Guyanese Americans

views updated


by Jacqueline A. McLeod


The Cooperative Republic of Guyanaformerly the colony of British Guianais a country the size of its former colonial master, Great Britain, and slightly bigger than the state of Kansas. As one of many Caribbean nations, Guyana is often assumed to be an island rather than a continental country. Larger than the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean put together, it sprawls across 83,000 square miles of the northeastern coast of South America, bounded on the west by Venezuela, on the southwest by Brazil, and on the east by Suriname. Its northern boundary consists of 250 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Of the country's total area, 86 percent is forest, 10.5 percent is savannah grassland, and 3.5 percent is the coastal belt on which nearly all its people live.

Guyana has a population of about three-quarters of a million people; 50 percent are of East Indian descent and about 30 percent are of African ancestry. Amerindian, Chinese, Portuguese, and British peoples all have contributed to the cultural heritage of the land. (The name Amerindian is used to distinguish Guyana's native groups from the immigrant East Indian population.) Primarily because of ambitious missionary activities during the nineteenth century, the Afro-Guyanese are mostly Christian. In fact, more than half of Guyana's peopleregardless of race or ethnicityare classified as Christian: 18 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 16 percent is Anglican. Of the non-Christian Guyanese, 35 percent Hindu, and 9 percent Muslim. The major religious holidays of each of the three faithsChristianity, Hinduism, and Islamare observed nationally.

Guyana's capital city is Georgetown. No other cities or towns rival it in importance. The official language of the country is English, but almost everyone speaks Creolese, a fusion of European and African dialects. Amerindian dialects and East Indian tongues are spoken as well, and three major Indian languagesHindi, Tamil, and Teluguare still in use among the Indo-Guyanese. Each of a dozen native groups speaks a different Carib, Arawak, or Warrau dialect. About 91 percent of the Guyanese population is literateone of the highest rates among new nations of the world. Guyana's national flag consists of five colors: the green background symbolizes agriculture and forests, the golden arrowhead represents mineral wealth, the white border stands for water resources, and the red triangle edged in black signifies the energy and zeal of the Guyanese in building their nation.


Guyana is an Amerindian word that means "land of [many] waters." The Europeans first used the name to refer to the triangle formed by the Orinoco, Amazon, and Negro rivers. The British used "Guiana"an English spelling of the same Amerindian nameto refer to their New World colony. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Guyana was inhabited by several native groups. The largest group was the Caribs, who lived in the upper reaches of the Essequibo River, as well as near the Mazaruni, Cuyuni, Pomeroon, and Barima rivers. The Caribs roamed the heavily forested regions of the interior. Between the Corentyne and Waini rivers lived the Arawaks, a friendly, peace-loving native group whose people were the first to greet Christopher Columbus in other areas of the Caribbean. Another native group, the Warrau, inhabited the swampland near the mouth of the Orinoco in present-day Venezuela but eventually moved east into Guyanese territory.

Christopher Columbus was the first European known to have sailed along the coast of Guyana. But during his voyage to the New World in 1498, Columbus only viewed the land's low-lying tropical shore. It was not until 1499 that Alonso de Ojeda became the first Spaniard to actually set foot on the land that would later be known as Guyana. No settlement, however, resulted from this early exploration. Between 1595 and 1616, English explorer Sir Walter Raleighwho dreamed of "El Dorado" (the mythical land of gold)led three expeditions to the Guyanese territory. Although Raleigh failed to locate any gold, his efforts resulted in the earliest mapping of the Guyanese coastline.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to gain a real foothold in Guyana. In 1616 Dutch colonists selected a site on an island peak overlooking the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers, about 40 miles upstream from the mouth of the Essequibo River. The settlement was named Kijk-over-al ("Overlooking All"). Early attempts at farming included the growth of coffee, tobacco, and cotton crops. Meanwhile in Europe, the Dutch States-General (governing the provinces of present-day Holland) granted a charter over the Guyana territory to the Dutch West India Company in 1621. The charter gave the company complete political and economic authority, the privilege to undertake pirate raids against Spanish shipping, and the right to carry slaves from West Africa to the New World. By 1770 more than 15,000 Africans were enslaved in Guyana.

