Making it From Scratch: An Interview with Symone Graham
Cooking is a skill most of us learn as children or force feed ourselves
during the rebellion of our adolescence or starvation of young adulthood.
While some of us may still burn boiling water, we do connect our
struggles and triumphs in the kitchen to survival. Preparing food
enables us to live. To cook meals from scratch influences our
perspective on food, health and lifestyle. Here with me today to
explore the topic and share stories about how she makes magic
happen in the kitchen is Symone Graham, a woman whose talents
and wisdom know no end.
Please note the following is not a replica of the work; rather, it’s a brief summary of the questions and responses in the interview.
When did you start cooking and under what circumstances did you learn?
Wow, what a question. Ayesha that takes me back so many years. We are a family of seven children and I am the fourth. While my mother was looking after another (I don’t even remember how old I was maybe seven or so), she started to teach me how to cook. I have this recollection of her looking after another sibling and telling me, “Okay, today we are cooking cornedbeef and rice with cabbage.” I can see myself going to the kitchen and she would tell me to peel the onion, to slice it and cut up the tomatoes. I can see myself as a little child going back to ask mommy, “What’s next?” Step by step she guided me when I was about six or seven years old.
Wow, that’s amazing.
I am so thankful for a mom who taught me how to cook because there’s a lot of people in my life who don’t know how.
Right, that’s very true and learning how to cook that way as if it’s a class, saying this is procedure and not saying I’m expecting this to be curry chicken, so when I taste it, it needs to taste that way. Moving on, it’s funny that you mention the family dynamic connected to what happened in the kitchen. Was cooking an expectation growing up or was it engrained into your family values?
Well you know I don’t know. I think my mother was just doing what her mom did, which means it was her responsibility to teach me how to cook. In our family, apparently, it is a gift that we all cook and our food tastes good. We aren’t chefs who display or anything like that, but the food taste good. My aunt, my mom, my sister, my niece.
So, it’s a generational talent.
I think so.
But mom did feel, which I feel my mom felt too, that it is her job to prepare me for a world without her by my side, which would involve eating and you need to cook to do that. The next question is why do you enjoy cooking? Can you describe the connection you see between making things from scratch and overall health? I do understand that you consider yourself a child of the farm.
Yes, that is so important for me. I consider myself to be not only a child of a farm, but also someone who is health conscious. What we normally say or what I tell people is that we eat food in its most natural state. Therefore, if you are eating food in its most natural state, it means that you don’t eat canned anything and that you want to avoid all preservatives and all the chemicals. I totally believe that there is a connection between wholesome food, which is what you will prepare from scratch, and your state of being. This is critical. As long as you are health conscious, as long as you want to eat for the right reasons, which is to nourish the body, you will therefore want to cook food in its most natural state, which means cooking from scratch. In other words, not something that’s frozen or processed. It’s amazing to me how easy it is to prepare nutritious meals from scratch and on a budget.
Do you enjoy cooking so much because you are health conscious? Therefore, to uphold your honor to yourself, body and even soul in a way, you enjoy cooking because you are nourishing yourself. Right?
I feel like cooking for me is one of my hobbies. It is something I enjoy doing period. I put my whole heart into it. When you are eating and tasting it, it’s delicious. You know its nutritious because you know what’s in the food like the fiber content and the herbs you included. You know it will do your body some good. The preparation itself inspires you because you are doing it from scratch. You also become creative in the way you put the stuff together. Now, when you sit and have this delicious meal, that’s a spiritual experience in itself. Then, when you think about how wonderful it is going to be for all the cells in your body, isn’t it awesome?
It’s a win-win situation. Yes, it’s a great feeling.
That is what I think about cooking. Sometimes I admire people who are creative in how they might do deco (decorations), but I always say I am creative in the kitchen.
I love that. This leads me right to the next question. Can you share with us some of your favorite ingredients or meals you enjoy making from scratch? Don’t be afraid to spill some secrets and strategies.
I am happy to do that. You know sometimes people will not do come of the things I do. For instance, you know curry is a favorite here in Trinidad like curry chicken. One of the things I do is I make my curry from scratch, which means curry is a blend of spices. I put together my own blends.
How do you blend it?
I start with coriander seeds, which I actually grind. I don’t buy grounded up coriander. No, give me the seed and I will grind some of it, so I can use it nice and fresh. The other ingredients are geera, which is cumin, and turmeric. These are the three basics. As a matter of fact, I grow my own turmeric, dry it and make the powder myself. I use it in my curry powder. I also grow my own herbs. The coriander, the young leaf, not the seed, which is from the flower, is beautiful. It’s similar to chadon beni (true cilantro). I grow that myself. A lot of the herbs I put in my dishes are nice and fresh. I love curry chicken.
Me too, but it sounds like what you do is actual curry chicken.
Yes, it is. I’m not sure if you want me to go into detail about putting all the spices together, but you realize there are three spices. I don’t grow the cumin. I buy the dry geera in the supermarket. You can also grow the coriander yourself, but I buy it as well. I like to grind it up like I mentioned before. You make a blend with the three spices. One might have a preference. For example, I prefer the turmeric over the coriander and geera; therefore, my blend will fit that. I will put less of the coriander, a little more of the geera and much more of the turmeric.
