Sunday, August 27, 2006

Caribs and the Santa Rosa Festival, 2006

Today, Sunday, was the celebration of the 220th anniversary of the Santa Rosa Festival in Arima, Trinidad. Given confusion over dates, this anniversary has actually been claimed previously, but now it seems that more people are certain, for now, that this indeed is the 220th anniversary. The event was also special in that it was carried live by radio and over the Internet, courtesy of Trinidad and Tobago's I 95.5 FM. It has been a couple of years now that on each Santa Rosa feast day (that is, on the Sunday closest to August 23rd) that this radio station has broadcast the entire three-hour ceremony live. And when I say the entire ceremony, I mean that it also gives full play to the many, very lengthy, hymns, which can be a real "listening challenge" for those who are not especial devotees of this musical genre.

This article, part polemic, part exposition, is built around a selection of audio files that were edited from the larger broadcast. The files are in mp3 format. When clicking on each link below, you can choose to save the file to your computer and listen to it later and/or click the "open" button on the popup box that will appear when clicking on the links, and play it with your computer's designated audio player.

A member of the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Parish in Arima served as commentator. Like other members of this parish, she proclaimed it to be the "largest Catholic parish in the Caribbean" (by this I assume she meant the English-speaking Caribbean alone--sometimes people in the Anglophone Caribbean forget that the Spanish speaking, Roman Catholic, giants like Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are also in the Caribbean).

The Santa Rosa Festival certainly seems to have aquired an air of significance in recent years when, at the best of times, a newspaper article about the Festival, maybe even on the front page of the dailies, would be all one could expect to find in terms of national coverage. The significance of the event must have been heightened enough to be covered by commercial radio, especially since a mass is not something that can be easily covered live, and the sportscast-like commentary is sometimes intrusive, even if necessary.

The commentator began by framing the Festival as one of especial importance to the Caribs of Arima, and she also noted who was present in the crowd, paying especial attention to Queen Valentina Medina (who was recently popularized as a massive Carnival costume, titled "My Love for Carib Queen Valentina Medina"). This theme, that of the Caribs' historical ties to the festival, would go on a roller coaster ride of dramatic shifts in signification throughout the mass, repeatedly highlighted and then downplayed. My personal belief is that this Catholic church is unwilling to admit to itself that the main reason anyone outside the parish might show even passing interest is due to the Carib presence--otherwise, the mass itself can be rather ho-hum and like any other Catholic mass in Trinidad.

Controlling Information
The Roman Catholic Church in Arima is very diligent about controlling information and authorizing only those perspectives that favour it the most, which will doubtfully surprise many. The Santa Rosa Festival is no exception. On the one hand, the parish has recently begun to utilize the Web, launching its own Santa Rosa RC website.
Santa Rosa RC Church Website
Messages there are reinforced by a broader, national publication, The Catholic News, which also covers Arima events in occasional articles on its own
website. On the other hand, by selecting a parishioner, a non-Carib, as the radio commentator, this also allows the Church an inside edge, that is, an edge over the Caribs who are politely treated as mute participants from whom, and about whom, we rarely hear during the ceremony itself. Over the years, the Church has utilized the Festival to offer sermons that seem to promote a very basic theme, one that could be summarized as: "you aren't Caribs now so much as Catholics, and Trinidadians, so forget the past and remember your devotion to the Church." Sometimes the message is subtle, and sometimes it is abrasive and blunt, like today's ceremony by chief celebrant Father Clyde Harvey, although even here, as we shall hear, the message can sound quite confused, perhaps deliberately so.

As usual, the Church had one of its stalwarts lecture people on the "true" history of the Santa Rosa Mission, an event offered in the run up to this year's Festival. While the Church is keen to prop up its own amateur and unpublished "authority" on the Caribs, the Caribs themselves are routinely denied any voice. You can only look at them, but don't speak to them...and they have nothing to say anyway, right? Indeed, in 1998, as I attended the festivities in the Carib Centre, I heard the parish priest advise visitors to speak to this supposed expert--"she is the authority on the Caribs"--and he said so right in the presence of a mass of Caribs who, rest assured, have a thing or two to say about themselves. His absence, however, has not changed either the tone or the slant of the Church's own enforced whitewashing of history.

