Caribbean, Gardener / Introduction / Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo

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Deborah Jack, from the untitled photo essay for Caribbean, Gardener, courtesy of Deborah Jack

Some months ago, as I pondered the possibility of enduring a second Trump term while heading into a dreary New England winter, I asked several Caribbean artists and scholars to put to language and image their relationships to gardening, broadly speaking. I was inspired by my interest in both el conuco (the garden plot) and el monte (the hills) in a Caribbean set against the plantation and the tourist resorts that constantly encroach upon them. Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid gives a grammatical space for this historically Afro-Caribbean dynamic when she describes her mother’s relationship to the garden and what she calls the woods: “The woods: The garden. For her, the wild and the cultivated were equal and yet separate, together and apart.”1

My garden, my mother’s garden, my grandmother’s garden, my great-grandmother’s garden in the region in the San Juan Valley in the heart of the island of Hispaniola/Haiti, all render it impossible for me to ever have an answer to the question: “on what century does your work focus?” In my mind and in my writing, the story of eighteenth-century African and Taíno maroons who had dwelled in the Baoruco mountains since 1502 vibrates as loudly as Kamau Brathwaite’s twenty-first-century plight to protect Barbadian land from the encroachment of apartments meant for so-called expats.

The narratives woven below by Joiri Minaya, Nathalie Batraville, Ryan Mann-Hamilton, Natalia Ortega Gamez, and Deborah Jack (in order of appearance) each uniquely respond to the prompt. And they all emplace themselves geographically within the context of a Caribbean island or region in ways that resist tendencies, especially in the North American academy, towards abstracting and/or fetishizing concepts from histories, scholarship, and art that grew out of Caribbean specificity. My caution against these tendencies stems not from a nationalist approach to the Caribbean, but, rather, from the sheer exhaustion of witnessing an enduring cultural imperialism trumped up as “radical” politics or aesthetic meditation.2 When reading fashionable works from various corners of the North American academy, whose extraction of Caribbean concepts as materia prima are tucked away in disengaged footnotes, I am reminded of a saying I heard growing up: “Te conoco bacalao, aunque venga difrazao.” “I know you, codfish, even if you come in costume.”  In their own distinct ways, the entries in this cluster communicate signs of warning and strategy discernible to those who know the codes.

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Read the cluster Caribbean, Gardener here.

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  1. Kincaid, “The Disturbances of the Garden,” The New Yorker,  August 31, 2020.
  2. I offer an expanded critique of this tendency in “Broken Automatons and Barbed Ecologies in Ligia Lewis’s Choreographic Imaginaries,” Social Text 39, no. 2 (2021): 51-67.