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Transcript of an interview with Ras Rolando an artisan and tourist guide on the Colombian administered Caribbean island of San Andrés
Interviewer: Yari Baksh . Santa Barbara .California . Copyright 2010
San Andrés and Providence
The Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providence are located some 500 miles from the coast of Colombia across an open sea. In contrast they are just 80 miles from the coastline of Nicaragua in Central America. Almost all the native islanders maintain strong traditional family ties with the English speaking African descended residents of Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast and there continues to be regular maritime traffic between the two areas. San Andrés and Providence were originally settled in 1629, by English Puritans who were subsequently driven off by the Spanish. Some of the residents including many of the no-longer-enslaved Africans moved onto the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua which at the time was a pirate safe haven and base from which to raid the Spanish colonies of Central America. For over a century the largely unpopulated islands of San Andrés and Providence were an attractive base for pirates and sea turtle hunters. That is until 1739 when they were added to the area of jurisdiction controlled by Spain's Vice-royalty in Nuevo Granada – present day Colombia. In 1787 a small group of British settlers from Jamaica including a retired Scottish slave ship captain also moved onto the islands at about the same time that international conventions in Europe gave the Spanish Crown official sovereignty of the territories. In 1822 following Colombia's independence from Spain the island's residents signed a proclamation of adherence to the newborn republic and from that time the territory has remained officially a part of Colombia. However given their distance from the South American mainland and lack of economic importance, for over 120 years the islands were mostly ignored and the predominantly African descended English speaking residents left to fend for themselves. However in the 1950's the Colombian state voted funds for the development of the islands and by the 1980s the government as well as local and international bankers and investors had come to view San Andrés as a potentially great holiday resort location and tourist destination. Investment boomed including high rise hotel and casino construction, free port facilities and related tourist services However there has been little benefit to the native islanders who have seen themselves being isolated and ignored and especially being overwhelmed as Colombian migrants with a different language, culture and values have flooded onto San Andrés . The Colombians have also pushed ahead in trying to alter the local social and economic structure This includes supplanting the over 300 year old Afro Caribbean Anglophone Creole and Protestant native culture with one that is more Spanish speaking, Euro-mestizo and Catholic. Consequently although the native San Andrés African descendants have maintained an identity that is somewhat different from the Spanish speaking black communities on the Colombian mainland, nevertheless they too have now been affected by the exclusionary policies and practices of Colombian public and private institutions. These have long been criticized by the mainland Afro-Colombian and Indigenous populations as contributing – by default or design – to systemic marginalization, exclusion, exploitation and gradual cultural disintegration. In the case of these groups, the effects are, made considerably worse by the ongoing armed conflict, corruption, territorial dispossession and population displacement in Colombia. The native San Andrés population therefore continues to view the changing patterns on their island with increasing alarm. Despite the presence of constitutional rights and respect for cultural diversity as enshrined in the Colombian constitution, their daily experiences have served to reinforce the feeling that their own distinctive culture and way of life is also under serious threat of disappearance.
WE STAY WITH NOTHING
Interview with Ras Rolando an artisan and tourist guide on the Colombian administered Caribbean island of San Andrés
An examination of the systemic process of exclusion, marginalization, segregation and threat of elimination claimed by some in the native African descendant population. It includes accounts of the local lifestyle and explains how the increasing institutional presence, influence and control by mainland Colombia adversely affects the rights of the native Afro-Caribbean population; especially with respect to income generation, health, education, property rights, personal security and political participation.
A Bad situation
Interviewer: As a man here in San Andrés , what do you think the kind of discrimination is against men and how does it affect you and your friends? Rolando: Starting right now is just like my brethren going there! The situation of his way of survival. Interviewer: You are referring to that young man walking past us now on the road right? What is his way of survival? Rolando: That same way how you see him going there. Every day. Sometimes all after midnight. Just roaming around the way like that. And picking fruit and have to go supplicating his neighbors just to cooperate with him, to buy from him. Maybe for him to get a pound of sugar, a pound of rice, maybe even for a bag of [purified] water. You understand? Interviewer: So he is going out there to collect as many things as he can so that he can exchange for the things he needs to live. Rolando: Being a native islander here on the island, like this right now, this is a touristical zone and we don’t have opportunity even to communicate with the tourist. Not even to win income from the tourist for survival. So really I have to say it is a bad situation we find ourselves into on the island.