After all, the Catholic Church in Trinidad and Tobago is an especially conservative and defensive one. Unlike Catholic Churches in other nations, this one is particularly unrepentant about its own history of exploitation of Amerindians (using them as labour to plant and harvest cocoa for commercial export) and abuses (which in one case led to the famous 1699 uprising). This is not a Church that says "sorry"--ever. We should also bear in mind known cases where the Catholic Church in Trinidad covered up for priests who sexually abused minors, removing them to other parishes, or other dioceses, rather than defrocking them. We "lay people," however, living in our state of perpetual sin (although since God knowingly created Satan, created evil, someone please explain why we are the ones who are guilty of "sin"), we are required to be perpetually asking for forgiveness.

The message of submission in today's mass began with one of the first readings from the Bible, an astonishing passage given popular social transformations since the 1960s, in that it emphasized submission to the Church as shaping, and being shaped by, the total and unquestioning submission of a wife to her husband (or perhaps the submission of a little boy to a priest). A morning of speeches from the pulpit began with patriarchy and ended up in colonialism, assimilation, and then ethnically-cleansed nationalism.

Controlling the Setting
The Santa Rosa RC Church also has a curious, but hardly shocking, way of controlling the setting for the Festival, as if to remind everyone that this, at the end of the day, is a Catholic festival and not a Carib one. This brushes aside the Caribs' own belief that Saint Rose of Lima is their special intercessor, one who appeared to them, as legend has it, and is very particular to their Mission history...indeed, that is how the Festival came to be in the first place, via the Indian Mission of Arima. So while the Caribs may be used by the Church as a selling point, they are not meant to be the ending point.

"Selling" brings other issues to mind. This year, as has happened on occasion in the past, the Church decided to compete with the Santa Rosa Carib Community on the platform of the sale of lunches after the Santa Rosa High Mass. Given that the Caribs have always offered lunch to parishioners at their Community Centre, and rely heavily on the revenue generated from such sales, it seems odd that the Church, with greater resources, should now need to specialize in selling lunches. Do churches normally offer "take out"? Such a move can only financially hurt the Carib Community and work to further marginalize it, at the same time that the Church claims to be celebrating the Caribs, even posting a picture of them on their website's front page.

For at least four years now the Church has decided to keep the core of the mass under a tent adjacent to the Church (although from what I understood this year was different). Why this was necessary is a mystery: inside the Church sat parishioners, comfortably watching on a giant flat screen the proceedings that were transpiring just outside. Why couldn't the mass take place inside the Church and have the excess number of people outside to watch the giant screen under the tent? It's not an arrangement that pleased many Caribs: the subtle message appeared to be that circuses take place under tents, and Caribs are welcome as performers outside the Church. Given that the very large numbers of Caribs who have left the Roman Catholic Church and joined other denominations, along with those who never really cared too much about any church, this seemed like a dangerously back-handed welcome. Indeed, the Church seems to have been made to recognize this by the leadership of the Carib Community.

Keeping the main event under the tent outside also serves to marginalize the work done by the Carib Community in decorating the interior of the Church of Santa Rosa with their own crafts and flowers, a major tradition of theirs for this Festival. Perhaps, as some prelates might strategize, if Carib labour is minimized then so is the Carib investment, and the symbolic Carib imprint on the Festival. Instead we are offered what appears to be a lawn wedding, under a hot tent, packed into a parking lot.

Mixed Messages?
Speaking of greetings offered with the back of the hand, the main message of today's sermon was rather brazen in its "anti-tribal" message, as spoken by Father Clyde Harvey.

