Grenadian Americans

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by Charlie Jones


The country of Grenada is located 1,500 miles (2415 kilometers) south of Miami, Florida, and 200 miles (3220 kilometers) north of the South American continent, in the southeast waters of the Caribbean Sea. Grenada shares its west shoreline with the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean is located on its eastern shoreline. Existing as part of the southernmost Windward Islands of Great Britain, Grenada also comprises the islands of Carriacou and Petite Martinique. The total landmass of Grenada encompasses about 133 square miles (345 square kilometers) of territory, making it twice as large as Washington, D.C.

The island itself is home to beautiful picturesque white, sandy beaches, rain forests, and breathtaking lofty mountaintop views. Its long coastline and tropical climate make it an ideal retreat for surfing, fishing, and other relaxing aquatic activities. Grenada's natural wonders make the islands a much visited tourist destination. The tropical climate also lends itself well to the production of tropical crops such as bananas, cocoa, sugarcane, citrus and other fruits and vegetables. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace also grow well here, thus giving the island its internationally known nickname, "the isle of spice."

As of July 1998, a population of approximately 96,217 inhabits the islands of Grenada. Most Grenadians speak English. The majority, more than 82 percent, are of black African descent. The rest of the population is a mixture of European, East Indian, and Native Indian persons. Most Grenadians are of the Roman Catholic faith (53 percent), with Protestant sects comprising about 47 percent of the population. The Government is a parliamentary democracy consisting of three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. In 1999, the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, served as head of state, with Dr. Keith Mitchell, the prime minister, acting as the head of the government.


The Ciboney Indians from South America settled the islands around 4000 b.c. Several centuries later the Arawak Indians settled the island. During the period 1000 to 1300 a.d. the Carib Indians arrived on the island, which they called "Camerhogne," and killed or enslaved the Arawaks. Christopher Columbus sighted the island in 1498 but did not land there. He called the island "Concepcion." It is not clear how the island received its current name, "Grenada" (pronounced "Gruh-NAY-duh"). Some scholars believe Columbus's sailors called the island Granada. Others believe the Spanish renamed the island for the city of Granada, Spain. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century the name "Grenada" was in common use.

Due in part to the defensive capabilities of the Carib Indians, Grenada remained uncolonized by European countries for most of the sixteenth century and half of the seventeenth century. However, by 1650 a French company purchased the island from the British and established a settlement in the islands. The Carib Indians resisted the French settlers. The French consequently brought in military reinforcements and slaughtered the Carib population. The French controlled the island until British forces captured it in 1762. The British regained control Grenada through the Treaty of Paris in 1763, under which the French ceded the island to Great Britain. Although the French regained control of Grenada in 1779, the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 restored the island to Britain.

Grenada's climate made it ideal for growing sugar, nutmeg, cocoa and other spices, and in the eighteenth century slave labor was considered key to the production of these and other commercially valuable crops. Black Africans were therefore imported to Grenada in large numbers to work on plantations as slaves. Both the British and French made use of African slaves to support agricultural production on the Island of Grenada. In 1833, the British government outlawed slavery, ending its institution.


Between 1855 and 1958 the British governing body of the Windward Islands was headquartered on Grenada. In 1877 Grenada became an official British colony. From 1900 to 1945 West Indians throughout the Caribbean developed even stronger ties to labor movements. Labor strikes occurred among sugar harvesters in Saint Kitts, coal miners in Saint Lucia, and oil field workers fields in Trinidad. All struck for higher wages and better working conditions.

From 1958 to 1962 Grenada was a member of the West Indian Federation. By 1967 Grenada had become self-governing in association with the United Kingdom. Grenada gained its independence on February 7, 1974 under the leadership of Eric Gairy, a labor unionist turned politician.

The first prime minister of Grenada, Eric Gairy, governed in a somewhat heavy-handed manner. In March of 1979 a coup d'etat occurred, bringing to power Maurice Bishop. Under his People's Revolutionary Government (PRG), Bishop served as a popular leader. Many still consider him a national hero. The PRG began forming ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Some members of the PRG were not satisfied with the leadership of the PRG and the direction it was taking, and under General Hudson Austin and Bernard Coard an internal coup took place, which resulted in the execution of Maurice Bishop and other key government officials.

