Photo by Ashley Somwaru

Tying a Future Together in America

An Indo-Carib couple’s tale: When pursuing dreams give way to raising a family in NYC

By Ashley Somwaru
July 9, 2018 | , , , , ,

Over the static of chowtal creaking through the radio and while soaking chicken in lime water, my mother purses her lips as she racks her brain, trying to find a good enough answer to why she came to New York. Then she violently shakes her head, dismissing each reason before settling into her 20-year-old perspective.

“I was a scatterbrain. I wanted everything. I wanted to go to college and get a degree. I wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and be a pilot. It was all so glamorous on TV, and I wanted it. There wasn’t anything like that in Trinidad,” my mother reminisces.

Thinking that traveling to New York would be the first step to getting what she wanted, my mother made the decision to leave her home. Wearing a crisp white shirt, black pants, and high heels she couldn’t walk in, my mother walked onto her American Airlines flight like she was going to a party. The fact that she was leaving Trinidad didn’t bother her, nor did the idea of an unknown New York scare her. She felt completely safe journeying to a city where she feels immigrants were accepted, her sister included.

 

My mother and her sister, Sandra, in Trinidad before they left for New York.   Photo courtesy of Ashley Somwaru

 

My mother is one of the many Indo-Caribbeans who left their homes in the 1980s in search of a life that couldn’t be offered in the country they lived in. By the 1990s, as many as 25,000 Trinidadian and Tobagonians have migrated to New York.

My mother left her home in 1982 with a U.S. travel visa. Her father was a contractor for the government, her brothers had government jobs, and she had already finished school. Trinidad was a thriving country in the middle of 1970s and early 1980s, with its large reserve of petroleum and natural gas. At this point, my mother could have also gotten a government job and supported herself. But the one thing my mother didn’t have was what made her flee.

“My family wasn’t poor. We were well-off. We had running water. We had electricity,” my mother says. “But I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to stay there. There was no movement. It wasn’t like I could get a job and hope to move up the ladder. I was going to be in the same position for the rest of my life.”

“Can you imagine your life as still as water in a pond? Would you ever feel the urge to cause a ripple?” my mother asks me, putting me in her shoes. The fear of a stagnant life with no growth or opportunity to do something different than the regular treaded path was enough to drive my mother away. It was enough to make her leave a comfortable life for an undecided future. But she wouldn’t dare call this primal need for the unknown the American Dream.

 

“If this was the question that flooded my parents’ thoughts until it forced them to leave their small comforts at home, how can I fault their decision even though I know the outcome?”

 

“American Dream? No. I didn’t have that. I just wanted to get away. Maybe your dad did, but not me,” my mother tells me, shooing me off to find my father’s story because while my mother made a speedy decision to leave her country, my father took his time.

In 1970, my father’s brother came to New York with a student visa, married a citizen, and five years later, used his newly acquired citizenship to petition for his parents and siblings to come to the U.S. and become legal permanent residents. The promise that there were better opportunities in America was very convincing for my father, who owned nothing but his shirt and pants.

Living in the rural area of Guyana, my father and his family did farming. They owned a rice plantation and several acres of land where they grow their own crops while having to pay only a small tax for living on the land. They could’ve done anything with that land, but they chose to leave it.

My paternal grandparents and their children in Guyana in the 1970s.    Photo courtesy of Ashley Somwaru

My grandfather knew this wasn’t the place for his children to grow up. He wanted his children to be respected. He wanted his children to have happy lives. Guyana, due to political conflicts, suffered from rural poverty in the interior areas of the country, weak regulatory systems that discouraged private investments, and lack of educational opportunities.

The two main political parties, the People’s National Congress (PNC) and the People Progressive Party (PPP), had been locked in a bitter and deadly conflict since the mid-50s. The ruling PNC took power after it was able to cobble up majority of the votes during the election in 1964, which was widely perceived to be marred by election fraud. The PNC was backed by the U.S and Britain, who wanted to remove PPP’s Cheddi Jagan from leadership because they were afraid Jagan’s Marxist-Leninist leanings would turn Guyana into a second Cuba. The PNC party believed its leader, Forbes Burnham, was a hero for the marginalized Afro-Guyanese population, although there was a multi-racial resistance against Burnham for his dictator-like behavior.

During Burnham’s rule, from 1964 to 1985, many Indian leaders accused the PNC of turning a blind eye to Indians who were murdered by supporters of the government. Violence broke out frequently, and it escalated into a racial conflict between the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. Under the PNC, workers suffered low wages, imports were banned, and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. Guyana’s crumbling streets were filled with unruly gangs, unjust murders, beggars, and animal carcasses.

With this social and economic turmoil, there was no other choice for my father’s family. They had to leave. So they waited. My father was lucky. Being just under 21 years old, he was allowed to come to the U.S. with his parents and seven younger siblings after their legal permanent resident visas or green cards were approved. Carefully wrapping a framed picture of Shree Krishna into his suitcase, my father left Guyana, never looking back even as he left some family members behind.

 

“‘I had to quit my job and stay home to take care of you and your siblings.  There was no one to watch over you if I needed to go to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment. So I gave it all up,’ she says quietly.

 

“This is the land of the free. I have the freedom to do what I couldn’t do before,” my father says as a true believer of the American Dream. “I came to New York for better opportunities. I wanted to be a technician. I wanted to work with my hands.”