With a slave labor force, which consisted of men and women forcibly removed from their native Africa, the farms began to grow in size and in yield. The success of the Dutch venture encouraged the development of sugar plantations in other inland regions of Guyana. Similar settlements sprang up along the Berbice, Demerara, and Pomeroon rivers. The Berbice district became a separate territory in 1732, and a Demerara district was established in 1741.

In 1781 war broke out between the Dutch and the British over ownership of the colony, resulting in a year of British control over Guyana. In 1782 the French seized power and governed for two years, during which time they created the new town of Longchamps at the mouth of the Demerara River. When the Dutch regained power in 1784, they moved their colonial capital to Longchamps and renamed it Stabroek; the city was later renamed againthis time "Georgetown" after the British king, George III.

The Dutch maintained control over the Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara settlements until 1796, when a British fleet from the Caribbean island of Barbados conquered the country. The British governed until 1802, at which time Guyana was restored to the Dutch under a truce established by the Treaty of Amiens. The next year the British once again conquered the colony, which was finally ceded to them in 1814 under agreements contained in the Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna. In 1831, three years before slavery ended in the region, the British merged Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara to form British Guiana. After slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies on August 1, 1834, former slaves were subjected to a four-year apprenticeship to facilitate their transition to a wage labor system. However, after emancipation, few former slaves chose to workeven for wagesfor the plantation owners who had once enslaved them.

Faced with a critical shortage of workers, planters decided to import workers under a system of indentured servitude. Immigrants under this system included people from Portugal, China, the West Indies, and Africa, but by 1844 indentured servitude in Guyana was almost solely the domain of East Indian laborers. After a five-year indenture period, the East Indians were "free" to return to India at their own expense. This indenture system, which had satisfied the planter aristocracy's demand for workers, was abolished in British Guiana in 1917. But no matter how much headway was achieved by the former slaves or by former indentured laborers, the reins of political power remained in the firm grasp of a European elite.


Guyana's road to independence was a rocky one. In 1953, a new constitution granted universal adult voting rights and established a two-house legislature. But political turmoil followed the first general election. The British government feared the communist leanings of the winning People's Progressive Party (PPP), which was led by Cheddi Berret Jagan (1918 ). Consequently, the British suspended the new constitution and the elected government. (Guyana's constitution did not go into effect until 1961.)

In addition to the PPP's communist stance, the party also advocated independence from Great Britain. From 1954 until the time that new elections were held in 1957, an interim government ruled British Guiana. Meanwhile, Jagan, an East Indian, and his fellow PPP cofounder, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923-1985), an African, had a major disagreement that ended their collaboration. Burnham left the PPP in 1957 and formed the People's National Congress (PNC), which eventually became an opposition party to the PPP. The split weakened the party's majority, but the PPP still won the most legislative seats in 1957 and again in 1961.

As head of the PPP, Jagan was elected prime minister of the colonial Guyanese government in 1957 and remained in office until the heavily contested election of 1964. That year, the colonial governor declared Burnham the victor by virtue of his ability to lead a coalition of the PNC and the United Force (UF), a third party led by Portuguese businessman Peter Stanislaus d'Aguiar. Under Burnham's leadership, the nation's long struggle for independence ended on May 26, 1966, when he assumed the office of prime minister of an independent Guyana.

In an attempt to put an end to foreign meddling in Guyanese affairs, Burnham steadfastly positioned Guyana among the world's non-aligned nations in world affairs. With Burnham at the helm, Guyana declared itself a "Cooperative Republic" in 1970. The change meant that Guyana became a socialist nationa country committed to achieving prosperity by pooling its material and human resources. The Guyanese government also nationalized its industries, including foreign-owned bauxite companies (bauxite is used in the production of aluminum), which produced much of the country's wealth. By 1985, the end of Burnham's 20-year tenure as chief executive and the year of his death, more than three-quarters of the country's economy had been brought under government control.

