Archives For Caribbean

Almost every Shabbat weekend in Curacao, the pews in the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue in use remain largely empty.  The sound of the spiritual leader singing parts of the service in Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew recall a time when Curacao’s Jewish community, made up of Spanish and Portuguese traders, was the largest and most influential community in the Caribbean. But now, the community is struggling for its very survival.

The Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, located just north of Venezuela, is home to the oldest Jewish community in the Caribbean.  Sephardic Jewish settlers began arriving in Curacao in 1651.The Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, consecrated in 1732 is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. Located in the heart of Curacao’s capital, Willemstad, the synagogue sees frequent visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Curacao’s world famous natural harbor.

Jewish settlers, mostly from Spain and Portugal, began settling in Dutch and Spanish Caribbean colonies in the 15th century.  Jewish settlers in Curacao were actively were engaged in shipping, trading, and banking. A number of prominent Jews owned plantations as well as slaves. Today, colonial era synagogues, cemeteries and museums serve as attractions for tourists all over the globe, the reality is that many of the Caribbean’s active Jewish communities have been facing sharp declines in numbers of active members. Curacao, dubbed the “mother of the Jewish community in the New World” and once a hub for Jewish cultural life in the colonial Caribbean era, struggles with the prospect of its Jewish community disappearing.

Inside Mikve Israel's Synagogue in Curacao, the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere

Inside Mikve Israel’s Synagogue in Curacao, the oldest synagogue still in use in the Western Hemisphere

At its peak, the Jewish community in Curacao reached 1,094 out of a total of about 3,500 whites in 1789. (The total population of Curacao was 20,988, 12,864 of which were slaves) In 1950, about 600 Jews called Curacao home out of a population of about 102,000.  Today, around 200 Jews live on the island out of a total population of 150,000 people.  A number of members of today’s Jewish community are able to trace back their family history a number of generations.

Mikve Israel’s members admit that the community is rapidly shrinking. “The youth are leaving, and family planning is working better than it used to in our father’s days,” said Rene Maduro, president of the Mikve Israel congregation.  On an average Shabbat service, there are about 20 members that come every week. Many of those who leave are young students. 28-year-old Christine Cheis, a board member of Mikve Israel left to study finance at Brandeis, but decided to return to Curacao to help out with her family’s retail business. “To Jews, like it has always been, education is highly, highly important to kids and parents. So almost everyone who is Jewish here, once they finish high school go abroad to further their education. A lot of people go to either Holland or the U.S.” Cheis recalled her days at the Hebrew school on the island. “Back then, my Hebrew school class was eight to ten people. But now the whole Hebrew school has eight to ten people.”

“The main thing is that the children just don’t come back,” said Avery Tracht, the hazzan and spiritual leader of Mikve Israel. “If there is a family that has three children, maybe one of them will come back.”

Avery Tracht, Hazzan of the Mikve Israel Synagogue in Curacao

Avery Tracht, Hazzan of the Mikve Israel Synagogue in Curacao

The decline of the Jewish community in Curacao is similar to other Jewish communities in the Caribbean. Barbados was one of the early settling places of Sephardic Jews from Brazil in the 1600s. “30 years ago, there were about 45 Jewish familes here,” said Celso Brewster, manager of the Nidhe Israel Museum in Bridgetown Barbados. “Today, we have about 16 families.” Aruba is also said to be home to 30 Jewish families.

Mikve Israel’s problems with declining membership are also shared by Shaarei Tsadek, the synagogue founded by Curacao’s Ashkenazi community.  Jews from Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania largely migrated to Curacao in the 1920s, some 200 years after the arrival of the Sephardic community. While there were tensions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic community in the beginning, Curacao’s Ashkenazi population reached about 200 families at its peak.  Today, Shaarei Tsadek’s members classify themselves as Orthodox, though many members admittedly do not keep kosher houses and drive to Shabbat services.  Judith Bercher, a member of the Shaarei Tsadek who works at the gift shop of the Mikve Israel Synagogue said it was important to the members to try to keep Jewish tradition as much as possible. “Even though we don’t live 100% orthodox, the only way we can keep Judaism alive here is to have an orthodox leader. Otherwise the children will grow up without any learning.”

