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My sunny rock of a new home may be hurricane free right now, but I cannot help but feel I am going through a bit of personal turbulence, both culturally and intellectually one month into my time here in Curacao.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to spend more time in Curacao was the fact that I fell in love with the mix of different nationalities and cultures here on the island. Before I came to live here, I had a rosy idea that Curacao was one big tropical United Colors of Benneton world of diversity. Realistically, I knew that the racially situation couldn’t be totally harmonious because of Curacao’s historical role in the Dutch slave trade. But hey, I thought, it looks like people are doing the best they can to co-exist.

However, the recent parliamentary elections in Curacao have brought a lot of racial and cultural tension to the surface. Long story short, Curacao’s parliamentary election gave the people of Curacao a choice to vote on the parties who either side with maintaining ties with Holland or calling for the independence of Curacao from Holland. I had the chance to report on the elections here and got the opportunity to speak with locals about their views.

Many Dutch people and other immigrants are upset with the victory of the political party Pueblo Soberano under the leadership of the controversial Helman Wiels. Wiels is largely seen to be anti-immigrant. He has been quoted in the past as saying that Dutch people should go home, and depending on who you ask, Wiels allegedly said that the Dutch should “go home in body bags”.  Conversely, ask Dutch people about what they think about Curacao, and they often say that the locals are ignorant,  are not thinking about their future and that “Curacao will become the next Haiti” without the help of Dutch people. I had one Dutch guy tell me, “I don’t know what is wrong with black people. They don’t know how to think about the future.”

I’ve heard “jokes” before here about how it would be better if local people here just went back to being slaves and the Dutch were masters again. Yeah. Really.

It is so clear that racial tensions are a real problem here in Curacao. Yet, when I have talk about racism and discrimination against people of color all over the world to Dutch people here, they are quick to blame those who are offended as “being overly sensitive”, and that there’s something “in your head to make you see a problem when there is none.”

I’m not surprised. I remember when articles came out last year about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Sinterklaas is like the Dutch version of Santa Claus and Zwarte Piete, or Black Pete, is his helper who usually appears in what resembles a blackface costume), and the Dutch magazine Jackie using the word “niggabitch” to describe a sort of “ghetto style”  Dutch commenters on the internet were quick to defend the practices by accusing Americans of being overly racially sensitive and politically correct. I’ve had some people tell me, “ugh you Americans, you guys are the ones with the race problem, not us. “

I don’t know how to react in these situations. I’ve never before been in societal circles where people refuse to think critically about history or global power structures. I’ve never been before in situations where the burden of proof is on me to somehow prove racism still exists outside of my own black American head. The United States is by no means a post-racial paradise, but the times when I’ve engaged with people here on issues of racial and cultural discrimination, their responses make me think I’m back in the 1700s.

My response options are limited. I can: 1) Ignore them. 2) Engage them and hope to encourage people to think a little more critically. 3) Change the subject. 4) Get upset.  Three out of the four options usually are not particularly effective. Engaging people without getting emotionally frustrated about issues of race based power asymmetries is a tough task.

I have a friend on the island who was born in Curacao but is of Surinamese descent.  She lived in Holland for some time before returning to Curacao. We discussed these problems over drinks. “You just have to develop a thick skin,” she said.  “If you get emotional, you play into their stereotype of being the ‘emotional ethnic person’. So just try to tell them the basics…for them to try to imagine being in someone else’s shoes other than their own. You have to tell them to stop for a second and think about what they are saying and why they are saying it.”

The reason why I think Curacao is fascinating is the same reason why I think New York City is fascinating; worlds within worlds of cultures sharing a small piece of geography.

But I cannot help but feel something about this place sometimes. It feels as if Curacao is not free—emotionally, spiritually, economically, and financially—from its colonial past. As there are hidden wounds within all the communities masked by words unsaid, and dialogues avoided through socially constructed taboos on both sides about talking about race. I don’t agree with internal hierarchies and discrimination among locals based on who is Yu di Korsou, or a true Curaceleno….but that is a post for another time.

I do find myself missing the States lately, its openness, its freedoms in some senses. For now, I’ll take the edge off of my homesickness for New York by watching Sex and the City episodes.

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“D’s Get Degrees”

September 14, 2012 — 1 Comment

Overheard this conversation between two tatted up young whippersnappers on the NYC subway last night:

Yo son, you know what they say, “D’s get degrees or diplomas” or some shit like that. You know, dudes on Fortune 500 who went to school and got D’s. It don’t matter, it’s about that degree man. Yo, and Steve Jobs ain’t even finish school. And that nigga makin’ more money DEAD than errbody alive COMBINED. That nigga DEAD. He dead and he made plans for twelve iPhones before he died. TWELVE. Yo son, I’m serious, TWELVE. He got the plans on CD’s or some shit like that.”

Saint Martin de Porres Feast Day Procession in New York City

With the aroma of incense and the sounds of hymns, a mass of men and women clad in Catholic robes gathered around West 50th street and 9th avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City on the the first Sunday of September. Most men were wearing dark purple robes with golden medallions, others wore black and white.  A group of about fourteen men carried a massive carriage on their shoulder with a statue of a man standing amongst ornate flower arrangements. Curious onlookers, including this author, whipped out their smartphone cameras to capture what was undoubtedly some sort of religious special event.  Instagram first, ask questions later.

One spectator, after snapping photos with his phone, walked up to me and asked, “Wait, is this some sort of funeral march?”

Far from a funeral, the elaborate procession was the New York feast day parade of San Juan Martín de Porres of Peru, who was the first black saint from the Western Hemisphere. Born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, Martín de Porres was the illegitimate son of a freed slave woman and a Spanish knight. Lupe, a friendly older woman saw me wandering around and took it upon herself to tell me Saint Martin’s history in the best English she could manage.

“You know, he was the first black Saint. White father and African mother. He was very nice, very kind to the poor and to the sick. Pope John Paul Twenty Three made him saint. You know how? John Paul Twenty Three very sick. Near death. And then he saw a man in his room, and the man was black. He said to his..you know, helpers, “Who is that man in the room?” And helpers said, “We don’t see no man”. Later, he got better, he found a picture of San Martin and he said, “That is the man, that is the man that was in my room. He make him saint.”

Martín endured a life of poverty and ostracism due to his status as a mulatto. However, he decided in his teens to join a Dominican order. Legend has it that  Martin had extraordinary abilities to care for and cure the sick and ailing. Legend has it that he able to pass through locked doors in order to attend to the sick. Martín de Porres was indeed canonized by Pope John Paul XXII in 1962, perhaps as a nod to the struggle for black civil rights in the United States.

Statue of Saint Martin de Porres

 

The Fraternidad de San Martín de Torres of New York celebrates Saint Martín’s feast day every first Sunday in September, according to Carlos Fuentes, a member of the Brotherhood of Miracles (Saint Martin is their patron saint)  and a participant in  the procession. “In Peru, they actually celebrate his day in November, but here in New York, we do it earlier in September.” Saint Martin is the patron saint of inkeepers, barbers, and of mixed race peoples, and is one of the chief patron saints of Peru.

New York and New Jersey is home to a large number of Peruvian immigrants, a large number of whom are Roman Catholic.