Immediately following Burnham's death, vice president Hugh Desmond Hoyt was sworn into office. Regularly scheduled elections, criticized as fraudulent, were held in December of 1985. Hoyt and the PNC won a solid but questionable victory. However, in national elections held in October of 1992under the watchful eyes of the international communitythe Jagan-led PPP won, bringing the tenure of the PNC as ruling party to a close after almost three decades.


The Guyanese people were part of the two major waves of British West Indian immigration to the United States. The earlier wave encompassed the first two decades of the twentieth century, showing a steady increase in immigration until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This act placed race and ethnicity restrictions on entry to the United States and included the English-speaking Caribbean in the quota allotted to Great Britain, with a visa limit of 800 per year and a preference system for skilled workers and relatives of United States citizens. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Guyanese immigrants primarily chose Britain as their destination. However, following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, which removed race and ethnicity as conditions of entry, the second wave of immigration to the United States began; the Guyanese American migration pattern continued to accelerate in the ensuing decades.


Guyanese immigration to the United States increased sharply with the passage of Britain's 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which over-turned the British Nationality Act of 1948. The earlier act allowed citizens of Guyana to claim citizenship in the United Kingdom and granted all Commonwealth citizens the same legal rights accorded to British citizens. Many Guyanese took advantage of this opportunity to further their education and improve their economic status. However, the concentration of nonwhite manual workers and their families in British cities stimulated an outcry against unregulated immigration, culminating in the 1962 act, which restricted their entry. With the doors of their "mother country" virtually closed to them, many Guyanese, mostly of the professional and technical classes, began to turn to the United States as their new land of opportunity.

In 1965 the McCarran-Walter Act was amended to protect American workers while restricting immigration from the Western Hemisphere. But with the introduction in 1968 of an annual ceiling of 120,000 immigrant visas for the Western Hemisphere, the intent of the act of 1965 was negated. Skilled laborers from Western Hemisphere countries journeyed to the United States in record numbers. The response from Guyana was immediate and dramatic. The majority of Guyanese applicants fell into the categories of "professional," "technical," and "kindred" (or skilled) workers.

The outward flow from Guyana intensified as the country experienced drastic economic and political changes during the 1970s and 1980s. After declaring itself a "Cooperative Republic" in 1970, Guyana began taking steps toward the nationalization of resources. During this time the country was under progressively heavier stresses and strains, resulting in declining productivity, massive unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation. It was also during this period that the Burnham regime came under increasing fire for its repression of political opposition.

Between 1960 and 1970, more Guyanese entered the United States than ever before. Around this time, the United States experienced labor shortagesespecially in the health industry and in private households, traditional areas of employment for women. Guyanese women, like other Caribbean women, met demands in the United States for workers in the health and domestic fields. The first Guyanese to arrive in 1968, either as "private household workers" or as nurses' aides, were of African descent. East Indian Guyanese women were forbidden by custom to venture to the United States alone.

Guyanese immigrants no longer fit the traditional immigration pattern, in which the men settle in a new country first and send for their families later. Since the 1960s, female immigrants have assumed the status of "principal alien," the term given to an immigrant worker within a specific or delineated labor force capacity, whose status activates other provisions in the migration process of family members. According to Monica Gordon in In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean, more Guyanese women than men settled in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, making them primarily responsible for securing immigrant status for their families. These women, Gordon concluded, tended to see migration as a means to improve their economic and social status and the educational opportunities of their children. U.S. Census Bureau records indicate that of the 48,608 people of Guyanese ancestry living in the United States in 1980, 26,046 were female. By 1990 approximately 81,665 people of Guyanese ancestry had settled in the United States.


