the Virgin Mary, and sacrilegious their lax attitude toward holy sacraments, particularly marriage. Claims of immorality range from criticism of Mita’s family life as a divorced woman opportunistically devoted to her cult while her own children grew astray, to rumors that Aarón sexually initiated maidens to be married. “God help them!” –says Sylvia Juarbe, Minister of the Eucharist for the Catholic parish. “Their whole creed is an apostasy. I pray for them.” return to text
- The strongest connection with the autochthonous religious substrate may be found in the analogous beliefs of Mita’s and Aarón’s infusion by the Holy Spirit, and the Pentecostal tradition of “speaking in tongues,” inasmuch as these resemble the beliefs surrounding trance and possession in Afro-Caribbean cults, where deities are said to “come down upon” and “ride” an inspired or possessed faithful. The latter tradition may have been instrumental in lending popular credibility to Mita’s and Aarón’s personal agency for the Holy Spirit (cf. Beckmann). return to text
- It is worth noting that, at age 75, Aarón is still associated with that young boy Mita anointed in the 1930’s. The faithful often refer to him as “Aaroncito” (Little Aarón), as though he was one more of Mita’s children. While the next Prophet has not yet been revealed, it is plausible that he or she will be similarly regarded, so as to preserve the matriarchal aspect of the cult. return to text
Esquilín, M. Caribbean Identities Reconstructed and Redefined in Women’s Narrative Texts: Marie Chauvet, Myriam Warner-Vieyra, and Ana Lydia Vega. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(2).
Mary Ann Gosser Esquilín
Florida Atlantic University
When Alejo Carpentier wrote in the Prologue to El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of this World] that “a fuerza de querer suscitar lo maravilloso a todo trance, los taumaturgos se hacen burócratas” (8) [by creating the marvellous at all cost, the thaumaturgists become bureaucrats],1 he was alluding to the extreme artificiality of some French writers, notably the Surrealists, and was introducing a Latin American literary phenomenon, which in the same essay he baptizes as “lo real maravilloso” (10) [magic realism]. Although the Prologue was written in 1949, others had already used similar terms to speak of the Caribbean2, but none met the fortune that Carpentier’s term would, perhaps because the immediate application of the theory was to be found in his novel. The term has become as artificial and clichéd as the stifled Surrealism the Cuban novelist was denouncing, and one hesitates to employ it when referring to today’s literary works from the Caribbean because their diversity and their scope do not allow for such reductionistic labels.
In Carpentier’s novel, Haitian reality as seen through the conflation of European rhetorical forms with Haitian folklore, créole, and religious beliefs, becomes a text obsessed with a historical accuracy constantly undermined by events which reason or logic alone cannot explain. Thanks to the novels of the boom and the post-boom, magical realism becomes an internationally acclaimed and hence accepted artistic means through which critics try to categorize Latin America’s problematic and complex representation of reality. To Carpentier’s concluding rhetorical question: “¿Pero qué es la historia de América toda sino una crónica de lo real-maravilloso?” (13) [But what is the history of all America if not a chronicle of magic realism], the works of two well-known novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende seem to offer the obvious response: “America” as a text is based on historical events and remains as wondrous as when Christopher Columbus first described the Caribbean world to the Europeans–a chronicle of facts mixed with the fables of a Genovese.
No matter how much Caribbean authors try to shake off the chains of realism and veracity, with few exceptions, many seek a base or starting point which is verifiable, measurable, provable and not just probable: revolutions, invasions, American presence, human rights violations, slavery and its horrors, among other themes or situations. Some Caribbean writers still feel the duty of transmitting a teaching, (Horace’s utile), and, in the case of the mediocre ones, forget to focus on the enjoyment of the writing (Horace’s dulce). Their role is fraught with responsibilities because they are called to give a voice to the voiceless, denounce corruption, effect a change in the way people think, and establish a viable definition of the Caribbean in spite of the geographical, linguistic, and racial differences, just to mention some of the alienating factors. Who then reads the novels and decides that they are useful or didactic? Those who are capable of it: the educated, the literate, the elite, and those in exile. For the most part, our literature is still judged by standards set by readers and critics trained in an Aristotelian tradition whose criteria extoll mimesis or imitation and are based on tragedy. Our writers find themselves trying to capture the elusive essence of Caribbean identity and the coming together of various races and cultures within the rigid critical parameters of the “European Other.”
In the case of Caribbean authors, in whose works there is great linguistic and cultural diversity, there are some who defy these standards and redefine them, such as Marie (Vieux) Chauvet (Haiti), Myriam Warner-Vieyra (Guadeloupe), and Ana Lydia Vega (Puerto Rico), who attempt to transcend this “magico-realist” mode by undermining it or parodying by bringing to the forefront the fact that there is another important aspect at work that Édouard Glissant terms “natural” poetics, and which he defines as follows: “J’appelle poétique libre, ou naturelle, toute tension collective vers une expression, et qui ne s’oppose à elle-même ni au niveau de ce qu’elle veut exprimer ni au niveau du langage qu’elle met en œuvre” (236) [I define as a free or natural poetics any collective yearning for expression that is not opposed to itself either at the level of what it wishes to express or at the level of the language that it puts into practice]. This poetic is the counterweight of a “forced” poetics defined by him as follows: “J’appelle poétique forcée, ou contrainte, toute tension collective vers une expression qui, se posant, s’oppose du même coup le manque par quoi elle devient impossible, non tant que tension, toujours présente, mais en tant qu’expression, jamais accomplie” (236) [I define forced or constrained poetics as any collective desire for expression that, when it manifests itself, is negated at the same time because of the deficiency that stifles it, not at the level of desire, which never ceases, but at the level of the expression, which is never realized]. According to Glissant, Caribbean identity as presented in literary discourse is the result of the tension between “natural” and “forced” poetics. This tension is parallel to that which Carpentier felt between the “marvelous” and the “real.” Carpentier strives to maintain an equilibrium while conferring primacy to the “realist” or mimetic or forced; whereas Glissant advises writers to search for the fluidity, the heart-felt expression capable of eliciting an affective reaction from the reader, in a language closest to that spoken by the reader; in other words, the natural, the créole, the popular speech, or a non academic one. He therefore also advocates the notion of créolisation because for him, this concept alludes to a process and not a fait accompli. As Daniel Racine clarifies, Glissant’s “message is to invite [all Caribbean] people to take pride in and preserve the beauty of their country against any kind of mutilation, to enjoy the richness of their culture, to communicate in the language they have built together, to claim their right to difference based on their specificities, and to think in terms of unity and independence” (625).
Corroborating Glissant’s emphasis on the lyrical/oral language as a distinctive component of Caribbean literature, comparative poetics theorist Earl Miner defines the effect of this literature on the reader as a crucial marker of an affective-expressive tradition which he traces through Japan and China but which one can just as well see at work in Caribbean literature together with the one proposed by Aristotle, to which it owes much. Miner “[has termed] this lyric-based poetics affective-expressive because they presume that a poet is moved by experience or observation to give expression in words, and that that expression is the cause of moving the listener or reader” (24-25). Miner explains that, on the one hand, there is a dominant tradition, the Aristotelian or mimetic, based on the hegemony of tragedy, which is unique in the world precisely for being the only one whose poetics is based on drama, and which of course is mostly Western. While, on the other hand, the rest of the world’s poetics stem from a lyrical production, its conceptualization, and its reception. Both poetics are certainly present in the Caribbean, yet critical approaches are often subsumed to the mimetic lexicon, i.e., reality, depiction, representation. This is contrary to the literary texts themselves which exploit the dichotomy with verve and oftentimes humor, precisely because of the incorporation of the various vernaculars, in turn moving the readers precisely because of the orality. As a reader of Caribbean works, one is best advised to avoid such rigid schematic polarities, however, at the critical offset it is perhaps appropriate to frame the discussion as a juxtaposition because of the vibrancy the tension bestows.
Clarification of the notion of “Caribbean identity” may be gained through the study of literary texts exploring these poetic configurations (the Aristotelian, the affective-expressive, and the Glissantian as the Caribbean synthesis of the two) because today’s Caribbean literature develops within the interstices of the tension between the natural or affective-expressive and the forced or mimetic Aristotelian. Focus on the interplay of the two poles is essential in the unraveling of this literary yarn for it will prove useful in how we figure out or redefine the place of Caribbean literature within world literature, taking into account the various degrees of tension which in turn generate a wide-ranging spectrum of identities, all of which are complementary and syncretic and not necessarily antagonistic. The study of the Caribbean’s literatures is often set at the periphery of either Latin American literature (in the case of the Spanish Caribbean); of the French as part of the “Francophone” (as in the case of Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe), or of the English (as part of “Commonwealth” literature).
Following this reasoning, crucial to the redefinition of the Caribbean(s), this part of the analysis focuses on two novels, one by Marie (Vieux) Chauvet and the other by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, because theirs are texts which offer an embryonic attempt at denouncing and undoing a quasi-sacred and forced literary canon established by critics informed by the Aristotelian poetics. In order to redefine the notion of Caribbean, these authors desecrate some of the tenets respected by a critical literary tradition usually dominated by male voices. Glissant reminds us that to be an “Antillean” is not a demeaning condition but rather a fruitful process of synthesis. These two novelists contribute to the transformation which needs to occur. As “Antilleans” they have understood as well as Glissant has that the process of:
la synthèse n’est pas l’opération d’abâtardissement qu’on [leur] disait, mais pratique féconde par quoi les composantes s’enrichissent. [Elles sont devenu]es antillais[es]. L’idée de l’unité antillaise est reconnue culturelle. Elle nous réinstalle dans la vérité de notre être, elle milite pour notre émancipation. C’est une idée qui ne peut pas être prise en compte pour nous, par d’autres: l’unité antillaise ne peut pas être téléguidée. (18)
synthesis is not a process of bastardization as he used to be told, but a productive activity through which each element is enriched. He has become Caribbean . . . The notion of Caribbean unity is a form of cultural self-discovery. It fixes us in the truth of our existence, it forms part of the struggle for self-liberation. It is a concept that cannot be managed for us by others: Caribbean unity cannot be guided by remote control.
To be an Antillean is a becoming, a process, the synthesis of diverse components, and Antillean unity can be considered as a cultural construct which will reach its culmination or evolution when we, the Antilleans, understand it as such. No one, except people from the Antilles, can attain this unity of thought. It cannot come from the outside imposed by others. It is not to be the vision of the Other, but of ourselves–and yes, indeed it includes the paradoxes brought about by the history of colonization. Glissant underscores the idea of process through aquatic figures whose fluidity and lack of fixed structure would fully represent this process of becoming Antillean [or what Leví Marrero, Cuban geographer and historian has baptized as “la antillanía” (228-29)]. Within this poetic process, then, one may ask what is the role of the woman novelist? How is she to reconcile the forced and the natural poetics if she faces the added dilemma of discrimination based on gender? What language should she employ to express a female “Antilleanness,” and how is such an epistemic notion determined? The forced poetics to which Glissant alludes is even more forced in the case of Caribbean women writers, who not only have to prove their ability at synthesizing but also allow their own reconfiguration of the canon to be understood. Women writers of the Caribbean used to be caught in a virtual literary no man’s land which many have since playfully and antonomastically understood to be a “woman’s land,” for so long has the colonized land been metaphorically interchangeable with a woman’s body. What better place then than Caribbean women’s writing to explore the synthesis and interplay of voices?
Precisely, in Caribbean writings, tension is apparent in the use of fragmented structures and languages which coexist in the same text. Dialogism in Caribbean literature is the epistemological result of the syncretism of such a heteroglossic world. Novels, for the most part, are the products of authors who desire to find through their writing the perfect representation of the much-sough-after rupture with their respective metropolis, on the one hand, and on the other with the négritude movement as Aimé Césaire preached it; and to which many Caribbean writers, critics, and intellectuals have been attracted. If all of this is true, then it is important for Caribbean women writers to penetrate that sacrosanct space of Caribbean male narrative in order to desecrate it. It is in women’s writings then that we often find the “natural” counter-poetic response contained in the forced one that male writers have imposed on women writers. The interplay of these voices “orchestrates . . . the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in [the novels], by means of the social diversity of speech types . . . and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions” (263). Ana Lydia Vega adds her voice to the debate when she comments on the double standard imposed on women. The criticisms and concerns she voices for Puerto Rican women writers can be applied to Caribbean women writers in general: “además de Salvar la Patria, Afirmar la Cultura en Crisis y Acelerar el Advenimiento de la Gran Aurora Popular con la mayor originalidad y dentro de la mayor ortodoxia posible, se le pide también que a cada tacleteo de máquina denuncie la Vil Opresión Machista, variante algo risqué de la querida lucha de clases. ¡No, si hasta en la literatura nos persigue la doble tarea!” (“Sálvese” 86) [besides Saving the Country, Affirming the Culture in Crisis and accelerating the Advent of the Great Popular Dawn with the greatest originality and within the greatest possible orthodoxy, (women) are asked to denounce the Vile Machista Oppression with every key stroke of the typewriter, which is a risqué variation of the beloved class struggle. No, even in literature this double task pursues us!].
Upon a first approach neither Chauvet’s nor Warner-Vieyra’s novels, offers the impression that either fragmentation or structural innovation are important to them, but as the reader is affected by the texts, these provide evidence that there is a careful and perspicacious infiltration and transformation of the forced male poetics through the consciousness of the protagonists of the novels, Amour (1968) and Juletane (1982) respectively. Manipulation of the reader’s notion of poetics subtly leads to a configuration of the Caribbean woman writer’s role in the redefinition of Caribbean identity.
In Chauvet’s case, Amour is the first novel of a tryptic whose complete title is Amour, Colère, Folie–three novels published by Gallimard in one volume, but which are independent of each other. Amour’s plot begins in 1939 and develops in a Haitian province under Sténio Vincent’s presidency, although all the allusions are to the dictatorial regime of François Duvalier and his tonton macoutes. The heroine, Claire, is the eldest of the three orphaned daughters of the Clamont couple. She is single and still a virgin at thirty-nine; lives with her sisters, Félicia, eight years younger and married to Jean Luze, a White Frenchman; and Annette, twenty-two years old, who ends up being Jean Luze’s lover. Claire’s name is ironic because, as other critics have noted (Dayan, Gouraige, and Hoffmann), she has the darkest skin, which explains why she is an old maid: her skin color reminds her “aristocratic” family that in spite of their fair skin, Black blood runs through their veins. Violence, deaths, and rapes for political reasons increase around them. But as people of a certain class, they pretend to see neither the U.S. exploitation perpetrated symbolically by Mr. Long (U.S. troops had occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and were there for economic reasons) nor the persecutions committed by the Black Commander Calédu (whose name in créole means “who hits hard”) to protect “national security.” In reality, these are retributions sought by a Black man to avenge all the sufferings he had experienced because he was poor and Black in Haiti. It is not a coincidence either that the story starts in 1939 because from the perspective of the late 60s (when it was published) an era punctuated by various revolutions–sexual, academic, Civil rights, Cuban–this date marks a sobering realization of the fragility of a world threatened by another world war whose tragic consequences force the intelligentsia of small countries to question the values proposed by the hegemony of an occidental culture which appears to disintegrate in front of their eyes and whose diplomacy or rhetoric did not solve misunderstandings or help generate tolerance to differences either in 1939 or at the present. One must not forget this when trying to understand what Chauvet rebels against. Even though Haiti is no longer a political colony of France, its literature continues to be partially indebted to it. Therefore, what is the place that Chauvet, a Haitian woman writer, is looking for in 1968? Perhaps the recognition of being a writer.
The novel is Claire’s first-person diary and describes how her conscience “clears” itself as she surmises the motives of the other characters from her bedroom, metonymic space of her mind. What she does not want to avow in public–that she desires her sister’s husband, transgressing all sorts of taboos–becomes evident every time Claire goes into her room and masturbates mentally. The intensity of the passion of her sexual urges incorporates the reader into this double textual/sexual game of voyeurs, making us feel as though she is actually masturbating. In that same bedroom, she plays with her doll as if it were a daughter and even tries to breast-feed her. She also amuses herself with pornographic postcards; according to her, she already knows about perfect coitus because she knows by heart Lady Chatterly’s Lover text; and as if this were not enough, she “rolls” in Félicia’s and Jean-Luze’s sheets to enjoy the semen and the sweat of their nights of love-making.
What the reader wants to know is why this dark-skinned woman living in an old big house in a province in Haiti, meddling in the destinies of her sisters, would want to write a diary. What Claire describes at the onset of the novel is revealing of her state of mind when she puts pen to paper and writes:
J’assiste au drame, scène après scène, effacée comme une ombre . . . Je savoure en tout cas ma vengeance en silence. C’est mon silence, ma vengeance. . . . .Aux dires du Père Paul, je me suis empoisonné l’esprit en m’instruisant. Mon intelligence sommellait et je l’ai reveillée, voilà la vérité. De là l’idée de ce journal. Je me suis découvert des dons insoupçonnés. Je crois pouvoir écrire. Je crois pouvoir penser. Je suis devenue arrogante. J’ai pris conscience de moi. Réduire ma vie intérieure à la mesure de l’oeil, voilà mon but. La noble tâche! Y arriverai-je? Parler de moi c’est facile. Je n’ai qu’à mentir beaucoup tout en me persuadant que je note juste. Je vais m’essayer à la sincérité : la solitude m’a aigrie . . . Nous voilà contaminés par ce que l’on nomme civilisation. (9-11)
I am present at the drama, scene after scene, hidden in the shadows . . . In any case, I savor my revenge in silence, it is my silence, my revenge . . . According to Father Paul, I have poisoned my spirit through my learning. My intelligence was dozing and I awoke it, that’s the truth. From there came the idea of the diary. I discovered I had an unsuspected gift. I believe I can write. I believe I can think. I have become arrogant. I have become aware of myself. Reducing my interior life to the measure of the eye, that’s my goal. A noble task! Will I complete it? Speaking about myself is easy. I only have to lie a lot while persuading myself that I got it right. I will try my hand at sincerity: solitude makes me bitter . . . We are contaminated by what is called civilization.
In the opening pages of her diary, Claire attacks the entire edifice of Western poetics. She begins at the base with the allusion to drama, nucleus of Aristotelian poetics, emphasizing the fact that for the time being she “assiste au drame”; she presents herself as a simple spectator/observer and as a woman she waits in silence to carry out her vengeance, because when she chooses to speak and stop being one of the spectators of the drama, and become one of its authors, she will occupy a place in the literary world and on a stage unimagined by Aristotle and those who espouse his views on literature. Moreover, “assister” in French has another connotation: “to help,” by which Claire may be implying that from her room she can help in the production of the drama. Chauvet’s character is no longer simply an actress or a spectator but is also an author and to heighten her role as an innovator, she authors a narrative fiction, a genre to which Aristotle does nor confer much critical importance in his Poetics and which to our day still generates debates among critics as to its place in the literary hierarchy. Because narrative is ironically still difficult to classify, Claire has great liberty to spool the yarn of the plot: she manipulates Annette and directs her to Jean Luze’s conquest. Claire will also be responsible for the “liberation” of her town. In the aforementioned quote, there is also mention of the Catholic church and the important role it plays in Haiti. The priest or “père” prefers ignorance to instruction in women and his name “Paul” resonates of the apostle Paul’s name, probably the most misogynist of the writers of the New Testament. Claire, as an author, faces undeterred two of the most formidable fathers of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition: Aristotle and Saint Paul.