In contrast to the colonial Dutch architecture of Mikve Israel synagogue, Shaarei Tsedek is of a modern design with sleek architecture. The multi-million dollar synagogue, completed in 2006, holds its services in a room complete with air-conditioning and 200 plush seats. But just as with Mikve Israel, the majority of the seats stand empty when every week for Shabbat services. Ivan Bercher, president of the Shaarei Tsadek community said that many people left Curacao after the brand new shul was built.

Shaarei Tsedek synagogue in Curacao

Shaarei Tsedek synagogue in Curacao

“We used to have 200 families, said Bercher, “Now we have about 67 families, and 10 of those live abroad.  We have been in this situation for about ten years. Once in a while we get two or three new members. I hear there are one or two more coming from abroad.” Bercher, whose family has been in Curacao for generations, and has a son that moved to the States, said that many families wished to raise their children in more orthodox environments,  and chose to leave Curacao and move to the United States.

A member of the Shaarei Tsedek community in Curacao.

A member of the Shaarei Tsedek community in Curacao.

But the declining numbers intensely worry the members of both communities. 25-year-old Rabbi Yochai Menachem had his concerns when he arrived to Curacao 6 months ago from Israel to become the new spiritual leader of Shaarei Tsadek.  He was keenly aware of the aging population and low numbers. “You know, when I first got this opportunity to come here, I was thinking, “Was my mission to do the funeral of this community or to try to revive it? I decided to go for the revive option.”

“I personally think if the Jewish community could improve their connection to America, they would do better,” Tracht said. “I think we could have more [American] Jews retire here. I know a lot of people who have second homes or timeshares in Aruba. If that connection was more here to Curacao, the community could build up.” Also with the economy of Curacao struggling in recent years, members of both communities say that more Jewish people might come back if there were more opportunities on the island.

“Now the board is talking very much about what to do with our heritage if and when it comes to the point where we have to dissolve,” Tracht said. “I don’t see it happening anytime real soon, but we better make decisions about that now, so that in a generation when there are fewer people and fewer people care, we’ve already got something in writing about what they have to do with our stuff, the things in the museum, and the things in the synagogue.” DSC_0322

Joshua Pancer, who used to be on board of Shaarei Tsadek, shares in the hand wringing over the future of the Jewish community in Curacao. “For both communities it is a big concern, Pancer said. “ A couple of times a year, the presidents of the communities and even the rabbis of the community make speeches about how numbers and shrinking and about how people need to work hard to get people, if they are interested, to come to the island and that everyone should do their part.  Because as the numbers shrink, when one person doesn’t pay dues, or if they are on a certain committee to help out, you feel it right away because there is not as many people as there used to be. “

Low attendance numbers also sometimes interferes with the performance of Jewish customs. In orthodox custom, a minimum of ten men, called a minyan, is needed to read the Torah. Leaders of both communities say that sometimes, they do not have enough people to meet the minyan requirement.

Cheis and Pancer say that both boards try to come up with activities to encourage inactive members to participate, such as dinners, lunches, and other weekday activities.  “It seems in our grandparents’ generation, those members were more religious, or at least more involved in the community,” Pancer said.

As for tourism, while both communities acknowledge that Jewish tourists from North and South America could help raise the profile of Curacao, and their community, they do not believe that tourism will help solve the numbers problem. “Tourism helps, but it is not something we can fully rely on”, said Cheis. “Tourism can’t make a community. What would the tourists be coming to if we were not here?”

Despite the challenges, members of both Curacao’s Jewish synagogues remain hopeful and are confident that their communities will survive.  Cheis said she always knew she wanted to come back to Curacao. “I still knew I wanted to come back. I always believed in Curacao. I just really wanted to make my future here. Like Cheis, other young people are starting to come back. Pancer, 27, also decided to return six years ago to help run his family business in retail and commercial trade in textiles. “In general most people that grow up here and study abroad don’t come back. But our generation is one of the first in many years that a few more have started to come back, compared to the generation above us.”