Using the pretext of government instability and protection of U.S. citizens, the U.S. government under President Ronald Reagan along with other nations of the Caribbean invaded the island of Grenada in 1983. Military power was used to force a change from the government's communist bent to a more prodemocratic form of government. Elections were held in 1984, and the peacekeeping nations of Jamaica and Barbados departed by 1985, along with the U.S. Marines.

The Grenadian elections of 1990 did not result in a clear mandate for any one political party. The 1995 elections saw Dr. Keith Mitchell's New National Party receiving the most votes, and Dr. Mitchell became the prime minister. Mitchell's administration has sought ties with Cuba and the United States, and Mitchell has been working to end drug trafficking by the creation of a Grenadian Coast Guard based on Petite Martinique.


In comparison to other ethnic groups entering the United States from Europe, little formal information regarding eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Grenadian immigration to the United States exists. Indeed, it is very difficult to find any substantiated information regarding Grenadian citizens entering the United States willingly before the mid-nineteenth century. Some information that seems to suggest that a few black African slaves may have been imported from Grenada to the United States in the early nineteenth century. Most of these Grenadians would have been settled in the southeastern portion of the United States, where slavery existed and there was a great need for labor in support of tobacco, rice and other crops. As U.S. importation of slaves from Africa continued, a dependency on Grenadian slaves would have ceased. Therefore, after the British slave trade ended in 1834, there is no record of Grenadians arriving in the United States for many decades.


Grenadians began immigrating to the United States after the turn of the twentieth century. They settled in urban areas of the northeastern United States, according to Paula Aymer's article in American Immigrant Cultures, by "apprenticing on [U.S.] boats that transported bananas from Central America via Barbados and jumping ship once they docked in New York or Boston." The number of Grenadians coming to the United States in this manner amounted only to a few hundred, perhaps around three hundred.

Records of the U.S. immigration from 1900 through the 1930s indicate only a few Grenadians entering the United States as immigrants. By comparison to European immigration figures, their numbers were extremely low. Immigration from Grenada to the United States increased after the war years of the 1940s. Again, the number of Grenadians allowed to enter the United States legally was very low. This increase nevertheless occurred through the immigration of Grenadian women to the United States in the late 1950s. Grenadian women worked as nurses and/or domestics in the oil-rich areas of Venezuela, Aruba, and Curaçao. During the mid-1950s, when the Grenadian oil refineries were mechanized and downsized operationally, a group of Grenadian oil workers were allowed entrance into the United States as immigrants. According to Paula Aymer, "these restless men and women were determined to find their way into the United States, and they used various means. Some had made important job connections while working in the oil enclave or on the naval base (at Chaguaramas, Trinidad) and had been given references by American employers. Others had sent their children to [U.S.] schools, and once these children found jobs and sponsors to help them with the immigration requirements, they applied for permanent residence for their parents. Still others first found work on oil refineries in the United States Virgin Islands, or traveled first to England, and from there found their way, often via Canada, into the United States."

Canadian-sponsored live-in maid programs for people of the Caribbean also enabled a few hundred Grenadian women to enter the United States as immigrants. These women settled in parts of Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston after serving the mandatory two-year requirement of the Canadian program. During the 1960s the United States developed its own program that sponsored domestic workers from the Caribbean. Hundreds of Grenadian woman entered the United States as live-in domestics in the northeastern section of the country, particularly in the New York area.

A much larger number of Grenadians immigrated to the United States after the U.S. Congress passed the Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act of 1965. This law shifted favoritism in immigration from Europe to Caribbean nations, as the U.S. government found this foreign policy more advantageous due to a revived interest in the Caribbean region.

According to statistics of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, in the period between 1960 and 1980 a total of 10,391 Grenadians entered the United States legally. Between 1971 and 1984 just over 12,000 Grenadian immigrants entered New York. Since 1984, according to American Immigrant Cultures, approximately 850 Grenadians have legally entered the United States each year. Again, the number of Grenadians allowed to enter the United States was very low, by comparison to European immigrants entering the United States, but greater than the number allowed earlier in the century.

