In a Recovery of Identity through Papiamentu: The Talents of Elis Juliana

By Garrett, Helene; Mos, Leendert P. | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

In a Recovery of Identity through Papiamentu: The Talents of Elis Juliana


Garrett, Helene, Mos, Leendert P., Journal of Caribbean Literatures


Translation has a seemingly natural relation to migration in the sense that it transports words, ideas, and the expressions of life in an immediate awareness of other language, cultures, and societies. In the Caribbean Sea lie Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, three little islands bathed in the tropical sun, filled with the sounds and smells whispering of long lost ties to other continents. In this milieu a Creole language, Papiamentu, was born to become the mother tongue of those who called the islands home. To the world outside these islands, Creoles are deemed conservative systems of communication used by minuscule populations; however, through the senses and expressions, and especially the writings of Antillean authors, one quickly learns that Papiamentu and its literature has virtually the same features that are found in other languages and literatures. These authors live Papiamentu as their natural and legitimate form of expression wherein to make present the distinctive Afro-Caribbean timbre and rhythm of their language. They celebrate their language in their artistic and literary creations and in doing so aspire to secure a place for it in their culture, society, and history. The Curacaoan perhaps best recognized for his cultural sensitivities and commitments is Elis Juliana. His advanced age has not prevented him from doing what has fascinated him since his youth: documenting, compiling, collecting, and enacting the culture of his native Curacao. Not only has he opened a political and educational space for his beloved Papiamentu, but he has also foregrounded its cultural heritage, oral traditions, slavery, and its songs that mark those times long past.

Elis Juliana was born August 8, 1927, in Willemstad, Curacao, one of the islands of the Netherlands Antilles. The poverty of his youth, as he recalls, was also the energy that ignited his mental and intellectual growth. Nor has the sense of wonder that characterized Elis as a boy abated in advanced age. As a boy he would look for hours at busy anthills imagining himself inside the tunnels working alongside the worker ants. Later, he spent many expeditionary hours capturing the tiniest details as he traveled from inside his own kura [yard] to out of the city and into the kunuku [countryside]. Already then Juliana's understanding exemplified a capacity for responsibility wherein the metric of life finds roots in the visceral sensibility of his body, so evident later in his arts.

Juliana was still a youth when the Shell Petroleum Company attracted many newcomers to Curacao from the neighboring islands as well as from other continents. It was also the time of radio, and Cuban music could be heard everywhere. Theater and other cultural venues had their beginnings and enjoyed a wide following. Amid these cultural and technological changes, the young Juliana found his niche and began to develop a sense of identity. He worked at various jobs, including mechanic and bank teller. He also tried his hand at writing, often reciting his poetry and stories on the radio. While still in his teens, he worked as a comic and joined the Jolly Fellows Society, an organization of young men that was founded in 1946 with the aim to provide a forum for resistance of the Roman Catholic clergy, the official Dutch, as well as the Spanish language, which was much in vogue at the time. The meetings of the Society became an opportunity for reciting their writings in Papiamentu, for re-enacting their traditional tambu [Antillean drum] and seu [harvest] dances, and for reliving their annual carnival celebrations--all in service of giving voice to Papiamentu and its traditions in poetry, song, and dance (Rutgers 273-4).

Flor di Datu [Cactus Flower], one of Juliana's early collections of poetry, endeavored to instill in his fellow Antilleans his sense of identity with Papiamentu, of course, but also with a social-political sense of their homeland. Juliana also extended his reach as an artist at this time and, with passion and patience, studied the history and culture of his native land and developed as a poet, storyteller, painter, and sculptor. …

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