Aruba's culture is unique in the Caribbean because it is defined more by geography than by history. While other islands suffered from the squabbling of European nations, Aruba remained relatively unwanted because its desert land was not good for sugar production. This lack of plantation-style farming also kept Aruba relatively free from the African slave trade and the troubles it caused in other nations. Despite other slavery issues, Aruba was extremely peaceful, and this peace is certainly evident today.
The island of Aruba, though originally settled by the Spanish, was quickly repossessed by the Dutch when the Spanish abandoned it after determining it was useless for cultivating cash crops. Because there was little use for slavery on the island, the Caiquetos, part of the Arawak nation of Native Americans native to the island, were shipped to the mines of Hispaniola.
When gold was discovered on this seemingly-barren island, the Dutch brought back the Arawak slaves. Arawaks formed the majority of the slave class; as a result, there were few African slaves on Aruba. Ironically, this gives Aruba the distinction of having one of the longest lasting non-integrated Arawak tribes in the region, though there are no longer any full-blooded Arawaks on the island. The last pure Arawak lived until 1862, while most other Arawak tribes had been wiped out in the 1600s.
The Arawak influence was also extremely strong on language and the names of local items. Arubans still use the ancient Arawak word watapana for the tree that is known as the divi divi tree on other islands and throughout the Americas. Another interesting cultural note: Aruban women sweep the yards around their homes, much like ancient Arawaks cleared the area around their homes to keep an eye out for approaching snakes or insects.
The Arawak nation has also left behind many other relics, from petroglyphs tucked away in ancient caves to paintings on huge boulders at Ayo and Arikok National Park, along with many hints in Aruba's indigenous Papiamento language.
One of the most incredible cultural traits of the Aruban people is their ability with language. Most know and speak four languages: Dutch, English, Spanish, and their own native Papiamento. You will often find Aruban nationals mixing these languages in day-to-day speech.
Papiamento is formed from a mixture of every language spoken in the region, including French and Portuguese. It is spoken widely throughout every island of the Netherlands Antilles, and on Aruba, a former member that is now an independent part of the Dutch Kingdom. On Aruba, however, the Papiamento dialect is most heavily Spanish-based.
Traveler's Tip: Using a few key Papiamento phrases in your speech will certainly delight Arubans. Try using "bon bini" for "welcome." Women should keep an ear out for "dushi," which means "sweet" or "lovely."
Like other islands, Aruba has its own local culture, customs, and events. Color and music play an important role in the majority of cultural events, most notably in the yearly Carnival and Dia Di San Juan (St. John's Day) celebrations.
During the Dia Di San Juan celebration, Arubans dress in red and yellow to represent fire. This celebration has origins in Arawak harvest festivals, but Spanish missionaries combined the pre-Christian customs with the celebration of San Juan. Aruba is the only country in the world that celebrates this day with dancing and singing. A singer chants a familiar "dera gai" tune while players accompany the song with drum, violin, and "wiri."
..."One Happy Island"...
Arubans will often refer to Carnival as Bacchanal, a term based on the Greek and Roman celebrations dedicated to their god of wine, vegetation, and cheer, known as Dionysus to the Greeks and Bacchus to the Romans. Aruba's Bacchanalia is similar to the ancient celebrations. Like the Greeks, who wrote tragedies for these celebrations, Arubans express themselves artistically during this time. Likewise, each has religious significance. Aruba's Carnival, like the celebrations of old, is about cleansing one's body of sins, and helps the people of Aruba prepare for Lent. Music, dance, colors, creativity, and merriment are all themes of what has been called "Aruba's Official Carnival Concept Design."
A variety of cultural superstitions and traditions surround the New Year in Aruba. Dande is a traditional Aruban New Year's celebration. The name "dande," also spelled dandee, is derived from a Papiamento word, "dandara," which means "to revel," "to carouse," or "to have a good time." This celebration began after King William III declared slaves to be free. It is usually performed by a group of five to six people, though sometimes more, accompanying a singer door-to-door to express their best wishes for the New Year. The songs are repetitive, and the chorus sings "ai nobe" - "new year" - after each phrase. Singers generally visit family and friends on their celebratory journey; the host collects money in his hat to give to the entire ensemble. Some districts now have their own dande groups that perform on the second day of the year.
Several items of Aruba's rich culture are worth special notice. Arubans' love for music extends far beyond cultural celebrations. Types of music most often heard on the island are calypso, soca, merengue, and a local combination known as socarengue, which is usually accompanied by dancing that many would consider risqué.
Education is also an important issue in Aruban culture. The government has budgeted nearly 17 percent of its expenses for educational spending, creating a well-informed populace. Schools are available from nursery level through higher education, with the University of Aruba and the Teacher Training College. Many students also explore opportunities for higher education abroad.
Aruba's slogan, "One Happy Island," can almost certainly be attributed to its culture and its peaceful past. Without wars and with little slavery, Aruba has made a safe and easy transition from a Dutch colony to a nation with its own culture and people.
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