Schlep in the City: Little Guyana

By Christiana Remarck

Growing up as a Guyanese-American, born from two Guyanese immigrants living in New York, at least once a month my family and I would make a trip to a place now called Little Guyana. It’s a small enclave in Richmond Hill, Queens from 104th to 130th street on Liberty Ave. Whether we were going for some produce for a traditional, Guyanese recipe or a new saree for a Hindu wedding, I believe it would have been impossible to preserve our culture in New York City without the establishments that were set up in this community. Guyanese people themselves are highly diversified from ethnicity to religion making some needs specific, while other needs are universal to Guyanese as a whole. This essay will highlight some staples of Guyanese culture that enable every Guyanese person to set up a home away from home within the confines of New York City. It will explore some of the most sought out spots on Liberty Avenue that a Guyanese living anywhere in New York City would visit when making a trip to Richmond Hill, whether for food, clothing, or religious goods.

Shakti’s Saree & Spriritual. Photos courtesy of the author.

Shakti’s Saree & Spriritual. Photos courtesy of the author.

Guyanese people living in New York are diverse, and that is because Guyana itself is diverse. As Natassaja M. Chowthi points out in her Master’s thesis, “Changing Places and Questions of Identity: The Fluid Lives of First-Generation Indo-Guyanese:”

According to Guyana’s 2002 Census, the largest two ethnic groups in Guyana are East Indians, or Indo-Guyanese, and Guyanese of African descent, or Afro-Guyanese. Indo-Guyanese make up about 43.5 percent of the population and Afro-Guyanese make up about 30 percent. About 9 percent of the population is Amerindian. Europeans and Chinese comprise less than 1 percent, and about 17 percent of the remaining population is individuals of mixed heritage.[1]

Guyana’s ethnic diversity is a result of its history of colonization and the need for human labor. The Dutch first colonized Guyana in the 1700s and enslaved the indigenous population there. By the 1690s, the Dutch were importing Africans as slaves, and when the British took control of Guyana and the British slave trade ended, the British turned to Indians as a “cheap labor source that would fill the labor vacuum.”[2]

Little Guyana was not always home to Indo-Caribbeans. Around the 1980s, Richmond Hill was mainly Italians, Irish, and Germans. It was not until more and more Guyanese emigrated and built their small businesses in Richmond Hill that this enclave would be known as Little Guyana. This migration stemmed from the emergence of Forbes Burnham as a political leader in Guyana. His politics resulted in “ethnicity-based politics” which would lead to “the most violent racial conflict that polarized around the 1964 elections.”[3]

In addition to these push factors that were occurring in Guyana in the 1960s, there were also changes transpiring in US immigration that became a pull factor attracting Guyanese immigration to the United States. As Chowthi explains,

In 1965, the U.S. lifted immigration restrictions and expanded them to the global ‘south’, which included Latin Americans and West Indians. The amendments to immigration abolished the national origins quota system that in turn eliminated national origin, race, or ancestry as a basis for immigration. Immigrant visas were allocated on a first come, first-served basis and allowed preference of U.S. citizens with special occupations and training.[4]

As a result, “After establishing residency, typically in the gateway cities of New York and Toronto, Guyanese immigrants then sent for their family members.” These immigrants included those intellectuals that would have fled during the ‘brain drain’ who might have acquired the “special occupations and training” that gave them preference for visas for family members they sent for. As a result, “There were between five to seven thousand people per year emigrating from Guyana. Between the 1970s and late 1980s, about 10,000 Guyanese migrated per year.”[5]

Whichever factor it may be that caused Guyanese immigrants to set up shop in Richmond Hill, it had a profound effect on arriving immigrants who would rely on the goods and services they provide to maintain their culture in New York City. This is apparent in our first and second stops, Shakti Saree and Annjee’s International. They both sell religious apparel and goods, items that incoming Hindu and Muslim Guyanese would have found hard to come by otherwise. According to a 2002 census report on religious affiliation, approximately 57 percent of the population is Christian and approximately 28 percent is Hindu, 7 percent is Muslim. Combined Muslims and Hindus comprise over one-third of the Guyanese population, and members of all ethnic groups are well represented in all religious groups, except that most Hindus are Indo-Guyanese.[6] Therefore, understanding how these religions influence what they wear and eat are essential to understanding why the locations I have chosen are indispensable to all Guyanese people, including those Hindus and Muslims.