Because the overwhelming majority of Guyanese were migrating from urban centers (90 percent of Guyana's population is clustered along the coastal plain), they tended to settle mostly in the northeastern cities of the United States. As of 1990, 80 percent of Guyanese Americans lived in the Northeast. The heaviest concentration of Guyanese Americans can be found in New York (56,462), New Jersey (6,697), and Maryland (3,106), although a significant portion of the population also settled in Florida, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

Guyanese American communities are not localized. There are no clearly demarcated spatial boundaries between them and other Caribbean groups. Rather, a multiplicity of Caribbean peoples tend to settle in the same regions. New York City's immigrant pool from 1982 to 1989 was drawn mostly from the Caribbean. Of the top five source countries, four were the Caribbean nations of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. Seventy percent of all Guyanese immigrants move to New York. In fact, about eight percent of the total population of Guyana moved to New York Cityparticularly the East Flatbush, Flatbush, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklynin the 1980s, according to a July 1, 1992, New York Times article entitled "A City of Immigrants Is Pictured in Report." Of the 46,706 Guyanese immigrants in the United States from 1983 to 1989, a total of 8,912, or approximately 19 percent, settled in these sections of the city.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Many immigration studies on the Caribbean focus on the island nations of Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago because of their large populations abroad. Guyana's immigrant population in the United States noticeably increased in the 1980s. Guyana first grabbed the international spotlight in November of 1978, after the shocking People's Temple incident involving the mass suicide by poison of more than 900 Americans in the country's interior. The People's Temple, a cult that originated in California, consisted of U.S. citizens under the leadership of Reverend Jim Jones. Members of the Guyanese government found Jones's credentials sound and granted him permission to construct a religious center in Guyana's western region, near Port Kaituma. The enterprise, however, ended in tragedy when Jonesunder scrutiny by the U.S. government for his questionable dealingshas his followers kill themselves. For years after, the country of Guyana was associated with the cult members' deaths.


Guyanese folklore and traditions date back centuries. Many Guyanese superstitions or belief systems are maintained among Guyanese Americans, especially those who identify with some Caribbean enclave. The following are some examples of Guyanese beliefs: Good Friday is considered a very unlucky day to be involved in outdoor activities if they are not church-related. When entering a house late at night, a person should go in backwards in order to keep evil spirits out. To cure a fever, a sliced potato should be placed on the ill person's forehead. To cure the effects of a stroke (like a twisted mouth), a whole nutmeg should be placed inside of the mouth on the affected side. A woman whose feet have been swept will not get married. A black cat crossing in front of a pedestrian will bring bad luck. A dog howling at a particular house is a sign that death will soon come to someone in that household. A pondfly in the house is a sign of news or correspondence. Stepping over someone's leg will stunt their growth. All references to the dead must be prefaced with the words: "God rest the dead in the living and the looking."


A wealth of proverbs from Guyanese culture have survived through the generations: "Hint at Quashiba mek Beneba tek notice" (Pay attention to the hints someone drops); "Wuh is fun fuh school boy is dead fuh crappo" (One man's meat is another man's poison); "Bush gat ears, goobie gat hole" (When you least expect it, people are eavesdropping); "Mouth open, story jump out" (Some people can't keep a secret); "Show me yuh company, I'll tell you who you be" (People judge you by the friends you keep); "Moon run til day ketch he" (Your deeds usually catch up with you); "Greedy man y'eye does yalla twice, fuh he own and he mattie own" (Some people are never satisfied); "Monkey mek he pickney til he spoil'um" (Similar to "Too many cooks spoil the broth"); "Wuh fall from head drop pun shoulder" (Sins of the parents fall on the children); "If yuh guh to crab dance, yuh mus get mud" (What you sow you reap); "Who lif yuh up doan put yuh dung" (Those who get you into trouble don't get you out); "It's a lazy horse that can't carry its own oats" (Your burden is yours to carry); "Hand wash hand mek hand come clean" (More is accomplished through cooperation); "Mocking is ketching" (Don't laugh at another's situation, it might be yours); "Monkey know wuh limb to jump pun" (Bullies know exactly on whom to pick); "Donkey ears long, but he doan hear he own story" (Some people mind other people's business); "Do suh nuh like suh" (Treat others as you would like to be treated); "If yuh nuh gat muhma suck granny" (Make do with what you have).


