Guyanese americans

by Jacqueline A. McLeod


The Cooperative Republic of Guyana—formerly the colony of British Guiana—is a country the size of its former colonial master, Great Britain, and slightly bigger than the state of Kansas. As one of many Caribbean nations, Guyana is often assumed to be an island rather than a continental country. Larger than the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean put together, it sprawls across 83,000 square miles of the northeastern coast of South America, bounded on the west by Venezuela, on the southwest by Brazil, and on the east by Suriname. Its northern boundary consists of 250 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Of the country's total area, 86 percent is forest, 10.5 percent is savannah grassland, and 3.5 percent is the coastal belt on which nearly all its people live.

Guyana has a population of about three-quarters of a million people; 50 percent are of East Indian descent and about 30 percent are of African ancestry. Amerindian, Chinese, Portuguese, and British peoples all have contributed to the cultural heritage of the land. (The name Amerindian is used to distinguish Guyana's native groups from the immigrant East Indian population.) Primarily because of ambitious missionary activities during the nineteenth century, the Afro-Guyanese are mostly Christian. In fact, more than half of Guyana's people—regardless of race or ethnicity—are classified as Christian: 18 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 16 percent is Anglican. Of the non-Christian Guyanese, 35 percent Hindu, and 9 percent Muslim. The major religious holidays of each of the three faiths—Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam—are observed nationally.

Guyana's capital city is Georgetown. No other cities or towns rival it in importance. The official language of the country is English, but almost everyone speaks Creolese, a fusion of European and African dialects. Amerindian dialects and East Indian tongues are spoken as well, and three major Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu—are still in use among the Indo-Guyanese. Each of a dozen native groups speaks a different Carib, Arawak, or Warrau dialect. About 91 percent of the Guyanese population is literate—one of the highest rates among new nations of the world. Guyana's national flag consists of five colors: the green background symbolizes agriculture and forests, the golden arrowhead represents mineral wealth, the white border stands for water resources, and the red triangle edged in black signifies the energy and zeal of the Guyanese in building their nation.


Guyana is an Amerindian word that means "land of [many] waters." The Europeans first used the name to refer to the triangle formed by the Orinoco, Amazon, and Negro rivers. The British used "Guiana"—an English spelling of the same Amerindian name—to refer to their New World colony. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Guyana was inhabited by several native groups. The largest group was the Caribs, who lived in the upper reaches of the Essequibo River, as well as near the Mazaruni, Cuyuni, Pomeroon, and Barima rivers. The Caribs roamed the heavily forested regions of the interior. Between the Corentyne and Waini rivers lived the Arawaks, a friendly, peace-loving native group whose people were the first to greet Christopher Columbus in other areas of the Caribbean. Another native group, the Warrau, inhabited the swampland near the mouth of the Orinoco in present-day Venezuela but eventually moved east into Guyanese territory.

Christopher Columbus was the first European known to have sailed along the coast of Guyana. But during his voyage to the New World in 1498, Columbus only viewed the land's low-lying tropical shore. It was not until 1499 that Alonso de Ojeda became the first Spaniard to actually set foot on the land that would later be known as Guyana. No settlement, however, resulted from this early exploration. Between 1595 and 1616, English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh—who dreamed of "El Dorado" (the mythical land of gold)—led three expeditions to the Guyanese territory. Although Raleigh failed to locate any gold, his efforts resulted in the earliest mapping of the Guyanese coastline.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to gain a real foothold in Guyana. In 1616 Dutch colonists selected a site on an island peak overlooking the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni rivers, about 40 miles upstream from the mouth of the Essequibo River. The settlement was named Kijk-over-al ("Overlooking All"). Early attempts at farming included the growth of coffee, tobacco, and cotton crops. Meanwhile in Europe, the Dutch States-General (governing the provinces of present-day Holland) granted a charter over the Guyana territory to the Dutch West India Company in 1621. The charter gave the company complete political and economic authority, the privilege to undertake pirate raids against Spanish shipping, and the right to carry slaves from West Africa to the New World. By 1770 more than 15,000 Africans were enslaved in Guyana.

With a slave labor force, which consisted of men and women forcibly removed from their native Africa, the farms began to grow in size and in yield. The success of the Dutch venture encouraged the development of sugar plantations in other inland regions of Guyana. Similar settlements sprang up along the Berbice, Demerara, and Pomeroon rivers. The Berbice district became a separate territory in 1732, and a Demerara district was established in 1741.

In 1781 war broke out between the Dutch and the British over ownership of the colony, resulting in a year of British control over Guyana. In 1782 the French seized power and governed for two years, during which time they created the new town of Longchamps at the mouth of the Demerara River. When the Dutch regained power in 1784, they moved their colonial capital to Longchamps and renamed it Stabroek; the city was later renamed again—this time "Georgetown" after the British king, George III.

The Dutch maintained control over the Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara settlements until 1796, when a British fleet from the Caribbean island of Barbados conquered the country. The British governed until 1802, at which time Guyana was restored to the Dutch under a truce established by the Treaty of Amiens. The next year the British once again conquered the colony, which was finally ceded to them in 1814 under agreements contained in the Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna. In 1831, three years before slavery ended in the region, the British merged Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara to form British Guiana. After slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies on August 1, 1834, former slaves were subjected to a four-year apprenticeship to facilitate their transition to a wage labor system. However, after emancipation, few former slaves chose to work—even for wages—for the plantation owners who had once enslaved them.

Faced with a critical shortage of workers, planters decided to import workers under a system of indentured servitude. Immigrants under this system included people from Portugal, China, the West Indies, and Africa, but by 1844 indentured servitude in Guyana was almost solely the domain of East Indian laborers. After a five-year indenture period, the East Indians were "free" to return to India at their own expense. This indenture system, which had satisfied the planter aristocracy's demand for workers, was abolished in British Guiana in 1917. But no matter how much headway was achieved by the former slaves or by former indentured laborers, the reins of political power remained in the firm grasp of a European elite.


