The Valley Over the Mountain: A Panyol Family Story
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
By Eve Hamel-Smith
The Black SUV
My aunt, Hyacinth, was shelling cocoa in her mother’s living room on a quiet afternoon in May 2020. She was interrupted by the blare of a car's horn. "That horn blowing here... That person was blowing that horn for very long,” Hyacinth realized, "Let me go and check and see."
Hyacinth saw a black SUV outside her mother's gate in Lopinot. The windows were dark, and
she could not see inside. She did not recognize the vehicle, so she approached it warily. A voice emanated from the SUV, "We're looking for Mrs. Hildred Guererro".
Hyacinth responded, "Well, maybe you could talk to me. Mrs. Hildred Guerrero is 85 years old and she's not going to come to her gate with you blowing the horn... You blowing that horn for so long, you have no respect, you can't come outside?"
Their windows were wound all the way up - she was talking to them through the glass. She
asked, “Can you wind it down a little bit, so I can talk to you?” There were four people in the
car. Hyacinth went past the gate and said, ‘Well, whatever it is you can give it to me.’"
The response: "You have to go around the car. You have to go around."
Hyacinth was fearful. She thought, "I don't know - like I might be walking to my death here
cause I don't know who it is and I don't know what it is they want." Hyacinth walked around the car. A lady on the other side explained, "You have to sign here for receiving this." Two
witnesses signed the document and recorded the time.
Hyacinth barely had a chance to read what was in front of her. She wondered to herself, "What is this? What it is I sign? Down towards the end [of the letter] it saying that you will be evicted in 90 days.” Hyacinth was in shock, “Wow boy, wow - what are we going to do?”
Hildred, my grandmother was very disturbed by this incident. The family is doing everything we can to help Hildred who has lived at the family home in Lopinot for over 60 years. The situation was particularly distressing because this was not the first time she had been told to leave her home. It was after this event that I realized I had never known what my grandmother lost when she left her childhood home seventy five years ago.
Evicted From Caura
Caura River (c) Tripadvisor.
You see, for as long as I can remember, my grandmother has lived in the Lopinot Valley. OnSundays, I remember running through her yard with my cousins, barreling through the trees,
careening down the hill and hiding under the canopies of christophene. Granny Hildred was the gatekeeper to that world of green, yelling, “Come back inside, it have scorpion.” She fit into that lush landscape as if she grew out of it herself. However, Granny was not from Lopinot originally.
Hildred was born in Tumbasson, a village in the ward of Caura over the mountain to the west of Lopinot. In 1943, Governor Sir Bede Clifford claimed the lands in the Caura valley to construct a 300-acre dam. The plan was to “provide more water than the country needed” (Chauharjasingh 54).
Hildred was only ten years old when she was evicted. My mother, Bianca, remembers how
Granny Hildred would tell the story over the years: She was just a child sitting on a bed, swinging her short legs, on a mattress that was made with fibre. It wasn't like what we have, the sponge mattresses. Grandpa Cyprian was telling my great granny "Cole, you hear the news? They want to build this dam. For them to build the dam we would have to move.” And she, it was Ma Cole saying, "But what we go do?" That kind of question. They are in awe and shock. Their whole life as they see it is going to change. It was ominous, a kind of foreboding. They would have to uproot and start all over somewhere else. And they had absolutely no idea where. (Hamel-Smith).
"We left Caura in 1945. It was October - though I can't remember the date," Leo Gomez
explains. Hildred Guerrero, my grandmother and her brother Leo Gomez, are two of the three persons still alive who were relocated to the Lopinot Settlement from Caura. Leo was 12 years old when the family left their home in Tumbasson but his memory is still razor-sharp 76 years later. I spoke to them with my mother about the destruction of the community in Caura. What was it like growing up in Caura - a town now mostly lost to history?
