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Are the Caribbean People Becoming Culturally Dissonant?
Guyana Journal, May 2007

The Caribbean is made up of many nations, many with six main “races”. However, in discussions, only Africans and, to a lesser extent, Indians are talked about; others are blandly submerged in the historical mélange.

In fact, the Caribbean is truly plural in every facet of life. The inhabitants are English, Spanish and French speaking generally; Hindustani, taki-taki, papimento and patois are still the main languages of communication in some places.

In almost all of the Caribbean, one still finds descendents of Indentured Indians – they predominate in Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Suriname – but they are not ‘visible’ in the macro milieu. Like the earlier inhabitants who arrived as slaves, i.e., the Africans, they are being subjected to an ongoing cultural denudation. In some smaller islands, like Martinique, St. Kitts, Grenada, and St. Vincent, Indian culture is totally or almost absorbed. In many ways, history is repeating itself in relation to those early Indians and the modern day ones – in the Caribbean and the diaspora.

In Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, the forces of the sugar plantocracy have resulted in residential segregation of peoples, especially between the two major races (and I use the word “race” loosely), but is becoming less so in the towns and cities.

Migration from the Caribbean to other lands like the UK, Canada and the US has been occurring, mostly since 1960s, and is encouraged, not by the casual traveler, but by internal forces and to a lesser degree by external factors (push/pull factors). Long before this, migration from Europe to the recipient countries had occurred on a large scale because of war, hunger and famine, and religious and political persecution. And for like reasons, migration continues today because of political pressures, economic reasons and for (humanitarian) family reunification.

Family dislocation and separation anxieties have resulted in many undocumented and untold woes such as broken marriages, child abuse, suicide, murders and spousal abuse. (Visit the Family Court in Queens, for example, and examine the posted calendars and you will see the proliferation of Indian names up for domestic cases, as well as their teenage children under Persons in Need of Supervision or Juvenile Delinquency petitions – the consequences of failed/dysfunctional families). Concomitantly, some ‘entrepreneurs’ have made fortunes from the pain and suffering of these less fortunate. (At the time of writing, two Guyanese men, Richard James and Ronald Mallay, are on trial; they are alleged to have killed as many as a dozen unfortunate victims in an insurance murder scheme and, according to a taped statement to a government official, might have had dozens more lined up for elimination.)

The modern-day immigrants have been arriving in larger numbers, some legally, others by any means possible as long as they pay the huge sums of cash (in excess of $10,000.00) to the backtrackers who are allegedly laundering their ill-gotten gains in the metropolis and in their homelands, living ostensibly in grandeur with a façade of feigned respectability. Giving sizable donations to political campaigns and religious organizations facilitates oiling of the wheels for their upward social mobility.

When I came to New York more than 25 years ago, I had already lived for brief periods in the UK and Canada. In my homeland, Guyana, I had a good job and a fairly decent lifestyle for my family and myself. Here in the US, I did not care much for the big cities, but I wanted to regain some semblance of the life I had in Guyana – fast. And I worked hard – too hard – at the expense of neglect of my family, initially. This is what happens to most immigrants. They become trapped in a system where both parents MUST work to maintain a home. And what happens to their children while they are out of the home to work, from 6am - 7pm? That’s another grim story that has to be told….

In 1984, I moved to Ozone Park in Queens, New York to find shockingly that all the people around my home were white. I walked the surrounding streets and found the same. Businesses that were opened (many had their gates down) were all white owned. The residents looked at me disapprovingly – as if to say ‘you don’t belong here!’ Today it’s the other way round – there are only a few whites still living in the neighborhood. This kind of demographic shift has occurred before and will continue to occur. That’s why we have Little Italy, Spanish Harlem and Chinatowns. That’s why there is Little India and Little Guyana.

Over time, many positive changes have come out of the new immigration. In my neighborhood all storefronts are up. New owners are operating to suit and satisfy the new residents. There are doctors, lawyers, real estate developers, real estate brokers, mortgage companies, insurance brokers, travel agencies, teachers, and others professionals, restaurants, repair shops and retail businesses of every kind. They are creating employment for their fellow country people. Real estate transactions and construction are always on the rise in this part – pride of home ownership is paramount. In this way, the exponential spin-off in other businesses, such as hardware and lumbering, insurance and home mortgage, etc., has increased many folds.