Guyana's road to independence was a rocky one. In 1953, a new constitution granted universal adult voting rights and established a two-house legislature. But political turmoil followed the first general election. The British government feared the communist leanings of the winning People's Progressive Party (PPP), which was led by Cheddi Berret Jagan (1918– ). Consequently, the British suspended the new constitution and the elected government. (Guyana's constitution did not go into effect until 1961.)

In addition to the PPP's communist stance, the party also advocated independence from Great Britain. From 1954 until the time that new elections were held in 1957, an interim government ruled British Guiana. Meanwhile, Jagan, an East Indian, and his fellow PPP cofounder, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923-1985), an African, had a major disagreement that ended their collaboration. Burnham left the PPP in 1957 and formed the People's National Congress (PNC), which eventually became an opposition party to the PPP. The split weakened the party's majority, but the PPP still won the most legislative seats in 1957 and again in 1961.

As head of the PPP, Jagan was elected prime minister of the colonial Guyanese government in 1957 and remained in office until the heavily contested election of 1964. That year, the colonial governor declared Burnham the victor by virtue of his ability to lead a coalition of the PNC and the United Force (UF), a third party led by Portuguese businessman Peter Stanislaus d'Aguiar. Under Burnham's leadership, the nation's long struggle for independence ended on May 26, 1966, when he assumed the office of prime minister of an independent Guyana.

In an attempt to put an end to foreign meddling in Guyanese affairs, Burnham steadfastly positioned Guyana among the world's non-aligned nations in world affairs. With Burnham at the helm, Guyana declared itself a "Cooperative Republic" in 1970. The change meant that Guyana became a socialist nation—a country committed to achieving prosperity by pooling its material and human resources. The Guyanese government also nationalized its industries, including foreign-owned bauxite companies (bauxite is used in the production of aluminum), which produced much of the country's wealth. By 1985, the end of Burnham's 20-year tenure as chief executive and the year of his death, more than three-quarters of the country's economy had been brought under government control.

Immediately following Burnham's death, vice president Hugh Desmond Hoyt was sworn into office. Regularly scheduled elections, criticized as fraudulent, were held in December of 1985. Hoyt and the PNC won a solid but questionable victory. However, in national elections held in October of 1992—under the watchful eyes of the international community—the Jagan-led PPP won, bringing the tenure of the PNC as ruling party to a close after almost three decades.


The Guyanese people were part of the two major waves of British West Indian immigration to the United States. The earlier wave encompassed the first two decades of the twentieth century, showing a steady increase in immigration until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This act placed race and ethnicity restrictions on entry to the United States and included the English-speaking Caribbean in the quota allotted to Great Britain, with a visa limit of 800 per year and a preference system for skilled workers and relatives of United States citizens. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Guyanese immigrants primarily chose Britain as their destination. However, following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, which removed race and ethnicity as conditions of entry, the second wave of immigration to the United States began; the Guyanese American migration pattern continued to accelerate in the ensuing decades.


Guyanese immigration to the United States increased sharply with the passage of Britain's 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which over-turned the British Nationality Act of 1948. The earlier act allowed citizens of Guyana to claim citizenship in the United Kingdom and granted all Commonwealth citizens the same legal rights accorded to British citizens. Many Guyanese took advantage of this opportunity to further their education and improve their economic status. However, the concentration of nonwhite manual workers and their families in British cities stimulated an outcry against unregulated immigration, culminating in the 1962 act, which restricted their entry. With the doors of their "mother country" virtually closed to them, many Guyanese, mostly of the professional and technical classes, began to turn to the United States as their new land of opportunity.

In 1965 the McCarran-Walter Act was amended to protect American workers while restricting immigration from the Western Hemisphere. But with the introduction in 1968 of an annual ceiling of 120,000 immigrant visas for the Western Hemisphere, the intent of the act of 1965 was negated. Skilled laborers from Western Hemisphere countries journeyed to the United States in record numbers. The response from Guyana was immediate and dramatic. The majority of Guyanese applicants fell into the categories of "professional," "technical," and "kindred" (or skilled) workers.

The outward flow from Guyana intensified as the country experienced drastic economic and political changes during the 1970s and 1980s. After declaring itself a "Cooperative Republic" in 1970, Guyana began taking steps toward the nationalization of resources. During this time the country was under progressively heavier stresses and strains, resulting in declining productivity, massive unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation. It was also during this period that the Burnham regime came under increasing fire for its repression of political opposition.

Between 1960 and 1970, more Guyanese entered the United States than ever before. Around this time, the United States experienced labor shortages—especially in the health industry and in private households, traditional areas of employment for women. Guyanese women, like other Caribbean women, met demands in the United States for workers in the health and domestic fields. The first Guyanese to arrive in 1968, either as "private household workers" or as nurses' aides, were of African descent. East Indian Guyanese women were forbidden by custom to venture to the United States alone.

Guyanese immigrants no longer fit the traditional immigration pattern, in which the men settle in a new country first and send for their families later. Since the 1960s, female immigrants have assumed the status of "principal alien," the term given to an immigrant worker within a specific or delineated labor force capacity, whose status activates other provisions in the migration process of family members. According to Monica Gordon in In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean, more Guyanese women than men settled in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, making them primarily responsible for securing immigrant status for their families. These women, Gordon concluded, tended to see migration as a means to improve their economic and social status and the educational opportunities of their children. U.S. Census Bureau records indicate that of the 48,608 people of Guyanese ancestry living in the United States in 1980, 26,046 were female. By 1990 approximately 81,665 people of Guyanese ancestry had settled in the United States.


