Becoming Creole, Becoming Black: Migration, Diasporic Self-Making, and the Many Lives of Madame Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena By: Courtney Desiree Morris. Presentation By: Bruce Stephenson

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 beginning

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.

Pictured above is Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena Aiken and images of St. Martinsville, Louisiana.

marriage and its lessons

Michel Turpeau and Isabella Hill's marriage did not last long. They divorced in 1883 after having children together. Their divorce divided the land that they had acquired together, but Isabella Hill decided to sell a large portion of her land for $50. It is reasonable to speculate that Isabella Hill provided an early example of assertive womanhood that would define Leonie’s approach to her own life and relationships in the years to come.

The Loreauville Riot of 1884

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

Pictured above are images of Bluefields, Nicaragua.

bluefields, nicaragua

  • Bluefields is a small port city that sits on the eastern shores of Nicaragua. It is located along what has historically been called the Mosquitia, the Caribbean coastal region that stretches from Honduras to Costa Rica.

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.

Pictured above is what Bluefields looked like around Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena's arrival.

a new life & identity

It is said that after her marriage to Francis H. Mena, Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena began to develop a new identity, one in which she had thrived for. Living in a diverse community including mixed-race Creoles, enslaved Africans, and European colonists. Once the Atlantic Coast was declared a protectorate of Great Britain under the authority of the governor of Jamaica, the Mosquitio began to develop into a multi-racial society.

Pictured above is a woman and her two children living in Bluefields, Nicaragua.

Race mixing among the indigenous, European, and Afro-descendant communities became common and produced a Creole elite who distinguished themselves from both indigenous communities and darker-skinned free and enslaved blacks from the Caribbean. By the 1840s, the term “Creole” was widely applied to free people of African descent in the region; however the term was also fraught with internal skin-color politics, as lighter-skinned Creoles tended to look down on darker-skinned Creoles who were much more likely to occupy a lower-class status

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.

bluefields economy

By the 1900s, Bluefields had transitioned from a British protectorate to an “enclave of U.S. capital.” The banana industry was booming, the region made a prime location for U.S. corporations due to constant flow of immigrants in and out of the region. Bluefields soon became the melting pot of the early 20th century. Passport applications to the British Consulate reveal the constant movement of black, Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and European migrants in and out of the region heading for New Orleans, Colón, Kingston, and Puerto Limón. Additionally, there were a number of African Americans from the U.S. South who immigrated to Bluefields, and Leonie Turpeau was among them.

Pictured above is a banana farm in Bluefields. The banana industry was a driving force of capital in the early 20th century.

A change in creole

As people of all backgrounds migrated to Bluefields, their culture in which they brought with them slowly began to transform the meanings of "Creole" as they became absorbed into the community over time through long-term settlement, intermarriage, and cultural assimilation. At the same time Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena began to create a new identity for herself, the identity of Bluefields was shifting from a tight-knit group of locals, to a cosmopolitan port city of all kinds of people. It's economic status and role in the U.S. capital investment made it a more materialistic place due to the thriving banana plantations; meanwhile it began to lose it's Creole roots.

Pictured above are immigrants in Bluefields who traveled there in search for a better life.

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 rebel

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.

UNIA in central america

The secret societies that formed in Central America soon became influenced by Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Based on the ethos of black self-determination, racial uplift, cultural pride, and the redemption of the African continent, the UNIA was enormously popular in Central America, where it is estimated that approximately one-third of all UNIA divisions were located. Bluefields was home to nearly 1,000 active members at it's peak, and this made up a quarter of the city's black population at the time. While social club meetings were made to escape Nicaraguan national rule, most of the social clubs were more like secret societies that were inclusive based upon skin tone. The Union club was composed of light-skin Creole elites, while Liberty Hall tended to be poor, dark-skinned blacks and a handful of Creoles. Women soon rose and became a prominent part of these UNIA divisions.

Pictured above is Marcus Garvey and members of the UNIA.

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.

hello america

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.

Pictured above is Marcus Garvey, members of the UNIA, and madame de Mena.

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.

Pictured above are UNIA assemblies in New York, and an image of Marcus Garvey.

Woman power

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.

Pictured above are images from the 1924 women's march in Harlem, New York.

Position upgrade

Madame de Mena was now a central figure of the UNIA, and she was well known by many people unassociated with the UNIA. She was promoted to International Organizer, but once Garvey announced his split with the UNIA; de Mena was once again promoted to officer-in-charge of the North American field and Garvey's personal representative in the United States.

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.

"This brief examination of de Mena’s life in Jamaica demonstrates that this period initiated a deepening and an expansion of her existing political values— racial uplift, economic self-determination, and black nationalism—and the integration of new paradigms in her political formation."


"This article has examined the ways in which Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena Aiken created herself as a transnational diasporic subject, carefully refashioning her identity across time and place as she engaged in the tumultuous political struggles of black people throughout the Americas... De Mena’s life and self-fashioning practices reflects the efforts of many women activists connected to Pan-Africanism to rethink blackness beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and to conceive of local racial justice struggles as fundamentally imbricated in a larger effort to dismantle global white supremacy... Her political trajectory also reflected a growing awareness of gender inequality within black communities and the need for women to assert greater leadership in the political movements and processes that shaped their lives. Her shifting biography provides one example of the ways that women activists authored themselves into existence as political subjects by immersing themselves in the struggles of diverse black communities throughout the African Diaspora."

long-term influence

  • 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.

Madame de Mena not only inspired those of her time, but those after her, which speaks volumes. She set the stage for many successful activists, and while the world in which we live still faces unnecessary violence surrounding race, there is plenty that needs to be done to ensure that rights of all blacks are upheld. However, the world is headed in a better direction thanks to our culturally diverse forms of communication. It may take time for everyone to accept other's differences, but as a whole, as mankind, we must all accept everyone for who they are, and Madame de Mena is one of the "founding mothers" behind black nationalism around the world.

After hearing the story of madame de mena and how she carefully refashioned her identity, could anyone think of a time they may have refashioned themselves to fit in with a specific group of people?If so, in what ways? Was it worth it?

class activity

Please feel free to share a time you may have refashioned your persona to identify with a particular group. Whether it was a style of clothes you wore, the way you talked, or the things you came to believe in; was it worth it? How did you succeed? How did you fail? Would you consider social media an instigator in the sense that it promotes one to refashion its identity to become a more recognized figure?

Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this presentation made possible by Adobe Spark. I would also like to thank Garry Bertholf for his continued support in helping push me to make this possible, and Courtney Desiree Morris for providing such an inspiring literary piece to base this presentation off of.

Created By
Bruce Stephenson


Created with images by WikiImages.

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