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  Number 341 | Diciembre 2009
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Nicaragua

The Ship-out Caribbeans Have Left the Coast on Cruise Ships

“The foreigners who go on ocean cruises and the Coast folks who serve them are like books. There are many stories on every page of every book. You need to read all those stories.” Here are some for us to read.

José Luis Rocha

My story isn’t nice or lovely at all, but it’s not horrible either. I left when I was 17 years old. I went with my sister and without knowing I would be shipping out. That’s how they grabbed me, with lots of hustle-bustle: You’re shipping out! Well, let’s get on board, then. That was the end of my life, of my youth, because when you grow up, you get on that same level as older people, people who think about other problems, not mine. When I got to this ship I thought: Welcome to hell… Like I told you already my story’s very long. I can’t tell you it all. I can’t even summarize it for you.” These are the words of Álvaro Morgan, a 29 year-old from Bluefields who shipped out in 1997 for eight months.

Driven to sea, shipped out

“I shipped out in 2003,” Jessica Gordon tells me, “before that I worked here as a secretary. I worked as a technical promoter in the harbor master’s office and after that I shipped out. I went for the pay more than anything. I could always find work, but the pay was too low. I only earned about two thousand córdobas (roughly $100) here. I also wanted to try something new. I went for an interview, had to fill in some forms, then they call you for an interview… and from there I got the job. I’ve been working on the Royal Caribbean for six years now.”

With the grey hairs of his 53 years, Harvey Bradford recalls his seven years shipped out from 1980 to 1987 as his golden days: “I left when I was 24 on a cruise ship belonging to the Commodore Cruise Line. I loved that life style. It was really good. The best experience a man can have in his life is being shipped out. There was quality food and the chance to go from place to place. I visited Río de Janeiro, Belén, Isla de Naranjo, Salvador de Bahía, Recife and Fortaleza in Brazil, Philadelphia, Miami, Jacksonville, Freeport, Nassau, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, Martinique, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, Chile and several ports on Central America’s Pacific side. Every week I talked to hundreds of people.”

Álvaro, Jessica and Harvey are part of a genus of nomadic migrants about whom little has been written, either in Nicaragua or elsewhere. They are, or have been, the “ship-out boys and girls” about whom many say: “There isn’t a family in Bluefields, Pearl Lagoon, Orinoco or El Bluff that doesn’t have at least one ship-out.” When I hear it in Creole English it sounds like “chipot.”

The cruise lines came to recruit Nicaraguans from the Caribbean coast going back decades, and long before them the cargo ships. The ease with which they can adapt their Creole English to Standard English has been their great comparative advantage. They’re hired for nine solid months then given a two-to-three month break. They’re seafarers. From the pirates and British colonizers they inherited the names we see today on their houses’ shiny nameplates: Hodgson, Downs, Bradford, Bacon, Bent, Miller, Myer, Gordon, McField, Green, Jones, Ferguson, Robinson, Williamson, Lawrie, Grandison, Briton, Nelson, Pitts, Cuthbert, Brautigam, Downes, Quinn, Bowden, Halford, Rigby, Brown, Copper, Dixon, Hooker, Taylor, Archbold, Thompson, Kingsman, Hawkins, Morgan…

They want to go beyond the daily limits of their horizon, break the routine, flee the place like the one Morgan describes in Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold, where year after year the harvests are brought in and the cows lick their calves; year after year the pig is slaughtered and hams are smoked. Spring arrives, true, but nothing happens.

The stagnant family economy, the certainty that local university degrees mean nothing in the cramped labor market of the Coast or the highly elitist national market, drives them to sea. Both women and men sail off because they refuse to become that human flotsam so aptly characterized by the Polish researcher Zygmunt Bauman, another emigrant.

A goldmine of workers

The cruise companies recruit the coast men and women young and offer them work as waiters, chamber maids, bartenders and cleaners. They hire them for their fluency in English and Spanish, their capacity for hard physical work and their “willingness” to be away from their families.