Grenadians moved to the United States for a number of reasons, ranging from better economic conditions in the United States to a desire to live with relatives who immigrated to America earlier. While living in the United States, many Grenadians maintain contact with family members still residing on the island. A large number of Grenadian Americans visit relatives on the island constantly and islanders fly to the United States to visit relatives living on the continent. Some of these visitors from the island use their visit as a means of illegal entry into the United States. These persons find jobs in the United States or attend schools in the United States and do not return to Grenada.

As Grenadians moved to the United States, older immigrants continued to maintain many traditional Grenadian customs and values, while younger Grenadian Americans began taking on more traditional American customs and values, in particular those of African Americans.

Even though this change in values was occurring, contact with and support for Grenadians on the island remained high. Many organizations have been set up by Grenadian Americans in the United States whose main objective is to send monies for support back to the Island.

By the 1970s and 1980s many Grenadians who emigrated from Grenada to the United States were not leaving the island primarily for economic reasons. Insead, another reason for entering the United States was political; many disapproved of Grenada's shift away from prodemocratic values to plitical ideas associated with communism.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Grenadian Americans have many traditions, customs and beliefs, some dating as far back as their ancestral ties to Africa. Upon leaving Grenada for the United States, Grenadians did not quickly change their beliefs, traditions or customs too rapidly. Most Grenadian Americans are descendants of African slaves. Other Grenadians ethnic groups are mulattos (mixture of black and European), East Indians (who are descended from laborers who worked on plantations after the slaves were freed), and whites of European origin. Immigrating to the United States has in many cases meant moving into neighborhoods dominated by African American culture. Consequently, many Grenadian immigrants have shared and integrated their culture with that of African Americans.


Grenadians are known traditionally as a friendly people. A willingness to lend a hand is not uncommon. Most Grenadian Americans try to maintain an upbeat approach to many day-to-day concerns. Difficult circumstances involving other persons rarely lead to prolonged bitter feelings. Grenadian Americans like to work as a group to strengthen their neighborhood and community. The philosophy of community support and shared work in a spirit of cooperation is called a "maroon" by those Grenadian Americans who remember this lifestyle from their days of living on the island. This lifestyle has been brought to America by some Grenadians and is practiced in some Grenadian neighborhoods.

Grenadian Americans believe that dressing well while in public is very important. Pride is exhibited in choice of clothing for social events such as going to church. Bright colors are customary. Sloppy dress in public, especially among adult Grenadian Americans, is looked upon as inappropriate. While in private, a more casual dress style is considered acceptable. For example, walking barefoot is common.

Most Grenadians like to chat and socialize with friends. Visiting is very common and reinforces the friendly approach Grenadians have toward people in general and other Grenadians in particular. When on a visit to a friend or family member's home, it is customary to be offered some sort of refreshment to eat or drink. One should not be too quick to refuse such offers; Grenadian Americans sometimes feel that to refuse an offer of refreshment is impolite.

Traditionally, women socialize by spending many volunteer hours doing church activities with friends. Men on the other hand, socialize more at work and at sporting events. Funerals are considered social gatherings by Grenadian Americans, which traditionally require men to dress in suits, usually black, while women dress in black or white dresses and hats. Socialization at such events usually continues long after the formal funeral procession and graveside activities have concluded.


Being from "the isle of spice" has influenced Grenadian American cuisine, especially its heavily spiced flavor. Grenadian Americans will use hot pepper sauces, curries and other spices while cooking. Corn, rice, and peas are eaten with meats such as chicken, fish, pork, and beef. Seafood is very popular among Grenadian Americans. Iguana and manicou, (a type of opossum) are also enjoyed. Fruits are a favorite among Grenadians as well. Bananas, grapefruit, coconuts, and papaya are purchased by Grenadians living throughout the United States. Barbecues and roasted foods are also enjoyed among Grenadians.