Guyanese cuisine is appetizing, spicy, and delicious. Spices and herbs are used in abundance, and one-dish meals occupy an important place in Guyanese cuisine. These dishes, sometimes called "poor man food," are nourishing, inexpensive, and very easy to prepare. Guyanese men and women both enjoy cooking, each trying to outdo the other in excellence. Pepperpot, considered a national dish, is a combination of different meats (beef, pork), spices, a dash of sugar, lots of onions, and cassareep (a sauce made from fermented juice from the bitter cassava plant); it is eaten with rice or bread. Cookup rice, another national dish, is a blend of rice, split peas or black-eyed peas, spices, onions, coconut milk, and meats. Also central to the repertoire of Guyanese recipes is the array of Indian curried dishes, made with curry powder, an East Indian spice with a distinctive flavor. African Metemgee, an inexpensive dish that is very filling, is made from coconut milk, meat or fish, onions, spices, plantains, and dumplings. Souse is a very spicy and tangy dish made from boiled pig ears and pig feet, flavored with cucumber, hot pepper, scallions, and lemon juice. Portuguese garlic pork is highly spiced pork pickled in garlic and vinegar. It is served fried, and eaten with bread. Dahl is a blend of boiled split peas, onions, garlic, curry powder, and cumin. This can be served over rice or eaten with roti, a pancake-like bread. Guyanese cuisine is not complete without Chinese noodles and chow mein, and black pudding, also called blood pudding, which is served with a tangy hot sauce.

Konkee is a sweet dish made from corn flour, sugar, spices, grated coconut, and raisins. The mixture is then wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. Foofoo, one of several substitutes for rice, is simply boiled plantains pounded in a mortar with a pestle. This is usually served with some type of stew. Coocoo, another substitute for rice, is a corn meal mush blended with seasoned boiled okra. Cutty Cutty soup, a "poor man" dish, is made with okra, salt beef, pig tail, tripe (stomach tissue, usually of a cow), onions, green plantains, and dumplings. Salt fish cakes, also called codfish cakes, are made from shredded salted codfish mashed together with boiled potatoes, onions, and pepper, then placed in a batter and fried. Black cake is Guyanese fruit cake, usually made at Christmas or for weddings. It is a very dark and very rich fruit cake made with rum. Ginger beer is a non-alcoholic homemade drink made from grated ginger and sweetened water.


Many Indo-Guyanese women wear their traditional sari for special occasions such as weddings or East Indian holidays. Saris are garments made from long pieces of light cloth: one end is wrapped around the waist to form a skirt and the other is draped over the shoulder or the head. Some Afro-Guyanese wear the African booboo and head wrap. During the 1970s, when Guyana became a socialist republic, Prime Minister Burnham formally declared the official business attire for men to be shirtjacks and pants, instead of the European suit and tie.


Guyana's National Dance Companya multiethnic troupeperforms East Indian and African dances during national holidays, including Independence Day; Deepavali, the Hindu celebration of lights; Phagwah, the Hindu festival to welcome spring; and the Republic celebrations.


In addition to Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday, Guyanese Americans celebrate Guyana's Independence on May 26, and to a lesser degree "August Monday," the first Monday in August, symbolizing Emancipation Day. At Independence Day celebrations, the national anthem, "Dear Land of Guyana," is sung.


There are no documented health problems or medical conditions that are specific to Guyanese Americans. Many families have health insurance coverage through their employers. Like most Americans, Guyanese American business owners and professionals in private practice are insured at their own expense.


Guyanese generally speak and understand Creole or Creolese, which is a linguistic fusion of African dialects and English. Standard English is used for formal communication, although it is spoken in a definite Guyanese vernacular. For the first generation of immigrants who settled (as most did) among other Caribbean enclaves, there was no real attempt to alter their speech patten, since others in their community could understand them. For those immigrants who moved away from their Caribbean neighbors and integrated socially into the host society, their speech pattern gradually lost its distinctive Guyanese sound. Some immigrants, however, chose to hold onto their speech pattern as a way of maintaining their identity.


Common Guyanese words and expressions include: HowdyHow are you?; God spare lifean expression used after promising to do something; God rest the deadexpression used before speaking the name of the dead; Beannie referring to a young female; Banna referring to a young male; Jert to eat; Tassay to get lost; Ahgee grandmother; Bambuy leftovers; Eye wata tears; Mamoo uncle (Indo-Guyanese); Pagaly silly; "Don't mek yuh eyes pass me"meaning don't disrespect me.