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Rabbi Menachem said he hopes that Jewish families from other countries. “For one thing, we have a neighbor country, Venezuela, that has a pretty large Jewish community. The Jews there are practically living in a ghetto, a golden cage.” Menachem said that he initially considered an offer to go to Venezuela, but declined because of reports he had heard about the anti –semitism of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. “If we have the facilities and kosher food that Jewish people would need, maybe people from Venezuela could realize they could live freely as a Jew here.” Menachem also said he is trying to work to attract more tourism to get more hotels and other attractions on the island to serve Kosher food.

Rabbi Menachem said that he is inspired by the intense commitment and devotion that Curacao’s Jewish community posseses.  “I told the congregation that I admire them,” he said. “Many of them don’t read Hebrew. But these people are still coming; every Friday night, every Saturday morning, for 10, 20, 30 40 years. I think this is beautiful, and this is one of the reasons I agreed to come here because I see this devotion that people have here. If not for that, this community is dead. there is no reason to come. But they refuse to die.”

Judith Becher is not worried about the Jewish traditions dying in Curacao. “Those that we have left here are still going. Even if we only have 10 families, we will still keep going.”

(I’m going to use this space to post unpublished stories that I wrote during my time in Curacao. Here is a story I did last year after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year. I had a chance to interview Hensley Meulens, who is the Curacao-born batting coach for the squad. I wanted to find out about how Curacao manages to consistently produce top-ranked baseball talent despite its small size and limited resources. Enjoy!) 

A Caribbean Country of Champions

With the beginning of the Major League post season underway, the Little League season in  he Caribbean island of Curacao has just begun. With every year, more and more young boys in Curacao sign up to play for local baseball teams, hoping to become the next baseball sensation to play for the Major Leagues in the United States.

Many wonder how Curacao, the former capital of the Netherlands Antilles, known mostly for its beautiful beaches and historic Dutch architecture, has come to produce a number of talented baseball players for the Major Leagues. The small island with a population of 140,000 has produced around 12 players for the Major leagues and around 50 players in the minor leagues. Current players active in the leagues include Andruw Jones, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Roger Bernardina, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, Andrelton Simmons, shortstop for the Atlanta Braves ,and Jair Jurrgens, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. The Texas Rangers signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar in 2009 and called him up to the roster in August of this year, making him the youngest player currently in the major leagues.  Many local coaches credit Curacao’s wins in regional Caribbean championships and Little League tournaments with helping to capture the attention of American scouts. Curacao’s Pabao team from the capital city of Willemstad won the 2004 Little League World Series and were runners-up in 2005.

Hensley Muelens, batting coach for the San Francisco Giants, returned to his home country of Curacao on Tuesday greeted by cheering family and friends two weeks after the Giants won the title of World Series Champions. Muelens is one of the small Caribbean island’s biggest sports stars, as he is the first player to have been drafted to Major League Baseball, making his debut with the New York Yankees in 1989. Muelens is the first Curacaoan to become a major league coach, signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 as a hitting coach where he earned his first World Series Title. “Curacao is home for me,” Muelens said. I was born and raised here, I left when I was 18, but I always come back here after a long season to spend time with my family and friends.“ Muelens made a brief stop on his way to Venezuela to manage the Margarita Bravos. Former Prime Minister Geritt Schotte congratulated Muelens on his second World Series Title, calling Muelens, “Curacao’s national hero.” Hensley has been named as the manager for the team of the Kingdom of Netherlands for the World Baseball Classic in March 2013. He will coach several players from Curacao and Aruba.

Baseball is arguably the most popular sport in Curacao. There are about 30 youth leagues on the island, with boys as young as five years old joining T-ball teams. Willemstad. Muelens started a youth baseball team after his retirement from playing in the major leagues. “Kids have started to look up to the Curacao players who are making it into the big leagues. More and more families are signing their kids up to play baseball. They used to look up to me, but since I stopped playing you have kids who want to be like Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrgens.” Hensley, who estimates there are 4,000 kids who play in Curacao’s little league teams, runs clinics for promising talent with other MLB players every January. “We have raw talent here in Curacao. Our kids are big, they can run, they can throw hard, and they have a lot of power. Curacao is interesting for major league scouts.”  Ryan Hollander, 37, a local sports reporter, says, “The good thing for Curacao from a scout’s perspective is that we had major league players from the island that all had good years. Four teams with guys from Curacao made it into the playoffs so that looks good for the island.”

