Migration, Diaspora and the Arts of the Caribbean

February 18, 2021

The Caribbean is historically the product of genocide, transportation, exile, and migration, the massive displacement of peoples from Africa, Europe and Asia, and the region is a major source of modern-era migration to the metropolitan centres of Europe and North America, as well as within the Caribbean region itself. Caribbean migration has at times been a source of tension and conflict, such as the oppressive responses to persons of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic or The Bahamas; the Cuban and Haitian boat refugee crises; or the recent wave of deportations from England of Caribbean migrants who often arrived in that country as children but do not meet the present legal status requirements – the so-called Windrush Scandal. These diasporic experiences are however the main arena in which modern Caribbean societies and cultures have been forged and continues to be negotiated, in all its diversity and complexity and in ways positive and negative.

These various historical and present-day migrations, and the resulting tensions and synergies between the local and the diasporic, are a foundational force in the development of the modern Caribbean and play an important role in how Caribbean persons define themselves, with African diasporic identifications as a prime example. Migration and diaspora have, along the same lines, been a constitutive force in the development of Caribbean culture. Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santeria, for instance, emerged from the creolized interactions between African- and European-derived religious practices and beliefs, while modern cultural expressions such as reggae music developed between Jamaica and the Jamaican presence in North America and England. This roundtable explored the relevance of migration and diaspora in the arts and culture of the Caribbean.

Panellists: Lesley-Gail Atkinson-Swaby (cultural scholar and Taino activist, Jamaica), Peter Chin (dancer/choreographer and performance artist, Jamaica/Canada/Cambodia), Christopher Cozier (artist and critic, co-founder and -director of Alice Yard, Trinidad & Tobago), Edwidge Danticat (award-winning author, Haiti/USA), Matilde dos Santos (art historian, critic and curator, Brazil/Martinique).

Discussants: Carlyle Farrell (art collector and economist, Trinidad & Tobago/Canada), Petrona Morrison (artist and retired dean of Visual Arts, Edna Manley College, Jamaica), Marina Reyes Franco (art historian and curator, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Puerto Rico), Allison Thompson (art historian and curator, and lecturer, Division of Fine Arts, Barbados Community College, Canada/Barbados).

Moderator: Veerle Poupeye (lead researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Kingston, Jamaica)

Key points in the discussion were:

1. The Caribbean Diasporic is multidirectional: In addition to the more commonly recognized diasporic trajectories that have shaped the Caribbean, past and present migrations within the region should also be considered. This includes: rural to urban migration within the larger islands; labor migration to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba; from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas; and the more fluid movement of people across the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and from the Guianas. The Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, who were themselves part of historical diasporas and who were previously regarded as near-extinct, are now being recognized as part of the living Caribbean culture and their cultural identities and rights are an increasingly important cultural and political issue.

2. Caribbean diasporic identities are fluid and subjective: Itinerancy and borderlessness were identified as defining issues in Caribbean identities. The Jamaican-born cultural critic Stuart Hall, who himself moved to England when he was a student, aptly described it as a dynamic between identity defined by “roots,” as the places of ancestral origin, and by “routes,” the diasporic trajectories pursued. Participants cautioned against articulating, adopting, or imposing prescribed identities do not recognize the internal diversity and changeability of Caribbean culture, and the need for space for self-definition and -assertion at an individual level.

3. The transformative social, cultural, and economic effects of migration and diaspora: Migration and diaspora continue to be a deeply transformative and generative force, of which many aspects are not recognized. For instance, the economic effects of Caribbean migration, not in the Caribbean but also in its diasporas, where persons of Caribbean descent have contributed majorly, from the postwar reconstruction to modern day cultural festivals such as Caribana in Toronto. Caribbean migrants, especially the undocumented ones, have however faced pressing social, political and cultural issues of xenophobia, racism and statelessness but have also made major contributions to activism and social change regarding those issues. The Caribbean Diaspora produces new communities and a potential site for reconciliation from historical conflicts (for instance the new solidarities between Haitians and Dominicans in the New York region); The arts, especially, are an important vehicle to express the experiential, transformative and politicized nature of migration and diaspora.

4. The importance of new technologies: Online communication and networks have created new global and regional, social and cultural networks and contribute to the more transnational identifications of young Caribbean persons.

5. The Special Case of Puerto Rico: The combined issues of cultural erasure, racism, and policy-based displacement are central to the arts and social dynamics of Puerto Rico, as a result of deliberate policies related to its US Associated State status, and this sets Puerto Rico apart from the rest of the Caribbean.

The video below is an edited excerpt of what was a 2-hour Zoom conversation.