When he served as United States ambassador to this country, T&T-born John Estrada often spoke about his struggle to overcome the social stigma of growing up in Laventille.
Estrada, who migrated to the US as a teenager, said he had to fight against being defined by living in a rough neighbourhood as he rose to achieve the highest rank in the US Marine Corps, sergeant major.
Before his diplomatic posting here, he recounted a visit during which he asked a police officer about Laventille and was told: “We let them kill themselves here.”
That remark fits in with the widely held view of Laventille and other working-class communities on the outskirts of Port-of-Spain as poverty-ridden hot spots of crime. Residents in these areas frequently complain about the stigma and discrimination they face because of where they live and how they are often deprived of educational and employment opportunities as a result.
So it is no surprise that the Community Recovery Committee appointed by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley found stigma to be one of the biggest challenges facing those depressed areas.
Curtis Toussaint, a member of the committee set up to search for solutions following violent upheavals in Laventille and East Port-of-Spain in early July, said in a CNC3 interview that residents of these areas are concerned about how they are perceived by the national community.
Those negative perceptions overshadow the important space occupied by Laventille and environs in this country’s history and development.
Apart from being the birthplace of the most celebrated elements of T&T culture, such as the steelpan, it was from those hills overlooking the nation’s capital that 18th-century astronomer Don Cosmo Damien Chucurra surveyed the first accurate meridian of the new world by observing the stars in the clear night sky. His vantage point was Fort Chacon, which was also one of the last holdouts for Spanish soldiers before the island was seized by the British under Sir Ralph Abercrombie
While little is left of that historic fort, all around this country there are majestic buildings constructed with blue limestone from Laventille. It was also used in the construction of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, these important facts are seldom shared about an area that has come to represent all that is negative in T&T. Also overlooked is the fact that proper development of those communities are critical for the transformation and advancement of the entire country.
Its position as a gateway into the capital is often taken for granted until there are protests which bring the city to a standstill.
That is why it is so important for the findings of the Community Recovery Committee – particularly the concerns about stigmatisation—to be taken seriously.
Policies and programmes must be developed to provide real opportunities for residents of Laventille, Morvant, Beetham, Sea Lots and East Port-of-Spain. Handouts and make-work programmes like URP and CEPEP are not the answer.
The right investments and support systems can lead to more success stories like Estrada’s.