The Carib Queens of Arima, Trinidad

The Carib Queens of Arima, Trinidad
By Maximilian C. Forte, 1999, 2001, 2006


Valentina 'Mavis' Medina
Justa Werges
Edith Martinez
Maria Werges
Ma Gopaul
Dolores Medrano
Francis Sorzano (?)

Contemporary spokespersons of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, such as Ricardo Bharath (the President) and the late Elma Reyes (the former Public Relations and Research Officer of the Carib Community), say that the position of "Queen of the Caribs" was an imposition of the Church and colonial state. Reyes once advanced the argument that a female was chosen to lead the Caribs since women were the first to convert to Catholicism, but this is an argument that lacks credibility and historical evidence. Indeed, there is little to suggest that the Queen of the Caribs had any authority over the Caribs outside of the Santa Rosa Festival, which was her main focus of activity as the Queen.

Needless to say, there is more speculation and interpretation over the origins of the position of the Carib Queen than there is indisputable evidence. What I have gleaned from my own research, and summarize here, differs somewhat from previous and other contemporary accounts (see related links below).

First, I doubt that the institution of Queen predates the late 1700s or early 1800s, at the earliest, given the relatively short list of Queens and the fact that they would only have served as Queen in the sunset years of their lives, usually serving for about twenty years on average. The last Queen, Justa Werges, served for only twelve years.

Second, there is no evidence that the position was imposed or who was responsible for imposing it.

Third, there is no evidence that the Queen "ruled" in the place of a Chief. At its earliest, the position of Queen dates from the period when Arima was an Indian Mission (circa 1786-1849), during which caciques were part of the Mission hierarchy, subordinate to the priests and above their peers.

Fourth, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the office of the Queen emerged as the position of King declined, given that it was customary to refer to the husband of the Queen as King, in other words, the two went hand in hand.

Fifth, there is nothing to discount the possibility that the Queen was, more accurately, the Queen of the Santa Rosa Festival and not necessarily a Carib Queen.

In addition to these points, my impression is that the contemporary Queen of the Caribs represents a convergence of cultural influences and traditions of various sorts, fossilized elements of practices pertaining to different moments in the history of Arima's Amerindians, from various declines and revivals, obtaining from periods of neglect and interest, and shaped by in-migrations of diverse peoples into Arima, and all shrouded by collective forgetfulness and incomplete historical research based on fragments of knowledge and passing mentions in old texts.

For example, in the mid-1800s local historical writings make reference to a King and Queen of the Santa Rosa Festival, selected from the Amerindian population of the Arima Mission. As de Verteuil wrote:

"The village of Arima was formerly, and for a long time, celebrated for its festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of the mission. On that day the Indians elected their king and queen--in general, a young man and young girl--and all appeared in their best apparel and most gawdy ornaments" (1858:301).

There is no indication whether these figures carried any responsibilities of any kind. De Verteuil further explained: "Once every year, they elected, with the sanction of the corregidor [the secular colonial authority of the Mission], a king and queen to preside over their festivities, and to act as their principals on solemn occasions" (1858: 300). For this period, early- to mid-1800s, there is no mention of either a paramount King or Queen ruling over the young king and queen of the festival day. Indeed, the institution of an elderly lady as Queen, who remained in place for years, may well have started in the late 1800s, and may have emerged out of this previous and temporary institution. Today's Santa Rosa Carib Community has combined both: it has maintained an elderly Queen who traditionally oversaw all preparations for the Santa Rosa Festival, and, it has a system for electing a "King and Queen of the Festival Day", under the authority of the Queen, and the younger king and queen are charged with the responsibility for directing select men's and women's work tasks for the Festival. However, from my elderly informants, it is not clear that this was always the case: some explained that the elder Queen and her husband, the King, oversaw all tasks for the Festival and each directed women's and men's work tasks respectively. To make matters more complicated, in the 1980s the Santa Rosa Carib Community instituted the position of "Fiesta Queen" comprising the winner of a beauty pageant held for the Santa Rosa Festival and then selected to act as the Youth Representative. Moreover, by the time Ricardo Bharath instituted the position of President, in the 1970s, the limited authority and representational responsibilities of the Queen were supplanted by the President, thus reducing her to a figurehead whose office was retitled "Titular Queen".

As I mentioned, the office of Queen did not necessarily result from a decline in the office of King, and there is no evidence that the Queen supplanted the King. Writing in the late 1800s, the Belgian priest, Father de Cothonay, who visited Arima, observed:

"Up to our time, these poor people have conserved a simulacrum of a king. The last, called Lopez, died this year [1888]....As he had no one to inherit from him, all the Indians gathered together and chose as king the relative nearest to the deceased. I have no details about him, but I know that he is a poor Indian who lives in a hut and has nothing royal to him except the title" (Cothonay 1893: 98-99).

