Twinmatressness makes the Caribbean appear
Por: Luis Rivera Jimenez (1997, Luquillo, Puerto Rico)
There is a joke you hear around Puerto Rico occasionally that sneaks in a truth unique to the Caribbean experience of serendipitous familial relationships: Este país es un mattress twin. It speaks leagues to the uncanny closeness between ourselves that surprises us constantly. It is the negation of the territorial boundary; we islands in the Caribbean forget that we are small dots. We forget that we have small populations and that we are as small as we are on a global scale. We’re surprised in finding out that our extended families find themselves looping back on us: we find out through eventful conversation that you and I are cousins and know the same loud aunt, we learn that our barbers also cut a famous reggeatonero’s hair, I find out that me and a celebrated author checked out the same copy of an Edouard Glissant novel from the university library; I discover that the Dominican musician that I am researching went to the same high school as my mother. There is a feeling of inherent interconnectedness that appears the deeper I peer into the separate histories of the Caribbean, one that brings me back to the personal, that swings me away to parts of the Caribbean I have only visited through literature and adds territories outside of the region understood as such to the map of the Caribbean. There is an exponential redoubling of proximity the more one finds out of our region; histories crossover and become obsolete from a singular perspective and family migrations are interwoven into historical narratives. There might be a form of decolonial agency in this process of the personalization of history. When history has been defined by the colonial agent, inserting oneself in the creation of a new history might be our chance at reclaiming ownership. This and other exercises of new history-making involve the “twinmatressness’” of our shared experience. Difference in the Caribbean could be replaced for multiplicity or eclecticness. Difference could be the starting off point of a non singular view.Difference doesn’t need to act as a marker to designate an other, but as a fracture of the fixed. Difference could be what allows a rhizomatic experience of the Caribbean, a view that includes contradictions, variances, hybridity and the deterritorialization and exodus caused by the natural, economic and political crises we face.
To talk about the Caribbean of difference, a figure that seems apt to begin with is the Dominican musician Luis El Terror Dias. Luis Dias is a crucial figure to contemporary Dominican music as he played an important role in la Nueva Canción movement during the ‘70s as a stark defender of the inclusion of the sounds of African, Haitian and other marginalized identities into the canon of Dominican music. During the 70’s he participated in an investigative music project the first of its kind called Convite. The group’s purpose was to document the folkloric music of remote and marginalized communities as a way to remark a musical and cultural identity not expressed in Dominican culture and society of the time. The anti-blackness and anti-haitianism of the Trujillo regime lingered for decades after its fall and permeated a strict sense of nationally defined culture in the Dominican Republic. Merengue was chosen as the national sound as it helped define a clean line between Spanish colonial rule and the Dominican idiosyncrasies of the time. It was a music that came directly from Spanish Danzas and was updated by instruments of “Dominican” make. Dominican here used to undermine the strong African heritage of these instruments. In a way, this Dominicaness was created and used as a tool to have no need to acknowledge a heritage, it was a cleansing that allowed a “new” person to appear; one that did not need to recognize his past because he had surpassed it to become a new identity divorced from all the legacy the dictatorship had tried to erase.
Luis Dias role in the genre of the Nueva Cancion’s protest was to find a more inclusive model to “Dominican” music: one that could be used to recognize the sounds, instruments, and histories that were being erased. The energy of protest of this movement was channeled into creating a form of Dominicaness that in itself would be a protest to the state determined xenophobic, classist and exclusive national identity. The endeavor was to insert what was outside of the scope of “Dominican” to include a wider web of reference and possibility; one for the future of how Dominican society constructed the view of itself. He fought for an interpretation through elements exterior to what was thought to be Dominican, his works as a solo artist included investigations into the sounds of other Caribbean nations like Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Barbados to more thoroughly comprehend and understand the nature of the sounds produced by the marginalized peoples of the Dominican Republic. There is a tension in where Luis Dias fights for the deeper of understanding of Dominicaness through elements exterior to Dominicaness. Assuming we build these identities through strict national and geographic frontiers, he poses a question important to view our understanding of these boundaries critically: Can Dominicaness be expressed adequately only through the elements contained inside of it? Can something outside the Dominican experience be useful to deepen our comprehension of it?
