Carnival and Coming to Know St. Vincent
November 15, 2009
-Laura Wesolowski, RPCV
I would like to say that after having returned for a year, that I have processed what it meant to me to be queer in the Eastern Caribbean, but I can’t. The times when I think back on being closeted for 2 years of my service come less often, but it’s still something I think of. I am not bitter about my decision to stay closeted to my community, in fact that was my decision from the get go. It was, and still is, my belief that my sexuality is not something for a community to decide on. It is my own, and I claim it as such.
The beginning of my service was very different from many others. The Eastern Caribbean post is compromised of 6 island nations, Antigua and Barbuda , Dominica , Grenada and Carriacou, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis. I found out the region and post before I found out about my assignment. After two weeks of training on St. Lucia, I received word that my posting was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). The question of sexuality and possibilities of homophobic reactions of host country nationals came up very frequently in training discussions. The handful of LGBT trainees paled in number to the 70+ trainees in the group. We had all read about homophobia in Jamaica and throughout the region. Much of it was against MSMs (men who have sex with men) and gay-identified men, but there was very little written on the plight of lesbians, bisexuals, and WSWs (women who have sex with women). Either way, there was always an undertone of uncertainty.
I had no problem coming out to the other PCVs; in fact a few just came up and asked if I had a girlfriend. I even came out to some of the staff. But I dared not come out to my community. My first week out of home stay, the community was in an uproar over a young man who was a known MSM, and had died from complications of AIDS. No one would mention the way he died, just say it was pneumonia or “sickness.” They could not face the fact that HIV/AIDS was a part of their community. Though a life-long member of the community, few people outside his family attended his funeral, and quickly after was talk about his disgusting habits, and the country was corrupted by “those people and their actions.” It made me sad to know that my community would probably not accept my sexuality, and that they were unwilling to confront the epidemic in their midst.
As a single white female, I got asked many questions about my sex life and relationship status. Mostly men asked me, as people like me were considered a prize and goal, a status symbol that might help them come to America. I even got asked by one man if he could have my children! I tried to explain to him that I would have to have his children, and that just was not going to happen! I bypassed these questions by saying I was too young to be married, enjoying the single life, and really didn’t want kids.
But all of this never affected my relationship with my community and the people I have grown to call my family and friends. It was easy to see that culture was a pillar of Vincentian life. There was always a festival coming up, something to prepare for. Twice a year the country held a major festival. July was Vincy Mas (said maas), and Christmas time was the setting for 9 Mornings. These events showcased the culture of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the pride the people had. To best understand St. Vincent and Vincentians as a people I had to immerse myself in these celebrations of life.
A fellow PCV had connections to a Carnival Mas band, and asked if I wanted to join. This particular band, KFC SVG International Players (that’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken was our sponsor), was the reigning Mas band and considered the best of the best. I began working with Players right before Easter. I traced, cut and glued my costume together through 4 months of cultural training. It was during those four months that I began to understand Vincy twang, the local dialect, the true meaning behind many of the popular songs, and what exactly I was there for. I never set out to play Mas on Carnival Tuesday, but I did. I never wore spandex in the 80s and 90s either (which I was very proud of, thank you), but because Players did, I did.
Mas started in the late morning/early afternoon, but I had to be there earlier to get myself and others dressed. I hiked 3 rides and walked the last mile into town, just so we could all look good. Looking good meant winning and we wanted to win. Once everyone was ready, I got dressed and ran through town like a banshee looking for my band. I found them in Carnival City. As I stood over my band, seeing a sea of florescent colors, beautiful costumes, and months of hard work, I understood why Vincentians placed so much emphasis on Mas. This was culture epitomized.
I was a part of the band the next year, and we won as well. SVG Players won for the fourth time in a row in 2009, and are the reigning Mas band in St Vincent and the Grenadines. By being a part of the band I learned more about what it means to be Vincy than any other time in my service. I never came out to the band, but I’m sure some of them knew. I realize now that they probably didn’t care; to them I was a friend and a Vincy.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can learn more about Vincy Mas Carnival atwww.carnivalsvg.com