A Childhood in Caura
(c) Cocoa Republic
Hildred reflects on her childhood in Caura, "I does close my eyes and remember how many miles we’d walk. But I never walked barefoot.” Leo, her senior by two years, remembers differently. He would walk barefoot to school from Tumbasson valley over the mountain. The family lived in two buildings in Caura. There were six rooms between the two cocoa houses,
and one had a rolling cocoa roof. The house featured a drawing room, a living room, a dining room, three bedrooms and a fourth guest bedroom. Hildred remembers how fond her mother was of her furniture including a settee, a fine dining set with a large round table and the hand washing basin– was it made of marble? She wasn’t sure. The beds had canopies in those days.
You had to walk uphill to the latrine. In an outdoor kitchen, they would preserve meat in a
process known as buccaneering: skinning the deer, opening it, rubbing on ashes and hanging it to smoke and dry. The fire never went out. Her mother, Nicolassa, would simply carve out a portion when they were ready to eat. The meat from the lappe, a wild animal hunted as game, used to taste like pork when it was smoked for a long period of time.
During their childhood, Hildred and Leo lived with several family members in that house. Their parents, Cornelius Cyprian Ruiz and Nicolassa (Ma Cole) Guevara, their grandmother, Inocencia (Ma Ghany) Guevara (dec. early 1940s), their siblings, Cybil, Lucille and Sonny Boy, and their Uncle Emilio’s children: Tina, Dorothy, Cecil and Lawrence.
The way Leo tells the story: if a man was working for a cent a day on one estate, he might start a family there. If an estate in another valley started paying a cent and a half a day, he would move to that estate and eventually start another family there. “Meanwhile,” Hildred points out, “the mothers left behind struggled to take care of the children.” Their older siblings were raised in Santa Malta, another valley in Caura.
Great Grandpa Cyprian's parents were both from Venezuela, but Cyprian was born in 1899 in
Santa Malta. Like most men in the community, he learned to cultivate cocoa, hunt game and
grow small crops for his family. Leo recalls that there were also several shops and parlours in
the valley, including a shoemaker and a tailor. The largest village in Caura was called “Caura
Village” until it was renamed to “La Veronica Village” (“Caura”). This was after the La Veronica Roman Catholic Church was built in 1880 (Moodie-Kublalsingh 14). La Veronica Village also had a school, police station, post office, and a health centre. Hildred describes how they did not often have to travel out of the community. They would even celebrate Carnival there, far up in the mountains! Hildred conjures the image of her second cousin Mimin, leader of a Carnival band, standing tall, proud and waving a flag in front of the Carnival procession through Caura.
The Ward of Caura represents a sizable chunk of the Northern Range in Trinidad and contains several smaller valleys, villages and estates. Leo and Hildred count them for me: Tumbasson, La Veronica, Santa Malta, Concordia, Mamural, Manacal, Cachipal, Arcadia, Laguana, Guamal, and La Florida, among others. “Compared to Caura, Lopinot is very small,” Leo continues. “Lopinot is only one valley!”
Caura and Cocoa
For the cocoa panyols, Caura was the "Spanish homeland within British Trinidad” (Moodie-
Kublalsingh xii). During the cocoa boom, the population of Caura mushroomed. By 1871, it was one of the largest villages in Trinidad, with 989 inhabitants (“Caura”). As Bianca tells the tale - “All the people in Caura - the farmers, the peons, ... they planted up their property. At that time cocoa was king. That is how they used to say it. Cocoa was king and coffee also.”
Cocoa production was profitable on small lots of land. In comparison, Trinidad’s previous cash crop, sugar cane, required large areas for cultivation (Besson). Land owners would establish 7 year contracts with small farmers to grow cocoa trees. At the end of the contract, the owners would repossess the land and pay the farmers for each bearing cocoa tree (Bekele,4). The contract system even allowed some cocoa panyols to buy and sell land (Moodie-Kublalsingh 7).
(The Panyols are a Pardo (tri-racial) ethnic group in Trinidad and Tobago of mixed Spanish, South American Amerindian, Trinidadian and Tobagonian Amerindian, Afro-Latin American, and Afro-Trinidadian and Tobagonian descent.)
