Caribbean Roots

I have finally decided to identify myself as being West Indian/Caribbean. For a long time I tried ignoring the question of what I identify with, but it was an impossible feat. When surveys or college applications came along, I never knew what box to check off; I would usually eliminate choices and end up marking off that I am either Black or Hispanic. It made me confused – was I supposed to fit in one of the categories? Does anyone know who I am, and more importantly, do I?

For a long time, I thought I was Indian, but I didn’t relate to those who were from India as much as I thought. When speaking with those from India, I would recognize the similarities in our culture as my great-great grandparents migrated from South India to Guyana. However, there was only so much I could relate to until I realized I wasn’t quite the same as the others. At the same time, I am more liberal than the elders in my family, so I thought I must be American – but I didn’t relate to that group entirely either. I could identify with some aspects of American culture, but there was also definitely a feeling of detachment. When it comes to freedom of expression, I am all for it; but at times I feel as though the conservative ideals of my culture has impacted me in such a way that at times I am repulsed by the more vulgar norms of American society such as the casualty of sexual conversations and images in movies, shows and on the radio.

Growing up, I was accustomed to the language used at home. It was English to me, but every now and then I would notice that not everyone knew or used the words that I did. It wasn’t until my teens that I really researched the language used in Guyana and Trinidad and learned that it was mixed with Creole. Eventually it led to me asking more and more questions, and as I got older, my grandmother, who is Guyanese, would tell me of her life in Guyana, and how coming to America changed her life.

I have never had the chance to travel to Guyana, but the stories she tells me make me both intrigued, and also hesitant to go. She grew up very poor, as the third oldest of six children. They owned (and still own) sugar cane plantations, and farm animals and lived by the beach. Sometimes they would only eat one or two meals a day, so she and her siblings took joy in receiving pennies to buy candy every so often. I’ve recognized that even the smallest things I take for granted were once out of reach for my family, and others who grew up in the West Indies in the 50’s-60’s. She’d describe how the family would use one bar of soap to bathe and wash clothes with, and how she and her sisters would have to use cloths when they matured because feminine products were not available for most women. Simultaneously, there were happier memories of her brothers and her eating from tamarind trees, or using leaves as plates, which added flavor to the food, and how the schoolchildren would chew parts of a special bush that would then turn into gum (or at least something similar to it).

However, above all, she always expresses her resentment towards her own parents. She was upset that she was never able to go on school trips like the other children, or even to high school because her family could only afford for her youngest two siblings to go.

She later had my mother at the age of 19, at home and with the help of a midwife who advised her not to go to a hospital because they might want to perform a C-section for which the mothers received no type of anesthetic or numbing medication. She worked with a family to make ends meet, essentially becoming their maid. She would cook, clean, do their laundry, and take care of the five children, and for all her work would receive a mere $10 a week to support herself and my mother.

She finally migrated to America in 1979 with the rest of my family. They advised that she get married, seeing that my grandfather had passed away and she would have great difficulty trying to raise my mother on her own in a foreign country, with little education or money to start her off with. She then went back to Guyana to have an arranged marriage and returned to America in 1980. She eventually had my uncle, who was born premature, and she became very ill after giving birth. Yet with my grandfather working just $100 a week to support the family, they were able to save enough to buy a house in Brooklyn, and later on in Queens (where we live today).

Her stories remind me to be frugal, humble, and appreciative of what I have. I try my best to stick to my roots, and stay true to my unique island culture, while finding ways to connect it to the American culture I am now growing up in. She reminds me that education is important, and to take advantage of it as much as I can so that I may have more opportunities than she did, and possess the confidence needed to be independent.