Family and Community Dynamics

The first wave of Guyanese immigrants in the early decades of the twentieth century were typically single males who had left their families and possibly a fiancee behind temporarily in the hopes of sending for them later; in the interim, they supplemented the income of the family back home. Many married men did not immigrate ahead of their families, since their jobs at home provided the only income the family had. In the case of the Indo-Guyanese, some husbands and wives came together, leaving children with grandparents or other relatives. Recently there has been an increase in the numbers of Indo-Guyanese women who have immigrated without their families, but these numbers are still minuscule in comparison to the Afro-Guyanese women, who began moving to the United States alone in the 1960s. Typically these newcomers first stayed for a short time with friends or relatives. After finding work, however, they usually rented rooms in crowded boarding houses (often occupied by other Guyanese and Caribbean immigrants).

Like typical first generation immigrants, the Guyanese worked hard and saved most of their earnings, doing without the simplest of pleasures. Their primary goal was to facilitate the passage of their family members to the United States. Many of the males worked around the clock and went to night classes to better themselves educationally; women typically performed "sleep in" workliving six days per week at their place of employment and returning to the boarding house for one day, usually beginning Saturday night and ending Sunday night. That one day off was spent in church and at stores shopping for things to "pack a barrel" for their kin back home.

After acquiring permanent resident status and securing their family's passage to the United States, Guyanese immigrants then concentrated on improving their economic and educational status. Many women pursued nursing degrees part-time while holding multiple jobs.

The core of the social network of the Guyanese is the family. Other Guyanese are preferred as marriage partners, but many Guyanese marry persons from other Caribbean nations, or Americans of Caribbean parentage. The percentage of marriages between Guyanese and Americansblack or whiteis low.


From their first arrival, the Guyanese began to interact with other ethnic groups, particularly Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Grenadians, and people from other English-speaking Caribbean nations. This nurturing of a Caribbeanness contributes to the resistance to marry outside of the Caribbean group. Guyanese American cultural traditions have been preserved by the religious observances of weddings, baptisms, and funerals.


The bridal shower is a social custom practiced in Guyana among many Christians and non-Christians. Many Guyanese Hindus, for example, have simultaneous Christian celebrations to include their Christian friends. For Christian weddings, bans are usually announced in the church for three consecutive Sundays so that impediments to the marriageif anycan be brought to the attention of the priest. During this period the priest counsels the couple on the duties of marriage. As in the United States, the couple selects a best man, maid (or matron) of honor, bridesmaids, and attendants. In most cases the best man and maid/matron of honor serve as godparents to the couple's first child. The godmother then becomes the couple's mac mae ("mac may"), and the godfather the com pae ("com pay").

On the night before the wedding, in a celebration of song and dance called a kweh kweh, the bride is feted by the older women of her family. The actual wedding ceremony mirrors the traditional American church wedding. Silver coins are also blessed by the priest and given to the bride and groom for good luck and prosperity. The priest wraps a robe around the bride and groom, symbolizing their union, and blesses them before concluding the ceremony.

Most Guyanese American weddings are held at a private home or at a Caribbean catering hall to ensure a Guyanese menu. Gifts are usually delivered before the day of the wedding. Toasting or paying respects to the newlyweds is the focal point of the reception. The best man gives his blessings and advice first, then directs the parents of the couple to speak, then any elders in the audience. The bridegroom then speaks, thanking everyone for attending. The reception is accompanied by Caribbean music and dancing. Two weeks after the wedding, the couple entertains family and friends at a gala called a "Second Sunday."


The Guyanese American community is a dispersed one, but family members often travel hundreds of miles for celebrations such as baptisms. According to Guyanese tradition, a female child will have two godmothers and one godfather, and a male child will have two godfathers and one godmother. The godparents are responsible for purchasing the baptismal gown for the child; however, if the mother still has her wedding dress, she may choose to make a baptismal dress from it for her first born. The godparents take the child to church; the priest then confers the grace of God on the baby by placing his hand on his or her head. The godparents promise to lead the child in the way of the Lord. Then, the priest blesses the child in the name of the Holy Trinity while rubbing incense on the forehead and chest; pours holy water over the child's forehead; and finally offers the child up to God.