Randel Muelens, Hensley’s younger brother, is the head coach for the youth team that his brother started comprised of boys ages seven to nine years old. Lacking state of -the-art training facilities, youth leagues often practice and compete on fields without grass.  Randel credits the way that youth players are coached. “We say here in Curacao that our kids here ‘train on the rocks,’ Randel said. “When you can field here on our fields, you can field anywhere in the world.” Randel, who works as a field consultant for a local cable company, coaches the youth team twice a week in the evenings. “I think that Curacao’s secret is that we are very, very strict with our kids. We learn our techniques from the United States, and we train our boys in the proper technique from a very young age.”

Good weather all year round may contribute to the success of Curacaoan baseball players. With an average daily temperature of about 80 degrees, youth teams on the island can practice more and play more games than many of the teams that they compete against from other countries.

Young Curacaoan baseball players. Photo by Karen Attiah

Young Curacaoan baseball players. Photo by Karen Attiah

When asked whether the Curacao government contributes to the success of baseball on the island, Hensley said that there is not enough money in the national budget to adequately support baseball development on the island. Parents and coaches often hold fundraisers to help send their children to training camps. “The success of the kids who play baseball on the island is really due to the local communities and local coaches.” Hollander said. “We are missing a lot of investment from the government. Most of these coaches take time after their day jobs every week to help train these kids, and the families are really supportive.” Local companies help to sponsor the teams, donating uniforms and equipment.  The MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities  (RBI) donates equipment and sponsors tournaments in Curacao. While sports participation is largely confined to middle-class families, Hensley has set up programs to help children from low income areas have access to playing baseball.

Current and former Curacoan major leagues often return to the island to set up training camps and academies. Kenley Jansen, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, set up a foundation, KJ-74 to encourage more youth to participate in sports.

A Dutch investment group Sitching Willem 4 has proposed a 160 million Euro Baseball Complex Curacao, for the “development and placement of high performance talent” for players from the Caribbean and Latin America but plans to move forward have slowed due to political concerns.

When it comes to coaching, Randel says he can already see very promising talent in some of the young boys he coaches. At a evening practice with his little league team, he points to one of the taller boys in the group, practicing his swing. “See, there, he’s got talent. Everything comes naturally to him already at this age. Many parents dream of having their child play in the major leagues, but we encourage the boys to be good people first, Randel said. “We want them to do well in school. And what is most important is that the kids have fun.”

Goodbye Curacao…

August 19, 2013 — 7 Comments

Well my friends, after 11 months of Caribbean adventure, I have decided to return to the United States.

As I hope you could tell from my blog, I had my share of amazing and challenging experiences that I would trade for nothing. Many of those experiences, musings, and observations are still in my head and my heart. As I write now, I am back home in my hometown of Dallas, processing my experiences and preparing for my next moves. I have unpublished stories from the island that I’m excited to share in time. So while my physical self is back enjoying the Texas weather, my mind is still very much on Dushi Korsou.

I believe in there’s being a time, a season for all things. As I have written before, beneath the exterior of beautiful beaches, colorful buildings, and amazing weather, Curacao is a small island with increasingly big problems, politically, economically, and culturally. While I appreciated the laid back lifestyle, to be honest I never quite felt…at ease accepted quite at home. Maybe it was cultural differences, maybe it was moving from the hustle and bustle of New York to a small island community or just….maybe it was just my  time.

Sometimes things don’t always work the way we want, but things always seem to work for the best. At the risk of sounding cliche, I met a lot of amazing people along the way, and there are a special few that are in my heart and I will miss teribbly. When I stepped on my outbound flight last week from Curacao’s Hato airport, I knew I was returning a completely different person than the person who left everything behind in September of last year to chase her dreams.

Thank you to everyone who followed my adventures here, I really appreciated your comments, support and emails. I hope you continue to follow on my next adventures!

xoxo Karen

 

 

There have been two instances where I have felt pretty uncomfortable as a Black/African-American woman here in Curacao. The first such instance was during the time of Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet back in November, where scores of both Dutch and local people alike dressed up as Sinterklaas’s goofy helper Zwarte Piet, complete with blackface skin paint, oversized red lips, and curly Afro wigs. It was, and still is hard for me to stomach Zwarte Piet as innocent tradition.