Moving forward, it’s my understanding that your mastery of cooking extends the kitchen. What other organic products do you make?
Skin care and for all the same reasons. Just like how you have all the preservatives and chemicals in processed food, there are so many awful products and ingredients in the skin care products you can buy off the shelf. I make my own body butter and lip gloss. I make my own deodorant as well. I am so amazed at how effective it is with trial and error.
Did this start as a hobby or was it always a passion? Is it connected in any way to the holistic shop you owned and managed back in Toronto?
I would say I believe it is God-given. I remember myself as a child, about 5 and 6 years old, when I would get sick, I didn’t want to take drugs from the pharmacy. I would ask my mom what I should get. I would try to find those things. I feel that God created me in that way. I’m not sure if you understand.
Yes, I understand completely.
I see it going right back to childhood. I can’t think of anything around me that influenced it. That’s why I feel it was God-given.
You were born with it. Is that why you opened up the holistic shop in Toronto?
Partly yes because I was always health conscious. I was a vegetarian for 10 years but am no longer. Perhaps any vegetarian hearing this might be appalled. I have a whole different approach. Life is a journey and you have all these experiences. Sometimes things change. I feel God made me that way because it comes as second nature to me. I don’t have to force myself to do these things. It’s amazing how many of my friends will sometimes say you were always like this.
You mentioned before that your inspiration comes from the process itself, going into the garden, taking ingredients and mixing them together to create something that’s delicious and healthy for your body and soul. Is there anything else, other than the process itself, that inspires you to create original spices, recipes and products?
I think it's the whole business of the end product, which is nourishing the body well, and knowing about the ingredients you use and the impact they'll have. A lot of people don’t realize how beneficial herbs are to the body. When you look at the amount of nutrients present in parsley, it will blow you away. So many herbs help with digestion. I came to this conclusion about a few weeks ago. We believe that by the time someone is 44 to 45 their digestive system is compromised. I started thinking, hey that hasn’t happened to me yet. Why hasn’t it happened to me yet? I know one of the reasons is lifestyle. One of the things that happen automatically is once you get a plate of food, you are served a drink. Drinking and eating is not good. I started to think about all the digestives, which can be herbs that you pick fresh from your garden to put right into your dish. It doesn’t matter if it's cooked, raw or otherwise. Sometimes I eat parsley like you would lettuce.
For those of us still struggling in the kitchen or addicted to eating out, can you share some words of wisdom to encourage us to start or continue to make it from scratch?
While you were asking that question, there’s something that just came to me. If you love yourself, it means you will want to take care of body, mind, soul and spirit. Therefore, it’s not difficult then, if that’s the inspiration and you want to have long life in good health, one of the keys is to nourish your body well. Nourish your mind and your spirit. You are in control of all of that. The inspiration is being in awe of nature and what God created. There are so many times when I say, “Lord, how beautiful are all these flavors and smells.” How lovely are they? Therefore, it is not only about the end, but also appreciating all the ingredients God has given us to nourish the body.
That’s beautiful; that’s amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to share with me your feelings, your connection to cooking, why it is inspirational and how it influences your perspective of food, healthy and lifestyle.
A Life of a Designer: An Interview with Adanna Mutope
Adanna Mutope is a local Deaf designer who sews dresses, shirts, skirts, bags and pillows. She also makes her own jewelry and organic essential soaps. She has operated her business for the last 11 years. She typically takes personal orders and sells her handmade goods at local community markets.
Please support this Trinidadian
and Tobagonian artist by
connecting with her on the
following social media sites:
Photos retreieved from
Adanna's Instagram profile
Food and Culture: An Interview with Chef Mervyn Richards
It’s no secret that what we eat and how eat are
the patchwerk of our cultures. Our sacred
cookbooks preserve and record the blueprints
of the traditions and histories of our land and
people. Consider crab and callaloo, the national
dish of Trinidad and Tobago. While crab was a
common food among Amerindians of Trinidad
and Tobago from various ethnic backgrounds,
callaloo’s African origin reflects post-Columbian
interactions. Needless to say, food is often
connected to memory, the main ingredient in
cultural storytelling. So here with us today is Mervyn, a self-proclaimed Trinidadian chef, to talk about his connection to food and ways we can tweak popular recipes to offer more nutritious substitutions while still preserving the sacred relationship between food and culture.
Please note the following is not a replica of the work; rather, it’s a brief summary of the questions and responses in the interview.
How old were you when you first started cooking?
I was about 9 or 10 years old.
Were you self-taught, did someone teach you or a bit of both?
Both. I was self-taught. I liked to experiment at first. Sometimes when I thought I was going wrong, I would just call my mom who was in foreign at the time for advice. But, most of time it was my creativity.
Why do you enjoy it? What’s your favorite thing to prepare?
I like diverse dishes, but my favorite thing to prepare are the more traditional dishes. What we do here in Trinidad are pelau and the cook-ups. That’s when you mix beans and rice with coconut milk. You can even add in meat if you want. I prefer those types of traditional dishes like callaloo as well.
