Saturday, January 23, 2010

West Indian in America

For us football is actually played with your feet, and many of us would rather watch Manchester United on television than the Dallas Cowboys. We don't quite get baseball, but fully get that a cricket match can go for days. We are more likely to serve cornmeal pudding or rum cake, than apple pie for dessert. We know tea is not necessarily from a bag, but could be cocoa, chocolate or anything hot and in a mug. Our recollections and longings are peppered with references to 'back home, and around countrymen our speech takes on a distinct cadence as we relax into the rhythmic hybrid of homeland dialect and broken English. We are West Indians in America.

According the Census Bureau's 2000 report on the foreign born population, approximately 2.8 million people from the Caribbean live in the United States. That number does not include U.S.-born children of Caribbean immigrants who consider themselves West Indians, or those the Census Bureau did not reach due to some missing immigration paperwork. It is also not hard to believe that many more people from the islands have emigrated to the United States over the last 10 years.

We come to the States in pursuit of prosperity, education, and sometimes love. While we predominantly live in big metropolitan areas, there is a West Indian to be found in every corner of the United States. We are lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, chefs, administrators, engineers, and politicians. You name a job, a West Indian is doing it - and maybe on double shifts.

While most of us are happy abroad, we know a truth that many people living back home are reluctant to believe. Life in the United States is not all bliss and Kellogg's corn flakes. Those of us who grew up in the islands often miss aspects of our life back home - regardless of how difficult that life may have been. It is not unusal to hear West Indians pine for the more relaxed pace of the Caribbean.

For many West Indians, living in America also presents moral, political and spiritual considerations that were untested in our usually conservative communities back home. Creation vs evolution, gay marriage vs domestic partnership, affirmative action, and race relations are most often items for the overseas, rather than local section of our home country's newspapers. We have not established ourselves as a voting bloc, like Hispanics for example, quite likely because our views are splintered. Those who migrated in the 70s, and 80s are likely to be conservative, particularly about fiscal issues, gay rights, religious liberty, and abortion. Younger immigrants and the children of earlier immigrants are likely to have more liberal views.

Though we sometimes experience racism, without the historical prospective of the periods of the Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights Movement, West Indians often have a more optimistic view of race relations. For example, affirmative action and reparations are issues on which African-Americans and West Indians don't always agree. In fact, West Indian emigrants often experience prejudices from African-Americans, largely due to differing points of view on social and political issues.

Over many decades West Indians emigrants have become part of the fabric of this country. With Haiti's desperate situation in the news, concerns about an influx of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States are being raised. Discussions about border security, immigration policy, and illegal immigrants are constant, but now with the attention focused on Haiti I am increasinly uncomfortable. I am one of the outsiders many born-Americans want to keep out. The discussions of illegal entry intermingle with proposals for putting limits on people emigrating to the United States and the resentment of some is not difficult to see.

Despite all the challenges and sacrifices, we make our lives here. Our tax dollars and our hard work help to build this country. Our children are born here. We leave our lives behind in the countries of our birth, and most of us will never go back. We are naturalized citizens, resident aliens, out of status permanent visitors. We are West Indians in the U.S.A.

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