by Lasana M. Sekou
GREAT BAY, St. Martin —The St. Martin folklorist Laurelle Richards, affectionately known island-wide as “Yaya,” passed away on May 26, 2010 and will be laid to rest in Marigot on June 4. She was 55 years old.
Laurelle Richards was born on April 28, 1955 in Freetown, the first of nine children to Alvira Bryan and Albert Richards. At age 14, while she was attending elementary school, Laurelle obtained her sewing diploma from Clara Mingo. At age 16, she left the Girls School of Marigot to help her parents raise her brothers and sisters—which included making the family’s clothes. At the time her father was a construction sub-contractor, and her mother worked in housekeeping at La Samanna resort.
In 1972, Laurelle began what she called her “first job training,” making pizza and serving as a waitress at the Portofino restaurant/guesthouse at Mt. O’reilly. When her mother passed away in 1974, Laurelle found employment in housekeeping at La Samanna. In 1988, after the death of her husband and now a mother herself, Laurelle obtained her taxi license. (She was still an independent taxi driver and worked at La Samanna at the time of her death.)
In keeping with a deathbed promise to her mother to “always” keep her “brothers and sisters united,” her family would gather “once a week” for dinner at each other’s homes in Freetown, a hamlet of St. Louis.
In 1990, Laurelle founded the Cultural Women Association of Rambaud-Saint Louis to promote domestic knowledge of traditional cooking, folk and carnival costuming; and how herbs, ground provisions, and fruits were used in both villages and generally on the island. Around 2006, Laurelle became a founding member of the Rambaud St-Louis Fête Association, a cultural promotion group of which she was the president.
On May 17, nearly 10 days before her passing both associations joined forces to hold the annual cook-out of traditional foods that Yaya was famous for organizing under or around an ancient tamarind tree in St. Louis. She called that “tamon” tree the “community center.”
Schools and cultural organizations from both parts of St. Martin regularly invited Laurelle Richards to exhibit and talk about the nation’s folklife. In 2002, with the recital of “The Frock,” Laurelle’s poems began to evolve out of what may be called her “Spoken Word” presentations. The story-filled dress that she wore also became more characteristic of her public performance persona.
In 2009, she was a special guest poet at the Poetry in the Garden series, organized in Marigot by the arts and culture department of the Collectivité Territoriale. In April 2010, Yaya appeared at Miss Ruby’s cultural retreat in Friar’s Bay and stunned audiences with her “modeling” of the “pantylette,” stitching humor and sensual elements into an original vignette. Audience members who had seen her in Clara Reyes’ record-attendance Vagina Monologues in 2007 and 2008, were already prepared for her style of dramatizing the “private” and “ordinary” parts of traditional St. Martin with extraordinary personal affect.
Essentially, as a folklorist she projected the folklore aspect of the nation onto modernity, with pride and confidence. Carnival, UNESCO Mother Language presentation, Fish Day, Boardwalk Mas on Great Bay Beach, Christmas fête at the Waterfront, like a village chief welcoming folks to the annual St. Louis food fair, our Yaya was there … with us, for us. When we saw her coming, her eyes finding us in the crowd, looking upon us with a warm livingroom smile, we smiled back … to memory, not in mockery nor mimicry but in that modest way of oldtime S’maatin people.
In her presence we did not have to find our way home, home came looking for us, found us, and never judged what we had become. And by the time she passed on in the procession or picnic, we knew, if only for a moment, that we came from far more grounded places than we’ve been made to believe, that we could be better than who we wanted to be when that solitary “want” was less than our best solidary selves.
Before her passing Laurelle Richards had collected her poems into a manuscript for publication by House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP) as her first book, which will be called The Frock & Other Poems. The team coordinated by HNP that has been working on various aspects of the Richards book include Minerva Dormoy, Rhoda Arrindell, Lenny Mussington, Roland Richardson, Sundiata Lake, Shujah Reiph, and Laura Richardson. A number of family members and friends that assisted Yaya typing the draft manuscript are acknowledged by her in the book.
When leading Caribbean Impressionist Roland Richardson painted Yaya’s image on a larger-than-life canvas a few months ago, the village griot told the painter how she came to fashion her frock out of strips of colored cloth. The pieces of cloth reminded the artist of dolls as he painted Yaya’s story about her own family and village life. The painting will grace the cover of the posthumous title. In Yaya’s upcoming book Richardson concludes his impression of the “culture woman” like this: “I saw that Laurelle had been transformed, had become a living embodiment of these generations of tiny dolls. Enrobed in this living fabric, nourished by the stream of multiple lives, she has become a living doll, mother to them all.” Many of us are so saddened by the sudden passing of Yaya, one of the nation’s beloved cultural mothers. O “Death be not proud” with his one. Rest In Glorious Peace, Laurelle “Yaya” Richards. Captions Laurelle “Yaya” Richards in her folkloric frock preparing to recite at the Poetry Garden, Marigot, 2010. (Saltwater Collection/C. Tiber) Yaya in younger days. (LR photo) Laurelle “Yaya” Richards dining out. (LR photo) Yaya fêting in a carnival costume. (LR photo)