A few weeks ago occurred the second instance that almost made me want to leave Curacao. A Dutch television station called NTR premiered a documentary episode about the “elite” white Dutch who live in Curacao.

OnderElkaar

“OnderElkaar”

The episode opens with shots of yachts, exclusive beach clubs. As the episode progresses, numbers of those interviewed express how they feel about the locals that live here. I don’t speak good Dutch at all, but several of the notable quotes I have heard from others come from this documentary are:

You can take the neger (derogatory Dutch word for Negro, sometimes translated to “nigger”) out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the neger!

Curacaoan men, all they do is sit under trees, play dominoes, and fuck!

They should be on their knees thanking us for bringing them here. Otherwise they would be in Africa with grass skirts on with bones through their noses!

Here is the link to the episode (in Dutch)

After the episode aired in Curacao, many of my local friends who had heard about it were of course upset. (Read Jermain Ostiana’s take on it, here)  Some Dutch acquaintances of mine, were at the least, a bit embarrassed about the documentary, saying that the people who were on the episode do not represent the majority of Dutch people on Curacao. There were a few voices in the documentary that talked about living and partying with locals, and that that was more gezelig (nice). But these opinions were maybe 1 or 2.

When I learned about the documentary, and watched parts of it, I was literally shaking. But I could not, in good conscience, agree with my well meaning Dutch acquaintances that these astronomically ignorant and racist views were completely out of the ordinary. I don’t mean all Dutch people on the island share these views, by any stretch. But unfortunately, in my short time on the island I have to say I have heard many disparaging remarks about local people said to my face. I have come to learn that a number of people, while embarrassed that such views were aired publicly, still may hold those opinions in private conversation. Even when they talk with me.

I remember talking about the documentary at dinner with Dutch friends several days ago. Most of my friends were ashamed of the people and their ignorant point of views. I noticed one friend of mine was quite silent about the whole matter. Later, in private, I asked him what he thought.

“Well, there’s gotta be some truth to what they said!”

I was shocked and became upset. And for the life of him, he couldn’t understand why I would be upset because, “Well, what do you care, you’re not one of them!!” I couldn’t for the life of me, understand why he thought that I would ever be okay with references using the word “neger” or derogatory remarks towards Africa (where my roots are), in my presence.

For the second time, I felt really uncomfortable here on the island. For the first time, I had thoughts of leaving. As I said before, I can name numbers of people who hold similar views about black locals.  Local papiamento papers did not report on the documentary. Few mentions were made in other media sources. Political leader Helmin Wiels made a few comments against the documentary.   Any other country, if such prominent figures made racial slurs against a segment of the population, an outcry would ring out. Boycotts would be instigated. People would demand explanations and apologies.

But here, life carried on as usual. No dialogues, no serious public conversations, nothing. The same sort of silence that continues to perpetuate the deep race/class divides on the island between the minority of the “haves” and the majority of the “have nots”.

But I won’t keep quiet in the face of ugliness and racism/cultural discrimination.

No, I’m not Curacaoan. But yes, I do care what you say about people of color.  I am human, and I abhor any form of ignorant, hurtful language used to tear people down and justify one group’s self-constructed superiority.

A few weeks ago, I was at the Curacao courthouse to report on the sentencing of a Curacao-born Olympic athlete for the Netherlands who was arrested carrying cocaine while attempting to board a plane for Amsterdam. While waiting for his hearing, I sat on the wooden benches with other local journalists and watched as other cases were brought before the judge. One by one, the defendants, (all of whom were black men) were led into the room by their translators and lawyers (advocaten). My Dutch is still pretty pathetic, but I could make out that each of these men were answering for drug offenses. A Dutch journalist, who was kind enough to be my translator for the day, said, “This is pretty normal. And so many times its the black poor chaps that get caught. The white Dutch are also smuggling too.”

