Women’s Origin Stories
ON A CLEAR DAY, ARRIVAL AT MONKEY POINT is a sublime experience. The intensity of the sun reflected on the seawater and the imposing physical beauty of the place mix with deep relief at having finally arrived. To reach the community, one must travel by boat on the open sea or, as in years past, walk for a day or two from Bluefields southward down the beach. Over the years, I have made many trips back and forth on wood or fiberglass pangas or on larger and much slower boats powered by inboard motors. Depending on the type of transport, the trip can take anywhere from one to ten hours, and in bad weather it can be a harrowing experience. My memories of that first year in Nicaragua are dominated by sea travel. There was no commercial transport to the community, and I quickly learned to tap into networks of community people in Bluefields to find out who was leaving for Monkey Point next. The result was that I rarely took the same source of transport more than once, I moved according to other people’s schedules, and I never turned down a ride, not knowing when my next chance to travel would come.
Miss Pearl Marie Watson, then president of the communal government and the nurse in charge of the health clinic, accompanied me on my first trip to Monkey Point, just a few weeks after I arrived in Nicaragua to research Creole land rights. Many of the people who fill the pages of this book are her sisters, cousins, nieces, and nephews. As a point of clarification, after introducing me to a relative, she would say, “She’s making an investigation about the history of the community.” The understanding was that my research would support the community’s efforts to document their territorial claim. Her explanation
seemed to satisfy any curiosity that people may have had about me, and I was received with an open and easy hospitality. Although I was one of the first to stay for any extended period of time, community people generally have positive associations with the (mostly white) international researchers and NGO workers who began to visit with more frequency in the 2000s. Other anthropologists have experienced this “privileged welcome” in Atlantic coast communities and associate it with the history of Anglo-American hegemony in the region (Hale 1994: 11). But, in the early 2000s, Monkey Point was a fairly isolated place that attracted few sympathetic outsiders, and the openness to international researchers was also motivated by a desire for political allies.
Figure 1.1 Leaving Bluefields for Monkey Point.
SOURCE: Jennifer Goett, 2013.
Although my rudimentary Creole sometimes made it hard to decipher what was going on around me, I soon settled into the rhythm of back and forth travel between Monkey Point and Bluefields (see Figure 1.1
). Often, the time I spent with community people in Bluefields was just as generative as my visits to Monkey Point, as most extended families maintain residences in town, where they have access to churches, schools, health care, and consumer
goods. A town–farm residency pattern has been around for generations, although it intensified after the war when families fled the community for the safety of the city. This wartime displacement has given rise to the impression that Monkey Point families are no longer connected to the land and the rural lifestyle they enjoyed in the 1970s.
For Monkey Point people, however, cultural constructions of belonging and ownership are based more on kinship and descent than on possession or use. A descendant of Herminia and José Presida has the right to a piece of land in Monkey Point, regardless of whether he or she was born in the community or maintains residence there. Although outsiders can live and farm in Monkey Point with permission, only kinship really confers “right” to the land. On one of my first days in the community, I sat on the veranda of the health clinic with Miss Pearl and asked for a list of Monkey Point families so that I could get a sense of who lived there. With the typically exhaustive kinship knowledge of women elders, she recited the names of over a hundred families. I later realized that only about a third of these families actually lived in the community with any regularity. The rest were in Bluefields, Costa Rica, and other more far-flung places. Still, they were “Monkey Point people” and integral parts of the community.
Family land is a widely documented tenure practice among rural people of African descent in the postemancipation Caribbean, where it is also known as “generation property,” “children’s property,” or “succession ground” (Besson 2002: 141; also see Clarke 1953, 1957). I have never heard Monkey Point people refer to their own practices by any of these names, but their constructions of “right” closely approximate this form of tenure. A broadly egalitarian and inclusive system, family land accords inheritance rights based on unrestricted bilateral descent from mother or father to sons and daughters regardless of birth status or place of residence (Besson 2002: 14; Crichlow 1994: 77). Family land helps those who live far away to maintain a social attachment to the community despite their physical absence (Olwig 1995: 14). This form of tenure is also inalienable: No one has the right to sell the land to outsiders for personal gain. And as an informal or extralegal practice, use rights do not rely on state recognition or private title, and management follows locally defined norms (Ibid.: 2).
Most scholars recognize family land as a resistive practice that challenged racial and economic oppression in the postemancipation Caribbean, while promoting land ownership and maximizing kinship ties, both of which were
denied to people of African descent under slavery (Besson 1984: 5; Besson 2002: 143; Olwig 1995: 1). For Monkey Point people, family land is an egalitarian vernacular practice that encourages collective identification and community cohesion even after labor migration, armed conflict, and displacement have led to a dwindling population base.