Tourism, economic marginalization, cultural and environmental destruction
Interviewer: How do they stop you from communicating with the tourists? Rolando: Okay listen, I have something like 22 years working with tourists, making handcrafts and selling handcrafts and stuff like this. And I had a point in the downtown where I always work. And after [a while] the problem begin. A lot of hippies come here in high season. A lot of hippies come from the [Colombian] mainland and they come and they have no problem. No one [of us natives] give them no headache or anything They just come and set their things down right there beside you on the ground and they sell right there. Then afterwards the [Colombian] government [begin to] come around, saying they putting in controls. They go to those hippies there. Those hippies will just give them maybe 20,000 Colombian pesos and they settle their case. ($US 1.00 = approx 1800 Colombian pesos) I am native, but they know they cannot manipulate me like that. They give ME a problem. Saying that I have to have a document from the government center. . I go make all my requisitos [requirements] … what I need to receive my documents. I pay for my documents. And when they done, they tell me my documents don’t ready as yet. So when the policemen come around making their search, I still in the same situation. Because as much as I already pay for my documents at the government [office] I didn't receive it. So they take my things and go with it, and hold it at the government center until after the season pass. When the season pass they give me back my things. I can’t make nothing. So I had to come out of the town and just leave it to the [Colombian] hippies alone, and come here. I am a smart guy, so I make my own business. I make a cabin, I put my handcrafts there And I go around and look for the tourists and bring them here. I take different courses by the SENA.(Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje) I prepare [trained] by the SENA to work with the tourists, [on how] to treat people and things like that . So I have my preparation [training]. So I go around and I check the people. And after you meet with the people and begin to be acquainted with the people then it is different. Because the people get to know your personal self.
And that is is a problem we have here. You have a [tourism] package with everything included from the interior. Where the tourists buy their pass, everything is included! They come straight to the hotel. And then now you can't even see those people because those people have a package. Everything is included, – from the hotel, to a bus and from the bus, and [they] go around and around. So you see. You don’t have any touch with those people, so it is really hard like that. Interviewer: So they isolate you. You are not in the package. Rolando: We are not in the package. And this [lakeside] place here is a tourist zone. But we just receive people here that … maybe …you see the same chauffeur who drives for the agency taking the people around, he negotiate for [visiting] this place here. What does he do? He charge each one of his passengers maybe 5000 pesos per person to take them here. When they come now, I still don’t value nothing because they already pay the chauffeur to bring them here. So when they come here now, they just come to see and walk through and take a picture and go. And [it's like] I'm still not here, although they see me. Because I have nothing to do with that [package]. So I organize down here amongst ourselves with the chauffeurs, that we will take the people around here. Because as much as they bring the people here, the people don’t understand where they coming [to]. They don’t know what [things] are here. They are just looking at the water. So, I say we will take them ourselves. We who live around here will go by turns receiving the people and take them on a tour around the lake and give them an explanation of the place totally. And we have a price for that of 10,000 pesos. So the chauffeur, he collect the people on the way but when he come here he think it hard.[to share]. Maybe [he earns] 40,000 or 50,000 pesos between all the people that he takes here. But when he come here he think it hard to give us just 10,000 pesos to give the people the service. So we have to take it [directly] from the people, and the people dispute about that with the chauffeur, so we still can't get it to work. So we have no organization around here. The [Colombian] government come and they try to organize things [only] downtown. For instance, our culture here is a culture that we know [how] to take care of just even the simple mango. We leave it [mango fruit] to full.. We leave it to ripe. It drop on the ground and we take it and we do with it what we want. Now it is a different thing with the culture that come from foreign. They [mainland Colombians] come and when the mango [tree] just put out a small blossom and the small little young mango they start to just lick it down [with sticks] to make salad and to eat it green like that with salt. So not even mango we don't have here now, because nowadays before the [mango] season is up the crop is finished. They are destroying everything. The nature, the culture – everything and what is it now? The [Colombian] government have us – in a sense they are separating us. So, nevertheless we are weaker.
