This week when I called out Trinidadians for racism towards Venezuelans there was some pushback. How can it be racism? some asked. Venezuelan isn’t a race.
This taught me that Trinidadians prefer to see racism only within frameworks of their own choosing: white on black discrimination, for example, or racial antipathy between black and Indian people, but not the racism being meted out to "Spanish" people here in Trinidad.
While Venezuela is a multi-ethnic society, people here regard them (and Cubans and Dominicans) as simply Spanish. We see them as Latino – not white, black, or mixed, but Latin American – and we ascribe to them the same negative racial stereotypes that white supremacists in America do. Namely, that their women are prostitutes, their men are criminals and they are cheap migrant labour coming over to steal our jobs.
This is the same kind of prejudice that Caribbean people were subjected to when they arrived in Britain decades ago.
Other Trinis I spoke to about Spanish discrimination preferred to name it xenophobia. But xenophobia, a disliking of people from other countries, is so close to racism as to make it indistinguishable. A person can be of the same colour or race as another person and still racially discriminate against them – as demonstrated in the UK, where white Eastern Europeans are typecast by white Brits in much the same way Trinis categorise Latin Americans – hard workers, cheap workers, sex workers. Nothing beyond their labour capacity is of much interest.
A language barrier, a foreign name, different clothing, is all that’s needed to provoke racial othering. We have othered Venezuelans here and used that to justify our lack of patience, absence of kindness and scant tolerance to their predicament.
One might expect that those in high office would identify this racism as a problem and offer guidance. We have heard diplomatic words about our neighbourly relations with Venezuela, but intergovernmental niceties are very different to the interactions of groups of people, domestic and foreign, within the same social space.
It is not only the Government’s callousness – the deportations and the disregard for protecting vulnerable people – that has forced many Spanish to hide in the shadows of Trinidadian society, it is also the horrific racism they see and hear from the general public.
For the purposes of demonstrating that racism, I’ve been monitoring the responses of ordinary Trinidadians on social media to articles about Venezuelans in Trinidad.
“Round them up, feed them, then ship all out. They feel they too bright. They are a strain on the economy,” commented a Facebook user from San Fernando under a Loop TT video post asking, What should be done about Venezuelan citizens in TT?
That kind of racial superiority complex was heard in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
“Sorry but we have our own freeloaders to deal with,” another commented.
But Trinidad does not spend any money helping migrants or refugees. The only government expenditure of note goes on arresting and detaining people in the detention centre. Rather than straining our economy, Venezuelans help stimulate it by putting money into rent, groceries, phone cards, etc that would ordinarily have gone to businesses in Venezuela. That the government does not correct this misconception is irresponsible.
“And they bringing guns and drugs to kill we ass,” read a post from Scarborough.
The young mothers I see working the cash registers in downtown Chinese groceries do not seem overly obsessed with weapons or narcotics. Just like Windrush era migrants, Venezuelans often leave their children with relatives, work hard, and send every spare penny they earn back home.
“Build a wall and let Venezuela pay for it. Thinking like the Trump man himself,” was a particularly dotish comment out of San Juan.
Under a Guardian report about Archbishop Gordon calling on citizens to afford dignity toward Venezuelans, a commenter calling themselves Speak Mehmind said: “Put dem in yuh home nah an see how destructive they can become.”
Under a CNC3 article entitled Venezuelan woman: If T&T sends me back they will kill me, one local offered solace saying, “Whose problem is that n why u leave your country to pollute another (sic).”
Another offered similar support: “Go back, always better to die home,” and got seven likes and some "haha" emojis.
“Who caresssss?” enquired one woman.
Meanwhile, a man commented, “Don’t feel alyuh special,” under a post about a Venezuelan woman being raped twice, with no police action.
Finally, on a news post detailing the deportation of 82 Venezuelans, a pundit commented, “They should have full the plane.”
“What about the Nigerians? Guyanese?” asked one man, demonstrating that Spanish aren’t the sole recipients of racism in Trinidad, but perhaps simply the latest in a long line of targets.