Trinidadian and tobagonian americans

by N. Samuel Murrell


Located on the northeastern coast of Venezuela, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago comprises the two most southerly islands in the West Indies. Tobago, which lies 20 miles northeast of Trinidad, measures only 117 square miles. Trinidad, which has a land mass of 1,865 square miles, is about the size of Delaware. The Republic's capital, Port of Spain, is an important commercial center, producing beer, rum, plastics, lumber, and textiles. Chief exports of Trinidad and Tobago include oil, sugar, citrus fruit, asphalt, and coffee.

Trinidad and Tobago have approximately 1.27 million residents, most of whom live on Trinidad. While the population of Tobago is predominantly black, Trinidad supports several ethnic groups, including Asian Indians (40.3 percent), blacks (39.6 percent), Europeans, Chinese, and Lebanese (one percent). The remaining 18 percent includes individuals of mixed heritage. Roman Catholics (29.4 percent), Hindus (23.8 percent), Protestant Christians (12 percent), Anglicans (10.9 percent), and Muslims (5.8 percent) are the dominant religious groups of the islands.

The Republic's national flag has a black diagonal band edged with white on a red background. Trinidad and Tobago's national anthem "Side By Side We Stand" echoes the country's commitment to racial and ethnic diversity: "Forged from the love of liberty, / In the fires of hope and prayer, / With boundless faith in our destiny, / We solemnly declare. / Side by side we stand. / Islands of the blue Caribbean sea, / This is our native land. / We pledge our lives to thee, / Here every creed and race / Finds an equal place, / And may God bless our nation."


The history of Trinidad and Tobago is one of invasion, conquest, and colonization. On July 31, 1498, Christopher Columbus discovered the islands, which were inhabited by about 40,000 native peoples (Arawaks and Caribs) whom he called Indians. Columbus named the larger island Trinidad, in honor of the Holy Trinity, and called Tobago (the legendary island of Robinson Crusoe ) Concepcion. The islands' native population began disappearing, largely from exposure to European diseases and poor treatment, shortly after the founding of the first city, San Josef de Quna (Saint Joseph), in 1592. By 1783 the native population was reduced to less than 1,490 people and by 1800 they were virtually extinct.

Trinidad remained an underdeveloped outpost for almost 200 years until the King of Spain issued the Cedular of Population in 1783 and began enticing planters to migrate to Trinidad with their slaves. In 1791 thousands of French colonists, fleeing the French Revolution in Saint Domingue, settled in Trinidad, bringing enslaved Africans with them. While Trinidad was largely ignored during the early years of colonization, Tobago fell to a number of European explorers. The island passed through the hands of Great Britain, France, Holland, and other invading European countries at least 22 times during its history, until it was finally ceded to Britain in 1814. In January 1889 Trinidad and Tobago united as one nation under British rule. Africans were brought to Tobago as slaves in the early 1600s but were not imported into Trinidad in great numbers until the early 1700s. After the British government abolished slavery in 1834, Asian Indian and Chinese laborers were brought to Trinidad as indentured servants. Between 1842 and 1917, over 170,000 Asian Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese (from Madeira) were enticed into working on the islands' vast plantations. Lured by the fertile soil and unexplored natural resources, many former American slaves migrated to the island as well. Consequently, by 1900 more than 70,000 blacks had settled in Trinidad and Tobago.


Trinidad and Tobago was governed by British royalists and dominated by Scottish, French, and Spanish colonists until its independence in 1962. Prior to independence, non-whites had little or no voice in government affairs. After World War I, however, they began protesting through strikes and demonstrations organized by such civil rights leaders as Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Buzz Butler, and others involved with the powerful Oil Field Workers Trade Union and the Manual and Metal Workers Union.

In 1947 the British Government plotted the formation of a West Indian federation, which came to fruition in 1958. They chose Port of Spain as the capital. The federation was designed to foster political and cultural solidarity and to break down economic barriers among the islands. The federation collapsed in 1961, however, when Jamaica seceded from the union, becoming an independent nation. Trinidad and Tobago attained independence on August 31, 1962, and became a republic within The Commonwealth in 1976. In 1965 Trinidad and Tobago joined the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Free Trade Area (Carifta) which was renamed the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in 1974. Trinidad and Tobago enjoyed substantial prosperity from the 1960s to the early 1980s due to the success of the oil industry, but prices plummeted in the late 1980s, sending the country into a serious recession.


Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigration to the United States, which dates back to the seventeenth century, was spasmodic and is best studied in relation to the major waves of Caribbean immigration. The first documented account of black immigration to the United States from the Caribbean dates back to 1619, when a small group of voluntary indentured workers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, on a Dutch frigate. The immigrants worked as free people until 1629 when a Portuguese vessel arrived with the first shipload of blacks captured off the west coast of Africa. In the 1640s Virginia and other states began instituting laws that took away the freedom of blacks and redefined them as chattel, or personal property. Trinidad, like many other islands in the British West Indies, served as a clearinghouse for slaves en route to North America. The region also acted as a "seasoning camp" where newly arrived blacks were "broken-in" psychologically and physically to a life of slavery, as well as a place where they acquired biological resistance to deadly European diseases.


Since the turn of the twentieth century, there have been three distinct waves of Caribbean immigrants into the United States. The first wave was modest and lasted from about 1900 to the 1920s. Between 1899 and 1924, the number of documented, English-speaking Caribbean immigrants entering the United States increased annually from 412 in 1899 to 12,245 in 1924, although the actual number of Caribbean residents in the United States was probably twice as high. Immigration fell substantially after 1924 when the U.S. government established national quotas on African and Caribbean countries. By 1930 there were only 177,981 documented foreign blacks in the United States—less than two percent of the aggregate black population. Approximately 72,200 of the foreign blacks were first-generation emigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean.

Most Trinidadians and Tobagonians who entered the United States during that period were industrial workers, civil servants, laborers, and former soldiers disillusioned by the high unemployment rate in Trinidad and Tobago after World War I. The number of new arrivals dropped significantly during the Great Depression (1932-1937) when more blacks returned to the Caribbean than came to the United States. Only a small number of professionals and graduate students migrated to America prior to World War II, some with the intention of staying for a short time on a student or worker's visa, and others planning to remain permanently.

The second and weakest immigration wave from the Caribbean to the United States was rather sporadic and occurred between the late 1930s and the passage of new immigration policies in the 1960s. As late as the 1950s, the number of Trinidadians and Tobagonians arriving in the United States was low in comparison to other foreign countries. This was partially due to the passage of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which reaffirmed the quota bill and further restricted Caribbean immigration to America. The differential treatment of African and Caribbean peoples by immigration authorities, in contrast to Europeans, also discouraged the migration of Trinidadians and Tobagonians. After the Republic achieved independence in 1962, only 100 Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants were permitted to enter the United States annually.

Still, a small group, mainly from Trinidad's middle class, migrated between the waning of the Depression and the changing of U.S. immigration laws. This group consisted mainly of white-collar workers, students, and people joining their families already living in the United States. With the opening of a U.S. Naval Base on Trinidad in 1940, Trinidadian and Tobagonian military personnel were stationed in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida, and some served under U.S. and British command in Europe. After World War II, some of these soldiers migrated to America in search of jobs and improved economic opportunity. Because of laws restricting immigration, only 2,598 documented Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants entered the United States between 1960 and 1965.

The third and largest wave of Caribbean immigration began in 1965 and continues into the present. It was greatly influenced by the American civil rights movement, which exposed the racism inherent in U.S. immigration policy. The 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Reform Act, which established uniform limits of no more than 20,000 persons per country annually for the eastern hemisphere, enabled Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants to seek legal immigration and naturalization status in larger numbers. A clause in the Act of 1965, which gave preference to immigrants whose relatives were already U.S. citizens and therefore capable of sponsoring immigrants, also encouraged many Trinidadian and Tobagonian residents to migrate to the United States.

From 1966 to 1970, 23,367 Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants, primarily from the educated elite and rural poor classes, legally migrated to the United States. From 1971 to 1975, the figure climbed to 33,278. It dropped to 28,498 from 1976 to 1980, and only half that amount between 1981 and 1984, when the Reagan administration began placing greater restrictions on U.S. immigration policy. Less than 2,300 Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants arrived in 1984 and that number scarcely increased during President Reagan's second term of office. A few European-Trinidadians migrated during the latter half of the twentieth century, primarily because they were loosing their grip on political power in the Republic with the rise of nationalism and independence. The majority of those immigrants came to the United States because Britain had restricted immigration from the Commonwealth islands to the British Isles. A larger number migrated in the late 1980s when oil prices fell, sending the Republic into a deep recession. Trinidadians and Tobagonians are now the second largest group of English-speaking immigrants in the United States.


