A review of the Caribbean Diaspora Project, a digital project on carnival, directed by Mirerza Gonzalez-Velez and Nadjah Ríos Villarini
The Caribbean Diaspora Project
Tiffany Gonzalez, James Madison University
The Caribbean Diaspora Project is a web-based initiative with a two-pronged aim: 1) facilitate resources for preservation, dissemination, and access to digital and digitized materials related to human mobility within the Caribbean, with emphasis on U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and 2) support humanities scholarship at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) through workshops, symposia, training, courses, and publications. The project serves undergraduate/graduate students, faculty, cultural archivists, and technicians to help them form networks and collaborative partnerships to create, experiment with, and exchange digital resources. UPR lacks written guidelines for faculty members who create, study, and teach with digital objects. Our project fills those gaps providing a structure for engagement and collaborative work while using technology for humanities pedagogy.
From 2018 to 2020, the project’s participants explored how digital humanities efforts allow for safely preserving, providing access to, and disseminating items of significant historical, social, and cultural value that showcase the fluid movement of underrepresented individuals and groups in a marginalized geographical area. With the support of an National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Advancement Grant, our activities resulted in a prototype for the Caribbean Diaspora Project, an open-access archive/website that hosts short- and long-term projects about carnival with local and regional collaborators. This web design established a creative and dynamic work-play space in which humanities scholars experimented with technological tools to understand and create new forms of research, scholarly production, and teaching strategies on Caribbean people and practices.
The team included Nadjah Rios-Villarini, Mirerza Gonzalez-Velez, and Lowell Fiet (UPR), and Sally Everson (University of the Bahamas). The website/archive development team included Jennifer Guiliano (IUPUI), Laurie Taylor (University of Florida), Joel Blanco (UPR), Mila Aponte-González (UPR-Rio Piedras) and Pablo Defendini (web designer and consultant). The development team actively guided our conceptual dialogues to translate theory into a user experience. They also organized information, collections and micro-projects based on these discussions. Scholars and designers working together provided the opportunity to learn and participate equally during the construction of the virtual experience. Also, this comprehensive learning-by-doing experience helped develop capacity for digital humanities among scholars and students at UPR.
An important dialogue about the target audience or users for our project emerged. Initially we used the term “general audience,” but in practice this terminology needed refinement. We developed a hierarchy of possible users, and at the top we prioritized educators and students from K-12 schools, followed by researchers and scholars. This decision relates to our prior work in St. Croix, where for more than twelve years we produced bilingual school materials and conducted teacher training to integrate Caribbean history, memory, and culture into school curriculum in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nonetheless, we determined that the website could also be designed for users such as artists, artisans, musicians, and community-based groups inside and outside the Caribbean region given the widespread appeal, interest, and participation in carnival.
We identified potential users’ limited experience and skills in using digital resources and tools early on as a possible risk for low public engagement or use of the site, which pointed to the need for a rigorous process of user interface design. The website also documents the working process of the team, providing insights to the conceptualization of this project and suggesting strategies that other Caribbean digital humanities scholars can employ. The prototype is under revision and work is still needed for its deployment in full capacity.
The Caribbean Diaspora Project is a digital humanities project that curates the story of carnival practices in the Caribbean and its diaspora. The digital project is central to the preservation and dissemination of Caribbean history. It provides an opportunity for more users to get an inside look into the unique cultural practices found in the Caribbean and beyond.
Users will find a wide array of sources: newspapers, pictures, DVDs, and bulletin materials. The sources that the project contains are vital. The site provides users the means to narrow down search results through language. Three languages are provided: Spanish, English, and French. The variety of languages illustrates the diversity found in the Caribbean and U.S. territories.
The project underscores the importance of space, place, and mobility in carnival cultural practices. The website offers users the ability to view documents from Puerto Rico, the continental U.S., Haiti, Ponce, and Fajardo. Providing geographic locations generates questions about the diasporic community in the aquatic borderlands of the U.S. To further advance the project’s mission, it would be interesting to see how the Caribbean diaspora in Louisiana and Florida sustain carnival practices.
As the project continues to evolve, it would be beneficial for the creators to incorporate a function for users to search by time period. By including time period search capability, users would be able to find items by specific year or decade. This feature would also advance the project's overarching purpose of curating carnival practices. Additionally, users would be able to evaluate how carnival has changed over time throughout the Caribbean and diaspora.
The project could also benefit from an oral history collection. The project creators could use oral histories to document how carnival practices have changed over time. Such qualitative methods have been used effectively in various fields within the humanities and social sciences to give personal testimony to events and provide a better picture and memory of people and communities in the Caribbean and U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Community-engaged projects are central to creating and sustaining digital practices. More digital humanists have ventured outside of producing technologically driven data for the academy and have committed themselves to work with communities in recent years. Community-engaged digital projects create connections, trust, and collaborations with people and organizations outside educational institutions. Community-engaged scholarship also enables the people whose histories are being preserved to have a stake in the collection process. While the Caribbean Diaspora Project creators have prioritized educators and students for its audience, further work with community members would advance its mission. Over time, the Caribbean Diaspora Project could build additional collaborative partnerships between students, scholars, community members, and technicians to democratically exchange digital resources and humanities pedagogy with the public.
In the project’s present state, however, users from varied backgrounds—academics, students, artists, community members—will find the Caribbean Diaspora Project intriguing and beneficial for learning more about vital cultural practices that sustain communities throughout the Caribbean and diaspora.