Reflections from the 44th Annual Caribbean Studies Association 2019 Conference in Santa Marta, Colombia titled "The Caribbean in times of Tempest: Ethnicities, Territorial Resistances and Epistemic Poetics”
Just over a week ago I returned home to the U.S. after attending the 44th annual Caribbean Studies Association Conference. This year the conference was titled “The Caribbean in times of Tempest: Ethnicities, Territorial Resistances and Epistemic Poetics,” and took place in Santa Marta, Colombia the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. Prior to leaving, I was actually nervous. It would be the longest conference I had ever attended, the furthest away from home, friends and family, and I was going alone. In retrospect, I now find it funny that I even had a bad case of the jitterbugs, because those eight days soon became one of the most incredibly rewarding and enlightening trips of my life. I was lucky enough to meet some of the most diverse groups of young scholars, experienced researchers, and professionals, learn a ton about a range of disciplines across the field of Caribbean Studies, and experience firsthand the culture and beauty of countless places that dotted the north coast of Colombia.
After over 15 hours of travelling, including two layovers (one of which was five-hours long), I arrived at my accommodation, Tequendama Inn Santa Marta, in the area of Pozos Colorados, close to Rodadero beach. It was around 9am the Sunday before the first day of the conference. I was exhausted, excited, anxious to settle in, and before I could even check-in to my room, I introduced myself to the lady standing next to me in the lobby, a young Jamaican scholar of West Indian literature who would also be attending the conference. We were later joined by another new friend, a fellow PhD student, studying sustainable energy at a U.S. University, but originally from Trinidad and Tobago. The three of us would share walks to and from the hotel and conference center, as well as meals, conversations, and un par de cervezas. Needless to say, the people that I met on this trip were the most impacting part of it all.
The conference was five days of panel discussions, keynote addresses, book releases, working group meetings, and music, art and other cultural activities –– not to mention intermittent informal conversations, debates and reflections –– from 8am to 7pm at the beautiful Hotel Estelar, located between the beaches of Santa Marta and the mountains of the Colombian Sierra Nevada. Throughout the week, I had the opportunity to meet people with a myriad of experiences in, knowledge about, and connections to various Caribbean countries and contexts. I constantly reflected on the thoughts they shared with me, my own work, and our points of similarities and tensions. People were critical yet kind; many of them became for me what teacher educators refer to as “critical friends”: those colleagues or mentors that learn together through collaborative inquiry and thoughtful professional dialogue. They were strangers that became colleagues, colleagues that become friends, or vice-versa, I’m still not sure in what order it all happened. In the evenings after full days of both work and fun, the CSA conference organizers offered cultural events, such as our trip to la Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, Simon Bolivar’s hacienda, where he spent the last eleven days of his life and where that evening we sat under the humid Caribbean air, listening to historians speak and musicians play, while sipping chilled sangria, and sharing traditional Colombian ceviche, empanadas de marisco, and cayeye.
During the week, I had the opportunity to connect with like-minded people working in the field of education and international development (specific to my field). Not only did I network, but I learned a great deal from fellow presenters. Just a few of my favorite panel discussions include Dr. Orlando Harris’s presentation on LGBT students’ experiences of school violence in Jamaica, Dr. Raquel Sanmiguel’s research on decolonising pedagogical knowledge in the Colombian island of San Andrés, and Dr. Jordi Halfman’s work regarding students perspectives of nationalism in the Dutch island of Sint Maarten. Jordi especially, would leave a lasting impression on me. She was part of one of the first panels I attended, where she presented her PhD dissertation that she had just recently submitted to the University of Amsterdam, in her hometown. Her research was part of a larger study titled, “Imagining the nation in the classroom,” a joint project that her University was conducting in partnership with institutes in the Dutch Caribbean islands in order to explore the way students and teachers conceptualize notions of belonging within their contexts. Jordi would later become one of those “critical friends” that I previously mentioned. After inviting her for dinner to collectively “think out loud” with her, we ended up sharing multiple subsequent meals and discussions in our trips exploring Santa Marta together. Together, we hiked through miles of beaches and rainforests in Tayrona National Park, explored the Historic Center and its impressive Cathedral, and watched iguanas climb trees as we sipped coffee in the town of Minca, a pueblo cafetero resting on the top of the mountains of the Colombian Sierra Nevada (see video of iguana here). Sharing together, being able to learn from her, and seeing how passionately and creatively, critically yet lovingly, she spoke about her research to me, was inspiring. Between our multiple conversations, I continuously imagined and re-imagined my own research, and dreamt of my future plans to explore similar topics of belonging in schools in the Dominican Republic –– to create and equip teachers with lessons that would address issues of race, identity, nationalism and the role that memory and trauma play in contemporary relations between Dominicans and Haitians (more on that to come in a later blog).
