Ann-Marie Vaz is poised to become the first female Member of Parliament in the history of East Portland, Jamaica, on April 4th. The seat’s been in the hands of men and the People’s National Party (PNP), for over 30 years. After clenching the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) nomination in March, Vaz has risen to a 6% lead in recent polls.
She says the longevity of the opposing party’s power has resulted in nothing for East Portlanders. Vaz claims the PNP, “paid no attention to the infrastructure or water or job opportunities.”
Climbing to the top with no political experience, Vaz, a 53-year-old mother, aims to clench a seat, serving a part of the island that is considered to be off the beaten track in rural Jamaica. It’s nestled on the northeast coast, about a 2-hour ride outside of Kingston.
According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, East Portland boasts of attractions like Frenchman’s Cove, Reach Falls, Blue Lagoon and is home to jerk chicken. East Portland initially served as the Vaz’s family weekend home from their mainstay in Kingston. When she officially launched her campaign last September, the family moved to East Portland full-time.
While spreading a message of prosperity and self-reliance for East Portlanders, Vaz recently faced attacks of sexism and colorism from her opponent Damion Crawford on the campaign trail. He purportedly labeled Vaz as “uptown rich girl” diminishing her to “a beautiful face” claiming he is the candidate with “a beautiful brain.” While Vaz says Crawford’s personal attacks are hurtful, she shared that she is confident in her melanin skin. “I’ve never thought of myself as anything else than a Black woman.”
Born in Duff House in Manchester, Jamaica, Vaz describes herself as a “typical Jamaican country girl” who explained that, “I don’t even know my father to know where my skin color comes from.” Raised in a close-knit family of farmers with 5 siblings, Vaz shared that her grandmother raised her to believe in her own ability to move herself out of poverty. “We were so poor that my first toy was a 1-foot dolly that was given to me by a friend,” she described. “And my pet was a ram goat.” After high school, Vaz took a job in marketing and went on to study psychology and management studies at the University of the West Indies. “Because of the importance that I place on education I’ve sent everybody around me to school,” she said.
Vaz spoke with ESSENCE on the eve of potentially making Jamaican history. She shared how her professional experience will help her govern East Portland, how Black women inspire her to push forward, her husband’s support, and how her popularity has risen with her “people-tician” policies.
*Responses have been condensed for clarity*
ESSENCE: Tell us about the heart and soul of East Portland.
VAZ: I love the people of Portland. They are industrious people who are not looking for handouts. They are people who are looking for an opportunity. Portland has the lowest crime rate (in Jamaica), which should tell you that we are a peaceful people who just want to conduct our affairs peacefully.
ESSENCE: How will your professional background help in politics?
VAZ: I started the One Jamaica Foundation to fix the infrastructure of schools. You cannot learn in a place that is not inspirational for you. These kids
ESSENCE: How will you make your lack of political experience work for you?
VAZ: I don’t consider myself a politician. I consider myself a “people-tician.” To bring about change you have to enter the system and change the system from within and, for that reason, I entered politics. When you come and you see roads and bridges and water not in pipes, you set about doing those things. My experience is that I treat each East Portland constituent as my family. Whatever I cannot do on my own, I have the contacts to get that person who is able to execute.
ESSENCE: Your husband is the MP for West Portland. How has his support affected you?
VAZ: I find it amusing and puzzling. People are still thinking that it’s a negative that a husband is supporting a wife. I don’t understand and I hope this public display of support by my husband will inspire other men to support their wives.
ESSENCE: How do you feel about the attacks on your social class and gender?
VAZ: The attacks are very simple, very hurtful and very deliberate. In 2019 to say that all a woman can achieve is to be a man’s wife is disrespectful to not only every single Jamaican woman, but all women across the board.
There are women in this country who are beaten and physically and mentally abused daily. I am doing this for women who cannot stand up for themselves and I’m not going to be disrespected by anyone.
ESSENCE: What kept you going?
VAZ: This journey is not a personal journey for me. I am not in this for Ann-Marie Vaz. This is about the people of East Portland.
My biggest challenge is to get my people to dream, to get them to believe.
ESSENCE: Jamaica is known for tourism. What are your plans to elevate East Portland?
VAZ: I want to keep EP as a tree line development. I want to go for more green tourism. We have made the most money in the Airbnb market. The problem now is that we don’t have enough rooms. I want to create a fund so that we can have more people put their homes up in the Airbnb market. I also want to develop a health and wellness medical tourism platform. I want to form a chapter to market Portland as a destination. Already more cruise ships are coming and planning to bring larger cruse ships here as well.
ESSENCE: How will your tourism plan create sustainable jobs in the East Portland community?
VAZ: I will establish a link between the local agriculture and the tourism sector so we can eat what we grow here in EP. When the cruise ships come, we should be able to replenish the stocks. As someone who grew up in farming I want to make sure our farmers can give first world products. “Clean and green” is how we want our parish to stay.
ESSENCE: What are your plans for healthcare in the rural poor?
VAZ: We have one hospital. If we want to grow tourism here in EP the hospital and healthcare have to keep up with people coming into our parish.
One of the first things I want to do within the first year is get a kidney dialysis machine. Too many of our people have to go into Kingston. There’s none on this side of the world right here. I hope I can get some help from the Diasporans in getting this dialysis unit up.
ESSENCE: Jamaica is known for the logo “Out of many, one people.” What does that mean to you?
VAZ: I care zero about class, race, creed. Only thing that matters to me as a human being is having a good heart, nothing else.
April 5th will be a new day and defining moment in the history of East Portland. We’re going to celebrate the relief and freedom from bondage and slavery of poverty.