Willemsted, Curacao (TDN) -- The Dutch island of Curaçao is often depicted as a mecca where West-Indians for many decades made their fortunes at the massive Shell oil refinery which dominated the island's economy from 1925 to 1985.
This image has been reinforced by the return of Dominicans many of whom were able to successfully re-establish themselves because of the savings they accumulated while working in Curaçao. Indeed, signs of this wealth of these migrants abound, particularly in the area of Otrobanda in St. Joseph, named after an area in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao.
A visit to the Dutch island reveals however, a more complex reality than this picture of El Dorado. In Curaçao a majority of these migrants are reluctant to discuss their West-Indian heritage. Many members of the second generation of West-Indians have little or no knowledge of English. Others manifest a morbid fear of being branded a West-Indian.
There is, not surprisingly, a reason for this paranoia. When thousands of West-Indians flooded Curaçao in the late 1940s and 1950s they had to contend with both racial and residential segregation. West-Indian employees of Shell were housed in rooming houses first in a little enclave called Soufisant and then later in Dein and Kanga.
Workers from Suriname, Columbia and Portugal were housed in slightly more commodious houses in the same areas while Dutch workers were housed in gated communities such as Emmastad, Juliana Dorp and Rust en Burghlaan. They had their own tennis, golf and swimming facilities and were bused to their employment.
West-Indian workers, on the other hand, had to purchase bicycles and ride, daily, in convoys, along Schotte Gatweg Road to Post Six, their gateway to the oil refinery. West-Indians were derisively referred as "Biegie" or British West-Indians or "Stinky," thereby instilling a need to obliterate any trace of their West-Indian ancestry.
Worse, their children were derided at schools for speaking English while language laws made the learning of Dutch mandatory. Many West Indians sent their children back to their islands rather than have them face discrimination from teachers and students alike.
Fortunately however, many Dominicans in Curaçao not only resisted the temptation to hide their heritage but have achieved great success on the island. One of those is Daphne Riviere (nee Seignoret) who left her job at the Barclays Bank in Dominica to migrate to Curaçao in 1949.
Her late husband, Oscar Riviere achieved the rare distinction of becoming part of the management of the Shell Oil refinery and in 1983 was appointed Dominica's Honourary Counsel to the Nederland Antilles.
The now 91 year- old Riviere, who has a remarkable recollection of the early history of Dominican migration to Curaçao, has only recently started to learn Papiamento, but only to assist her in communicating with her grandchildren.
She scrupulously ensured that her four children learnt her first language, a fact that did not impede them in achieving success both in Curaçao and in Holland. In 1999, another Dominican, Elizabeth Hurdle, nee Raphael, was honoured by Queen Beatrice of the Nederlands for her extensive community service on the island.
Another Dominican who has achieved great success in Curaçao while maintaining her island ancestry is attorney at Law, Karyl Bertrand who was the first local lawyer to be called to the bar in the New Millennium.
Bertrand is a successful commercial lawyer in Punda, part of the island's capital. Her father was the late Hubert Nicholas Bertrand, the brother of the late Justice Sylvia Bertrand, businesswoman Mornlight Phillip and retired fire chief Phillip Bertrand.
She is a member of one of the largest law firms on the island and has a clientele that includes some of its major businesses, local boards and government institutions. Her office is located on the local equivalent of Dame Eugenia Charles Boulevard, in close proximity to the Attorney General's office, Chief Prosecutor's Office, government ministries and stately colonial buildings in varying stages of repair.
Attractive and elegant, Bertrand shifts efficiently in her building which is adorned with artwork from the island's major painters. She speaks Papiamento, the local dialect, Dutch, Spanish and of course English. Well known and very well respected by the close knit legal fraternity in Willemstad, Bertrand is the epitome of the successful professional, confident not only in her abilities but in her West-Indian origin.
For that, she is indebted not only to her late father but also to her mother, Guita "Maggie" Wolff Bertrand who was born in Curacao but whose parents originated in Suriname and Bonaire. Unlike many first generation West-Indians in Curaçao, Maggie and Hubert ensured that their daughter learn to speak English and appreciate her English heritage.
They were involved in the Dominica Friendship Club which was started in 1977 by a number of Dominica including the late Zena Toulon, Allenby James, Elizabeth Hurdle, Ezard Decamy, Nelister Bramble, Rita Thomas, Helen Corriette, Clinton Lancelot and Oscar and Daphne Riviere. The club organized social activities for Dominicans.
In 1978, it raised five thousand guilders for hurricane relief in Dominica. Maggie has organized an annual calypso festival for seventeen years. She and her late husband hosted numerous social activities for Dominican nationals for many years before Hubert's death in 1997.
But the impact of these efforts has been blunted by the passing of many of the first generation West-Indians in Curaçao, migration and the second generation's fears about being socially ostracized on account of their origin.
The Dominica Friendship Club which has hosted Dominican dignitaries such as Dr. Desmond McIntyre, Dr. Carissa Etienne, Mr. Michel Nassief, Archbishop Kelvin Felix, Dame Eugenia Charles, Sir Brian Alleyne and the late Charles Maynard, is now inactive.
The English Club in Soufisant for West-Indians no longer exist. The inferior complex of many West-Indian immigrants continues to persist. Dominicans Zena Toulon and Harriette Gomez used to make the tête cassé and wob dwyets. The former however, is now deceased while the latter moved back to Dominica.
Undaunted by the gradual eclipse of their West-Indian heritage in Curaçao, Karyl Bertrand and a few others continue to promote their West-Indian origin. A gifted tennis player who was the junior national champion in Curaçao from 1988 to 1991, Bertrand is also a talented musician who has penned calypsos for well known local singers.
She is also a motivational speaker avid volunteer. She also teaches legal assistants the rudiments of contract law and maintains regular contact with relatives in Dominica.
Undoubtedly, success in Curaçao has mitigated the feelings of inferiority experienced by many Curaçao residents of West-Indian origin. Glen LeBlanc, son of the late Verner "Shorty" Leblanc from Penville and the head of a Department of Projects in a government ministry has spent the last few years conducting Internet searches for his family.
His father, like many of his generation, never talked about Dominica to his children. Others have travelled to Dominica and marveled at its lush scenery which stands in strong contrast to Curaçao's parched landscape.
While they have achieved financial security in Curacao, many continue to look to their ancestral homeland for a sense of stability. Many silently echo the words of Karyl Bertrand in her song "One Caribbean Nation:" "Sancocho, Yambo, Johnny Cake & Salt Fish; We all are neighbours, One Caribbean Flavour."