Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autonomy and Identity

October was Autonomy Month on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, culminating in Autonomy Day on the 30th. It celebrates the relative political autonomy that the Coast has while still being under the federal government of Nicaragua. Politically, it means the Coast has its own Assembly, and culturally it means there's a public recognition that the Coast has its own cultures that ought to be recognized and promoted. It's an intentional response to the Sandinista mandates of Spanish-only in schools and a general devaluation of Coast traditions like dance, due perhaps to its sensuality. While it's certainly a good move, it seems to me like a lot of talk that doesn't often turn into action. Still, there have been some joint government-nonprofit efforts to promote bilingual education, as well as tourism.

As part of the effort to promote Coast culture, a reporter from Managua came to film local cultural acts. Our dance group got called up to perform. As we prepared to get taped, the reporter told our director, "Now I don't want any Honduran dances. Just Nicaraguan dance." Which meant he didn't want us to dance the punta garifuna, which is most commonly associated with Honduras. Neco responded, "Actually, there are garifuna communities in Nicaragua." I encountered a similar situation when I asked a music vendor in Masaya, on the Pacific side of the country, if he had any punta music, and he replied, "No, we only sell NATIONAL music."

The garifuna are an ethnic group that have preserved their own language, descended from members several different African ethnicities that escaped slavery due to shipwreck of slave ships. There are garifuna communities along the Atlantic Coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Like the Miskito and Creole cultures, it is not bound by national borders. Part of the Pacific-Atlantic Coast tension lies in the fact taht while the Pacific side of the country has developed a strong nationalistic identity, people on the Coast still identify with ethnic groups that have more in common culturally with places like Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, where much of the Creole community has roots, and the Atlantic Coast of Honduras, which also has Miskitos, garifuna and Creoles. This is part of the reason Nicaragua has historically struggled to integrate its coast with the rest of the country. Efforts to create stronger cohesion, by promoting the teaching of Spanish and national symbols, invariably comes across as a repression of local cultures. It is a common tension that comes with the national identity. The new response of the government is to emphasize diversity and talk up the Coast culture as a part of what makes Nicaragua the special country that it is. As a result, those elements of the Coast that make Nicaragua more like other countries cause a bit of uncomfortableness.

After the interchange with Neco, the reporter from Managua looked at me skeptically and said, "And where are YOU from?" Neco replied, "She's, um, a gringa costena." The others said, "Speak to him in Miskito!" I said, "Ao, yang miskitu sna." Which means, "Yeah, I'm totally Miskito." Although my size is somewhat formidable compared to the people here, there are Miskitos, mestizos, and even the occasional Creole who share a similar complexion. Still, he looked unconvinced, but decided, "As long as she dances like a negra, right?" Whatever, dude.

After the performance, he came up to congratulate us. He looked at me and said I was approved. I actually felt irate despite myself. I didn't need his approval. He's not even from the Coast. Who was he to decide who and what it ought to look like? The people here in Bilwi have always expressed the utmost enthusiasm for me sharing in and thereby helping to promote their culture. That's the only approval that matters. If I'm accepted by the group then what is this reporter worried about?

So it seems some of the defensive indignation costeƱos feel towards people in the Pacific part of the country has stuck to me. Perhaps I'm just overcompensating for always being the outsider by pretending to be more like an insider when someone from the other side of the country shows up. Or maybe the time I have spent here, building relationships and learning the language and the culture, really has made me more of an insider in this city than even a Nicaraguan from somewhere else.

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