Is there a particular reason why you enjoy cooking? How does it make you feel?
I feel empowered when I cook because it’s an ability to create. I can make people happy. I see the joy in people’s faces when they taste my food. This moves me to want to cook more. Plus, it’s nutritious. Think about what you are putting into your system right now. We need to eat healthy. We are what we eat. I anticipate cooking healthy food, so I cook my food to eat rather than eating outside.
If you were to choose a dish that reflects or exemplifies the personality of Trinidad and Tobago which would it be and why?
I would cook dasheen and saltfish. Here’s why. The dasheen shows the earth, where we come from as a people. The crops are what we used in Africa before we came here. So, I find it symbolizes us. Now, in the saltfish you will see the diverse colors. You’d see the pimentos, the sweet peppers and different colored onions. This shows a mixture, a collaboration of diverse cultures in one dish. I think this would reflect our country.
How do you see the relationship between food and culture on the island?
Our island is culturally diverse. We tend to originate certain food types with certain cultures. For example, roti comes from Indian culture as black-eye peas pelau with pigtail is attributed to African cultures. We have oil down, which is breadfruit, potato, green fig and any provisions (meats) you want to add into it with coconut milk. Some people use smoke bone, pigtail, or saltfish. Some don’t use meat at all. You let the breadfruit and coconut steam down. It’s a real irie pot; a lick your finger pot. To me that’s a real nice diverse menu.
I hear you’ve been experimenting with your personal dietary plan. What have you been eating lately or not eating?
Presently, I’m on a fast. You caught me at a bad time because I just ate a piece of fish. So, I actually broke my fast to eat some fried fish my mom prepared for me. Originally, I was fasting from alcohol and meat, including eggs. We, as a people, need to fast. We need to watch what we are putting into our bodies, our stomach content. Right now we are getting a lot foreign based foods. It’s not fresh; it’s not good. Most of it has been stored for real long. We are getting it here and we are using it. I don’t think it is very wise for us to being buying stuff just to be eating. We need to take into account what we’re putting into our stomach. I prefer to cook because then you’re sure what you’re cooking. You have some cultures who serve their meats medium rare. We down here don’t know anything about that. We know about cook, well done, overdone and bun (burnt). We don’t know about when it’s cut, it’s still moving and still red inside. We don’t know about those colors. When we see it running red, we don’t even want to taste it. So, you have to be careful what you’re taking in. Plus, you have to consider the pathogens and sicknesses associated with cooking meats medium rare. It’s really not that healthy. I personally don’t want to go into those fancy named restaurants to eat. I don’t want to be a critic to anyone’s livelihood. I just don’t eat raw things.
It’s common for us to hear friends going on diets to lose weight or as I like to say, “getting my life together.” However, a part from loved ones, Jethro Greene, the chief coordinator of the Caribbean Agricultural Farmers Network, explained that 60% of the diseases which Caribbean people die from are preventable and are caused by unhealthy eating habits, much like the ones you just mentioned, and the consumption of processed foods or perhaps uncooked meats. He went on to identify white rice, white sugar and white flour as the main killers. After hearing that, me personally, I’m thinking what am I going to eat with my curry goat or how am I going prepare my dumpling for my ackee and saltfish? Does it really have to be wheat dumpling because I really don’t like that. So help me understand. Truthfully, in your mind what would this look like if as a country, Trinidad and Tobago started to encourage more healthy eating habits, meaning less doubles and bake but more yam and dasheen bush?
Well, that’s a big question. First, I want to start with the flour, sugar and the rice. They sound like the police in foreign. They really are the killers. But on a serious note, we have to start encouraging people to eat more healthy because we have a lot of lifestyle disorders in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s what you would call a feeding ground for pharmaceuticals because a lot of people are just putting junk into their stomachs, so they are suffering with diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, heart failure and kidney failure. All of this is a result of what they are eating. The government needs to be more cognizant to wisening up the general public as what is healthy foods rather than having these large markets of fast foods, Chinese foods and fried foods all over the place. I mean you can eat everything, but in rations. However, people have a tendency to make this their alternative food rather than looking for something healthy to eat. And it happens on a daily basis. We need to watch what we are eating and the government can do that by showing you the benefits of eating healthy and how it effects you. For example, they should show you how putting in too much starches in your diet effects you oppose to having more veggies, greens and herbs. We need to watch the sugars and dietary fats and all that we consume.
In order to do that we need to be aware. The government can use their hand to alert the general public on what food has in it and how our bodies will react when we eat it. I remember when I saw this Honduran guy, Dr. Sebi. He’s well known for his knowledge of food, how it effects your body and its importance. We have good food in Trinidad; we’re just preparing it wrong. We cook our vegetables until they have no life in them. Vegetables must have a little bit of life in them when you bite them. There should be a burst of freshness, a crunch. We also like to peel off the skin of many ingredients that we use. We could just wash it throughly and use it with the skin to get some of the strength and the substance. There are many medicinal purposes in the foods we eat. If we use them properly, they can be more beneficial to us. The government can make more global health programs available on the radio and television, so people can see how eating healthy is more beneficial for them. They can learn how it improves how they sleep and energizes their bodies. They will no longer need to run to holistic shops to get the waste out of their stomachs or even worse have doctors cut out their fat because they will have a more healthy diet. We just need to think. We don’t need anyone us telling us what we are doing is wrong. We know what we’re doing is wrong when we’re gulping down sugar and junk. Sometimes when you eat a piece of chocolate or suck on a mint, your teeth start to hurt you. Obviously, that’s telling you something: this is not good for me. Eat these things in rations; don’t try to over do it. That’s my take on what I would like to see in our country moving forward.
