What is Creole? While Creole identity tended to be defined largely in cultural terms—the practice of Catholicism, the ability to speak Creole French, and family ties—it was also a closely policed racial identity reflecting Creoles’ fraught relationship to the African roots of their mixed ancestry. -Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena Aiken
The story of Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena Aiken begins in St. Martinsville, Louisiana; December 10th, 1879, her real date of birth. At this time though, her name was Leonie Turpeau. Born into a prominent family of free color, her parents Michel Turpeau Jr. and Isabella Hill came from distinct backgrounds. Isabella Hill was born to a formerly enslaved black man, while her mother was a Creole woman from St. Martinsville. Michel Turpeau loved Isabella, however, his family did not approve of their marriage because free people of color tended to think of themselves as a class apart from enslaved and free black people.
violence leads to a new life
While there is little to no documentation of the Loreauville Riot of 1884, it proved to be a turning point for blacks living in Louisiana. The repercussions of the violent riots included the death of 16 black men and women, and full restoration of white supremacist rule in Southern Louisiana. Jim Crow Order constricted economic opportunities for black people and limited their ability to defend themselves against a brutal regime of structural racism. This controversial event pushed Leonie and her siblings out of Louisiana. her siblings traveled mid-west while she decided to turn her sights southward to a small port town on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua called, Bluefields
a new life in bluefields
Once in Bluefields, Leonie, now Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena, boarded ships to travel in between New Orleans and Bluefields to visit family. She had married a man named Francis H. Mena, and claimed her nationality to be "Nicaraguan by marriage." Francis H. Mena was a planter, activist, and newspaperman. The two are thought to have met at Gilbert Academy, however it was then known as New Orleans University; the place where Leona Turpeau de Mena claimed to have studied.
bluefields becomes prosperous
- Bluefields soon became prosperous in the late 19th century whose growth and prosperity stemmed from its strategic location in the rubber trade, the emerging transnational banana market, and the pro table trade in lumber, tortoiseshell, sea turtles, and fishing throughout the Caribbean, South America, and the Central American mainland.
Dismantling of the mosquitio reserve
- In February 1894, Nicaraguan troops occupied Bluefields, forcibly bringing the Atlantic Coast under the jurisdiction of the Nicaraguan state. All Creoles could do was watch in outrage as the Nicaraguan government, which viewed their demands for self-governance and political power as illegitimate, diminished their political and economic power.
- Creoles were soon looked at as a form of hostility, and referred to as black foreigners whose racial inferiority and presumed immigrant status disqualified them from participating in the governance of the region or full participation in its economic activities.
New communities in bluefields
People of African descent in Nicaragua and other Central American states, whether they were native-born or immigrant workers, tended to identify most strongly with the Caribbean colonies of the British Empire and were largely excluded from the Indo-Hispanic, Mestizo nationalisms of the countries in which they lived. De Mena soon associated herself with the struggles of Afro-Creole and black communities within the region; further creating her new identity in her new home.
Creoles continued to resist Nicaraguan national rule, and many began pulling their kids out of school to avoid learning the Spanish language. To break away from those trying to control them in every aspect of their lives, Creole people began to create social clubs. Within these social clubs meetings took place as many discussed politics. The social clubs, in a sense, were secret societies for the Creole people to get away from Nicaraguan national rule.
Women in the unia
While women participated heavily in Central America's UNIA divisions, they did not serve very high roles at first. In the beginning, most women served as Black Cross nurses and provided logistical support, while men held higher positions that oversaw most of what was going on amongst the divisions. De Mena's marriage to Francis H. Mena made her a permanent member of the Creole elite because Francis served as vice-president of the Union Club for many years. The first woman to set the tone for women's involvement in the UNIA was Creole business woman and activist, Anna Crowdell, a woman that highly influenced Madame de Mena.
Creole women were limited
Most Creole women were limited to domestic forms of labor in Central America, while women from more privileged backgrounds held better positions such as entrepreneurs. Crowdell's experience as a Creole woman involved in the UNIA paved the way for Madame de Mena, and would play a large factor in her work with the UNIA in the United States.
De mena's sophisticated lifestyle
Madame de Mena soon found herself traveling back and forth in-between Bluefields and Louisiana, but Francis was unable to provide for her travels; therefore she had to turn to other trades for income. There was soon an advertisement for a Specialty School directed by Señora M. L. Turpeau de Mena. The school offered complete courses in English, French, piano instruction, bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand. Madame de Mena's list of occupations were inspired by Crowdell's independence as a Creole woman being apart of the UNIA, and soon, de Mena was making enough money to pay her own way during her travels rather than having her husband lend her a hand. While traveling, de Mena often listed her age to be younger and younger each time she boarded a ship headed for Louisiana, therefore tricking most into believing she was much younger than she in fact was. Her racial classification was also tampered with while traveling, and she was able to easily maneuver between racial categories.
After her divorce with Francis H. Mena, the newly identified Madame de Mena left Bluefields for the last time. Independent like her mother Isabella, de Mena was able to pay her own way through life and needed no male figure to support her. While in Bluefields, de Mena witnessed a political rise amongst women in the UNIA, and this fueled her to become a politicized Creole activist in America, however; Madame de Mena would always claim Nicaragua as her home because that is where she truly discovered her identity.
Big city, big stage
Once settled in Chicago, de Mena became a member of the UNIA. She took the role of a translator and secretary. She rose rapidly in the ranks amongst members and delivered her first public address "The Capability of Bearing", during a meeting at Liberty Hall in New York City. De Mena's speech showcased her uplifting ability, self-determination, humor, wit and passion for Garveyism. She soon became a recognizable figure to all as she stood as a propagandist for the UNIA.
Once elected Assistant International Organizer of the UNIA, de Mena pressed for women's increased visibility and leadership within the organization. She spoke for those who would not, insisting that "the backbone and sinew of the Universal Negro Improvement Association has been and is the real women of the organization who are laboring incessantly for the freedom of Negroes the world over." De Mena soon married a man from Cameroon, and the press reported that "Africa had joined hands with Nicaragua." While the short lived marriage was said to be a strategic method to further empower de Mena's political image, it did succeed and she remained a renowned propagandist for the UNIA.
UNIA downfall and new life
The UNIA was quickly running out of money and was understaffed. De Mena soon left America and began a new life in Kingston, Jamaica. In Jamaica de Mena married a UNIA activist and created the Jamaica Women's Liberals Club, a promising organization dedicated to the uplift of girls and women on the island. She improved the labor force for women in Jamaica by lowering the unemployment rate, demanding higher pay for women, and an increase in benefits. De Mena helped socially restore political positions and fill them with black people; she loved life, people, and fought for equal rights for black people around the world.
- While Madame de Mena stood for black women's rights around the world, she also set the stage for many great people who came after her including Malcolm X.
- Malcolm X was an articulate, passionate and naturally gifted spokesman who encouraged blacks to cast off the shackles of racism "by any means necessary".
Madame de Mena also influenced prominent civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin. Baldwin emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling works on race and equality.
Martin Luther King's activism and inspirational speeches played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among several other honors.
Rosa Parks refusal to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus spurred a city-wide boycott. The city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift the law requiring segregation on public buses. Rosa Parks received many accolades during her lifetime, including the NAACP's highest award.