A Guyanese Up-bringing!
For those of us born to immigrant parents, the issue of claiming your identity may not be as easy as you think. Take me for example, born in the UK to Guyanese parents, I grew up in the 60s and 70-s in a deeply Guyanese household. Pepper-pot (the Guyanese Amerindian national dish), metegee (a stew of local vegetables cooked in coconut milk), garlic pork a Portuguese based dish that we would eat on boxing day, all these dishes I love and can cook.
We attended house parties and sang along to the great Grenadian Calypso artist, Sparrow, anyone remembers One BG plantain or three coins in the fountain? These parties would go on all night and long into the next day, so well why wouldn’t I feel Guyanese? Well, there is one thing to feeling and another to claim your identity. In my early 20’s, I felt Guyanese, but whenever anyone asked me I would start to dither and ask myself…
- Can I really claim to be Guyanese, if I’ve only been there once as a young teenager?
- Is knowing how to cook our national and other dishes enough
- I wasn’t married to a Guyanese man to keep all the traditions alive
- Did it matter that most of the time when my daughter was young, we visited Cuba where my husbands father comes from rather than Guyana
- Did I know enough about the politics of Guyana, did I know all the presidents and the history of the country, before and after independence
Does it Really Matter After All These Years?
These questions might seem irrelevant, for some people it doesn’t matter, they are just Caribbean and British. But I know for others, it’s an issue and think about it, if you are born in your parents country of birth, you share, a history, a community and ancestors stretching back generations. You don’t have to think about or answer these types of questions, it’s in your DNA.
It can help if your family is deeply connected to the land of their birth and go back on a yearly basis to visit cousins, uncles and aunts. But even then, you are likely to be called (often to your face), English or little Englanders, (that’s not a term of endearment).
Well, no, we’re not English, at least that’s how I felt growing up in the UK of the ’60s and ’70s, it may be different now. For some of us, claiming that ‘identity requires more and that’s where research into the family heritage and learning more about its traditions, becomes so important.
When I started researching my family heritage, I found about the African villages that were created once slavery was abolished in 1834. The Guyanese history of Indian indentured labourers is a direct result of that abolition. And did you know that prior to Guyana being a British Colony, it was Dutch for over 200 years, with a Dutch creole spoken that has now all but died out? No, well I didn’t either.
Researching Family Heritage
So claiming my Guyanese identity has meant more than just saying “my parents were born there.” I have had to go back, connect with family, visit the Keiteur Falls, and attempt to renew my Guyanese passport, a request denied to me because I was born before independence in 1966.
It has taken half a century to feel like a Guyanese woman in my own skin. And I wonder if the 3rd, 4th and 5th British born generations, will face the same dilemmas. Is ‘holding’ onto any assumed identity, going to be perceived in the same way. What losses and gains could come from that?
But that’s a blog post for another day!