Luis Dias became a key figure to explore alternate modes of being to Dominican creatives such as Rita Indiana and Rey Andujar whose extended forms of performance, music, and literature find themselves around specific and real places and people in the Caribbean to morph the colloquial to mythic statuses. His influence is one more than palpable as Luis Dias is present in various forms across their work. Rita Indiana recognizes him as a key musical precursor to her work as Rita Indiana & Los Misterios, a musical project that evokes the inevitable crossing of sounds, peoples and landscapes. Bajito a Selva invokes a yearning for a hybrid rudeboy/tiguerazo/papichulo displaced by a series of contradictions at the time. The song describes this masculine export of Caribbean swagger. “Con un bajito a selva Que hasta lo muerto desentierra Y la menores dicen Juiii.Kejeto?” This masc moreno sits comfortably at a crossroads. He smells of the jungle of the motherland, but his sneakers are crisp white because they were brought from the Bronx. He makes women faint in multiple different nations, he takes you on a trip through latitudinal regions; his appeal is this seeming universality done backward. It isn’t necessarily through the model of lack of context that this universality is achieved. We might be used to an idea of a subject devoid of affiliation as a truly universal. This mode of thinking is inherited from Western hegemony of the white subject; the subject that surpasses individuality so as to reach the unseen systems that operate over us. This universality sheds context to surpass it and become a vessel to include all other contexts. Rita Indiana’s depiction offers us La hora de volve and a beautiful image to view it the language of the Caribbean; la yola al revés, the time has come to go back.
Rey Andujar is a writer that, with much the same familiarity as Rita Indiana, places stories and people in an array of times and localizations. He freely picks up legendary indie musicians from Puerto Rico and places them as queer academics in Chile. Stories take place in a future where Haiti is run by an American dictator and this is only known through a series of footnotes. Streets from New York City, Santurce, and bars in Zona Colonial are presented in such a way that he expects you to know exactly where he’s talking about. The latest edition of Saturnalia, a book of his short stories that were translated into English and Spanish by himself to be able to have a double release in both languages opens up with a text by his editor Danny Parra Alvarez. “ The displacement that’s transmitted in this text written in urban language recurs to voices of characters that transmit all of the variants of our carnal desires; nights without sleep, passionate conquests… but above all, all the gestures that the Caribbean Sea can spread.” Rey Andujar’s modus operandi in some of these stories is to so closely describe the lives and inner workings of seemingly heterodox characters, that they begin to not only seem realistic, it is that they seem like ourselves. They are made of the same stuff as the reader and the writer. In all of its parody, exaggeration and mythmaking: the crude and unforgiving texts make them mortal. As spectators and protagonists of experience, we share the same streets, or at least have heard of them, we might have an aunt who lives in an apartment there. In a short story included in Saturnalia titled “Terror” we catch a glimpse of this. The story is a seemingly self-referential story of a down and out Dominican artist living in New York working on plays, performances and writing. Through a crush developed on the mysteriously well connected free spirit afroed Legna, we discover Luis Dias’ music through a bootleg CD. The story continues onward to have our narrator go from the loathing metropolitan failure he finds himself in, to moving back to the Dominican Republic. The story is interwoven as a manner of coincidence with different forms of Luis Dias. After listening to him for the first time, he appears in a bar singing songs longing for the motherland. Other Dominicans at the bar mock el Terror and remind themselves of the horrors of the third world and the crazy drunkard singing of a cursed land. This brings the narrator to a conclusion that carries on. So much summer to end up realizing that the only thing that immigrants drag apart from plans and the blind commitment of progress; is basic anthropology: the affable sounds that connect us to the land of our bones, the nervous tears; the distance between what’s said and what’s done, the degrees of separation between blood”. He meets El Terror again just as drunk playing in a bar in the Dominican Republic just after moving to Santo Domingo. He buys one of his albums once he becomes a somewhat respected author living in San Juan. “The coincidences don’t end. They are what feed the game that is the city. So many flights and so many sadnesses: so much shipwreck, so many stranded bodies, all just to prove that El Terror does not die”