A total of 76,270 Trinidadians and Tobagonians, who reported at least one specific ancestry, are documented in the 1990 U.S. Census. Of this number, 71,720, or 94 percent, of the aggregate are first generation Trinidadian Tobagonian Americans, and the remaining 4,550 are of the second generation. There were 58,473 such persons in the northeast, 1,760 in the midwest, 18,215 in the south, and 3,822 in the west. Regionally, there were 3,746 Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants in New England, 48,727 in the middle Atlantic, 1,523 in east north central United States, 237 in the west north central, 15,096 in the south Atlantic, 549 in east south central, 2,570 in the west south central, 446 in the mountain region, and 3,376 in the Pacific region. The largest percentage of Trinidadians and Tobagonians live in the northeast and the smallest percentage in the midwest. They ranked sixth in the 1965-1980 census report of newcomers into New York City, and rank eighth in the city's 15 largest ethnic groups. By 1982, over half of the Trinidadians and Tobagonians in America resided in New York City.

According to the 1990 Census, the six states that have the largest Trinidadian and Tobagonian populations are: New York (42,973), Florida (7,500), Maryland (4,493), New Jersey (4,245), California (3,100), and Massachusetts (2,590). Family connections, employment opportunities, racial tolerance, access to higher education, and weather conditions are some of the reasons given for the heavy concentration of Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants on the eastern seaboard.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants generally select one of two options: they either make a quick livelihood in the United States before returning home, or they join American society permanently, usually immersing themselves in black culture and working for the betterment of African American and Caribbean American communities. Many of the early Trinidadians and Tobagonians aged 35 and older did return to their native land. Later immigrants often chose the second option and increasingly became part of the distinctly Caribbean community in New York City and Florida.

Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants have had to adjust in a number of ways while assimilating into American society. First, those who are permanent residents must adjust nationally, which often means giving up their Trinidad and Tobago citizenship and strong ties to Caribbean nationalism for American citizenship and values. Secondly, they must adjust to the cultural traditions, social roles, and stereotypes of the racial and ethnic groups with which they identify. Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants of the first and second waves arrived in the United States at the height of Jim Crow segregation and, consequently, suffered tremendous racial prejudice. Even though they came from a society where racial categories and stereotypes were not unknown, they resented having to fight virtually every social, political, and economic issue in American society. Third, they must adjust to severe variations in weather patterns, particularly in the north, which, for older generations, is especially difficult. Some immigrants have also had to adjust to life in some of America's roughest neighborhoods. Although friends, relatives, and other sponsors advise them of dangerous neighborhoods, many become casualties of urban crime. Traditionally "safe" Caribbean neighborhoods in New York City, for example, have become battle zones for gangs and drug dealers. Moreover, Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants living in non-Caribbean communities often feel isolated; they carry the dual burden of speaking with a foreign accent and being visibly identifiable as a minority in a European-based society. Finally, these immigrants come from a country where they represented the majority and many of them were highly respected leaders. In the United States, however, they must adjust to their new status of "resident aliens."


Trinidad and Tobago is a multi-faceted country with a perfusion of customs and traditions that meet to form the "Trinibago" culture. Two of the most dominant cultures in Trinidad and Tobago are mixed-black (often called Creole) and Asian Indian. The first is a mixture of African, English, Spanish, and French cultures. Spanish influence is evident in the islands' music, festivals (especially the Parang festival), and dance. Even though France never occupied Trinidad, French planters on the island left their unmistakable mark in terms of language, religion, and class consciousness. The Republic's Asian Indian culture is celebrated through Divali (Festival of Lights), Hosay (Muslim New Year festival), East Indian music, and various philosophical beliefs and practices foreign to western cultures. For example, everyone is expected to take off their shoes at the door before stepping inside an Indian Muslim house, and new homes are often blessed in a special ceremony. There are rites for conception, birth, puberty, marriage, death, and the planting and harvesting of crops.


