French and Dutch sides exist, yes, but so does One SXM

Dear Editor,

I have to laugh when people, especially those from abroad, ask me: “On what side do you live, French or Dutch?” The question comes across as a confession of faith, or way of letting me know that the person is aware of the border which divides the 37 square miles in two.

“I live on St. Martin,” I respond, because it is really one island. I reside at the border, technically in country Sint Maarten, but I buy my bread in French Oyster Bay, work on Pond Island, do my staple food shopping at Super U in Hope Estate, and swim regularly at Orient Bay and Grand-Case. I may be employed or have my legal residence on one side, but I live on both.

I avoid Simpson Bay as much as possible and rarely eat at restaurants there, as “Dutch side” waiters expect a 15-20% tip because their salaries can be as low as US $4.50 per hour; whereas one kilometre up the road minimum wage is 14 euros per hour. And I have friends who reside in the northern half, sending their kids to school on the southern half; working in the Dutch Kingdom, while collecting welfare benefits from the French Republic because that is their human right. This is the one island I am talking about.

In terms of cultural production, the southern part of the island is more happening. Large events like Carnival, or the Oualichi Festival, where guests from abroad like Machel Montano play, assert a strictly Caribbean identity; not French, not Dutch but Caribbean, and the crowd is mostly Black. Philipsburg is where the National Institute of the Arts and Cultural Centre are located. If I want to see a French comedy performed by white people and mulattos from Guadeloupe, I go to Village D’Orient. Happy Bay is where the techno SXM Festival takes place.

Perhaps because some of us we live under the illusion of being an autonomous country, Soualigan identity is breathed on the streets of Great Bay, St. Peters and Dutch Quarter. At the same time, when an Arrindell, Hodge or Lake wants to feel closer to the ancestors, they go North to Colombier or Rambaud, located in the Collectivité de Saint-Martin.

There is no denying that most of the island’s population has their roots elsewhere, but that should not give impetus to invisibilise the autochthonous people of St. Martin. A people whose migratory character testifies to the existence of a nation. Joseph Lake Jr., born in Aruba, is the son of the late José Lake Sr., born in the Dominican Republic. Each of these and their offspring maintain their national identity, referring to St. Martin as their home. Not a place just to make a buck, to work and play harder; rather, a land, a patria to love.

These are the descendants of Africans enslaved under the Dutch Kingdom and French Republic, continuously colonised and speaking S’maaten English on both sides of the border. One St. Martin written in English, or One SXM, really does exist. It is an Afro-Caribbean nation peppered with descendants of Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain in Simpson Bay; Cantonese speaking people in supermarkets and restaurants, and Sindi merchants and their children at Cay Hill. Let us not forget the entanglement of Spanish-speaking Dominicanos. St. Martin is diverse but not disincarnated.

One SXM is a minority but not just a fantasy. It can also be interpreted as a vision for further development. It can be a strategy to eradicate poverty or synchronise public and social services to ensure equity. It can liberate the toiling masses, some of which live without running water in their homes and have sewage streaming at their front door. One SXM, the thought-dream-experience, can implement one equal healthcare system or one university with full time faculty, where the students do not have to work full time in order to pay for tuition. One SXM makes sense once it is understood, not as a fantasy but as a movement for social transformation.

Dr. Antonio Carmona Báez

President of University of St. Martin

The Daily Herald

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