Annjee's International.

Annjee's International.

In order to understand what’s important about what Shakti’s and Anjee’s offer, I had a friend of mine explain the ins and outs of the traditional wear for both religions. Bibi is an Indo-Guyanese, born in Guyana, who immigrated here with her parents during the 1980s, and has practiced both faiths. She explains, “My father is Muslim and my mother’s Hindu. It’s tradition that in the household the children take the father’s religion, so I grew up Muslim. When I got married I took on the religion of my husband, who’s Hindu, so now me and the kids are Hindu.” She explains that “Muslims are very simple. Both men and women wear shalwars. They’re a long top with pants underneath. Even functions and weddings are very simple events where they wear shalwars and the items needed for the ceremonies and offerings can be found anywhere.” However, Bibi explains that Hinduism “is a whole ‘nother story.” She goes on to say that:

Hindu women can wear sarees or lehengas. Sarees are long dresses and lehengas are skirts and tops. Hindu men wear kurtas. It’s a long shirt, pants, and a shawl-like scarf. But when Hindus get married, it’s a 4-day event and the women are wearing veils and tons of jewelry and men are wearing safas, something that looks like turbans. For holidays and functions, Hindus need items you can only find at certain places, for offerings to the gods.[7]

Picture of Bibi (left) and the author (right) wearing traditional Indian garb attending a Hindu wedding. Bibi is wearing a lehenga and the author is wearing a saree.

Picture of Bibi (left) and the author (right) wearing traditional Indian garb attending a Hindu wedding. Bibi is wearing a lehenga and the author is wearing a saree.

It is important to understand that most Guyanese Hindus and Muslims don’t wear traditional Indian wear every day, only for special occasions, such as church, functions, holidays, and weddings. According to Bibi, “functions are blessings that you make offerings to gods and can be for any occasion—buying a new home, a child succeeding, like a graduation, birthdays, a child is sick, childbirth, someone passing away.” In the Hindu faith, according to Bibi, “there’s always some holiday going on, every week, I don’t even know all of them, but if you’re going to do a function or celebrate a holiday at home you have to have the right items and they can be hard to find so I go to Queens for that stuff.”[8]

Although both Shakti’s and Anjee’s provide religious apparel and goods, there’s a reason why both locations are part of the tour and why Shakti is the first stop. Shakti Saree is located at 124-15 Liberty Avenue has been in business for more than fifteen years selling both traditional Indian wear for both Muslims and Hindus, such as sarees, lehengas, shalwars, and kurtas, but specializes in more elaborate stylings for weddings, and carries a wide variety of Hindu religious goods.[9] As Bibi explains, “you can go into Shakti’s and spend the whole morning looking for the right fit.” However, Bibi recommends that “if you’re not close family with the people getting married, Shakti’s can be a little expensive and you can try Annjee’s to see what’s cheaper.”[10]

Annjee’s International is located at 123-08 Liberty Avenue and has been in business since 1992. It sells the same items as Shakti’s but with less variety and doesn’t specialize in wedding apparel, more so for everyday wear. Here, everyday wear meaning functions, holidays, and church. I should point out that you also don’t have to be Hindu to wear traditional Indian wear. As a Guyanese who is not Hindu or Muslim, but a close friend of Bibi’s, I have been invited to weddings and functions of close friends of ours, and worn a saree out of respect of the faith in which the ceremony was conducted. And in those cases, I chose to take Bibi’s advice and shop at Annjee’s where it was more affordable for a simple outfit, as I was not part of the main festivities.

A photo of the Hindu wedding that the author attended. In the center is the bride and groom wearing traditional Indian garb for a Hindu wedding. To the left, the bride is wearing a saree and a veil. To the right, the groom is wearing a kurta and a safa. To the right of the groom, the groom’s father is wearing a more traditional kurta, with a scarf, but without the safa.

A photo of the Hindu wedding that the author attended. In the center is the bride and groom wearing traditional Indian garb for a Hindu wedding. To the left, the bride is wearing a saree and a veil. To the right, the groom is wearing a kurta and a safa. To the right of the groom, the groom’s father is wearing a more traditional kurta, with a scarf, but without the safa.

