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Creoles of Nicaragua

Creoles of Nicaragua

ETHNONYMS: Criollos, Miskito Coast Creoles, Morenos, Negros

Orientation

Identification. The Creoles of Nicaragua are an Afro-Caribbean population of mixed African, Amerindian, and European ancestry, most of whom live in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Creoles' distinctive culture is strongly influenced by its West African and British roots, as well as by prolonged interaction with North Americans, Nicaraguan mestizos, and the Miskito (a Nicaraguan Afro-Amerindian group). "Mosquito" is the name given to the region and the latter people by early European visitors to the area. The name "Miskito," currently used to designate this people and their language, is apparently a twentieth-century ethnographic innovation that more closely approximates the Miskito people's name for themselves, in accordance with the phonetics of their own language.

Location. The bulk of the Creole population is concentrated in the market/port town of Bluefields, located at 12°00 N and 83°50 W, and in a number of small communities scattered north and south of that town along Nicaragua's southern Caribbean coast, part of a region known as the Mosquito Coast (or Mosquitia). The terrain is low-lying tropical rain forest, with an average annual rainfall of 448 centimeters and a mean temperature of 26.4° C. This coastal plateau is crossed by large rivers and fringed by brackish lagoons, on the banks of which most Creole settlements are located. Smaller numbers of Creoles reside in the large towns of the northern Caribbean coast, and a substantial number live in Managua (Nicaragua's capital), in other Central American countries, and in the United States.

Demography. In the early 1990s the approximately 25,000 Creoles who resided in Nicaragua represented less than 1 percent of that country's total population. The national census does not enumerate Creoles separately; during the 1980s, however, estimates of the size of the Creole population were made by an array of government institutions and in the course of various ethnographic studies. These estimates vary substantially. The most reliable approximations place 10,000 Creoles in Bluefields, 11,400 elsewhere on the Caribbean coast, and perhaps 5,000 in other areas of Nicaragua.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most Creoles speak, as their first language, Miskito Coast Creole (MC Creole), an English-based creole closely related to other creoles spoken in the Anglophone Caribbean, particularly in Belize and Jamaica. By the 1990s, all but the oldest Creoles were fluent Spanish speakers as well. MC Creole is described by Holm (1982, 3) as characterized by a "... very African syntax organizing sentences out of words from a variety of sources: most . . . from English . . . but . . . [also] from Miskito, African languages, and .. . New World Spanish." There is evidence that MC Creole is being influenced at the syntactic and the lexical levels by Central American Spanish.


History and Cultural Relations

Many of the Creoles' ancestors arrived on the Nicaraguan/Honduran Caribbean coast (the Mosquitia) from Africa as slaves in the period between the mid-seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries. They were brought there by the British to labor in forestry, plantation agriculture, and the transisthmus trade with the Spanish colonies. Over time this African population transformed its cultural and physical traits by combining elements of its African culture with those of its European masters and those of local Amerindian peoples, to create a new culture; simultaneously, miscegenation among these three peoples was common.

In 1787 the British settlers were forced by treaty obligations to evacuate the Mosquito Coast. Many slaves who revolted against, ran away from, or were abandoned by their masters stayed on the Coast, where they created African American communities at Bluefields and at Pearl Lagoon. Subsequently, free Black merchants, turtle fishers, adventurers from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, escaped slaves from throughout the western Caribbean, and, after Emancipation (1833), freed slaves from the Anglophone Caribbean augmented this population. In 1860 Great Britain signed the Treaty of Managua, under the terms of which Nicaragua recognized Britain's nominal sovereignty over Mosquitia. The treaty also designated a portion of the area as a self-governing "Mosquito Reserve." In the absence of direct colonial control during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, this African American community flourished. Their culture solidified and the community began to consolidate economic, political, and social control over the Mosquito Coast. They began referring to themselves as "Creoles," signifying the emergence of a specific racial/cultural group identity.