The cruise ships emerged as an opportunity to extend the possibility of a work place beyond borders, dry land and the continent. The completely un-dry, in fact totally swampy land of the national economy offers no sustenance. The ship-outs must cast their eye farther. The ignored coast people of Guatemala, the Caracoles of Honduras and the Creoles, Miskitus and Garífunas of Nicaragua represent a goldmine of workers to the most prestigious cruise lines.

The Royal Caribbean and the Norwegian Cruise Line are the most aggressive recruiters. Their routes are very cosmopolitan and that’s how their crews become. While the Royal Caribbean’s web-site puts more emphasis on the details of its 5 “families” of 22 cruisers (one of its slogans is “Why should getting there be only half the fun?”), it offers visits to over a hundred ports of call around the world. Its Rhapsody of the Seas travels around Hawaii and Legend of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas go as far as China, while Splendour of the Seas and Vision of the Seas cruise the Mediterranean, with Venice, Istanbul and other legendary cities also on their route. The men and women from Bluefields who work for the Norwegian Cruise Line have traveled in its Crown, Dawn, Dream, Majesty, Spirit and Pride of America.

The Royal Caribbean has amassed a fortune on the backs, hands and the rhythm of the feet of ship-outs from the Caribbean and other parts of the globe and now in Miami can boastfully trumpet the launching of the world’s largest cruise ship: the 360-meter-long Oasis of the Seas, with the capacity to accommodate 5,400 passengers in its 2,700 cabins. At the moment it’s only destined for the Caribbean but the company’s proud president, Adam Goldstein, announced that later on this cruise ship will venture into the waters of the Mediterranean.

Government tourism is
banking on the cruise ships

All the fanfare around the Oasis of the Seas and the US$1.4 billion that went into building and outfitting her can’t hide the blow the global economic crisis is dealing Royal Caribbean’s finances. Its profits were down more than 72% in the first nine months of 2009. Invoicing for the third quarter fell 10%, down to $1.763 billion, putting its net earnings of $230.4 million ($1.07 dollars per share) well below the $411.9 million ($1.92 per share) over the same period in 2008. At the end of 2009 the Royal Caribbean hopes for share earnings to improve by $0.70-.80. This reality and these projections reduced the share price by $0.05, a relatively large amount for shares quoted at $19.28.

Paying no attention to the signs of the times and the ups and downs of Wall Street, Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) officials are continuing to bank on the luster and splendor of the cruise ships. INTUR director Mario Salinas calculated that 61 cruises would put into port in Nicaragua over the 2009-2010 season, a real record for Nicaragua’s Pacific ports. Salinas estimated the cruises will bring 91,885 tourists and will generate US$2.324 million.

Weighed down with mirrors, trinkets and thousands of dollars, 1,916 tourists from the United States, Canada and Panama traveling on the Holland-American Line’s cruise ship Zuiderdan, arrived at Corinto’s pier in early October and were received by National Port Authority president Virgilio Silva, INTUR officials and Corinto’s mayor, Enrique Saravia. Between the music and folk dances of the welcoming act, the executive president of the National Ports Authority presented a commemorative plaque to the ship’s captain.

It was an impressive entourage and pompous ceremony by a government whose deputy foreign minister calls Holland a “shitty little country” and whose President disdains the cooperation of European countries as “crumbs.” INTUR maintains that some 700 tourists come ashore from each ship to visit nearby cities, spending an average $60-70 each on food, not to mention memorabilia, “crumbs” that appear to be more to the present government’s liking.

Better shipped out than educated

This story has another face, the face of those below-decks, those who clean, serve, polish, haul, fetch and carry. For decades the person responsible for Royal Caribbean recruitment in Bluefields was Wade Hawkins. His name is pronounced Wady or even Wadí but never Wade.

Mister Hawkins recruited as many as 400 youngsters every year. All told, he might have recruited more than 8,000. If to these we add those recruited in Puerto Cabezas and the Norwegian Cruise Line’s labor pool, the figure grows exponentially. With deductions for desertions, firings and retirement, could this mean that more than 5,000 Coast people are currently shipped out? It’s possible; in fact that could be a conservative figure. Some of the ship-outs insist that a ship with 1,200 employees might include up to 300 Nicaraguans from Bluefields, El Bluff, Pearl Lagoon, Orinoco, Corn Island and Puerto Cabezas.

