‘Sometimes I don’t feel like an Aruban because of my skin color’

How is it possible that a painting by Rembrandt can make such an impression on your own life and identity? It’s a question which Layzmina Emerencia (26) from Aruba asks herself constantly. “The Afro-Caribbean culture isn’t present on Aruba.”

Emerencia would walk past the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam on a daily basis to go to her university of applied sciences classes to become a Dance teacher. “For six years, it didn’t appeal to me, while tourists would come from far away to see the paintings. But suddenly I saw a black man on a huge banner outside the museum.” What’s so ‘special’ about that? “When you think about paintings in the Golden Age, you picture white people, who are depicted in a proud and beautiful manner. Black people? They were relegated to the corners or were portrayed as being subservient.”

Through WeConnect, an institution which stands up for Caribbean students, she got a tour of the exhibition. “Something happened to me when I was all alone in the room. Wherever I turned, I saw black people portrayed, filled with pride and in extremely beautiful clothing. Being portrayed as equally important as rich white people. What really moved me were some of the expressions and the pride with which they looked at me. It was like looking into a mirror, because I saw a bit of myself. I also have dark skin.”

Compared to Curaçao, Aruba is mostly comprised of light skinned individuals. “There’s this view and pride that exists that we are all descendants of the original native inhabitants. That’s not the case for all of us. Our slavery past is ignored. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m Aruban because of the color of my skin”, says Emerencia. “I’m from San Nicolas. It’s a neighborhood rich in culture and where a lot of black people live. The neighborhood is seen as backwards. And that has everything to do with it.” The entirety of San Nicolas is seen as a sort of ghetto, the chocolate city, where you only have minorities, she says. “And there’s another stigma that black people on Aruba come from different islands, like Sint Maarten. So where do you belong? Almost all of the people in power on Aruba are light skinned, like folk hero Betico Croes. We learn about Tula and slavery on Curaçao, but not about what happened on Aruba. It’s not odd in that case that my father only recently discovered that he is descendant from enslaved individuals.”

Back to Rembrandt’s art. “A painting of a pride filled black woman moves me, because I become more conscious of how I behave. I don’t exactly know why, but there’s something that makes us Arubans think that the Dutch know better. They’re always the ones who talk in a group and I can’t properly express myself in such cases. I choose to keep my mouth shut.”

Emerencia: “After the tour, some of the girls said: on Curacao, we often go on excursions to museums with schools or when it’s the week of culture. I thought to myself, on Aruba we treat culture differently. They’re way further than we are. I want our kids to learn more about our history and culture at school, that black people also play a role in that.” She would like to talk to the minister on Aruba. “You become more confident if you know who you are and if you feel that you matter. If we develop our art and culture further on Aruba, we’ll achieve greater things. I’m willing and able to contribute to Aruba. That’s why I’m asking the question: why is the Afro-Caribbean culture so absent on Aruba? What does that say about Aruba?” Source: Caribisch Netwerk.