Trinidadians and Tobagonians have retained many of their cooking traditions in the United States, although eating habits have changed somewhat to better suit America's fast pace. Breakfast often varies from a full meal to a very light one and may include fresh coconut water and coconut jelly. Because Trinidad and Tobago is a highly Westernized nation, oatmeal, cornflakes, cocoa, coffee, and rolls are also common breakfast foods. Lunches and dinners generally consist of meat, rice, green vegetables, and fruits. One popular Trinidadian and Tobagonian dish is pelau, or rice mixed with pork or chicken and various local vegetables. Calaloo (a green, leafy vegetable that is served cooked) is sometimes combined with taro, dasheen, or tania leaves, okra, pumpkin, and crab to make a dish called calaloo and crab. Other popular dishes are dumpling and pig-tail or cow-heel soup, souse (well-cooked pickled pigs feet), and chicken stew. Most dishes contain meat or fish, although many of the favorites in Trinidad and Tobago (manicou, tatoo, venison, armadillo, lappe, quenk, duck, shark, flying fish, shrimp, kingfish, chip-chip, and cascadou) are not readily available in the United States. Such vegetables as pumpkin, cabbage, onion, and melongene (eggplant) are also well liked. Coconut ice cream and fruits are popular Trinidadian and Tobagonian desserts. Many meals, especially during special occasions, are served with mauby (a drink made from the bark of a tree), Guinness stout, and Carib and Stag beers.

Asian Indian dishes of Trinidad and Tobago include roti (usually made of beef, chicken, or goat with potatoes and spices wrapped in flat bread), dalpori (balled spiced dough usually accompanied by a sauce), channa, and curry goat. Two special dishes of Tobago are curry crab and dumplings and accra, which is seasoned salt fish pounded and shaped into small cakes and fried. Some foods are eaten seasonally, in keeping with harvest time and religious traditions. Trinidadians and Tobagonians in the United States often substitute their native dishes with American foods, and prepare traditional foods only when dining with family or during special occasions.


In their homeland, Trinidadians and Tobagonians wear a variety of clothing suited for the tropics. In the United States, however, only people of Asian Indian descent have retained their unique cultural dress. Blacks from the Republic have no special costumes, except for carnival dress, which cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Carnival costumes are elaborate and costly, ranging in form, shape, size, design, and taste; some festival clothing is simply massive and requires the support of cars and trucks, while other pieces may consist of loin cloths and beads. Carnival costuming in Trinidad and Tobago and in New York City (where a Carnival takes place every year) is an extremely expensive cultural and commercial affair, providing department, fabric, hardware, and other stores with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year. Designers Peter Min-shall, Peter Samuel, and Edmond Hart are especially well-known in the United States for their costume talents.


In New York City and Miami it is not uncommon to hear paring (music sung in Castilian) and chawta (Asian Indian drumming and vocals) in predominantly Caribbean neighborhoods. But the most popular Trinidadian and Tobagonian music in the United States is calypso and soca (a derivation of calypso). These sounds are known for their fast beat, heavy percussion, and social expression.

Calypso originated in Trinidad among African slaves in the 1800s. Although it has its roots in African oral traditions, it was sung in French dialect until 1883 when calypsonians began singing in English. Calypsonians play an important role in Caribbean society, functioning as poets, philosophers, and social commentators within social, political, and religious circles. The Mighty Sparrow's "Jean and Dinah," which won the Carnival crown in 1956, represents the linkage between calypso, society, culture, and politics. Sparrow's 1962 calypso, "Model Nation," captures the feelings of Trinidadians and Tobagonians toward their newly achieved status of independence: "The whole population of our little nation / Is not a lot; / But, oh what a mixture of races and culture / That's what we got; / Still no major indifference / Of race, color, religion, or finance; / It's amazing to you, I'm sure, / We didn't get our independence before."

During the 1980s, calypso also became a forum for discussing women's rights. Although they may be less popular than The Mighty Sparrow, such female calypsonians as Singing Francine, Lady Jane, Twiggy, and Denise Plummer have established their voices in Trinidadian and Tobagonian society. Their message is two-fold: women should not tolerate abuse and men should treat women as equals, especially in domestic partnerships.

Trinidad and Tobago is known for its lively rhythmic dances set to the tunes of calypso and steelband music. Immigrants from the Republic perform a variety of dances, including ballet, folk dancing,

This colorfully costumed woman is performing in the West Indian American Day Parade.
This colorfully costumed woman is performing in the West Indian American Day Parade.
limbo, wining, hula hoop, gayelle (stick dancing), and mocojumby (a costumed dancer on stilts). Jump up, a celebrative, emotionally charged, and physically exhausting dance, has a free-for-all style, and is usually performed during Carnival.