In 2006 the volume of recruits dropped like a stone: Royal Caribbean reduced its quota to 150 new contracts a year, a cutback for which two factors were responsible. On the labor supply side was the growing availability of Filipinos and Greeks willing to put up with lower salaries. And on the demand side Royal Caribbean became more meticulous in its selection of Central Americans due to their tendency to sue the company for millions after alleging workplace accidents.

Recruitment continues, however. It promises dizzying promotion possibilities: from cleaner to pool supervisor. Proof of this opportunity for advancement is the fact that all those who have been with the cruise ships for 20 to 30 years are now supervisors. The company is interested in fluent English. It doesn’t matter to them if the recruits have graduated high school or gotten a university degree or not, thus sending up a signal in the labor market that discourages studying.

That’s how Jessica Clarence, a 30-year-old from Bluefields, who shipped out for a while, perceives it: “At the moment I work with young people. I do a lot of listening, especially to black youth. I ask them: ‘What do you want to study? You now have two universities in Bluefields, and everyday there are more career course options, so you don’t have to go to the Pacific Coast to study.’ But the guys tell me: ‘I’m not going to study for any degree; I’m going to graduate from high school then work on a cruise ship because that’s where the money is.’ That’s their dream: finish high school and go off to work on a cruise ship. ‘What am I supposed to study for?,’ they ask. ‘Where does studying get me? At the end of the day, how will I end up if I stay here? Driving a taxi, and earning nothing.’ And the girls think like this: ‘I’ll study, get dressed up and look for someone who works on a cruise ship to keep me.’ It’s a mentality that’s so… that every now and then makes you want to strangle them! But that’s what there is at the moment, at least for my race. Go into the classrooms at the university here and count how many black students there are. The majority are mestizos. And if you find dark faces, they’re women. The men don’t have any ambition to better themselves, get a degree. The betterment they see is to go work on a cruise ship.”

“I wasted all my time on that ship”

With obvious pragmatism, Anel Howard stated the logic of the ship-outs: “Where I work I’ve seen teachers and even a girl who was a bank teller.” Howard isn’t a professional; he works in the ship’s mess washing dishes, but he earns three times what he would get in Bluefields. Education no longer matters to him. “I gave up studying for the same reason. I’ve got two neighbors who spent like ten years studying in the BICU [Bluefields Indian and Creole University] and have more than one profession, but I’m earning more than them. That’s why education doesn’t matter to people any more. They just want to learn how to read and write, to understand, then leave the country to look for work.”

The final upshot, however, can be negative. What one obtains doesn’t compensate for what one abandons, according to Victor Bacon’s experience: “I spent so many years studying… just to end up on a ship. I got a business administration degree, then once I graduated I had to go find work on a cruise ship: five years down the drain. None of my knowledge was worth anything. I wasted all my time there; I lost out on being with family and friends, enjoying my youth. You leave everything behind, you lose it all.”

Wilbert Gordon, 26., decided to ship out after checking out the market indicators: “I don’t think it’s worth studying. The family invests in you but you don’t get anything back. Here the local governments don’t do anything, nor can they. There’s nothing here for young people. Even with public universities to benefit young people, when you come out of university you need to be able to get a secure job, where they pay you a decent salary, worthy of a young person. I’ve looked here and can’t find anything. As long as they don’t give young people any opportunities, they’ll continue to go sign on with a ship.”

But Gordon saw for himself the consequences of a lack of education on the cruise ship he worked on: “A lot of young guys apply and haven’t even finished the first year of high school. That was the only shot they had. They got the chance to ship out and did it. But they regret it in the end because they can’t even write their name. Or they write it then have to spend half an hour going back over the letters. And I’m not only talking about people from Nicaragua, there are also Colombians, people from San Andrés and other Caribbean islands.”