It is no secret internationally that Curacao is a hub for smuggling. There’s a healthy menu of trafficking options to choose from: cocaine, gold, humans, even counterfeit cigarettes. But what effects do these things have on the island itself?

Many of my friends tell me that cocaine here in Curacao is as cheap as it gets. “And its the good stuff,” they always say. I’ve heard stories of young Dutch interns who pick up cocaine habits, and frequent parties high as kites, grinding their teeth while they grind to the music. Walking down the street, one may see cholers, some of whom are drogadictos walking in a daze in the street. Unfortunately, sometimes these wandering drug addicts are subject to abuse and attacks by ill-intentioned souls. Plenty of times, I hear the stories of business owners and big men who have fallen prey to drugs. Usually the story starts like, “See that guy over there? He was/used to be/used to work at ____________ before the drugs set in blah blah blah.”

One of the major drug addiction rehab clinics in Curacao shut down earlier this year. How will people get help? That is, if they got help in the first place…

Another side effect to this whole drug business is the rise in violent crime. Talk to many people on the island and they say that the level of assaults (atrakos), shootings, and violence with weapons has risen drastically. While there could be other economic explanations for people turning to crime, many people blame the drug trade from Colombia and Venezuela. In the last few weeks, authorities have admitted to the existence of a gang war that has been resulting in reports of shootings and attacks quite frequently.

Let me not forget about alcohol. Drinking culture is heavy here in Curacao. As expected from a small island, there is not always much to do. Happy hours are big here. Every day there is a drinking time at some popular spot. While the happy hour life may be fun for a two week vacation, it can be too much for some living here. I know people who have gotten into serious accidents while driving intoxicated. My boyfriend tells me that numbers of Dutch people who come to Curacao pick up alcohol abuse problems and smoking habits.  One of the tour operators, the quirky “Mr. Goodlife” (more about that trip at another time) told me, “Yeah, many Dutch people cannot handle it here, you know? They come here and then gotta go back ‘cuz they pick up alcohol problems. Too much freedom here sometimes.”

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As the year comes to a close, I thought I would share with you guys some of my favorite photographs that I have taken since arriving in Curacao. I consider myself an amateur photographer, so I am still learning the tricks of the trade. But on the coldest night of the year, I thought some of these colorful shots of the Caribbean would brighten your day. Cheers!

First up, here are some beach images.

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Santa Cruz Beach, Westpunt, Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Playa Jeremi. One of the "black sand" beaches in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Playa Jeremi. One of the “black sand” beaches in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Here are some of my favorite shots of places on the island:

Downtown Willemstad, along the harbor

Downtown Willemstad, along the harbor

Food stand at the Plasa Bieu Pavillion

Food stand at the Plasa Bieu Pavillion

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The buildings along Willemstad’s famous harbor.

The infinity pool at the Scuba Lodge and Suites at Sundown.

The infinity pool at the Scuba Lodge and Suites at sundown. No editing, these were the natural colors.

And shots of some of the people I’ve met along the way.

A Haitian boy attends church in Curacao.

A Haitian boy attends church in Curacao.

Haitian Churchgoers

Haitian Churchgoers

The members of one of Willemstad's little league baseball teams get ready to start their evening practice.

The members of one of Willemstad’s little league baseball teams get ready to start their evening practice.

Former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerrit Schotte emerges from his self imposed lockdown Sept. 28

Former Prime Minister of Curacao Gerrit Schotte emerges from his self imposed lockdown Sept. 28

Dancers on Stilts Perform for Sinterklaas in Curacao

Dancers on Stilts Perform for Sinterklaas in Curacao 

A Dutch surf instructor
A Dutch surf instructor

And I cant end the post without mentioning Curacao’s lizards. From the dragon-like iguanas to the beautiful blau-blaus, don’t be surprised when these Antillean reptilians end up chilling near your pool, on your window, or even in your bedroom.

This iguana found its way poolside.

This iguana found its way poolside.

An iguana outside my window

An iguana outside my window

Handpainted turtles for sale at the plaza in Punda.

Handpainted turtles for sale at the plaza in Punda.

A year ago, I remember reading for the first time about the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. I happened across the Slate article written by Jessica Olien, an American new to the Netherlands at the time, where she described her first encounter with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet celebrations, which she calls “Holland’s favorite racist Christmastime tradition. She puts it pretty bluntly,

In Holland, Santa doesn’t have elves. He has slaves.