Special holidays celebrated by Trinidadians and Tobagonians include: Emancipation Day (August 1), Independence Day (August 31), Republic Day (September 24), and Boxing Day (December 26). Other popular festivals in Trinidad and Tobago are Phagwa (honoring the Hindu god Lord Krishna), Divali (a Hindu celebration with millions of lights honoring Mother Laskami), and Hosay (the Muslim New Year festival). However, Carnival is perhaps the best known of Trinidadian and Tobagonian holidays; it takes place from Friday through Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of the Lenten season.

Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by the French as an urban festival celebrated by the upper class until emancipation. It then became a festival for all classes, allowing people to break from their normal routine and, through calypso, indirectly attack and ridicule the government. Preparation for this festival begins immediately after Christmas and Panorama (the Grand Steel Drum tournament), or one week before Carnival. On the first night of Carnival there is a "pan around the neck" competition. The "junior carnival" takes place on Saturday and the "panorama finals" on Saturday night. On Sunday night, able calypsonians vie for the title of "calypso monarch" at the Dimanche Gras, and the "King and Queen of Carnival" are named. (In 1994 Americans were able to view the Dimanche Gras via satellite.) Monday and Tuesday see lots of "carnivalling," or dancing and masquerading with fantastic costumes. On the final day of Carnival, celebrants drink and dance to the point of exhaustion.

In the United States Carnival is a method by which Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants maintain their Afro-Caribbean heritage. It was first celebrated in New York in the 1920s as a privately sponsored indoor family affair during the pre-Lenten season, but later evolved into New York City's Labor Day Carnival (called West Indian Day Carnival). The celebration, modeled after Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival, is one of the largest scheduled street events in New York, rivaling Saint Patrick's Day and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades. The celebration, held since 1969, was first organized by Jesse Wattle on the streets of Harlem and was moved to the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn a few years later by Rufus Gorin. The festival features four nights of concerts, a steel band contest, and children's pageants on the grounds of the Brooklyn Museum. The Labor Day Carnival climaxes with a lengthy procession on the Eastern Parkway. Its overall purpose is to promote unity among Caribbeans and Americans.


Many of the proverbs in Trinidad and Tobago are European in origin but some sayings from Afro-Caribbean and Asian Indian cultures have been preserved as well. British-inspired proverbs include: In for a penny, in for a pound; A penny wise and a pound foolish; and, Make hay while the sun shines. Popular Afro-Caribbean sayings include: Do not cut you nose to patch you bottom; If you see you neighbor house catch fire wet yours; No money no love; A man who cannot rule his house is tootoolbay; What you head consent you bottom pay for; and Don't dance with two left feet. Two common Asian Indian proverbs are: Corn "nuh" grow where rain "nuh" fall; and Don't trust you neighbor unless you neighbor trusts you.


There are no documented medical problems unique to Trinidadians and Tobagonians in the United States or in Trinidad and Tobago. A few cases of leprosy were found in Trinidad and Tobago but these were isolated and did not pose a national threat to either the Republic or the United States. During the 1970s, alcohol and drug abuse was relatively low but it has increased steadily in the last decade. In 1987 alcoholism was named the most serious drug abuse problem in the nation with marijuana and cocaine following close behind.

The average life expectancy in Trinidad and Tobago is 73 years for women, and 68 years for men. Major causes of death among adults include heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, malignant neoplasms, and diabetes mellitus. The infant mortality rate is relatively low; 17 of every 1,000 babies die in their first year. In the United States, life expectancy among Trinidadians and Tobagonians has decreased somewhat due to socio-economic, health, and crime conditions. Most Trinidadians and Tobagonians use either free or low-cost medical care provided by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, and, compared to other developing countries, they enjoy relatively good health. Some families living in the United States have health insurance coverage through their jobs. The unemployed must depend upon the good will of others and the U.S. government.