In the 1880s North American capitalist interests became active in lumber, mining, and bananas and transformed Nicaraguan Mosquitia into an enclave of the U.S. economy. This transformation initiated crucial changes in the Creole political economy. North Americans and other Whites now assumed the top positions in the Coast's socioeconomic hierarchy. A significant portion of the Creole population was transformed into an urban wage-labor force. Creoles went to work for the new companies as laborers, growers, contractors, and clerks.

The enclave's increasing labor requirements were also met by Blacks from other areas of the Caribbean. Although distinctions of color, religion, and class initially served to separate these immigrants from the Creoles, they eventually blended into the Creole group through a process of intermarriage and cultural assimilation. The Creole group was also augmented by the assimilation of Miskito and Garifuna populations with whom they were living in the small biethnic villages of the Pearl Lagoon area.

In 1894 the Nicaraguan national government militarily seized and "Reincorporated" the Mosquito Coast. Mestizos from the Pacific replaced Creoles in the top political positions in the region. Very bitter feelings emerged between Mosquitian Blacks and Nicaraguan mestizos. One response of the Black population to the mounting racial conflict was vigorous participation in the local branches of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Important sectors of the Creole community also actively fomented regional separation from the Pacific portion of the nation.

North American capital began to withdraw from the Coast during the world depression of the 1930s. In search of better economic opportunities, many Blacks abandoned the hinterland for the Coast's urban areas, Managua, and the United States.

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During the second half of the twentieth century, the Coast was increasingly integrated, economically and socially, into the rest of Nicaragua. Commerce with western Nicaragua increased, especially after the completion of a road connecting the two halves of the country, and many Pacific-coast mestizos migrated to the Mosquito Coast. The Creole population became a minority in many of the areas in which it had previously been demographically dominant, and it experienced further erosion in its increasingly tenuous political and economic position. As a result, Creoles have been increasingly drawn into the Pacific mestizo social and cultural orbit. Most Creoles now speak Spanish as well as Creole and consider themselves to be Nicaraguan. Many have even intermarried with mestizos. Intermittently, however, they continue to protest their loss of political and economic power to mestizos.


Settlements

By the 1990s, the majority of Creoles were urbanized. In Bluefields, most live in the four predominantly Creole barrios on the banks of Bluefields Lagoon. As these barrios have become increasingly crowded, individual families have taken up residence away from the waterside, in the expanding, predominantly mestizo, barrios of the town. Rural settlement patterns are of two types. Most rural Creoles live in small villages of fewer than 2,000 persons. In these villages, houses are strung out in files, two or three deep, along the water's edge, with missionary churches at their centers. In the Pearl Lagoon area, 36 kilometers north of Bluefields, where most of the small villages are located, settlements are either predominantly Creole or Creole mixed with either Miskito or Garifuna. Other rural Creoles are located on small freehold farmsteads on the Corn Islands and in the Kukra Hill area, which lie 68 kilometers northeast and 30 kilometers north of Bluefields, respectively.

Creoles live primarily in "West Indian cottages"wood-framed clapboard structures, painted in white or pastel colors, with wooden floors raised from the ground by posts, steep corrugated galvanized "zinc" roofs, and verandas in front. The basic structure of such a cottage is modified according to the economic means of its occupants. In the outlying rural areas, a typical house may be smaller, with only two interior rooms. The zinc roof may be replaced by palm thatch, and the clapboards may remain unpainted. In these areas, the kitchen and bathhouses are usually in separate structures just off the house, as is the outdoor latrine if there is one. In the urban areas, the basic model might be elaborated into a two-story structure with the kitchen and bathroom built in. Even in the urban areas, however, running water is a comparative rarity, and a well and an outhouse are necessities. In the 1980s affluent Creoles began building cement houses that were patterned after those built by mestizos in the Pacific portion of Nicaragua.


Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Creoles who live in small rural villages and on farmsteads are predominantly agriculturists. Some are engaged in shifting agriculture, but in many cases soils are of high enough quality to sustain cultivation on a permanent basis. A wide variety of crops are grown, including rice; red beans; a number of edible tubers such as cassava (manioc), coco (Spanish: quequisque ), and dasheen (taro; Spanish: malanga); sugarcane; maize; and tree crops such as bananas and plantains, avocados, cacao, coconuts, citrus fruits, pineapples, mangoes, and other tropical fruits. Creole farmers also raise domestic animals such as dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, pigs, horses, and sometimes cattle. Agricultural production is primarily a subsistence activity, but surpluses are marketed through local traders or regional market centers. Some rural Creoles are able to meet their cash needs entirely through their agricultural activities, and some have reached a level of relative affluence through the cultivation of cash crops like coconuts, cocoa, rice, and sugarcane and the raising of cattle. A few of these farmers even hire seasonal labor to assist them.

Most rural Creoles fish as well as farm. Fishing in the coastal lagoons and inshore areas is an important source of cash and subsistence. Fishermen utilize 5.8to 7.6-meter dugout canoes (duris ), which are propelled by paddles and sails. A few prosperous fishers use small outboard or inboard motors. Fishing for scale fish is done with hand lines and gill nets. Shrimp fishing is done seasonally with cast nets. The shrimp are generally boiled in salt water and sun dried. Periodically, local fishing companies and traders buy the excess shrimp and scale-fish catch. A few rural Creole communities are also involved in lucrative commercial lobster fishing. This activity is undertaken in open outboard speedboats (pangas ) or larger (6to 21-meter), diesel-powered wooden boats, with traps. The catch is sold to processing plants located in Bluefields and on Corn Island. Turtle fishing, which was once an important activity in Creole communities, is now restricted to two Creole villages.

Domestic productive activities such as baking bread, making coconut oil, or raising chickens for sale, which are usually undertaken by women, are also important sources of currency for some families. Many rural Creole men migrate for prolonged periods to other areas of Nicaragua or to the United States to engage in wage labor. They typically work in maritime-related occupations. Remittances from these activities are an important component of the Creole economy.

Many urban Creoles are engaged in independent subsistence and petty-commodity production relating to either farming or fishing activities, which are similar to those in the rural areas. Most of these families also engage in a variety of other economic activities, such as domestic petty-commodity production (e.g., baking) and some form of wage labor; however, urban Creoles typically strive to be employed as professionals (teachers, lawyers, nurses), office workers, administrators, civil servants, and self-employed artisans (mechanics, shipwrights, furniture makers, and carpenters). As in the rural areas, labor migration and remittances are important parts of the urban Creole economy.

Industrial Arts. Creoles are skillful carpenters and woodworkers. They construct and repair wooden boats of up to 21 meters. They build their own houses, and some are engaged in furniture- and cabinet-making. Creoles also make much of their fishing equipment, tying a variety of net types. They manufacture some of their domestic utensils, furnishings, and clothes; however, the bulk of the Creoles' manufactured needs are purchased. A large portion of Creole material culture is based on consumer goods imported from the United States.

Trade. In the rural villages, reciprocity governs the exchange of subsistence goods, particularly among extended families. Creoles have been involved in market relations for over two hundred years, however, and these currently dominate Creole trade relations. Although some Creoles have become successful traders and shopkeepers, in Creole communities such positions have historically been held by Chinese and mestizo merchants.

Division of Labor. Creole women work at domestic tasks an average of three to four times longer each week than do Creole men. Women are exclusively responsible for the central domestic tasks of cooking, washing, ironing, household cleaning, child care, and the care of small domestic animals. Both men and women fetch household water and engage in daily marketing; men engage in cleaning the yards and gathering firewood. Men do most of the fishing, but women help process and prepare the catch for sale. Both men and women are involved in agricultural activities. In general, men have central responsibility for such crops as rice and beans, which have commercial as well as subsistence significance, whereas women are more centrally involved in subsistence crops such as cassava and coco. Men usually undertake the clearing and burning of plots. Both adults and children engage in planting, weeding, and harvesting; women are more responsible for the former two, and men for the latter. Marketing outside the community is usually undertaken by men. In the urban areas, both men and women work in a variety of white-collar occupations. Creole women formerly made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force in local fish-processing plants, but, with increased remittances from the United States in the 1980s, this activity has slackened.

