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The West Indian Community in New York

Michelle Perna and Vallene Henderson

     The West Indian community reported in this study resides in the area of the Bronx between 211th and 241st Streets on Gun Hill Road. Even though this is a very expansive area, it is by no means too large for the West Indian population to fully enrich with its culture. This is due to the numerous nationalities that embody the term "West Indian." Technically, West Indian refers to people of nations such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Dominica, Guyana, Barbados, Haiti, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada, and St. Kitts/Nevis. However, since not every island is represented in this community in the Bronx, this analysis will mainly report on the most dominant ethnicities in the area. Those individual ethnicities being referred to as West Indian in this paper are principally from Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, Dominica and Haiti.

What language is used?

     In this West Indian community, the main language used is in fact not a Language Other Than English. All members of this community speak English, but in different dialects. For example, the Jamaican portion of this area speaks paṭis, which is a dialect of English containing bits of Portuguese and African terms. One exception to this chiefly English population is the Dominican use of Haitian Creole. Unlike paṭis, Haitian Creole is a Language Other Than English that formed initially as a pidgin combination of Haitian and French. Over time it developed into a Creole language that is used widely among the Dominican population today. However, even though Dominicans continue to communicate in Haitian Creole, generally they speak English. When asked under what circumstances paṭis and Haitian Creole are used, Jamaican and Dominican residents in the area responded by saying they only speak this dialect and language when they are around others of their own ethnicity. When they are surrounded by people of other ethnicities, be it West Indian or not, everyone speaks English. An interesting fact revealed to us through interviews with some community members is that many residential West Indians feel their dialects (i.e. paṭis) are slowly diminishing from daily culture. This could have resulted from the interaction with other ethnicities in the area and the influence of other English dialects on everyday life.

     According to a marketing study done by McDonald's Corporation on May 2, 2000, it was reported that in this area alone live 200,000 people. Of this population, 48.8% are African American, 25% are white, 22.8% are Hispanic, and 3.4% are classified as "other" (this information was received from the owner/operator of the local McDonald's who insisted on not providing us with any copy of the official paperwork due to copyright laws). Even though this particular study is based solely on race and ethnicity, it is clear from witnessing the community first-hand that the West Indian population makes up most of the African American category in this study.

     Spanish is also in use in the community, due to the large percentage of Hispanic residents. The type of Spanish spoken could range from Castellano to the Puerto Ricans' "Spanglish" code switching between Spanish and English. Other languages spoken are French and various Arabic languages.

What is the linguistic situation in the primary schools? Are there many children who are not native speakers of English?

     Within the primary and secondary schools, it is not necessary for West Indian children to utilize the English as a Second Language program. This is due to the fact that English, with certain dialects, is the mother tongue of almost all West Indian countries. Therefore, even though the majority of the population in local neighborhood schools such as PS 178, Christopher Columbus High School, and Harry S. Truman High School is West Indian and African American, ESL programs are offered mainly for the speakers of Spanish and other LOTEs.

What governmental services are available in LOTEs, and what provisions are made by the government agencies for people who do not speak English?

     Due to the fact that all West Indian residents in the community speak English, there is no need for governmental services in LOTEs intended for the West Indian population. However, for the small population of West Indians that also speaks Haitian Creole, interpreters are offered by the court system. Unlike the Spanish interpreters used repeatedly within the court system, Haitian Creole is generally not used in excess because of the ability of Haitian Creole speakers to also speak English.

     West Indians basically get the same opportunities that African Americans get in terms of governmental services. All people of darker skin color are considered to be African American and they therefore fill quotas and affirmative action laws. In the community we visited there was an Army recruitment center. Fortunately, one of the sergeants who was on duty, Damon Glover, was West Indian (Jamaican) and we had the opportunity to speak with him. We asked him, "Do you feel that the government is doing anything for the West Indian community?" He replied, "I am here, aren't I?" Mr. Glover felt that by him having the opportunity to be in the ARMY, the government was doing something for him. This is why he decided to become an ARMY recruitment officer.

What is the percentage of West Indian medical employees in the local hospital?

     In terms of medical services in the area, the nearest hospital is Jacobi Emergency Medical Center located on Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Road. This hospital is only a ten-minute drive from the concentrated area of 211th to 241st Streets. Since this hospital is the closest to the West Indian community reported on in this study, it can be presumed that there would exist a high concentration of West Indian medical servants working in the facility. To confirm this speculation, Janice Amato, the Assistant Director for Facilities of Jacobi Emergency Medical Center, reported that 35% of the employees are, in fact, West Indian. No further information could be received on this topic.

What is the religious breakdown of the area?

