Celebrating the holidays among pioneering Guyanese New Yorkers
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Dear Editor,

THE holiday season among pioneering Guyanese Americans (during the 1960s and early 1970s) was extremely lonely, unlike in recent years in America. In fact, there was hardly such a thing as a Christmas holiday or end-of-year celebration, or any sort of (friend or family or neighbourhood) get-together; the luxurious kind of fetes that were experienced over the last four decades among Guyanese families in the US with an assortment of cuisine and snacks. As an observer, and as a kind of a Guyanese pioneer in America, I experienced them all.
Guyanese started coming to America (New York initially) just after 1965, a significant year when America opened up to the so-called non-White countries. There were discriminatory laws against Indians settling in America prior to 1965. There were no similar laws against Africans or Blacks. Guyanese started coming to America as students after independence in 1966.
The American Christmas holiday among pioneering Guyanese was nothing like what it was in Guyana, being with family members and neighbours. It was a life lived in fear, with (undocumented) migrants unsure of the future if picked up by immigration agents for deportation. It was dull and lonesome; time spent with oneself or at work or watching TV. Christmas or New Year was like any other day; no special meals or drinks. There were no parties, fetes, or festivities. There was no eating or drinking binge, or the kind of extravagant expenditures observed in recent decades among Guyanese families. The meals of the 1960s and 1970s were very basic, as in every other day. It was a meal to fill the stomach; it was a quiet holiday season until around the early 1980s, when community celebrations really took off, and paid parties or concerts were organised in the Bronx and Manhattan. When Guyanese started becoming homeowners in the late 1970s, more elaborate parties and foods were prepared with many guests. Immigration agents don’t invade homes looking for illegals as in the past.

When I came to New York in 1977 as a 16-year-old for medical studies, the gathering of Guyanese was rare, except at cricket matches or volleyball or picnics on Sundays, which I looked forward to because I was very good at playing cricket. Most of the early Guyanese migrants were Indians (about 85 per cent); ‘Afros’ headed to Brooklyn, while ‘Indos’ headed to Manhattan and the Bronx. In the 1980s, Indians gravitated to Queens. Get togethers occurred only among immediate family members and friends for Christmas and New Year, and the eve of both, and maybe on birthdays or anniversaries in a small apartment. Weddings also took place in small apartments. There were no rented halls, (lack of affordability) or private homes to host fetes. (There were no get-togethers for Guyana’s Independence or Republic Day or Indian Arrival Day; these commemorative occasions started occurring in the late 1980s. Indians were not interested in Independence and Republic Day, because they felt the Burnham State treated them as unequal to his supporters. During their early years in America, for Xmas and New Year, some Guyanese went to work; they had many bills to pay, so work was more important than feting, and Guyanese took advantage of over-time (beyond eight hours and holidays) when offered. They needed to save money to send to relatives back in Guyana, and to purchase a home or invest in a business. Boxing Day is not a holiday in America; it’s a regular workday, and as such not a day for feting.
Guyanese were few and far between (in areas where they lived) during the 1960s and 1970s to socialise for holiday seasons. There were hardly friends or family members to socialize with. The migrants came largely single or maybe with a brother. There were very few females among early migrants; two in 10. Wives did not join husbands until the male was settled, and had a private apartment for a family. Brothers and or sisters joined later. The early migrants were relatively young; in their 20s and 30s.

Unlike recent migrants, early Guyanese were more interested in employment rather than feting, because they left several mouths behind that needed to be fed, and must send remittances. There was not much (extra) money to entertain friends at parties. However, Guyanese who lived together in an apartment or in the same tenement building did get together to share camaraderie on Christmas, and or New Year, and or on their eves (Old Years night or Christmas Eve) if they were not working those days. There were a few buildings in ‘slummy’ parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, South Bronx, and Flushing where Guyanese clustered in small apartments; downtown Manhattan had several run-down buildings, and ‘roach-infested motels’ that offered cheap rentals but high crimes. Indo-Guyanese and Trinis clustered in them. Rentals in these neighbourhoods were low, and immigration agents tended to avoid buildings that were crime-ridden. The migrants didn’t want to draw much attention, and ‘hid’ as much time as they could away from the public view, unsure who was an immigration agent. Any time they saw well-attired White men in the run-down neighbourhood or a well-dressed Black speaking with “an American accent” with Whites, their heartbeat increased; one was unsure if he was or they were immigration raiding officers.  (The agents who cornered me on 40th Street in Manhattan asking for my immigration documents were American Blacks and Puerto Ricans. I was working as a messenger, hand delivering packages, but had my valid college ID as I was a legitimate student).

The holiday get togethers allowed people to reminisce about Guyana, sharing experiences from various villages. They would sum up money, buy drinks, and prepare basic food (dhal, rice, chicken, and alou, and or a cook up). There were no freshly-killed animals; that came late in the 1970s and afterwards. There was hardly any bara, phulourie, channa, dhal puri, pachounie, etc., as ingredients were not available, and they were time-consuming to prepare, and males were not quite adept (like females) at preparinghad some of them. Fruits were plentiful, but Guyanese had lost their appetite for apples and grapes, the consumption of which Burnham criminalised. And there were hardly any vegetables (like baigan, bora, ochro, etc. – which became available during the late 1970s and 1980s and thereafter. Korean fresh-market fruits and vegetable markets did not spring up until the late 1970s. Richmond Hill’s Little Guyana was not created until the late 1980s. Indo and Afro Guyanese used to shop at Little India in Manhattan on Lexington Ave. between 23 and 29 Streets and a few blocks East and West of that area.

The holiday parties had low-key Bollywood movie songs, as the migrants did not want to attract attention; most of them were illegal and fearful of immigration raids; officers would carry out routine raids in search of illegals, including during the holiday season. For the holiday, small groups of Guyanese would get together in an office in Brooklyn managed by a Black Jamaican to record a message, and paid a fee for it to be wired and aired on radio in Guyana. In the 1960s, it cost $3 per airing for the message, and went up to $5 in the early 1970s; that was a lot of money at the time, considering that the weekly salary was $60 and a can of Pepsi cost ten cents and a six pack beer was only a dollar. (US$ was exchanging around G$1.70 in 1968). Some paid to broadcast their message on Christmas and Boxing Days and New Year; phones during white man rule in the 1960s worked well in Guyana unlike during the 1970s and 1980s.

Holiday celebrations among Guyanese did not become a luxurious entertainment until many owned private homes. Only a few Guyanese could afford to purchase a home during the 1970s. At any rate, most Guyanese in the 1970s were illegal, and could not entertain the idea of home ownership. During the 1980s, as they became legal residents or citizens, more Guyanese purchased homes. Homeowners hosted parties for friends and relatives, but were careful not to play loud music, for fear of the neighbors calling the police or alerting immigration officers. Beginning in the 1990s, Guyanese home ownership became common, especially in various parts of Queens and in Brooklyn on the border with Queens, where hundreds of thousands of Guyanese now settle. Over the last couple decades, there have been luxurious, posh, extravagant holiday parties at homes and businesses, and at rented halls, and even in hotel ballrooms, except this year of course, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram

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