After the baptism, it is customary to have a large gathering with lots of music, dancing, and food. Family members and friends shower the child with gifts, and money is pinned on the child for good luck and prosperity. Guyanese custom dictates that the child be given a piece of gold jewelry for good luck soon after birth. Girls usually are given a pair of gold bangles (bracelets) and a pair of gold earrings, and boys are given a gold ring and a gold bracelet.


Among the Guyanese, a death in the family is announced by word of mouth. In Guyana, the body of the dead is usually washed and dressed by family members, but because of health regulations this tradition is not practiced in the United States. The deceased is remembered and mourned during a wake, which is followed by a gathering of loved ones and friends. Food and liquor abound, tall tales are told, and folksongs are sung.

After the funeral service at church, prayers are said by the priest at the cemetery, and family members are invited to place flowers on the coffin. Before the deceased is lowered into the grave, the priest sprinkles soil on top of the coffin and while saying: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The congregation then returns to the home of the deceased where friends and relatives have gathered bearing food and beverages. Nine days after the death of a loved one, there is another wakecalled "Nine Night"held in memory of the deceased.

For many days before and after the burial, the family of the deceased is never left alone. Mirrors in the house are covered, for fear of seeing the deceased. Homes are not swept out for days after the burial, for fear of the dead taking more family members with him or her.


Guyanese Americans generally maintain an affiliation with the religious denomination of their homeland. The vast majority of Guyanese American churchgoers are Episcopalian. Priests from Guyana who immigrate to the United States often go on to lead Guyanese American churches. These churches also serve as network centers for newly arrived immigrants. Many Caribbean-led Episcopalian churches in the New York City area have established schools that cater to the educational demands of Caribbean parents and are staffed by former Caribbean schoolteachers. Guyanese parents view education as a combination of learning and discipline; many opt to pay for private schooling for their children, feeling assured that they will be taught in the "home way."

Beginning in the 1970s, a surge of nondenominational churches were established by the Guyanese in the New York and New Jersey areas. These "churches," which are more like teaching centers, have attracted many newly settled Guyanese Americans. So-called "Unity Centers" serve as community centers and teach positive thinking and ways to attain a closer relationship with God. The congregation reflects the many faces of the nations in the Caribbean, although Guyanese usually predominate in those Unity Centers run by Guyanese priests and priestesses.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Because the early Guyanese immigrants settled in the northeastern region of the United States, particularly New York, they found work in the health care, domestic labor, banking, clerical, and physical security fields. They were paid the lowest wages, andlike members of other immigrant groupsmany worked several jobs at a time. After accumulating work experience and permanent resident status, many Guyanese advanced to better paying positions.

Some Guyanese established their own small, family-run businesses, such as bakeries and take-out restaurants catering to the tastes of a Caribbean community. Others who could not afford to rent business space in Caribbean neighborhoods sold Guyanese food out of their homes on weekends. As the Guyanese immigrants became more established, they opened real estate offices, guard services, small grocery stores (specializing in food products from home, like cassareep ), neighborhood law offices (specializing in immigration and real estate law), beauty salons, and travel agencies.

Politics and Government

Guyanese are active in the organizations of the larger Caribbean region. There are many Guyanese nurses' and police associations. Guyanese Americans have not yet made a collective impact on political activity nationally. Locally, however, they have organized through their churches with other ethnic groups to call attention to problems in their neighborhoods. They have also entered politics on a local level.


Guyanese Americans maintain close ties to their homeland and its people and provide significant financial support to their native country. During the late 1970s and 1980swhen Guyana was experiencing a terrible economic crisis owing to the further devaluation of the Guyanese dollar, skyrocketing prices for consumer goods, and shortages of basic necessitiesGuyanese organizations pooled their resources from fund-raising and made generous donations of money, food, clothing, and equipment to Guyanese hostels, orphans, almshouses, schools, and hospitals. High school alumni associations furnished their alma maters and other schools with chairs, desks, books, and office supplies. Nurses' organizations donated syringes, bed sheets, thermometers, penicillin, and other scarce supplies to hospitals.

