Voices e / Magazine / Barrios

 

III.

       Our first weekend on the island, we are invited, via another colleague’s connections, to the home of a Puerto Rican lawyer relocated in St. Croix with her family, who has extended an invitation for a Saturday evening gathering of friends to our university group. The house is inviting, and although my colleague and I arrive late, we feel instantly at home around a table filled with barbecued meats, cheese, and wine. A dozen guests congregate in the dining room, chatting politely and mingling with the eight members of our UPR delegation. I float towards the backyard deck, where more guests are sitting on the outdoor patio soaking up the cool night breeze. Shadows of the eastern hills and strings of lights spill to the coast; beyond is the black expanse of Atlantic Ocean. The silhouettes of Hess-owned oil refinery stacks (the largest refinery in the Western hemisphere) tower like macabre puffing giants in the distance. Out on this deck overlooking the gape of sea where neighboring sister islands lie cloaked in darkness, we’ll be introduced to one of many Portocruzan discourses revealing mixed sentiments towards Puerto Rico, and our role as fieldworkers from the “mainland” will be challenged and contested.

       For now, the mood is lively out here as I bounce between conversations ranging from Fidel’s revolution to the best local beaches, the work of several Portocruzans in attendance and good places to buy hot sauce, amid puffs of cigar smoke and the clinking of glasses. Other members of our group trickle out in small clusters; the party on the deck expands. Several of us are particularly interested in collaborating with the efforts of Portocruzan artists and historians whose work documents the migrations of Viequenses to St. Croix, and an academic conversation regarding potential collaborations between our research andtheirwork begins pleasantly enough. Different members of our delegation talk about their interest in the Portocruzan community and research topics they would like to explore, mentioning possibilities for connections with the UPR and potential exhibits of Portocruzan work on our campus. The pleasantries quickly subside—our discussion breaks rapidly into searing debates over identification and belonging. Our UPR work is attacked: Who are you to come here now and be interested? What have you done for St. Croix? What has Puerto Rico given to this island? Where has the UPR been all this time, after decades of the immigrant struggles Portocruzans have faced to remake their lives in the Virgin Islands? What support has Puerto Rico ever given to its relocated on St. Croix?

       The agitation incited by our interest in the Portocruzan community is intimately tied to Portocruzan integration and inclusion in St. Croix—a raw nerve for immigrants anywhere. Discrimination within the host society and rejection by the home society is not foreign to any diaspora group—Caribbean or other. And it is a question that applies not only to the Portocruzan community, but to the wide variety of immigrants living in St. Croix. Who is Crucian? This debate plays out informally (around our Saturday night dinner table) and formally (in legislation debated at constitutional conventions), and involves questions of ancestry, amount of time lived in St. Croix, and linguistic and cultural preferences. It is a particularly complex debate in a society, like that of so many Caribbean nations, colonized by several European powers with apopulation of majority African-descent that has experienced substantial waves of immigration from varied national, ethnic and linguistic groups. Although the seven flags of St. Croix refer to the various colonizers of the island (Denmark, England, Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, the Netherlands and the U.S.), the symbolism of these myriad influences is also applicable to current Crucian demographics. Since its initial conquest by Columbus in 1493 (which allegedly led to the first deaths from encounters between Amerindians and Europeans) and subsequent colonization, successive waves of more recent migration have significantly altered the population of the island in the past fifty years. While Puerto Ricans may make up the largest immigrant population (almost 40% according to one guest at the party), they are certainly not the only immigrant group on the island. In the 1960s and 70s, thousands of jobs at the oil refinery were filled by “down islanders” from St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Dominica and other Leeward islands. A significant influx from the Dominican Republic is reflected in curriculum changes being mounted by public schools to deal with a substantial population of ESL students. And immigrants from Palestine, South America, Haiti, Jamaica and the Phillipines are also common. This highly diversified population complicates not only the ways Crucians see themselves, but also who sees themselves as Crucian. Acandidate for delegate to the constitutional convention of 2007 highlights these complexities in her candidacy speech:

Who are the people of the U.S.V.I.? Each of us has our own personal identity. You may identify yourself as Hispanic, Asian, Arab, Caucasian, Down Islander, Native Virgin Islander or African descent. But if you call the U.S.V.I. home, you are a Virgin Islande[1]

       An overly simplistic resolution? For the Portocruzans we met on Saturday night, the dichotomy of identification as Crucian, Puerto Rican, Viequense or Portocruzan revolves not only around discrimination faced in St. Croix as outsiders, but also in the ways Puerto Rico has forgotten or erased this community from its collective memory. As is the case with inter-Caribbean migration across the region, the discussion is tense, and the lived reality of Portocruzan identity with la isla is hotly contested.

       The conversation between our UPR group and varying party guests continues to heat up. My colleague —born to Nuyorican parents, raised on U.S. army bases in varying parts of the world, and a resident of Puerto Rico since high school—is livid. How is this struggle different from any Puerto Rican diaspora experience? What prejudice has this Portocruzan community felt that I haven’t in New Jersey, New York, or Berlin? If Puerto Rico owes Portocruzans, what does it owe my family or the other millions of Puerto Ricans that have relocated throughout our colonial history? And should this particular Caribbean battlefor identity and belonging be more recognized than any other?

       The tension escalates and we leave hastily (praying that my reversal in total darkness on the narrow hill won’t puncture any part of the rental car) to head to Fredricksted for a cool-off beer. The restaurant we end up in greets us with a Dominican flag hung over the counter; its half-dozen tables are filled witha mix of families and couples and there’s a smattering of single men sipping beers at the bar. The bartender feeds the jukebox quarters as we discuss the politics of racism, ethnocentrism and the need to belong through excerpts of our own experiences of marginalization in the States and Puerto Rico. Bachata blares, and as we overhear pieces of fellow patrons’ conversations, we realize that we’re surrounded by yet another slice of St. Croix—a mixture of Dominicans, Crucians and Portocruzans out on Saturday night in the second-biggest town on the island. The street is desolate outside as we walk to the car to head back to the UVI dorms. Exhausted, we decide that there’s no resolution to any of this tonight. On the way home, we decide that that’s ok.

_______________
 

[1]Petersen, Verdel. “Verdel L Petersen from St. Croix wants to be a Delegate.” St. Croix Source. May 22nd, 2007. 22 June 2009 <www.onepaper.com/st.croixvi/?v=d&i+&s=Community+Convention&p=1176611276>