There has traditionally been a degree of economic differentiation within Creole communities. The older, better economically connected, and better educated members of the Creole elite tend to occupy professional, administrative, and civil-service positions, whereas most Creoles are small producers or self-employed skilled laborers.

Land Tenure. Each Creole village has extensive communal lands that have been deeded to it. Each villager has use rights to such land. In practice, individuals are able to stake a lasting claim to particular plots of communal land by making permanent improvements to it, which is usually accomplished by planting tree crops such as coconuts or mangoes. The rights to particular parcels that are claimed in this manner are inherited and can be sold to other villagers. It is even possible to sell to outsiders such improvements and, hence, the rights to exclusive use, although this is not commonly done. In areas of shifting cultivation, a villager who wishes to utilize land usually asks permission of villagers who have previously farmed the area. In areas of dispersed farmsteads, like Corn Island and around Bluefields, land tenure is freehold. Family ownership of land is common. Household dwellings are usually owned by the female head of the household or by the wife of the male head of the household.

Kinship

Kin Groups and Descent. Women, their children, and their daughters' children are the basic members of Creole kin groups. The independent nuclear family is the ideal, but extended families constructed around mother, daughter, and daughter's children are common. Creoles reckon kinship bilaterally. Descent is recognized only to the depth of three or four generations, although particularly important ancestors (usually European or Amerindian) are remembered. The lateral extension of Creole kinship reckoning is shifted toward the female side and generally extends to second cousins. There are no formal kin groups above the level of the nuclear family; however, Creoles see themselves as members of related but distinct, loosely structured kindreds based on common family names and consanguineal ties.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is of the Eskimo type, with a strong tendency not to extend consanguineal terms to affines.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages sanctioned by church and state are the ideal, but common-law relationships are widespread and may even be prevalent. Creoles generally marry Creoles from their own communities; in the rural areas, however, there has traditionally been significant intermarriage between Creoles and Garifuna and Miskito. Creole/mestizo marriages are more common in the urban areas. Creole unions are relatively unstable, especially among young adults. An individual may have children with a number of partners and may even establish domestic relations with them before settling into a more permanent relationship in middle age.

Domestic Unit. The independent nuclear-family household under the nominal control of the husband/father is the ideal; however, extended families constructed around the mother-daughter-daughter's children triad are quite common. There is a cyclical relationship between these two household types. Young adult women and their young children often live in their mothers' extended-family households. These daughters may subsequently establish separate nuclear-family households with their male partners and their own children. Often, when these women are no longer of childbearing age, they themselves become the heads of extended-family households, in which some of their adult children and their daughters' children reside. It is very rare to find more than one nuclear family living in the same household.

Inheritance. Inheritance is bilateral; sons and daughters inherit equally. Land may be inherited by siblings as a group, although this often leads to disputes.

Socialization. Grandparents, parents, and older siblingsespecially femalesraise the children. All Creole children attend school: the curriculum is regulated by the Nicaraguan state, but the missionary churches are very influential socializing agents, through their religious instruction and their control and staffing of many schools.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Creole social relations are structured by a complex mix of factors, including kinship, age, gender, class, color, and educational level. Rural Creole communities, although stratified by age and gender, are otherwise relatively egalitarian. In urban areas, however, color, class, and educational level influence many forms of social interaction. Historically, Creoles have been active in a variety of social groupings. These include male social clubs and secret societies (segregated by class), clubs formed around barrio baseball teams, burial societies, men's and women's social-service clubs, barrio-improvement organizations, and church organizations. Urban Creoles consider themselves superior to those living in rural communities. Creoles generally feel superior to the indigenous and mestizo inhabitants of the Coast. Interaction with members of these other groups is often limited to the public sphere in the urban areas.