As a former British colony, the official language of Trinidad and Tobago is English, although Hindi is also spoken widely in Indian communities, both in the Republic and in the United States. French, Spanish, and English patios are also common, as well as Hindustani, a dialect of Phojpuri Hindi. Trinidadians and Tobagonians speak English with a wide variety of accents and innovations due to the impact of Spanish, French, Indian, and African languages. The styles of English therefore range from standard British English, usually spoken in formal conversations, to the more common Trinidad English, a mixture of Spanish, French, British, and African. It must be noted, however, that no sharp break exists between Trinidad English and standard English.


Trinidadian and Tobagonian greetings include: "Wah happenen day?" (casual); "How is the daughter doing?" (casual); "Take care daughter" (goodbye to a young woman friend); "Good morning" (with a heavy accent on morning); "good evening;" "good night;" "Merry Christmas;" "Happy holiday;" "Happy Birthday;" "Happy Easter" (Some Christians say "Christ is Risen"); "Happy New Year;" "Good luck;" and "God's speed." Some devout Hindus and Muslims greet with the name Krishna or Allah, respectively.

Family and Community Dynamics

Despite Trinidad and Tobago's culturally diverse people, the family, regardless of ethnic background, fulfills certain basic roles. In the United States, it is the family's responsibility to maintain traditions and enforce strong family values in the community. Traditionally, Trinidadian and Tobagonian men were the sole providers of income for their families while women were held accountable for raising children and managing the home. Since the mid-1970s, however, family planning and sexual abuse legislation have enabled Trinidadian and Tobagonian women to enjoy the same educational, professional, and proprietorial rights as men. Many of these women have entered traditionally male-dominated fields such as medicine, law, and journalism. In the United States, where two-income families are often the rule rather than the exception, Trinidadian and Tobagonian women often work as office clerks, nurses, and domestics. They also participate in community government, money management, and child care.

Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants with legal status are often active in civic and political affairs and take a keen interest in their children's education by joining the Parent Teacher Association, attending school board meetings, and participating in neighborhood watch programs. There is a high literacy rate among Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants in the United States, resulting from the high premium they place on education. In fact, they are often critical of the American education system, which contrasts sharply with the strong British educational system of their homeland. Some Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants try to shield their children from racism and miseducation by sending them to private schools either taught or founded by Caribbean people. St. Mark's Academy, founded in Crown Heights, New York, in 1977 by a Guyanese man, has educated hundreds of Caribbean students, many of whom are now leaders in their communities.


In ancient Indian traditions, Hindu authorities prescribed eight different forms of marriages, or ashrams, but only two of these were ever practiced among Trinidadian and Tobagonian Asian Indians. The more traditional of these, which is no longer practiced, was called aqua (matchmaker) and dictated that parents choose their children's partners. Such marriages took place at a young age, usually puberty because it was believed that postponing the wedding of a daughter for too long would bring bad luck. The ritual itself ( panigrahana and homa ) involved performing a saptapadi (a seven-steps ritual) around a fire. While the selection process occurred when the children were very young, the couple usually did not know their mate's identity until they became teenagers. In most traditional Hindu weddings, the groom is not allowed to see his bride until late in the ceremony, after she exchanges her yellow sari for a red one.

In modern times, Hindu marriages involve bargaining between the two sets of parents and a change of status for the bride and groom. Often there is a short preliminary ceremony, or chheka, during which the family priest and the father of the bride travel to the house of the prospective groom to deliver a dowry. By accepting the token sum, the groom is obligated to marry the young woman. The main ceremony takes place at the bride's home, and friends and relatives assist in setting up the mantro (nuptial tent). The wedding is followed by a large reception, with music, jokes, singing, chanting, beating drums, and the throwing of oil, rice, and flowers in the air. Often there is another ceremony and feast at the groom's home. Muslim marriages allow the groom up to four wives but Hindu weddings join only two people and their families. Because of their legal entanglements and non-Christian nature, Muslim marriages were not recognized in Trinidad and Tobago before 1930, and Hindu weddings were not considered legal before 1946. In the United States, Trinidadian and Tobagonian Muslims and Hindus marry according to U.S. laws but retain some of their ceremonial traditions.

Most Afro-Caribbean weddings follow Christian traditions. There is an engagement period which lasts from a few months to many years. Traditionally, the bride's parents were responsible for supplying the bride's dress and the cost of the reception, and the groom and his parents provided the ring and the new home. In the United States this practice varies. In some cases, the parties are already living together and the wedding ceremony only legalizes the relationship in the eyes of the law and the community. In Trinidad and Tobago, young working women occasionally rent a flat and invite a man to live with them. Lovers who are strict Christians, however, generally do not live together before marriage. In the wedding ceremony, the bride wears white, symbolizing chastity, and large numbers of people are invited to observe the event. In Trinidad and Tobago, most wedding receptions are community events, marked by large quantities of food and rum.