Because the overwhelming majority of Guyanese were migrating from urban centers (90 percent of Guyana's population is clustered along the coastal plain), they tended to settle mostly in the northeastern cities of the United States. As of 1990, 80 percent of Guyanese Americans lived in the Northeast. The heaviest concentration of Guyanese Americans can be found in New York (56,462), New Jersey (6,697), and Maryland (3,106), although a significant portion of the population also settled in Florida, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

Guyanese American communities are not localized. There are no clearly demarcated spatial boundaries between them and other Caribbean groups. Rather, a multiplicity of Caribbean peoples tend to settle in the same regions. New York City's immigrant pool from 1982 to 1989 was drawn mostly from the Caribbean. Of the top five source countries, four were the Caribbean nations of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. Seventy percent of all Guyanese immigrants move to New York. In fact, about eight percent of the total population of Guyana moved to New York City—particularly the East Flatbush, Flatbush, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn—in the 1980s, according to a July 1, 1992, New York Times article entitled "A City of Immigrants Is Pictured in Report." Of the 46,706 Guyanese immigrants in the United States from 1983 to 1989, a total of 8,912, or approximately 19 percent, settled in these sections of the city.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Many immigration studies on the Caribbean focus on the island nations of Jamaica, Haiti, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago because of their large populations abroad. Guyana's immigrant population in the United States noticeably increased in the 1980s. Guyana first grabbed the international spotlight in November of 1978, after the shocking People's Temple incident involving the mass suicide by poison of more than 900 Americans in the country's interior. The People's Temple, a cult that originated in California, consisted of U.S. citizens under the leadership of Reverend Jim Jones. Members of the Guyanese government found Jones's credentials sound and granted him permission to construct a religious center in Guyana's western region, near Port Kaituma. The enterprise, however, ended in tragedy when Jones—under scrutiny by the U.S. government for his questionable dealings—has his followers kill themselves. For years after, the country of Guyana was associated with the cult members' deaths.


Guyanese folklore and traditions date back centuries. Many Guyanese superstitions or belief systems are maintained among Guyanese Americans, especially those who identify with some Caribbean enclave. The following are some examples of Guyanese beliefs: Good Friday is considered a very unlucky day to be involved in outdoor activities if they are not church-related. When entering a house late at night, a person should go in backwards in order to keep evil spirits out. To cure a fever, a sliced potato should be placed on the ill person's forehead. To cure the effects of a stroke (like a twisted mouth), a whole nutmeg should be placed inside of the mouth on the affected side. A woman whose feet have been swept will not get married. A black cat crossing in front of a pedestrian will bring bad luck. A dog howling at a particular house is a sign that death will soon come to someone in that household. A pondfly in the house is a sign of news or correspondence. Stepping over someone's leg will stunt their growth. All references to the dead must be prefaced with the words: "God rest the dead in the living and the looking."


A wealth of proverbs from Guyanese culture have survived through the generations: "Hint at Quashiba mek Beneba tek notice" (Pay attention to the hints someone drops); "Wuh is fun fuh school boy is dead fuh crappo" (One man's meat is another man's poison); "Bush gat ears, goobie gat hole" (When you least expect it, people are eavesdropping); "Mouth open, story jump out" (Some people can't keep a secret); "Show me yuh company, I'll tell you who you be" (People judge you by the friends you keep); "Moon run til day ketch he" (Your deeds usually catch up with you); "Greedy man y'eye does yalla twice, fuh he own and he mattie own" (Some people are never satisfied); "Monkey mek he pickney til he spoil'um" (Similar to "Too many cooks spoil the broth"); "Wuh fall from head drop pun shoulder" (Sins of the parents fall on the children); "If yuh guh to crab dance, yuh mus get mud" (What you sow you reap); "Who lif yuh up doan put yuh dung" (Those who get you into trouble don't get you out); "It's a lazy horse that can't carry its own oats" (Your burden is yours to carry); "Hand wash hand mek hand come clean" (More is accomplished through cooperation); "Mocking is ketching" (Don't laugh at another's situation, it might be yours); "Monkey know wuh limb to jump pun" (Bullies know exactly on whom to pick); "Donkey ears long, but he doan hear he own story" (Some people mind other people's business); "Do suh nuh like suh" (Treat others as you would like to be treated); "If yuh nuh gat muhma suck granny" (Make do with what you have).


Guyanese cuisine is appetizing, spicy, and delicious. Spices and herbs are used in abundance, and one-dish meals occupy an important place in Guyanese cuisine. These dishes, sometimes called "poor man food," are nourishing, inexpensive, and very easy to prepare. Guyanese men and women both enjoy cooking, each trying to outdo the other in excellence. Pepperpot, considered a national dish, is a combination of different meats (beef, pork), spices, a dash of sugar, lots of onions, and cassareep (a sauce made from fermented juice from the bitter cassava plant); it is eaten with rice or bread. Cookup rice, another national dish, is a blend of rice, split peas or black-eyed peas, spices, onions, coconut milk, and meats. Also central to the repertoire of Guyanese recipes is the array of Indian curried dishes, made with curry powder, an East Indian spice with a distinctive flavor. African Metemgee, an inexpensive dish that is very filling, is made from coconut milk, meat or fish, onions, spices, plantains, and dumplings. Souse is a very spicy and tangy dish made from boiled pig ears and pig feet, flavored with cucumber, hot pepper, scallions, and lemon juice. Portuguese garlic pork is highly spiced pork pickled in garlic and vinegar. It is served fried, and eaten with bread. Dahl is a blend of boiled split peas, onions, garlic, curry powder, and cumin. This can be served over rice or eaten with roti, a pancake-like bread. Guyanese cuisine is not complete without Chinese noodles and chow mein, and black pudding, also called blood pudding, which is served with a tangy hot sauce.

Konkee is a sweet dish made from corn flour, sugar, spices, grated coconut, and raisins. The mixture is then wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled. Foofoo, one of several substitutes for rice, is simply boiled plantains pounded in a mortar with a pestle. This is usually served with some type of stew. Coocoo, another substitute for rice, is a corn meal mush blended with seasoned boiled okra. Cutty Cutty soup, a "poor man" dish, is made with okra, salt beef, pig tail, tripe (stomach tissue, usually of a cow), onions, green plantains, and dumplings. Salt fish cakes, also called codfish cakes, are made from shredded salted codfish mashed together with boiled potatoes, onions, and pepper, then placed in a batter and fried. Black cake is Guyanese fruit cake, usually made at Christmas or for weddings. It is a very dark and very rich fruit cake made with rum. Ginger beer is a non-alcoholic homemade drink made from grated ginger and sweetened water.