None of those interviewed had any prior training. They had their baptism of fire on the ship, where the few training opportunities are designed exclusively in the company’s interest: “I know about one friend’s experience,” says Wilbert Gordon. “A boss wanted to promote him so he asked if they would send him for professional training. They gave him an opportunity in Miami to learn about waste management. In other words, he wasn’t even going to study to get a diploma, just to learn something that would benefit the company. They don’t give you the chance to progress or be something in life, they just give you opportunities that revolve around benefiting themselves. I don’t think that’s an opportunity because if they sack you and you apply to another company, you go back to the same thing.”

In Deborah Robb Taylor’s highly pithy and colorful book, The times and life of Bluefields, presented as a cross generational dialogue, she laments the migration from Bluefields as a brain drain and describes education as an investment to promote migration. Reasons abound. Nevertheless, it’s also true that the ship is a cosmopolitan school too…

“I met people who never expected
to meet me and I learned a lot”

“Being on a ship is like being at school because you learn things,” Lugwig Wilson, a 24 year old from Bluefields tells me. “I’ve got friends who speak other languages and they teach me. They teach me other things they do, their cultures, their traditions. I learn things from them and they learn from me.”

Trip after trip, a cosmopolitan outlook has enriched the perception of the ship-outs’ world. Their exposure to foreigners, their awareness that things can be different and be done in other ways, the learning of other languages, the diversity of parameters for comparison and the pride in speaking two languages and having been to Paris, Venice, Rome, Barcelona, Acapulco, Russia, Australia, Amsterdam, Río de Janeiro, Philadelphia, the Bermudas, Africa, New York… Wilbert Gordon appraises these and other gains: “I learned many things: I learned how to deal with people, with young people, how to talk to them; I learned respect, friendship, how to survive away from your mother and your family, because you’re going to meet people from 76 different countries in the world. On those ships are people who speak different languages: you have to get used to living side by side with them. I had a lot of friends from India. My friends were never Nicaraguans or other people from the Caribbean but Colombians, Chileans, Asians.”

Some gain the freedom inherent in overcoming xenophobia: the segregationist, sometimes self-segregationist determination that gets in the way of relating to and enjoying people who are different. Victor Bacon had this experience: “People who didn’t know me or never expected to know me, Filipinos, were the ones who offered me their help. To me these are the best people on earth. They’d never let me die, even though I don’t have their same blood or anything.” Harvey Bradford agrees and extends this view to include all Asians: “Asians are the best people to work with.”

Jessica Downs values more than anything the world of relationships it opened up for her: “I’ve made friends with girls from other places and it’s been very good for me. I’ve got friends from Jamaica, Rumania… and how one changes! You exchange your ideas and even food because everything’s different. I can’t complain because my cabin is for two people and in the end I’ve got on better with people from other places than with my own people.” Exposure to things foreign has helped many ship-outs shake off their chauvinism and not only tolerate and respect differences but enjoy and celebrate them. The ship-outs had already started their globalization process decades ago, avant la lettre.

Hardships of the floating city

The price they have to pay for this globalization is exacted in constant, non-stop work. “I lived a different experience,” Wilbert Gordon recalls. “Being on land isn’t the same as being out there. At sea you don’t see the sun. You spend 24 hours a day working in that floating city.” Once on board, the ship-outs barely have time to breathe. They work more than ten hours a day, then add extra hours to the ordinary shifts to amass a decent income. The wear is continual and labor rights minimal. Those who are pregnant or ill don’t get paid leave. Those who suffer an accident receive a relatively symbolic compensation or at best one that’s not in line with current legislation.

There’s no guarantee of being kept on. Contracts are never for more than the nine months. The companies reserve the right to hire ship-outs again, or not, after their “vacations, which in reality are a subterfuge to avoid the employer responsibilities that go along with a permanent contract. The temporary nature of work on the cruisers, even though the ship-outs are a group that brushes up against globalization and receives a much higher income than that of the average Nicaraguan, doesn’t relieve them of much of the bondage affecting migrants: jobs they’re overqualified for, violation of their basic labor rights, job insecurity, living far from their family, which sometimes ends up as family disintegration, and racism-tinged discrimination.