Here Cothonay is indicating that the institution of King did in fact continue, and, he further indicates that the position was hereditary. The position of Queen, since the 1980s, ceased to be hereditary, and contemporary leaders of the Carib Community claim that it was always an elected position, even though Queen Maria Werges passed her position on to her daughter, Queen Edith Martinez (sister in-law of the late Queen Justa Werges).

It is possible that a more formalized position of overall Queen emerged in the late 1800s also as a result of Spanish-Amerindian immigrants from Venezuela moving into Arima. One of their most popular religious rituals was, and in some cases still is, the Velorio de la Cruz (the Cross Wake) and La Cruz de Mayo. The Cross Wake, often held in honour of a patron saint, one of the most popular having been Saint Raphael, involved a ritual that structurally is very similar to today's Santa Rosa Festival, though the latter occurs in public and on a larger scale (see Moodie 1993 for detail on the Cross Wake). The person in charge of the Wake, is the Ama de la Cruz, the family matriarch who is in charge of the ritual preparations and who literally "owns" and "keeps" the cross. The ritual also involves the decoration of the Cross, much like the decoration of the statue of Saint Rose for the Festival, and a procession around the exterior of the house (much like the Santa Rosa procession around the streets of Arima). The "madrina" and "padrino" of the household ritual are structurally equivalent and functionally similar to the King and Queen of the Santa Rosa Festival. As I suggested, it is possible that this core of the domestic rituals of the Venezuelan immigrants who came to dominate the cocoa-growing regions of Trinidad during the Cocoa Boom of 1870-1920, may have impacted on and shaped the Santa Rosa Festival, or may have perhaps reinvigorated it.

Also in structural and symbolic terms, the Queen may be seen as the earthly representative of the Madonna-like Saint Rose (who carries the Infant Jesus during the Santa Rosa Festival procession), Saint Rose being the patron saint in whose memory the Queens of the Caribs organized the annual Santa Rosa Festival. Likewise, her ecclesiastical counterpart, the parish priest, might be seen as Christ's earthly ambassador. In that case, the Queen's husband, the King, may possibly be interpreted to fill the role of Joseph.

Lastly, there is some suggestion, but no clear evidence, that the Queen of the Caribs did not necessarily have to be a Carib herself. Certainly, the name "Werges" is not that of a family that belonged to the Amerindian population of Arima, most of whose surnames were limited to a particular range, and most of those surnames being Spanish. In addition, one researcher has found reference to a Francis Sorzano as the first Queen in Arima, dating to the early 1800s (see Douglas 1999: 20). A somewhat more pointed remark on Queen Maria Werges was made in a public lecture in 1938 by John Bullbrook, then a local specialist in the Amerindian history of Trinidad, who made the comment that: "To this day we speak of the Queen if the Caribs at Arima, yet I doubt if there is much--if any--Carib blood in her race" (Bullbrook 1940: 4).


This is actually a contentious issue, and one whose answers will vary depending on the time period one is considering when answering this question. Today, the Queen is little more than a titular figure, appearing for public occasions of the Santa Rosa Carib Community, and having little or no say in the running of the Carib Community. The President is the prime decision-maker, controls funds, and has the greatest input in selecting the Queen though she is ostensibly elected by members of the Carib Community.

Previously, as in the period dominated by Maria Werges and Edith Martinez (1930s-1970s), the Queen was the sole authority figure, with authority limited to preparations for the Festival period. She was responsible for all cleaning and decorations of the Church for the Festival, as well as cooking and providing food for those who worked for the Festival, and in leading prayers and the procession on the Festival Day. The Queen also received and controlled whatever funds or donations were forthcoming for the preparations for the Festival.

In the contemporary Carib Community, I was told by key spokespersons that the Queen was elected for her knowledge of Carib traditions, her ability to pass on that knowledge and offer training in weaving skills amongst other things, and for her ability to deal with the public, receive visitors, and maintain a high standard of protocol on public occasions.

Queen Edith Martinez

A photo in the Santa Rosa Carib Community Centre of Queen Edith Martinez, circa early 1980s, teaching children to weave using the terite reed to form the cassava strainer (the sebucán, also known as the matapí) as seen at the bottom of the picture.

Obituary: Justa Werges, Queen of the Caribs of Arima, Trinidad: n. 01 May 1915 - d. 16 January 2000

As some already know, Justa Werges, the Queen of the Caribs, passed away on Sunday, January 16, 2000, at her home in Mundo Nuevo, south of Arima, in Trinidad and Tobago. I received the news of her passing here in Australia on the day of her funeral, held on Wednesday, 19 January, 2000, at the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Church in Arima. I deeply mourn the loss of this stately and gracious lady who became a key contributor to research for my doctorate in Anthropology and featured in a recent article of mine in Cultural Survival Quarterly. In this spirit, I wish to dedicate my dissertation in honour of the memory of this great lady.