Her profanation of the canon continues with the veiled parody of French philosophical authors, namely Descartes and as Joan Dayan has pointed out: “in a Cartesian meditation, Claire is saying nothing less than ‘I write therefore I think therefore I am.’ The very constitution of self, however–her concrete ‘prise de conscience,’ to use Césaire’s formulation–depends upon learning to write, to be French” (235). According to her, Claire transformed the famous “Je pense, donc je suis” and is then empowered to become arrogant, because it is almost unthinkable that a woman of a small town in Haiti would even think of writing, thinking, or being.3 With a stroke of the pen, she eliminates another crucial text of the forced poetics to which Haitian writers worthy of that name have to acknowledge as part of their literary heritage. Chauvet forces her readers to take into account the poetic vision of an intelligent and educated bourgeois female character. She continues her redefinition of the West’s poetics by having Claire allude to Montaigne’s famous “moi” who in his essays pretends to elucidate his “I” and show it to his readers just as it is: “C’est icy un livre de bonne foy, lecteur . . . Je veus qu’on m’y voie en ma façon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans contention et artifice: car c’est moi que je peins” (3) [This is an honest book, reader . . . I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without pose or artifice; for it is myself that I portray]. Claire believes she has a duty (tâche–which in French is a play on words with tache meaning stain) and that to speak of herself, a woman writing, without “staining” herself is feasible if she produces fiction (from the Latin fingere) and is convinced and convinces others that it is done in good faith and with a noble objective in mind.By reasoning this logically, she subverts Aristotle’s much admired mimetic principle of imitation of men and which Montaigne’s “Avis” echoes in order to find a space for women’s texts. Hence, the first-person woman narrator/author, while employing realist techniques, denounces its doctrines because so many of her compatriots have incessantly sought them in order to construct, explain, and justify a Haitian national identity, often without taking into account the women’s point of view.4 Is it possible to construct an identity on partial views? If what is real is that which is based on facts, then the more perspectives there are, the more one needs the voices of women to narrate another aspect of Haiti, and perhaps then there will be a possible redefinition of Haitian identity. Precisely because the notion of identity is best embodied by the fluidity and permeability of the writing process, numerous are the allusions to the act of writing. The last pages of the journal show the readers a Claire who seems to conform to the stereotype of a scorned lover who wants to assassinate her rival and ends up choosing suicide. However, all similarities to a traditional representation end there. Claire incorporates herself into the recreation of Haitian identity and unity when she decides to stab Calédu during an ambush. Jean Luze, when he realizes the brave act of “masculinity” of his sister-in-law, embraces her, but Claire is no longer interested in either his embraces or his warm breath in her ear. Her last words to Jean Luze are “Si tu savais comme je suis fatiguée!” (187) [If you only knew how tired I am]. Indicating that her fight transcends political assassinations, it is a vindication of her role in a male-dominated Caribbean world, and it is also true that the fight is tiring because it is constant and with no immediate resolution in sight. She returns to her bedroom where she locks her door with two locks and contemplates the blood of a man which stains her hand, her dress, and the knife. She concludes her diary noting the following: “les torches qui vacillent dans le vent. Les portes des maisons sont ouvertes et la ville entière, debout” (187) [the torches that flicker in the wind. The doors of the homes are open and the entire city, up]. Both the stabbing of the text and in the text convey the idea of the undoing of the repression: Claire liberates her people, on a literal level, from the oppressive authority of Calédu; she also metaphorically liberates them (as readers) from their awe of canonical texts. The doors of the houses–women’s domain– are wide open and the lights, although hesitant, appear. Calédu has tried to intimidate Claire with his deployment of force or rather his capacity to abuse power and authority, especially when it comes to raping women–in particular Claire’s neighbor–which leaves an indelible mark on Claire. Her diary is not that of a mad woman assassin. Her writing is that of someone consumed by an unbridled desire who opts for written expression capable of undermining literary models imposed on Haitian women which do not take into account the importance of all the voices needed to construct the Antillean unity discussed by theorists of the Caribbean and which one could understand as Bakhtin’s principle of heteroglossia so necessary in novels to generate a dialogic exercise among the characters and with the readers. It is difficult indeed to conjure an integral Caribbean without taking into account the linguistic aspects of a natural, lyric-based poetics to which women are certainly attuned. Poetics, as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have signaled in No Man’s Land for English and U.S. literatures, are not the exclusive domain of men writers. In Caribbean literature, the stakes are not higher but different because of the scarcity of feminist theoretical frameworks from the Caribbean within which to study its literary production.
In Warner-Vieyra’s case, the search for an Antillean identity takes her all the way to East Africa. Juletane serves as a frame to the title character’s journal; it is written in the first person and the framing story is told from a third-person narrator’s point of view as the stream of consciousness of the social worker Hélène. Both characters are women from the Caribbean (probably Guadeloupe) who are exiled in a country in East Africa (probably Senegal). Juletane’s journal begins on a Tuesday, August 22, 1961 at four in the afternoon and comes to an end on a Friday, September 8, 1961 at eight in the evening. Significantly there are only two days during which she does not write; both days are linked to deaths, and we therefore do not get to read her more immediate reactions to those events. They remain “opaque” or camouflaged.
Hélène is in Africa because she does not want to live in the closed and stifling space of a small island: she is a liberated and professional woman. She reads the journal a few months after Juletane’s death, who had arrived in Africa as Mamadou’s new wife. She had met this dashing young Muslim African in Paris a short time after her godmother’s death. Juletane, whose existence was carefully divided between working, studying, and visiting her godmother’s old friends, is dazzled by this African whose friends discuss their country’s independence, whereas she has never questioned the political identity of hers: a French Département d’Outre-Mer. Up until that moment, Juletane and her text reflect to perfection models which call for total and blind dependence. They get married and on the ship which takes them to Africa, they come across an old woman friend of Mamadou who asks him how did his first wife take the news of his second nuptials. For Juletane this revelation is a blow from which she never recovers. In order to endure this painful existence and the miscarriage of her baby boy (a creative process which does not come to a full term because the text obeys another need–the narratological one), she begins to write a cahier. The reader reads it at the same time that Hélène does, and we see how this reading transforms her and moves her, a woman who had surrounded her heart with blocks of ice. One is then called to ask what poetics is at play here and what are those models the text is probing and desecrating. Claire calls her diary a journal alluding to the fact that for her it was a daily and routine action–as a matter of fact, it is the same word used in French to talk about newspapers. Notwithstanding, Juletane describes how she reaches the process of writing according to the material at hand:
L’idée d’écrire m’est venue ce matin [Tuesday, 22 August 1961] en feuilletant distraitement un cahier inachevé, glissé d’un cartable. Le cahier d’une petite fille qui aurait pu être ma fille, mon enfant. Hélas! Je n’ai ni parents, ni amis. Et même plus de nom. Peu importe, ce n’était qu’un nom d’emprunt et je crains l’avoir oublié. Mon vrai nom, je ne l’ai pas connu, il a été gommé sur le registre du temps. (13)
The idea of writing came to me this morning while distractedly leafing through an unfinished notebook, slipped into a bookbag. The notebook of a girl who could have been my daughter, my child. I have neither family nor friends. No longer even a name. It doesn’t matter, it was only an assumed name, which I’m afraid I may have forgotten. My real name, I never knew it, erased from the register of time.
Given how the official colonizers’ version of the history of slavery diminished the role their exploitation played in Afro-Caribbean history, many authors and critics have tried to bring it to the forefront and have sought to define Antillean identity by almost exclusively emphasizing African ancestry while excluding other racial components. In part, this extreme measure is due to Césaire’s négritude movement and the critical world’s long overdue recognition of the contributions of the African cultures to the formation of Caribbean identity. His most famous poetic text is titled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939). So when Juletane and Hélène allude to the diary as if it were a cahier belonging to a little girl, they seem to imply that the new Antillean narrative ought to move away from any extreme oversimplified representation of identity, as Glissant beseeches us to do. Juletane firmly states that she will employ the term to overstep the boundaries of this anonymous writing form, because she has forgotten her name since it has been erased by others from historic registers. All of this implies that Antilleanness should not be limited to the Afro-Caribbean’s man vision of the Caribbean because women’s voices have been neglected. It further implies that the search for an origin would be based on fallacious grounds. And it finally calls for people in the Caribbean to perceive writing as a function which will provide them with “un ami, un confident” (18) [a friend, a confidant], not the simplistic postcolonial view of writing in a colonizer’s language as a legacy to be discarded. This woman character’s writings are not those of a demented being, and she is not an incomplete or frustrated human entity; on the contrary, she is wiser than those who prejudge her without finding out whether she is knowledgeable, or whether she is the reflection of the hypersensibility of a pure soul thrown into a real or imaginary vacuum (13). Juletane very lucidly perceives that a woman writing causes surprise and distrust, is not to be taken seriously, and no matter how hard she tries, clashes constantly with male ideas of the dogma of what should and ought to be written about. A woman’s writing is not always judged by its merits but by how it fits into the male canon. Juletane alludes to the fact that she left her native island when she was ten years old and as her mental capacities supposedly deteriorate, she misses her island in an inversely proportional way. Writing allows her to discover and describe herself: “Je n’avais jamais imaginé que coucher ma peine sur une feuille blanche pouvait m’aider à l’analyser, la dominer et enfin, peut-être, la supporter ou définitivement la refuser” (60) [I had never imagined that putting my suffering onto a blank page could help me to analyze it, to master it, and finally, perhaps, endure it or definitively reject it]. Literally, she writes of black over white because Hélène describes Juletane’s cahier as a “document noirci d’une écriture irréguliè re” (12) [document blackened by irregular writing]. This leads the reader to deduct that she is not constrained by rules and that the written text has no fixed form, that is she does not submit herself to rules pre-established by others. Thanks to the act of writing, she can analyze herself and can control the suffering of being the second wife of the only man she has ever loved, living in a country whose language she does not master, and to have to put up with the third wife who insults her, calls her crazy, and even slaps her. As in Claire’s case, the novel concludes in death: the three children of the first wife die mysteriously. Juletane, whose name we learn only at the end of the text, alludes to her possible responsibility vis-à-vis the crime; she does not remember what she did with her medicine drops, if she left them by mistake where the children might reach them, or if she emptied them in the water jug. She is also able to attain revenge against the odious third wife, Ndèye, by pouring hot oil over her face. After this, Juletane is placed in a mental asylum where she continues to write her journal. One of the African woman patients comments the following: that this business of writing is “une histoire de Blancs” (138) [for Whites]. We cannot forget that precisely part of the Caribbean’s cultural heritage is a product also of the white Westerners’ visions of history and literature. The patient’s comment indirectly points to a natural poetics free to combine dialogically an array of points of view. Juletane’s intended narratee is Mamadou, who after leaving her at the asylum dies in a car crash. The narratee ends up being Hélène, an Antillean woman who then begins to question her life and the fact that she is getting married at forty to a submissive African only to have a child. What lesson does she learn from Juletane? That she does not need to be a biological mother in order to create and that the answer to the questions related to Caribbean poetics will not necessarily be found in either the mythical Africa of her ancestors or in those of the Western poetics. Antillean poetics is indebted to both and it is a product of their synthesis.
It is precisely thanks to women writers such as Chauvet and Warner-Vieyra who from that traditional interior home space reserved for women, produce first-person narratives in the form of diaries of apparently demented women, who commit crimes, probe the process of writing, question the poetic tenets of the West and of the Caribbean writers, and advocate for a truly Antillean poetics flexible enough to promote without reifying or nullifying texts written by women. As Glissant reminds us: “L’imaginaire des Antilles nous libère de l’étouffement” (250) [The imaginary of the Antilles saves us from stifling]. And where else but in our own artistic expressions will we find the Antillean imaginary explored? It is thanks to those expressions that we can up to a certain extent breathe outside of the suffocation imposed by our geography, our history, and our complicated relationship with the West’s politics and poetics.
As more Caribbean women writers publish their works and are given the opportunity to contribute their ideas to the poetics debate, one finds that the lyrical imaginary increases. Ana Lydia Vega’s short story “Otra maldad de Pateco,” (from her collection Encancaranublado y otros cuentos de naufragio, 1987), will serve to illustrate this Caribbean tension stemming from the desire to be more ludic when establishing or redefining a Caribbean identity. To all of these factors one may attribute unparalleled innovativeness and vigor of the Caribbean’s literature today. The search for identity is central to Vega, but it is presented differently because it is done in a more humorous tone. She shares with Chauvet and Warner-Vieyra the geography, the history of sugar plantation societies, the diversity of colonizing powers, the smallness of the area, and the intertexts of male authors.
Vega’s story is deceivingly simple. A son is born to Don Felipe y Doña Amalia Montero, white sugar cane plantation owners. What makes this child unique is that he is born with a white body and a black head because Pateco Patadecabra, a sort of imp, intervenes with the African gods to have “another mischief” take place (as the title of the story implies). As the story goes, this baby is raised by a Black curandera, Mamá Ochú, who tells him his name will be José Clemente only when he has sufficient capacity to understand language. He is never to leave her humble house, where she keeps him in the dark and distracts him by telling him folkloric stories. He asks her why is she black whereas he is white, for there are no mirrors in the house, and he cannot see himself. She is forced to lie and tells him his eyes are blue like the water in the river and his hair is as blond as the sun. He, of course, now feels the urge to go outside and see these natural elements by himself. As it turns out, a window is opened by a mysterious gust of wind; he sees a beautiful young woman slave about to go into the river, who is scared when she sees this monster. José Clemente sees his reflection in the river, realizes his dilemma, and starts to cry. The myth of Narcissus is inverted, allowing for the redefinition of the classic Western tradition of beauty (in this case) to take place. A Caribbean character product of mixtures, up until recently, did not want to fall in love with his or her image, metaphorically cried in despair, but now after the revisions to the definition of Caribbean identity, is beginning to accept more readily the fact of being a product of various races and ethnicities, and sees the beauty and importance of the mixes when, as is presented in the story, the Afro-Caribbean god Ogún comes out of the water and orders him not to cry. Caribbeans are not exclusively the product of Western civilization, but also of African and the poetics of Caribbean expression ought to reflect that other “natural,” oral, and lyrical component at play. If the Caribbean person or scholar tries to express the Caribbean exclusively through Western models, the identity or the text will ring empty and will be void of Caribbean significance. The concept of oral literature and the interplay of voices with a poetical underpinning is decisive when discussing Caribbean literature.
The young man asks for his color back. The god gives him his machete and replies with a riddle. José Clemente is left to wander all day long and into the night. All of a sudden, a fire erupts in the midst of the plantation and threatens the white planters’ big house and the slaves’ barracks. When José Clemente sees the beautiful woman, María Laó, trying to free her father, he decides to break the chains of the slaves with the god’s machete and saves them first from the fire, while the house burns to the ground with only one pair of white arms visible. The slaves all run behind him, and upon reaching Mamá Ochú’s house, his body has recovered the black coloring Pateco had hidden in order to teach a lesson to the Monteros and to the readers.
The story is structured as an allegorical fable, and is marked by lyrical interruptions such as Pateco’s incantation to get the fabulous combination of colors for the newborn:
Tranco y saco
Saco y tranco
Blanco y negro
Negro y blanco (108)
and Ogún’s riddle: “Entre los tuyos está tu color / cuando seas uno ya no serás dos” (111) [Among your people is your color/ when you are one you will not be two anymore]. Implied in the text, as part of that natural, lyrical poetics, are the allusions to Mamá Ochú’s stories on Pateco (incorporating the generator of the story within the story itself in an Arabian Nights manner), and Calconte, la Gran Bestia, Juan Calalú (prende la vela y apaga la luz) [light the candle and turn out the light] y la Princesa Moriviví (all characters of Afro-Puerto Rican folklore), on the one hand, and teachings on deities of the African pantheon, such as Ogún, Changó, Orula, and Obatalá on the other.
In keeping with Glissant’s definition, the story is told by an irreverent and sassy omniscient Antillean third-person narrator. The narrator’s expressions closely reproduce the everyday language of the Puerto Rican “lower” and “darker” classes. Take, for example, the following commentaries alluding bitingly to racism. This passage refers to Doña Amalia’s rhetorical question when confronted with “ese monstruo” (monster): “¿Qué tenía que ver esta bestia bicolor con sus jinchísimas carnes, rubias melechas y azul sangre heredada de Castilla la Vieja?” (108) [What did this two-tone beast have to do with her pale flesh, straight blonde hair and the blue blood inherited from Old Castille]. Further on in the text, there is the following comment on the father’s reaction: “la obesa rata de la duda roía incansable el corazón de Don Felipe Montero” (108) [the obese rat of doubt was gnawing Don Felipe Montero’s tireless heart]. For him, Doña Amalia could have been unfaithful; to an affected reader, the metaphorical fat rat of doubt could also be nibbling at his own conscience: what if on Don Montero’s side there is African blood as we are sometimes wont to pretend not to know in Puerto Rico even to this day?
At other times the allusions and intertexts come from Luis Palés Matos, Puerto Rico’s foremost exponent of Afro-Puerto Rican poetry. When the beautiful slave appears by the river, the narrator exclaims: “acertó a pasar por allí, como por casualidad [as if the textual appearance is fortuitous and spontaneous and not a literary construct], una joven esclava de belleza bruja que hubiese hecho reventar de celos a Tembandumba de la Quimbamba” (110) [a bewitchingly beautiful young slave girl who would have made Tembandumba de la Quimbamba explode with jealousy, managed to pass by, as if by chance]. One of Palés Matos’s most famous poems, entitled “Majestad negra,” extols African beauty through a woman’s sensuality:
Por la encendida calle antillana
va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba
–Rumba, macumba, candombe, bámbula–
Entre dos filas de negras caras.
Ante ella un congo–gongo y maraca–
Ritma una conga bomba que bamba.
Culipandeando la Reina avanza,
Y de su inmensa grupa resbalan,
Meneos cachondos que el gongo cuaja
En ríos de azúcar y de melaza.
Prieto trapiche de sensual zafra,
El caderamen, masa con masa,
Exprime ritmos, suda que sangra,
Y la molienda culmina en danza. (49)
The desired effect is to make the young woman more attractive to José Clemente and the reader because she is even more beautiful, sweeter, and sensual than her Black majesty of the well-known poem.
Nonetheless, the poignant remarks do not end here. When faced with the problem of whom should José Clemente save first, the narrator uses a very telling simile: “la indecisión se le eñangotó al frente como una lavandera malhumorada” (112). The image is borrowed from the working-class domain, yet clearly establishes the idea of indecision as this immovable female mass in a bad mood not letting him go anywhere. The choice of the verb “eñangotarse” (a variation of “ñangotarse”) is not without intent either, for it has been established by our linguists as a word of African origin which means squatting. The seriousness of the decision is highlighted by the following commentary: “la cosa estaba más difícil que mondar lerenes” (112); once again an allusion to the Puerto Rican countryside with its tuber, the lerén, which is very hard to peel and which was probably a staple in the diet of the African slaves.