Always keeping the clients happy

The testimony of a ship-out who asked to be identified only as “Adviser” revealed many of the labor-related miseries suffered in the floating city. In just six months Adviser rose quickly through the ranks from hotel cleaner to room service attendant by way of pool supervisor. He has spent 12 of his 39 years working on the Royal Caribbean cruise ships and been witness to capital’s attack on the work force.

The company has never been very generous with its salaries. Between 1997 and 2001 the biggest part of a pay packet came from overtime. Anyone who didn’t work overtime was condemned to a below-survival salary level, and conditions worsened after the 9-11 terrorist attack. Income basically began to depend on the fluctuating and random tips given by passengers. The company also used the attacks on the twin towers as an excuse to dispense with the $280 vacation pay it used to give the workers. Having to depend on tips is like gambling on a roulette wheel. “I know what I have to do to keep clients happy,” says Adviser. “But some of them aren’t very friendly. We can’t ask them for anything. We can only be nice and that depends on your personality. You have to be friendly, professional and unassuming. You mustn’t wait until your client asks you to do something. You have to take charge of their luggage. If you make a mistake, you’re out. They use me for their business and I have to fulfill their expectations. It’s customary to get $3.50 per passenger a day, but you often don’t get anything.”

After each vacation the ship-outs have to pay for their own return trip to wherever the ship is: for instance from Miami to Barcelona. And they have to pay for their board and lodging in expensive cities until the cruiser sails. But the worst comes on embarkation and disembarkation days. They have to prepare the cabins in record time, a feat impossible to pull off without taking on auxiliary staff, which ends up being paid for out of the pockets of the room service attendants. On embarkation day, Adviser pays $120 to someone he entrusts with cleaning rooms and putting ice in them. Otherwise he would never have the rooms ready by 1pm on the dot. Every eleven days he spends $110 paying helpers. “As it’s my job to carry suitcases,” he explains, “I also have to pay someone $20 to carry some of them when I don’t have time to take all the luggage to the rooms myself.”

“If they give you a poor, you get a warning”

Cruise companies didn’t invent outsourcing but they apply it with a meticulous greed. The companies maintain a low intensity employer-employee relationship with the ship-outs: contracts lasting less than a year, no social benefits and the offer that the bulk of their salary will come directly from fluctuating and capricious tips from clients whose generosity is assumed to be proportional to satisfaction with the services obtained, although some passengers are stingy by definition. The companies also force their workers to turn into micro-businesses responsible for sub-contracting many of the services each cruise ship demands. Ship-outs have to answer to the company, which reduces its obligations and keeps labor disputes to a minimum. The company becomes a facilitator of fragile, barely perceptible labor links.

And in that context, Adviser continues, “you have to take care of your post because your immediate boss might want to give it to someone he had sex with. Trading sex for jobs is quite common. And even if your boss doesn’t fire you, the system keeps the pressure on. All services are subject to client appraisal via a questionnaire where your work is classified into different categories according to its quality: excellent, very good, good, poor. If they give you a poor, you get a warning and a talk from the captain. After two or three warnings you can be fired.” In this coercive system, Big Brother is the client’s eyes. The client appraises, rewards with tips and fires. And all this with a clean conscience unaware of that absolute power. The floating city lacks unions, mutinies and rebellions. It’s a Huxleyan happy world where pleasure injections keep the restless ship-outs sedated. Weekly mini-parties drown discontent in gallons of booze.

The law of supply and lawsuits

No system of domination and extraction is perfect. Not even the most meticulous and miserly Harpagon can avoid fissures and the eventual draining away of his fortune. The workers on the floating city have opted for silently individual and occasionally opportunistic forms of rebellion. Against the tactics of the lumpenbourgeoisie, the ruses of the lumpenproletariat. Lawsuits for accidents are the order of the day. Berthel Bobb explains how the scam works: “The Norwegian Cruise Line is the only one laying off people right now because most of the ship-outs are just suing for accidents and that sort of thing. And if they carry on with it, they’ll bankrupt the company. They get more than $100,000 each time. There are some who cut their finger and sue right away. Some do it just for fun. They don’t want to work. They just want to sit home drinking. Compensation depends on the case. Some get around $120,000, others get $200,000. Most of them who sue are men, but there are girls who are scoundrels too.”

