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a fishermen's village
Ana Maria Hernandez
Two years ago, Clifford Rosa from Rancho Foundation invited me to help him develop projects that could merge artistic practices, heritage, and the community of the neighborhood of Rancho. These projects would be part of their program celebrating our capital's upcoming 200th anniversary. During this time, there were heavy discussions taking place on the island around the plans for the harbor of Oranjestad. To put this matter in a very black-and-white way, it was a discussion around the displacement of local fishermen and lack of access to the haven against developing and improving the area for the locals and the tourists. But this discussion is extremely complex and nuanced from both sides. All attempts at dialogue have been influenced by politics, clashing perspectives, inflated expectations, and a deep lack of understanding about our fishing community. What was clear was that a big part of the Aruban community did not feel directly affected by the plans for the harbor and stances were taken without an understanding of this nuanced situation.
Fishermen woodcut print at the end of Then and Now (1932) by H.E. Lampe.
But for the inhabitants of Rancho, specifically, the ones who still live off fishing, these discussions are all too real. Walking around the neighborhood of Rancho is quite an experience, where its strong links to the harbor and fishing traditions are palpable. There is a strong sense of history and an urgency to capture and preserve the essence of this part of the island's identity. The core of our ODE TO THE FISHERMEN project emerged from this.
This year, Rancho received funding from the Mondriaan Fund to kickstart this first project. These blog entries are a way for us to share our enthusiasm, methodology, and findings with local and international readers. We don't see this project as a one-way flow of information. For us, this research is a collaboration with anyone and everyone who has ideas, leads, information, stories, feedback, and corrections for us. So please feel free to reach out to us and become part of this project.
Aruba's National Archive.
Our approach was to start looking for references in literature and audio-visual material. Our first stop was at Aruba’s National Archive (ANA), where our keywords were simple: fishing, Aruba, and Rancho. Together with Aruba's Nacional Library, ANA has been digitizing important documents and images, not only preserving them but also making them accessible to the community. This access allows us to keep these materials safe while revisiting and reviewing them in the hopes of finding new information and perspectives. The collections available online include photographs, videos, texts, and books.
After this visit, we continued our search into the literature available online about Rancho, looking specifically for the earliest mentions of the neighborhood. It was clear from the beginning that the name Rancho was practically a synonym for 'fishermen’s village.'
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy during their mission in Aruba between 1914 until the end of the 1930s. The photograph was captioned in Dutch with 'visvangst' (fishing).
Cover of Naar de Antillen en Venezuela written by Henri Van Kol in 1904.
It is stated that the first mention of Rancho was in 1855 in the archives, but we are still looking for this document. One of the earliest mentions we found so far was written by Henri van Kol (1852-1925). He describes Rancho as a fishing settlement near Oranjestad “where good people lived in shabby huts next to dirty salt-producing pans.”(1) This was a struggling community with scarce resources that had nothing but their catch of the day to survive. According to him, their poverty was a result of the small proceeds of fishing, the lack of boats and good tools for fishing, and the small market for fresh fish on the small island. In his text written around 1904, Van Kol states that there are 50 inhabitants in Rancho that live off of fishing.
Another early source referencing Rancho is the Report on Fishing by Dr. J. Boeke (1874-1956) written between 1904 and 1905. Here, Boeke mentions Rancho as the place on the island where most fishermen lived. This report gives a very insightful view of the fishing practices of the time, which we will revisit later in our blogs. The short entry about Aruba in this report tells us more about the inhabitants of Rancho. Boeke describes the Aruban fishermen as “mostly descendants of the original inhabitants, the Caraiben, they still show a clearly Indian type.”(2)
Cover of Report on Fishing written by J. Boeke in 1907.