When I began my research, community people were building a nascent movement for territorial rights led by women elders. At this time, few people recognized that Creole land claims were grounded in any kind of cultural or historical experience unique to their communities. Most people outside of the Creole community viewed Afrodescendant land rights as suspect and secondary to indigenous rights. I often came across advocacy videos and articles that failed to identify a specifically Afrodescendant, Creole, or black presence within the land claim that later became the Rama-Kriol Territory. Even the addition of the word Kriol to the official title of the territory came only with significant protest from Monkey Point people, despite the fact that they were some of the most hard-line and committed activists to push for territorial recognition.
The community faced significant challenges in positioning blackness within normative constructions of indigenous land rights due to a series of factors (see Anderson 2007, 2009; Hooker 2005b). First, blacks had no primordial claims to the land, even though they were there before Nicaragua annexed the region and had clearly suffered a historical process of dispossession. Unless they could show significant admixture with indigenous people, they were deemed natives of Africa, not of the Mosquitia, and therefore had no legitimate claims. Second, communities had to demonstrate an unambiguous dependence on the land for their economic survival. As a community that self-identifies as black and has a significant population living elsewhere, Monkey Point people struggled to position themselves as deserving of communal rights. Moreover, they are racialized in the media and public discourse as delinquents and drug traffickers. These race and class stereotypes cast the community as a marginal and threatening space, rather than a legitimate beneficiary of rights.
Given this political environment, I spent a good deal of time early on producing scholarship that sought to historically vindicate Creole land rights. During my first few months in Monkey Point, I worked with women elders to produce an oral history of community settlement, focusing on experiences of enslavement, gendered racial servitude, and dispossession, as well as rural
subsistence economies and vernacular lifeways. I tried to support these narratives with archival research in Bluefields, Managua, and London. Although I found a good deal of archival material on early land use and activism among Creoles in Bluefields, I found very little on Monkey Point, an absence that stood in stark contrast to the rich oral tradition and historical memories that shape community mobilization.
From my earliest days in the community, I was immersed in this oral tradition. Each night I sat on the veranda of the health clinic, resisting my urge to seek refuge from the sand flies indoors, and listened to Miss Pearl tell stories. She told intimate and often humorous family histories and even shared her experiences of working up north as a combat nurse in La Cruz de Río Grande when the war was “hot” on that part of the coast. Miss Pearl’s niece Carla and I were a captive and compliant audience. There was no radio or television or even light to read by in those days, nothing to distract us or occupy our time on quiet nights, so we listened attentively and asked few questions. Storytelling is an art form, and I have yet to meet a group of people who do it as well as Monkey Point women. As I heard more of these stories, I began to see the pedagogic and political function of women’s storytelling. When they relayed memories of the past, the women encouraged young people to embrace similar forms of historical consciousness and thus worked to mobilize intergenerational political activism.
Spanning some five generations, the stories circulated widely among Monkey Point people. Accounts of community origins and memories about “our old people” and what they once said or did became justifications for contemporary demands. Competing for recognition in a political field where mestizo nationalist and indigenous constructions of rights predominate, Monkey Point women used stories to make counterclaims grounded in a woman-centered black diasporic experience. As didactic accounts, the stories position women ancestors as political agents and show how intimate experiences of oppression shaped their lives. In doing so, they establish women’s rightful place at the helm of community leadership and encourage young people to use historical experience to make sense of their own struggles for autonomy. Together the stories represent what Maria Cotera refers to as a “decolonizing imagination at work,” harnessing the power of speech to “set the record straight” and promote liberatory forms of political consciousness (2004: 53).
This chapter features three women elders who led the first campaign for autonomous rights in the mid- to late 1990s. The three women were related
to one another, were from the same generation, were heads of large extended families, and were among the most knowledgeable oral historians in the community. Not coincidentally, they were also the most authoritative voices in autonomous politics in the early 2000s, and they dominated community meetings with stirring appeals for resistance to the dry canal project and land dispossession. Although I had heard some of their stories in fragments before, I collected complete oral histories from the women in 2001 and 2002.
