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An Ethnolinguistic Study of the Trinidadian Creole community in Flatbush, Brooklyn

Keisha T. Lindsay and Justine Bolusi

Introduction

     This paper gives a look into the Trinidadian immigrant community of Brooklyn. Although this community is quite small compared to the other ethnic parts of Brooklyn, its impact upon the lives of the people living in the Flatbush area proves to show that the community's contribution to the daily life of the residents is quite large. Flatbush Avenue spans from the Kings Plaza mall all the way to downtown Brooklyn, with the majority of the Trinidadians living in this area concentrated toward the middle, beginning from Beverly Road to Empire Boulevard.

     Within this ethnic community, the Language Other than English (LOTE) is Trinidadian Creole. This language, spoken all over the island of Trinidad, has many influences - all of them coming from the colonization of the island by different European nations. Therefore, within any sentence, you can hear a word originating from France in its' broken form, or a Spanish word, pronounced in the Trinidadian Creole. Within the Flatbush community, the language is, in essence, the glue that holds the Trinidadians to each other and separates them from their Jamaican, Haitian or Guyanese counterparts. The language is used in the local shops and eateries as well as on the street, when one Trinidadian is speaking to another Trinidadian, or even another West Indian. Yet, many Trinidadians do not feel that their language is a LOTE or a Creole. In fact, everyone who was interviewed replied in the same manner to the question: Define or identify your language. "There is no official Trinidadian language, just a variation of the English language," they replied. One man, described his language as a mix of English and broken French. Another man claimed that the Trinidadian language could be identified by one's accent and how fast a person spoke. A woman who was interviewed agreed with the latter view, but said that the English she used was more British than American.

     Being seen and feeling like an outsider, Justine did not speak as much while interviewing the community members of Flatbush. When she did ask questions, they were very candid in telling her of their language and how they saw themselves within the community. Yet, she could not understand much of what was said, raising the question of whether the Trinidadian Creole is just an accent, or a language if and of itself. When Keisha approached the Trinidadians in the neighborhood, they did speak to her very candidly, but once she informed them that she too was Trinidadian, they hesitated to answer many of her questions because "she should know."

Schools

     For the child who recently migrates to the United States, the Trinidadian Creole is still the most comfortable language. Therefore, the child sees it fit to speak the Creole at home and at school. Yet, as the child gets older, he or she soon realizes that her language and way of speech is different, and speaks with the dominant language at school, while speaking the LOTE at home. As one of the members of the Trinidadian community (Ms. X) mentioned, "the assimilation to the American language is not hard for the primary school kid." Yet, there are some like Julia Dixon, an eight-year-old girl who was born in America, but whose parents are immigrants and speak with the LOTE in the home. Although Julia is American, she speaks Trinidadian Creole at home and at school, often causing confusion for her teachers and peers.

     The children who use the LOTE within the schools of the community do not receive any ESL education. According to Ms. X, these children are often placed into remedial English classes because they would read with the wrong intonation or spell words such as 'color' or 'favorite' with the British spelling. Also, these children have phonological markers, or accents, which speech pathologists have previously labeled as disordered, but as cultural diversity within the Speech-Language Pathology field become more and more important, it just seen as different, not disordered.

Governmental Services

     As a result of Trinidad Creole being extremely close to American English in the way it is written, there are no special services, such as the publication of special signs with the written Trinidadian Creole. It is safe to say that all Trinidadian immigrants speak English; although the way they might speak it varies from the American English. As a result, there is no need for any special provisions within government agencies such as interpreters in the courts or the schools.

Medical Services

     Once you get into the Trinidadian community of Flatbush, one of the first things you notice is the amount of health care professionals that have established practices in the neighborhood. One such practice, Flatbush Physicians, is made up of about 10 doctors, three of them being Trinidadian. This, and the other medical practices in the area, provide healthcare for the over 1,254 immigrants from Trinidad as well as the thousands more from other parts of the West Indies.