The government encourages us to plant, go green and use the farmer’s market. Now, if that’s the case, show us the benefits of eating healthy. So you’re not forcing us to buy in the market. People will just want to buy in the market because it’s a more suitable means to get by. You can get two full market bags for your $100 dollars (TTD) compared to what can be bought at a grocery. That’s how we view the market. It’s a cheaper buy. We’re not thinking of the market as a healthier place to buy food. People are buying pigeon peas in a can rather than buying the dry pigeon peas. People are looking to buy all different types of processed foods in the grocery rather than going to the market to buy fresh carrots. Instead, they will buy baby carrots in the can. So, we are putting ourselves through this. Sometimes we can be lazy. They’re even looking for eggs in cans but not in the shells.
So, you’ve been working hard all day and you come home to make corned beef and rice. There are ways you can make simple foods like that healthy. You can mix in peas and carrots. Of course then we’re back to the peas and carrots people buy in cans, which of course are substitutes if you don’t have the real thing. But, you can even use corn or celery stocks to make it more interesting and to liven it up a bit. You can do all of this, so it’s not just corned beef and rice.
I can agree that education and awareness would be the key to people wanting eat healthier not just because its necessarily cheaper or more convenient if a market is closer to home. So, when we think about the 10 years and Trinidad and Tobago’s food culture and consumption, do you think people will start having their own herbal gardens and small farms like yours in your backyard or will food stalls start offering healthier options? Do you think there will be less street food on the street or will roti be made with wheat flour instead? Do you think things will change in the next 10 years or will we need more time?
Well, I always like to be optimistic, but for this question I will need to choose my words wisely because I don’t see us going back to healthy eating anytime soon. I remember when fast food was roti. Now, there are several Chinese food restaurants. You can find about 16 on one street. So it’s easily available and cost efficient. For $20 dollars (TTD) you’re getting rice, chicken and chow mein. There’s only certain people who like roti. Roti used to be a thing. We would could eat it everyday because that’s what we had. Now there’s KFC, but roti has more substance, even compared to Chinese food. I don’t want to discriminate against Chinese food, but I don’t see us moving forward in eating healthy. We are actually going backwards. I can see that before there were only five roti shops on the road, but now there are 16 Chinese food shops. What will happen in the next 10 years? There’s fast food all over the place. They have the chicken legs and thighs coming in from foreign countries in cases. It’s hard to find a chicken breast on a counter. Do chickens still have breasts? They are just fooling you with the fast food and foreign meats.
I don’t think Trinidad aims to go green anytime soon. I could see us having a lot more markets closer to home not just in the boroughs. We can have more food fairs. People can be innovative. They can show their neighbors, friends and other communities how to prepare dishes. Right in Trinidad there are a variety of menus that can all be prepared differently. You just need to mingle with other people. Recently, I had the benefit of being around a culture of people and watching how they prepared food. We just need to reach out. We can do a food fair in Grande. You do them in the communities: Toco, San Souci, Matelot, Valencia, Grande and Arima. In these food fairs we can learn how to cook an oil down Toco style.
I like the idea of putting it on the community to educate within instead of waiting on a government that may be tempted to overpopulate the country with processed foods.
I remember a time when I took trip to see a friend in Erin. There was roast fish. As the fish came out the sea, they put it on top of a galvanize and lit a fire underneath it. They left the guts in the fish. They sit there with a bowl of pepper sauce, lime and salt alone. As you flip the fish for the next side to cook, you start eating it from the top, carefully cutting to avoid the guts. It’s the sweetest fish you could ever eat in your life. I never knew about that. Now, when we’re roasting fish, we don’t want to clean it. We just scale it and take a galvanize. While we have other people who gut fish, stuff the inside and wrap it with foil. We can learn a lot from mingling with other people. Toboggans have ways to prepare dishes too. We can employ them over here to show us. Consider crab and callaloo. Everyone has there way of cooking the dish. Some people like adding dumpling, while others cook it all together in a pot like an oil down. Some people separate it or fry, boil and even stew the dumpling. This shows us that there are different ways of getting something done.
For the second part of the question, we don’t really have a lot of people who have their own backyard garden or farm. I personally raise my own chickens and rabbits. I also have my own garden for my food crops. There are several people who have the same thing on a smaller scale. Of course we can’t get away from the chemicals. We still need to spray to protect the crops from pests. To me, it’s still better to eat my vegetables that I spray with a little poison oppose to eating canned food with preservatives. If that food can stay in the can for two to three years, how will it sit in your belly? Those peas might come right back out whole. Just the other day, I had rice and curried egg. I didn’t even know you could curry eggs. You fry it first and then curry it.