The tightness of the re-construction of this myth of the divided or split Puerto Rican extends to the careful selection of names. José Clemente, whose name exudes clemency, does not acquire a name until Mamá Ochú deems he can handle it. Therefore, it is implied that identity is not formed or to be found in the origin (when we as a people were composed of distinct and separate races–as the symbolism of José Clemente’s physical dichotomy suggests), but at a later stage when we are mature enough to understand our Caribbean condition. But when does that time come? Not in the adolescent years nor during young adulthood; it takes a brutal event, in this case the purifying fire, to make José grow up, stop lamenting his fate as a torn being, and realize who he really is: a descendant of Africans with nothing to be ashamed of because of the proud and brave lineage to which he can lay claim.
The concluding paragraph reads: “y así fue como José Clemente recuperó el color que Pateco le había escondido para escarmentar a la familia Montero, cuya hacienda y vieja molienda consumió el fuego de Ogún” (113) [and that is how Jose Clemente recovered the color that Pateco had hidden from him in order to teach a lesson to the Montero family, whose ranch and old sugarmill were consumed by Ogun’s fire]. Instead of maintaining the races separate, Vega constructs a protagonist whose existence is to prove that in literary texts, Caribbean identity ought not to just incorporate the neglected African element but to make it an equal figure in the literary game. The irony of the white head, not capable of using Cartesian reason to say something appropriate to the Black beauty other than: “¿Eres tú la Princesa Moriviví?” (110) [Are you Princess Morivivi?], adds to the Vegian project of making the Afro-Caribbean element supersede the European one, which is not only ridiculed but eliminated in the end. José Clemente’s “sonrisa cimarrona en los labios,” (113) [a runaway slave’s smile on his lips] clearly indicates the euphoria of the runaway slave: in his case he has been freed from the burden of the lack of color as he regains it in the end paired to the beautiful strong female slave, María Laó. For after all, as the epigraph reminds us
El negro José Clemente
perdidamente se enamoró
en el río de la Plata
de la mulata María Laó. (107)
The story then comes full circle as a demonstration of how fiction can be generated from other fiction (in our case the song which serves as epigraph and the excerpt from another Palés Matos poem on Ogún). Lest we forget, let us recall the second epigraph:
Papá Ogú n, dios de la guerra
que tiene botas con betún
y cuando anda tiembla la tierra… (107)
which is taken from “Falsa canción de baquiné,” a false African death ceremonial song for a child offered to Ogún, god of war and which turns out to be a meeting to eat the white man’s meat. Could Vega be implying that realism is more important than African traditions deemed “false” because they always revert to magic? Or, on the contrary, that in the Caribbean, the natural poetics occupy a privileged space because of its inclusive lyrical aspects which take into account those of realism? The more daring of the contemporary works in the Caribbean, appear to adopt this stance of multiplicity and strong interplay of voices, voices that allude to the works of respected male authors such as Aristotle, Descartes, Montaigne, Césaire, Palés Matos in conjunction with the centrifugal voices of dark-skinned women, of seemingly demented ones, or of a jovial female narrator examining stratified and heteroglossic literary language. As long as the text moves a poet to write so as to affect a reader within the dictates of a natural and lyrical poetics, Caribbean literature will find a path other than magical realism to participate in the mythical reconstruction of today’s Caribbean identity through lyrical origins closely tied to women’s issues, African and popular folklore which are more and more recognized as vital and powerful components of Caribbean literary production.
- The translations of Edouard Glissant are from the English version by J. Michael Dash. The Montaigne translation is from Selected Essays translated by Donald M. Frame. All other translations were made by Mary Wagner and the Editors. return to text
- For an overview of the history and development of the notion of “magical realism” see: James Irish, “Magical Realism: A Search for Caribbean and Latin American Roots”. Literary Half-Yearly 2.2 (1970): 127-39. There he establishes that the term was invented by the German critic Franz Roh, who used the subtitle “Magischer realismus” for his book Nach-expressionismus (Towards Expressionism) in 1925. return to text
- Dayan also reminds us that “Chauvet’s work should be read as a complex answer to Fanon’s scathing indictment of the mulatto Martiniquaise Mayotte Capécia, whose 1948 Je suis Martiniquaise he condemns as the most blatant example of the assimilated bourgeoisie who adapts to the colonial system” (231). His remarks neglect to take into account the tension between the two poetics at work. return to text
- Léon-François Hoffmann studies at length the notion of Haitian identity in the critical studies he has consecrated to Haitian literature. For example: Haïti: couleurs, croyances créole, Montréal: Éditions CIDIHCA, 1990. return to text
TOWARDS AN ONTOLOGY OF CARIBBEAN EXISTENCE*
Independent Scholar/Research Consultant
*Not available online. Previously published in Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 11 (1) (January-March 1997), 39-58. The author may be contacted as follows:
Holger Henke, Ph.D.
Caribbean Research Center
Medgar Evers College – CUNY
1150 Carroll St., M-17
Brooklyn, NY 11225
Hernandez-Ramdwar, C. Multiracial Identities in Trinidad and Guyana: Exaltation and Ambiguity. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(4).
MULTIRACIAL IDENTITIES IN TRINIDAD AND GUYANA:
EXALTATION AND AMBIGUITY
University of Toronto
For people of formerly colonized countries, race1 mixing among the populace has always been a reality. This is particularly true for Caribbean peoples. This paper addresses the ambivalent existence of multiracial identities for Caribbean people in the regions of Trinidad and Guyana, two areas with particularly diverse populations including significant numbers of people who are of (East) Indian background, as well as (in Guyana) an indigenous Amerindian population. The current relevancy of this issue is highlighted by tensions between African and Indian populations in each area, following the elections of predominantly Indian-based governments in Guyana in 1992 (PPP) and Trinidad & Tobago in 1995 (UNC/NAR coalition). As racial terrains shift in the realms of power, people often resort to constructions of “pure” identities to support an “us” versus “them” agenda. An exploration into multiracial identity challenges this re-ordering of racial monoliths and homogeneous social organization; it provides an opening for discussion of similarities rather than differences, of interlinkages and a shared history of colonization.
For the purposes of this article, the term “multiracial” is intended to signify an identity which has arisen out of a colonial history. Prior to Columbus, any notion of “race” among the Amerindians would have differed considerably from that which was developed over time by the Europeans for very specific imperialist reasons. Multiracial Caribbean people are those who are descended from more than one racial group found in the Caribbean. The very notion of multiracial identity is only significant if importance, privilege, difference, or debasement has been accorded to particular racial groups over others during the course of Caribbean history.
My analysis of Caribbean multiracial identity is based on the works cited as well as a series of interviews I conducted with multiracial Caribbean and Caribbean-Canadian people during 1994-1995. It is a preliminary investigation of a subject area which requires much deeper study, a study which I hope to flesh out from this skeletal framework of initial inquiry. Caribbean scholarship has largely ignored and overlooked multiracial/mixed race identity with the exception of a few articles and papers (Khan, Puri, Reddock, and Shibata), and a rather significant body of work dealing with the Coloured/Mulatto/gens de couleur class and its historical/political significance (Braithwaite, Brathwaite, Brereton, Cohen & Green, Heuman, and Sio). In comparison, within the body of Caribbean literature there is an attempt to examine, however superficially, multiracial identity and its problematic/complex meaning beyond African/European bipolarity. This is mostly evident in the works of Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul, Jan Shinebourne, Lawrence Scott, and Merle Hodge. However, large gaps remain in the areas of theory and primary research examining how racially complex Caribbean people negotiate and navigate their identities in a social and political atmosphere which both exalts them (“All o’ we is one”, “One people, one nation, one destiny”, “Out of many, one people”) and denies them full recognition as a legitimate racial “group” in an arena where one’s racial allegiance purportedly informs community and political alliance, personal and business networks, state power and consequently, access to resources.
“Raceing” in Trinidad and Guyana: Historical Developments
From the time the first Europeans invaded the Amerindian-inhabited Caribbean region, multiracial people have been a reality. As elsewhere in the world where colonialism left its indelible mark, children were born of sexual liaisons, forced or compliant, between colonizer and colonized. Over time, as the shape of Caribbean society was transformed by increasing migrations to the region (also forced or compliant), the potential for increasingly complex multiracial identity became evident. In areas such as Trinidad and Guyana, where a diverse melange of peoples existed at the advent of the twentieth century, complicated lineages could be discerned among a minority of the population (Croley Segal 83). Societies such as these were comprised of a racial/class hierarchy with the white group at the top, (mainly foreign Europeans and locally-born Creoles); and, in descending order, a Coloured group of African/European descent, (some of whom were quickly advancing into areas of influence); Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Portuguese immigrants who were aspiring to lower middle class positions; Venezuelan peons of mixed heritage (in Trinidad); Africans and Indians, who formed the majority of the population, and were in general economically and socially marginalized; and in Guyana, a sizeable and diverse population of Amerindian people who inhabited the country’s interior regions. Sprinkled amongst these racial/social classes were multiracial people of every description, who occupied no set position, and were in no way a cohesive group.
Although these racial/ethnic/class divisions were evident, they were not impermeable nor rigid (Brereton, Social organization54). Interactions between all groups were inevitable, dependent on particular demographic variables such as relative isolation of a group or male/female ratios. It was out of these interactions that multiracial people arose. For example, some Chinese males who came as indentured labourers in the nineteenth century married into the Coloured class, thereby advancing themselves socially and economically (Brereton, Social organization 38). Africans and Indians, despite having historically been kept apart as a matter of colonial divide and rule politics, nevertheless interacted with one another (Reddock104). The popular term (in both Guyana and Trinidad) to describe such an African/Indian mixed race person is “dougla”. The offspring of African/Indian unions did not, however, form a cohesive community as for example elite Coloured people had done since the pre-Emancipation era.
Because of the extreme social and political relevance of race and colour in the society, it was generally the mixed people who claimed partial European ancestry, ie. more than “pure” African, Indian or Amerindian heritage, out of all mixed race people, who were able to gain a measure of privilege (Brereton, Society and culture 92). The working-class African and Indian groups, and, in Guyana, Amerindian people who still maintained their traditional ways of life, were the most marginalized in the societies. Some members of the Coloured middle class had already established their status generations previous through economic activities, education, and a consistent belief in their inherent right to rule the colonies due to their mixed – racial and cultural – inheritance. It was because of this mixed heritage that they were able to assert an “authentically Caribbean” identity. Other mixed race people, dependent on racial heritage, appearance, colour, and class, were in certain cases able to advance themselves socially as well. However, because Caribbean scholarship has largely ignored the many people who did not or were not able to move from a marginalized status into a more privileged position despite multiracial ancestry, (both from the Coloured group and those of other multiracial ancestries)2 it is uncertain how they defined themselves in the society and with whom they would align themselves. Because not all multiracial people were capable of attaining a position of relative privilege, it must be assumed that multiracial lineage in itself did not automatically result in privilege, but rather that colour, phenotype and white association (familial or fraternal) would result in the possibility of advancement, combined with other factors such as income, class background, ethnicity and education. Three examples of such multiracial groups who remain marginalized despite, or because of, their mixed ancestry are “douglas” (Trinidad and Guyana), “cocoa panyols” (Trinidad) and “bovianders” (Guyana).
The term “dougla” is seldom adopted in self-application by people of African/Indian ancestry themselves, due to its negative connotation and the stigma of illegitimacy surrounding it (Khan, Puri, Reddock, and Shibat, 5). The word itself comes from the Hindi term for “bastard” or “miscegenate”. “Dougla” identity is most often ascribed to individuals who are the offspring of one African and one Indian parent.3 It is considered a non-hereditary identification: the child of a dougla and a non-dougla individual would usually be ascribed another racial identity, largely based on appearance (Segal 97). It is almost impossible to estimate the number of “douglas” in Trinidad and Guyana as there is no official category on census forms or in other demographic data; rather “dougla” is incorporated within the much more diverse and ambiguous category “Mixed”. As well, not everyone who is actually “dougla” would choose to define as such, due to various pressures enacted on the individual from both African and Indian sides. In particular, rejection by Indian family members and acceptance into Afro-Caribbean communities has been most common. Rhoda Reddock clearly outlines the historical and cultural reasons for such rejection, stemming from Hindu beliefs in contamination, varna(colour) and caste endogamy, and contemporary fears of Indian racial extinction through the so-called corruption of Indian women (115-116). The social result of this rejection is that many “dougla” individuals are raised within the Afro-Caribbean/creole culture, (although, this does not necessarily result in self-identification or self-naming as “African”, as is seen with some other mixed groups).
The current position of “dougla” people in both Trinidad and Guyana has been exacerbated by the tensions between African and Indian groups, in the political arena as well as at the social, interpersonal level. In Trinidad, “dougla” identity has been appropriated by ambitious politicians and public figures and wielded as a political tool in the form of “douglarisation” politics; that is, a proposal for African/Indian unity/mixing, utilizing the “dougla” as the ultimate symbol of racial harmony. Seen as a threat by conservative and orthodox elements in the Indian population, (and by some fewer but equally orthodox Africanist factions), “douglarisation” has led, contradictorily, to the silencing and invisibility of “dougla” people themselves, due to the extreme vitriol released by these factions in reaction to the proposals. Lauded in song (a number of calypsos deal with dougla identity/politics),4 utilized symbolically as the basis for new cultural movements (“dougla music”,5 “dougla poetics”).6 descendants of African and Indian parents remain outside the bipolarity of African/Indian dynamics and yet are most intimately affected by them. Disunified without a cohesive community, “dougla” people can not be ushered into the buffer zone between competing racial factions as Coloured people were during the emancipation era, yet the relevance and importance of “dougla identity” to racial politics and social transformation is increasingly being recognized.
It must be noted that the small amount of research on “dougla” identity has dealt with the position of “dougla” people in the Trinidadian context; specificities which deal with how “dougla” identities are taken up in Guyana is an area which has been highly neglected, with one exception being the work of Shibata. Although there are many similarities regarding the position of “douglas” in both societies, some of Shibata’s findings which relate specifically to Guyana included 1) an increased improvement in how interracial relationships are viewed since the 1960’s; 2) that Guyanese are largely unaware of the “actual experiences that intermarriage may bring” due to the lack of information and scholarly work on the subject (1); and 3) that African/Indian marriages among “contemporary politicians and their immediate families” are not uncommon (7). Shibata clearly sees the role of “douglas” in the society as bringing the races together, and states that the majority of her informants felt that “‘Douglas’ can be the only true Guyanese” (9).
The “Cocoa Panyols”
Like “dougla” the term “cocoa panyol” was a pejorative one ascribed to migrant labourers who came from Venezuela to Trinidad in the late 19th and early 20th century to work on the cocoa estates (Brereton, Social organization 35 and Moodie-Kublalsingh xi). Descendants of Amerindian, Spanish and African ancestors, they maintained tight-knit communities in the isolated valleys of Trinidad’s Northern and Central Ranges, thereby preserving their distinct cultural practices and Spanish mother tongue. Most of them, despite multiracial ancestry which included European heritage, remained marginalized due to migrant status, class/occupation, language, ethnicity, and relative isolation from other groups. Differentiated from the “true” Spanish, ie. white, urban, elite Trinidadians who claimed “pure” Iberian descent from the original Spanish occupiers of the island, or those who came from the more recent group of upper class Venezuelan émigrés, the “cocoa panyols” remained marginalized until the fall of the cocoa industry in the 1920’s. As well, the building of the Caura Dam in the 1940’s forced many out of the rural areas and into greater interaction with other ethnic groups through increased urban migration.
Over time, “panyol” or “Spanish” identity in Trinidad has been transformed from its original meaning into one which relates less to culture and ethnicity than to particular phenotypical characteristics, a “look” distinguishing one from “pure” African, Indian, European, Chinese, or identities such as “dougla”, “mulatto” etc. (Khan 184). The “panyol” culture itself has largely disintegrated; however, particular, preserved remnants are utilized in the interests of constructing and supporting belief in an ethnically-plural national culture. The most notable example of this is parang, a form of music originally brought by the Venezuelan immigrants, and now established as the traditional music in Trinidad at Christmastime. Like the evolution of chutney (“dougla music”), parang is being transformed from its Spanish Catholic roots and intensely religious content into a hybrid pop music performed by all racial groups and incorporating creole Trinidadian lyrics of a typically bawdy nature in the fashion of calypso. The original meaning and intent of parang and, in relation, the contribution and importance of the “panyol” culture to Trinidad is being eroded. In its place, a nationalist construction of “Spanish” identity is employed in much the same way “dougla” is: to advocate for racelessness through racial mixture and thereby overcome racial tension and polarization (e.g. “all o’ we is one”) (Khan195).
Again, it is impossible to trace the numbers of “panyol” people or those descended from “panyols” as they are simply considered “Mixed” for demographic purposes. Interestingly, as a number of people lay claim to a “Spanish” identity based on phenotype rather than, or in addition to, ethnocultural heritage, the term has become increasingly ambiguous and unclear.
“Boviander” is a Guyanese colonial term which originally referred to a variety of mixes including European/Amerindian, but presently is applied to people of mixed African and Amerindian descent (Williams 129), who are found mainly in the coastal regions and the interior mining towns of Guyana. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, appearance is a primary factor in how one is accepted/not accepted by community. In the case of children born in an Amerindian village to an Amerindian mother (unions are almost always that of an Amerindian woman/African male) the children are accepted as Amerindian by the village and raised as such. However, those born within, or who migrated to, coastal areas would adopt the racial identity and culture of their father’s group. In fact, individuals of this group have been known to switch according to where they are presently residing (Sander, 119). In this way, racial identity is not only flexible, but adopted for reasons of social survival. People of such mixed descent may be denigrated in the urban areas by Afro- and Indo-Guyanese alike on the basis of their “buck” (Amerindian) ancestry unless such heritage is denied or disregarded. Amerindians or “bucks” as they are called by Guyanese, are the most disparaged and disenfranchised group in Guyana. With the rise of Afro-Guyanese power under Forbes Burnham and the PNC in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many mixed people who could “pass” for Afro-Guyanese would do so in order to advance their position. Therefore, denial of mixture (“passing”) worked to buttress social and economic advancement based on phenotype. This is an old colonial pattern which had formerly been employed by “Coloured” (African/European) people passing for white under British rule. Under Burnham, the practice was inverted to one of passing for African in order to benefit from political, economic and social privileges.7 However, in cases where phenotype belied multiracial heritage, multiracial people incapable of passing faced possible discreditation and rejection by Afro-Guyanese.
Representations of the Multiracial Person
As previously stated, the greater the stakes between racial groups, and any increase in racial tension stemming from competition over resources and power, can lead to a great deal of interest and attention being placed on those who occupy an intermediate and ambiguous racial position. Historically, multiracial people have been afforded specific stereotypes and identities which suited a colonial system based on extreme and discrete racial division. Perhaps one of the most salient markers of this is found in Caribbean literature. Edgar Mittelholzer (himself a multiracial Guyanese) was among the first authors to foreground race in his novels as a major component of the society’s structure. In Sylvia (1953) he takes the classic theme of the tragic mulatto and places it within a specifically Guyanese multiracial context. In this excerpt, Sylvia’s British father explains racial and social identity to his daughter:
He went on to tell her how society in the colony was graded. If he had married a white lady, yes, they would have been one of the very best families. But as he had married her mother, whose parents had been black and Arawak Indian and who did not come from an old and respected family, well, his family wasn’t rated as much if she saw what he meant.
