I am Trinidadian before I am anything else. Never is this more apparent than when I leave the country.
A little background on Trinidad and Tobago. We are a twin island and the most southernmost in the Caribbean. Sure, there are the beaches, carnival, steelpan, and soca but did you know the World Bank recognizes us as a high-income economy? As an oil producing country, and one of the richest in the Caribbean, Trinidad is a regional hub of economic activity (with high levels of immigration from the neighbouring islands) and the more industrialized of the two islands. Tobago, our sister isle is more heavily reliant on tourism, boasting sandy white beaches, and a more laid-back vibe. We are a multicultural island whose population is primarily of African and East Indian descent with smaller communities of Amerindian (First Peoples), Syrian Lebanese, Chinese and European. This diverse population also means that I am culturally aware, tolerant, observant (seriously – we have national holidays for all major religions – Diwali, Eid and everything in between.) and learning about different cultures and their celebrations has always fascinated me.
I am born and raised in Trinidad, holder of a Trinidad and Tobago passport, travelling to the USA and Canada since I was about 4. There is a large concentration of Trinidadians (and largely other members of the Caribbean diaspora) in these countries, almost everyone I know has at least one relative abroad and many of us travel to visit family as often as possible. And then as an adult, I started university in New York – which is supposed to be one of the most diverse cities in the world. So why was I then met with expressions such as:
“OMG you speak such good English!”
Thanks! -it’s my only language!
“Oh yeah what part of Jamaica is that?”
The part that is literally 5 hours away and a whole other island.
“Do you take a boat to school?”
No, just like you we have cars.
I spent quite a lot of time dispelling the notion that we are an underdeveloped country whose citizens just hang out on the beach all day, that we are not Jamaica and never will be, and that while the Caribbean is one region, we are not the same.
Eager to be involved in the social activities of my campus I also joined the Caribbean Students Association, which I quickly found out comprised mostly of second and third generation students most of whom have never visited any of these countries and associate the Caribbean solely with parties. On the bright side, I met other students who were genuinely interested in exploring their Caribbean identity and sharing theirs with me. I also attended an NAACP meeting where a session involved everyone sharing their struggles– beginning their sentence with “As a minority I feel …” – My mind went blank because I realized there that I couldn’t identify and couldn’t really share because my experience was different – I am not a minority where I came from. I never went back.
Despite all of this, college really was an eye opener and made me aware of my identity as I realized that things I just assumed people knew about culture and background, were just that – assumptions. We are all still learning and growing. Now, with social media and technology in general, we are exposed to many different cultures and countries and information is right at our fingertips. Sharing and paying attention to each others’ experiences can benefit us greatly in this time when we need it most.
Meeting other persons from the Caribbean as a Trinidadian can go either way – good or bad. There is a sort of inter-island rivalry that tethers somewhere on the brink of playful banter and downright shade. It is not uncommon to hear of our neighbour countries’ dislike of us because “Trinis think they’re better than everyone else”. One guy also told me once “That oil money really makes you guys a bougie bunch”.
But for all our differences, the Caribbean is a melting pot of shared of experiences. While each island has their unique traits, the Caribbean identity is also bound by a rich culture and sense of familiarity. On the streets of Havana, Cuba, I constantly saw warm smiles and faces that reminded me of back home. From the young boys playing football in the streets (we don’t ever call it soccer) to the older men having their afternoon drinks at makeshift corner bars, the similarities were striking. I also observed those dressed in all white – customary when you are being initiated into Santeria – a common sight among Orisha devotees in Trinidad. In Barbados, the bartender at a beach bar told me stories of his grandfather who worked in Trinidad during the oil boom of the 70’s. In Martinique on an exchange trip during high school, I finally met distant cousins of my grandfather. On any given day I can walk downtown Port of Spain and hear the accents of our Guyanese, St Lucian and Vincentian neighbours. We are warm, full of love, vibrant, always down for a good time and truly celebrate life.
The one thing prevalent throughout the Caribbean is a sense of pride. From St Lucia to Barbados, Jamaica to Cuba, we are a proud people who never downplay our countries’ achievements. (Fun fact – The 1st black Miss Universe was from Trinidad and Tobago HOLLA!) Sure, we complain to each other about the perceived gripes we have but the minute an outsider even attempts to paint the country in a bad light – we will shut you down with the quickness!
I am Trinidadian before I am anything else. I partake in Carnival and then hope my fasting at Lent will somehow absolve me of my debauchery. I attended muktab – kind of like the Muslim version of Sunday school – between the ages of 6-9 because my godparents are Muslim and took me along to the mosque so I won’t be bored at home. Diwali and Eid are two of my favorite holidays that I look forward to and Christmas is celebrated by all my friends regardless of religion. I am proud to be from such a diverse country where everyone partakes in each others’ cultures.
There is a line from a soca song by Trinidadian Machel Montano that goes “I was born in the perfect place” I believe this with every core of my being.
I am Trinidadian before I am anything else. And I always will be.
Follow Malaika’s Trinidadian travels on Instagram: @malaika8607