Sounds like we have work to do. Let’s plan a food fair.
I’d like to see a food fair. We can start one right here in our area and bring in people from different communities to see and show us what they going. We could even have a trophy too. We wouldn’t award it to the best dish. Instead the trophy goes to the most innovative dish. Just the other day I learned how you can fry the flowers from a fig.
Well, thank you so much. This was awesome. You shared a lot of great points on how we can change our food culture here and abroad. I think a lot of what you said is transferable to a lot of places.
I feel we need to take a serious move to improve on the things that we eat and how they effect our life. I can’t wait until a food fair. I’m opening my appetite now.
Music and Culture: An Interview with Keon Jeffery
Please note the following is not a replica of the work; rather, it’s a brief summary of the questions and responses in the interview.
How old were you when you first started listening to music. When did you first feel connected? In other words, how did you meet?
I started listening and playing at the age of about 5 years old. I started learning how to play the piano. Through that, I started to listen to classical music of course because that would have been the way you started learning how to play the piano. You listen to classical, Beethoven, Chopin and all these different little [composers] my music teacher would have exposed us to from early. So, we had a sense of where we were trying to reach and obtain. My parents are not musical, so I didn’t learn from that way. You know like when you inherit some sort of trait from you parents? My siblings and I went to a music school called Pan Pipers Music School. There is where we had our music learning and understanding.
Did you learn how to play another instrument after the piano or did you stick with the piano from 5 years old until now?
Well, now I pay quiet a few instruments. I think from the training I got then, I was able to almost pick up anything and play it. I can play the trumpet, the guitar, the bass and whole range of different instruments.
Many creatives have interesting ways in which their crafts find them. Do you remember what drew you to music? How did you know this was it, music was your passion?
Every time that I play an instrument, am involved or even listen to music, I find that inner peace. Some people are drawn towards walks or some people are drawn to going to the beach, different things. How I knew this was it for me was when I listen to it takes me to somewhere of tranquility. I knew this was my space. This is the period in which I get clear minded.
It sounds like music helps you find your peace.
Yes, most definitely.
Can you describe to me the relationship between music and the culture here on the island?
Very impactful in terms of integration because we are a multicultural nation where we have descendants from India to Africa to Spanish heritage. There is a lot of variant in terms of what you get in relation to culture and music. So definitely it is more a jambalaya because it’s all influential. Even now our up to date music is all influenced by these different cultures that came to Trinidad.
Would you say all those cultures combine to make one sound, or do you find that separate sounds exist?
It definitely combines. We can look at a musician called Ras Shorty I. He was the first person who came up with soca. Soca is a fusion of Indian music, beats and rhythms mixed with African. So, they have a fusion that created soca and out came this result. They definitely meshed with one another to create the sound that we have today.
We hear the older generation complain a lot about lyrics. Do you think the lyrics and messages of a song can influence the psyche of a generation? What exactly is an artist’s moral responsibility?
Yes, I do think the lyrical content of songs that we make can impact and generally do impact children or anybody. But, in terms of now compared to previous years, it is the same thing that is being done. It’s just a different lingo. If you look at past songs and you listen to it now, you would interrupt it as wow this is exactly what he or she was trying to say. Then you would think, wow that’s a little bit lewd. But, it’s how the lyricist of that time would have crafted it in a way to not bring it across as raw as it is today. The problem we have now is that it’s unbearably very raw.
Right a lot of lyrics are very vulgar, especially in our region of the world.
Yes, even when you look at previous music, younger kids didn’t have the understanding to interrupt what was being said then, but when you take a look at now, it’s straight cat out of the bag. Exactly what is being said is exactly what is meant. It definitely does have an impact because if you look at the schools today, you hear the kids singing it, you hear the kids reacting to it, you hear the kids being able to interrupt it and regurgitate it in the proper context.
And if not, they have so many mediums that they can use to find out the correct context.
Yes, definitely. YouTube is available and there’s even censorship during the day on the radio. Just a couple weeks ago, I was having a conversation with somebody who was saying that in the listening hours of radio, the music should be so censored that what is being played should be at a level of decency for children to understand. We’re talking about the hours between commute to school (7 a.m. to possibly 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.). That space of music being played is definitely decent to the ears of children. Now afterwards, when you’re in bed, wining down, during the evening shift, is when you can get into the adult programming of music. Adults will be able to listen to what they choose to listen to.
I can see how it is super important to protect the ears of our children; however, the rawness of our lyrics are not always, for example, sexual sometimes they are very violent and violent lyrics can also impact an adult. So, again, what do you think is the moral responsibility of an artist? Do artists need to start censoring their lyrics as they create or is that too far?
You definitely don’t want to hamper creativity. It is a tricky thing to deal with because you start to say, look listen you need to move away from what you’re doing now and move towards something more positive. Could it be the artist is now reflecting on what they see or experience? Is it them who need to change or society that needs to change? An artist will only write or express what they are experiencing.
