Influencer Jeanne Henriquez

Interview June 2022

Jeanne, could you share with us some information about your family life?
I was born in Curaçao. I have a son and two other sisters. My parents were very instrumental to the person I have become. They were very patriotic and taught me to “walk my talk”. My father used to be very outspoken about his ideas, and he would submit articles in newspapers when he disagreed with things happening. My mother on the other hand, although she was a very intelligent and wise person, after the 7th grade at the primary school level, was discouraged to continue her schooling in order to take care of the children of her eldest sister.

My mother has won the Cola Debrot price for the “dolls” she made, and she would design these within a historical background. She would design these dolls with a degree of detail that was amazing, in an era, just before World War Two. She would meticulously dress them up with their underwear. Another example are the  “kunuku” houses she made exactly how they are constructed, made from sorghum grain stalks and “kakabu” (= cow manure) exactly as they were on a real scale.

My mother used to have expositions of her dolls and she would use the proceeds as grants to organizations involved in the well-being and greater good of our society. As an artist, my mother was an autodidact and for the above-mentioned reasons, she won the prestigious Cola Debrot prize. We are now exploring and working on having all her dolls in an exposition at one single location.

Could you share something about your educational background and your experience?
I have studied and have a Master’s Degree in History at the University of Utrecht. In 1991, after I started my studies in 1988, I earned a Master’s Degree at George Washington University in Washington DC on Gender issues and became an expert in developing gender-based projects as my Major.

We know you to be very active in themes related to the cultural heritage of Curaçao. We also know that you are involved in creating awareness of how we were conditioned to have disempowering beliefs and mindsets that through the different generations are still affecting us. Can you expand a little more on this?
We were and still are introduced and educated by an outside, foreign country-dominated educational system. This has led to the real risk, that we might lose our collective memory of what is our history and culture. I am a member of a group that does know our history and culture. A majority of our people are subject to what I would call “mental slavery”, where we imitate a culture that is not ours. This hampers the possibility to “know thyself”. The Egyptian culture of Know Thyself exists for over 5000 years and that culture created 42 rules on ethics that are still valid up to this moment. It is important to know yourself from your earliest roots so that you can become proud of who you are.

Picture: Museum Kas Di Pal’i Maishi

“Knowing your history enhances your self-esteem and self-respect.”

I believe that it is important to know what your ancestors have done, as we are being overwhelmed by negative prototypes and perceptions about who we are, like:

”We are corrupt; we can’t even responsibly govern our country; we are only able to create more debt..etc…and as we only hear these negative sound bites, we don’t hear “who we are”.

We lose our collective memory and this can be noticed even among our teachers, as many of our teachers don’t know our history or don’t know how to introduce it in our classes. Knowing your history enhances your self-esteem and self-respect. When I am not in such a good mood, I would reflect on my ancestors and recall what they have gone through, and I would reset myself and “stop crying” and stand up and look for solutions. This is an important principle in every country. It is a bloody shame that we lose opportunities to excel because we don’t, or we only partially know our history. This makes us passive, as we don’t know anything about our history. Isn’t it strange that we don’t even call the Police when we hear our neighbor beating up his spouse? Isn’t it strange that we allow a dehumanization that is taking place of our society? We were not like that, we used to care for our neighbors, and we sure used to show our solidarity with each other. We lose ourselves in the globalization that is taking place right now and we degrade and become like a robot or a parrot repeating what we hear others say about who we are.

I work and focus on two areas: On our history and domestic violence.

In both areas, I want to be very practical, because being practical makes you experience the real pain people go through and experience. It also helps to find an alternative solution to the issue at hand. I firmly believe that this should be the starting point from where we should work, start by putting our fingers on where the real hurt and necessities are, for our people.

We also know you to be very active in educating the greater public on child and women abuse, if we are correct, can you expand a little on this?
On domestic violence, we have come to notice a dehumanization is taking place in different areas. We have noticed how poorly our government services function, because of the lack of sufficient staff; the lack of qualified and knowledgeable staff, and worst of all the lack of empathy by the staff. This staff is earning a monthly salary as civil servants, and their clients have multiple problems and needs. From their Comfort Zone, this staff is not giving a damn what is happening to their clients. Youth are killing each other just for the fun of it. Our politicians that govern our country and have the power of the state, are not understanding the essence of a society based on the well-being of its citizens.

We could have become a role model society, as I don’t buy the argument that we are “a small island”. Grenada and Barbados are also small island countries. Barbados it’s economy is doing much better than we are doing, and they are also a small island country. Barbados has been working consistently on their history and culture and they do have a high level of patriotism and they stand up for their rights. Barbados has become a republic and there are negotiations on debt relief etc. and recovery payments because of their colonial and slavery past.