There is a steady flow of scholarly exchanges between Guyana and the United States in the form of academic conferences. In almost every college or university with a sizable Caribbean student body, there are Caribbean associations that encourage the connections with home through guest lecturers, trips, and networking. In the United States, academic organizations such as the Association of Caribbean Historians, the Caribbean Studies Association, and the Caribbean Writers Association cater to scholars from the Caribbean.

Individual and Group Contributions

Guyanese Americans represent a minuscule percent of America's total population, but they have made significant contributions to American popular culture, the arts, academia, and politics:


Guyana has long provided a theme for literary expression. Popular Guyanese authors include Jan Carew (1925 ), Wilson Harris (1921 ), Denis Williams (1923 ), O. R. Dathorne (1934 ), Christopher Nicole (1930 ), Gordon Rohlehr, and E. R. Braithwaite (1920 ). Braithwaite's memoir To Sir With Love details his experiences as a black high school teacher in a white London slum. The work was praised for its hopeful view of difficult race relations and was adapted for a 1967 film of the same name.

Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) became well known outside of Guyana for such novels as Corentyne Thunder, Shadows Move Among Them (which won high critical acclaim in America and Britain), Morning at the Office, The Life and Death of Sylvia, The Piling of Clouds, and a three-part novel known as the Kaywana Trilogy (Children of Kaywana, Kaywana Stock, and Kaywana Blood ). This trilogy follows the fortunes of a Dutch planter family, the Van Groenwegels, over three centuries of Guyanese history and attempts to capture the raw and violent spirit of those times.

Miramy, a full-length Guyanese comedy by Frank Pilgrim, is set on an imaginary island in the West Indies. It became the first locally written play to be performed outside of Guyana. The works of Jan Carew include Black Midas, a picaresque novel acclaimed for its vivid portrayal of raw and roguish types in the diamond fields of Guyana; The Wild Coast, a sensitive study of a young man's difficult passage from puberty to manhood; and The Last Barbarian, a study of West Indian and African life in Harlem. Works by Wilson Harris include a series of poems entitled Eternity to Season and the novel The Palace of the Peacock, about the journey of a river crew through the jungles of Guyana. Among his other works are The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder.

Gregory A. Henry, a Guyana-born artist, draws upon the endemic storytelling traditions of his culture for his paintings and sculpture. His work, which has been featured in several travelling exhibits and solo and group shows, has been praised by art critics who number him among a select group of artists projected to come to national prominence in the 1990s.


Alvin Chea is a member of Take 6, a Grammy Award-winning, all-male, a cappella gospel-pop group. Chea is first generation Guyanese American, born to a Guyanese mother.


Colin Moore is a Guyanese American who has made a name for himself in New York politics. An attorney in private practice in Brooklyn, Moore is known for representing many Guyanese Americans and other Caribbean immigrants throughout the New York area. He sought election to the office of governor of New York in 1994, ran unsuccessfully in the past for New York City councilman and district attorney, andwith a group of politically active African Americanshelped found the Freedom Party.

Organizations and Associations

Guyana Republican Party (GRP).

Address: P.O. Box 260185, Brooklyn, New York 11226-0185.

Telephone: (973) 484-3431; or (800) 577-7468.

Fax: (973) 484-1615.

E-Mail: [email protected]

Sources for Additional Study

The Caribbean Exodus, edited by Barry B. Levine. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Caribbean Immigration to the United States, edited by Roy S. Bryce-Laporte and Delores M. Mortimer. Washington, D.C.: Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies, 1983.

In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean, edited by Ransford W. Palmer. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Udeogalanya, Veronica. Demographic and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Caribbean Immigrants and Non-Immigrant Population in the United States. Brooklyn, New York: Caribbean Research Center, Medgar Evers College, 1989.