Father Clyde Harvey, celebrant for Santa Rosa Mass, Aug 2006

While we are instructed that we cannot go "back" to our tribes, it is curious to find out what lies ahead as an alternative. Ironically, the answer we are given by Father Harvey is: tribalism. He asks us to choose which god we will serve, acknowleding a plethora of other competing gods. To choose to be a Catholic, or a Christian generally, in a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational country such as Trinidad and Tobago is in fact to choose to belong to one of his so-called "tribes." So is the Roman Catholic Church in Trinidad truly against "tribalism" (assuming that "tribalism" is the neafrious creature that some believe it to be)? No, it is against the kind of tribalism that does not place it, as a social institution, in a place of privileged preeminence. However, some might argue: the Catholic Church is not a tribe in a ethnic sense. One could answer: so what? Is one form of sectionalism, of particularity, of difference somehow better and more valuable than another? In any event, Catholicism in Trinidad is very much marked in ethnic and colour terms--it is not the preferred religion of either East Indians, who have been routinely maligned by Catholics for being alleged "idol worshippers" who "pray to devils," nor of the African urban underclass.

Some might be tempted to suggest that there was "something for everyone" in today's sermon by Father Harvey. Indeed, while he at one point urges Trinidadians to think of themselves as one people (conveniently leaving the cultural content of this Trinidadian nation unspecified), he also returns to ethnic particularism, going as far as marking Santa Rosa as a woman with Indian tribal blood in her veins. He does, however, argue for a "Trinidad" that is under the Holy Trinity--again an expression of particularism that will clearly leave Trinidad's many Hindus and Muslims entirely unimpressed at best.

Where are the Caribs?
While the Caribs participate for their own reasons, their presence in the Festival is tightly controlled, and it is not accidental. Even mention of them, during the course of a three-hour ceremony is very rare, and rarely are they allowed to speak in any way, although today offered us one wonderful exception, with Carib leader, Ricardo Bharath Hernandez, reciting a prayer in the Island Carib language (usually considered by linguists as a derivative of Arawakan, and indeed Ricardo says the prayer is in "Arawak"). Otherwise, one can expect routine "blessings" to be offered to the Caribs, sometimes phrased as if the Caribs were ailing.

[ADDENDUM, posted 28/08/2006: I had forgotten to bring attention to one of the other gems of exaggeration and distorted representation featured by the church, and its radio commentator, during this mass. Soon after the mass commenced, I was initially delighted, though a bit puzzled, to hear of "the proclamation of the gospel in Amerindian". In Amerindian? The entire congregation would do so? I wondered what that could mean. Well, what it means in fact is that the church's own choir would now play at being Amerindian, and without much in the way of effort or imagination either. What they did was to set the Hallelujah to stereotypical tom-tom music. My personal recommendation to the church and its choir: leave the job of being Amerindian to the Amerindians.

Phony Amerindian Hallelujah]

Time dictates that I end here, even if abruptly. I welcome all comments by readers. It certainly has been a pleasure for me to have three hours of "fieldwork at a distance" today, and I am certain that there will be several other, alternate readings of today's events and statements. Please feel free to express your opinions and share your thoughts by posting comments below.


JT said...

THANK YOU for this analysis. I only wish someone in Trinidad, even someone out of the Carib community, would write something similar. Because the local indifference to the Carib community is amazing; and even more amazing is the Roman Catholic church's "takeover" of the whole scene, especially the Santa Rosa festival, with all the barely-hidden patronising and neo-colonialism that you point out.

What baffles me most is why the Carib community accepts the role that has been thrust upon it, and plays up to it so willingly. Why not make a clear, clean, decisive break with Catholicism, and make it clear to everyone that the Carib culture goes back thousands of years before the arrival of Spanish Catholics in Trinidad, and can in no way be authentically nurtured, protected or advanced by the church?

Why not shout out loud: "We are Caribs, we are being used and manipulated, these are not our real core beliefs! Our people were almost wiped out by Spanish Catholics in this island, to the point where we were driven mad by their brutality, and it seems that to this day we are paying for our protests and defiance of three centuries ago. Rosa de Lima has nothing to do with us: henceforth we will have our own festivals in our own way, and organise them ourselves."

It would be at least a gesture towards authenticity and against a religious mythology which is both illegitimate and unjust. I am particularly disappointed in Fr Harvey, who had the reputation at one time of being one of the local church's brightest and bravest priests, but his independence has been broken, not least by being slapped down publicly when he protested at the appointment of the present (American) archbishop.

