Island Time

I am an Anthropology major on the pre-med track interested in how bodies are able to tell stories about equality, justice and power. My research in Trinidad is the beginning of a venture into multiculturalism and the complex interactions between identity formation, racial profiling and health.

Trinbago

What does it mean to study multiculturalism? What did I do in Trinidad? In trying to understand a country you can look at census data and see the numbers aligning with each ethnic group and the distribution across the country, average SES and education levels. But I felt that numbers alone did not tell me quite enough. Who decides to put what on a census form when you are so multicultural? What meaning does self reported ethnicity have to the people that differs from how it is used by institutions? At what point does it no longer matter? Our world is only getting more mixed, maybe Trinidad can show us where we are headed.

IMG_7301After 6 weeks of research in Trinidad, a measly amount of time, but a good start, race still matters. Interviewing university students and asking about their home towns, secondary schools, hobbies, siblings, parents, families and friends, I made a lot of new friends, and learned what it is like to create an identity in a mixed race country. So many cultures are mixed up together in Trinidad that everyone celebrates every holiday and festival that comes through regardless of skin color, religion, or family heritage. Still, even the most mixed people are still expected to identify within some racial boundaries.

Of the people I interviewed, some refrained from stating their ethnicity in most situations. Others chose one race out of their mix to be more dominant, and others chose to simply state they were mixed without further elaboration. Most people were proud and grateful to be mixed and to be a part of so many different cultures. They felt it gave them an advantage of being more open minded and understanding of differences, as well as more progressive. Others wished people would stop projecting labels onto them and giving them so much attention for their curly hair, fair skin, or light eyes – rare features outside of the mixed population in Trinidad.

In Trinidad I met a lot of people like me – the racially ambiguous kind. People who don’t put much value on their racial or ethnic background but receive a lot of attention from others about it. We aren’t fond of labels and the ones used on us differ day to day and person to person. But we have the privilege of discrediting racial stereotypes and segregated spaces.  Trinidad is more mixed, and many of its people are more open minded about new cultures and beliefs while others actively work to preserve their own culture. Some members of younger generations here want to see race diminish entirely as a way of thinking about other people and have begun to do so in their own lives. I only hope this trend continues.

Island of the Scarlet Ibis

Having spent some time on our second campus, the University of Trinidad and Tobago John Donaldson, or the Creativity Campus, I am getting a nice second look at Trinidad’s student population. You would expect universities to feel starkly different when the costs are entirely subsidized by the government and local students pay nothing to attend. Not so. People still willingly choose to be engineering majors. Some students still probably take the privilege more seriously than at Northwestern.

I have been so impressed by the government initiatives, the construction, the infrastructure, the agricultural development and the overall drive to be self sufficient in Trinidad. And to think people tried to tell me Trinidad was not industrialized before I came here.  It is the racially divided politics that is really disappointing and leaves every mixed kid caught in the crossfire.

It is interesting that despite being such a small island, the regions vary so much in level of development, dominant culture, and physical appearance of those who live there. The pockets of Indian neighborhoods are a bit worrisome coming from a multicultural integration standpoint. Maybe dougla people are the only hope for more peaceful racial relations.

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Land of Liming

As a formal part of the nation of Trinidad & Tobago, it was an obligation of mine as a researcher to visit Tobago this week. With entirely different geological characteristics, much more like the rest of the Caribbean than Trinidad itself, Tobago is the vacation spot for Trinidadians and where many aspire to retire.  White sand, clean turquoise waters, mountains and palms. Tobago is pristine and stunning. While there is a lot of natural beauty, there is a lot of history as well and I was able to visit a few forts, another constant remind of its turbulent colonial history.

Upon returning from Tobago, we moved to a new apartment in Port of Spain for an entirely new experience and lifestyle for the remainder of the research. This was only after some very difficult goodbyes with friends from St. Augustine. I have not made as many friends this close in my 20 years of life as I have in the four weeks in Trinidad. These are friends who know my values, what drives me, what scares me and fully respect my undying love for vegetables.

Spending time with new hosts in Port of Spain, I have gotten a much better peek into how Indian culture is preserved in the country and where many of the mixed race dynamics that are important dimension of Trinidad’s multiculturalism might be stemming from. This new metropolitan perspective is going to be helpful in my interpretation all of the data I have already collected and to frame everything more to come.

