If you exclude the US, Jamaica has been my first time setting foot in an ex-English colony. The colonial past is something that I unfortunately think about quite often, and not because I am one of those nostalgic Spaniards who miss the ‘glorious’ past and think fondly of ‘the Empire over which the Sun would not set’, a trend that’s been growing among my countrymen in these times of xenophobic nationalism and lack of reason. Xenophobic nationalism and oppression are relabeled ‘nostalgia’ nowadays in Spain, go figure. But I’m losing track, as always. I was saying that I do think about the colonial past of Spain often because I have clients who are openly hostile to me the minute they hear my pronunciation of the letter Z in Spanish. And while the openly hostile Latin Americans are a minority, a degree of latent mistrust, sometimes in jest, is always there between Spain and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. So, what does this have to do with Jamaica? Bear with me; I’m getting there.
There is something extremely familiar about life in Mexico, in Argentina or in Puerto Rico for me. My friends from Ecuador, Peru, and Chile bring back awfully familiar reports of life. Cuban and Venezuelan acquaintances paint a picture of daily life that I can see with no effort at all. I’ve met people from Panama to Paraguay, from the Dominican Republic to Uruguay, and I hear their accounts of life back home and I can ‘touch’ it easily – it’s a different setting, but there is a very profound, common core of ‘Spanishness’ throughout the Americas; it is the language, but there is so much more, for better or worse. There is, however, no ‘Englishness’ to Jamaica. There was nothing with an even remotely familiar flavor of England in there to me. Sure, the cars drive on the same side of the road, and the official language is English, and children wear uniforms in school (brightly colored ones, mind you) but, strangely, to me at least, that does not imprint a strong Englishness to Jamaica. I found this lack of Englishness striking, shocking. I have no idea what I was expecting. Perhaps some sort of Caribbean Gibraltar, I don’t know. My first sights of Jamaica were exactly those that materialize in my head when I summon the words “third world”. Roadside derelict shacks. Sheet-metal roofed shanty villages. People in the street doing apparently nothing. No lights inside stores and food establishments; locals do their indoors shopping and beer drinking and eating with the lights turned off. The latter is indeed what I observed first. Not what I first saw, not the thing that struck me most, but definitely the first thing that I observed in Jamaica: the lights come on for the white visitors if they walk in, but Jamaicans sit in the dark. Jamaicans sit in the dark. This apparently tiny thing was, to me, a tell-tale of an abyss. I was not expecting that Englishness would have washed off the face of Jamaica entirely, and the question is: did it wash off, was it ever there in the first place?
I sense, and I’m not saying that my perception is correct or complete, I sense a huge difference between what the English and the Spaniards did in their bloody quests for world domination; a tremendous difference in the legacies left behind by the two long-gone Empires. One, it seems to me, only thought of taking as much as possible, and did not care if the locals were left hanging; the other was just as grabby, but tried to cover its tracks, or clean its conscience, since perhaps it was just a matter of arrogant pride and Catholic guilt: let’s play God and ‘create’ these humans and their societies in our image or we’ll feel guilty about it. Guilt is a curious thing for us Catholics and has played a big part in the history of Spain. Atonement takes strange shapes through time. Jamaica is a black country because diseases brought on by Spaniards wiped off virtually the entire native population of the Antilles, including Jamaica, for instance; the island ended up repopulated with slaves from West Africa. The guilt narrative makes an awful lot of people in Spain buy into the “at least we gave them something back, unlike the English” and that leads many to believe outrageous lies like “Spain didn’t do slavery, unlike others”. But given that one cannot change the past and I am not denying any of its horror, the question of what legacy is better assaults me again and again. I’m very conflicted about this matter, and its multiple variants and implications kept me awake at night in Jamaica, sitting in the dark, even though Jamaica itself is but a token of other places; its value to Spain and to England was tiny back in the day, and I have the suspicion that the English conquest of Jamaica must have happened as a ridiculous beef between England and Spain, both countries having juicier lands to despoil at the time. And this brings me to that other point of latent mistrust towards the former metropolis. Again, I’m not thinking about Jamaica in particular, but about the world at large. Was it better to leech off a nation’s resources and make their everyday nature turn Spanish… but stripping them of so much of what must have been their local flavors, depriving them of the enormous variety of human life as must have been found throughout such a massive continent? Or was it better to leech off a nation’s resources and give them precious little in return, letting them keep their local flavor and peculiarities… but at the same time feeding a wild resentment against all things foreign, against all those who took and took but gave nothing back? Like I said, a latent resentment runs deep against Spaniards in the Spanish-speaking world, but not against all things foreign, and is by no means as generalized, not even against Spaniards, as I can guarantee it is in Jamaica. For a country that is famous for their laid back style and friendliness, I assure you that an awful lot of Jamaicans in the country are positively seething against all things White and Western either openly or just beneath the surface. Analysis is not my thing, though, just observation. I am not saying they do not have plenty of reasons to seethe (we tourists alone must be enough to set anyone off, but this is another story and shall be told another time). My knowledge of old British colonies is admittedly zero and I rely on nothing but literature, films and recent historical events that are common knowledge, but even this meager basis suggests that what I’ve perceived in Jamaica happens elsewhere, too. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novels alone are superbly suggestive of a marked animosity of the locals towards the foreigners, but this really, really is another story that shall be told another time, if I ever end up writing some Book Ramblings for no one to read; and let it be said in passing that the Nobel Prize in Literature should go to Ngugi this year if there is any sense of justice left in the world of literature. There’s nobody reading at this point, so I feel pretty comfortable rambling my Jamaican ramblings off a bridge.
I’ve sometimes felt sorry that the “least Spanish” of my known Spanish-speaking world be precisely the Central American niche with which I’ve worked more closely all these years in the US, because it’s more difficult for me to follow their logic sometimes. I’ve also felt grateful for it sometimes. They are more foreign, their daily life and ways of thinking less familiar, less ‘touchable’ to me than those of other Spanish-speaking immigrants. And it’s perhaps because Spain did not entirely assimilate the whole region into its Old World ways, therefore many of their local societies and flavors were better preserved and still survive to this day. Interestingly, they are also the most distrustful of us Spaniards, and I’ve surprised myself just now realizing that. There is a weirdness that is both wonderful and incredibly frustrating about many of my rural Guatemalans, and the same is probably true of other communities that I’ve had less chance to interact with (rural Bolivians come to mind). The same wonderful and frustrating flavors are to be found in Jamaica, and I will never be able to answer the question about “what was better” colony-wise. I piss myself off asking questions I deeply dislike and writing ramblings that are no answer. How does one start writing about the hard stuff? How does one start writing about questions one does not want to have and knows not how to answer, about the stereotypes that have much truth in them against one’s will, how does one start writing to describe all the nuances, all the grays, all the rays of light that do not dissipate the blackness in the cave but give it an unmistakable cheer? How does one stop sitting in the dark?
I guess not having a clue is what makes me not a writer. But the little boycotts I set up against myself are another story and shall be told another time.