Many Indo-Guyanese women wear their traditional sari for special occasions such as weddings or East Indian holidays. Saris are garments made from long pieces of light cloth: one end is wrapped around the waist to form a skirt and the other is draped over the shoulder or the head. Some Afro-Guyanese wear the African booboo and head wrap. During the 1970s, when Guyana became a socialist republic, Prime Minister Burnham formally declared the official business attire for men to be shirtjacks and pants, instead of the European suit and tie.


Guyana's National Dance Company—a multiethnic troupe—performs East Indian and African dances during national holidays, including Independence Day; Deepavali, the Hindu celebration of lights; Phagwah, the Hindu festival to welcome spring; and the Republic celebrations.


In addition to Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday, Guyanese Americans celebrate Guyana's Independence on May 26, and to a lesser degree "August Monday," the first Monday in August, symbolizing Emancipation Day. At Independence Day celebrations, the national anthem, "Dear Land of Guyana," is sung.


There are no documented health problems or medical conditions that are specific to Guyanese Americans. Many families have health insurance coverage through their employers. Like most Americans, Guyanese American business owners and professionals in private practice are insured at their own expense.


Guyanese generally speak and understand Creole or Creolese, which is a linguistic fusion of African dialects and English. Standard English is used for formal communication, although it is spoken in a definite Guyanese vernacular. For the first generation of immigrants who settled (as most did) among other Caribbean enclaves, there was no real attempt to alter their speech patten, since others in their community could understand them. For those immigrants who moved away from their Caribbean neighbors and integrated socially into the host society, their speech pattern gradually lost its distinctive Guyanese sound. Some immigrants, however, chose to hold onto their speech pattern as a way of maintaining their identity.


Common Guyanese words and expressions include: Howdy—How are you?; God spare life—an expression used after promising to do something; God rest the dead—expression used before speaking the name of the dead; Beannie —referring to a young female; Banna —referring to a young male; Jert —to eat; Tassay —to get lost; Ahgee —grandmother; Bambuy —leftovers; Eye wata —tears; Mamoo —uncle (Indo-Guyanese); Pagaly —silly; "Don't mek yuh eyes pass me"—meaning don't disrespect me.

Family and Community Dynamics

The first wave of Guyanese immigrants in the early decades of the twentieth century were typically single males who had left their families and possibly a fiancee behind temporarily in the hopes of sending for them later; in the interim, they supplemented the income of the family back home. Many married men did not immigrate ahead of their families, since their jobs at home provided the only income the family had. In the case of the Indo-Guyanese, some husbands and wives came together, leaving children with grandparents or other relatives. Recently there has been an increase in the numbers of Indo-Guyanese women who have immigrated without their families, but these numbers are still minuscule in comparison to the Afro-Guyanese women, who began moving to the United States alone in the 1960s. Typically these newcomers first stayed for a short time with friends or relatives. After finding work, however, they usually rented rooms in crowded boarding houses (often occupied by other Guyanese and Caribbean immigrants).

Like typical first generation immigrants, the Guyanese worked hard and saved most of their earnings, doing without the simplest of pleasures. Their primary goal was to facilitate the passage of their family members to the United States. Many of the males worked around the clock and went to night classes to better themselves educationally; women typically performed "sleep in" work—living six days per week at their place of employment and returning to the boarding house for one day, usually beginning Saturday night and ending Sunday night. That one day off was spent in church and at stores shopping for things to "pack a barrel" for their kin back home.

After acquiring permanent resident status and securing their family's passage to the United States, Guyanese immigrants then concentrated on improving their economic and educational status. Many women pursued nursing degrees part-time while holding multiple jobs.

The core of the social network of the Guyanese is the family. Other Guyanese are preferred as marriage partners, but many Guyanese marry persons from other Caribbean nations, or Americans of Caribbean parentage. The percentage of marriages between Guyanese and Americans—black or white—is low.


From their first arrival, the Guyanese began to interact with other ethnic groups, particularly Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Grenadians, and people from other English-speaking Caribbean nations. This nurturing of a Caribbeanness contributes to the resistance to marry outside of the Caribbean group. Guyanese American cultural traditions have been preserved by the religious observances of weddings, baptisms, and funerals.


The bridal shower is a social custom practiced in Guyana among many Christians and non-Christians. Many Guyanese Hindus, for example, have simultaneous Christian celebrations to include their Christian friends. For Christian weddings, bans are usually announced in the church for three consecutive Sundays so that impediments to the marriage—if any—can be brought to the attention of the priest. During this period the priest counsels the couple on the duties of marriage. As in the United States, the couple selects a best man, maid (or matron) of honor, bridesmaids, and attendants. In most cases the best man and maid/matron of honor serve as godparents to the couple's first child. The godmother then becomes the couple's mac mae ("mac may"), and the godfather the com pae ("com pay").

On the night before the wedding, in a celebration of song and dance called a kweh kweh, the bride is feted by the older women of her family. The actual wedding ceremony mirrors the traditional American church wedding. Silver coins are also blessed by the priest and given to the bride and groom for good luck and prosperity. The priest wraps a robe around the bride and groom, symbolizing their union, and blesses them before concluding the ceremony.

Most Guyanese American weddings are held at a private home or at a Caribbean catering hall to ensure a Guyanese menu. Gifts are usually delivered before the day of the wedding. Toasting or paying respects to the newlyweds is the focal point of the reception. The best man gives his blessings and advice first, then directs the parents of the couple to speak, then any elders in the audience. The bridegroom then speaks, thanking everyone for attending. The reception is accompanied by Caribbean music and dancing. Two weeks after the wedding, the couple entertains family and friends at a gala called a "Second Sunday."