However, by the 1940s, the industry in Trinidad had diminished in response to changes in the
global market. The over-production of cocoa globally, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and a new cocoa-specific disease led to the decline (Bekele 4). Moodie-Kublalsingh suggests that the decline in the profitability of cocoa factored into the political decision to make Caura into a dam:
The discovery of this natural source of a much-needed water supply led to the creation
of the Caura River Reserve. After 1921 most of the cocoa estates in Caura were
populated with old unproductive trees... The erection of a dam was the colonial
government’s choice (Moodie-Kublalsingh 15).
The way Bianca understood the plan was that “the whole... village was just close to the river,
naturally where they got their water supply. People thought because of the shape of the valley, it would be the right place for a dam.”
The Caura Dam Scandal
Whatever the rationale however, the Caura dam project was never completed. When I asked
Leo why the dam was never built, he explains the curse set by Father Keane. The Irish priest
condemned the whole project declaring that "if the church was destroyed, the dam would
never be built." Leo sums it up: "So said, so done." He recollects that a man named Edwin
Peters had set the dynamite. Edwin must have caught some of the blight, Leo believed, because Edwin went blind a few years later. Bianca chimes in, "It was one set of bobol. I heard they hadn't done a proper assessment of the area. Caura has a lot of water, but I think there is also a fair bit of limestone." She adds, "Them scamps in the government take all the money and gone."
Several allegations of fraud involving several senior members of the government were levied in a 1950 Report on the Caura Dam Scheme (Moodie-Kublalsingh 220). A government statement in 1947 concluded that “expenses entirely unconnected with Caura had been charged to the Caura vote” (Moodie-Kublalsingh 220). It was the largest political scandal that the colonial government in Trinidad had faced up to this date. By the 1950s, the island had a new Governor, and the Caura dam project had been abandoned (“Caura”). In the meantime, the Caura residents were obliged to uproot their whole lives, and I can find no evidence that they had the right or ability to return to their homes.
Where did the People from Caura go?
To relocate the Caura residents, the state had purchased the La Reconnaissance Estate in the
neighbouring Lopinot Valley (Chauharjasingh 55). Hildred and Leo fill me in on their experience being relocated. The transition was far from seamless: the crown colony government expressed little concern for the well-being of the residents while the relocation was being arranged. Dispossessed of their homes, where did most of the Caura migrants go?
They moved all over Trinidad. Despite being 88 years old, Leo remembers a long list of
destinations. They went to Aripo, Maracas Valley, St John’s Road, Clever Woods, Santa Cruz,
Arima and San Rafael. His mother’s niece moved as far north as Toco, his maternal grandfather settled in Central Trinidad in Talparo, while his cousin ventured far south to Morne Diablo in Penal.
A Family Displaced
“People had nowhere to go. It was a real injustice to the people,” Hildred reflects. Leo agrees, “The people and them grieve.” Hildred remembers her mother packing some clothing and one of their beds into a truck at the end of Tumbasson road. They had to leave all of their other furniture behind.
This was the start of a long journey to a new home. The first stop would be at their Aunt
Florentine’s house by the El Dorado bridge. Hildred, Leo, their mother Ma Cole and their
siblings would stay there for over 6 months. Their older brother, Sonny Boy, went up to Morne La Croix in the mountains to work on an estate. He would send produce for the family on the now-defunct Trinidad General Railway (TGR) bus that came down from Blanchisseuse in the morning and went all the way to Paria. Leo would wait by the bridge to collect ground
provision, cush-cush and plantain. Cyprian also worked on the estate at Morne La Croix, but he spent a lot of time working on an estate further to the north-east in Toco as well.
After half a year or so, the family moved in with another aunt, Ma Jane, in Arouca. Leo recalls of the figs, pepper trees and sweet potatoes Ma Jane and her partner, Panat, grew at their house in Arouca. For a few months, Hildred and Leo attended the Anglican primary schools in the area as the Catholic school was full. They only stayed four months in Arouca with Ma Jane.