For those who do not know, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. But According to the background story, Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who arrives in Netherlands via steamship from Spain every late November. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or literally, “Black Pete”. Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Sinterklaas’ helpers by painting their faces black, coloring large red lips on their faces, and donning curly black afro wigs and gold hoop earrings.

Sinterklaas Arrives in Curacao in 2012. Photo by Karen Attiah

When I first heard about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, I was 2 parts shocked, 1 part disgusted, 1 part angry, and a dash of saddened to learn that such a stereotypical image of black people was not only allowed, but celebrated. Even the word “celebrated” doesn’t do it justice. Since coming to live in Curacao, I’ve learned just how ingrained Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is to the collective Dutch culture. It is a huge children’s event. My Dutch friends tell me that growing up, most children believe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are real. There is a Sinterklaas news channel that documents his journey into the Netherlands. Famous Dutch national actors play the different Zwarte Piets. Every year Sinterklaas parades into a different city, greeted by thousands of families with eleborate ceremonies. Its like Santa Claus on steroids. All for the kids.

A toddler in a Zwarte Piet hat waits for Sinterklaas to arrive in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Even more peculiar to me, is the fact that here in Curacao, a former Dutch colony of mostly African descendants here in the Caribbean, celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as well. I went to the Sinterklaas arrival this past weekend in Willemstad, and when I saw local black Curacaoans painting their own skin darker, their own lips redder and bigger and donning the Zwarte Piet costumes, I was equal parts surprised and confused.

Sinterklaas parades into Wilemstad Curacao, flanked by a helper playing “Zwarte Piet” dressed in blackface. Photo by Karen Attiah

The parade was HUGE. Well, as huge as a parade can get for a small island. Okay, the parade was island-sized huge. Hundreds of parents brought their young children out early Saturday morning to wait for Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets to arrive to Curacao. Kids were dressed up in Zwarte Piet hats.  And arrive he did. Curacao’s Sinterklaas was not on a white horse, but a pony led cart in the Brionplein area of Otrobanda, on the edge of Curacao’s famous harbor. The celebration was a bit like Christmas meets Carribean carnival. I have to admit, if I was a child, the celebration is a blast. Drumming Zwarte Piets performed on drums, while dancing Zwarte Piets entertained the crowd with acrobatics and choreography. Other Zwarte Piets toss out candy for the children, while Sinterklaas sits on his big throne on the stage and watches the show entertained by the Zwarte Piets and their acrobatic skills.  Young performers danced and sang to welcome Sinterklaas to Curacao. Here in Curacao, Sinterklaas is greeted by a mayor, and addresses the crowd in Papiamento.

Local Curacaoans don black facepaint and curly afro-wigs to play “Zwarte Piet” Photo by Karen Attiah

But how can an island that boasts a population of 85% African descendants celebrate a character that for many is reminiscent of the offensive minstrel shows of Black Sambo? How can parents line up every year to watch community play Sinterklaas’ goofy, mischievous helpers, who always screws up something with the presents, and requires an overseer Piet to to supervise the rest of them? How can Curacao, an island where many locals blame Dutch neo-colonialism and slavery for the island’s problems, still celebrate what many think to be one of the most racially insensitive traditions out there? It was eerie to feel like I was watching a 2012 Holiday Minstrel Show, in the Caribbean. Watching Zwarte Piets dance and be goofy while Sinterklaas runs the show reminds me of this clip from the Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Comedy Routine from 1951. (Forward to the 2:45 mark)

I’ve had conversations with Dutch people here on the island about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and many of them cannot find anything wrong with it. In fact many have gotten downright angry and defensive at the suggestion that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature for black people. Common responses:

There’s nothing offensive about it. Zwarte Piet isn’t black, he’s Moorish! ( Okay, that makes it all better if Zwarte Piet is a North African Muslim.)

Children love Zwarte Piet! It’s not like we hate him or looked down upon. All the kids want to be like Zwarte Piet. They are a little more afraid of Sinterklaas. Do you want to ruin the children’s fun? (Using children to justify maintaining Zwarte Piet is the most common. But it is the adults who create the tradition and perpetuate it, right?)