Justa Werges was born on May 1st, 1915, in the Month of Mary, as she was proud to emphasize. She saw herself as Saint Rose’s special earthly ambassador, charged with preparing the annual Feast in honour of the Saint. I was extremely fortunate, not to mention honoured and privileged, to have had the opportunity to film interviews with her and take photographs. I saw her last in late November of 1999 and found her on her deathbed suffering from cancer, candles lit on her special altar in the corner of her bedroom. Her life was a constant prayer. Despite her condition, as she was wont to do she summoned up the energies to say numerous prayers and give blessings to both my wife and myself. We simply cannot express how great was our respect for this institution that was Justa Werges.

It is unfortunate that the wider community in Trinidad was not familiar with Justa Werges as she was perhaps the leading and most accomplished expert on Amerindian weaving techniques and a wonderful source of historical information on Arima’s Santa Rosa Festival. As such, she was elected Queen by the Carib Community for her wealth of knowledge of traditions and her piety. A special mass was said for her on the occasion of her assuming the role of Queen and was recorded by the Vatican. She provided a number of the main ornaments carried in procession today for the Santa Rosa Festival. She embodied a rich set of traditions that have been waning in Trinidad for quite some time: the cassava culture of Trinidad’s Spanish-Amerindians and Venezuelan immigrants, private religious rituals, knowledge and use of oraciones (or “special prayers” as referred to by some in Trinidad), herbal knowledge, and could even talk about how to properly construct a tapia ajoupa and earthen ovens.

She spoke with expertise and clearly revealed her abilities to communicate with diverse audiences. In her time she hosted many visitors, both foreign and local, including Caribbean Amerindians, archaeologists, film makers, prelates, mayors, and even a Prime Minister. The Queen, though absent due to illness, was honoured last November 24 by the visiting delegation of Canadian Aboriginal Chiefs, who presented gifts for her that I am sure she was happy to receive.

She struck myself and others as an extremely devout lady who would never let you leave her home without first loading your arms with bags of cassava, oranges, plantains, and virtually everything she had in the simple kitchen of her rustic tapia home (recently replaced), ending with blessings in Spanish and the sign of the cross. She was a person of unparalleled generosity, one of those "country people" that urban Trinidadians nostalgically speak about as the people who valued courtesy, respect and reciprocity. She had a wonderful sense of humour and remained lucid and alert right to the end. Nothing got past the Queen. As a researcher, I was humbled by her stature. Almost like the archetypal monarch, one did not speak to the Queen, rather one was spoken to by the Queen. The passing of Queen Justa Werges, sadly, reflects the passing of an era in Trinidad.

I am terribly saddened by this loss, a loss not just for Trinidad but also for Arima and especially the Carib Community. I know that it will be impossible to find a replacement for Justa, and she will be remembered as the last of the great Carib Queens. Confined to her bed, she spoke to us at our last meeting in November: her face lit up as she described the beautiful faces of her people who were awaiting her in heaven, her tribe. I wish to express my very sincere condolences to the family of Justa Werges, equally generous and hospitable as their matriarch.

Eternal rest grant unto her. Long live the Queen!



Bullbrook, J. A. 1940. The Ierian Race. (A lecture delivered at the meeting of the Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago held in the hall of the Victoria Institute on Friday Evening 8:30 o’clock 3rd March, 1939). Port of Spain, Trinidad: Historical Society of Trinidad and Tobago.

Cothonay, R. P. Marie-Bertrand O.P. 1893. Trinidad: Journal d’un Missionaire Dominicain des Antilles Anglaises. Preface by R.P. Ch.–Anatole Joyau, O.P., Editor. Paris: Victor Retaux et Fils, Libraires-Éditeurs.

De Verteuil, L. A. A. 1858. Trinidad: Its Geography, Natural Resources, Administration, Present Condition, and Prospects. London: Ward & Lock.

Douglas, Tricia N. F. 1999. Gens d’Arime: The Original French Settlers of Arima. Unpublished Caribbean Studies thesis. St. Augustine, Trinidad: University of the West Indies, West Indian Collection.

Moodie, Sylvia Maria. 1983. “Survival of Hispanic Religious Songs in Trinidad Folklore.” Caribbean Quarterly 29 (1): 1-31.

Related Links:

“Carib Queen dies at 84”, By Trevor Burnett, Trinidad Express, Wednesday, January 19, 2000.

MEDINA IS NEW CARIB QUEEN, By Marlise Andrews, Trinidad Guardian,March 28, 2000, Page 6 —“Valentina Medina, of Mausica Lands, Arima, has been named Carib Queen for life, at an election held on Sunday at the Santa Rosa Carib Community Centre. Medina, 66, was among three others who were nominated as successors after Justa Werges, queen for the past 11 years, passed away in January. She was named after nominees, Julie Calderon, Mary Hernandez and Norma Stephens, withdrew their names for "various reasons."
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