Psychologically speaking, if you know yourself and you have a vision and a mission for how to achieve it in your community, you will start looking for ways to achieve this.
How come the majority of our people are so passive? I know that I originated from the first human beings historically and from a culture that invented mathematics, and I know I originate from women that have resisted oppression in different forms. That is why I am who I am. It is based on this that I find the determination to do what I do. The mis-education makes us passive citizens.

Are we missing something, please let us know?
With regard to our history, we that is the foundation Museo Tula, wants to be practical and we want to share our history of resistance, so we want to expand the Tula museum with an exposition called: Resistance, resilience and the process of emancipation. Another aspect: With a friend we decided to start a program called “Agente di Lus” and we offer courses on our history and ask participants to spread the information, to as many people as possible.

We can not influence the government, so we decided to use a strategy to pass around the government. Each “Agente di Lus” becomes a source of light of knowledge that can create a Ripple effect. We are also offering training based on gender education.

What are the challenges that you are dealing with? And how are you dealing with these different challenges you confront?
Our biggest challenge is, that when we criticize a situation, the focus changes from finding a solution to becoming personal towards us as the messengers. The persons in the institution responsible to do something about the situation, tend to try to cut your head off, out of pure vengeance. While we believe that we need to be outspoken and transparent in the situations so that we bring about much-needed changes. By speaking out publicly, we believe that the pressure can increase and it can bring about positive changes as most of our people are passive and among politicians there exists some kind of inertia to do something about the situation.

Let me give you an example: In the past, the government issued on three different occasions an investigation concerning the institution Voogdijraad: One in 2009, one in 2012, and one in 2015. What we have noticed is total inertia to do something about what was recommended in the different reports. We went to the parliament with “Aliansa” and in front of the parliament pleaded to do something and take action. We are still waiting and sorry to say, nothing has happened since then.  The parliament promised us that they will take follow-up actions after our presentation to them, but nothing has happened. This has led us to believe that the perpetrators that harm victims are being protected. The majority of people are very decent people, and these perpetrators know this. It is like the aggressor that is beating his wife almost until she is dead, feel this and know that most of us are passive and this gives them extra power to continue to do what they are doing. It is everyone for oneself and God for us all. 

The highest goal in life is to empower yourself and become an active citizen.”

Know yourself. The highest goal in life is to empower yourself and become an active citizen. We can bring a subject matter forward in the open, but this doesn’t mean that there will be any change at all and this can depress you. We believe that we need to be active citizens that need to keep on putting our fingers on the sore spots. We as a collective are responsible for the decay in our society if we don’t do anything. Morally, we will carry this in our consciousness: that is why we keep on going until we have created a critical mass that brings about the required changes. That is the way I perceive our challenges. Let me illustrate this with an example. As we try to influence schools on how our history should be taught, we printed the curriculum that we teach to “Agentenan di Lus” on a CD and offered this to the government through the government school board. The manager of the school board lost all the CDs. This was a very painful moment for us. But we didn’t give up and we are continuing with our courses of “Agente di Lus” aimed at the greater good of the whole society in Curaçao. I firmly believe that change will come and that someday, sometime a positive turnaround will start taking place.

Do you use your inner voice to evaluate when dilemmas show up? How does that work for you?
To have some kind of “inner voice” you need to have gone through a process of self-discovery and knowing yourself. You need to talk with and listen to more people to discuss what could be the alternative and discuss where much-needed changes can be made.

Meditation also helps, as we all are spiritually connected, meditation helps you to get more ideas and helps you to sum up the things that need to be changed.

How are you trying also to keep up with your knowledge and skills levels?
Reading, literature, and attending different training to stay in touch, although I think I already know a lot there are always new things to learn.

The habit to talk with different people on different subject matters as a historian and maintaining the habit to do historical research, consulting historical documents, and re-read them a couple of times, can help you to get a fresh insight on one specific aspect that you put your attention on. 

What are your strengths?
I want to dance in my life,  I want to stay optimistic. Even under the worst of circumstances, I am a fighter. I don’t give up, in all the areas of my life, whatever I am involved in, that includes my health. I try to be creative in seeking solutions: I don’t give up. Even without money, I need to stay creative, to achieve almost the impossible. I enjoy talking to people, I love it because it allows me to learn from them.

Do you have hobbies or interests that you are also passionate about?
Dancing, reading on my own in silence, although I am not doing this enough, I love to retreat and read or study a document. When I am doing that, I feel so good.

“My mission at this moment in time is to create a new museum telling our history of resistance in the past…”

What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be who you are right now and do what you are doing now?
This museum at the same time needs to be a model for collaboration between different groups and organizations. We invite a discussion on the design of the new museum through the discussion on the storyline. The storyline of Fundashon Museo Tula (FMT) has already been discussed by a group of 12 historians.

