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The Language of Identity: Ethiopian Communities in New York City

Maya René Smullyan-Jenkins and Ian Jackson


     Ethiopian immigrants in this city possess two distinctive qualities: one, the fact that there is no centralized Ethiopian community within the boroughs in the same way that there does exist a Chinatown or a Little Italy. Instead of there being such a locale, there does exist a mish-mash of disparate neighborhoods spread throughout New York: primarily, Flushing, Queens; Parkchester, Bronx; and Manhattan.

     The other distinguishable quality about Ethiopian settlement in NYC-as initially suggested by one Ms. Apufia Beko, a 49 year-old Parkchester resident-is that unlike many if not most immigrants to New York (particularly those from the East), Ethiopians enter this country with a basic English proficiency. Ultimately, these two factors of permeation and proficiency contribute to setting the stage for a wealth of diverse experience amongst Ethiopian immigrants in New York, which the following discussion will seek to illustrate.


     We may ask, what imprint, if any, does language leave on the immigration and acclimatization processes of an immigrant population already noted for its functioning proficiency in the language of its new home? The answer is, "A considerable one." Although language does not play for Ethiopian immigrants to New York City the role of "The Great Hurdle" that it does for many other demographics, there nevertheless remain a complex of issues that compound themselves with, stem from, and sometimes supersede the matter of the English language though never quite cleaving themselves from it. Of course, we speak of issues beyond the in-underestimable challenge of reconciling the British English taught in Ethiopian high schools with the largely vernacular American English of New York and the ethnic communities of its boroughs, wherein most immigrants to the city reside. The case of the sisters T.M. and S.M. (names removed to respect the privacy of those involved provides an intriguing study of the various factors involved in the morphology of language in these communities, and for a group of individuals who are, once again, not posited in a centralized community of approximate nationals.

     T. was born in Ethiopia but due to political strife spent the first three years of her life in Kenya. She came to the USA in the early 80s with her mother, father, brothers, and a marginal command of the Ethiopian language, Amharic. She was fluent in Swahili and absolutely void of any knowledge of English. Melaku observes that the lack of a chief community placed tremendous stresses on the maintenance of the mother tongue, while living mostly amongst immigrants encumbered the development of any kind of "standard English", despite her parents' efforts to preserve the formalized structure of British English and grammar, they for a long time efforting to ban all colloquialisms from being spoken in their home. For one thing, no schools or day-care centers in the Bronx catered to accommodating her preliminary English abilities, focusing instead solely on assisting her in accent elimination. In fact, there were no actual Ethiopians in attendance at her earliest schools but for a handful of children from the neighboring (and once Ethiopian) East African nation, Eritrea. However, the division between the two countries was one of antagonism, therefore it was veritably like having no kinsmen whatsoever.

     The complexion of the M.'s community in Parkchester was nevertheless what she estimates to have been 75% immigrant, and mostly Latino. This was, for them, a place in the world in which their values regarding language, Amharic or Swahili, simply had no place, in their new nation overall and in their immediate home in the Bronx. Moreover, as Ms. M. suggests, a strong concern for the M. parents was that familiarity with these African languages would subject their children to some disadvantage in the maze of languages of their Parkchester community. It was a concern that would prove substantiated by the case of T.M.'s younger sister, S.M., who at a very young age exemplified the hazards of being raised in such a dappled linguistic environment.

     S. is the only family member actually born in Bronx. At the age of three, she would be forced into treatment from a speech pathologist in attempts to untangle the convoluted pidgin she began to speak, including an eclectic fusion of Swahili, Amharic, English, the Spanish picked up from her nanny, and the odd influences of the Patois spoken by family friends and contained in the Jamaican music from the family stereo. The fact that, according to the younger Ms. M., Amharic was the least prevalent member of her motley arsenal can act as the final word on the question of mother tongue preservation (MTP) in a fragmented immigrant community.

The Language of Identity: Americanism

     Today, T.M. maintains Swahili fluency and a primary American English, though like her sister S.M., she cannot claim more than the most minimal comprehension of Amharic. Unlike her younger sister, however, T.M. has never been to Ethiopia. She dresses like an American woman, recently acquired citizenship, boasts Western ideologies, has predominantly American friends, and proclaims proudly her Ethiopian heritage. So, too, with S.M., who is completely monolingual, yet for whom living in an immigrant family definitely bespeaks certain negotiations in the realm of identity. While T.M.'s Swahili enables for her some connectedness with Africa, S.M. regrets experiencing very little "Africana" in her world, and admits a perceivable ignorance of that which she will always be identified (at least externally) with, recalling from childhood how, even speaking perfect English throughout her school years, insults from black students never ceased to reminder that as American as she may be to her parents, native Ethiopians in Ethiopia, and herself, elements of Africa and the nation's connotation in the United States are not easily cast aside.