The Guyanese American community is a dispersed one, but family members often travel hundreds of miles for celebrations such as baptisms. According to Guyanese tradition, a female child will have two godmothers and one godfather, and a male child will have two godfathers and one godmother. The godparents are responsible for purchasing the baptismal gown for the child; however, if the mother still has her wedding dress, she may choose to make a baptismal dress from it for her first born. The godparents take the child to church; the priest then confers the grace of God on the baby by placing his hand on his or her head. The godparents promise to lead the child in the way of the Lord. Then, the priest blesses the child in the name of the Holy Trinity while rubbing incense on the forehead and chest; pours holy water over the child's forehead; and finally offers the child up to God.

After the baptism, it is customary to have a large gathering with lots of music, dancing, and food. Family members and friends shower the child with gifts, and money is pinned on the child for good luck and prosperity. Guyanese custom dictates that the child be given a piece of gold jewelry for good luck soon after birth. Girls usually are given a pair of gold bangles (bracelets) and a pair of gold earrings, and boys are given a gold ring and a gold bracelet.


Among the Guyanese, a death in the family is announced by word of mouth. In Guyana, the body of the dead is usually washed and dressed by family members, but because of health regulations this tradition is not practiced in the United States. The deceased is remembered and mourned during a wake, which is followed by a gathering of loved ones and friends. Food and liquor abound, tall tales are told, and folksongs are sung.

After the funeral service at church, prayers are said by the priest at the cemetery, and family members are invited to place flowers on the coffin. Before the deceased is lowered into the grave, the priest sprinkles soil on top of the coffin and while saying: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The congregation then returns to the home of the deceased where friends and relatives have gathered bearing food and beverages. Nine days after the death of a loved one, there is another wake—called "Nine Night"—held in memory of the deceased.

For many days before and after the burial, the family of the deceased is never left alone. Mirrors in the house are covered, for fear of seeing the deceased. Homes are not swept out for days after the burial, for fear of the dead taking more family members with him or her.


Guyanese Americans generally maintain an affiliation with the religious denomination of their homeland. The vast majority of Guyanese American churchgoers are Episcopalian. Priests from Guyana who immigrate to the United States often go on to lead Guyanese American churches. These churches also serve as network centers for newly arrived immigrants. Many Caribbean-led Episcopalian churches in the New York City area have established schools that cater to the educational demands of Caribbean parents and are staffed by former Caribbean schoolteachers. Guyanese parents view education as a combination of learning and discipline; many opt to pay for private schooling for their children, feeling assured that they will be taught in the "home way."

Beginning in the 1970s, a surge of nondenominational churches were established by the Guyanese in the New York and New Jersey areas. These "churches," which are more like teaching centers, have attracted many newly settled Guyanese Americans. So-called "Unity Centers" serve as community centers and teach positive thinking and ways to attain a closer relationship with God. The congregation reflects the many faces of the nations in the Caribbean, although Guyanese usually predominate in those Unity Centers run by Guyanese priests and priestesses.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Because the early Guyanese immigrants settled in the northeastern region of the United States, particularly New York, they found work in the health care, domestic labor, banking, clerical, and physical security fields. They were paid the lowest wages, and—like members of other immigrant groups—many worked several jobs at a time. After accumulating work experience and permanent resident status, many Guyanese advanced to better paying positions.

Some Guyanese established their own small, family-run businesses, such as bakeries and take-out restaurants catering to the tastes of a Caribbean community. Others who could not afford to rent business space in Caribbean neighborhoods sold Guyanese food out of their homes on weekends. As the Guyanese immigrants became more established, they opened real estate offices, guard services, small grocery stores (specializing in food products from home, like cassareep ), neighborhood law offices (specializing in immigration and real estate law), beauty salons, and travel agencies.

Politics and Government

Guyanese are active in the organizations of the larger Caribbean region. There are many Guyanese nurses' and police associations. Guyanese Americans have not yet made a collective impact on political activity nationally. Locally, however, they have organized through their churches with other ethnic groups to call attention to problems in their neighborhoods. They have also entered politics on a local level.


Guyanese Americans maintain close ties to their homeland and its people and provide significant financial support to their native country. During the late 1970s and 1980s—when Guyana was experiencing a terrible economic crisis owing to the further devaluation of the Guyanese dollar, skyrocketing prices for consumer goods, and shortages of basic necessities—Guyanese organizations pooled their resources from fund-raising and made generous donations of money, food, clothing, and equipment to Guyanese hostels, orphans, almshouses, schools, and hospitals. High school alumni associations furnished their alma maters and other schools with chairs, desks, books, and office supplies. Nurses' organizations donated syringes, bed sheets, thermometers, penicillin, and other scarce supplies to hospitals.

There is a steady flow of scholarly exchanges between Guyana and the United States in the form of academic conferences. In almost every college or university with a sizable Caribbean student body, there are Caribbean associations that encourage the connections with home through guest lecturers, trips, and networking. In the United States, academic organizations such as the Association of Caribbean Historians, the Caribbean Studies Association, and the Caribbean Writers Association cater to scholars from the Caribbean.

Individual and Group Contributions

Guyanese Americans represent a minuscule percent of America's total population, but they have made significant contributions to American popular culture, the arts, academia, and politics:


Guyana has long provided a theme for literary expression. Popular Guyanese authors include Jan Carew (1925– ), Wilson Harris (1921– ), Denis Williams (1923– ), O. R. Dathorne (1934– ), Christopher Nicole (1930– ), Gordon Rohlehr, and E. R. Braithwaite (1920– ). Braithwaite's memoir To Sir With Love details his experiences as a black high school teacher in a white London slum. The work was praised for its hopeful view of difficult race relations and was adapted for a 1967 film of the same name.