They are clear incentives for suing. The law of supply and demands works. The offer of advisory services on legal procedures against the companies encourages and multiplies the cases. The lawyers get a hefty cut of the compensation so are encouraged to give their best, and their worst, risking their skins in the battle for compensations worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The treasure troves of these floating isles

Although some talk about compensation of up to half a million dollars, you never hear it from those compensated. It’s more likely that testimonies inflate the treasure trove of lawsuit piracy. There’s no doubt that the companies have the most skillful lawyers for these fights. Wilbert Gordon has heard of respectable booties: “A guy told me about a girl who suffered racial discrimination because she was brown-skinned. I don’t know if it was a gringo who offended her. She sued for damages and I think they paid her $500,000. But then they deported the girl, sent her back to her country and the ship didn’t hire her again.”

Wilbert himself wasn’t so fortunate in his particular case: “I had an accident and left in 2003. Afterwards I worked three contracts. During the fourth I had another accident and sued the company. But my lawyers kept putting obstacles in my way. It seemed like they were working for the company or the company had given them something under the table to get them to complicate the case. In the end, I only got $43,000. I had an operation on my spine. The reports they gave me say I could suffer a spinal deformation by the time I’m 40 years old.”

The cruise ships aren’t a floating treasure island. Withsel Hooker knows the reparations aren’t as large as the stories make out: “There are people who come home with injured backs. I’m a waitress. During ten hour shifts I lift twelve plates at a time on the palm of my hand and with a big effort by my shoulder. I run the risk of breaking my wrist. I’ve got a fellow Nicaraguan friend who’s back here in Bluefields because she got hurt. The company sends her money, but not as much as she was earning. If she recovers, the company will try to find a way to sack her so she can’t get any more money out of them. Although they compensate you, you’re not going to get enough money to keep you the rest of your life. You buy a plot of land, or a house or car and it’s gone. Afterwards how are you going to work with a shoulder that’s no good, with hands that can’t lift anything? My friend’s here right now. She was earning $1,000 and with the drinks she sold she used to get it up to $1,200 or $1,500, but now the company only sends her $600, sometimes $500. She’s got a broken arm. She wants to go back but the company is looking for some reason to fire her so she can’t get more money out of them.”

Another strategy has to do with revenge against the real masters: the clients. The ship-outs pass the word about which passengers are stingy and penalize them. Some spit in their glasses of booze and rinse their water jugs out in the toilet bowl. It’s not common practice, but is a risk run by those who decide to travel like magnates but give miserable tips. There are many strategies and many stories about revenge. Adviser is very aware of this after having sailed on the Enchantment of the Seas, Monarch of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Brilliance of the Seas, among others. “There are people who have worked on the cruise ships for twenty years,” he explains; “and those people are like a book. They have a lot of stories. Some pages say one thing and other pages say another. You have to read all the pages.”

Remittances: A treasure sent in dribs and drabs

Unlike other ship-outs, Adviser isn’t looking for adventure or to get to know the world. He’s looking for family prosperity, a motor that’s pulled lots of money to Bluefields and its surroundings: “I don’t do it to visit places but for the money. I’m not seeking new experiences, but money. I’ve got a family to keep. I love life on the farm. If I had a lot of cows I could survive and stay home. Being far away from the family is something to be borne with a mental effort. You miss your family, but you tell yourself you’re doing it for them and so you can be with them in future. That’s why I send money home.”

There are no trustworthy records of the total amount of money ship-outs inject into the Coast economy. But there’s no doubt that their contribution has been growing at a dizzying rate. In 2001 the three main agencies for getting remittances to the entire South Atlantic Autonomous Region reported they had channeled $7.3 million. Since then some researchers learned that ship-outs take advantage of their workmates’ vacations to send money with them, avoiding the commission charged by the companies that handle transfers. Even without counting such informal remittance, these researchers tallied $12.9 million in 2005 just in the city of Bluefields: $4.8 million through Money Gram, $420,000 through Pelican Express, $5.4 million through two branches of Western Union, $780,000 through Bancentro and $1.5 through Banpro, both of the latter Nicaraguan banks.

