On a Friday afternoon, a woman lounges around her house in South Ozone Park while watching soap operas on daytime TV. Her name is Shanti and she is mother of two kids. She immigrated here from the country of Trinidad over 30 years ago, in August of 1985. She came to New York City when she was just 19 years old. She reminisces on the reason she came here: “When I was 19, my mom came to me one day and told me that my sister was getting a divorce, my older sister, and she had two kids and she had no one to help her with the kids because she used to work and so I was asked, she was asking for me to come stay with her to help her take care of the kids.” She had no choice but to leave home and come to New York to help her sister. She came here alone and left her family in Trinidad, remembering it as “that was my first time being away from home.”
Before she came to New York City, she lived with her parents and her younger brother, saying: “My mom was a stay at home mom and my dad used to work.” Her father was very strict and because of that they weren’t allowed to go out much. She remembers, “Once in a while you would get to go to the movies or the savannah. If there’s a fair or something, a celebration like phagwah or Diwali, you were allowed to go to that… Never allowed to stay out late.” Besides those special occasions, most of her days were spent running errands for the house.
Upon her arrival in New York, she remembers “I didn’t come with a lot of things” because what she needed in Trinidad wasn’t what she needed for New York City. She came straight to Richmond Hill, a neighborhood adjacent to her current neighborhood. When asked what surprised her about New York City she said, “I was more in shock because leaving home for the first time and not being with my family was really hard and when you first come here you didn’t expect to see what you saw. You thought that, you know, the place was like in the movies.”
The first place she stayed when she came to New York was her sister’s one bedroom home where she stayed for about a year and a half. She would sleep on the couch and her sister would sleep with her children in the room. She recounts, “I used to take the kids to school, pick them up from school. Then my sister got me a job in the city. I used to work in the city with her in a button company.” Even with her new job, she still had to take care of her sister’s kids.
Assimilating to life in New York was a bit difficult as she only felt comfortable around her own people. The people who helped her adapt to life in the city was her family. Her sister had stepsiblings, so one of her stepsisters would take her out and was very friendly and welcoming to her. The other siblings were more conservative and reserved and didn’t interact with her much. Even her own sister was distant from her because they were 10 years apart. Shanti recalls, “I don’t remember being close to her, you know, so when I came it was all new, fresh, strange, different. It’s like you’re living with a stranger.”
She slowly started to feel more comfortable here and continued being a caretaker for her sister’s kids. She was relieved of her nanny duties when she met her husband. Her sister was okay with their relationship, but after a turn of events they had to move in with her sister’s father and she was placed back in a strict atmosphere. Since her sister’s father didn’t want them seeing each other, she moved out and stayed with a family friend who lived in Jamaica, Queens.
Eventually she married her husband and they rented an apartment from her sister, who had recently bought a new home and had moved out of her father’s house. It was a one bedroom basement apartment where they lived for four years, during which she gave birth to a son. Also during this time, she resumed taking care of her sister’s kids and got a new job. She said, “I used to work at Suzette’s on Jamaica Avenue. It’s a children’s store… I was there for maybe two years. When I got pregnant with Ryan [her son], I left.”
Although their basement apartment was small, it was a good space for them because they were comfortable and her son was able to grow up with his cousins and had someone to keep him company. After the four years passed, they moved out and moved to their current house in Ozone Park where they’ve lived for about 25 years.
For a while, she didn’t feel part of a community because their block was mainly white and hispanic so she felt secluded. She commented, “You always felt, you know,” unable to find a word to describe her feelings of not belonging. Her husband wanted to move to Long Island, but she did not want to because she wanted to be around her family and people who were like her, meaning Caribbean people. On the subject of Long Island, she remarked, “Why would you want to move and go out there?”
When asked about her favorite place in New York, she replied, “I love going to the beach. Not to go into the water but just going to the beach and sitting and watching the ocean.” Her favorite beach to go to in New York City is Rockaway Beach, but not because she likes it. It is only her favorite place because it is the closest beach to her and reminds her of Trinidad. The beach brings up memories of when she would frequent the beach with her family in Trinidad. They weren’t able to go often, but when they occasionally went, they would spend the day there and relax. When thinking of other places and landmarks in New York, she revealed “I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, never been to the World Trade Center.” Despite not having seen some parts of the city, it’s clear that Queens became her safe haven that she rarely ventured out from.
One of the things she hates about New York City is the fact that it never sleeps. She points out her window to the neighbor across the street. She says, “I hate when my neighbor gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go to work and I hear his car starting up. I hate that revving of the engine. The neighborhood has its pros and cons for sure.” Just as she mentions him, he is returning home from his shift and the revving of his deafening engine shakes the house of noise.
Looking back on her journey, Shanti said she would’ve stayed in Trinidad if given the chance to go back in time. She explains, “just because it took me away from my family. You know, my siblings and my mom and my dad.” Although her family has come to visit a few times, they never liked it enough to stay. Her mother still lives in Trinidad so she is thinking of moving back. She says her and her husband will move back “if we can find somewhere affordable.”
“I think you get tired, once you’ve been here a long time. You get tired of all the hassle, and the stress, the fast pace as you get older. You tend to start to miss home too, sometimes,” she says. “No matter how long I’ve lived here I still don’t see this New York as home. Even though my family is here, my life is here, but it still doesn’t feel like home.” She doesn’t expect her children to move back with them, saying “It’s their choice.”
Right off the bat, the first thing Shanti said when asked what are the best things about living in New York City was “opportunities.” She says, “You can able to get a job, work, save money, buy a house, have a car, take care of your family, live a decent life.” For her, this kind of life wasn’t an option in Trinidad because the opportunities are not there.
For her, the worst things about New York are more about the environment. She dislikes the pollution, all the people, the snow/cold weather, and “having to deal with the seasons, like allergies.”
Describing her neighborhood in a few words, she says “I would say our neighborhood is a good neighborhood. It’s mostly made up of West Indians, people from our country, Trinidad, Guyana. A lot of Punjabis are moving in. On the weekends, everybody comes out and cleans their yard, play music once in a while.” She says they play “old Indian songs” combined with new soca and reggae songs, which are a tribute to their Indo-Caribbean roots.
“On our block everyone gets along, everyone talks and hangs out together,” she says. “Most of them have been here since we moved in.”
She thinks her block shows the diversity of America because there’s a mixture of everything. Unlike other immigrants, she wasn’t shocked by the diversity she experienced when coming to New York because it was no different than Trinidad.
Remembering how her neighborhood was when she first moved in she says, “When I came, majority of the people were white people. In the 80s, when we were on Liberty, it wasn’t so much Indians like in the 90s.” Liberty Avenue is a main street in South Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park known for its abundance of stores catering to an Indian/Caribbean enclave.
Remembering her white neighbors, she comments, “I think most of them moved to Long Island.” She thinks they moved out as the neighborhood started changing into the Indo-Caribbean enclave it is today.
“There were never any Indian stores on Liberty. I know there was only one West Indian store on Liberty that was on 124th or 125th street,” she says. “You never used to get a big variety of West Indian products like how you get everything now.
You never used to see mangoes” and other vegetables or spices. In terms of the changes, she says “It took like 10 years maybe” for the neighborhood to change completely.
Shanti has reflected on her experience in New York since she arrived over 30 years ago. After thinking for a few minutes, she said, “My New York is not my home, but there’s no single word to describe what it means for me. It’s where I find comfort too, I could say, because when I was home in Trinidad I was unhappy.” New York gave her a place to grow, but now she’s ready to go back to her real home in Trinidad.