Right, or what they see. A lot of these violent lyrics are a reflection of what these artists are living or what they are seeing. So if we’re not going to change society, like you said, we can't expect people to censor the rawness of their lives.
If somebody is experiencing something uplifting or positive things in the environment, of course they’ll regurgitate those things as do children. That is something that relies on change in general. But, they also need to make an effort.
To be conscious of the impact.
Definitely because at the end of the day, some of the creators or artists necessary don’t live what they speak about, but because of trend and popularity, they tend to go down that road. If somebody has a hit song about murder, sexual interaction or drugs and that’s what’s hot, you’ll have guys singing and rapping about shooting a guy and they have never done it. But, that is what’s popular. I think they need to look at a different approach because not only negative stuff impact, positive stuff really do a great job of impacting people. I think they do need to censor a lot of their music and cater for those who want positivity in their lives. That is a market.
Right and that doesn’t always mean censoring or muting your truth. You can share your truth in positive ways even if it is a very harsh raw story. How does your music reveal the cultural climate in Trinidad and Tobago? Do you mostly record personal testimonies or do you find your music also reflects the voices of the people?
I do a bit of both. Because I do production now, I meet a lot of artists. There are those who experience the negative things and come in to write and produce music that is out of that. I recently did an album for a jazz artist. The entire album was filled with positivity because that’s what she is experiencing. As a musician, if you are dealing with artists who come in with their emotions, you have to take the journey with them. If someone comes in with something happy, what you play and produce has to be in that frame of mind. If they come with something sad, you have to get into that being with that person. I definitely contribute to all aspects. In Trinidad, like I was saying, we have various genres of music because of all the influences we have. You find R&B, gospel, pop, contemporary music, soca and calypso. While each genre will have both negative and positive influences, you don’t know which may come with which genre. You might think pop is normally happy, but some pop songs are sad.
There are sad stories. People live sad lives sometimes. We have sad seasons and we have happy ones as well. When we find artists who are truly connected to their sound, we’re going to hear all aspects of them not just one. We mentioned this before actually. I heard you say there are positive aspects to the influences of music. The next question touches on this. Can music promote positive changes in a community? What role should music play in shaping a culture? Does this solely rely on the musicians and producers or do listeners also have to take a stand?
It’s almost like marrying two or three things. The musicians and producers have to be influenced by positive things. People react on what they receive. If you only put out negative material, that’s the reflection you’re going to get for sure. Listeners are the most important aspect because without them, you’re not going to make it anywhere. There is a market for positivity. Those who condone all the violence and negative things will always be there because that is them. That’s their being. The real truth is if you’re a musician and you put out positive music or you’re the same artist who was doing negative material, but made a change to positive content, those who were negative in that realm might move also. They’ll think if he can be positive, I can take that stance as well. But, society can say we are not appreciating this because what you’re giving out is affecting me, my kids and society. Because you have a hit song about shoot up the place, kids around the place are shooting. But if you say you’re going to be an uplifting person in the society and your song is about taking a stance against violence, it can impact society in a way that says we appreciate this, we can add to your story or take a lesson from what you’re giving.
I completely agree. I think as people we are attracted to things that remind us of ourselves or help us explain our emotions better. Like you said, communities who see more violence are going to be attracted to songs that tell that story because that story is their reality. But, musicians and producers have the power to change that story. You can still have the song about the guns and drugs because it exists in certain communities.
You can still have the negative drugs and guns, but there’s a necessity for evolution.
Don’t forget that part. If you’re going to highlight the reality of the situation, what do you want the future to look like? So as musicians and artists, I think it is very important to not just reflect the present, but also be the voice of tomorrow. Although we see all this violence now and we can touch people there because that’s where we are, we don’t want to stay here.
Definitely want to move towards something better in life.
So thinking about the future, do you have any advice for young or struggling musicians?
Stay positive. Know that in anything bad always comes something good and there are lessons to learn from it. If you’re a struggling musician, don’t give up. Just like you, there are others struggling who don’t. There are those who have struggled and have made it. Don’t give up. Keep practicing. Keep developing your craft and certainly out will come some positivity.
Keon, thank you so much for taking out the time to talk today. I really do appreciate it.
It’s not a problem. I enjoyed it.
The heartbeats and rhythms of a people live in the
music. The sounds we create with our bodies, voices and instruments move us. They record our stories and heal our spirits, encouraging us to express and embrace. There’s no doubt that the lyrics of an island can reveal the essence of its people. Through song we share and learn the vibrations of each other. Here with me today is Keon Jeffery, a local musician, to discuss the impact of music on the culture and how he feels it can be used to promote positive changes in the community.
Preserving Our Mother Tongue: An Interview with Lee Hernandez and Sasha Jimenez
Multilingual homes buzz with the sounds
of untranslatable laughter and uniquely
pronounced humor. As if the walls invite
the exploration and discovery of language,
the conversations that live in these linguistic
rooms encourage the development of
cross-cultural communication. The young
minds who evolve in these environments
learn and absorb through intimate
interactions the connection between
language and culture. Our mother tongues,
despite our places of birth, not only connect us to home, but also help us translate the world around us. Here with me tonight to share their experiences with language and family culture is Lee Hernandez, a mother, aunt, sister and daughter, and her niece Sasha Jimenez who both use several accents to express and reinvent their wisdom.