The next option for the family was to live with Aunty Evelyn in Morne La Croix but they did not have enough money for the bus. Hildred was only 11 years old when she walked with her
mother, Leo and baby Martin to the bus station in Arouca. There, Leo took Martin on the TGR bus to Morne La Croix. Hildred and Ma Cole would make the rest of the arduous journey on foot. They slept in Aunty Evelyn’s ‘guillen’, which is a Patois word for a kind of loft built on bamboo rafters right below the roof.
Settling in Lopinot
Count Lopinot's Estate
Bianca relates, “They [heard that] up in Lopinot have this place, [they] can go stay in the slave quarters in the Count’s [estate]. It falling down and thing but [they] could go stay there for a little while. And that is how mommy said, they went to stay in the slave quarters.” They slept in the barracks that were built for the slaves who worked on the La Reconnaissance estate a hundred years before. Other families shared the barracks with them, one family to a cell. The Guevara family - the first family to move to Lopinot from Caura - had stayed in the barracks before them. Leo jokes:
The only person I know close to Jesus was Dasheen. Why? He was born in the stable.
They made space in the stable by the barracks [at the estate] when he was born. It was
a stable that was used for donkeys.
When the British claimed the La Reconnaissance estate to distribute among the Caura migrants, they called it the "Lopinot Settlement". Bianca explains, “they made the whole village into plots... and assigned the people a piece to live on and a piece to plant on.”
On this process, Uncle Leo comments,“A set of thing upset. Very few of the people living here now [on the allotments from the state] were from Caura. Very few stay, they leave and gone".The reasons varied. It took so long to get assigned land that many migrants from Caura never came to settle in Lopinot, having made arrangements elsewhere. Perhaps they could not afford to uproot their lives again. Several families who did come to Lopinot chose not to stay. Leo attributes this choice partly to the fact that there were fewer amenities in Lopinot at the time than in Caura and other places. Caura had gotten access to electricity in 1945. Lopinot would not get any electrical connection until 1967. The Caura migrants had left a developed town to be placed in a village that did not have paved roads or running water.
Leo recalls hindrances of a more insidious nature. He recounts the story of Hubert Diaz of
Caura, who planted his allotment with cassava. When the man in charge of parceling land came back to the property, he declared that Hubert’s activities were illegal and threatened to call the police. In those days, Leo says that “people were fraid police and priest”. Such officials were not trusted. So Hubert set all of his work on fire and never came back to petition for the land he was assigned.
Great Grandpa Cyprian Ruiz faced a similar situation. "My father was real unlucky,” Leo says
that Cyprian was originally told that he would be assigned a large piece of land for his
allotment. His father, his brother and his brother-in-law took a lot of effort to clear it out by
hand. Afterwards, the allotment manager came calling "Jefe Civil, Jefe Civil!" He informed the Ruiz brothers that their lot was only a fraction of the allotment, and their presence there was illegal. Leo says that someone else got to plant on the land they had cleared. Nevertheless, Cyprian did settle on the lot. Reflecting on this incident, Leo repeats over and over, "The less you have, the less you shall have, and the little you have will be taken away from you."
Rebuilding La Veronica RC Church
I had often heard that the people from Caura brought the stones from their church over the mountain to rebuild it in Lopinot. My great Uncle Leo clears that story up. “Carrying the church stones from Caura? That is a lie. Why would they bring all that stone from so far?” Bianca adds that Leo knows this because “the stones that they rebuilt the church with - those stones came from the land that Granny Hildred lives on now, because that land was like a quarry.
”However, there were several elements of the La Veronica RC Church in Lopinot that came from Caura. Leo shares that the stained glass windows and the two marble pillars in front of the Church came from Caura. Hildred adds, "a lot of the other parts of the [Caura] church were sent to the Arouca parish. Two of the bells went there, but one of the bells came to Lopinot." As for the pictures of the Stations of the Cross along the church walls, Bianca explains that:
They have changed the frames since then but the pictures themselves came from Caura.