And yes, there are the homeless, vagrants and alcoholics that are regular fixtures at some street corners. And yes, there is a surfeit of bars at almost every block on certain Avenues.

Certainly, many residents have done very well while many others not so well. Many are being exploited by their own, i.e., those who have done well taking advantage of those others who are paid well below a legal living wage – in restaurants and bars, in babysitting/housekeeping, beauty shops, retail stores and other occupations. The stories are sometimes horrendous.

I would be amiss if I don’t mention the boom of places of worship – Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. They are mushrooming everywhere, some growing into grand edifices. This helps propagation of diversity and in the maintenance of a cultural link with the previous environment. Unfortunately, some have learned the ways of the ever-present televangelists, i.e., obtaining seed money and conning the naïve. One pandit in Brooklyn is reported to have brokered illegal work permits. One from Richmond Hill has been deported. And there are others. Many infightings take place usually for power and money. Currently in Ozone Park, there is a financial scandal in a major Hindu temple. (This is potentially sub judice.) And so the followers get turned off.

Religion in most cases has been unconsciously transformed into “religiousity” – a practice potent in ceremonies and rituals, but poor in practical morals and values. Hence, it is not uncommon to see rumshops and bars being blessed by pandits, young girls and children dressed and dancing vulgarly on Night Club stages with the full endorsement of parents and the religious community (even though there might be some violation of child labor laws), TV shows void of anything intelligent, just showing vulgarity in the name of Indian culture.

There has been an increased growth in the media, some of which portray cultural activities. However, the quality of TV and Radio production (and I will not single out any one for being bad) leaves much to be desired. There is no innovative thinking, nor is there creativity, despite several broadcasters and producers with many years in the business. What is happening is they are recycling the same old stuff, poorly replicating Bollywood and depressing the English language with age-old repetitive vocabulary. What is worse: the quality of production is oppressively stifling. And many people get tuned off. Occasionally, there are periodic live productions – Rajkumari Cultural Centre, Natraj, Terry Gagraj, Mahadeo Shivraj, Guyana Day, Indian Immigration Day (sponsored by the Indo-Caribbean Federation), Guyana Folk Festival and a few others, that bring decency and some intellectual stimulation, some also funny and nostalgic.

Further, there is no TV or radio daily news and very little, if any, reportage of community events. Generally, the newspapers have failed to carry current news because they are weeklies engaged in copy-and-paste for the most part.

There are/were also many well-intentioned organizations that have started up and are either non-functioning or exist only on paper (e.g. Guyanese-American Association, East Indian Diaspora, Guyanese International, Queens Caribbean Bar Association, New Concept Democratic Club). One wonders! Obviously, there needs to be self-examination.

The youths
The vast majority of the youths in schools, colleges or elsewhere appear to be lost in a no-man’s land or in the process of losing their culture completely because:

  • Parents don’t have the time, nor spend quality time with them.
  • Schools and colleges are not culture sensitive; curricula are poorly designed, i.e., they do not cater fully to the communities. There are few relevant textbooks and lectures. When and where there is a program of Caribbean studies and when it is done, it is usually Afro-centric.
  • Churches are restrictive, meaning that their intent is only on ‘saving’ them; and when the church is corrupt or if there is a perception of duplicity, the youths look in other directions.
  • There is a deliberate or unconscious denial of the true self – cognitive dissonance – because of the overarching pressure of the dominant culture. In some cases, it’s a don’t-know-don’t-care attitude.

Have the new immigrants done well or are they still lost and flummoxed in their new adopted home?
On one hand, some want to maintain and sustain their culture; on the other hand, others want to move into mainstream America, to gain acceptance and assimilate, to get into a melting pot as opposed to the salad bowl.

How can these communities move forward? Community leaders – business, church and professionals – have to acquire certain clout; they must strive for unity and then join hands with others who have similar objectives.