When I first met Miss Pearl, she was in her early sixties and sat as the president of the Monkey Point communal government. She received her high school education as an adult in the late 1970s and later studied to be a nurse in the 1980s. During the 1990s, Miss Pearl was an active participant in Sandinista electoral politics, running as a mayoral candidate for Bluefields and for councilwoman to the Autonomous Regional Council of the South Caribbean Coast. The mother of five grown children, she worked at the Bluefields hospital for many years. When the government built the health clinic in Monkey Point in the late 1990s, she asked the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA) to transfer her there. She retired from her service with MINSA in the early 2000s. Miss Pearl long served as the community’s formal representative to the government and outside organizations. The younger generation refers to her with respect and affection as Auntie Mar, and her fair-mindedness, education, Spanish fluency, and nursing skills accorded her considerable status as a leader. In recent years, her health has deteriorated, and she has passed on her leadership responsibilities to her nephew Allen Clair, who is the current president of the Monkey Point communal government.
Miss Bernicia Duncan Presida was Miss Pearl’s older half-sister. She passed away in 2012 after a long battle with cancer. In my early years of work with the community, she held the title of síndica
, a communal leadership position charged with the management of land and natural resources.1
She became síndica
after a group of women accused the standing síndico
, a male relative from their extended family, of selling communal land to a speculator in anticipation of dry canal construction. I remember vividly when she told the former síndico
in a community meeting that if he continued to challenge her authority, she would “flatten him like an iron.” The domestic allusion stuck with me, as did his reaction: He furiously sputtered a response and then receded to the margins of the crowd. Her position as síndica
was unique, as women rarely assume this leadership role in Atlantic coast communities.
Figure 1.2 Miss Helen Presida at the Monkey Point health clinic.
SOURCE: Jennifer Goett, 2001.
Miss Bernicia was the mother of eight adult children, including one son named Johnny who was killed by the Sandinistas when he was a contra combatant in the 1980s. Many of Miss Bernicia’s children fled to Costa Rica during the war years, and two grown daughters remain there with their families. Two other daughters have served as the community’s teacher and nurse. Her son Allen is the president of the communal government, and her younger son Harley has taken an active role in community politics. Miss Bernicia died at home in Bluefields but chose Monkey Point as her burial place. Perhaps her most important legacy is the political tutelage she gave her children, who are now central figures in community activism.
Miss Helen Presida Wilson, the third narrator, was in her mid-sixties at the time of the interviews and was the cousin of the other two women (see Figure 1.2
). Of the three women, her historical memory was the most detailed. She passed away in 2010 after a decade-long illness that frequently landed her in the hospital. She had more than a dozen grown children. Miss Helen once had a central role in community politics and sat as secretary for the communal government. She had close ties to the indigenous Rama community of Bangkukuk Taik, located to the south of Monkey Point, because her mother was from there. Her aunt on her Creole father’s side raised her in Bluefields from an early age in the same household where her cousin Miss Pearl grew up. Still, she spent a good deal of her childhood and young adulthood in the
community, and her father was a Monkey Point farmer most of his life. Like Miss Pearl, she took an active role in regional politics, although she was politically aligned with the right and did not have a favorable analysis of the Sandinista Revolution. In the late 1990s, she was a candidate for regional councilwoman with the Indigenous Multiethnic Party (PIM, Partido Indígena Multiétnico), a regional party linked to Arnoldo Alemán’s rightwing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC, Partido Liberal Constitucionalista).
Competing Historical Narratives
Before engaging the women’s stories, I situate their narratives within competing accounts of Atlantic coast history. Monkey Point people and their neighbors at other peripheral Creole communities on the south coast remain absent in conventional historical sources, despite the fact that the archives provide rich insight into the breadth of indigenous and Afrodescendant mobilization for rights after Nicaragua’s military annexation of the region in 1894. References to Monkey Point focus almost exclusively on plans to build an interoceanic railway. The most prominent examples are an initiative promoted by British Royal Navy Captain Bedford Pim in the 1860s and a later project, during the presidency of José Santos Zelaya, known as the Atlantic Railroad or the Monkey Point–San Miguelito Railroad. Although Pim’s early venture made little headway, laborers began construction on the Atlantic Railroad in 1904, laying twenty-two kilometers of rail before a U.S.-backed Conservative revolution toppled Zelaya and halted construction in 1909 (Comisión de Liquidación del Ferrocarril de Nicaragua 1997: 22; Pim 1863).2
In preparation for the construction of the Atlantic Railroad, Zelaya granted vast titles lining the route to relatives, political intimates, and a few European financiers.3
The titles along the Punta Gorda River basin were slated for banana production, and the proposed railway would provide the infrastructure for their export via a new port at Monkey Point called Puerto Zelaya.4
The railway would also create a transport corridor between the Caribbean littoral and the great Lake Nicaragua, uniting the geographic divide between Pacific Nicaragua and the newly annexed Atlantic coast. The Atlantic Railway was one of many initiatives in Zelaya’s Liberal Revolution orient...