Throughout all the presentations and conversations, the discussions of hardship and struggle (the theme of this year’s Conference), I couldn’t help but to remember how resilient, strong, and beautiful the Caribbean people and culture have been and still are today. ¡Que lugar más rico, el Caribe! And as a conference organized by the Caribbean Studies Association, el Caribe was in fact the bond that connected us all. The Opening Address was given by representatives of the Multiethnic Colombia Caribbean Communities and included speeches interspersed with trilingual code-switching from Cayetano Torres Izquierdo, a spokesman of the indigenous Arawak people, as well as Kairen Gutierrez an artist of the Afrodescendant Women's Association and Youth Benkos Ku Soto Association, and Juan Ramirez Dawkins, a Raizal Poet and Adviser for the Native Language National Council. Their lyrical and visceral addresses brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on my arms stand straight. Piel de gallina. It was beautiful, a beautiful moment of symbolic solidarity through our oneness with the natural landscape of the Caribbean –– her mountains and beaches, sun and seas –– our surroundings, the backdrop that we had to share with each other.
I think this also was a big part of what made the Conference so impactful: the fact that the region, rather than the discipline, was the one common thread binding us together. It allowed my experience to be as interdisciplinary as possible. I was able to step outside my comfort zone and “areas of expertise” and explore topics beyond education, while at the same time searching for connections that were relevant to my fieldwork and the concepts that I was exploring. I reflected upon my experiences with LGBT students in Dominican public schools, and decided to tend a panel on Queer Studies, an area of literature I am by all means a novice to. Here I met two young researchers that I would spend significant time with over the next few days. The first, Aurélien Davennes, a French anthropologist researching queer intimacy in the Antilles, I had actually met when I sat behind him in the opening ceremony. He turned around and started speaking French to me, because apparently I had convinced him that I spoke fluently after saying bonjour to him outside at the entrance to the conference center earlier that morning. We instantly hit it off and starting talking, which is when he invited me to attend his panel on queer studies. I responded to him with an anecdote of one of my Dominican students who had confided in me about how he was constantly picked on and bullied because his “voice was different” than his male peers (more to come on this as well). The 10-year old boy, not openly gay, nor probably even aware of his sexuality at that age, at the same time rejected homosexuality because “God made men to be with women.” Hearing this, Aurélien introduced me to John Browne’s concept of “the glass closet,” which I have now added to my pile of literature to read. The second person, Jean Sano-Santana, was actually in the audience during Aurélien’s panel, though I later was able to also enjoy his presentation on LGBT policies within political parties in the Dominican Republic. Jean was my one connection to the island, Quisqueya la bella, as his vibrant personality reminded me of so many of my Dominican friends that I have formed long-lasting relationships with over the years. We were able to talk in our Dominican Spanish and share –– in terms of researcher positionality –– what many researchers refer to as an “insider perspective.” We both knew the island intimately (though I would never hesitate to admit, that he knew it more).
Wistful memories that I made over those eight days in Colombia continue to come to mind –– warm memories of the people I met and the places I visited, each and every one that would have a unique and everlasting impact on me. I could continue to write about my new friends and colleagues... like Erick, my first friend from San Andrés, who left me in awe with the way he could switch back and forth from his fluent Caribbean Spanish and English Creole, or the way he never ceased to impress me by the plethora of information he could spout about the indigenous flora and fauna we encountered on our hike through Tayrona... or Matthew, quiet, friendly, Matthew who surprised me with his daring the night a group of eight of us went out dancing in the colonial zone. I could go on in detail about the intense debates we shared as we watched the Caribbean sun set along the horizon where the ocean and sky met. I could write anecdote after anecdote of our local friends: the hotel receptionists Pablo and Jesus, conference technicians Karlos and Nelson, our faithful taxi driver, Fredy, and the street vendor Jeison who wove me a flower made of palm tree leaves, and who we later sang happy birthday to me on the day he turned fourteen... But, then again, if I do continue I guess I would be breaking the rules of blog writing on my first official entry. I’ve been told blogs are not supposed to be longer than a thousand words, so I guess I’ll try and remember that for next time.