That conservative estimate gives an annual average of $280 per inhabitant, still a figure far greater than the $180 per inhabitant of the national average for remittances. Some researchers estimate that the real amount could be around $37.5 million, which would average $750 per inhabitant. This gives us an idea of the impact remittances have on the tiny Bluefields economy, especially in Creole households, which contribute 74% of the emigrants.

Party, party, party!

The impact of the remittances is palpable in Bluefields streets. No fewer than three taxis are working simultaneously on every street, their proliferation attributed to investment of the remittances from the ship-outs, most of whom mentioned an income of up to $2,500 a month when interviewed. This means they can send between $200 and $300 a month to their families and still come home with some savings. In recent years some critical voices have been raised about the management and volatility of these savings. Bluefields Maranatha minister and politician Brother Rayfield explains how these small fortunes get squandered: Today’s mentality is party, party, party. You see a black guy coming home from the ship with perhaps $3,000 or $4,000 in his pocket and what does he do? He looks for a boom box to play at full volume walking through the streets. He looks for expensive weird clothes. He looks to go out drinking every night until the only thing left to do is beg for money for the trip back to the boat. He’ll go from door to door begging for a loan and will pawn his land, his house or whatever he might have bought in order to return to the ship. This is a badly informed society and because of that we’re a directionless people. It’s very sad.”

Orinoco, a little village globalized by ship-outs

Whether poured into intelligent investments or frittered away on trivial consumption, the remittances sent by ship-outs are transforming the coast’s urban and rural landscape. In the little lagoon-side Garífuna village of Orinoco in the South Caribbean region, remittances make their presence felt. Spacious concrete houses with modern decor are multiplying. In no way can they be sneered at, considering that each bag of cement has to come by boat at a costly freight charge. Proud ship-outs ride around Orinoco’s few concrete walkways on gigantic motorbikes. And in the November 19 festival that celebrates the Garífuna people’s arrival in Nicaragua, there are attractive colorful African style outfits, and abundant food, beer and bands brought in from far away. The globalized ship-outs are globalizing Orinoco.

According to Jesuit anthropologist José Idiáquez, the word Garífuna comes from the word “Carib” whose mutations gave rise to karibena, galibi, caribana, galíbina and galíbuna, finally ending up as Garífuna. While the Caribbean Coast of Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua were home to around 90,000 Garífunas in 2001, the Garífuna population in Nicaragua is only 2,500 strong. They started arriving on Nicaraguan shores as temporary migrants in 1832, working for the banana and logging companies. In 1860 some of them founded Greytown and in 1880 a small group formed a permanent settlement close to Pearl Lagoon in a town Juan Sambola, its founder, baptized San Vicente in memory of the little island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles where two slave ships carrying a group of African slaves that would evolve into the Garífuna people were shipwrecked in the mid-17th century.

The Garífuna search for their roots

The previously pendular Garífuna migrants, who came from Honduras’ Caribbean Coast, especially the port of Trujillo, to fish, began to settle in the Nicaraguan area when some of them died on our territory. Fondness for the deceased buried in Nicaraguan soil and a cultural reverence for ancesters led them to embrace their new homeland.

According to Idiáquez, the cult of ancestors runs deep in the marrow of Garífuna cosmovision. The dead are always present and cherished. Ancestors are good and only do good. Perhaps this cosmovision came about in part by fusion, combining rather easily with Catholicism and its cohort of saints, miracles and prayers for the dead. “In great measure,” says Idiáquiz, “the veneration of Catholicism’s ‘official saints,’ usually distant and unknown to the Garfiuna, was replaced by the affectionate and well-known faces of their ancestors.”

