In 1967 my father took me to Gran Curucaye. There I was introduced to my first panyol friend, Felicidad Guerra, a small wiry, brown woman, probably in her early sixties, with tightly curled greying hair. She looked at my father and me enquiringly as we alighted from our car. ‘Buenos días,’ I heard my father say cheerfully behind me. ‘Buenos días, señora.’ I imitated him at once. ‘Buen día,’ she acknowledged with a smile. I explained why we had gone to see her that morning. She said it was all right to come in and talk to her. Soon Felicidad invited one of her panyol neighbours, Matilde de Freitas, to join us. We moved across to the tiny house of the large Guerra family.

As Felicidad chatted with us and addressed her children and grandchildren I noted how the language shifted across the generations from Spanish to English. There was ambivalence towards the function and usefulness of Spanish, and a tendency to belittle the local Spanish dialect. I observed, too, the non-Creole nature of the language and the two women’s pride of their “Spanish” heritage. There was nostalgia for a Hispanic past epitomised in the life spent in the Caura valley, and I recognised the Venezuelan-Trinidadian origins of the local Spanish speaking people. I was determined to learn more about these friendly, hospitable ‘panyols’.

My questions about life on the cacao estates at the turn of the twentieth century were answered with enthusiasm. The two women laughed about different situations they now recalled with pleasure. They remembered different types of music, especially the joropo and guarapo. Felicidad seemed to have a penchant for a dance she called la guacharaca.

They had both given birth at an early age and raised large families. They agreed that in those days it was normal for women to have ten, fifteen and even twenty children. However, there was also a high rate of infant mortality. A considerable number of women’s childbearing years were spent in confinement and in rearing their offspring. Women also worked in the family conuco. They performed specific tasks on the estate: gathering and heaping the cacao, breaking pods and extracting the beans, placing them in baskets or boxes, and transporting them to the fermentation buildings.

Here are two joropo quatrains familiar to Felicidad and her neighbour Matilde.

De arriba abajo vengo               From up there I come down
Navegando en un tablón              Sailing on a plank
Solo para venirte a ver             Just to come to see you
Prenda de mi corazón.               My heart’s treasure.
Si tú quieres que te cuente         If you want me to count
Los deditos de los pies             The toes on your feet
Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco,      One, two, three, four, five,
Seis, siete, ocho, nueve y diez.    Six, seven, eight, nine and ten.

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