Inside the home of Marilyn Isaac-La Cruz, beyond the racks of colorful Ankara skirts, asymmetrical shirts, and Adinkra cloth are the stories of Africa’s historical influence on the island of Curaçao.
This Dutch Caribbean island located just between Aruba and Bonaire is a melting pot of more than 50 nationalities, but the majority of the island’s population are people of African descent. The African influence in Curaçaoan culture continues to flourish throughout the island as is evident in the widely spoken creole language of Papiamentu, the music and dance of Tambu and the local Krioyo cuisine.
However, Isaac-La Cruz says many on the island often do not know much about African history or do not identify with their African heritage. “You can be of African heritage but you don’t accept it. A lot people often say I’m half of another nationality and they never say I’m African,” she said.
This is something that the proud Afro-Curaçaoan and self–described Pan Africanist set out to change when she started African Fashion Curaçao & More in 2013.
”That was the year I turned 50 and I said I want to do something different. I had a lot of knowledge of my heritage. So did my husband Angelo and so I said hey…let’s do something where we can attract more people, especially younger people and we can share our knowledge,” she said.
Isaac-La Cruz has worked for the island’s department of finance for many years. She used her business acumen, knowledge and love of the African fashion industry as well as the desire to educate fellow Curaçaoans about African heritage to get started.
"We have a tradition of reusing and recycling and we do it with clothing. It amazes me constantly the creativity of our people. You see that not only in fashion, but also in everything that we do."
Known locally as African Fashion on Na Kòrsou (a Papiamentu spelling of the island’s name), the non-profit organization combines education and fashion with the ideals of cooperative economics to teach Curaçaoans about the African heritage of the Caribbean region and renew a sense of pride in that heritage.
Each year after a series of casting calls, selected models must successfully complete courses on African history in order to walk in the annual African Fashion show. “To talk about our heritage is very important, why because our youngsters on the island they need role models. We also as a people need to know who we are and the greatness of where we come from and be proud,” said Isaac- La Cruz.
In these courses the models, who range from ages 3 to 58, interact with several Afro-Curaçaoan scholars who teach them about Africa, historical figures from different countries on the continent as well as the contributions of Afro-Caribbean people not only to the region, but also to the world.
Models who are 18 and older attend class sessions. The sessions have included teachings on Tula, an African slave who led a major revolt in Curaçao in 1795, Marcus Garvey, a leader of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements from Jamaica and Queen Nzinga, a 17th century ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms (modern-day Angola) and her staunch resistance to the colonization attempts of the Portuguese.
Those 17 or younger visit museums and historic neighborhoods on the island including the fishermen’s village of Boca Sint Michiel. Here they see first hand how several generations of different families work together to run a business, make a profit and support the community.
“The fact is that a lot of our history is unknown and that gives an obligation that in whatever we do, that we emphasize our African past and African origin,” explained historian and cultural activist Jeanne Henriquez who works with the organization.
In her workshops, Henriquez uses historical pictures and paintings as well as fabrics to emphasize the symbolism of clothing to African people. She said it’s also a way to show the connection between the style and resourcefulness of the past and present.
"Be proud of what you have and who you are... that’s something that this organization teaches each individual model."
“We have a tradition of reusing and recycling and we do it with clothing. It amazes me constantly the creativity of our people. You see that not only in fashion, but also in everything that we do,” she explained. “The way we do many things today comes from that memory of the past.”
Over the course of two months the models also receive professional training on walking, posing and stage presence from Kim Brown Models founder, Kimley Penniston. “I should say that all I get is goosebumps at the end. From seeing them just walking normally to becoming models is amazing,” she expressed. “Be proud of what you have and who you are. [I] think that’s something that this organization teaches each individual model.”
It’s that knowledge of the past; pride in their African heritage and self-confidence that Junius Isenia, a premier Curaçaoan designer sees on the runway when the African Fashion models walk in his clothing.
“A lot of times we talk about Afro-Caribbean, Afro-American but we don’t know nothing about it otherwise - just walking on the stage, showing clothing and that’s it and that’s not everything,” Isenia said.
It showed first time model Aichelyn Haynes the “different ways to enrich our economy and about our legends, what they achieved and how to be a model.” Haynes says she has a new-found self-confidence because of her awareness of the contributions African people.
Isaac-La Cruz is extremely proud of the change she has seen. She smiles when people say that the celebration of African identity, fashion and African heritage is only a trend. “People are saying, 'hey it’s a trend' and I say, 'no people are becoming conscious.'”