Colombian influence, exclusion, and disintegration of island culture
Interviewer: What do you mean they are separating you? They are separating the native people from each other? Rolando: In some sense we are separated: brain washed. So a lot of the people they are [living] just in this Colombian culture, in this Colombia style. Even the young girls from the island they don’t want to speak their English. They want to speak Spanish and Spanish. And the [Colombian] police guys they come, they take them and go. They wash their brains and they breed them up [impregnate them] and leave them. You know, just like that! Even some native girls on the island they don’t want to have anything to do with their own native guys. They are just brain washed in the same way from the Colombians that come in. Interviewer: They feel that they’ll get ahead? Rolando: They think that they’ll get ahead, but it is all contrary. For the Colombian guys that come down here, or the Colombian ladies, they come down here and what do they do?. They go around and check to know everybody, and they will put themselves with someone who has something; who have property, who have a good work in the government. They put themselves with someone like that. Apart from that, they don’t deal with you. That shows that they are smarter also. They come here to look for a living so they look for someone who could give them a living. The native girls, they are different. Here they [already] have somewhere they are living; and they have their family in good state; and what do they do? They take some Colombian that come from over there [ the mainland] who don’t have nothing. They give them everything, and when they finish, if they die today or tomorrow, the Spaniard bring his family down here and take over everything. And just like that the natives are being eliminated all over the island. Every day we are eliminated more and more.
Language discrimination, disrespect for Creole English language rights
Interviewer: So, tell me about the English speaking thing. One of the women told me that the children grow up speaking English and when they get to school the children tease them about the English. So there is a lot of discrimination against English speaking people. Rolando: Of course. Colombia; they know that we are not Colombian – we [are] just like adopted [by them]. We first speak English. Our history:. the British, the slave from Africa; our generation came from there, so the first language we form was English. After the British went back to England, and our parents stayed here after ,and amongst ourselves we begin to shorten the words; we give it the name creole. Creole English. So the Colombian now, many of them will go to the USA and take English courses and study English so when they come back to Colombia and come to San Andrés, they say “no” the native don’t speak English. They speak patois; So they give it that name. They own self put that name to our language. They say is patois we speak. So they try to full the people heads up with that. They say we don’t speak English, we speak patois. So many of the people get fooled with that and they think it’s the truth. We speak better English than them… Interviewer: So what are they trying to say that it is not a good language? Rolando: Some of them they try to say that patois is not a good language; as if to say no one know where patois come from; like it’s a foreign language. Something that we just pick up along the way. Many say that they search in the dictionary and they search in the Bible and patois word don’t appear, so they say that it’s something that don’t exist. So this is the way that they try to make we feel like we don’t know what we speaking. But WE know better. We speak English AND also we also speak Creole English after breaking the word – you understand. So everyone now just try to speak Spanish and Spanish and Spanish and think they are speaking a better language.
Socio-economic exclusion and marginalization of native island culture
Interviewer: Does any of the health care and all the services speak English – I notice a lot of the older women don’t speak Spanish – I met a couple women in their 90’s and they don’t speak Spanish. So if they need health care do they have someone out there speaking English to help them? Rolando: They have to take along someone of the younger generation to translate for them. Even so, over all the radio station, TV station and in all the identities them, is Spanish you find. So when those [older] people go to those places they have problems. Even to go to the bank to change a cheque or something is a problem for them. So they have to take someone of the young generation to translate for them. And that is a problem. So totally they are showing us. For instance, [on the radio] we used to carry typical Caribbean music, folkloric music, and reggae music and now is a change that over all the air [waves] is this [Spanish language music] ballienato, this merengue, this salsa and this reggaeton and these things and everything is completely, completely cut out. Our culture, everything is cut out. So it is like we said, these [Colombian] people come here and they don’t meet with us. They don’t even get acquainted with us you see. Because the section where black people are found, they cut it out totally. They don’t even mention it. The president [Uribe] came from Colombia, he come to San Andrés and he run around and around the island throughout the whole town; [but] he don’t come this way. He don't come through this area. He never never never pass through this area. So it is like they they know where the black people is located so they just try to keep it apartheid. All this work that [they are] creating on the island and no work for the natives. Our guys here they finish high school and they go to the university. You pay something like 5, 6, 8 years in university, studying, [in mainland Colombia] and when you finish they send you home [to San Andrés ] and you sit down. No work, nowhere. No work for the natives. They send and bring 20 Barranquillian from Barranquilla [mainland Colombian city] to San Andrés for all the puestos [positions] What will you do?