When Grenadian Americans came to the United States, they brought their music with them. One style, called calypso, is influenced by African music and consists of singing and dancing. The lyrics deal with issues including love, humor, politics, and controversial current events. The musical beat is somewhat African in sound. The origins of calypso have been traced to West Indian slave singing. This form of music and its lyrics were apparently used as a form of slave communication. Primitive instruments such as the bamboo pipe, flute, and specially carved gourds are still used in performing calypso music today. Some of today's Grenadian American calypso bands also use electric guitars, maracas, and steel drums.

While listening to calypso music, many of those being entertained like to dance the limbo, a dance very popular among Grenadian Americans. This dance consists of bending backward in such a way as to allow for wiggling of the body while passing beneath an elongated pole. Success means clearing the pole without touching the floor or pole with any part of the body. The pole is continually lowered after each dancer successfully passes under it. A dancer is eliminated from the dance when he or she is unable to clear the lowered pole successfully. This dance, as with the music, seems to have originated from Africa.

The playing of steel drums is also popular among Grenadian American bands. Indeed, Grenadian steel drum bands exist in the United States and are often heard at U.S. Grenadian American festivals. This form of music seems to have originated in Trinidad, but it is quite popular on the Grenadian Island.


Cricket and football (soccer) teams are abundant on the West Indian islands. Upon arriving in the United States, Grenadians brought their passion for football, which is called soccer in the United States, and the British game of cricket with them. Many Grenadian Americans who grew up in the islands learned to play cricket and/or football, and some played on professional teams. This explains why so many Grenadians enjoy these two forms of recreation in particular.

Other sports enjoyed by Grenadians include basketball and track and field. Grenadian Americans also practice aquatic activities such as fishing, diving, swimming, and sailing.

Many Grenadians learn to play guitar, violin, and drums, and private playing of these instruments for enjoyment is a wonderful and much enjoyed pastime for many Grenadian Americans.


Grenadian Americans celebrate the traditional Christian religious holidays of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. The Eastern Orthodox holidays of Whitmonday and Corpus Christi are also celebrated. Many Grenadian Americans also celebrate the secular holidays of Grenada. These include Independence Day (celebrated February 7) and Emancipation Day (celebrated the first Monday in August). In addition, Grenadians enjoy carnivals, which may be held throughout the year. Carnivals are usually festive occasions commemorating special events in the history of Grenada. They usually involve street dancing, concerts, and parades.

Some Grenadians living in America also honor Grenadian thanksgiving. On the Grenadian islands, thanksgiving is observed in relationship to the 1983 United States invasion of the island, which was intended to restore order and democracy to Grenada. This observance is usually marked by official ceremonies.


Grenadian Americans speak English. However, some of their English expressions differ from American English expressions. For example, Grenadian Americans prefer "Happy Christmas" over the expression "Merry Christmas." A "bounce" in Grenadian English is a reference to a car accident, while "now for now" means "urgent" to the Grenadian American.

Informal Grenadian English is a combination of French, English, and African patois, which is sometimes referred to as "creole" or "broken English." Grenadian patois is different from that spoken on the other Windward Islands that make up Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. The dialect does not have a past or future tense. To indicate tense, body gestures are used. Among those Grenadians entering America, patois is sometimes spoken until the language is infused with the English spoken in America. This, in some instances, means an infusion with the English spoken in African American urban neighborhoods or other ethnic neighborhoods where Grenadian Americans live and socialize. Most Grenadians do not like to hear outsiders speak patois. Children are therefore asked to use standard English when speaking publicly.


Grenadian Americans will speak to a friend when passing on the street. Not to do so is considered disrespectful. As is the American way, Grenadian Americans generally prefer to greet another person with a traditional handshake. It is also very common to end a conversation by saying "later." Gesturing with the hands is also a Grenadian American custom. The "thumbs up" usually means "good," "great," or "I agree." Waving the hand back and forth at waist level, palm down, means "no" or "I disagree."