Edgar Mittelholzer (1909-1965) became well known outside of Guyana for such novels as Corentyne Thunder, Shadows Move Among Them (which won high critical acclaim in America and Britain), Morning at the Office, The Life and Death of Sylvia, The Piling of Clouds, and a three-part novel known as the Kaywana Trilogy ( Children of Kaywana, Kaywana Stock, and Kaywana Blood ). This trilogy follows the fortunes of a Dutch planter family, the Van Groenwegels, over three centuries of Guyanese history and attempts to capture the raw and violent spirit of those times.

Miramy, a full-length Guyanese comedy by Frank Pilgrim, is set on an imaginary island in the West Indies. It became the first locally written play to be performed outside of Guyana. The works of Jan Carew include Black Midas, a picaresque novel acclaimed for its vivid portrayal of raw and roguish types in the diamond fields of Guyana; The Wild Coast, a sensitive study of a young man's difficult passage from puberty to manhood; and The Last Barbarian, a study of West Indian and African life in Harlem. Works by Wilson Harris include a series of poems entitled Eternity to Season and the novel The Palace of the Peacock, about the journey of a river crew through the jungles of Guyana. Among his other works are The Far Journey of Oudin, The Whole Armour, and The Secret Ladder.

Gregory A. Henry, a Guyana-born artist, draws upon the endemic storytelling traditions of his culture for his paintings and sculpture. His work, which has been featured in several travelling exhibits and solo and group shows, has been praised by art critics who number him among a select group of artists projected to come to national prominence in the 1990s.


Alvin Chea is a member of Take 6, a Grammy Award-winning, all-male, a cappella gospel-pop group. Chea is first generation Guyanese American, born to a Guyanese mother.


Colin Moore is a Guyanese American who has made a name for himself in New York politics. An attorney in private practice in Brooklyn, Moore is known for representing many Guyanese Americans and other Caribbean immigrants throughout the New York area. He sought election to the office of governor of New York in 1994, ran unsuccessfully in the past for New York City councilman and district attorney, and—with a group of politically active African Americans—helped found the Freedom Party.

Organizations and Associations

Guyana Republican Party (GRP).

Address: P.O. Box 260185, Brooklyn, New York 11226-0185.

Telephone: (973) 484-3431; or (800) 577-7468.

Fax: (973) 484-1615.


Sources for Additional Study

The Caribbean Exodus, edited by Barry B. Levine. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Caribbean Immigration to the United States, edited by Roy S. Bryce-Laporte and Delores M. Mortimer. Washington, D.C.: Research Institute on Immigration and Ethnic Studies, 1983.

In Search of a Better Life: Perspectives on Migration from the Caribbean, edited by Ransford W. Palmer. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Udeogalanya, Veronica. Demographic and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Caribbean Immigrants and Non-Immigrant Population in the United States. Brooklyn, New York: Caribbean Research Center, Medgar Evers College, 1989.

User Contributions:

I personally found this article about guyanese history to be quite informative about my homeland. As a matter of fact i have learned more about my heritage here, reading just this one article, than i have in the past three years of reasearch iv'e commited to my own personal benefit. My sincere appriciation towards the people responsible.

in appriciation,
evan A.
Monica Lashley
My parents, grandparents, just about everyone in my family is from Guyana. I, unfortunately have not been to this lovely country. I hope to one day and to take my daughters. I found this article to be very good. I learned a lot. It make me laugh reading the spoken words, because it reminded me of family. I live in California now and I don't have much contact with people from Guyana except my family, who, for the most part are still in Brooklyn or the east coast. Reading the words as Guyanese speak them sure made me miss my old aunts and uncles and of course my mom, and grandparents. I think I've met only one family who was from Guyana here in San Diego and I've never seen them again. I'd love to know of more Guyanese here in San Diego.
I found this commentary to be more skewed to the Afro Guyanese.
Some brilliant information which makes me miss Guyana so much more. I've only been back in England for less than a week after spending a year in Guyana. Guyana is a brilliant country and this article really shows how vibrant and diverse the country is. Well done.
Gene Kippins
My beloved father (African, Portugeuse and Essequibo Indian decent) is from Georgetown, Guyana and immigrated to NYC where he met my mother who is from Virginia. In 2005 and in an attempt to better understsand my dad's country/culture, I was quite fortunate to visit Guyana for the very first time. During my emotional visit I met several cousins and my oldest living relative (94 years old) in Bartika. I hope to one day take my two children. I found this article to be helpful in terms of the Guyanese immigration to the US. My brothers and I grew up around West Indian and Southern cultural influences; very interesting. I have travelled worldwide and now live in Northern Virginia. I do have some contact with other Guyanese in the area and family who for the most part are still in Brooklyn or along the east coast. After almost 35 years, I recently once again attended the Carribbean Day Parade in Brooklyn, NYC. I never got to meet my Guyanese grandparents (thanks to my initial visit I now know who they are) or many of my uncles and aunts. My children are very intersated in their heritage and so I am writing a family book for them and future generations to preserve our historical origins.
Theodore Raffudeen
This is an exceptional perspective by a sensitive writer who has invested time and creativity to deliver a substantial overview of Guyanese life and culture for everyone to review.