It seems it is not only Bibi who believes Shakti’s has a wide variety of Hindu items, making it her first stop. According to Vejai Sahadeo, in her article, “Sisters Celebrate Raksha Bhandan, Knot of Protection,” “women shopped for the right design of Rakhi at Shakti’s store which carries the largest selection of the ‘sacred threads.”[11]

Rakhi, or Raksha Bhandan is just one of the numerous holidays that Hindus celebrate. Rakhi is when Hindu sisters celebrate their brothers by the “tying of a ‘sacred red thread’ on the right wrist of the brother, or other respected male family members and sometimes even on friends and neighbors.”[12] Bibi also notes the exhaustive list of holidays that Hindus have. Here again you do not have to be Hindu to wear the red thread. According to the article, “Nowadays this ‘sacred red thread’ is worn by many who are not Hindus’ but it still carries the same belief which symbolizes long life and protection against enemies.”[13]

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar.

Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar.

After spending the entire morning looking for a new saree or maybe some Hindu items for a special occasion or two coming up, the next stop on a trip to Little Guyana would be Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar on 131-14 Liberty Avenue. According to their website, “The first Singh’s Roti Shop opened in 1990” and “The second restaurant, Singh’s Roti Shop Restaurant and Bar opened in 1999,” which is its current location.[14] The owner, Harrygin Singh, moved to New York from Trinidad in 1980. The fact that the restaurant is owned by Trinidadians does not mean that it is any less of a staple in Guyanese culture. Andrew Cotto, in an article profiling Singh’s for the New York Times, notes that “[Singh’s] family came from India, as much of the island’s population had, to work the sugarcane plantations in the 19th century.”[15] Trinidad and Tobago was another country, like Guyana, that was colonized by the British and whose population were indentured servants derived from East India, so it’s not a wonder that their food is very similar.

I’m not the only one who believes Singh’s is a staple of the Guyanese culture. Trone Dowd in his article, “Caribbean Eats, Find the Best Island Food Here in Queens,” states that Singh’s “has long been a staple of the ‘Little Guyana’ community.”[16] The reasons are simple. First, during their respective holidays, Muslims and Hindus fast. However, Bibi explains that, “when Muslims fast, they eat nothing. When Hindus fast, they’re not allowed to eat meat, including, fish, seafood, and eggs.”[17] And as aforementioned, Hindus celebrate a lot of holidays, so it’s safe to say that for much of the year, devoted Hindus are vegetarians. According to Cotto, “Singh’s serves meats and shellfish: curried, stewed, jerked or barbecued. Fresh fish is fried, salted, or smoked. Pumpkin, eggplant, yucca, plantains, okra and tomatoes are steamed and coated in tamarind sauce or cooked down into side dishes. There are traditional Chinese dishes, as well as West Indian variations like crispy-skin pork and char siu pork.” Cotto sums it up better than I can when he says, “All of this variety reflects the improbable diversity of the southern Caribbean, famous for its collision of cultures.”[18]

The next location is Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant because after a traditional, home-cooked meal, what’s better than a freshly baked dessert? Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant is located at 132-17 Liberty Avenue and is truly a staple of Little Guyana, since it has been around since 1976. Sybil Bernard-Kerutt immigrated to the United States in 1969, before the influx of Guyanese immigrants in the 80s, which proved to be vital to her success. After working out of her home for a few years, “The popularity of the products eventually grew beyond expectations, especially as more and more West Indian immigrants began arriving. From 1984 to 1992, 60,000 Guyanese immigrants alone settled in New York City.” When her son, Viburt Bernard, who runs the bakery now after Sybil passed away in October 2000, was interviewed in 2016, he reinforced the idea of how important Sybil’s bakery was to newly arrived Guyanese immigrants, “In those days, in the late 70’s the Guyanese didn’t have any of these baked products available to them.”[19]

Sybil’s Bakery & Restaurant.

Sybil’s Bakery & Restaurant.