When I asked him if his dreams came true, though, he turned away, hesitantly admitting that no, it didn’t.

Every day the streets are crowded with people carrying bags and talking to one another like we’re all family.  Photo by Ashley Somwaru

From time to time, I stare at Shree Krishna, the picture my father brought with him. His calculative dark eyes follow me as I shift the weight on my feet. With a flute in his hand, Krishna continuously asks me, “Is this what you want your life to be?” My reply is silence. Silence because I don’t know how to change my path even if I wanted to. If this was the question that flooded my parents’ thoughts until it forced them to leave their small comforts at home, how can I fault their decision even though I know the outcome?

In the unknown darkness that was my parents’ future, they both faced the harsh realities of life in New York. Finding that this strange, new place was where my family wanted to set down roots, my father filled out a green card application for my mother, now that he was a citizen. She returned to Trinidad and stayed there for a short time while waiting for her green card to be processed before coming back to New York.

However, my mother realized that she didn’t have the resources to get a degree. Instead, she got a 9-to-5 factory job for $3 an hour in Manhattan. The badges she created for the military, similar to the badges that lined the uniforms of people who my mother watched on TV were the closest she ever got to her dream of being a pilot. Citizenship status was not granted to her yet, so my mother also had no way of traveling the world like she desperately hoped she could do.

Stores selling clothing and materials used for pooja fill Liberty Avenue, where many Indo-Caribbean folks come to buy their supplies.   Photo by Ashley Somwaru

It was only one year living in New York, but my mother was ready to go home. She was homesick. She missed the beach limes with her brothers and sisters, missed stopping off to house fetes that welcomed strangers into the yard. But Trinidad wasn’t thriving anymore. With the recession, due to the collapse in oil prices, inflation, and a high unemployment rate, her family members were now looking to head north, holding the same hopes she had when she left her home. By 1990, close to 6,000 Trinidadian and Tobagonians have already opted to reside in Queens.

My father’s remaining family and friends were also trying to find a way to come to New York, but with more urgency. Over 40,000 people from Guyana have immigrated to New York by 1990, and 16,866 of these residents made Queens their home. By 2010, Guyana, India, Trinidad and Tobago were the primary countries of origin of residents in the Queens neighborhoods of Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, and Woodhaven.

With the help of other Guyanese immigrants, my father learned how to make Queens his home. Often times, he speaks of a certain Persaud Sanichar, who lent my father his car and taught him how to drive. The stacks of maps my father collected for different states over the years is a nod to Sanichar, who also showed him how to read a map to find where he wanted to go.

He never endured a stomach-churning desire to go back home. “There’s nothing for me there,” he says with a shrug of his shoulder, dismissing the thought of ever going back. Aside from the fact that my father and his family of 10 were cramped into a two-bedroom apartment and he worked factory jobs to help pay the rent, he encouraged everyone to make the leap because together, with loved ones and people who shared the same goal of acclimation, there was a community that helped each other gain proper footing.

 

My parents on their wedding day in 1985.  Photo courtesy of Ashley Somwaru

 

As a couple, my parents’ lives were more bearable. Maintaining two stable jobs with the help of well-wishers, my parents could support themselves and my father went on to take night classes. However, my mother’s was a different story. When they started having kids, she became the primary caregiver. She didn’t have the time to take classes nor the money to pay for daycare that cost more than her paycheck after having her second child. She couldn’t balance being a mother, provider, and household caretaker.

“I couldn’t be like your dad and go to school. There was no time for that. I had to quit my job and stay home to take care of you and your siblings.  There was no one to watch over you if I needed to go to the grocery store or to a doctor’s appointment. So I gave it all up,” she says quietly.

For her, the choice was simple, even though it wasn’t easy. My mother decided raising her kids was the most important task in her life. This decision pushed my father to study hard and find a job that was reliable enough to support his wife and children.

 

“Why should I regret anything I’ve done? I made a living for myself. If I stayed in Trinidad, my life still would’ve been harder than what I faced here.”

 

Neither imagined the unknown future they sought in America would wind up this way. My mother didn’t become a pilot. My father didn’t become a technician. My father had to watch his Caucasian co-workers receive higher pay and more respect for work that he was the most capable of doing. My mother had to hold her tongue in the face of store cashiers who would turn their noses up and refused to offer her proper service. It wasn’t until I was in college, that my mother placed a colorful towel with cartoon butterflies, flowers, and a smiling sun on my bed.

A family strolling down Liberty Avenue, looking at fruits, and colorful saris and kurtas, much like I did with my parents when I was a child. Photo by Ashley Somwaru

“I always wanted to buy you something like this, but we didn’t have the money back then,” she said, explaining why she finally splurged and bought my inner six-year-old self a piece of cloth that I would cherish in my older years.

Together, they came to terms with settling down. Giving their children an extra headstart to making their own aspirations come true made their struggles worth it.

As my mother mixes tomato paste and curry powder in her sizzling karahi, she says can’t say she regrets any of her decisions, even the hasty decision to come to New York.

“Why should I regret anything I’ve done? I made a living for myself. If I stayed in Trinidad, my life still would’ve been harder than what I faced here.”

Ashley Somwaru is a poet, journalist, and editor. She has used her platform to advocate for inclusive narratives of Caribbean culture and to raise awareness of environmental and social issues. She is an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

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