     In addition, the New York State Department of Health have established Child Health Plus, a health service for poor children to ensure that they get the medical services they need to keep healthy. This service is also provided for the Trinidadian immigrant community. Although the mean income for this Brooklyn district (district #17) is more than that of New York City in general (The Newest New Yorkers), members of the Trinidad immigrant community use this resource. Many of the medical practices, including Flatbush Physicians, accept this health insurance, thus giving the parents of these children a choice as to where they can receive healthcare.

     According to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, less African-American women are diagnosed each year with breast cancer (compared to Caucasian women). Yet African-American women have the highest mortality rate in breast cancer cases compared to their Caucasian and Latina counterparts. The State University of New York at Brooklyn recognizes this trend all throughout the Caribbean communities of Brooklyn. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that the rise in breast cancer mortality rates is one of the reasons why there has been a recent surge of gynecologists in the area. Many hospitals in Brooklyn, such as State University of New York at Brooklyn Hospital, have promoted self-awareness classes in order to help women become more aware of the risks of breast cancer and other gynecological diseases. There are no interpreters at the local hospitals, but many of the nurses are of Trinidadian descent, or immigrants themselves. According Ms. X, "it makes it comfortable because someone from home is around." The Flatbush YMCA also provides health and wellness services for its' users, 25% of them being from Trinidad. There are various lectures given as well as many classes, ranging from Tai Chi to the Outdoor Walking Club.

Religion

     Trinidad and Tobago is a nation that prides itself on its cosmopolitan mix of races as well as religions. From Catholics to Muslims, Anglicans to Hindus, the average Trinidadian is well versed in many of the practices, customs and beliefs of the religions by which he or she is surrounded. Yet, in the immigrant community of Flatbush, there was not one religious establishment that seemed to be openly Trinidadian. While walking down Flatbush Avenue, one can see the Haitian churches and places of worships, or hear the Baptist shouts coming from a building draped with a Jamaican flag. So the question was, "Do Trinidadians cease to openly practice their religion once they have migrated?" Mr. Y, a man selling his variety of goods on the street gave a possible answer to this question. "Trinidadians do not give up their religions," he said, "they just practice with other West Indians, or even join American churches." As for the Muslims and Hindus, they seem to do the same, as they join the mosques and temples of other Hindus who are East Indian or Guyanese.

Organizations

     The main organizations that are predominantly Trinidadian in the Flatbush community are mas camp organizations. 'Mas' is the abbreviation for masquerade or the parade of masqueraders taking part in a Carnival, much like the large Carnival in Trinidad. Every year, Trinidad looks forward to its annual celebration every Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The days are filled with festivities and months before, mas camps, or the places where the costumes for the masqueraders are prepared, serve as both working places and tourist attractions for thousands of Trinidadians. The immigrant Trinidadians have brought this tradition to New York, with the annual West Indian Day parade every Labor Day. This parade brings all the West Indian communities together for a day of festivity and celebration with lots of music, costumes and food from each country. Thousands of Trinidadians come out to Eastern Parkway each year for the celebration and they bring their food, music and customs with them, sharing them with other West Indians and Americans.

     Another organization that is well known within the community is the Trinidad and Tobago Women's Association. Based in Manhattan and comprised of professional immigrant women, this organization provides college scholarships for young women of Trinidadian descent who excel in high school and are going on to college.

Stores and Restaurants

     There are hundreds of stores and restaurants that are owned by Trinidadian Creole speakers. In fact, upon observation, it seems to be to a business owner's advantage if a speaker of Trinidadian Creole conducts daily interaction with the Trinidadian community. Trinidadian LOTE speakers own groceries, hair salons, flag shops and especially, take-out food shops. All of these advertise and sell products manufactured in Trinidad, thus giving their Trinidadian counterparts a small way to remember home. The restaurants owned by Trinidadians sell food such as roti, stewed chicken with rice and curried chicken. They sell drinks that cannot be found in any other store, such as Solo Soft Drink and sea moss and make sweets and pastries that are native to Trinidad. Coupled with their "home talk" and their "sweet hand" in cooking, the many immigrant Trinidadians find that these restaurants and shops provide them with a feeling of being home, right in the middle of Trinidad's capital, Port-of-Spain.