“But don’t let that scare you too much. If you can succeed in marrying a man of good family you’ll be alright, because I’m white, an Englishman, and I’m no pauper. That will count heavily in your favour. Mother will be forgotten and overlooked in the general reckoning.”
In a not untypical Caribbean scenario, “undesirable” ancestry is downplayed or, in this case, simply erased. It is not unfeasible to think that a character such as Sylvia would grow up and function in the society as a white Guyanese, regardless of her mother’s racial heritage.
Furthermore, Sylvia, the multiracial protagonist, comes to a tragic end in the novel. Multiracial women, in particular, have historically been portrayed as flawed, doomed heroines who have to rely on what is perceived to be their formidable and excessive allure and sexuality in order to survive. For example, in Alfred H. Mendes’ short story “Her Chinaman’s Way” (1929)8 Maria, the “half-‘paniol” wife of a Chinese shopkeeper is regarded as infinitely desirable and relies on the whims of men who “keep” her:
…her brown face handsome in an exotic way with its full lips, large nose, and small eyes that told you there was Chinese blood in her veins, she looked a strange queen. Her voluptuous figure, inherited from her half-breed Venezuelan mother, had always been sought after by the men in town. (Sander 104)
The story climaxes with the murder of Maria’s multiracial child at the hands of her Chinese husband. Here, even the child must come to a tragic end. In another example, C.A. Thomasos’ “The Dougla” (1933), Elaine, the “dougla” heroine, is “black and elegant” (138), possessing an “irresistible fascination” and “a grace that intoxicated” the men of the community (139). In one scene, Elaine is flirting with men at a dance as her estranged paramour Tony watches in agony. His friend consoles him by explaining: “De dougla at it again…Dat’s de way wit’ dem” (141), inferring that heritage establishes behaviour and expectations not accredited to other women, in this case, a “feline and vicious” woman of African and Indian descent (138).
Such exoticizations were not limited to females: in two more examples from early Trinidadian writing we see how multiracial males are sexualized and deemed to possess some irresistible allure. The “dougla” character Maxie of Mendes’ “Sweetman” (1931) is the highly sought after consort of many women; in this case, a “kept” man. In “Boodhoo” (1932), by the same author, the “half-caste” Anglo-Indian protagonist is considered irresistible by his white mistress Minnie; she is “struck by his beauty” (145), his “large and almondshaped” eyes which were filled with a “distressing intensity” and “passion and longing” (149). When he finally embraces her, it is with a “primitive harshness” (161), yet Boodhoo is more than simply the exotic and savage male Other – Minnie is transfixed by the novelty of race mixture itself: “How fascinating to be in the midst of Chinese and Indians and Negroes and crosses between them all!” (147). However, Minnie must fatally pay for her miscegenistic transgression, and the child whose birth results in her death, possesses “blue eyes, pink skin and fair hair” – ostensibly the child of her husband and not Boodhoo – “pure” white and therefore worthy of life.
More recent examples are no less provocative. In a number of newspaper articles from Trinidad, popular perceptions of multiracial characteristics are abundant. During the 1996 Trinidadian controversy over the alleged douglarization of Carnival, a feature on one “dougla” woman was included in the Sunday Guardian. Marilyn Raphael was described as “brown skinned, curly haired…who has managed to get rid of her links (sic) through chemical processing”. She is a “figure of elegance in her skillfully wrapped red sari”, a “true reflection of harmony in diversity…Her ready smile and pleasant disposition make her instantly likable, but it is her deep commitment to completely unite the different races (that)… completely bowls you over” (Wanser 3). In this case, the oversexualized image of the “dougla”/mixed woman gives way to the almost saintly image of the harbinger of peace and unity between the races.
Conversely, in another example, we see how a male of multiracial descent is pathologized due to his ancestry. The man, described as the “‘Fresh’ Beast From the East” was charged with an incestuous sexual assault; reports from the community said that he had committed numerous offences over the years. The article states: “Police say the man’s insatiable appetite for sex involving his own family might in some way related (sic) to his breed. They say he is of mixed descent, with East Indian, Negro and noble Spanish blood all rolled up into one electrifying bundle that represents a walking nightmare” (Ali 1). Again, the image of uncontrolled sexuality and, in this example, deviance is resurrected. In another article which examines a popular dating service, a number of the clients are either looking for mixed race dates, or choose to describe themselves (accurately or not) as mixed, purportedly due to an increased level of marketable desirability. In particular, a “Spanish” description or request appeared to be the defining factor for many (Findlay 5).
It seems apparent that the ways in which multiracial identity is represented is determined by the social and political climate of the time. Factors such as gender are also important variables. The inconsistency and malleability of multiracial identity is utilized by politicians, statisticians, cultural producers and others to suit their agendas. Similarly, national holidays such as Indian Arrival Day and African Emancipation Day in Trinidad can be viewed as the result of political manoeuvering which seeks to support a re-investment by these two groups in an assertion of racial and ethnic origin. The first official Indian Arrival Day was inaugurated in May 1995 to commemorate the 150th arrival of Indian people to Trinidad. Emancipation Day, celebrated officially since 1985, is observed to commemorate the freeing of African slaves in Trinidad in 1838. A predominantly Indian-based government was elected (for the first time) in Trinidad & Tobago in 1995, and the rise in visibility and predominance of Indian figures to positions of political power has created tensions between the Indian community and the previously-dominant African and Mixed groups. It is therefore not surprising that over the last two years, the significance of Emancipation and Arrival Days has increased.
For each event, dignitaries from “the Motherland” are often invited to the celebrations: Indian president Dr. Shaker Dyal Sharma to Arrival Day in 1995 (proclaiming “India has not forgotten you”)9 and the exiled Prince of Libya, Idris Al-Senussi to Emancipation Day ceremonies in 1996. Emancipation Day 1996 was described as the “biggest” ever by a number of sources, although one report stated “…the Emancipation Support Committee skipped a long period of Afro-Trinidadian history and took everyone back to Africa” (Baboolal, Aug. 9, 1996). Contrary to this report, the entertainment for Emancipation Day included among the events art forms indigenous to Trinidad including steelband and calypso. One columnist (Pires 1996) decried the depiction of a “20-foot tall Egyptian symbol” (Hinds 1996) at the festival site: a “Negro” as opposed to “African” sphinx, one with “politically-correct features”. It was the result, he felt, of the “celebration of a blackness so deliberate that the face of the Sphinx could be revised, and the truth re-written, not just without a care, but with something like justification” (Pires, 1996). Similar examples are found in Arrival Day ceremonies, but the emphasis here is less on racial identification with India than with cultural identification and the erasure of class differences. That Indians see themselves as racially “pure” is a given in Trinidad – strong sentiments of anti-miscegenation and notions of pollution have ensured that mixed Indian people are often silenced and/or choose not to recognize non-Indian heritage (particularly if that heritage includes African ancestry) (Hernandez-Ramdwar, Khan, and Reddock). What disturbed most journalists, however, was the glossing-over of the horrors and unpleasantness of indentureship in order to construct a representation of Indian history in Trinidad as one of positive experiences which have lead to economic, educational and now political success for Indians. One columnist wrote: “…in today’s Trinidad, many ex-Africans routinely exaggerate the horrors of their past, while, cattycorner, many Indians, – and whites too, of course – assiduously work at prettifying theirs” (Brown 1995).
What appears to be lacking in Caribbean societies is the input of multiracial people themselves – how they perceive themselves and the society around them. With the racial climate increasingly becoming more polarized between “pure” racial groups in places such as Trinidad and Guyana, and an increased erasure and/or privileging of multiracial people, the insider perspective of multiracial people could prove significant though controversial. It certainly would not serve the interests of those who depend on division between “the races” in order to exercise power in these respective societies. Furthermore, certain multiracial people must ask themselves if they wish to continue to associate themselves with a colonial hierarchy of colour and class which can automatically invest them with racial privilege that is associated with white supremacy and economic elites. Commitment to social change and the amelioration of class differences and economic deprivation based on race and colour must not be dismissed by multiracial people who can “prove” that they are “not racist” because of multiracial ancestry; it must be demonstrated by action rather than words.
“Brotherhood of the Boat”?
The Common Origin Debate in Trinidad
Another illustration of how deeply sentiments run regarding racial identity, particularly in relation to multiple origins, was evident during the 1996 Carnival season in Trinidad. Due to a number of co-existing factors (including the recent first-time election of an “Indian” government and the widespread popularity of chutney soca), tensions heightened among Trinidadians who had an investment in the notion of a pure racial identity. One major challenge to this notion was Brother Marvin’s calypso “Brotherhood of the Boat”, which stated
For those who playin ignorant
Talking about true African descent
If you want to know the truth
Take a trip back to your roots
And somewhere on that journey
You will see a man in a dhoti
Saying he prayers in front of a jhandi10
Two well-known Afro-Trinidadians – artist Leroi Clarke and activist Pearl Eintou Springer, reacted strongly to these lyrics, inferring that they themselves were positive they had no such Indian descent, and that to insinuate Indian ancestry among the majority of the African population was “nonsense”,11 “mischievous and misleading”.12 Other Trinidadians, African and Indian alike, followed suit, disparaging the calypso for alleged historical inaccuracy. However, some commentators, such as the Chief Iyalorisha of the Shango religion Molly Ahye, applauded the calypso for stating that “symbolically or not, we are in the same boat”. Ahye pointed to the many references in the calypso which could relate to either Indian, African, or other traditions (such as prayer flags, manifestations of divinities, etc.).13 The calypsonian Selwyn Demming (singing under the name Brother Marvin) and his wife Shafina, co-authors of the calypso, responded that nowhere had they stated that this “man in a dhoti” was indeed Indian. By being deliberately vague, they hoped to infer that “the history of the two races are so mixed up that there is no reason for division among us” (Baboolal 1996). Despite the calypso’s extreme popularity, it placed second in the Calypso Monarch competition. The winning composition was a calypso sung by the controversial CroCro, entitled “They Look For Dat”, in which the artist belittles Afro-Trinidadian men (in particular) for failing to vote in the last election, thereby ensuring an “Indian” victory.
Erasure of Multiracial Identity in Trinidad
Erasure of Multiracial Identity in Trinidad and Guyana
Although it may seem, by the previous examples, that multiracial people suffer a hypervisibility due to either the public’s prurient interest in their perceived inherited characteristics, or politicians’ interest in their symbolic and/or intermediary usefulness, some multiracial people have a greater choice as to how to they will identify racially than others, and may exercise this choice if their mixed status is of a relative disadvantage to them rather than an advantage. Based on community affiliation, residency, phenotype and so on, these multiracial people will gravitate towards the group with which they are most familiar, but also where they feel most accepted. It is at this point that genealogical heritage becomes less important than ethnocultural affiliation. It follows, then, that in the censuses of Trinidad and Guyana, the category “Mixed” is highly ambiguous (as are all other categories), unless one is intent on studying self-identification of race as opposed to ancestral lineage. Why people choose to self-define as Mixed while others do not (or, perhaps, feel they can not) needs to be examined. Is “Mixed” identity relative to class, income, locale, phenotype? Does self-definition change over time? This would seem probable, as at certain historical moments the sociopolitical climate may affect racial identification. For example, during the Black Power movement years of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, or under the Burnham regime in Guyana, it is probable that many multiracial people who could claim an African identity, but who previously may have declined to, now did so. Similarly, as interest rises in the construction of a competing, culturally distinct and homogenous Indian identity in both Trinidad and Guyana, (especially with the election of the PPP in Guyana in 1992, and the UNC coalition government in Trinidad & Tobago in 1995, both of whom are seen as “Indian” parties) sole Indian identification by mixed-Indian people is becoming more attractive.
What is evident is that the Mixed group has been steadily increasing with each census – up from 16.3% in 1980 to 18.4% in 1990 (Henry 87); and up from 10.3% in 1970 Guyana to 12.2 in 1991 (Bernard 11) (the lower percentage for Guyana could very well be attributable to the mass exodus of “Mixed” Guyanese during the 1970’s and 1980’s). These numbers could reflect an actual increase in multiracial people, or it could instead reflect a desire on the part of some Trinidadians and Guyanese to evade “pure” racial identity in an effort to break out of the racial polarization between African and Indian in each country, despite lack of political power and cohesive community associated with “Mixed” standing. Hypothetically, then, one might suggest that “Mixed” identity may be more attractive to middle and upper class Guyanese and Trinidadians who are more independently secure and less dependent on group affiliation for survival. However, there are still a great many people who, for a variety of reasons, describe themselves as “Mixed” because they feel it is their only option; as, for example, one women who told me, “It’s the most truthful”. Those multiracial people who feel they do not or can not belong to any other group (despite how they may be perceived by others), or who have experienced rejection from racially “pure” individuals, may opt to identify as “Mixed”.
Historically, racial hierarchies in the Caribbean shaped a social structure which rewarded certain racial groups and disenfranchised others. Multiracial people have, at different times and for different reasons, been both rewarded and marginalized. The category of “mixed” itself as it now operates in Trinidad and Guyana has become increasingly unclear and ambiguous, but the official recognition of multiracial identity (despite its desired outcomes and implications by those in power) remains a particularly salient element of social organization in the Caribbean. Whether multiracial identity – in particular “dougla” identity – will be recognized and/or elevated as a desirable identity, remains to be seen.
- Within this paper, “race” refers to a social – not biological – construct which informs power relations between human beings on the basis of phenotype. It is also a term which at times is influenced by culture, region of ancestral origin, assumed behavioral characteristics, and assumed inferiority/superiority. For further elaboration, see Banton and Omi and Winant. return to text
- One notable exception in the scholarship is Arnold Sio (1987), who argues that emphasis has been placed on the elite members of the Coloured group, and that significant numbers of Mixed African/European people in slave societies did not necessarily garner benefits simply due to their racial heritage as is widely assumed. return to text
- In Guyana, the term can also be more loosely applied to anyone of mixed descent, eg. “Chiney-Dougla” (Shibata). return to text
- The most well-known of these calypsos is The Mighty Dougla’s 1961 “Split Me In Two”. Others include Delamo’s “Soca Chutney”, Gypsy’s “Come Batie”(1993), and Sparrow’s “We Could make It Easy If We Try”(1991). For the 1996 Carnival season in Trinidad, Brother Marvin’s “Brotherhood of the Boat (Jahaji-bhai)” was extremely popular and controversial. return to text
- This is a term attached to chutney music, a dance music combining elements of Indian and soca (Afro-Caribbean) melodies and rhythms, sung in both Hindi/bhojpuri and English, and wildly popular in Guyana and Trinidad, particularly within the Indian communities. return to text
- Shalini Puri suggests that a “dougla poetics” is developing which seeks Homi Bhabha’s proverbial third space between two monolithic entities; in this case, African and Indian cultures. She cites calypsonian Drupatee Ramgoonai and writer Ramabai Espinet as two proponents of this hybridized culture. return to text
- At the time of the PPP election win in 1992, the tables turned yet again, and Indian phenotype was sought after. A Guyanese I spoke with who was there at the time of the election joked that during the years of PNC rule, the hair salons were full of people curling their hair, but since the election of Jagan and the PPP, the salons were busy again with people straightening their hair. return to text
- This and the other excerpts from short stories by Mendes and Thomasos appear in Reinhard Sander’s (ed.) anthology From Trinidad: An Anthology of Early West Indian Writing. return to text
- Quoted in Brown, Wayne. “Indian Arrival Day In Our Time”, Sunday Guardian June 1995. return to text
- Quoted in the TnT Mirror, 16 Feb., 1996: 26. return to text
- Pearl Eintou Springer, (letter to the editor), Trinidad Guardian, 16 Feb. 1996: 8. return to text
- Leroi Clarke, quoted in Peter Ray Blood, Trinidad Guardian, 17 Feb. 1996: 19. return to text
- Molly Ahye, (letter to the editor), Trinidad Guardian, 17 Feb. 1996. return to text
Martí-Olivella, J. The Post-Colonial Tourist and/in the Caribbean. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(5).
THE POST-COLONIAL TOURIST AND/IN THE CARIBBEAN
Towards a Theory of Tourism as a Historical/Narratological Subject
In recent scholarship, many reading strategies are being used to analyze the production of discourses that revolve around the polarities of center and margin or of colonizing and colonized subjects. Travel writing has become increasingly studied within the general framework of colonial practices. Both Marxists and feminist scholars have frequently combined efforts to describe what Edward Said, in his pioneering work, Orientalism, summarized as “the Western construction of the Orient as Other” (Mills 48). I would like to contribute my own effort to this ongoing process of textual decolonization by shifting the post-colonial critical discourse on to a social practice that constitutes, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, the most important form of travel in our world: tourism. What is the meaning of tourism today? What is its significance in terms of cultural construction and/or erosion in our post-colonial world? Which are the ideological dimensions of tourism? How many types of tourism are there? Does intellectual tourism become a multicultural practice of narratological significance? And, in the specific context of the Caribbean, how does tourism contribute and/or hinder its own historical and textual redefinition?
