Carnival: Reinforcing Immigrant Identity

Investigating Immigrant Identity

According to Garvey Lundy in his Transnationalism in the Aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake: Reinforcing Ties and Second-Generation Identity, immigrant self-identification is a large topic of interest, one with many complex relations. As many journals and essays focusing on Transnationalism prove, immigrant identification, especially among the 1.5 and 2nd generations, is never black and white. It depends on the social and economic status of the immigrant, exposure to explicit and implicit forms of racism, and other varying factors. Such is the case connecting Carnival and Immigrant Identity.


Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago itself is a unifying factor. Carnival is a festival that nearly every person looks forward to, trumping holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

True players of carnival dress in elaborate, often expensive, costumes. Photo by Zigwa

True players of carnival dress in elaborate, often expensive, costumes. Photo by Zigwa

As the treasurer of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), Angela P. Sealy, puts it, “A person who don’t go an’ play in carnival must be sick or something.”

Carnival has boasted this idea of unity since its early beginnings. Slaves, wanting to copy their masters’ elegant balls, banded together and threw their own festivals. This idea has evolved over time, leading to many different types of people uniting for Carnival, and often criticizing the establishment and sociopolitical issues. Thus those who identify with and participate in Carnival often are acceptant of the ideas of unity and revelry.


Unity and Revelry

Parading the Eastern Parkway. Note the different nations represented in the crowd. (Anthony Delmundo/NY Daily News)

Parading the Eastern Parkway. Note the different nations represented in the crowd. (Anthony Delmundo/NY Daily News)

Carnival is a representation of the conflicts of various social forces, displaying the “aspirations and tensions” of different groups and societies (Nurse 667). This can be seen in Ole Mas, where players hold various signs criticizing the government and social establishments. As Philip Kasinitz notes, “It is not merely a reflection of politics – it is politics – a realm where new ideas about power relations may be articulated in the context of a public drama.” Therefore, Carnival can be viewed as the unification of the subjugated masses through revelry. This idea of unity and revelry has been carried into Carnival in New York. According to Keith Nurse in his Globalization And Trinidad Carnival: Diaspora, Hybridity AND Identity In Global Culture:

For the host societies in North America and Europe, the overseas Caribbean carnivals also allowed for an open and public display of the socioeconomic and politico-cultural tensions that exist between the organs of oppression (i.e. the state, police, media, church, school) and the Caribbean population. (678)

He also goes on to argue that Carnival are “inherently democratic and participatory.” He notes that carnival removes any social, economic or political borders, and thus has a wide appeal to many peoples, Caribbean or not.


WIADCA Continues the Tradition

Many of those who actually participate in Carnival (i.e. joining a band and dressing the part) have been exposed to it from a young age, and continue to enjoy the culture. This is one of the purposes of WIADCA’s Kiddie Carnival. By exposing Caribbean children within New York to Carnival from a young age, they will grow to understand the true meaning of Carnival, and its importance for Caribbean Culture. Once this Kiddie Carnival continues to thrive, so will the larger Labor Day Parade.

Video from 2013 Junior Carnival (by Zerina Phillip)

One problem that Carnival in New York experiences is free riders (Nurse). They are some who identify with carnival simply as a time of revelry, ignoring other aspects of the culture. According to WIADCA’s board secretary, Jean Alexander, the Labor Day Parade has a large number of people who simply show up to ‘fete.’ Not participating in the culture, or in the other events that WIADCA hosts, Alexander notes that they are trying to fix this problem.


Issues with Identity

Carnival is something that is shared, yet is unique at the same time. It is not only unique to the host society, be it within the Caribbean or overseas, it is also unique to each person. As shown earlier, Carnival is made up of various artistic components. As discussed in the interview with WIADCA, to some, Carnival is about the elegant costume, to others it is about the steel band performances, and to many it is simply about parading the streets. Nonetheless, despite one’s relation with Carnival, he or she is also subject to the host society’s portrayal of West Indians.

Overseas Carnivals have often been portrayed as alien, which goes against the festival’s theme of total social acceptance. Nurse writes, “The festival has suffered from racial and sexual stigmas and stereotypes in the media which are based on the constructions of ‘otherness’ and blackness’” (676). This will, as expected, would have an effect on how Caribbean participants of the various Carnivals would identify. Rogers concludes that, “As long as blacks are subject to categoric [sic] racial treatment and discrimination, the argument goes, Afro-Caribbeans will be inclined to identify racially with African Americans.” By having their festival portrayed negatively in media, many Caribbean immigrants may begin to push away their West Indian culture, shunning the culture of Carnival.

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