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Soca State

As I wrap up my time in St. Augustine and my first home in Trinidad in SAL Hall and head to Tobago and Port of Spain, I thought I would do a bit of reflecting on the first half of my experience.  My take aways from Trinidad thus far are:

1. The power of people. When I made the decision to study anthropology over any other discipline, I did it out of the intention to take a wider look at humanity and our place in the political, social, ecological and technological institutions that we are interlaced with. But each person holds a galaxy of experiences, thoughts and a narrative capable of moving others. Multiply that by 9 million and that is that database I have to work with.

2. The language of generosity. Making friends from over a dozen countries in three weeks, and close ones that I trust, confide in and care about has shown me that some things, generosity and curiosity in particular, might be universal characteristics of our species.

3. The ability of identity to change according to setting. One Wednesday in Tunapuna, I can convince people I am Colombian. One Thursday in a salon in Curepe, I am the epitome of whiteness. One Friday at a fete in Port of Spain I am ambiguous and exotic. I have the privilege of connecting with many people with similar experiences in Trinidad and firmly believe the multicultural dynamics here, both the racial stereotypes and the ability to transcend ones ethnic identity are challenges that many more people in more countries will be facing in the near future.

4. The almost universality of colonialism. The way it has constructed beauty ideals, language distribution and hierarchies of identities are everlasting, whether you are in the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean or the United States. Whether I am at the International Convention on Breadfruit, a Reggae themed coffee shop or watching a Carnival costume fashion show, colonialism is a force I have come to recognize in the many ways it embeds itself in daily life.

Four statements hardly does much justice to everything I have gathered so far from being in Trinidad, but my mountain of field notes is too intimating and all of this brain work has left me mentally exhausted. Until next time.

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Callaloo Country

After one week of interviews and 40+ hours of transcribing, I am nearer to answering my questions.  And the answer may well be that there is no one answer. History is selective. Ask any Native. And narratives are also selective in what they reveal, but the people I have spoken to in and out of my research interviews each provide their own piece of the puzzle. As exhausting is it can be, I look forward to learning more, seeing more, and hearing more about identity in the Caribbean, indigenous islanders, and prospective research endeavors.

As I begin busting the black box of racial categories, indigenous identity is becoming important in the argument for cultural rather than racial or blood- linked categories.  History did not begin in 1492, or 1498 in Trinidad’s case, and race does not start or end with my research, but I have to explore an immense terrain of literature and perspectives in order to understand where Trinidadian identities come from and where they are going.

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Post Colonial Oasis

On this island I have learned to dragon boat race, how to eat fresh cashew fruit, mango and coconut properly.  I have experienced my heart rate spike while swerving down the PBR in a cramped Maxi Taxi and the taste of Trini gyros on the street at 4am.  I have learned to wine, lime and dine like Fijians, Solomon Islanders, Samoans, Bajans, Grenadians, and Trinibagonians. I have become fully aware of my whiteness.  At times my full lips can convince people I am part black, but even the frizzy texture of my hair can not justify me being anything other than a white American in this country.  But what I have not experienced  is discomfort and resistance.  I crave those experiences as well.  I want to experience the literature I have toiled over. I want to learn in real time which identities in Trinidad complete with each other and which do not. Will ethnic purity and distinction be sought after forever in Trinidad and the Caribbean? Will this forever be the ground work for social stratification? What will decide the rulers of “post colonial kingdoms” if not? How do the insecurities and remains of colonialism embody themselves in the people of Trinidad and the Caribbean outside of conflicts of identity?  With the different narratives of victimhood continue to compete with each other?  Who is this island home to? Eight weeks of research seems a feeble attempt to answer these questions.

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One Nation

I have been on the Island of Trinidad for 3 days now. Since then my iPhone and whatsapp contacts have nearly doubled, my body has been severely deprived of electrolytes and I have half a dozen pages of field notes scribbled down in various places. Some people claim that I look Trini (Trinidadian) until I open my mouth, while others consider me “totally American” but from either end, the people I meet are flattered (and a little confused) when I explain my research and my reason for being here. I look forward to exploring the different pockets of the islands, according to colloquial definitions, and sparking more conversations about what it means to be “authentically Trini” and “definition mixed”.  Trinidad and Tobago is one nation with two islands, many types of people, and countless moving parts which I am in the early stages of piecing together. IMG_1533