Needless to say, to answer these questions properly and in some depth is beyond the scope of this paper. My goal here is to suggest the importance of tourism as a signifying practice beyond its obvious socioeconomic relevance. Concerning its economic status, I would like to refer to David Harrison’s concise formulation: “Even at first sight, international tourism represents an immense, temporary migration of population. Furthermore, it is now the third largest item in world trade, accounting for more than 7 per cent of all world exports” (Harrison 4). Interestingly enough, tourism has already generated a considerable amount of analytical literature in the social sciences. And yet, it has received far less attention from the fields of post-colonial and cultural studies. I find that fact quite paradoxical given the overall importance of tourism in our post-colonial world. Briefly put, my contention is that tourism constitutes the most salient aspect of a neo-colonial situation, that is, the massive exploitation of natural and/or cultural resources of the Second and Third World by members of the First World. This consideration is both highly contested and widely echoed by many statements coming from sociological and anthropological studies of tourism. Dennison Nash’s essay on “Tourism as a Form of Imperialism” offers one of its clearest formulations:
If productivity is the key to tourism, then any analysis of touristic development without reference to productive centers that generate tourist needs and tourists is bound to be incomplete. Such metropolitan centers have varying degrees of control over the nature of tourism and its development, but they exercise it — at least at the beginning of their relationship with tourist areas — in alien regions. It is this power over touristic and related developments abroad that makes a metropolitan center imperialistic and tourism a form of imperialism. (39)
What if the touristic transaction occurs between members of the First World? Does the imperialistic structure still obtain? Again in Nash’s words:
The terms of tourist-host transactions are defined not only by the condition of strangerhood but by the nature of tourism itself. As a tourist, a person is at leisure, which means that he [sic] is not bent on shaping the world, only experiencing or toying with it. … To put it more succinctly, others must serve while the tourist plays, rests, cures, or mentally enriches himself. Accordingly, he finds himself separated from those in the touristic infrastructure who serve him by the different, if complementary, nature of the activities specified in the touristic contract. … Even if they come from the same cultures and understand each other perfectly, the basic attitudes they bring to their relationship with each other are distinguished along lines specified by the differences between work and leisure. (45-6)
Before starting my own analysis of the subject, I want to dwell on the first characteristic described by Nash as crucial to the touristic transaction, namely, “the condition of strangerhood.” It is this condition, I would argue, that is at the heart of the historical and narratological importance of tourism. Or, to put it differently, it is the narrative and historical opportunity to negotiate the dialectics between “strange’ and “familiar” or between “estrangement” and “belonging” that turns tourism into a complex, contested and, at the same time, appealing cultural location. Thus, in her Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva writes:
Dialectics of master and slave? The amount of strength changes the very balance of power. The weight of foreigners is measured not only in terms of greater numbers … but is also determined by the consciousness of being somewhat foreign as well. On the one hand, because everyone is, in a world that is more open than ever, liable to become a foreigner for a while as a tourist or employee of a multinational concern. On the other hand, because the once solid barrier between “master” and “slave” has today been abolished, if not in people’s unconscious at least in our ideologies and aspirations. Every native feels himself to be more or less a “foreigner” in his “own and proper” place, and that metaphorical value of the word “foreigner” first lead the citizen to a feeling of discomfort as to his sexual, national, political, professional identity. Next it impels him to identify — sporadically, to be sure, but nonetheless intensely — with the other. (19)
Kristeva’s point concerning the “identity discomfort” that impels the modern citizen to “other” himself/herself is further elaborated by Frances Bartkowski in her Travelers, Immigrants, Inmates. Essays in Estrangement, where he writes:
Identities are always mistaken. The mistakenness of identities must be taken very seriously; I mean by this assertion to bring into some relational dynamic both the psychoanalytic, specifically Lacanian, resonances of this statement, while simultaneously asking my reader to think also of how mistaken identities are at the center of our global politics at this very moment. … My aim is to read the merge of psychoanalysis and politics in the question of domination and its instantiation in dislocated subjectivities. And the site of their merging can be read only in textuality, and in narratives, whether poetic, journalistic, or theoretical. (xvi-xvii)
It is in textuality, indeed, that I want to trace the historicity of the touristic subject as one of the most significant instances of “dislocated subjectivities.” And yet, as Iain Chambers suggests, tourism may indeed be conceived as a resistance to such cultural dislocations inasmuch as its aim is to perpetuate the “domestication of space” as opposed to the migrant subject’s leap into unchartered territory. Chambers’ formulation is very important to my own argument in his textual construction of the “impossible homecoming:”
For to travel implies movement between fixed positions, a site of departure, a point of arrival, the knowledge of an itinerary. It also intimates an eventual return, a potential homecoming. Migrancy, on the contrary, involves a movement in which neither the points of departure not those of arrival are immutable or certain. It calls for a dwelling in language, in histories, in identities that are constantly subject to mutation. Always in transit, the promise of a homecoming — completing the story, domesticating the detour — becomes an impossibility. … Discoveries and conquests, and the subsequent Eurocentric domestication of space, reach their furthest point in modern-day tourism and the “neutral” gaze of knowledge. (5-31)
Contrary to early formulations, the cultural critique of the touristic subject should not rest on its inauthenticity or gregariousness but on its compulsion to repeat the same, to bring his/her homely certainties to the touristic location. At this juncture, it is interesting to recall Dean MacCannell’s reference to Lévi-Strauss self-consciousness in prefacing his well known Tristes Tropiques: “It is intellectually chic nowadays to deride tourists. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes simply: ‘Travel and travellers are two things I loathe — and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.’ (MacCannel, 9). Lévi-Strauss’ discomfort with the touristic identity is further emphasized by MacCannell’s own anecdote:
A student of mine in Paris, a young man from Iran dedicated to the revolution, half stammering, half shouting, said to me, “Let’s face it, we are all tourists!” Then, rising to his feet, his face contorted with what seemed to me to be self-hatred, he concluded dramatically in a hiss: “Even I am a tourist.” I think it significant that people who are actually in accord are struggling to distance themselves from themselves via this moral stereotype of the tourist. (MacCannell 9)
This reductionist “moral stereotype of the tourist” is still pervasive in our narratives today. It responds to a unilateral and fixed view of the touristic motivation that ignores the interplay of roles and subjectivities that many authors consider crucial to the touristic phenomenon. David Harrison, for instance, states: “In the course of a journey, a traveller may fulfill several different tourist “roles,” even if on a “business” trip, and tourist impact may sometimes have less to do with tourists’ motivation than with residents’ perception.” (Harrison 2). It is the willingness to accept one’s own location as a tourist in the eyes of the “residents,” or, in other words, the acceptance of being the object instead of the subject of the touristic gaze that may eventually displace the fixed cultural roles surrounding the touristic subject. However, one question remains: does self-consciousness subvert the narrative of tourism as commercial commodification? Can the intellectual or self-conscious tourist overcome the neo-colonial strictures of massive tourism? The narratives that follow illustrate some of the ideological contradictions outlined so far. They also provide a textual embodiment of the touristic double bind.
The Intellectual as Post-Colonial Tourist
I want to start this section with a reference to the title. With the phrase the post-colonial tourist, I make an obvious allusion to a specific text, The Post-Colonial Critic, a collection of interviews with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, edited by Sarah Harasym. I have chosen that text among the rather large output concerning post-colonial studies because I find it exemplary of the predicament of the intellectual as an “impossible tourist.” Indeed, to recall Iain Chambers’ formulation, in that book we witness Professor Spivak’s “impossible homecoming” to India. As any true intellectual exile, her return “home” imposes a double reality of insider/outsider, or of native/tourist. It is this double perspective and its inherent contradictions and tensions that set out a very specialized new discourse, that of the “post-colonial critic,” or, as I will argue, that of the “impossible tourist.” Spivak herself is very careful in her attempts to find a secure position beyond the troublesome exploitative aspects of tourism. Let me quote her own words:
I really am here because I wanted to learn a little more about how objects of historical investigation are made when there is not enough evidence, and what consequences that has for cultural explanations. Being an Indian by birth and citizenship, I find that this inquiry and the terms of this inquiry somehow get articulated into a place from which I can speak to others. I have never travelled anywhere without a job because it seems to be one way of finding out what the problems with one’s space might be, and of involving oneself in the place one visits. (68-9)
Thus, in unequivocal terms, Spivak rejects the position of tourist. She doesn’t travel without a job. Her job, so to speak, is to try and avoid the commodifying process inherent in the touristic transaction, what Nash termed the “work-leisure distinction” (46). And yet, doesn’t this position entail a degree of subjective privilege? This is certainly the first question she is posed by a group of Indian students during the professorship she held at the Nehru University of New Delhi in 1987. The question literally is: “Are you privileging exile as a vantage point for a clearer perspective on the scene of post-colonial cultural politics?” (67) Spivak’s answer is worth quoting:
I’d like to say that an exile is someone who is obliged to stay away — I am not in that sense an exile. The space I occupy might be explained by my history. It is a position into which I have been written. I am not privileging it, but I do want to use it. I can’t fully construct a position that is different from the one I am in. (68)
Despite the universality of the intellectual’s exilic position, I think it is particularly significant in the Third World, and perhaps even in the Second World, where exiled intellectuals come back in search of a cultural legitimation that seems endangered by their residence, both physically and conceptually, in the post-colonial, post-modern “global village” wherefrom they seek “to decolonize the mind” (67). In Spivak’s case, the tension between “estrangement” and “belonging,” that I have mentioned before as constitutive of the self-conscious touristic subject, is translated into a question of a privileged cultural location: “Would you defend the post-colonial intellectual dependence upon Western models as historical necessity?” To which Spivak responds: “I am not interested in defending the post-colonial intellectual’s dependence on Western models: my work lies in making clear my disciplinary predicament. My position is generally a reactive one….One’s vigilance is sharpened by the way one is perceived, but it does not involve defending oneself” (69-70). It is, therefore, the other’s perception that “sharpens” one’s own “vigilance.” Spivak’s “disciplinary predicament” is precisely that she has to occupy the double position of insider and outsider, and has to articulate a post-colonial discourse from the very center of the neo-colonial metropolis. Her predicament is that of the intellectual or impossible tourist or that of the migrant subject since, in Stuart Hall’s concise formulation, “migration is a one way trip. There is no “home” to go back to” (Chambers 9). Tourists, on the other hand, can conceive themselves as such precisely because they have always a home to return to.
I would now like to examine how these tensions are narratively articulated. Before moving to the specific analyses of touristic textual practices, however, I find it necessary to establish more clearly the theoretical connections between tourism as a social practice and its narrative construction in the context of larger post-colonial strategies. Most studies on the subject have been devoted to early travel writings, from the Spanish so-called conquest of the Americas to the British “imperial travelogues” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My emphasis will be completely different. I will concentrate on contemporary feminine narratives that thematize the touristic practice since I think that tourism is the main contemporary scenario of the “colonial encounter,” or, as Mary Louise Pratt puts it: the “contact zone.” Let me recall here her definition of that term:
I use “contact zone” to refer to the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and untractable conflict…. A “contact” perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees,” not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power. (6-7)
The texts I want to analyze fall mainly into two categories that encompass Pratt’s definition of the “contact zone.” On the one hand, there are those texts which reappropriate the traditional topos of the “return home” narrative in an attempt to decolonize the native subject, to establish a narrative consciousness of the colonial gesture of exploitative “othering” effected on the colonized subject. In this category, I will study Jamaica Kincaid’s vitriolic travelogue to her native Caribbean island of Antigua: A Small Place. The second textual category is that of the transcultural parodic text, one in which the “interlocking practices” become a textual parody of the unsustainable position of the intellectual tourist. In this context, I will analyze Ana Lydia Vega’s short story “Puerto Príncipe Abajo” (Port Prince Below), a self-conscious narrative about a touristic visit of a Puerto Rican female teacher to Haiti, published in the volume Vírgenes y Mártires (Virgins and Martyrs), in 1981. Both texts, therefore, share a common plot and locale: a trip to a Caribbean island. They both contribute to the narrative redefinition of the Caribbean as a multicultural space in their common deconstruction of a homogeneous vision of the Caribbean as a privileged touristic commodity. And yet they are radically different in the ways they articulate the connections between tourism, isolation and exploitation. Kincaid’s case, in the words of sociologist David Harrison, is an exception to the rule of the returning migrant: “However, not all returning migrants are impressed by tourism and its effects. Temporarily leaving Vermont, USA to revisit the island of Antigua, Kincaid saw tourism as the successor to colonialism.” (Harrison 23). In fact, to return to Iain Chambers’ characterization, the cultural critic is the one capable of crossing borders, of becoming a migrant subject: “For migrancy and exile, as Edward Said points out, involves a “discontinuous state of being,” a form of picking a quarrel with where you come from” (2). Kincaid’s text is one of the most powerful illustrations of such a quarrel. Ana Lydia Vega’s text, on the other hand, is a compelling embodiment of the mistaken identities or dislocated subjectivities that Frances Bartkowski so eloquently constructs in his reading of the traveling subject. Vega’s work relies heavily on the notion of “estrangement,” both in its political and psychological dimension, as Diana L.Vélez has shown:
It is clear from even a cursory reading of her four collections of stories that Vega has taken the hard look prescribed by Fanon. It has been said of Ana Lydia Vega that “no perdona a nadie:” she forgives or excuses no one. Her writing is located in that contradictory space opened up by the word of the split subject. Irrationality, desire and the imaginary are her stock-in-trade. Her ambivalence and estrangement from her characters is figured in their contradictory utterances and in those of her preferred narrative voice — a smart-aleck, less than likable know-it-all who gives the term “omniscient narrator” a new meaning. (827)
Ultimately, in bringing these rather disparate texts together, I hope to add another “narrative site” (Bartkowski xvii) where the merging of traveling (mistaken) identities may be represented in a new discoursivity that arises, precisely, from cultural dislocations and historical displacements. Tourism, in this sense, may be seen as a historical (and narratological) subject that attempts to (re)present itself. As MacCannell has it: “The tourist is an actual person, or real people are actually tourists. At the same time, “the tourist” is one of the best models available for modern-man-in-general” (1). The difficulty of historically and textually inhabiting that over-arching metaphor is at the heart of Kincaid’s and Vega’s touristic representations. Their texts stage a resistance to the ritual process of self-commodification implicit in the touristic transaction. Writing from the “contact zone” of their Caribbean touristic encounters, they find themselves to be strangers at home. Their predicament, like the one described by Gayatri Spivak, is that of the “other’s perception.” At “home,” they are perceived as tourists. That is why the post-colonial critic, in his/her radical “migrancy,” has become a post-colonial tourist.
The Impossible Tourist or The Caribbean Encounter
Both Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and Ana Lydia Vega’s Puerto Príncipe Abajo” (Port Prince Below) thematize the touristic subject. Who or what constitutes the touristic subject, though? Perhaps the clearest and most devastating formulation is the one given by Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place. Let me recall it:
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily…. An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you. (14-17)
What is, then, Kincaid’s own position when she goes back to her native Antigua from her permanent residence, the neo-colonial United States? In order to try and answer that, I have to quote Kincaid again, and now “in extenso,” since she problematizes the double bind of being simultaneously tourist and native with incredible force:
That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself. (18-19)
Won’t the Antiguans envy Kincaid’s ability to move in and out of the island at will? On that basis alone, she is indeed a tourist who inhabits the sociological and narratological site that I have described as that of the impossible tourist. In fact, she becomes a powerful illustration of the figure of the intellectual tourist, who, in our postcolonial time, is trapped in the colonizer/ colonized double bind. She is both the touristic subject and the subject of tourism. In other words, in distancing herself from the position of the unself-conscious tourist, she partakes of the guilt and objectification ascribed to the neocolonial realities of tourism. Nash states this clearly:
The tendency to generalize or categorize, which also characterizes strangers’ conceptions of their hosts, suggests the type of relationship common in the modern world. Not only do strangers and their hosts treat each other as types but also as objects. … People who treat others as objects are less likely to be controlled by the constraints of personal involvement and will feel freer to act in terms of their own self-interest. (45)
However, Kincaid’s historical and narratological double bind may be read as an articulation of what Keith E. Byerman has aptly termed “the aesthetics of anger:”
All three works, [A Small Place. At the Bottom of the River. Annie John.] directly or indirectly, examine the female voice as a means to personal, cultural and social power in a colonial and postcolonial context. They express a view that the Caribbean woman, when she offers a critique, must do so from within the cultural assumptions and language of the colonizers filtered through the mother. Thus, the aesthetics of anger takes shape as a dialectic of cultural affirmation and denial: Kincaid attacks society and the culture while acknowledging the power of the mother(land) over her novelistic voice. This latter point is not readily apparent in A Small Place. The extended attack on colonialism, corruption, and tourism as a kind of neocolonialism is straight-forward in its polemics. (92)
If not as readily apparent as in her novels, Kincaid’s anger is textually inscribed not only in her “straight-forward polemics” but in her double articulation of affirmation and denial, which, in A Small Place is forcefully evoked in her empowering call for “the invention of a silence” (Kincaid 51). Before attempting to interpret that silence, I want to suggest another devastating self-interrogation that bespeaks the double bind of her situation:
And so you can imagine how I felt when, one day, in Antigua, standing on Market Street, looking up one way and down the other, I asked myself: Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than what it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them? How did Antigua get to such a state that I would have to ask myself this? (41)
Let me leave you suspended for a while as to Kincaid’s answer to her question so that I can introduce here Ana Lydia Vega’s “Puerto Príncipe Abajo” (Port Prince Below). The story narrates a short visit to Haiti from the viewpoint of the Puerto Rican female narrator who, from the start, adopts a clearly critical position vis-a-vis her compatriots and their condescending attitude towards the Haitians. The first ironic contradiction of the text appears at the end of the initial image or “diapositiva” when she tells us how the group, in a chorus-like fashion, exclaims: “What a pity, poor guys, it breaks your heart, how much misery, my God. And the inevitable, that’s the bitter crop of Independence, as final as the Ite Missa Est” (91, my translation). Thus, the Puerto Ricans attribute the backwardness they see to Haiti’s independent status while the narrator establishes her subjective independence from the group by distancing herself from that “touristic” reaction. Obviously the fact that Ana Lydia Vega is a Puerto Rican writer quite conscious of the neocolonial status of her nation as a touristic haven for North Americans provides the political subtext that adds historical specificity to an altogether highly critical statement. The split between the narrator and the other members of the Puerto Rican touristic group also inscribes allegorically the national split itself, as Diana L.Vélez suggests:
The text’s [“Pollito Chicken”] … division of the national group — “Puerto Rican” into two — a group which laughs and a group which is laughed at — already figures a borderlands problematic developing from within the historical situation of a diasporic culture. This is one sign that Puerto Rico; and by extension, the Caribbean, is a space that can be theorized productively within both paradigms: both diaspora and borderland. A continually evolving dialectic between colony and nation, as well as of spaces within the island nations themselves. (828)
Vélez’s allegorical reading of the Caribbean in “Pollito Chicken” is clearly validated by “Puerto Príncipe Abajo” where the touristic visit to Haiti is a textual remapping and a critical snapshot of the borderland problematics and the racial politics that mark the Caribbean’s mistaken identities and their “evolving dialectic between colony and nation.” It is this very dialectic between colony and nation that informs Kincaid’s direct criticism of the state of political corruption and financial dependence on exploitative tourism that is at the heart of A Small Place. Thus, almost echoing the predicament I have just described in Vega’s story, Kincaid will write:
She said to me then what everybody in Antigua says sooner or later: The government is for sale; anybody from anywhere can come to Antigua and for a sum of money can get what he wants. And I had to ask myself, what exactly should I feel toward the people who robbed me of the right to make a reply to this woman? For I could see the pleasure she took in pointing out to me the gutter into which a self-governing — black — Antigua had placed itself. In any case, this woman and her friends at the Mill Reef Club wanted to restore the old library, but she said she didn’t know if they would be able to do so, because that part of St John’s was going to be developed, turned into little shops — boutiques — so that when tourists turned up they could buy all those awful things that tourists always buy. (47-48)
Racism and economic exploitation, the basic conditions of the historical “colonial encounter,” are thus clearly reinscribed in Kincaid’s description of her personal encounter with this white woman who patronizes their common attempt to restore the old library. Besides remarking on the importance of the library in Kincaid’s text as a symbolic and textual site for the “colonial encounter” to happen, what I want to emphasize here is the significance of her racial status, which conditions the response of the old white woman. It will be the same question of racial status that is further elaborated in Ana Lydia Vega’s text, when we see how the narrator, in a way reminiscent of Vélez’s characterization of “a less than likable know-it-all,” spells out even more clearly her difference from the rest of the group of school teachers by saying “how impossible it is not to feel oneself special amidst this delegation of urban matrons,” only to continue in her interior monologue to tell us that “today they will want to know my sign of the zodiac, to dig in my afro to find the fatal ancestor. The issue is my status” (92). Thus, we, as readers, become also aware that the narrator is seen as racially different from the other teachers and, therefore, placed at a distance that allows scrutiny. This gesture of the group is not only accepted but replicated by the narrator, who insists on isolating herself in her historical and narratological self-consciousness.