It takes pride, selflessness and generosity and time to put together such a rich blend of information for others to see. Congratulations on a job well-accomplished ... and thank you.
AWESOME now i would like to know how i an american can merry a guyanese person in guyana who is here with visa for now but we would like to get married in guyana then come back here, would she be an american citizen when i marry her in guyana then bring her home to america?? please respond to my question please. thank you sincerly christopher
I found this article very interesting. I have always tried to find more information about Guyanese immigration. My parents are both Guyanese. I am fortunate to have been brought up in Brooklyn, East Flatbush area where it was easy to keep your culture. So even though I was not raised in Guyana, a lot of the traditional things talked about in this article are familiar to me. I will definitely forward this article to some of my cousins that were not as fortunate as I and they know nothing of there mothers country.
My whole entire family is guyanese. My mother was born and raised there until she was about 8 or 9 and then they moved to chicago. I am 15 so that was not that long ago. Everyone in my family who as at least over the age of 21 has lived in Guyana. My grandmother still has her accent. Even my mother brings it out every once and a while. I am actually going to be taking a trip to Guyana this summer to experience the culture that my whole family has experienced and talk about everyday.
Theodore J. Raffudeen
Ms. McLeod has done a remarkable job of summarizing the Guyanese experience. I would like to get in contact with her to review my novel Coup d'etat - a Guy-American novel- which is about to be released... if she is interested. My name is Theodore J. Raffudeen and I am Guyanese American working on my second novel Ebony & Sandalwood.
Tiffany Lallkissoon
I found this article to be very informative. It's rare to find information on such a wonderful country that is surrounded by prominent Latin American countries, and tends to be overlooked as just the "Land of Many Waters". I also appreciate the Literature and the Arts section. When one hears the word "Guyanese", one doesn't think of authors, artists, of musicians of that ethnicity; but of other unjust thoughts. We should all be aware of what our fellow Guyanese are doing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this article, and hope that it becomes just as enlightening to others as it was for me.
I enjoyed reading this article. I am dating a Guyanese man and I am trying to understand his culture. I am an American, born and raised here and our cultures are very different. The family dynamics have been the most puzzling to me and I am still trying to learn about it. I have enjoyed tying all of the new foods and I really enjoy sharing the kitchen with my boyfriend. We both love to cook and to introduce new dishes to each other.

Great article!
Excellent article on the history of Guyana. I felt like I was reading my life story. Speaking as a first generation American (In fact I am the first of my entire family born here in the states), I was truly impressed. My mother, a single female and part of that 2nd wage of U.S. migration came to to NYC in 1968 and I was born soon after. She sent me back to Guyana during the early 70's to live and to entrench me in the Guyanese culture. My grandparents and aunts and uncles followed soon after. Growing up in Brooklyn during the late 70's and 80's while having to come home to a Guyanese household really puts things in perspective for you and certainly built character. For those of you who have never been to Guyana please go. The country has changed so much since the days of Burnham. My greatest hope is to see more Guyanese participating in U.S. politics.
Thank-you very much for your informative piece. I came upon it after doing a search for the "origins of Black Guyanese". I was very curious to know exactly where in Africa transported slaves originated. The accents of some Guyanese seem very similar to those from various African nations. It will be very exciting to have an answer.
jinnielle rambhajan
as a university student studying in the education field, i found this article exceptional helpful. so keep up the good work!
My parents came to Canada over 20yrs ago. I was fortnate enough to go with my family back to GT every summer for the whole summer and spend time with my family. I haven't been there since my Grandmother passed away almost 7yrs now. I sent my mother and younger sister there for a three month visit recently, and they didn't want to return (LOL). I would like to thank you for publishihng this article, it really is worth keeping :)
I applaud the author of this article as it has thrown me back into my history some of which I forgot.

I am Guyanese born Canadian and my wife is American with German/Italian heritage.

It would be great if and article such as this one could be written on the history of Canadian Guyanese.

Regards PM
Thank you!!! This helped so very, very much with my presentation. EVERYTHING I could ever need!!!
Thank you for having this website, I must admit that I have not read any of its contents. However, as a website that focuses on guyana and guyanese people I wonder if you would allow my comments to be published.

I lived in guyana for 29 years, from childhood to adulthood. I was educated there. From my experience if you ask a Guyanese back in Guyana where is Guyana, they would tell you in South America. I was shocked when I moved to the West and heard Guyanese calling themselves West Indians. I couldnt understand the connection. After many years now, some people justify this by saying that geographically Guyana is in South America but that our culture is West Indian, is that really so? That's news to me, someone who is a born and bred Guyanese.

Guyana is part of the West Indies Cricket team but in my opinion that does not make us West Indians. Culturally we are not in any way connected to West Indian culture. I have met many West Indians here in the West and the only thing we have in common is that we speak 'creolese' broken english mixed with the language of their ancestors back in Africa, India etc. We cook chicken curry and cook-up rice. They cook peas and rice and goat curry, it is not the same. Perhaps I belong to a different crowd of guyanese people.

Note that I am not saying that Guyanese is in any way better or superior to West Indians, all I am saying that Guyanese culture is not the same as people from the West Indies. And parents, please inform your Western born Guyanese children of their indentity and culture, I am shocked when I hear these children do not know the difference between race and culture.

thank you for publishing my comment.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. It is so rare to find good information on Guyana. My whole family is Guyana and I was born there, but raised in Canada. I love that Canada is so multi-cultural and accepts the Guyanese culture. I'm a proud Guyanese and am looking forward to going back this October.

I noticed that the celebration of Mash (Mashramani) was not mentioned in this article. (If I am mistaken, please accept my apologies) It's such a strong, cultural celebration and many people are unaware of it...

Unfortunatley, I've run in to a lot of West Indians who scrutinize the Guyanese for our culture - claiming that we "copy" them. Ignorance...
Stay strong and keep our culture thriving! We have a beautiful culture that we should be proud of, and we should maintain...

Celebrate Guyana.
Thank you so much for writing this article. I am from the Dominican Republic and I am marry to a wonderful guyanese man. This article informed me a lot of his culture :)
Celebrate Guyana :)
A great attempt to describe Guyanese life and culture, however there still could be some inclusion of one of the two main cultures i.e the Indo Guyanese who makes up about fifty percent of the Guyanese population, while I can’t blame you not being. This is where this article falls short ..not too late to improve. Good Luck..Cheers.
Alexis Farmer
Thank you that was very much helpful for my school project on Guyana. Once again thank you!! :-)
Good stuff - Now you know - good reading - keep up the good stuff all- gGod Bless
As a first generation guyanese, with both my parent hailing from Georgetown, it is interesting to see the Guyananese-Americans from such an objective point of view, I will not forget the insight I was able to acquire from this single article that in my 19 years of existence I was never quite able to from my parents. In retaliation to a lack of Guyanese involved in U.S politics I feel as a sudden emergence will be available in the coming years as exemplified by myself and my sister who both have plans to enter the political arena. Thank you for creating such a beautiful piece.
I've read countless articles on the web that claim to report on Guyanese culture and history and disappointingly almost all have been false or atleast a watered down form of what it truly means to be Guyanese but your article is quite the opposite. You have done an amazing job at highlighting what it means to be Guyanese and what our culture envelopes. I especially thank you for sharing about Guyanese writers, musicians etc, often times Guyana is left in the background to countries like Jamaica and Barbados when it comes to the talents that we produce so highlighting that aspect for Guyanese readers and showing them that their ancestors have made valuable contributions will motivate them to contribute in a grand way as well.