Education, employment exclusion, and denial of income opportunity
Interviewer: So they bring outside people to work here, even though you have educated people. Rolando: Yes even though you have educated people and people prepare for [trained as] a doctor, or a lawyer, or administration. They leave them home sitting down. They don’t give them work and they bring from foreign and give them the positions. Interviewer: Would those native island people get jobs if they went to Colombia – the main land. Rolando: No! They try it and they don’t get work. There was a guy from St.Louis here, a native guy that finish his university, I think it was two or three years ago. He become the best student throughout the whole university. His teacher promise him that he would help him with something. After the year finish, the guy depending on the teacher to help him with a job right there in Bogotá so that he could begin work right there. And after when he graduate, he depending on the teacher. And he went to the teacher and the teacher make him to understand that – He is so sorry, but the best thing is for him to go home to his island and see if he find a job – Why? Because he has many other [students] there [in Bogotá ]. He say – I know you are very good and very quick, but I have many here who I know are expecting a work from me, so you must go home and see if you can get a work from someone. You know where he is today? On a cruise ship ...doing something else far different than what he prepare [train] for. Interviewer: And the jobs on the cruise ships are….Cleaning?...only these kind of jobs? Rolando: Yes, you have to begin from there. No matter how you prepare [are educated] you have to begin from utility. Yeah. Maybe the easiest one would be in a bar – working in the bar making drinks. But still it's something that you don’t prepare [not educated] for. Interviewer: I was told that the schools on San Andrés prepare the kids all the way to high school very well.
Rolando: After that they don’t have nothing – all the years of spending and spending to prepare the child and after the child finish preparing, they don’t have nothing to do. What that lead you to? Vaargus! Well vaargus is someone that walks the streets all day and don’t do nothing. Someone that can’t find nothing to do, and that does, what[ever] you find to do, along the way. And that is [like] a lot of guys today. Along the street today – walking. And a lot of them is intelligent guys, prepared [educated] guys, but...nothing to do. The government don’t sustain us. The [Colombian] government have us totally invaded. I see that clearly. We are totally invaded – I am so sorry about it. Everyday is something that pain my heart. Everyday it pain my heart . Everyday I say to The Most High: – What decision he has prepared for native people? For everyone in the island just say – We leave it to God, Leave it to God – But it continue to advance in their [Colombia] benefit but our benefit is daily getting lower, going weaker, going colder, so I don’t know if we can continue saying – Leave it to God. Excuse me how I say it, but I think we have to make some action some other way. We have to protest. We don’t feel satisfy with the Colombia title. We don’t feel satisfy with this administration, this treatment by Colombia. So we have to show that we don’t satisfy with it.
Disrespect for the property rights and social values of native islanders
Interviewer: Talk about the difference in outlook... about how the Colombian migrants from the mainland trespass on native property even though on the Colombian mainland it is illegal to trespass on someone's property? Rolando: The Colombians [who] live in the interior [mainland] each one have their property fence off. They have their fruit trees, they have their farm, and it is prohibited for the neighbor next door to cross over and take even fruit on the ground. Many of them have been shot down [in Colombia] like that. Just passing by the way and if you just dip and stoop down and stretch your hand under the fence to pick a fruit from on the ground they shoot you.