Los demás han ido a la caza de vudú como turistas gringos sedientos de sangre de pollo. … Insistes en aislarte con Haití. El de la Historia. El que pone la piel de gallina y timbales en el pecho. Poseída por Ogún con todos los ejércitos dessalinianos cabalgándote en el cráneo, quieres nada menos que violentar la cuerda del tiempo y ver germinar en flashback el árbol mentado de la libertad. Romanticismo intelectual de ligas menores, proclama sonriente el veterano mutilado de tu ser. (All the others have gone hunting voodoo like gringo tourists thirsty for chicken blood. … You insist on isolating yourself in Haiti. The historical one. The one that gives you goose bumps and sends drums to your chest. Possessed by Ogún with all the Dessaline armies riding in your brain, you want nothing else but to do violence to time’s rope and to see in a flashback that age-old tree of freedom. Intellectual romanticism of a minor league, exclaims the smiling mutilated veteran in you. (95)
Ana Lydia Vega’s narrator, thus, wants to avoid her exploitative position as tourist by means of a romantic gesture of historical self-consciousness. A gesture that separates her, that isolates her, from the unself-conscious touristic group. In Kincaid’s narrative, such a gesture is in itself impossible since, as she writes:
They [Antiguans] have nothing to compare this incredible constant with, no big historical moment to compare the way they are now to the way they used to be. No Industrial Revolution, no revolution of any kind, no Age of Anything, no world wars, no decades of turbulence balanced by decades of calm. Nothing, then, natural or unnatural, to leave a mark on their character. It is just a little island. (79-80)
No possibility, therefore, for Kincaid to occupy an isolated historical space where there is none to be found. Can, on the other hand, that position be attained or sustained by Ana Lydia Vega’s narrator, in the midst of her current degradation and the inescapable fact of her being ultimately and literally a tourist, “an ugly thing.”? In fact, when we see her for the last time, she is “once more in the market place with a desire to take a picture riding you as an unbridled horse. You tell yourself piously that misery is not folkloric. You remember that you have lost a button and ask how much it costs the first one that catches your eye. Five dollars, you are told by a short man with a restless look. He got you: TOURIST. Despite your skin color and your love. TOURIST: like the rest of them. You tell him no, with a sadness in your gesture” (98). And the narrator is forced to admit the inevitable: she has been positioned as the touristic other to be exploited in return for the historical exploitation of the colonial powers. At the end, that touristic condition is fully inhabited as she acknowledges her own relief in coming back “home” where she utters the “Mea culpa. Haiti is a slap in the face of your synthetic goodness. A country that does not forgive. Every single act is a guilty one and sorrow is a luxury that one pays at a touristic price.” (98) Unlike Vega’s, Kincaid’s narrative voice in A Small Place is not a sorrowful one. It is a very angry voice that articulates the conflation between tourism and colonialism in an unabashed attempt to redefine her historical subject: the voice of her people. This is what she tells us about that voice:
And it is in that strange voice, then — the voice that suggests innocence, art, lunacy — that they say these things, pausing to take breath before this monument to rottenness, that monument to rottenness, as if they were tour guides; as if, having absorbed the event of tourism, they have absorbed it so completely that they have made the degradation and humiliation of their daily lives into their own tourist attraction. (68-69)
Ultimately, therefore, Jamaica Kincaid becomes the perfect embodiment of the post-colonial critic as impossible tourist. In fact, she inhabits its crucial double impossibility, a double bind, the historical resolution of which would require, in Kincaid’s own words: “the invention of a silence.” As she puts it: “The people in a small place cannot give an exact account, a complete account, of themselves, … for that would demand a careful weighing, careful consideration, careful judging, careful questioning. It would demand the invention of a silence, inside of which these things could be done” (51). In the invention of this silence spoken against the historical silencing, I feel the echoes of Gayatri Spivak’s own remarks, when she exclaims: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced? (Post-Colonial Critic 62). Kincaid has indeed developed that rage. It is the rage of the post-colonial tourist who uses her dislocated and split position inside and outside of the colonial script in order to subvert it. As Byerman puts it:
Just as the Eurocentric perspective reduces the colonized to objects of ridicule and abuse, so here the visitor from that outside world is made the object of derision by the natives. At the same time, such mocking has to be masked. … Antiguans must appear deferential, even if they are in reality filled with anger. Kincaid inverts the power of naming inherent in colonial discourse by saying in public what other Antiguans can say only in private. In other words, she violates the female role of passivity and voicelessness inscribed in the culture. ( 92)
Kincaid’s cultural subversion is precisely the invention of a (female) voice that speaks against the silencing of the people. In developing this voice, she has created a new narrative space wherefrom that silence is both undermined by her public rage and also (re)invented by her powerful and empowering historical gesture. Or, as Iain Chambers has it:
To discuss the decentering of the white male voice, of the European cogito, and to bring into view the “other,” a cultural and historical elsewhere, … It is to acknowledge a time that is shared and yet simultaneously limited, by being differentiated, located, placed, inhabited. The insistence on limits, on the propriety of reticence, does not necessarily involve a turning away from engagement, but rather sees in that bounded, historical and differentiated zone the space of questions, potential extensions, further dialogue and subsequent remaking. Such a language, which at times necessarily becomes a language of silence, might permit the development of a “positive relation to listening to others. (19)
The empowering potential of Kincaid’s narrative gesture lies in her invention of a voice that listens to and articulates the chosen silence and/or the historical silencing of her Antiguans’ “others.” It is from her mistaken identity and dislocated cultural position, that of the migrant subject as post-colonial tourist, paradoxically, that Kincaid is able to construct a historical and narratological redefinition of herself at “home,” in Antigua, in the Caribbean.
I want to express my gratitude to Fernando Valerio, Giles Wayland-Smith and Shanna Lorenz for their editorial support in the preparation of this essay. Previous versions of this article were read at the American Comparative Literature Association Meeting: “Borders, Exiles and Diasporas.” (Claremont, California, March 1994) and at the 1994 International Conference on Narrative Literature: “Nativity and Narrativity: Multicultural Frameworks of Literature.” (Vancouver, Canada, April 1994).
Puleo, G. Merengue and the Politics of Nationhood and Identity in the Dominican Republic. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(6). Available: http://sites.allegheny.edu/latinamericanstudies/latin-american-issues/volume-13/
MERENGUE AND THE POLITICS OF NATIONHOOD AND IDENTITY
IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
“Soy merenguero hasta la tambora.”
Johnny Ventura, from the merengue
“Merenguero hasta la tambora”
Oddly enough, contemporary debates over nationhood and identity in the Caribbean have ignored music, an important component in this region’s culture. Musicians, defined as “organic intellectuals”(136) by Cornel West, possess an understanding that enable them through their music to focus upon the crisis of identity and modernity in the world. Considered scholars in the Gramscian sense, merengueros and other musicians operate without benefits and ties that flow from secure institutional locations within the modern state (Gramsci 251). Today in the fragmented, post-modern world, this unique type of intellectual offers a different perspective since his/her cultural politics remain outside of the traditional dialectic between the academic elite and the masses.
Dominicans, using the converging musical traditions of the Caribbean world and the post-modern conditions of endless pressures of economic exploitation, political racism, colonialism, sexism and exile, have consistently reevaluated and reinvented their own ethnicity and national identity through the musical genre of merengue. Any contemporary, post-modern identity, and especially a Dominican one, can no longer be considered insular due to the constant migrations of peoples. In the field of music, the constant coming and going of Dominicans to other nations has fostered a sense of borrowing from many different sound systems and cultures from continents as diverse as Africa and Europe, from such “Caribbean” countries as Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and from the sounds and hip hop styles of black America. Also, the inclusion of modern musical techniques like mixing, scratching, and sampling serves to create a new cultural production with an identity to match. The experiences of Dominican emigrants in New York City and other islands in the Caribbean provide further examples of a complex cultural exchange that fosters new political and social identities.
Nowadays, the Dominican Republic is commonly known as “the land of merengue.” However, this has not always been the case. Merengue did not become popular in the Dominican Republic until as late as the twentieth century. In fact, the Dominican elite did not accept merengues as a ballroom dance until the 1920s (Mercado 86). Outside of the Dominican Republic, merengues only gained a solid audience in the l960s, and today the current international explosion of this musical form is largely due to Juan Luis Guerra and his Group 4.40.
The notion that this national musical form began first as a “rural folk dance” is not entirely accurate. Merengue has been traced back by musicologists and sociologists to two original sources. One theory, proposed by Austerlitz, is that its origins are found in the French court of King Louis XIV in the 17th century (71). There, this folk dance evolved into a formal one as it acquired a genteel nature. French colonists, emigrating to the Caribbean, had taken this musical and cultural form with them, and during the eighteenth century this musical genre, called mereng in Haitian Creole and méringue in French, was heard in upper-class salons in Saint-Domingue (Fouchard 96-97). On the island Hispaniola, merengue would become a couples dance performed first in upper-class contexts, and afterwards reinterpreted by rural populations. These same transformations would then, also, evolve into vocal genres.
Another theory, supported by Davis, postulates that merengues can be traced not to Europe, but back to Africa (“Aspectos” 260). African slaves, as documented by Moya Pons (Manual 32), were transported to the Dominican Republic as early as 1518 to substitute for the then-decimated Taíno population in order to work in the sugar industry. These slaves brought with them a musical tradition that would combine with European musical forms to become merengue. This early merengue, as both theories concur, was created from the syncretization of European and African traditions to form a new, hybrid musical form and dance with a definite, Afro-Caribbean flavor. Typically, merengue was played by an ensemble of guitar, or the guitar-like cuatro, a güira, a tambora drum, and a marimba. These instruments are typically associated with Africa. The wooden accordion, an important instrument in playing merengues, was either brought by German, Italian or Spanish immigrants much later in the l800s and would replace the softer string instruments (Hoetink 64).
Throughout almost five hundred years, the Dominican Republic has long designated itself as white and Hispanic. In fact, it prides itself on being the first Spanish colony in the New World. This unrealistic, official self-definition is directly juxtaposed to the neighboring country of Haiti, which has always defined itself as not only an Afro-Caribbean country, but also the first independent nation in Latin America. Despite the data that three-quarters of the population of the Dominican Republic is mulatto (Manuel 98), there is little public acknowledgement of the country’s African heritage. In the Dominican Republic, as in other Caribbean nations, there is much racial diversity according to social class and region. As to class, the landed oligarchy considers itself as mainly white; the upper-middle class is either white or light-skinned black; and the lower-middle to poor represent themselves in different ways according to regions as González describes the racial make-up of the nation (“Patterns” 110). In the southern region and the border area with Haiti there are mostly black and African-influenced peoples; in the Cibao Valley to the north, mostly Hispanic; and those in the eastern part of the country are mixed. Cities and towns have been, historically, thought of as traditionally white, but surrounded by black communities as in the case of the capital and the southeastern city, San Pedro de Macoris. However, these seemingly simple ethnic patterns have been complicated by the immigration of various groups since the nineteenth century, especially American blacks, Jews, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Syrians, Lebanese, and Haitians as documented in “Patterns of Dominican Ethnicity”(González 112). Also, mass migrations from rural to urban centers due to changing economic forces have driven many peasants and working class peoples to relocate to towns and cities, and then even beyond to New York City.
Within this racial and cultural mix called el pueblo dominicano, this country’s black population and its African influence represent an important layer of culture laid down over its five-hundred year history. The first blacks to arrive in Santo Domingo were, in fact, not slaves, but Christians from Spain who had been living in that European country since the 1300s as Davis documents (“Music” 124). In the seventeenth century, slaves were introduced directly from the continent especially from the southern parts of Africa, specifically from Senegambia and the Guinea regions (Curtin 45-47). The aspects of musical culture, considered typically “Dominican,” such as tamboras and merengue, may well come from these African nations. The more obvious African customs such as foods and dance forms, associated largely with black enclaves, are probably from a more recent origin, from slaves from the Congo-Angolan region in the eighteenth century (Curtin 48-49).
Dominican culture and even its population are additionally rendered complex by immigrations of African peoples from three foreign origins: Haiti during various historical periods even up until the present; the deep South of the United States with African-American emigrations; and an influx of African peoples from the Anglophone Caribbean. Haitians, in particular, have made important contributions to the development and nature of Dominican music and culture, ever since the division of the island with the French occupation of the western third in 1697. This is due to their geographic proximity, their numbers and their Catholicism, which provides a way into Dominican folk religion. In fact, Haitian residents in the Dominican Republic, whatever their legal status or length of stay, have assimilated and even have influenced Dominican national culture. However, in the Dominican Republic there has always been a strong anti-Haitian and anti-African sentiment. Ironically, as Frank Moya Pons in his study El pasado dominicano points out, “One of the greatest paradoxes in the formation of the Dominican nationality is that as the Hispanic population blackens, the Dominican mentality whitens”(239). Alcántara Almánzar traces how anti-Haitian prejudice and Dominican identity developed side by side (163). In general, Africanness has been associated with Haiti and its people have always been depicted in Dominican history and literature as “bloodthirsty, cannibalistic, demon-ridden, and inherently evil and jealous” (González, “Social Functions” 331).
While the ruling class in the Dominican Republic has traditionally identified with Spain, the other classes that are made up of a large number of mulattos and Afro-Caribbean peoples euphemistically refer to themselves as indios or indios oscuros on their national identification cards. Alcántara Almánzar has noted in literature that many Dominican writers, among them the poet José Joaquín Pérez (1845-1900) and the novelist Alfredo Fernández Simó (1915-1992), seek the origins of Dominican culture in an idealized Indian past (163). Even in contemporary literature, Pedro Mir in his poem “Hay un país en el mundo: poema gris en varias ocasiones” speaks only of the descendants of European and indigenous inhabitants of the country, more specifically the “campesinos que no tienen tierra”(18). This romanticized indigenismo minimizes African influences in Dominican culture, and often erroneously attributes many aspects of this nation’s culture to Taíno Indians rather than to African peoples (Deive 105-106).
Dominican history is also filled with anti-African sentiments. An important example is Moya Pons’ portrayal of the Haitian occupation of the entire island from 1822-1844 as a “brutal nightmare”(Manual 230) with many families fleeing to other Caribbean islands. Ironically, during those same twenty-two years of Haitian control, slavery was officially abolished and freed slaves were parceled out small plots of lands by the government for their own farming (Manual 225).
In 1844 when the Dominican Republic freed itself from Haitian control, Dominican identity became marked by racial and ethnic competition with Haiti. Dominicans defined Haitians as blacks, while they continued to view themselves as white, European and Indian. They boasted of being the “cradle of the Americas” since Santo Domingo was the first main European settlement in the New World. Moreover, Dominicans emphasized their strong tradition of Catholicism as opposed to the African cults or voodoo practiced by the “savage” Haitians. For Dominicans, Spanish was seen as a symbol of their identity. It was thought to be more important and accepted in contrast with Haitian Creole, which many Dominicans considered a patois rather than a language. According to Rodríguez Demorizi, the struggle against Haitian domination contained “three dominant elements: color, language, and race. The strongest and most decisive of these elements was language”(Lengua 290).
Accordingly, Dominican nationalism and identity developed in opposition not to Spain, but to Haiti. In fact, the Dominican Republic’s independence day, February 27, does not commemorate freedom from centuries-long Spanish domination, but from the twenty-two year occupation by Haiti. Another example of the denial of an African past is that the negritud movement, that was so prevalent in the Caribbean in the l920s and 1930s, had little impact in the Dominican Republic, even though the Dominican poet Manuel del Cabral was one of its founders. Even today in the Dominican Republic, there are no well-known contemporary writers that treat Afro-Caribbean themes such as the Cuban poet Nancy Morejón.
This anti-African, and more specifically anti-Haitian environment, has often culminated in overt racism and even brutal incidents, such as the slaughtering of over twenty thousand Haitians near the Dominican border by Trujillo’s forces in 1937 (Manual 519). The most recent concrete example of this anti-Haitian attitude was seen in the massive deportation of Haitian immigrants and their descendants from the Dominican Republic between June and September 1991. During those four months the Balaguer government in the Dominican Republic sent back more than 50,000 Haitians to their country of origin (Duany 71). This recent government action demonstrates how Haitians are still viewed as unassimilative elements in Dominican culture. The Dominican sociologist del Castillo captures this antagonism and hatred towards Haitians with these words: “The prolonged period of Haitian domination, the wars and invasions by the ‘Westerners,’ the constant immigration of workers throughout the present century, have shaped the collective image of Haitians and their attributes as agents of evil and experienced practitioners of paid rites” (Ensayos 175).
Nevertheless, the Dominican Republic’s strong African heritage is quite evident not only in the racial mixture of its population, but particularly in the realm of folk religion and music. For example, many popular beliefs are based on West African and Congolese spirits, like Yemáya, and Kalunga. Dominican folk religion, also, bears obvious affinities to Haitian vodou and Cuban santería. In music, the Dominican Republic’s most important musical genre, merengue, is clearly a product of the syncretic creolization of African, European, Caribbean, North American and indigenous cultural forms. Some accounts report that merengue was first danced in 1844 in the northwestern region of the country, near the Haitian border, to celebrate the victory by Dominicans in the Battle of Talanquera against the Haitians (Coopersmith 120). If it were, in fact, first observed in that region of the country, then Austerlitz’s argument that it may have descended from the Haitian mereng seems quite plausible (71). However, this point has been widely contested by Dominicans who deny any African or Haitian influence on their national music.
Dated from 1854 and 1855, the first printed, historical documents referring to Dominican merengue consist of diatribes, often in verse, condemning the genre. These attacks were published in literary journals and newspapers and decried the fact that the vulgar merengue was being danced in polite society (Jorge 31). In 1875, Ulises Francisco Espaillat, a Dominican intellectual who later served as President of the Republic (March 1876-December 1876), renewed the campaign against merengue, which by then had displaced other musical genres. At that time, Espaillat appropriated European customs and traditions as the major components of Dominican culture while he deemed African-influenced culture inappropriate fare for the salons in Santo Domingo. Rodríguez Demorizi documents that Espaillat through his writings had persuaded Dominicans to emulate only European, North, and South American countries which he considered more “civilized than the Caribbean islands”(Música 137). Therefore, the “vulgar” dance ceased to be performed in Dominican salons after these strong attacks.
During the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Dominicans were peasants: the 1880 population of the republic is estimated as 97% rural as cited by Moya Pons (“Modernización” 213). Rural versions of merengue,which differed in instrumentation and musical style from salon merengue, had emerged by the middle to late 19th century. This musical form, according to some historians who wished to emphasize the European influence in Dominican culture, was documented as coming from the northeastern Cibao region, a place inhabited by Europeans and named as “the cradle of merengue”(Mercado 86). Others argue that merengue was born near the “white” city of Puerto Plata on the northern coast (Mercado 86). Merengue, by then, was becoming vocal music that straddled worlds–European and American, urban and rural, and folk and cultured. However, towards the end of the l9th-century merengue would remain essentially rural music played at family parties and community celebrations, such as fiestas patronales.