Political Organization. During much of the nineteenth century, Creole men occupied most of the top positions in the Mosquito Reserve. Although Creoles have periodically protested their political marginalization, since that time their participation in the regional and national political process has in general been through the established, mestizo-dominated national parties and not in organizations that were established on the basis of racial/ethnic or regional identity. There have been some exceptions: many Creoles joined the Garvey movement in the early 1920s; in the 1970s a number of quasi-political civic-action groups sprang up. Since the Reincorporation, there have always been a few Creole men among the top political leadership on the southern Coast. The number of such leaders has increased since the 1960s, but mestizos remain the dominant political force in the area. In the rural communities, elder males from influential families have held the principal positions of leadership. In the twentieth century the Nicaraguan state took advantage of this structure by appointing leading males as local representatives of the executive and judiciary.

Social Control. The principal mechanisms of social control among Creoles are the overlapping structures of family, church, and state. The Protestant missionary churches play an important role not only in establishing the norms of everyday conduct but also, to a certain extent, in enforcing them. The police and the judiciary are the major coercive forces that compel proper conduct.

Conflict. Interfamilial conflictespecially between womenis a constant in Creole society. Creoles traditionally have been antagonistic toward the national government. This animosity has translated into conflictive relationships with mestizos, particularly those from the Pacific. One illustration of this tendency was the Creole opposition to the Sandinista Revolution during the 1980s.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. Religion plays a central role in Creole social life and identity. Creoles are mostly Protestant, and the Creole church leaders are the leaders of the Creole community. The largest number of Creoles belong to the Moravian church, but others belong to Anglican, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, or "Tabernacle" (Pentecostal) churches. Still others are Catholics or members of the new evangelical sects that were established in the late 1980s. Most of these churches were founded by North American missionaries. As a result, for many years the principal religious practitioners were Anglo pastors. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, Creole men have gradually taken over most of these positions. The majority of these churches remain as they were introduced by the missionaries, with little or no syncretism.

Nonetheless, African features of Creole religious expression lie hidden just beneath the surface in the Creole community. In the 1980s the Creole churches that included in their worship such elements as spirit possession, call-and-response preaching, religious music featuring African rhythms, and clapping and dancing all grew in popularity. Other vestiges of what historical sources indicate was once a well-developed, African-based belief system are still evident in Creole culture. These vestiges include participation in secret semireligious societies and widespread belief in and practice of obeah and necromancy, as well as a number of beliefs and ceremonies surrounding death.


Ceremonies. The most important Creole religious ceremonies are those commemorating death, marriage, harvest, the end of slavery, the new year, and Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter).


Arts. Creoles dress in clothing styles that are inspired by North American Black fashion. Their cuisine is based on local and Afro-Caribbean elements such as coconut oil, eddo (taro root), and cassava (manioc) and on Anglo elements such as wheat flour and imported processed foods. Creoles have developed their own musical style, which is closely related to West Indian calypso, and a "May Pole" dance style that is associated with it. They also enjoy performing, listening, and dancing to Afro-Caribbean reggae, soca, and calypso and to Afro-American soul music. The U.S. form of country-and-western music is likewise popular. Afro-Caribbean oral traditions, such as stories about Anancy (the West African spider-trickster figure), remain extant, although they are diminishing in importance to the Creole community.


Medicine. Most Creoles believe in and utilize medical care based on Western science. Nevertheless, herbal medicine is widely practiced in the community, and there are a few herbal experts who are the respected repositories of traditional practices in this area.


Death and Afterlife. Many Creoles believe in spirits; malevolent spirits of the dead are known as duppys. African-influenced Creole ritual surrounding death features participation in wakes and nine-night observations, during which spirits are appeased, call-and-response singing is performed, and, occasionally, stories are told about Anancy. Nevertheless, the Christian belief in heaven and hell is central to Creole ideas about the afterlife.

Bibliography

Gordon, Edmund T. (1987). "History, Identity, Consciousness, and Revolution: Afro-Nicaraguans and the Nicaraguan Revolution." In Ethnic Groups and the Nation State, edited by CIDCA (Centro de Investigaciones y Documentación de la Costa Atlantica, Instituto Nicaragüense de la Costa Atlantica)/Development Study Group, 135-168. Stockholm: Development Study Unit.


Holm, John (1982). The Creole English of Nicaragua's Miskito Coast: Its Sociolinguistic History and a Comparative Study of Its Lexicon and Syntax. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International.


EDMUND T. GORDON

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