The Guyanese
By Beverly Hall Lawrence

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In the kitchen of her grandmother's house in Springfield Gardens, Queens, Malika Ferdinand learns a lot about the cultural traditions of her native Guyana.

Pots simmering with pepperpot stew or peas and rice -- two national dishes -- provide a literal taste of her culture as her grandmother, Jennifer Charles, tells her about the Caribbean country where Ferdinand was born in 1985. "All the time, I keep them [my grandchildren] in the kitchen with me, and I teach them how to prepare dishes, what spices to use, and I tell them why it is important to carry on the traditions we have from back home," says Charles, who moved here from Georgetown, Guyana, in 1990.

Ferdinand, 17, a senior at August Martin High School in Jamaica, immigrated in 1996. She said the Guyanese cultural tradition she is most proud of is "having respect for everyone and treating your neighbor as family."

Another Guyanese student, Ramona Persaud, a fourth-grader at PS 33 in Queens Village, wrote to Student Briefing about a celebration her family enjoys each year called Diwali, or the Festival of Lights. "It is a celebration where you have to light a candle in every room and you have to leave your front door unlocked because a spirit comes to your house and protects it," she wrote. During Diwali, Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, is feted and gifts are exchanged.

These are examples of the diverse and rich additions made by Guyanese-Americans. Since the 1980s, the number of Guyanese immigrants has steadily increased, with many settling in Queens, where they have created a cultural link to their homeland by starting cultural associations, charity organizations, grocery stores and places of prayer.

The U.S. Census counts an estimated 81,000 residents of Guyanese ancestry in New York City, with 60 percent of them living in Queens -- mostly in Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and Jamaica.

Their homeland -- a tropical country about the size of Idaho -- is in the northern part of South America, east of Venezuela. It is called the Land of Six Peoples because the country's main ethnic groups are descendants of East Indians, Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese and those of mixed race. Each group has a distinct ancestry and culture. Some are Hindu, some are Muslim and some are Christian, like Ferdinand's family. But all are Guyanese. Some speak Creole English, Hindi or Urdu, but the official language is English.

Guyana was originally inhabited by Carib and Arawak tribes who gave it its name, which means "land of many waters." The Dutch settled there in the late 16th century, but the British took over in 1796, naming it British Guiana.

The British brought African slaves to the country to work on sugarcane plantations till slavery was abolished in 1834. The British then brought thousands of indentured laborers, mostly from India, but also Portugal and China.

Eventually the Indo-Guyanese became the largest ethnic group, at 49 percent, with Afro-Guyanese the second largest, at 32 percent. Mixed-race Guyanese account for 12 percent, Amerindian 6 percent, and white and Chinese make up the remaining 1 percent.

Guyana gained its independence in 1966 and became a republic in 1970.

Many of the Guyanese immigrants to the United States, like Charles, were attracted by economic opportunities.

Beverly Hall Lawrence is a freelance writer.

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