Just as the West Indian community cannot be classified by one ethnicity, it also cannot be restricted to practicing one religion. Within the 30-block radius, community members belong to the Seventh Day Adventist, Catholic, Jehovah Witness, Baptist, Episcopal and Pentecostal faiths. A common bond shared by all West Indians is their devotion to Christianity. Again, because English is the principle mother tongue, all religious ceremonies are held in English. One of the two most popular churches according to residents is the Pentecostal church named The Church of Christ, located on Gun Hill Road. The majority of Church ceremonies are performed by West Indian celebrants, such as Pastor Dumás in The Church of Christ. Pastor Dumás is Jamaican. The other popular church is Creston Babtist Church, a Baptist church located on Fordham Road.

Are there any stores or restaurants in the area that are owned or operated by speakers of LOTEs ?

     While walking along Gun Hill Rd. we noticed a pizza shop owned by Italians, a newsstand owned by Arabs, a Chinese restaurant owned by Chinese people and a gas station owned by a Pakistani. Though we saw other ethnicities that owned businesses in the community, many restaurants, grocery stores, music stores and travel agencies in the area were owned/operated by West Indians.

     One business in particular that is heavily operated by West Indians is the local McDonald's on White Plains Road and Allerton Avenue. In this single establishment, the population of West Indians is 75% and 5 of the 8 managers are West Indian.

Are there any organizations of particular nationality groups or linguistic groups that are active in the area?

     Our evidence reports that there are no official organizations existing in the area, but there are many little "groups" that share interests and activities. For example, one group which refers to themselves as 216th Corner, meets weekly to socialize, network, and play their favorite game, Dominoes. In such social situations, they drink West Indian liquor such as Jamaican White Rum, Red Stripe Beer, Rum Cream and Punchy Cuba. Another practice that is kept very faithfully is the Su-Su. Each member participating puts in a certain amount of money per week. Each week, one person collects all the money for their own personal use. Everyone who added money to the pot takes a turn each week collecting the money. To emphasize the extensive use of the Su-Su, there are approximately 30 participants in the weekly Su-Su among the West Indian employees in one local McDonald's restaurant alone (West Indians make up about 75% of the employees).

What are the publications available to members of the West Indian community?

     There are two major publications sold in this district that are directed towards the West Indian community. Both of these publications are written in English because all West Indians in the area speak English or a variation of it. First, The New York Carib News, gives a complete neighborhood review/itinerary of the actions and accomplishments of the West Indians in the area. It also tells of the happenings of the governments in the home countries of people in the neighborhood. For example, in the October 2nd edition, page 4 displays articles dealing with the governmental actions of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas. There are also sections devoted to Youth, Arts and Entertainment, Op-ed and Woman. There is a fifty-cent charge for this newspaper. The second publication, Caribbean Life, contains more articles than The New York Carib News. These articles are much more opinionated, political and controversial than the family style of the The New York Carib News. In this newspaper there are classified ads, Op-ed and editorial sections. Overall, this paper has a more official look to it than the The New York Carib News, even though this publication is free.

What are the individual reactions to this study?

     Vallene Henderson - When this project was assigned, I thought it was interesting to research and study an ethnicity I previously had not known much about. But in addition to being interested, I was also uncomfortable because I felt like an outsider trying to dissect personal information. When Michelle and I arrived at our selected community, it took some time for us to dive into our work. As we began to talk to people things began to run smoothly. Due to my outgoing attitude and familiarity with the West Indian culture, I felt the people accepted me more and more as the day went on. Any question that was asked was gladly answered. In general, anyone I spoke to was very friendly and generous.

     Michelle Perna - As a native of the Bronx, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to do this study because it gave me a chance to explore a part of my own hometown with which I am familiar but not exactly connected with. My parents work in the McDonald's Restaurant included in this study, and I was therefore able to learn about West Indian culture first-hand, with many willing personalities there to help. The McDonald's employees did not care what color my skin was or how I spoke. One Jamaican manager in particular, Diane Abdulie, volunteered her time and escorted Vallene and I around the neighborhood. She even witnessed the interviews of some community members, such as the ARMY sergeant.

     However, even though Vallene and I were given equal opportunity to speak with members of the McDonald's community, things changed somewhat when we stepped outside those familiar walls. In general, people in the community responded more favorably to Vallene rather than myself, even though I am the person who is from the Bronx. I believe that many of the community members thought Vallene was from the Bronx due to the fact that her skin is darker than mine, making her look more like the majority of West Indians in the neighborhood. I found this to be very interesting, and enjoyed comparing it to the way I was treated by the members of the McDonald's community who knew me. However, in both cases, I found that if you make a sincere attempt to learn about their differing West Indian cultures, you can rest assured they will do anything in their power to support you.

     Completing a Survey of LOTEs in New York City Communities can become difficult when the immigrant community being studied speaks English. However, it is extremely interesting to note the various dialects within the confines of the West Indian community and the way in which the speakers of these dialects define and characterize the neighborhood.

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