Yet both S.M. and T.M. describe their respective identities as being largely shaped by the compensatory work of emphasizing other aspects of Ethiopian culture. A project that would be "made endlessly easier" by a centralized wellspring of said culture in New York, the elevation of dance, food, and music as cultural markers fill in the gap left by language and community. T.M. and A.B. describe language as being only 25% of the overall culture's foundation. Meanwhile, the American-born S.M.'s quantification of 85% is an interesting divergence of opinion; whether that sharp contrast is attributable to the exaggeration of being on the outside of that culture or some deeper insight into the reconciliation of New and Old Worlds, may be left to speculation.

The Language of Identity (Cont.): Lensa Gelana

     In our search for a personal account of the Ethiopian experience pertaining to the life and language of the culture after immigration, we decided to go to a place where much pride and respect is housed whether in Africa or America; where the culture's traditions will always be ripe (and enticing) and play an extremely important role in any and all communities of Ethiopians Parkchester to Flushing, Addis Ababa to Eritrea: the Ethiopian kitchen.

     We traveled to the Ethiopian restaurant, Meskerem, located in the East Village to investigate. We found that this culture is no different in terms of traits that are unique to it. When greeting our interviewees, we observed that Ethiopian women kiss three times (once on each cheek) and verbalize their greetings primarily in the native tongue. We happened upon two sisters in L.G. and J.G., the second of whom took on her role as the eldest and so generously shared with us her tale. When they had us join them for lunch, offering to purchase our meal, it became apparent that we were witnessing another manifestation of the sincerity and warmth inherent to Ethiopian culture, the fabric of which remains strong even so very far from home.

     L.G. is a 25 year-old graduate of Cornell University, with a degree in Africana Studies. Currently, she studies at Hunter College, working towards her Master's while serving as well at a hospital in Brooklyn. Her story begins in the summer 1991, when L.G. and her family decided to make a new life for themselves, leaving their home, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. They arrived in America and initially made Alexander, Virginia their new place of residence. At this time, L.G. was 15 years old. The school she had come from in Ethiopia incorporated the study of British English into the curriculum, in what she described as much the same way as it is incumbent upon American students to study a LOTE. For her, living in America greatly facilitated her efficiency in the language, perhaps in part due to, in VA, the presence of a more homogenized brand of English.

     Growing up, L.G. and her family used both English and Amharic in their home. She recalls that this came naturally to them. As a child, unlike in the M. household, there was no expectation put upon L.G. to maintain either Amharic or English. The centrality of appreciating their heritage (and all that went along with that) was instilled in her at a young age so that her Ethiopian ethnicity was never challenged on such extreme levels until she came to America. (Indeed, in establishing differences of experience in comparison between some of our other subjects, age seems to be key to issues of language and identity.)

     Soon after her arrival, however, L.G.'s identity began to be challenged in ways that she never anticipated. She came to America expecting to be looked at for who she was: an African woman. Little did she know that in America, it is far more customary for the color of one's skin to determine one's character, rather than the place from whence one comes. Her self-image began to take on new shape as her awareness about her American surroundings was amplified by American perceptions and stereotypes.

     Never before had L.G. been treated differently because of the color of her skin. Being African in America, one has two matters to contend with: how one is seen in the eyes of whites, and the other being how one is seen in the eyes of blacks. L.G. saw this boundary for the first time immediately upon attempting to integrate herself into American culture. There was nothing about these divisions that she liked, and in truth it made her even more determined to define her personal identity as proof of the principle that no one person or collectivity may dictate to one who one is. (Although Ethiopia also has its antagonisms, L.G. grew up in what she describes as a relatively unprejudiced community, therefore upon immigrating, not only was she a foreigner to the US, but a foreigner to US separatism.) L.G. says that it took going to college to really open up her life before her, inducing a journey to discover who exactly she was and wanted to be, whether inside, outside, and whether similar or opposite of what people thought or expected.

     L.G. developed a concept that was soon to become her reality: people have a choice in defining what their ethnicity means to them. She decided not to let American society dictate what it meant to be an Ethiopian woman in America and was resolute about this decision. Today, she finds confidence and pride in the articulation of, "I get to say what I am, a new identity I've created for myself." It emanates from her. She made the choice to liberate herself in this manner and associates destiny with that choice. She identifies with the label, African-American/black. She has many friends, also Ethiopian immigrants, who disagree with embracing the title. They lament the fact that culture is taken into consideration so much less than color, yet, she states, "I'm a black person, whether I'm from Africa directly or not."

     In the eyes of many Americans, L.G. recognizes that Ethiopians are seen as exotic and concedes that there is some measure of respect accordant with that characterization. She appreciates and embraces that respect, but holds her suspicions about it. "It doesn't feel like anyone wants to get to know me for who I am," she says. This is what she qualifies as a lack of freedom in the nation. When labels are grafted onto a person, there is no room for individuality, and that person becomes burdened with outside influences. Over time, L.G. has built up strength at navigating what people try to force upon her. She has remained as far away as possible from these kinds of limitations.

