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New Immigrant Groups

The first wave of Shell-related immigrants was a group of temporary Dutch workers who built the oil storage tanks. They stayed in small boarding houses in town. Of a lower social class than the traditional Dutch elite, they were regarded by the locals as crude, crass, loud drunkards, in marked contrast to the traditional stereotype of the Dutch as reserved and sophisticated. They were derogatorily referred to as "pletters" by locals, in reference to the name of the Dutch company which employed them. They did not mix either with the high Dutch or with the common people.

Once the refinery began to operate, the small local population could not possibly meet its labor needs. (Some of the first local laborers at the refinery were sometimes absent during the rainy season to tend their small parcels of land.) Shell brough in skilled and semi-skilled immigrants by the boatload from Venezuela, the British West Indies, the Dominican Republic and the French and American islands of the Caribbean. Curaçao was suddenly seen as a land of opportunity for working men from around the region. The decade between 1920 and 1930 was a peak period for immigration; the number of Antillean workers at the refinery decreased as the number of foreigners increased. The population of the island swelled from about 35,000 in 1924 to over 50,000 a decade later and continued rising thereafter (see Table 3).

Equally important, the composition of the population also changed dramatically. While in the early years of the century the basic social hierarchy had been essentially the same as it had been for the previous three hundred years, now dozens of new nationalities arrived on the scene, indelibly altering the entire national character.[6] The percentage of first generation immigrants rose from 4% of the local population in 1915 to 15% in 1930,[7] reaching 25% by 1960.[8]

Since most of these immigrants were male, there was extensive contact and intermarriage with local women, although some immigrants later brought their families from home. Although themselves of humble origins, many immigrants were slightly better off economically than many of the very poor locals. The Surinamese in particular, who spoke Dutch, quickly rose to higher management positions. Immigrants from the British islands, who came from a rich history of trade unionism, were vocal defenders of workers' rights, a concept that locals had little experience with. They, along with the Surinamese, played an important role in developing Curaçao's trade union movement. Female immigrants from the British islands worked as maids. A few immigrants from the British islands worked at the phosphate mines.

In 1929 a group of Portuguese immigrants were brought from the island of Madeira to work at the refinery; they branched out into other areas and soon earned a reputation for hard work. At one point the refinery employed 2563 Portuguese, as well as several hundred each Surinamese, Venezuelans and British West Indians. The Portuguese ice cream vendor, pushing his cart and ringing a small bell as he shouted out the types of frozen confections he had for sale that day, quickly became a beloved sight for local children. The streets were also filled with Portuguese fruit peddlers, street sweepers and construction workers. In the countryside, the Portuguese tried their hands at planting small plots of fruits and vegetables; unlike so many other immigrant groups, they persisted and even thrived in agriculture. Soon, the majority of fruit stands and even town market stalls were owned and operated by Portuguese. As they prospered, some of these eventually became larger stores and then full fledged supermarkets.

In contrast to the workers, the high level Dutch employees who were brought over to run the refinery lived in separate, closed off communities built by Shell outside the city (the neighborhoods of Emmastad and Julianadorp) and had relatively little contact with or direct influence on locals. Other Dutch emigrants staffed the growing government bureaucracy. There was some resentment on the part of locals of the many new Dutch immigrants who now filled most of the high level government positions.

After the establishment of Shell there was also a resurgence of merchant immigrants. Attracted by the island's sudden prosperity in the 1920s and 30s, they dedicated themselves to small scale trade aimed at the local population. They included Ashkenazi Jews (many fleeing oppression in Europe in the 1920s and 30s), Syrians, Lebanese, Indians and Chinese. Some, such as the Lebanese and Catholic Syrians, had more social contact with locals. Others, such as the Chinese, Indians, and Ashkenazi Jews, kept more to themselves in tight ethnic groups. The many immigrants from the Middle East, primarily Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, were collectively called Arabs by locals. The Lebanese often sought marriage partners from their own communities in neighboring Latin America.

In time, many of these new merchants prospered, competing with the few existing stores in Willemstad that catered to locals; eventually, some of the new stores even drove established ones out of business. However, because their owners were not part of the merchant elite they had no political power. Some immigrants, such as the Chinese (many of whom were originally brought by Shell to work in the shipping sector), opened small businesses such as restaurants and cleaning establishments in humble neighborhoods where local blacks had traditionally dominated commerce.

The first Ashkenazi Jews to arrive on Curaçao were fleeing pogroms in Poland and Russia; later immigrants were escaping Nazi persecution. Like the small group of Ashkenazi immigrants who had arrived the previous century, they brought their own religious rituals and cultural traditions that were different from those of the Sephardic Jews; they were also from a lower social class than the island's established Jewish elite. Many worked initially as traveling peddlers; in time they set up small shops in Otrobanda and Punda, selling clothing and sundries to locals and expensive quality goods such as jewelry and perfume to the new cruise ship passengers who were now visiting the island in increasing numbers (see Chapter 11). Establishments such as the high class jewelry store Spritzer & Fuhrmann helped forge Curaçao's new international reputation for quality shopping.

The racial and ethnic composition of the island changed dramatically with the arrival of so many immigrants. Some of the Surinamese easily identified with the black Antillean majority, although they were not always warmly received by the locals. Other immigrant groups did not identify either with the blacks or with the white upper class. These workers of different ethnic backgrounds added a new dimension to the racial and class structure of the island. The separations between the different religions and races was often along class lines, and this was not much different from traditional Curaçao. On the whole, blacks were mostly Catholic (with the exception of the British West Indians, who were Protestant), workers and lower class. Employers were mostly Protestant, white and upper class. But in the middle was a growing new class, a kind of "lightbrown" zone, consisting of an ethnically diverse group of small scale, independently employed merchants.

Somehow, all these different groups lived together in relative harmony, creating a much richer and more complex society than traditional Curaçao had been. Immigrant children learned the local language, Papiamentu, and often intermarried with locals, and the second generation considered itself to be native. Nevertheless, immigrants were easily recognized and treated as foreigners by the local population. "Their visibility, owing to differences in outer appearances, language, and religion, in addition to the competition they represented for the Curaçaoans, led to the awakening of the already present, yet latent, xenophobia."[9]

The traditional social groups which had formed the backbone of Curaçaoan society - descendants of African slaves, Sephardic Jews and Dutch Protestants - distinguished themselves as "true" Curaçaoans as distinct from the immigrants. For perhaps the first time in the island's history these very diverse original groups, traditionally so separated from each other, discovered they had a common identity as "yu di Kòrsou" (children of Curaçao). Even a full generation later, the fully assimilated descendants of immigrants were often branded as outsiders by these so-called "yu di Kòrsou," who had only discovered own common identity after the arrival of these new groups.

Van Soest has compiled some of the stereotypes of the different ethnic groups which became commonplace among locals. Among the merchants, Sephardic Jews were "the traditional merchants of Curaçao;" Eastern Europeans (primarily Ashkenazi Jews) were "competitors and belief companions of the Sephardic Jews." Arabs were considered to be "honest, sober, hardworking and industrious," while "nobody feels threatened" by the small group of Indians. The Portuguese who worked in the retail trade were also "no threat to the merchants," and "hard workers."Among the workers at Shell, the Surinamese were considered to be "better workers than Curaçaoans;" the Venezuelans had "weak health, and unorganized behavior," but were "good people to work in the port," while the Colombians were not as well appreciated. The British West Indians were "people you can trust," although "troublemakers" when it came to labor strikes. The Chinese were considered to be "hard workers, willing to settle for less, work long days, and live simply."[10]

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