Who taught you your first language and what was it?
Lee: My mother and it was Spanish.
Do you remember how old you were?
Lee: Thinking back, I remember I was 2 years old.
Did you learn any other languages as a child? If so, under what circumstance?
Lee: No, I didn’t. All I knew was Spanish.
How old were you when you learned your second language?
Lee: Probably around the age of 6 or 5 when I was in kindergarden. I learned in school because all my mom speaks is Spanish, so that’s what we spoke at home.
Joining us now is Sasha Jimenez, Lee’s niece, to chime in and add some of her thoughts for the next few questions.
Babies start to respond to language around 8 months. This is when they begin to understand simple commands. By 13 to 18 months, toddlers can comprehend the use of words though they might not be able to repeat certain requests. Now, I’m not asking you both to remember back to your toddler days, but because you were both exposed to two languages by school age, do you have any memory of when you realized you could communicate in two languages? When did you realize not everyone else is bilingual?
Lee: When did I realize? Okay, I think I was about 6. I had a lot of African American friends and all they spoke was English. It was around that time I learned a lot of English because of them. They taught me how to speak English, all of my neighborhood friends.
Do you remember how that happened? Did you perhaps try to speak Spanish to them at first and they didn’t understand you?
Lee: Yes! I would speak Spanish to them a lot and they would correct me. They would. I would say words. I had an older sister, so she would correct me too. But, all of my friends were African American and only spoke English, so I had to really learn English because of my friends.
Sasha: My first language is English, but for me it was going to Puerto Rico at a very young age. I understood Spanish, but I didn’t really speak it when I was living in New York. When we decided to move there [Puerto Rico] and I started school around 11 is when I had to use Spanish. That’s when I realized I’m bilingual. I feel like I always had Spanish in me. I just wasn’t actually speaking and practicing it, but I would always hear it because of my dad. When I got to Puerto Rico is when I realized not a lot of people have the fortune to speak both languages, Spanish and English, like me. Moving there had a big impact on my life when it comes to speaking Spanish. That’s when I realized I was bilingual.
Growing up did you choose when to speak a particular language or was communicating in Spanish an expectation or necessity at home?
Lee: It was a necessity at home because my mom didn’t speak the language and my step-dad didn’t speak English very well. She had little words here and there, but we had to speak Spanish at home all the time. The only time I spoke English was in school, in class and with my friends.
Now that you’re fluent in both Spanish and English do you appreciate both the same or can you describe to me the role each plays in your life now?
Lee: I appreciate both. I have a lot of thoughts going in my head. I was actually, while growing up, sometimes embarrassed that I knew how to speak Spanish.
Lee: I don’t know. It’s just stupid things when you grow up and the people you’re around. I totally appreciate it now, especially when I go to my island. Just to speak Spanish is amazing.
So, it’s more than just communicating for you. What else does it symbolize for you?
Lee: I’m proud of speaking two languages. Spanish makes me feel at home when I speak it. It enables me to translate for others. It’s a privilege to speak Spanish. I’m happy. I’m proud of being a Latina and knowing both languages.
Good. I think that’s awesome. I am aware that most New York schools offer Spanish as a foreign language class. However, introducing a mother tongue as “foreign” to a new speaker who is of that ethnic background might be confusing. How do you pass Spanish down to your children?
Lee: This is bad of me because I don’t. That’s something I don’t do and have to work on because all three of my children do not speak the language. They don’t speak Spanish. Myles doesn’t speak Spanish. Tessa doesn’t speak Spanish. My son doesn’t speak Spanish. That’s horrible.
Do they understand?
Lee: My oldest son does, but Myles and Tessa don’t. It’s because I am so used to speaking one language. Growing up, their father spoke English. I spoke English all the time, so I didn’t pass it down to them and that is something I do regret.
I don’t think it’s too late to pass it down.
Lee: It’s just a little bit harder because when I speak to Tessa, I try to help her speak Spanish or I correct her. I feel like it’s a bit harder. They don’t get it. It’s easier when they’re smaller and younger. They absorb it better; they learn it. It’s easier for them to learn.
Do you feel that it’s more important for them to learn from the family despite the availability in the classroom?
Lee: It is important for them to learn from their families.
What role do you want Spanish to play in the lives of your children, seeing that you did start out a bit late passing it down to them?
Lee: I want them to know that’s important for them to know both languages because I want them to know the history of Spanish and speaking Spanish. Yes, I would like them to learn from their family.
What role do you think Spanish should play in the lives of the next generation of your family?
Sasha: I would love for the next generation of my family to know more Spanish because it is who we are. Growing up, my father spoke Spanish to me full time and my mom spoke English. I had that in me. Speaking Spanish is the way I communicate with my father. It’s who I am. I think that the next generation should also be aware of where they come from, who we are and our culture.
I agree. I think that would be beautiful. Do you have advice for young parents raising multilingual children? What are some values about communication that you can pass along?