During the United States’ occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924, popular music from the United States lost favor with the ruling class. Dominican high society violently opposed the performance ofmerengue at their functions as late as 1911, five years before the United States invasion, and then more or less accepted it between 1922-1924. Merengue, once scorned by the Dominican ruling elite because it was so identified with the rural, vernacular culture, for that same reason after the invasion supported and danced to this music as it became a symbol of national identity (Black 23). However, before this musical genre could enter elite society, it needed to be adapted. This process took many years as composers searched for a way to transform merengue from a rural folk form to urban salon music. In 1918, the formally trained musician and composer Juan Francisco García published the first arrangement of a merengue; however, this musical composition was intended to be heard in a concert hall rather than danced to in salons. Four years later, Julio Alberto Hernández followed García’s example of basing arrangements on folk merengues, but unlike García, Hernández added lyrics (Jorge 102). However, upper circles of Dominican society moved slowly in accepting this musical form. Del Castillo and García Arévalo cite a newspaper article which describes how members of the elite were so scandalized by merengues that they walked out of a well-known night club in protest: “In the Commercial Club of Puerto Plata, those present at the dance left the salon in repudiation of the audacity of playing a popular and vulgar tune in such a distinguished place”(26). In Lengua y folklore de Santo Domingo, Rodríguez Demorizi cites a rich Dominican in 1922 who describes merengue as “the typical music of our countryside, with a very danceable and lustful rhythm”(137). For many years, the upper class objected to the sexual connotations of couples dancing close. However, with refinements provided by formally trained musicians, merengue would later be heard in salons and dance halls of the elite.
During the U.S. occupation, a campaign of international diplomacy and propaganda proved to be the only effective means of resistance by Dominicans. Calder writes that victory by Dominicans would be achieved only by a “program of protest . . . that would eventually force the United States to abandon the occupation”(241). Eco argues that this type of guerrilla warfare and resistance via expressive culture are analogous; he calls the latter “semiotic guerrilla warfare”(135). Dominicans undermined the North American enemy psychologically through the use of sabotage, terrorism, and propaganda, including merengue with its subversive lyrics. Calder considers the interest of the elite in merengue as crucial to the movement (249-259). After the U.S. Marines withdrew from the Dominican Republic, merengue reverted back to being a marker of class rather than national identity. By the time Rafael Trujillo came to power in 1930, merengue was once again principally associated with rural traditions, and in urban areas with bars and brothels.
During the second decade of this century, Trujillo used merengue to obtain and then consolidate his power. In this way, merengue lost its subversive character, and became a musical and cultural form that openly supported an established, conservative regime. As Miniño observes: “Merengue was one of the means that the tyrant used to break the resistance of the social elite, who had previously rejected him, this being a subtle way of imposing one class upon another”(17). In 1936, Trujillo brought Luis Alberti’s Cibao dance band to the capital, then renamed Ciudad Trujillo, to play merengues at formal balls. This musical group was persuaded by Trujillo to change its name to “Orquesta Presidente Trujillo” in order to aid the dictator in flaunting this musical form as a symbol of his regime.
The dictator’s influence on Dominican popular music was by no means limited to supporting certain musical genres and bands. Under his tutelage, Dominican music responded to his very specific agenda: propaganda (Jorge 76-77). No criticism of the regime, either explicit or implicit, was tolerated in music, or in any other media for that matter.
Merengue has always been a vehicle for social commentary of all sorts, so this brutal censorship represented a radical departure from its original form and purpose. Musicians were forced to prove their loyalty to Trujillo by composing songs praising his every action. Thus, during his thirty-one year regime, thousands of merengues extolling the dictator and his activities were composed. An anthology of songs from the period titled Antología musical de la era de Trujillo 1930-1960 contains three hundred of the best merengues, among them “Gloria al benefactor”(1932) and “Trujillo es grande e inmortal” (1953) as compiled by Crassweller (78).
Trujillo espoused a Hispanophilic, racist sense of a national identity that overtly rejected African-influenced culture. Trujillo selected the merengue cibaeño to construct it as strictly European in origin and legitimized throughout the centuries by the approval of the Spanish elite. Trujillo, even though he had a Haitian grandmother, was rabidly anti-African and anti-Haitian. He tried to associate merengue with a European, creole tradition; however, he could not mask its strong African elements. Melodic and rhythmic improvisation found in merengues is based on the African tradition of keeping a constant rhythm and changing the variations of melody that accompany such a piece, much like North American jazz.
In 1961, Trujillo was assassinated and thus ended the thirty-one year rule of the dictator. In 1962, in a landslide decision, a social democrat Juan Bosch was elected President. However, during the following year the oligarchy considered him a leftist and a military coup overthrew him. A period of social unrest followed, and in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson sent 23,000 U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic to ostensibly protect American lives and to prevent a “second Cuba.” José Moreno qualifies this action by Johnson as “the largest military operation in the Western Hemisphere since 1898″(1).
One might expect that the military invasion by the United States would motivate Dominicans to reject all that was associated with North America. However, a form of contradictory popular culture emerged that combined both native and foreign elements. One example of this mixing of cultures was the “new merengue.” Johnny Ventura defines this new cultural form in an interview:
When the dictator Trujillo died, many people will remember that we had a more or less traditional merengue, that soft and monotonous merengue that already was beginning to lag behind a people who were moving quickly towards their liberty and progress, most of all because of the opening of the country’s frontiers to all modern currents, of politics, of ideas, of the high arts and the popular arts. (23)
According to Austerlitz, Ventura’s innovations of merengue and the idea for his “combo-show” were borrowed from Elvis (80); however, the important influence of the North American soul singers Chubby Checker and James Brown should not be discounted or even ignored. Ventura in his own words alluded to these important influences as he explains how he tried to save merengue from extinction:
Although I did my acrobatics to the beat of rock and twist as a teenager, I carried the spirit and vocation of merengue within me. It had occurred to me to mix classic merengue with “rock” and “twist.” If I had more power in those days, I might have done other things to save merengue from extinction. . . I had to limit myself, heeding the advice of a saying that I later learned: “If you can’t beat ’em, join’em.” (24-25)
Ventura’s music serves as an example of the new vision embraced by younger Dominicans. He describes how with merengue at that time “modern Dominican orchestras and groups in fact marched shoulder to shoulder with the progress of popular music all over the world” (26-27). As Ventura’s comments reveal, the younger generation wanted to openly and fully embrace the outside world and its modernity, while the older generations simply wished to maintain a national identity grounded in the country’s “white-washed” traditional past.
In reaction to anti-U.S. sentiment in the aftermath of the l965 invasion and the U.S. support of the military regime of Balaguer, the country’s attraction to North American or English rock began to decline in the l960s. At the same time in Latin America, there was an enormous proliferation of other musical forms, such as balada, bolero and salsa. By far, the most visible musical competition in the l970s was between merengue and salsa. Salsa was undeniably the product of the modern pan-Caribbean experience: salsa musicians were mostly Puerto Rican, its rhythms were principally Cuban, and its social context was primarily the Latino barrios of New York City (Rondón 67). During the entire decade of the l970s salsa was promoted aggressively all over Latin America and its popularity grew. During that time, merengue was only heard on radio stations in the Dominican Republic.
The relationship between these two Caribbean musical forms, salsa and merengue, is multidimensional and complex. Salsa, like merengue, appealed to Dominicans because it was considered great dance music. Unlike rock and balada, salsa is a close relative of merengue since both share several Caribbean features: African-derived rhythms; danceable improvisational sections; and spicy, satirical lyrics drawn heavily on Caribbean vernacular language. One of the first great salsa contributors was the Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco, which meant that Dominicans could claim strong bonds to salsa. Another important point of contact between salsa and merengue is the long-standing and active tradition of Cuban son. Finally, salsa’s grounding in New York Latino barrios and its urban lyrics were easily understood by Dominicans who were similarly experiencing difficulties in Santo Domingo or as immigrants to Puerto Rico or New York City. In this respect, the Balaguer years constituted a new era, with marked effects on music. The greatest change was the dramatic urbanization of the country, fueled by the land acquisitions of multinational corporations which uprooted thousands of farmers. Many peasants flooded into the capital and other cities. As a result, the character of this nation’s culture drastically changed, as a population that in 1960 was 70% rural then became predominantly urban.
As salsa became more commercialized in the l970s, it also became more homogenized and less creative. By the end of the decade, merengue began to replace salsa as the preferred dance music not only in the Dominican Republic, but in Puerto Rico and among Latinos in New York as well. However, salsa’s role in Dominican national culture has been ambiguous. On the one hand, it is considered a dynamic symbol of cultural resistance to North American cultural imperialism, but for many it is still seen as the more popular Caribbean, musical form. For many, the triumph of merengue in dance halls and on radio stations was sweet revenge, and musicians who helped in this victory were regarded as warriors and heroes. Willie Rodríguez describes merengueros at that time as “the guerrillas of music, who go to Puerto Rico and place a bomb in the places where they play”(21).
As Rodríguez Demorizi points out, from its beginning “the lyrics of merengues were frequently quite pedestrian or nonsensical”(Lengua 330). In contrast, in Latin America in the l970s musicians were seeking to employ their own folk music as vehicles for commentary and critique on social issues. Thus, artists joined forces to develop a movement known as “nueva canción” which had a clear sense of mission and purpose, part of which was to establish new, progressive patterns of music making and consumption that would befit an idealized society envisioned by musicians and composers. Morris defines this movement as “a fusion of traditional and folkloric musical forms with sociopolitical lyrics. This music intended to express current reality and social problems in a meaningful style” (1-2).
In 1974 an international “Nueva Canción” Festival was held in Santo Domingo. Johnny Ventura closed the concert with a merengue that had become popular, because its refrain “los indios” had been adopted by those opposed to Balaguer’s regime. When the national guard would arrive to quell a protest, the words “los indios” would be shouted out and sung as a sign of resistance to the oppressive regime, and as a signal to disperse. Johnny Ventura, one of the few black musicians of merengue, was an affront to Balaguer not only because of his revolutionary lyrics, but also due to his mere presence. This antagonism between the two was articulated through art, literature, music and even politics. Balaguer in 1937 wrote a book demeaning Haiti, beginning with its title, La isla al revés: Haití y el destino dominicano. This dictator’s policies and literary output not only served to foment further anti-black sentiment, but it also promoted racism and discrimination in the country. As a result, merengue was carried abroad by the massive emigration of many discontented Dominicans. Ventura would travel abroad and play concerts, especially in New York City, and again merengue would become the vehicle for Dominicans to resist an authoritarian and tyrannical regime. Ironically, while the Trujillo regime had restricted emigration, Balaguer encouraged it in order to destroy opposition to his racist policies, but these harsh measures served only to bring international attention to his cruel and oppressive rule.
At the same time that merengue was finding a new home in the diaspora, debates on how this national musical form was linked to the configuration of a Dominican identity were heard in the Dominican Republic. These discussions would culminate in two conferences held in Santo Domingo in the latter years of Balaguer’s regime. The first was organized by a research-musical group Convite in 1976 and was designed to expose the then-current tendencies of commercial merengue, which according to many was absorbing too many outside influences, particularly from salsa. During this conference, merengue’s African roots were hardly mentioned, and were definitely not emphasized.
Two years later another conference “Encuentro con el Merengue” was organized. Among the many presenters were the folklorists Fradique Lizardo and Manuel Rueda, musician Johnny Ventura, and Dagoberto Tejeda of the musical group Convite. Tejeda insisted on the importance of merengue’s African roots and asserted that Convite’s investigations were contributing to the rediscovery of a Dominican musical patrimony. To the group’s credit, Convite composed a merengue for that conference titled “Salve de Mamá Tingó,” which is a song based on the oral tradition that commemorates a black peasant woman from Yamasá who faced troops with a shotgun to defend her rights as a squatter. In the many debates and presentations concerning the cultural identity of the Dominican Republic, the outcome of the two conferences was to embrace modernity and progress through unity, which inherently conflicted with the notion of emphasizing an African past. The conservative political climate of the time is suggested by the arrest of Convite and Ventura after playing their songs at an open concert in Santo Domingo in 1978, just a few months after the conference.
Such cultural conservatism might be explained by the country’s rather turbulent path to nationhood. The Dominican Republic was a colony of Spain, France, and then Spain again. It was occupied by Haiti and twice by the United States. It also has the ignominious distinction of being the only country in Latin America to request annexation both to Spain (1861) and to the United States (1865). Given this irregular and sometimes humiliating path to nationhood, it is not surprising that the notion of continuity is a quality that Dominicans insist on in the construction of their national identity. This preference for continuity can be observed in Dominican music in the persistence of the term merengue throughout its history.
This term, of course, refers to the music and the dance that have been around for over two hundred years. At most, the term has been modified by the addition of the word típico to distinguish the accordion-based groups from the big band orchestras, but essentially the name has been constant. Cubans, on the other hand, routinely give each new variation of rhythm that comes into vogue a distinctive name without feeling that the integrity of their musical traditions is being compromised by the many innovations. Similarly in Haiti, even minor musical variations of Haitian music are given different names, i.e., konpa-dirék and kadans pampa,which are almost identical rhythmically but have different names for marketing purposes (Averill 71). Given this deeply ingrained conservatism, the efforts by Convite and Ventura in having conferences to promote a more flexible concept of cultural authenticity did not succeed.
After a number of years of dissatisfaction and opposition to the repressive regime and its conservative cultural values, Dominicans came out in record numbers and voted against Joaquín Balaguer. The merengue “Llegó la paz” by Blas Durán (under the pseudonym “El Solitario”) would mark not only this electoral victory of Antonio Guzmán from the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD), but also the end of military repression and abuse.
In the l980s merengue, revamped by Johnny Ventura and Wilfrido Vargas, definitely triumphed in the Dominican Republic, dominating the TV programs and the many radio stations there. More remarkably, this musical genre invaded the homelands of salsa, Puerto Rico and New York City. Due to political, economic and social conditions on the island, well over 10% of the Dominican population has emigrated to the United States since 1961. Many desperate citizens continue leaving illegally, even by constructing small boats and rafts trying to pass the turbulent Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Wilfrido Vargas in the merengue “El Itinerario” captures this desperation and warns Dominicans: “don’t go in a yola (launch), don’t kid yourself/because in the Mona Passage, the sharks will devour you.”
Another merengue that deals with this constant theme of migration in Dominican history is “Visa para un sueño” by Juan Luis Guerra. The song consists of four coplas and a series of seguidillas, both of which are formal literary rhymes in Spanish poetry. Like most merengues, the meter is 2/4 and the music is allegro or andante (Coopersmith 24-28). As heard in this song, Guerra follows in the newer tradition of political and social commentary in merengue, as first started by Ventura and later by Convite. In fact, Guerra composes carefully crafted verses that address modern contemporary issues, a technique which has earned him the title of “poet of merengue.” Peter Manuel classifies Guerra’s songs “as a sort of neo-nueva canción, in their singer-songwriter lyricism and their frank confrontation of social themes”(116). In interviews with journalists, Guerra enumerates his sources of inspiration: the poetry of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, the highly politicized verses of the Chilean Pablo Neruda, and the popular oral forms by the European immigrants in the Dominican Republic (del Castillo and García Arévalo 61). However, in this same interview, Guerra never mentions African traditions and influences, but only Spanish poetry and other European influences.
As with Wilfrido Vargas, Guerra in his song recreates the typical preoccupation of Dominicans in everyday life: the desperation to emigrate in order to survive. In his song, he observes Dominicans from all social classes gathering early in the morning to apply for a visa. By nine o’clock in the morning there are no more visas. Since the goal of many is to end up in New York and there is no way to get there legally, the only option left is to cross the Caribbean Sea, enter Puerto Rico clandestinely, somehow make it to San Juan and finally take a plane to New York City. Moya Pons documents this recurrent trip by Dominicans in search of work and a better life (Manual 581). However, this merengue ends on a tragic note. The Dominican’s dream becomes a nightmare as we hear the sound of a helicopter at the end of the song which reminds listeners that U.S. immigration authorities constantly patrol the waters and are always waiting to capture and deport undocumented immigrants. If Dominicans are lucky enough to avoid the U.S. Coast Guard, another equally tragic outcome of their voyage is that the fragile boats might sink and then passengers become bait for the sea.
Another song by Guerra, “El costo de la vida,” laments the difficult situation of Dominicans who live within the nation’s borders. The lyrics of this song describe how no one, not even Dominican politicians, care about el pueblo dominicano and their worries about the high cost of living, bad medical care, and the no-win situation of emigrating. This song which chronicles everyday life in the Dominican Republic makes important social statements that reflect popular concerns and hopes. However, Guerra’s merengues, even though very popular and supposedly representative of the nation’s culture, never address the nation’s African past or even mention African influences in Dominican culture.
A merengue that vilifies the African influence in this nation is the popular song “El Africano” by Wilfrido Vargas. The chorus of this merengue is made up of the words of a child who wakes up from a nightmare and asks his mother: “Mami, ¿qué será lo que quiere el negro?” This song underlines the anti-African sentiment found in Dominican culture since it is really about the “black bogeyman” who will not allow this child to fall asleep. This fear of a menacing black image is historically part of a Dominican, and also a Caribbean, consciousness dating as far back as the Haitian Revolution of 1803. When Haiti became a free nation, French colonists fled to neighboring islands out of fear of reprisals by liberated slaves. The blubbering and “tribal” sounds at the beginning and end of the merengue reinforce this stereotypical depiction of blacks as uncivilized savages.
Along these same lines, Las Chicas del Can reiterate this same feeling of fear and hatred with their merengue “Un negro no puede”. In this composition, the black man is feared by these women. In this context, this song is even more problematic, because of obvious sexual innuendoes inherent in the lyrics. Racist and stereotypical images associated with the sexual virility of black men and the allusion to the crime of rape are obvious themes.
Another group Pochy y su Cocoband sing of “La Negra Pola.” La Pola, in this song, is the name of a black woman, probably a foreigner, who leaves the country to go dance the “chachacha” instead of the merengue.She is the prototype of a sensual mulatta who seduces a man and then leaves him. La Pola is, of course, constructed as the Other, and never as a Dominican.
In the Dominican Republic, no black consciousness movement stressing racial pride ever developed, as it did in other Caribbean countries. What is also noteworthy is that there is an obvious absence of positive representations of Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, and Afro-Dominicans in official discourse and even in official public areas in the Dominican Republic. With the exception of the maroon leader Lemba outside Santo Domingo’s anthropological museum, there are no monuments to important individuals associated with black pride, whether from the Americas or Africa. On the other hand, many of Santo Domingo’s streets are named after Dominican “creole” patriots and statesmen, such as Duarte and Mella, or after white international statesmen, such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy, but not one street name honors a black leader. Political experts have theorized that in the last Presidential election in 1996, Peña Gómez, a celebrated black politician from the Dominican Republic, lost by a small margin due to his obvious African, and perhaps Haitian, past.
For decades, the white peasant of the northern region of the Cibao has been constructed as the image of Dominicanness, and his merengue is deemed the symbol of Dominican identity. Likewise in Puerto Rico, the white jíbaro has become a symbol of boricua identity. However, in 1980 the Puerto Rican author José Luis González published El país de cuatro pisos y otros ensayos that documented the strong African influence in that nation’s history, culture and development. In the Dominican Republic, no author has done the same. As to salsa, its creation is based on African, Caribbean, jíbaro, European, and African American influences.Merengue is undoubtedly a hybrid, cultural form with the same origins, but it has been reinvented and described by many as merely a variation of European and indigenous elements and influences. Even today, lyrics of certain merengues praise the life of the rural, “white” peasant and his “música de la montaña” as seen in the song by Conjunto Quisqueya “¡Qué bueno está este país!” Again, no African influences are explicitly stated in this song.