     Yet on the whole, L.G. holds no regrets about her move to America. She has been blessed with new experiences that have taught her how to open herself up to the world and embrace it instead of running from it, a way of life that is for her the only way to live to the fullest. With that comes a strength, an integrity, and a sense of the solidarity of a "home" that exists wherever one chooses to make it.

The Language of Identity (Cont.): A.B.

  • In 1980, she, her husband, two sons, and newborn daughter flee Ethiopia to Kenya after a new political regime is introduced that threatens their lives
  • In 1983, obtains a Diverse Visa to enter US and sponsorship from the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA)
  • That year, her family arrives in America and are immediately placed in hotel accommodations for 5 days and given $75 for two weeks, twice
  • A.B. and her family are moved to an apartment building procured by NYANA and receives recommendation that she and her husband apply for public assistance and SS cards; there are 13 or 14 other families in small roach and rat-infested apartment building
  • A.B. and her husband wait 6 weeks to receive welfare; towards the end of that period, they survive 6 days and 6 nights without food, which is all given to the children (rice, sugar, milk, margarine)
  • Sponsor provides 3 beds, 1 table, and 5 chairs for the non-air-conditioned apartment
  • In order to escape heat, it becomes ritual to visit supermarket or go for walks in shady areas; one day, A.B. hears singing on one such walk and enters a Latino church wherein she makes friends with a Latina who invites herself back to their apartment, discovers the scant amount of food in the fridge (1/4 gallon milk & margarine), "little enough to kill the children" and uses the $12 in her pocket to go grocery shopping with A.B.
  • Without food, A.B.'s husband walks approx. 30 bus stops to welfare office to pick up forms and hand them in; bureaucratic inefficacy and error delay their ability to eat, offering no information and acting "almost like [an] obstacle" for A.B.'s family, who obviously had no sense how the system worked
  • What saved their lives were facts that their landlord was tied to NYANA and the church collected money for them ($60) and bought bags she had brought back from Africa at inflated prices
  • One day, interestingly, her husband passed out after inhaling fumes from a paint job he was executing in the dead of winter. Upon discovering him, A.B. called the church before 911 and was successfully instructed how to revive him
  • Latina from church took A.B.'s children to be registered at school
  • Today, she has two children in major universities, one already graduated and on his way to law school, and another daughter at a prestigious private high school

The Church

     It is worth briefly noting at this point the role played by the institution of the church in the experience of Ethiopian immigrants. The most striking example is viewed in Ms. A.B.'s story, recounting how these roles could variously include those of community center, public assistor, emergency medical service, etc. (Recall that instead of calling the authorities when her husband lost consciousness painting, it was instead the church who received her call.) We can assume that this is not an attitude relegated solely to Ms. Beko, as upon transplantation in soil so dynamically alien sometimes the only familiar hand is that of the church.

     The wearing of these many hats is seconded too by M.A., deacon at Ethiopian Church midtown. Annual health fairs provide insurance, care, and other types of health information that might not otherwise be disseminated. It is in many ways the communal nucleus of the hewed Ethiopian population; the Church's major holiday services, social events, and other activities are patronized by Ethiopians from not only the 5 boroughs but the entire Tri-state area.


     Although precise statistics for Ethiopian immigration and settlement in New York City proved a lofty challenge, it was possible to procure some overall immigration numbers that pertain generally. According to 1995-96 "Newest New Yorkers" publication from the NYC Department of City Planning, immigration from Africa doubled nationwide due to the expansion of the "diversity visa" program, amounting to 5.4% of total immigration. Nigerian immigration to the US increased 220%, while in New York City, Ghana became the 3rd largest "sender" to Bronx. Among New York bound immigrants, 2/3 settled in Brooklyn (36%), 31 % Queens, and in the Bronx, 13.5%. Moreover, the #1 neighborhoods for immigrants are calculated to be Washington Heights, Chinatown, and Bay Ridge-Bensonhurst. From this data we may infer some notion of where we are most likely to find our Ethiopian communities, even if their exact numbers and location are unknown.


     Through this paper, we have explored what it means to be America via the eyes and experiences of African immigrants and the variegated stories that they have to tell. When leaving their native land in hopes of attaining the grand ideals of the American Dream, our research has proved that not only is it requisite upon these men and women that they acclimatize to American life and the prospect of being American, but it is also demanded from them that they devise ways to maintain a unique identity able to withstand indefatigable cultural, socioeconomic, and linguistic pressures from without.

     The significance of immigration to the American experience has changed considerably since the early days of Mayflowers and Ellis Islands even as it seems to retain its quality of embodying the entrenched dynamic of adversity. There is, as always, the same struggle to transplant oneself securely into alien soil; the same ardor and fundamental quandaries of community and identity are prevalent even 225 years following. What we have examined here have been the general complexion of Ethiopian immigration in New York and how it interplays with two particular factors specific to the Ethiopian immigrant experience: these being a decentralization of community and the problems of language even with basic English proficiency. We have traced how these factors lead to a spectrum of personal history showcasing different ways in which different immigrant families have coped and thrived, hopefully to the point of shedding some light on this intriguing topic.

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