We will also share the storyline with a large group of artists, all to give us feedback and also create artworks for the new exposition we are planning to have in the museum. Hopefully, this will create works that will visualize situations and circumstances that express  the emotions felt concerning different occurrences. Be aware that we don’t have any pictures available of Tula  Bashan Karpata, Maria to name some of the heroes. In 1750 some women as a group committed suicide by poisoning themselves, we have no pictures of that. There are a lot of documents that describe the resistance be it directly or indirectly that most of us are not aware of it. There are many examples of courage of runaways even knowing they could be severely punished or killed, but the urge for tasting freedom was higher than the risks involved. We need the artist to dramatize men and women that were strong. If we are today passive, our ancestors were not passive and they were courageous. We also need next to the visual artist, the theater performer, and filmmaker to make theater based on these different circumstances.

We are in a process of discussion with 8 organizations from Banda Abou about our plans for a new Museo Tula. We want to create this new Museo to become an example of positive collaboration for development. This approach will have a twofold effect, it will help to create a greater awareness of our past and it will offer job opportunities.

Picture: Museum Kas Di Pal’i Maishi

We have an inventory of about 53 professions that will disappear if nothing is done to save them. Most can be revamped into a modern package, like charcoal can be used to make norite, toothpaste, and scrubs. By offering these courses and helping young people start their own businesses by offering training we strive to keep these professions alive.

Working on this kind of project is my BIG WHY at the moment.

What are your plans for the coming years and when do you consider that you have been successful in your personal and business/professional life, let us say 5 years from now?
5 years from now the Museum Tula has become a model in the Caribbean and I will be ready to do other things and I will be able to retire. Hopefully, before I retire, someone else is ready to take this task over and I can invest my time in writing about our history. I would like to interview many more elderly persons and I will travel some more, but I will always with the eyes of an Eagle point my fingers at the sore spots in our society.

I will be helping people as I have always done, this is in my blood as part of my interrelationship with other human beings.

If you as Jeanne would meet a stranger on the bus – let’s say in Miami or Bogota Columbia- and they would ask you to introduce yourself, what would you answer?
I will tell them my name and depending on how the other person responds, this will give me an idea of the kind of person he or she is and if it is an interesting person, I will share some more about myself.

How would you describe Jeanne in one word or one sentence?

Who are the persons that have inspired you the most in your career?
My parents of course. My son. Women that had been abused, some in “code red” meaning that they can get killed and despite their hardships have climbed out of their situation and regained their freedom. And after that they started to blossom like (a) beautiful flowers, inspiring others to do the same as role models.

Literature from our ancestors like Frederik Douglas and Tula himself. Figures that when you read about their lives, you remain deeply impressed. They inspire me to have enough courage to face the problems at hand. My books are my treasure.

What is a trait that is still a work in progress?
I need to learn to be more at ease. I need to create more moments of “me-time” or I will be less able to manage my anger at the injustice I see around me.  

What was a defining moment in your life?
When my son was born. Another one was when I graduated with a Major in Gender Issues. I went to the US for my studies, to a place I have never been before; together with my son of 5 years old at that moment. I used to study in the evening in the toilet because we only had a one-room apartment with a kitchenette. In the evening I would open the folding bed and my son would sleep as he slept I studied in the toilet and graduated with high grades. After graduation, I was convinced that I can achieve anything I want to in life as long as I want it. 

Where do you want to be 10 years from now with your career?
I don’t want to talk about that; it is far away.

What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends, and others to say about you, let’s say 20 years from now?
I am a person that loves everyone, but when I get real angry I will be “Coro pa Caracas”.

What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, recession, and in the middle of growing environmental challenges because of the global warming consequences?
History is a process of ups and downs. I know that the emancipation process is making progress, but this is mostly invisible to the majority of the people. If we manage to connect the person with the right causes and topics, relevant to creating a critical mass, the changes will come. Our goal is not about creating a revolutionary change, it is not about building barricades, but it means to have a mindset change, changed to a different, higher level. In this mindset, people will be much more aware of human rights, a mindset where without effort you will not succeed, and a mindset where one understands that you have your destiny in your own hands.

One of the 250 Influencers of Curaçao

Jeanne Henriquez is a historian, a social entrepreneur, a courageous and passionate social activist, and an advocate of a revamped history of our past based on resistance and resilience. As she is focusing to start with an exposition in Fundashon Museo Tula (FMT) with the involvement of 12 historians, she also aims to get artists involved to visualize our history. Jeanne also stands out as a lifelong fighter for social justice on gender issues and domestic violence.

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