Our national boast is a beautiful one. Here in this republic of the new world, we are perhaps one of the earliest examples of a truly cosmopolitan nation.
We’ve co-existed relatively peacefully for centuries, and over time, I’d say we have assimilated far more than we’ve rejected. And we are happy to project that as an identity—multi everything; we have heritage fuh so; they can’t touch we for that.
As with our Caribbean community, we share commonalities, but we have distinctive traits that make us recognisable wherever we are. Flair, joie de vivre, natural pizzazz; a large dollop of pappyshow and braggadocio; food that is full of flavour and innovation; infectious music; a measure of creativity that is disproportionately high per capita; arresting faces redolent of long years of intermingling.
So how did we accumulate this extraordinary commingling? I think we have lost the thread of that thought.
We forget ourselves so often—scuttling memories of where we’ve come from whenever it seems convenient.
We are a nation of immigrants. The indigenous people, whose lives were pushed into a shameful periphery by marauding conquistadors wearing the shameless livery of imperial masters, are the only ones who did not arrive and settle in these parts.
All of us who claim our place here with pride—but only a shadowy patriotism—all of us have ancestral lines that are foreign. Whether we came seeking fortunes or were brought as slaves and indentured labourers, we found this space and made it our homes.
Throughout hardship and exploitation, through travails and perseverance, wit and determination, we forged bonds with each other; bonds that have pressed us together and distilled something unique.
Think about it, the most visible manifestation of that lies in our food. What are the cultural roots of our cuisine?
Whatever the disgraceful actions of the colonisers—the English, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch—they brought their customs. We have been profoundly influenced by the cultures of Africa, India, Portugal, China, South America; you name a place in the world and there is sure to be some substantial connection with Trinidad and Tobago.
Those ancestral droplets have seeped into our DNA and they have fed us, nurtured our evolution into a people with a wildly interesting shape and an often unconventional perspective of the world.
I am aware that I am using superlatives that might seem unrealistic and hyperbolic, but it is because I believe that we can get so bogged down in the dreariness and the routine of lives that seem barricaded by the petty concerns of those polluting our mind space, that we forget to take stock of ourselves.
We are more than that, and if we often seem to be drowning in our sea of amnesia, then we need to remind ourselves of our heritage. And particularly in these unwieldy times, we could pause and reflect on these matters so we don’t fall into the unseemly abyss of discriminatory behaviour.
These days we are making all kinds of mean-spirited pronouncements on the influx of our Venezuelan neighbours. I have been disgusted by the selfish and callous responses to the idea of allowing these children to participate in our admittedly deficient education system.
How could anyone think there is something to be gained by denying a child the opportunity to learn, to prepare for adulthood and its multitude of demands?
Have we not learned from our not so distant past experience with the fallout from the junior and senior secondary schools where the shift system left children at impressionable ages largely unsupervised and in unstructured environments for large swathes of the day?
Enough time has passed that the first wave of those students have long entered adulthood and their struggles are real, overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable.
In this world of legal and illegal immigrants, societies feel threatened mostly by the prospect of their livelihoods being taken away. The unconscionable will always see their precarious existences as an opportunity for exploitation.
We want them to work without reasonable compensation, with no benefits, no compassion. We abuse them sexually and physically; we become the same kind of predators who defined our own early beginnings in this place.
The Chinese have been subjected to the same kind of treatment. But we do not object to patronising their restaurants and supermarkets, which are now far more commonplace than before. And again, it is the arrival of cuisines that bring added textures to our culture.
Empanadas and arepas bring us joy and we easily adjust to adding them to our favourites. All these foods that have made their way here and brought us such gastronomic delights—pepperpot, jerk meats and festival, oildown and coocoo, chow mein, crispy skin pork, curry goat and buss up shut, doubles, pelau—I could never cover the whole gamut (though I want to do a book on our culinary ancestry).
My point is simple. We were able to rise above the monotony of a monotone culture precisely because we were infused with the aromas and customs of several diverse ones.
The world is what it is today because that movement of people has suffused every space with differences. We have had more experience with that than most, and by now we should know its value.
Yet, despite this background when we still behave like bigots, I have to wonder, is this the nature of humankind?