Viburt Bernard also explains why Sybil’s has continued to remain a staple of the Guyanese community: “What you find at Sybil’s here I don’t think you’re going to get them in too many of the bakeries around New York. We were trained in the 60’s and we learned and kept those original recipes from the absolute best.” Today, “Sybil’s has evolved into something of an institution in New York’s West Indian enclaves. It is a place to savor coconut drops, pineapple tarts, and citrusy currant rolls—the sweet staples of Guyana.”[20] Viburt explains that Sybil’s is such a staple to the Guyanese community, it is a destination for Guyanese from all over the world. He states, “We’re close to Kennedy so for many visitors, this is their first stop in and their last stop out. They come here and they know they have to come to Sybil’s because they crave it. People long for it, you know? When you have a taste for things that you grew up with, you long for the taste.”[21]

Our last stop is a produce market called West Indian Farm Market, located at 123-02 Liberty Avenue. While you might have picked up prepared foods already, here is the opportunity to buy fresh vegetables and fruits imported straight from Guyana, that you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. For example, although most produce store sells the brown ripe coconut used for its firm meat to eat or cook, the young, green coconuts consumed for its water or jelly, is traditionally only found at these West Indian markets. Whether you’re a Hindu Guyanese fasting and in need of more variety in your vegetables to prepare your main dishes at home, or just a Guyanese craving the same vegetables to prepare your side dishes, or even some fruits from back home, this is where you stop to stock up. It’s your last stop before you head home, and this way if you’re traveling on a warm summer’s day, you know your vegetables and fruits won’t spoil before you get home.

West Indian Farm Market.

West Indian Farm Market.

A photo of green and brown coconuts. To the left, the brown coconuts can be found in any grocery store. However, the green coconuts to the right are more traditionally found at West Indian produce stores, such as West Indian Farm Market.

A photo of green and brown coconuts. To the left, the brown coconuts can be found in any grocery store. However, the green coconuts to the right are more traditionally found at West Indian produce stores, such as West Indian Farm Market.

The history of Guyanese immigration during the 70s and 80s helps to reinforce the idea that New York has always and continues to foster diversity; it’s a place where immigrants can seek out refuge and set up a home away from home. Guyanese immigration continues to diversify New York and although immigrants may not have always been tolerated or welcomed and although immigration laws continue to change, New York is still and has always been home to the immigrant and the land of opportunity and dreams.

Bibi and I are close friends. We both share a bond of being daughters of Guyanese immigrants who migrated to New York City during our childhoods in the 1980s. We both still make the trip to Little Guyana of Richmond Hills as our parents did, now with our children, hopefully passing on that tradition. Bibi and I recently made the trip to Little Guyana together, visiting all the aforementioned locations of the tour, in search of new outfits for the upcoming summer functions and weddings we’ve been invited to, picking up some home-cooked Guyanese food along the way. Little Guyana continues to serve us as it did our parents decades ago, allowing us, just like the rest of the Guyanese immigrant population, to maintain our culture and a home away from home within the confines of New York City.

Christiana Remarck is a student at Lehman College.

Notes

[1] Natassaja M. Chowthi, "Changing Places and Questions of Identity: The Fluid Lives of First-Generation Indo-Guyanese" (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina, 2009), 7.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid, 26.

[4] Ibid, 27.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Guyana: International Religious Freedom Report 2007,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, accessed May 13, 2018.

[7] Bibi Sobhai, in interview with the author, March 11, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “About Us,” Shakti Saree, accessed May 13, 2018.

[10] Bibi Sobhai, in interview with the author, March 11, 2018.

[11] Vejai Sahadeo, “Sisters Celebrate Raksha Bhandan, Knot of Protection,” Queens Free Press, September 2, 2015.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “A Little About Us,” Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar, accessed May 13, 2018.

[15] Andrew Cotto, “Live Music, Hot Food, Hot Sauce,” New York Times, June 28, 2012.

[16] Trone Dowd, “Caribbean Eats: Find the Best Island Food Here in Queens,” Queens Tribune, November 12, 2015.

[17] Bibi Sobhai, in interview with the author, March 11, 2018.

[18] Andrew Cotto, “Live Music, Hot Food, Hot Sauce,” New York Times, June 28, 2012.

[19] Trone Dowd, “Business: Sybil’s: A Mainstay of Guyanese Cuisine,” Queens Tribune, May 26, 2016.

[20] Raymond Hernandez, “New Yorkers & Co.: Sweet Smells of Success,” New York Times, January 23, 1994.

[21] Trone Dowd, “Business: Sybil’s: A Mainstay of Guyanese Cuisine,” Queens Tribune, May, 26, 2016.