Be thyself. Know thyself. Knowledge is power. These are great catch phrases. But do we, as new immigrants, know who we are? Do we have the knowledge and adequate information of our communities, apart from anecdotal references? There is only a handful of documentation that addresses the concerns of the community. Mahin Gosine and Dhanpaul Narine, Robert Mahesh, Frankie Ramadar and maybe a few others have written books that relate general issues, which are fine. Gokarran Sukhdeo also wrote on Domestic Violence, gambling and other social issues of the Guyanese community. Sakhi is also working with abused women. But no one has provided any (or sketchy) hard statistical data based on empirical studies with regard to the socio-economic conditions – poverty, crime, illiteracy, alcoholism and drug abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, STD and Aids, cardio-vascular problems, incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes, and so on.

It is worthy to note that the AALDEF is doing pioneering work among the South Asian American community
(See 2006 Exit Poll Results)

The time is past gone but it is not too late to challenge the schools, colleges and the professors to undertake basic researches in the communities and to also design programs relevant to the historical and cultural needs of the communities. It is also appropriate to demand resources, financial and otherwise, from businesses, grant agencies and large corporations like the banks and major stores, to re-circulate some of the money into the community from which they profit immensely.

Over the years, there has been a flowering in celebratory festivals like Phagwah, Diwali and Eid, Indian Immigration Day, Guyana Day and Guyana Folk Festival. But some are barely maintained because of weather conditions, job restriction (no statutory holiday or ‘day-off’) and polarizing tensions among community groups.

In addition, there are few recreational and leisure facilities for the youth and elderly particularly; or any facility for free/voluntary service of any sort to those who can’t afford. Why not?

Some feel that political power is a prerequisite for the attainment of some of the amenities. Maybe so? So far the track record for this is dismal. Who are the players in the political game? There were Mike Duval (a Republican, Democrat and Independent all rolled in one, Joe Misir (an unknown) Denny Bhagwandin (an unknown Republican) Ram Jodha, Trevor Rupnarain (a good man who likely did not want to win), Taj Rajkumar (he actually won a seat recently); and the most recent New York City Council race saw Albert Baldeo, Robby Mahadeo and Dhanpaul Narine in a most nasty fight – literally. What happened in the last race disgraced us all. We were broad-brushed and undoubtedly were laughed at. It demonstrated puerile immaturity. It showed also that the political players were/are not altogether altruistic. They were/are not doing it for the right and good reason. It further signifies that there is not an honorable political agenda. In this regard, despite the posturing, the zeal, and the affluent grandstanding, regrettably, we, as a people, have not yet arrived!

It seems that the political neophytes want to bypass grassroots involvement, and somehow make shortcuts in the hope of having access into the mainstream political arena – which is the biggest mistake. They are not truly involved in the community and thus are not genuine representatives of the people. There is no grooming for politics, not even at Community Boards level. They are learning from the American system where money presumably buys everything. Unless there is political maturation, it would be prudent to let the chaff blow in the wind. The bottom line is: you cannot buy loyalty from the masses!

For too long the Caribbean people, in particular the Indians, have not been given their true place in the history of the Caribbean region and in the diaspora. Their absence in the cultural milieu has been condoned with benign denial through history, and later, according to some, by a deliberate policy of alienation.

In the diaspora, there is overwhelming evidence that numerically Caribbeans are not a marginal group. They are very vibrant economically. They participate and very often excel in all spheres of life. By their profound acumen and dint of industriousness they are also helping to mould the culture of New York City.

Therefore, they cannot and should not be excluded from the political process in the U.S. Indeed, the overriding political and economic culture should take full cognizance of their presence and their contributions in all segments of life, and be sensitive to their varied cultural and social needs at all levels – so that they become mainstream, if they so desire. And in addition, public education within the Caribbean region and overseas countries like the U.S. should be the vanguard effecting the change in mindset and false perception, rather than aiding in false images.

Fundamentally then, there must a mandate for a reification of the so-called Caribbean culture, and a full recognition of the diversity of all its peoples.
Gary Girdhari

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