But here on the island it is different. When they come here the same set of them that over there prohibit [anyone] to go over to the neighbor property to take a fruit...when they come to San Andrés is different. They run through every one property as if it is their own. Here we don’t have no controls like that. Here [traditionally] we don’t have no respect for all that [individual property owner] control. So they [the Colombians] come here and they live totally different. They find total freedom, so they come and they go through the neighbor property. [but unlike us] they do what they want. Just like that! They go with all the fruit and they go with breadfruit…your plants, also with your mill and everything. And if you come out and say something they…[shoot at you]... the smallest one right now, [Colombian mainlander] 8 and 9 years old going about with a gun.
Imported underage criminality and decrease in security of native islanders
Interviewer: The Colombians have the guns not the natives? Rolando: Not the natives. Downtown next door to the airport they have a bar, what they call it. Those small little guys, the big youth train them to do dirty things. Make they go into the bar and go hands-up the man. Take away he money and go. And when the police come they say: “He is a minor.” “He is underage.” And you can’t do nothing. And they train the underage [youth] downtown to do those things. Interviewer: And they’re doing it to the natives? Rolando: They do it. They go on the motor cycle, they stop you and you give them everything you have. They go to the store, they come on the hill here , they watch the guy is working whole day and when he close in the night they go to the store . When you go, you find them have a gun on you, and you have to give them everything. And the police all the time, [saying] “They are underage.” We have to find a solution for that!
Political exclusion, death threats, forced exile of native island leadership
Interviewer: Do you have any native people in the government to help? Rolando: We have guys there; we have maybe one or two, but they have to wait on orders from Colombia. Interviewer: You don’t have any power? Rolando: They still don’t have no power. If they try to do something they would eliminate [them] out. Like a brother from the island who was following the governorship and when he stand up strong to defend the culture, to defend the island and defend the people from the island he will be kicked out and really threatened also. Interviewer: What do you mean? Rolando: There was the best bone doctor for the island his name was Ralph Newball. He was a native islander and he run for the governorship and he win it and after he win it, he was there. The present government was trying with an organization [policy] that did not benefit the native. They was trying to do what they were doing before … trying to make the guys from the island, when they do something wrong, jail them not in San Andrés, but in the United States or somewhere in Colombia. All the guys from the island [they send] to the interior [mainland] so you don’t see them anymore. He was fighting against that, so that it don’t take place. And there were different [other] organizations that he kicked against that wasn’t [doing any] good for us. And he has been totally thrown out. And he was threatened also, that if he didn’t abandon the seat and also leave Colombia for 10 years, he would be threatened – his family – they threatened his life and his family. Interviewer: So they threatened his family? Rolando: He had to leave the scene and he have to went out of Colombia totally for 10 years. And right now being the best bone doctor for the island and Colombia also, he has to be right now working on a cruise ship. He don’t return back here. He sent for his family and he living in Miami. He left his country totally.
Interviewer: So, San Andrés loses its best bone doctor. Rolando: The best one. You will ask about him. And that takes place here with us. To do something good they are scared of that. Interviewer: So it frightens all the others.
Systemic impoverishment and population reduction of native islanders
Rolando: They have a plan for us and I believe when they get through with that, you will not find any more natives on this land. In a few more years from now we will be totally eliminated. Maybe the natives will want to ask they own self... [if] they want to go somewhere else. Yeah. For, what [are] we doing here in our own country? We don’t have work. We don’t have food. You don’t have nothing. All what you eat they prohibit it. If you used to farm they prohibit. If; you used to fish they prohibit it and when they find you doing that, they tax you. They mentally told you that you have to die for hungry...die for necessities. And that is our situation here. They prohibit you from fishing. Okay if you go fishing, they take away your equipment. They give it to legalize other [people] to come in and fish… explore the sea and give it to other countries for business. The business is too good for us, maybe, so they give it to different people and different countries. Interviewer: The money goes out. Rolando: It is totally exploitation. They exploiting the island and taking it to another country. We stay with nothing!!
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