The building has two cornerstones, one that was from Caura and [another] from when
they re-established the church [in Lopinot]. So they have two cornerstones on a building
where they are supposed to have one (Hamel-Smith).
La Veronica Cornerstones
Bianca points out, “The church was a vital part of the village. This is what I tell people, that the soul of Caura village came to Lopinot because of that church.”
A Visit to Caura
Leo, Bianca, my cousin and I would later travel to Caura to find where the old church was. We take the Caura Royal Road past the Caura Hospital where Covid patients are now quarantined.The road is wide and well paved until Caura Pool One, the well-frequented swimming and 'river
lime spot’. There is a large abandoned building marked “Danger, Do Not Enter”. A sign summarizes Caura’s history. We are unsure if a pipe we see there was a part of the dam's construction site. drive beyond Caura Pool Two and turn on to Tumbasson Road.
Although we only realize that we are on Tumbasson Road when we reach the end of it. There’s a gate at the end of the road with a sign marked “Tumbasson Water Intake”. Leo shows us a footpath that leads into dense forest and explains that their house was further up the trail. This is one of the paths they would walk to school.
We leave Tumbasson valley and follow another road into Mamural valley, but we have to turn
around when the paved road ends. On the way back, Leo notices a small staircase that leads to nowhere - "That was where the post office was." He realizes that we must be passing the main village of La Veronica, noting, “Everything change boy, everything change!" He hasn't been on this side of the mountain in 15 years. We start seeing other structures through the
undergrowth, covered in moss along the road.
Without Leo's attentive eyes though, we would never have been able to identify a section of foundation. Leo exclaims - "That must have been Lal's shop!" He adds that the school was next to Teelucksingh's shop on the rise above.
He notices a driveway that is closed off by a chain. We cannot see beyond the flowers growing above but Leo says that this is where the Caura La Veronica RC Church once stood. A couple of chickens scuttle past. It looks like someone is living there. There is no sign to mark the church site or its cemetery.
When we get back to Lopinot, Hildred recounts her visit to the site with her sister in previous
years. When they saw that “a fowl run [had been built] on the church steps,” Hildred began to cry. Together they sang the hymn, 'We are on hallowed ground'. Her daughter notes that on a separate visit, her party was allowed to go inside. She touched the church steps and wept. Though the church site cannot be visited freely, Hildred and other Caura migrants would make pilgrimages to the La Veronica RC Chapel. Hildred attended its consecration when it was constructed further down the valley. In recent years, they would attend the mass held for the Feast of the Assumption. On August 15th, 1945, the last mass to be held in the old La Veronica RC Church in Caura had also been the Feast of the Assumption.
La Veronica RC Chapel - Caura
The La Veronica RC Chapel sits alone along the Caura Royal Road. Its solitude is striking in
contrast to the La Veronica Church in Lopinot which is surrounded by a bustling community. The villages in Caura were erased from history seventy five years ago. Now you can barely find the remnants of those villages under the weeds.
So much of the story of Caura was lost before I could record it. After all, Hildred and Leo were only children when they left. Just as there are many things I cannot remember about my
childhood days, they are not able to recount many aspects of the way of life in Caura. Even
though Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh spent 20 years speaking to the panyols of Trinidad
attempting to document their culture, her account is by no means comprehensive (Moodie-
Kublalsingh 223). Most of her interviewees were members of my great-grandfather's
generation that grew up in Caura and have already passed on. It goes to show that the onus is on us, the descendants, to try to record our elders’ experiences right now. There is so much of Trinidadian history in living memory yet to be documented.
Eve Hamel-Smith is a Digital Specialist who participated in the Writing for Culture cohort of our FOR COMMON GOOD Arima x Louisville Exchange which was facilitated by Louisville Story Program. This exchange program has gone on to become FOR COMMON GOOD -Stories of Us and we are honored to share these stories with you.
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