The expressions of American teenagers are being incorporated into Grenadian American greetings. It is not uncommon to hear Grenadian Americans greet another by saying "W's happ nen," with the response being "cool," meaning "everything is all right." These expressions may derive from Grenadian immigrants associating with African Americans as neighbors. Many Grenadian American and African American traditions, customs, and values are merging in American cultural society.

Family and Community Dynamics

Grenadian American families may consist of parents, children, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins living within the same home. While all Grenadian families are not necessarily large, the norm of the extended family is real among many Grenadian families living in the United States. Children often are raised by the female head of the family. Male duties usually include working outside the home to provide income for the family. Grenadian American women also desire to work outside the home and provide for the household as well. Many Grenadian children live at home well past the age of adulthood. Each family member has a job to do to maintain the family within the home.


Grenadians take education seriously, viewing it as a means to advancement in America. Children are expected to attend schools daily, as American law requires. Most attend public schools, but a few attend private schools, mostly parochial. Many adults also are returning to school to receive either technical training or to receive a high school diploma. The literacy rate of Grenada is around 98 percent. College attendance among Grenadian Americans is growing. Many Grenadians are in America for the purpose of attending school and/or college. After graduation, many choose to remain in America, taking a spouse and raising a family. Some however, return to the island of Grenada to help others on the island.


Grenadian American families on average are generally somewhat smaller on average than the four to five children per family found on the island of Grenada. This may be due in part to a desire of Grenadian American women to enter the American workforce, thereby giving up larger families. Also, some Grenadian women are single mothers, as many Grenadian children are born out of wedlock and sometimes fathers leave the home.


Grenadians usually meet in places of American social gatherings. These include restaurants, educational facilities, dance halls, entertainment venues and sporting venues. Grenadian Americans usually do not display affection publicly. Most couples generally like to live together before committing to marriage, and some couples prefer to live together instead of marrying.

When weddings do occur, they are very festive. After the church ceremony, the reception is enjoyed by all, with plenty of food, music and dancing. Gifts are also provided for the newlyweds. A honeymoon vacation sometimes follows the reception, when financially possible.


Most Grenadians, 53 percent, are Roman Catholic. Protestant sects are many and make up about 33 percent of the population. Islam is also practiced by some Grenadian Americans. A small number of Grenadians practice a faith known as Rastafarianism. Those who practice Rastas, generally believe that Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was a god. They also consider marijuana to be a sacred herb, and that all Afro-West Indians must move eventually to Ethiopia, which is viewed by Rastas believers as "the promised land."

Politics and Government

Americans from Grenada maintain close ties with their former country. News concerning political and governmental activities comes to America from radio, newspapers, and television. Conversations by phone with friends and family also help Grenadian Americans know what the current state of affairs in Grenada. Most American Grenadians supported the 1983 invasion of Grenada by the United States, ostensibly to restore democracy.

Those living in the United States constantly express concern for helping islanders. According to a news release from the office of the Grenadian prime minister dated January 28, 1999, on January 27, 1999, nearly 300 Grenadian Americans met with Prime Minister Mitchell in Boston to ask how they could become involved in assisting with the development of Grenada. He responded by saying that they could help by "providing more training opportunities for young Grenadians in American learning institutions, as well as supplying computers and assisting with technology transfer to improve the working skills of Grenadians." To meet this challenge, Bostonian Grenadian Americans plan to adopt a school in Grenada and donate equipment and supplies on an annual basis. Americans from Grenada have always demonstrated a willingness to aid their countrymen on the island.

Sources for Additional Study

Culturegram, 1998: Grenada. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1998.

Eisenberg, Joyce. Places and Peoples of the World: Grenada. New York, Chelsea House, 1988.

Factbook: Grenada. Cited May 1999.

Hague, Harlan. Grenada. Cited May 1999.

Herda, D. J. Ethnic America: The Northeastern States. Brookfield, CT, Millbrook, 1991.

Levinson, David. American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Payne, Anthony. Grenada: Revolution and Invasion. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Thomas, Hugh. The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 14401870. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

U.S. Department of State Background Notes: Grenada. Cited May 1999. Originally published November of 1994 by the U.S. Bureau of Public Affairs.