These days many of them, in a move to reclaim their roots, have turned to the Rastafarian religion and the routine, highly joyful worship of its two most sonorous icons: the Jamaican Bob Marley and the South African Lucky Dube. Murdered in 2007 at 43, after a 20-year artistic career, Dube left an abundant musical heritage of reggae replete with social motives. On one of his 21 albums the song Back to my roots can be found, the words of which describe his disappointment at a party where All we could hear there was their crackadoo because the music they played there/ was not good for a Rasta man yeah. The chorus explains the agenda: I’m going back to my roots yeah yeah/ Reggae music is all that I need.

This return to one’s roots finds an echo in a population isolated and discriminated against by the surrounding ethnic groups, which flaunt their numeric superiority and taunt about being “real” Nicaraguans. “They call us Trujillans. Even Somoza said we weren’t Nicaraguans but Trujillans. He humiliated us and called us foreigners,” Orinoco leader, Frank Lopez, an artisan, explains to me. “We lived surrounded by peoples who didn’t respect us: mestizos, Miskitus and Creoles. We Garífunas only existed as the butt of their jokes. They used to offend by calling us ‘catfish eaters’ because our dishes make good use of catfish, a delicious fish that these days everyone eats and enjoys.”

The Garífunas have also been discriminated against in the history books. In the sole paragraph, a total of 12 lines, dedicated to the Garífunas by Germán Romero Vargas in his Historia de la Costa Atlántica, there is only the most general information on the Garífunas in the Caribbean, ending with their settling in Nicaragua in 1860.

Discrimination and isolation served to increase cohesion among the Garífuna people. In recent times links have been cultivated with Garífuna communities in Honduras and Belize. The 15-year tradition of celebrating the Garífunas’ arrival in Nicaragua includes visitors from almost all the Central American Caribbean coast, not to mention almost all Garífunas from Orinoco, La Fe and Marshall Point who want to rescue and celebrate their culture: cuisine, song, dance, medicine… Garífuna leader Kensy Sambola comments that “the rescue of Garífuna traditions is important for all because the Garífunas need to unite and diversify. Because of this the 12 elders who still speak Garífuna are teaching our language to the rest of us. Because of this we’re working on religious beliefs, customs and interpreting the dances to understand the significance of Garífuna culture. Because of this Garífuna groups joined together in 1997 to set up an organization. And because of this we’re facilitating communication with Garífunas in New York and Honduras.”

These days you only hear reggae in Orinoco. Good music for a Rasta man. A year after their arrival the Garífunas had to bow to the linguistic hegemony of Creole English in order to take advantage of economic opportunities and survive. They didn’t just dominate the language; the language also dominated them. While Nicaragua’s Garífuna communities were busy rescuing their original language, the twists and turns of history, those Copernican cultural revolutions, meant that their domination of Creole English opened the cruise ship doors to them, turning them into ship-outs, inserting them into the globalized world that now connects them more with reggae, the Rastafarian religion, clothing and other African traditions. In short, it put them in closer touch with some of their long-severed roots.

With the world in their sights

The Rasta thing isn’t part of those roots. But it’s one of the current versions of them that are the fruit of a centrifugal and centripetal movement of cultural traditions that open and close up like people, and like peoples. “Spanish men are not allowed to be here. You are not legal here,” an Orinoco man told me when he saw me enter the inner sanctum of a small factory and store that makes and sells what is known as guífity (possibly a distortion of the word whisky), the typical Garífuna firewater that some, unfairly and inappropriately, call moonshine rum. At the other extreme, his countryman Derwin Kingsman, a ship-out on vacation, doesn’t reject me and wants to tell me about his life over a couple of beers. And he has a lot to tell because his horizons and his sights have broadened to take in even the unspeakable on a ship, a cruise ship.

Taking my leave of Orinoco, I thought as the outboard dinghy pulled away from the dock: people depart from this tiny village to wander the world, hear French and Chinese, work side by side with Filipinos and stroll through the streets of Amsterdam. Here in this same tiny village sits Kingsman, with Barcelona still engraved on his pupils.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher at the Jesuit Service for Central American migrants (SJM) and member of envío’s editorial council.

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