27 August 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.

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