As a 21 year old Guyanese woman living in the USA I can truly say that we are a country that non Guyanese know very little about and at times it's frustrating hearing people ask "oh so you're from Africa?" when I inform that I'm Guyanese after they have inquired about my accent. We tend to be overly concerned with Jamaican, Trinidadian and Bajan cultures and identifying ourselves as Caribbean or West Indian insted of South american that we hardly notice that they know very little about us and we ourselves. Thank you once again for this article. I'm sure it has been equally informative to non Guyanese, Guyanese that were born abroad or have been away from their homeland for a long time and especially those interested in Guyanese culture. Keep up the good work and as a few others have suggested it would boost the article in a wonderful way to add more of the Indian culture.
Ben Williams
Very, very interesting information. My family are friends with a Guyanese family and now and then we are told about their lives in Guyana before they moved to the UK with their children.

What they teach us is very interesting and I hope to learn more from them.
quite in formative. was born and raise in guyana now lives in canada and longs to return there to live.
not so helpful what i want to know is how did early east indians,africans and amerindians co-perated when guiana was a colony of britain
This really wasn't helpful. And for the record "Donkey ears long, but he doan hear he own story" actually means-Don't pay attention to others and forget yourself.
Le La
I thought this article was great!

It is not my expectations that ALL aspects of interpretation of this article (such as sayings) are accurate because it is... open to interpretation, I did enjoy reading about the facts in this article. It progresses in a time line that is easy to understand and highlights important events in a more complete history that appears to be carefully put together. Thank you!
This is a great article i learn so much from it, never know so much about my Country when i was growing up i came to Canada in the 80's after 20 years i went back for the first time, what i have experiance was dramatic and extancive changes the Afro- Guyenese are taking over Guyana and the Indo Guyana are leaving Guyana for a better life else where, Guyana have so much to live for and yet our Country is so poor, Guyana went down the tube for 28 dreadful years under the PNC ruling i would very much like to make my Country my home for the rest of my life but i am too afafid of the crime, people are getting killed and robb every day is there a life in Guyana We do not have our own Plane we have to depend on other airline to take us to Guyana where we get illtreated especially in Trinidad and Barbadoes Some thing is definately wrong when will it change so that people can live in peace
Thanks for your article
Big Al
Goulding (AKA NATION)
I enjoy reading this article, it reminded me of alot of the things I have forget about my beautiful Guyana, after living in out of Guyana for over 26 years.Thank you
I have family from Guyana on my mothers side and I found this information to be really helpful and i can relate to a lot of the sections in this article. Great sources and really accurate!
i really enjoy readin this was really help me to complete my school project
I would like to know for a college paper the site that you used that gives the statistics for Guyanese-Americans living in the US in 1980 (census?)
Jacquie F
I migrated to the US as a preteen and am always looking for ways to keep in touch with my culture. This article has allowed me to do do. Thank you!!!
Orin McKay
I am a Guynies went back to Guyana several times and I know some of the history. The person who wrote this article is on the money. I read many article about Guyana before and I always felt it wasn’t accurate. Good job.
It is exciting when you come across an article about your homeland and it's so well written. I usually read these articles just to see if it's correct, you know but you still want to see it written, and the first sentence I read that is incorrect I stop reading but this was so good it had me hocked when it ended I was sad. Loved it.
Patricia Kirkbride
I read this article with great interest and found out things l did not know about my country. It was very enlightening for me, in terms of my country's knowledge. However, this article did not give an indepth history of the indigenous people, the Amerindians, their rich heritage and their contribution to the Guyanese society,
their demise by the European explorers. The article did not focus in depth into the Portugese, Chinese and European contribution to Guyana, considering the some of huge businesses are owned by them. The article is more skewed towards Guyanese migration to the USA, and named one influential person in the USA. In the UK there are several Guyansese writers, poets and academics in Britian who are making Guyana proud, such as John Agard, Clem Seecharan, Kampta Karan, Pauline Melville just to name a few...these lecturers, writers and poets create a huge diaspora on Guyana and its cultural heritage. As brilliant as this article is, from a historical stand point. I am inclined to believe, it only scratched the surface and did not manage to reveal the hidden depth that is Guyana...l feel there is so much more and meeting influential Guyansese in the UK makes me proud to be a part of that diaspora.
Edward Noble
This is a wonderful first primer written specifically to explain to the Guyanese diaspora here in the US their cultural heritage. Of course, as some commentators have pointed out, there appears to be an African Guyanese slant, but truthfully speaking, any group ( Indo, European, Portuguese, Chinese, Native) is exposed to all of the culture and practices some or most of the traditions.
Each group has made a contribution to the melting pot,and it is recognized in the food and speech pattern. Most Guyanese love curry and roti (East Indian), pepperpot (casareep sauce - Native Indian), chow mein (Chinese), garlic pork (Portuguese). The vernacular has been contributed to by all.
There are groups within the Afro, and Indo communities pushing the Hindu culture of India or Afrocentricity exclusively, but the cookup ( pun intended} is Guyanese. Even though this article was written 10 years ago, I believe two outstanding prominent Guyanese were omitted. One was Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, and, the other Dr. Walter Rodney even though Dr. Rodney had no direct Guyanese American connection. These two men wrote highly controversial exposes, but if we are going to write about the contribution to literature, we cannot leave them out.

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