I don't think there is a single local priest now who would dare challenge the ruling mythology, which after all is international. I remember feeling angry when I saw, on the walls of the recently rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, huge pictures of the very same Rosa de Lima bringing all the benefits of western civilisation (including obedience and submission) to the benighted savages of what was to become California. Caribs, take heart.

bones said...

Thank you again for your work Max and for your comments JT.
I have used every opportunity I have had to shout and have also been shouted down but we continue to work toward gaining some recognition independent of the Catholica Church.
In some ways confronting the church equals confronting our elders as they have been completely brainwashed and the present Carib "President" does consider himself a good Catholic as well and I would be surprised if he stood up to rock the boat.
In fact, at the smoke ceremony at the start of the festival this year he seemed to almost break into the Our Father at one point.
There is a split in the community. The community is divided between those who refuse to go any further with the church (and this includes Shaman Cristo Adonis) and those who want to continue under the cross ("President" Ricardo Barath and my own great aunt among them).
With many elders the church has dominated their lives so much it has come to be all they know. If my aunt is feeling unwell and is unable to make it to church herself a car is sent to pick her up. There is no escaping for them.
For us, the ones who speak out, there are accusations of wanting to take away "control" from the "President".
We feel we just want the real story to be told and that story is one of survival.

One additional note: missing from the celebrations this year: Cristo Adonis and the other rabble rousers who refuse to play good house slave for the priests.

Anonymous said...

Hi Max - Thank you for a wonderful article that resonates the Catholic Church everywhere I've lived - in Ontario, Quebec, and Paris, France. The energy of dominance and control, the diminishment of others, the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual abuse - all of these are identifying features of this malevolent energy.
As you know, I am working in a small town school in Northern Quebec where, in many of the classes, there is the occurence of terrible daily violence. Little girls are grabbed between the legs and dragged screaming across the room by young boys. Young boys kick each other, hard, between the legs. Teachers weep with fatigue and the children cry. The Principal, a devout Christian, hugs the little criminals as they appear in her office and then, smilingly, sends them back to class without due process. I've done my best but watch, dismayed, as every helpful strategy or intervention is summarily dismantled by this Director.
As I walked home through the snow last night after another rough day, I realized that there will be no change to the passive violence of the Principal or to the overt cruelty of the children, until groups of people are enough empowered to liberate themselves. One of the defects of Christianity, in my opinion, is that it establishes a disempowering culture in which external dependancies are created: "Let Christ carry the cross." "Let Christ liberate you." This entire projection of one's own personal responsibility to 'The Other' is underscored in a variety of submissive ways such as language, ("Yes, Father. Bless me, Father"), and gesture (genuflection, exposing one's tongue without participation of one's own hands to receive, ironically, 'communion')and Catholic protocol (the exclusion of women from the priesthood.)
One of the frantic teachers called me tonight - a devoted young woman who so wants to serve her class and who is fully encouraged by me. Once again all safety measures have been craftily removed and she is desperate.
The thought occured to me that the neglect she and the students suffer plays an important evolutionary purpose - namely, to prompt her to honor her own instincts, her own anger, her own knowledge of what is right and what is wrong and finally, to self-support. I suggested tonight that this fine educator simply state to the abandoning Direction of the school that she no longer feels safe in her classroom and refuse to enter it without the proper support to which she is entitled according to the law. I suggested that she refuse to collaborate or cooperate with a system that hurts herself and all of the children in her care.
Now she is frightened. She is being invited to grow, to stretch her own boundaries, to engage with her own low self esteem, to act differently from some of her frightened colleagues who live this abuse day in day out.

Malevolence invites her to individuate.
I believe Christ once smacked the glommy hands of those who clung to his garments. Did he not assure them that the 'Kingdom of God' is within? Instead of doing as Christ did, namely, individuating - people prefer to lean.
Instead of working in cooperation with Divine energy, do people want to be carried?

Authenticity does not create dependancies. Truth empowers each one to be all s/he is.

Perhaps to the degree that we all abandon our own most uncomfortable personal growth responsibilities - do we cook for the monsters of dominantion and neglect?