Lee: Teach them when they’re young. Speak to them in Spanish once they start trying to say their first words because they will learn English in school and will have it around them.
Sasha: In general, they should learn the language their family speaks. Don’t force it. Let them learn it naturally.
Lee: When you learn at a young age it comes naturally.
Ladies, thank you so much for sharing. I know for a fact that all of what you said will encourage families to continue teaching their children to speak their mother tongues.
Working Abroad to Serve Home: An Interview with Lucia Alcántara
How old were you when you first started working? What was your job? Why did you get the job?
I’ve been woking since I was 14 years old. For my first job, I worked in the school office. It was a little part-time job. I would go to the school office for one or two periods. I would help them with filing and whatever needed to be done in the office that day.
Now connect this new responsibility to your family values. Was this expected or respected? Why did your parents want you to work?
Well, my parents weren’t expecting me to work; however, I could see in my house that everybody went to school and worked as soon as they could because we had to just to pay our bills. I knew that if I bought my own clothes that would be a burden off my mom. So, it wasn’t expected, but they weren’t surprised.
It sounds like it was more respected.
Yes, definitely respected most definitely.
Great. Let’s fast forward to now. Can you explain what you do for work and how your position still exemplifies that ideology of work that you have, which is that it is respected?
So what I do for work with Buena Idea, which translates to good idea, is I am working to teach young children the values I respect so much. I teach them to be social entrepreneurs. Being a social entrepreneur means that you see a problem in society and you come up with a solution to solve it while at the same time you earn a decent living wage. My work with Futures Today Consulting is that I help organizations improve their performance through staff development, training and strategic planning. I work with those that have the greatest needs. Again, those are the same values I grew up with, which are helping people and making the world a better place to live.
You do such beautiful work Lucia. Now, moving on to our next question: How does identity and duty influence your work? Do you enjoy having a position that can challenge your cultural ties to your island?
Well, I feel a responsibility to give back to the Dominican Republic because that’s where I was born. I see the tremendous need that is there on the island. It is expected that I am going to give back. As they say, charity begins at home.
That is so true. I completely agree. Now, I know you do your work out of love, responsibility and identity. I can only imagine then how this can in return impact the way you view your cultural ties to the island, especially if that is ongoing and changing. Right?
Yes, it definitely strengthens my ties because every time I come to the Dominican Republic and I work with the kids, my pride is stronger and my ties to the island grow deeper because I’m planning for the island’s future. I’m working with children and children are our future.
Your story reminds me so much of the fundamental value of work and providing for family often found in Caribbean cultures and American immigrant family value systems. A 2014 study conducted by the World Bank Group found that American immigrants sent $583 billion back to their home countries that year and of that amount $440 billion went to developing countries. To just bring these numbers home, DR received $3.5 billion that year as Jamaica received $1.6 billion. For me, I see pride and honor in those numbers. How does your position encourage this give back attitude?
One of the values we teach children is to look around them and see what needs to be done and to look around them to see what they have as a resource. So, we need to start building on what we have. There’s an old African American saying that says, “You make a way out of no way.” It comes all the way up from slavery times. Make way with what you have. That inspires ingenuity and creativity, and motivates. I have to tell you, nothing is as satisfying than the work I do with the Dominican Republic children. That fills my heart. That keeps me full all year. It just perks me up. That’s the fuel I run on for the rest of the year.
That’s amazing. Well, it’s no secret that our identities evolve like I mentioned before. So, because your work weaves with your cultural identity, do you see these aspects evolving together or do you find that they may entice or hinder your growth in either aspect?
I grow tremendously because I get to reflect upon myself and my way of being in contrast to what my culture might demand. Sometimes those things come in conflict because often I will find pushback. I will get pushback from particularly patriarchal individuals, particularly men, who think perhaps it’s not a woman’s place to be doing the work. Mind you these individuals are not willing to take up the mantle and do the work themselves, but they do feel some which kind of way about woman working, which I still can’t figure out. That’s not my problem.
Do you have any advice for the millions of people around the world who work abroad to serve their homes?
Follow your heart. It’s the only thing that speaks truth to us. It’s your heart. Those of us who are privileged and live in dual cities, we have a responsibility to give back. Don’t ever let anything dampen your passion for service.
Beautifully said Lucia. Thank you so much for taking out the time to speak with me this morning.
You’re welcome. Thank you Ayesha.
Caribbean culture calls us to surrender to the needs and growth of our families. As children, we learn these responsibilities in small ways, but we never truly graduate from our roles as providers. From our little region of the world, many of us try to find better ways to fulfill our family duties. We leave. We explore. We cultivate. Yet those of us who dare to go, tend to discover incredible methods to stay connected to home. Whether we send barrels, wire transfers, our children or sometimes ourselves, as a people we believe we are working abroad to serve home. This connection between identity and profession can be tricky. Learning how to balance and translate cultures while adjusting to new environments is not an easy task. Here with me today to share her experience as a daughter of the Caribbean who works abroad to serve her island is Lucia Alcántara, the founder of Buena Idea and the president of Futures Today Consulting.