Zwarte Piet isn’t a slave, he’s a helper! It is not a race thing. (If he is just a helper, does it matter what color he is? Why is he black? *Note* Holland tried to introduce non-black Piets in the past, using other colors. People did not receive it too well and that was the first and last time they used colored Piets)

Zwarte Piet is black because he got dirty from falling down the chimney, not because he is black! (Then why aren’t his clothes dirty? And why is Zwarte Piete’s hair always a black and curly Afro wig? Did the chimney change Zwarte Piet’s hair? Did it make his lips bigger and redder too?)

It can’t be racist. Black people and locals here in Curacao paint their faces blacker too. And they sometimes they paint their skin whiter to play Sinterklaas! (Doesn’t make it okay.

Americans are just too sensitive! You have no right as an outsider to judge our traditions if you don’t know the story. And if 95% of the Dutch population sees that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet, then who cares what the other 5% say. Don’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and the slaughter of Indians? That’s worse than Zwarte Piet! (Usually if the conversation has come to this point,  it signifies the end of the hope of a productive dialogue.)

Zwarte Piet Enthusiasts in Curacao for the arrival of Sinterklaas. Photo by Karen Attiah

Zwarte Piet would never happen in the States, my friends say. Others ask how it is possible for Curacaoans to also celebrate a character that is so demeaning to black people, while at the same time claiming that they desire to be free of Holland and its neo-colonial attitudes towards its former colonies.

I asked a local Curacaoan blogger Jermain Ostiana, about the Sinterklaas celebrations. He been quite vocal on Twitter about what he calls the “coonfest” that is the Zwarte Piet celebration here in Curacao. He told me that last year, the only form of protest against Zwarte Piet was a banner hung on the walls of Fort Amsterdam. “Nobody is going to risk sticking their necks out here, its sad but true here.”

Curacao is the same island where the controversial Dutch comedy “Only Decent People” that depicts Surinamese women, as loud, fat, oversexed, ghetto welfare queens opened to crowds. The producer of the film offered free tickets to large dark skinned women here in Curacao. And people bought in. This is also the same island where little media attention has been paid to the fact that a major motion picture about Tula, the slave who led Curacao’s biggest revolt in 1795 is currently being filmed here. This is also the same island where on the 2 year anniversary of Curacao’s autonomy from Holland on October 10th, which was a national holiday (Dia di Pais), there were basically no celebrations.

Could it be that social, political and cultural apathy has allowed the Zwarte Piet caricature to thrive here in Curacao? I hope that is not the case.

Yes, Zwarte Piet is colored black. But it is more than just the skin color. The black curly hair, oversized red lips, and goofy character is not unique to “Dutch tradition”, but rather were/are common mockingly stereotypical images for dark skinned people that have appeared in various narratives for children, from Herge’s The Adventures of TinTin comic books in Belgium in the 1930s, “Black Sambo” in Britain in the late 1800s, and Jim Crow and the various minstrel shows in the Americas. The reason why Zwarte Piet resonates with “outsiders” or alloctoons is because they have seen Zwarte Piet before. We have seen the exact same character to represent non-white people in other historical narratives. Zwarte Piet actually is nothing new. In most other places, that character has been recognized to be a relic of a racist time long gone by (or so we think) and is no longer in use in public. Why Zwarte has been fiercely guarded and protected by people living in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this day in the name of “tradition” baffles many people.

A Zwarte Piet In Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

 

, I spotted this costumed bike rider around Fort Amsterdam. I couldn’t see his face, as it was covered by a mask under an elaborate headress, but he had protest flags adorning his bike. My friends tell me “he” or at least his character, has been around for years. Who is he and what is he doing? Anyone know?

Hey Everyone!

Here are the links to the stories that I have done so far in Curacao for Associated Press and Haitian Times:

Curacao’s Former Prime Minister Seeks to Lead Coalition in Crowded Parliament Elections (AP)

Pro-Independence Party Tops Curacao Elections (AP)

In Curacao, Haitians Organize Against Discrimination (Haitian Times)

Watch this space for more stories!