     In addition, many Trinidadian Creole speakers help to operate many of the other stores in the neighborhood, such as the Korean stores, which sell many of the goods that are manufactured in Trinidad and used to make many Trinidadian foods and pastries. For these Koreans, having a speaker of Trinidadian Creole help them to cross the language barrier in order to serve their community.

     A growing business within the Trinidadian Creole community is the travel agency business. Walking in a two-block area along Flatbush Avenue, one would notice that the most frequent business establishment is the travel agency. According to a representative of Caribbean Travels, a travel agency on Flatbush Avenue, "The Trinidadian always wants to return home." This demand has prompted travel agencies to publish their deals and sales in newspapers and post flyers all throughout the neighborhood. The heaviest travel periods include Christmas, Carnival and the months of June to August when students are out of school for the summer vacation. LOTE speakers operate all of these travel agencies and many of these agencies have "home bases" or affiliates on the island of Trinidad.

Publications

     There are no publications in Trinidadian Creole sold in the area. As said before, the Trinidadian Creole is not a formal written language, but a spoken one. Nevertheless, there are many publications that come from Trinidad, such as the Trinidad Guardian newspaper or the PUNCH - a newspaper and magazine produced in Trinidad. There are many free newspapers that are published for use in the Caribbean community at large. These papers publish news that is specific to the nations of the West Indies. Many Trinidadians use these newspapers to get a short look at what is going on back in Trinidad, or, more interestingly, to find which travel agencies are giving airline ticket deals for the Carnival, Christmas and summer seasons.

Case Study

     While doing an ethnographic study for a high school class, I met Julia Dixon, an eight-year-old American girl who lives in the Flatbush community. Although Julia was born in the United States, her parents, sister and other relatives are all recent (approximately ten years) immigrants of Trinidad. Julia's native LOTE is Trinidadian Creole - the language she learned as a child. When Julia began pre-school in Marine Park, Brooklyn, she often code-switched, thus showing competence in both Trinidadian Creole and the American English. After first grade, Julia visited Trinidad for two months during her summer vacation. As a result of being placed into the Trinidad culture where Trinidadian Creole is the predominant spoken language, Julia stopped code switching and spoke pure Trinidadian-Creole. After her return to the United States after her trip, her second grade teacher realized that Julia did not code-switch, but continued to speak pure Trinidadian-Creole. Julia is now in the fifth grade at a grade school in Marine Park. She writes perfectly, and remembers to spell the words 'color' and 'favorite' correctly, according to American English. Yet, she no longer code-switches and speaks with pure Trinidadian-Creole both at school and in the home.

     The way Julia speaks puzzles everyone she meets, but her mother is not confused. Jaseah Dixon, Julia's mother, claims that Julia only code-switched to feel more comfortable, but after realizing that she did not feel as comfortable switching, she chose to speak in her Trinidadian Creole. Julia is not in an ESL class, nor is she in remedial English. She just chooses not to speak in the dominant language of her peers.

Conclusion

     Although the Flatbush community is one of the largest Trinidadian Creole communities in New York City, this community is quite small compared to the nearby Haitian and Jamaican communities. Many might say that the reason the Trinidadian Creole community is so small is because they have assimilated into the American culture and have lost their Trinidadian customs and practices, language being one of them. I beg to disagree. It is true that the Trinidadian community has assimilated into the American culture, possibly more than any other West Indian group. Yet, they have not done this at the cost of their native Trinidadian culture. The ways in which they live in the Flatbush community attest to that fact. Their Trinidadian food shops coupled with their memberships in the American churches show that while the Trinidadian Creole community is small and is assimilating quite quickly, it is in no way near becoming extinct.

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