However, for the past two or three decades, lyrics from the merenguero Johnny Ventura have expressed a view of this creole national identity as not an incarnation of European race and culture, but rather a New World creation born of influences from Africa, other countries in the Caribbean, the United States and also Europe. For example, his song “Merenguero hasta la tambora” celebrates the African influence in Dominican music. In this song, he defines himself as a musician who plays merengues, but more importantly he proudly sings that he is a lover of this musical form to the core of his being. Another musician who has been influenced by Vargas is Luis Díaz, who included congos in the video of his recording “Ay, hombre africano” in 1988. Díaz takes risks by creating a hybrid fusion of salsa, son, bachata and merengue in his songs. This innovative cultural form speaks to a revolution in music which reclaims and reinforces an authentic and historical past grounded in African, American, European and indigenous influences.
The Dominican population residing in the diaspora seems to be more conscious of its African past. For example, those living in New York City are often in contact with Puerto Ricans and African Americans who have been active or at least influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the l960s in the United States. In addition, Dominicanyorks have experienced North American racism; so, they are definitely more aware of their hybrid African and Hispanic identity. New York is the “Dominican” city where musicians and composers such as Luis Díaz and Johnny Ventura have a following, because it is where African American, American and Caribbean cultures meet, collide, and mix. The new culture produced in that particular setting often transcends island borders and barriers of politics, race and class. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the Puerto Rican singer Olga Tañon crowned “La reina del merengue“. Merengue is, again, becoming a pan-Caribbean, cultural form that is not necessarily marked by a national boundary. Of course, merengue will always reflect the folklore of the Dominican Republic, but times and traditions are changing. New York, for some musicians now the “home of merengue”, is a unique location in this postmodern world of chaos where creative risks with musical genres, themes and compositions are permitted. This “Caribbean” city is where Dominican identity and music are being influenced, redefined and reconfigured. Ironically, in New York City, far from the waters of the Caribbean, Dominicans can rediscover their authentic identity which is rooted in Africa, America, Europe, a Taino past, on other islands of the Caribbean and even in the United States.
Valerio-Holguín, F. Postcolonial Encounters and the Caribbean Diaspora: “Encancaranublado” by Ana Lydia Vega. Latin American Issues [On-line], 13(7).
POSTCOLONIAL ENCOUNTERS AND THE CARIBBEAN DIASPORA:
“ENCANCARANUBLADO” BY ANA LYDIA VEGA
Colonial Encounter/Postcolonial Encounter
Peter Hulme has suggested that the period of colonial encounters between Europeans and Native Americans constituted a privileged moment for European discourse (xiii). These representations of encounters with the Other were important not only because they established an ideological justification for the genocide and sacking of the Americas, but because they reaffirmed European identity through the use of a barbarous/civilization polarity. As examples of these encounters Peter Hulme cites the encounters between Columbus and the “cannibals”, and the long series of representations that were derived from this meeting. Among these representations of the colonial encounter he includes the stories of Prospero and Caliban, John Smith and Pocahontas, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, and Inkle and Yariko.1
The encounter that I will here refer to as “postcolonial,”2 and is characterized by an inversion of the colonial power relationship, constitutes a moment of extraordinary importance in the representation of Caribbean cultural identities. These postcolonial encounters take place within the framework of the Caribbean, as the diasporic community moves towards the United States. When Cuban, Haitian and Dominican balseros3 reach the shores of the United States or are intercepted at sea, they have their first encounters with the North American Coast Guard or immigration officials. In her story “Encancaranublado,”4 Ana Lydia Vega uses this postcolonial encounter to reflect on the cultural identities of the Caribbean. In the story, a postcolonial situation is enacted through the interaction between three shipwrecked Caribbeans, a Puerto Rican and a North American official. The maritime frontier of the Caribbean Sea continues to exist as an imperial border, not in the sense of Bosch, but rather, because it functions as a border between the United States and the Caribbean.5 In this article I will discuss the problems of Caribbean cultural identity as they are revealed in the postcolonial encounter of Ana Lydia Vega’s story “Encancaranublado.”
In the story, Antenor, a Haitian man has been adrift on his raft for several days without any sight of land when he discovers and rescues two other castaways: a Dominican and a Cuban. It is the hope of finding better living conditions in the United States that leads the three castaways of the story to risk the uncertain adventure of a sea voyage. “Es como jugar al descubridor teniendo sus dudas de que la tierra es legalmente redonda. En cualquier momento se le aparece a uno el consabido precipicio de los monstruos” (13) [It is like playing the explorer, filled with doubts about whether the world is actually round. At any moment one may be faced with the infamous precipice of the monsters],6 says the narrator in “Encancaranublado.” In the second paragraph, Ana Lydia Vega plays with the idea of the “discovery” of America. In this sense, the allusions to the roundness of the world and the precipice of the monsters are very explicit. This play on discovery poses a sad parody: while the colonizers sacked the resources of the islands and exploited their peoples, Caribbean immigrants attempt to escape the conditions that were created by five centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism. North Americans, as neocolonizers, substitute Europeans in the postcolonial encounter.
At first, the three illegal immigrants of the story find solidarity with each other and lament, among other things “la jodienda de ser antillano, negro y pobre” (14) [how fucked it is to be Antilean, black and poor]. But soon they enter into a discussion about the economic, racial and cultural differences between their three nations. The Cuban considers himself to be superior to the Dominican and the Haitian. The Dominican, for his part, considers himself to be superior to the Haitian. Each one of them resorts to cultural and historical stereotypes to denigrate the cultures of their respective rivals. The Cuban claims that the city of Santo Domingo looks just the same before and after having suffered a hurricane. The Dominican, who disparagingly refers to the Haitian as “madamo,” justifies the 1937 genocide of fifteen thousand Haitians by the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.
The story of Ana Lydia Vega uses a political allegory to represent the general conditions of the Caribbean. In his article “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson claims that the allegory is one of the characteristics of third-world literature. He says “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories” (69). The raft, as an allegory, summarizes the most acute problems of Caribbean society: overpopulation, hunger and political violence. It is precisely these conditions that cause the men in “Encancaranublado” to move out towards the diaspora. The raft also represents the different racial, cultural and linguistic communities of Caribbean countries. To a certain extent, the destinies of the three immigrants reveal the situations that this community will have to contend with.
At the end of the story, the castaways are discovered by the Coast Guard and brought to Miami where the “imperious” postcolonial encounter takes place, between a North American official, the three balseros and a Puerto Rican. The official refers pejoratively to the Puerto Ricans as “spiks” and orders them to take care of the three “niggers”, ie. the Cuban, the Haitian and the Dominican. Two important aspects of culture stand out in the discourse of this story; racial and linguistic. It is the captain of the Coast Guard ship, described as an “ario y apolineo lobo de mar de sonrojadas mejillas, áureos cabellos y azulísimos ojos” (20) [Aryan and Apollonian sea wolf with ruddy cheeks, golden hair and intensely blue eye] who refers to the Caribbeans as “niggers,” a word that is used in North America as a pejorative term for African Americans. It is clear from this that the disparaging captain, who equates African Americans and Caribbeans by conceiving of them in racially reductionist terms, fails to consider the racial and cultural differences of Caribbeans.
Anna Lydia Vega uses this postcolonial encounter to reflect upon Caribbean cultures. Despite their cultural, national, and linguistic differences, the Cuban, the Dominican and the Haitian find themselves equally affected by cultural and racial discrimination in their first confrontation with a representative of North American society. The identification that takes place between the refugees, which in the beginning of the story takes the form of solidarity when the Haitian rescues the Dominican, and later, when these two rescue the Cuban, is recovered at the end of the story when they together confront the North American official. Although the Puerto Rican who brings dry cloths to the castaways is also black (this is indicated by the narrator), in the eyes of the official he is relegated to the category of “spik”, and as a neocolonial subject possessing the experience of the Puerto Rican diaspora, he becomes a mediator between the official and the castaways.
Language plays an important role in this text. First, the title “Encancaranublado” is a word that appears in a well known tongue twister:
El cielo está encancaranublado.
¿Quién lo encancaranublaría?
El que lo encancaranubló
buen encancaranublador sería.
This tongue twister can be seen as a double allegory. First, it is used as a climatic allegory for economic and political conditions. This becomes clear when we remember that Vega’s book of short stories is divided into three sections; “Nubosidad Variable” [Variable Cloud Cover], “Posibilidad de Lluvia” [Possibility of Rain], and “Napa de Vientos” [Additional Winds and Thunderstorms]. Moreover, the dedication states the following: “For the Caribbean confederation of the future, may it rain soon and then clear.”
The second reading of the allegory relates to the multilinguism of the Caribbean, which is the result of the colonization of the Caribbean by different European countries. Not only do language differences create separations within the Caribbean, they also serve, at least among Spanish speakers, to distinguish between North American and Latin American culture. This is why the narrator, after hearing the Puerto Rican, says:
Minutos después, el dominicano y el cubano tuvieron la grata experiencia de escuchar su lengua materna, algo maltratada pero siempre reconocible, cosa que hasta el haitiano celebró pues parecía haberla estado oyendo desde su más tierna infancia y empezaba a sospechar que la oiría durante el resto de sus días. (20)
Minutes later, the Dominican and the Cuban had the pleasant experience of hearing their maternal tongue, somewhat mangled but always recognizable, and even the Haitian rejoiced for it seemed to him as though he had been hearing it since earliest childhood, and he began to suspect that he would hear it for the rest of his days.
As a “spik” and an intermediary, the Puerto Rican speaks English to the detriment of his Spanish. It is because of this that the narrator refers to his language as “mangled.” Because of the historical relations between Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic, the Haitian feels closer to Spanish, and in the United States he will come to form part of a linguistic minority within the larger linguistic minority of Latin Americans.
As a textual strategy, language is used to establish different levels of understanding between the characters in the story, and between readers. Here lies the effectiveness of this postcolonial encounter. While the mention, in English, of the “pursuit of happiness” (to refer to the lives of immigrants in the United States), without quotation marks or italics seems unexpected and impertinent to the monolingual reader; even more surprising are the words spoken by the North American official during the encounter: “Get those niggers down there and let the spiks take care of ’em” (20). It is important to point out that this declaration constitutes what Hulme refers to as a “monological encounter.” That is to say that the official makes a judgmental statement in his own language, English in this case, in which he both commands and denigrates. In another language, even in Spanish, this sentence could not be answered given the power imbalance between the official and the castaways.
Immediately after this scene, as we were told by the narrator, the three “uneducated” castaways could not understand what the bilingual reader can. The castaways are told by the Puerto Rican that the “gringos” (he uses this denigrating word as a response to “spik”) not only speak another language, a fact that the “uneducated” castaways might very well have inferred on their own, but that they are known to be greedy and compassionless even with their own mothers. This constitutes a second blow to Anglo Saxon culture. The different level of understanding between the “uneducated” characters and the “bilingual” reader leads to an unresolved ending, one without closure.
The story is directed to Latinos who reside in the United Stated, and Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States or Puerto Rico, that is to say, to readers that are implicated in the immigration problems, and the racial and cultural discrimination of the United States. Read by a monolingual reader, who is unaware of these problems, the story is not as effective. The Puerto Rican character is presented as equivalent to the narrative voice, in the sense that both are bilingual. As an author, the multilinguism of Ana Lydia Vega allows her to situate herself in the different linguistic and cultural perspectives of the four Caribbean characters and the North American official. She expresses herself in the Cuban and Dominican dialects of Spanish, in Haitian Creole, in the “mangled” Spanish of the Puerto Rican, and in the insulting English of the Coast Guard official.
Thanks to the declaration of the Coast Guard official, the postcolonial encounter in Ana Lydia Vega’s story is left without a resolution. There are many possible consequences that can be inferred by this declaration. In her article, “We Are (Not) in This Together: The Caribbean Imaginary in ‘Encancaranublad’ by Ana Lydia Vega,” Diana Vélez poses the following questions about the future status of the three immigrants in the United States:
Speaking extratextually, does the racism they will face in the U.S. operate as a unifying factor as it does in the story? If we read beyond the ending, are all three men going to face the same kind of prejudice once on land? Won’t the Haitian be the most likely to be sent back given his “economic refugee” status and the definition of him as “black” rather than Hispanic or better still, as Cuban? (832)
These questions are of crucial importance, in so far as they reflect upon the political and cultural conditions of Caribbean societies. I would like to add a couple of observations. First, the official discriminates equally against the Caribbeans because he is completely ignorant of the cultural and racial differences between Caribbean countries. Even if the characters in the story seem unaware of this fact, the Latin American reader, who is well aware of these differences, is hit hard by the officer’s insensitivity. Second, although we are not told what the fates of these characters will be, we can assume that given the racism and the discriminatory immigration policies of the United States, the Haitian and the Dominican will be deported whereas the Cuban will be granted political asylum. These immigration practices were in effect until President Clinton signed a bill that forces all balseros, without exception, to return to their countries of origin.
For the bilingual Latino reader in the United States and for the three immigrants in the story (given a scenario in which they reside permanently in the United States), this encounter has an important impact on the development of cultural identity. Being considered as the Other from the North American perspective forces the characters and the reader alike to “discover” their Caribbeanness from the outside and in opposition to Anglo Saxon subjectivity. As Angel Rama suggests, a unified cultural space is formed in opposition to the Other:
[L]a unidad implica un sistema de diferenciaciones con las culturas externas (incluso las progenitoras) y sobre todo con el sector anglosajón (Estados Unidos y Canadá) que fue el primero que sirvió de término opuesto para la autodefinición de quienes, entonces, resolvieron llamarse latinoamericanos. Unity implies a system of differentiating between one’s culture, and other cultures (including the engendering cultures), and even more important, that which forms part of the Anglo Saxon sector (United States and Canada) which first served as an oppositional term for the self definition of those who came to call themselves Latin Americans. (59)
While Latin America defines itself in relationship to its Anglo Saxon neighbors, the Caribbean exists as a cultural space that defines itself in relation to both Latin America and the United States. According to some anthropologists,7 the unity of the Caribbean as a differentiated cultural space is undeniable, given its historical, racial and economic development. The process of differentiation, which Rama has called macroregionalism, is related to a certain exteriority, or an external perspective that is used as a means of handling a specific cultural space that is both diverse and dispersed.
Conversely, microregionalism, which is the process of differentiation within a cultural region, necessarily implies an internal perspective. It is this type of cultural difference that is discussed by the characters in the story. Using other words, Stuart Hall also comments on this when he says:
Visiting the French Caribbean for the first time, I also saw at once how different Martinique is from, say, Jamaica: and this is not mere difference of topography or climate. It is a profound difference of culture and history. And the difference matters. It positions Martiniquains and Jamaicans as both the same and different. (396, italics in the original)
The Dominican, the Haitian, and the Cuban are the same, but different. Despite this, the Anglo Saxon official in the story cannot perceive the cultural differences between the Caribbeans. Instead, he can only see them in racially reductionist terms, which is why he is able to refer to them disparagingly as three “niggers.” The North American official uses a racial polarization to erase cultural diversity, a common practice in the United States which does not recognize the diverse racial blendings of Mestizo immigrants.
Through their experience with exteriority and in the face of Anglo Saxon rejection, the characters in the story, with all of their differences, will discover their identities as Caribbeans. The affirmation by the Puerto Rican that the “gringos no le dan na gratis ni a su mai” [that the gringos don’t give anything for free, even to their mothers] functions to establish a basis of cultural difference between Caribbeans and Anglo Saxons. This gesture strengthens the Latino perception that the mainstays of Anglo Saxon culture are stinginess, individualism and familial dysfunction.
The mother, becomes a code that exposes the opposite culture values of Anglos and Latinos. It is not accidental that in the story the castaways express their joy at hearing their “mother” tongue. The “maternal” functions simultaneously as a bond of cultural identity between the Caribbean (as their mutual symbol of home), in order to caricature North American culture. This is also why we are told that “los antillanos fueron cargados sin ternura hasta la cala del barco” (20) [the Antilleans were roughly loaded into the boats hull], which suggests a dichotomy between the mother tongue (familiar) and English (commercial). The reference to the North American as an ungrateful son, to the absence of the mother tongue, and to the absence of the mother tongue and tenderness, constitute an image of exile and the cold personal relationships facing poor Caribbean immigrants in the United States.
Unlike the colonial encounters between Europeans and Native Americans that I referred to in the beginning of this article, the postcolonial encounter between North Americans and Caribbeans in Ana Lydia Vega’s story provokes reflection upon the Caribbean diaspora and its cultural identities. This postcolonial encounter, as a textual correlative to the colonial encounter, traces an arch that spans centuries of colonialism. The postcolonial encounter reveals power relations between North Americans (as substitutes for European colonizers) and Caribbean immigrants, since it is the same conditions that are created by colonialism and neocolonialism alike that cast them into the sea in search of a better life. Ultimately, they are forbidden the riches that they create. “The infamous precipice of the monsters” that the narrator refers to in the story is an allegory for the profound differences and for the dangers that are implied in crossing the imperial border.
Translated by Shanna Lorenz
I want to express my gratitude to my colleagues Jaume Martí-Olivella, Alvaro Félix Bolaños and Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé for reading this manuscript and giving me their helpful comments and suggestions. A version of this article was read at the XXVI Conference of the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies held in Toronto in 1995.
- Each chapter of Peter Hulme’s book Colonial Encounters deals with one of these encounters. return to text
- I base my notion of “Post-colonial encounters” on the ideas in Peter Hulme’s book. The “Post-colonial encounter” takes place in a post-colonial context. The power relationship inversion that I refer to involves the ironic representation of the Caribbean balseros as conquerors by the narrator, when in fact they have none of the power that is usually ascribed to conquerors. return to text
- The Spanish term balseros, which literally translate as “rafters,” is used to refer to refugees who come to the United States in makeshift sea vessels such as home made rafts. return to text
- Ana Lydia Vega’s second book, which takes its name from the short story “Encancaranublado,” won First Prize in the Casa de las Américas in 1982. return to text
- Juan Bosch calls the Caribbean an “Imperial Frontier” because the Caribbean was the space where the European Empires struggled for four centuries for the control of the colonies. The United States entered into the struggle during the Spanish-American War at the end of the last century. As the result of this war, Spain lost its last two colonies in the hemisphere: Cuba and Puerto Rico. return to text
- All translations of Vega’s short story were made by the translator of this article. return to text
- In his book, Transculturación Narrativa en América Latina, Angel Rama includes Charles Wagley’s and Darcy Ribeiro’s classifications of Latin America in cultural regions. According to Wagley, the Caribbean belongs to a region called Afro-America. This region is characterized by plantation economy, slavery, African cultural heritage, and the widespread genocide of indigenous communities. In Ribeiro’s classification, the Caribbean belongs to a region called Pueblos-nuevos, which is a melting pot of European, African and indigenous cultures. return to text
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