In his book Aruba Then and Now (1932), H.E. Lampe (1884-1953) tries to give his readers a glimpse of what life was like on the island before the 1920s.(3) Shortly after, the island underwent rapid and major changes since the arrival of the oil refineries on the island. Rancho and its inhabitants are mentioned briefly twice in this book. On page 18, he describes the men of Rancho as “born fishermen” that “do nothing but practice their profession." He does make it a point to add that "they never take this seriously enough.” He then continues talking about the advantages the fishermen have over the island’s merchants. He concludes his short passage on local fishing by saying they get their products for the same price and effort now compared to before, but they sell them at a higher price. "We will return to these people and their customs later.”(4) And so he does on page 25. Here, Lampe refers to Rancho as a “then-feared fishing village” where the fishermen, called rancheros, usually ended their parties with confrontations with local police. Fortunately, says Lampe, “this human race has become much more civilized and polite, with the favorable consequence that they are now afraid of the police.”(5)
By the time writer and historian Johan Hartog (1912-1997) wrote his account of what Aruba was like before and after the 1920s in his Aruba: Past and Present (1953), the community of Rancho had 45 fishermen living in the neighborhood.(6) Hartog tells us that Rancho “has remained the fishermen’s settlement it always was.” Hartog lived in Aruba between 1950 and 1980. During his time on the island, he wrote the four-volume Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Antillen, a historical account of the Dutch islands in the Caribbean. He also left us with an incredible collection of historical images of what life was like on the island. I highly recommend taking a look at the digitized collection. In his publication Aruba in oude ansichten (1972), we can find some incredible images of Rancho and its inhabitants.
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy in 1924. The photograph was captioned with Ranchoe.This image was used by Hartog in his book. He captions this photograph with ‘Rancho started as a fishermen’s village with around 50 inhabitants.’
On page 35 we find a photograph of Rancho from around 1923.(7) Here we can clearly see the so-called ‘shabby huts’ mentioned by Kol. Hartog captions this photograph with ‘Rancho started as a fishermen’s village with around 50 inhabitants.’ On the next pages, we get a closer at the men and women of Rancho.
Photographs of Rancho's men and women included in Hartog's publication.
Some of the photographs in Hartog's book were taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy. This is a Catholic lay religious congregation for men founded in Tilburg, The Netherlands. The brotherhood was on a mission in Aruba from around 1914 until the end of the 1930s. During their mission in the Caribbean, the brotherhood took more than 30 thousand analog photographs from which 10 thousand have been digitized and made available online. Unfortunately, there is no consistency in dating them and the descriptions written on them are often very vague. Nonetheless, the visual information in these photographs helped us find threads that we aim to unravel throughout the next 6 months.
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy in 1924.
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy during their mission in Aruba between 1914 until the end of the 1930s. The photograph was captioned in Dutch with 'visvrouwen' (fishingwomen).
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy during their mission in Aruba between 1914 until the end of the 1930s. The photograph was captioned in Dutch with 'Vissershutje met belangstellenden' (Fisherman's hut with candidates).
Something important to note is that the literature of the island is quite young and that the older references written were by clergymen and government officials and later on by locals living during the period of ‘holandisashon.’(8) This meant the writing was in Dutch and the perspective was often tinted by its cultural influence.
The subject of our local fishermen presents us with important questions beyond what they do and who they are. It also asks us to reflect on the ways we engage with marginalized communities and to reconsider how global conditions affect local realities. As we dive deeper into this subject, our ambition is not to offer an extensive survey but to map out key lines of questioning that we hope future projects and professionals aim to address. For now, we have a ton of unanswered questions we invite you to help us figure out.If you or your family members have stories, anecdotes, audiovisual material, or any information you think is important to add to the project, feel free to contact us.
Photograph taken by the Brothers of Our Lady Mother of Mercy during their mission in Aruba between 1914 until the end of the 1930s. The photograph was captioned in Dutch with 'Schildpad' (Turtle).
Henri Van Kol, Naar de Antillen en Venezuela, 1904, 280.
J. Boeke, Rapport betreffende een voorlopig onderzoek naar den toestand van de Visscherij en de industrie van zeeproducten in de Kolonie Curaçao (Deel 1), 1907, 75.
H.E. Lampe, Aruba Then and Now, 1932.
Johan Hartog, Aruba : Past and Present : From the Time of the Indians until Today, 1961, 384.
Johan Hartog, Aruba in oude ansichten (1974), 35.
Wim Rutgers, Balans. Arubaans letterkundig leven. De periode van autonomie en status aparte 1954-2015, 2016, 32.
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