El Terror might be a perfect example of The hybrid papi that is adored by people across the Caribbean because he’s drenched in context, the pores of his body speak of experience, struggle, and family. He smells like back home is an affirmation of a shared exile. The young girls who get a whiff are confused and excited by a latent shared bond, we share these conditions but they are not yet visible without proper perspective. This body is one for universal consumption because we already share what is in our gut, maybe in our hair, maybe in the way your mom’s cooking tastes, maybe in the rivers and the oceans. This body negates hegemony by being a volcano of its own personal effects. It bleeds reference. The body Rita Indiana paints in song and Rey Andujar describes at parties is universal because it offers a shared localization, we can find ourselves in and not necessarily inhabit it completely. More than an avatar it is a Deluzian map. It is not necessarily a tracing of a specific life; it isn’t interested in an accurate representation of a specific human but in tapping into the possibility of a shared mythology. It is not the exact semblance of geography but a more liquid representation, a representation that looks more and more like the shifting geographies and populations of the Caribbean. Exodus, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, all have made the region expand and slip into other borders. This body as a map of a shared experience is one that brings context to a phenomenology of a living experience. If Western hegemony tries to reach us by negating the personal and finding the objective truth of things, the Caribbean body re-affirms the personal, the shared, and the contradictory as the only element that speaks truth to life. Rita India’s successful music career and Rey Andujar’s history of selling out books outside the Caribbean speaks to the universality of a possible localized other, not a designed outsider by a regime, not a subject devoid of history and belonging, but a ni de aquí, ni de allá, pero si de por acá. The localized other is not devoid of reference, it is a generous overflow of recognition that lends you something to grasp at. We might not share all this body has to give us, but it presents enough to have a semblance. He is neither from here nor there or from a specific coordinate, he is seemingly from multiple places at once. He is localized, not belonging to. You find this body only through your own experience: I don’t know where this body is from but it moves like the people from my homeland, it eats like my mother, it dances like a cousin of mine. This body isn’t lost because I cannot pinpoint the origin, this body finds itself in the millions of subjects that don’t have fixed origins. This body is not a citizen, this body is not an acclimated immigrant, the localized other is not defined by strict affiliations of nationality or bureaucracy. The localized other is a place where multiple subjects can coalesce amid difference, the exact nature of every experience is unique by design but the “thing” experienced is common ground.
I think it would be proper to finish on the last coincidence I discovered personally through El Terror. My mother grew up with him in Bonao. She remembers Luis el hippy, the alien guitar rebel that wore old clothes and was the only boy in town that didn’t cut his hair. He only went to class to sing songs and was a fervent drunk since a young age. My mother and other children were always bewildered by his way of being, she recalls that TV wasn’t very common in that part of the country during the ‘60s and that to this day has no idea how Luis Dias even knew how to become a hippy. Where he heard the songs he sang in English, where he saw people dress like that no one knew. Luis Dias was the first hippy my mother saw in her life, there in the small town that years ago was the capital decreased by Trujillo because he was born in that small town. An uncle of mine played with him at parties during the 60’s and visited Luis Dias before he died in 2009. This web that builds up through music, academia, personal history and family is a format for a new type of Caribbean. One that defines itself through people and not nationality, through shared culture and history and not difference. A culture of otherness could be built upon these fragmented and banal materials; there is a new understanding available through music samples, whatsapp memes, translation errors, family gatherings, hair styles and all other kinds of precarious, nonetheless useful materials for a new Caribbean.