Trinidadians and Tobagonians generally practice two forms of baptism: infant baptisms and adult baptisms. Among the more traditional Christian denominations (Catholics, Anglicans,

Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists), infants are baptized by sprinkling water on their heads. When they reach the age of accountability, a confirmation ceremony is performed. In other Protestant Christian and Afro-centric Christian traditions, the infants are blessed at a dedication ceremony and baptized after their faith in Christ is confessed voluntarily. The subjects are dipped into a river, the sea, or a baptismal fount near the sanctuary by a minister or an elder of the Church. Shangoes and Spiritual Baptists often dip blind-folded individuals three times into the river or sea. Some of these baptismal practices operate underground in the United States.


Because of the multifaceted nature of its religious culture, Trinidad and Tobago have many different funeral practices. Since Hindus believe that death cannot harm the immortal soul, a dying person is administered a tulsi leaf and water. Asian Indians in Trinidad and Tobago began cremating their dead after 1930 and the practice was carried over to the United States. The funeral is an elaborate ceremony and males may shave their heads, leaving only a lock of hair in the center, on the tenth day of mourning for an immediate family member.

Afro-centric religions (Obeah, Shango, and Shouter Baptist) and Christians bury their dead after performing special rites or conducting a formal funeral church service. A Catholic priest recites the last rites to a dying member of the Church and may offer mass for a soul that may have departed to purgatory before making peace with God. On the night before the funeral, there is a wake for the dead, during which friends and family come to offer condolences, sing dirges, and drink rum. Afro-centric religions have a Nine Night service to ensure that the shadow of the deceased does not return on the ninth evening after death to visit family members. This practice is occasionally performed after Christian, Muslim, and Hindu deaths as well.


Given their peculiar circumstances, Trinidadians and Tobagonians have adjusted remarkably well to American society by establishing strong social, religious, economic, and political ties with both black and white communities and institutions, a dualism which often puzzles many African Americans. Both Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants and native-born blacks often misunderstand one another as a result of stereotypes and misconceptions. This often leads to interracial conflict. Nonetheless, in Crown Heights, Flatbush, and other New York City neighborhoods, Trinidadians have some of the largest churches and most successful businesses in the black community, and are a vital part of the city's economy.


Because of British, Spanish, and French influences, most Trinidadian and Tobagonian citizens are associated, in some way, with Christianity. People of Asian Indian descent on the islands practice Hindu and Islam. Still, a small number of people (nine percent) follow the African-centered religions of Shango, Rada, Spiritual Baptist, Obeah, and Rastafari. Shango and Spiritual Baptist, also known as "Shouters," are the two most common Afro-centric religious traditions, although Rastafari is growing in popularity. Trinidadian Shango, which is part of the legacy of African traditional culture and religion, incorporates a mixture of Catholic rituals and elements of African spiritual beliefs. Spiritual Baptists place great emphasis on participatory worship, while the Shango religion focuses on animal sacrifices, drums, and supernatural manifestations. "Obeah people," sometimes called "shadow catchers," believe they have supernatural powers and can control the spirits of the living and the dead. Followers of this religion believe that they can harness a shadow by forcing it to do specific protective tasks. Because of the negative stigma that other religious groups and the general Trinidadian and Tobagonian public have attached to these folk religions, it is difficult to tell how many immigrants are Spiritual Baptist, Shango, or Obeah followers in the United States. In order to be inconspicuous, many followers of such religions meet in private.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Economically, Trinidadian and Tobagonian experiences in the United States have been mixed. Individuals who are not living in America legally, as well as those who are waiting for legal status, tend to be exploited by employers and landlords. Conversely, legal immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, who are often well educated, work in a variety of occupations.

Politics and Government

Caribbean people have been active in American politics since the early 1800s. After slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834, a number of Trinidadians, Jamaicans, and Barbadians supported the African repatriation movement and worked for the abolition of slavery in collaboration with their black counterparts in the United States. This political activity led to what became known as the Pan-African Movement, supported by W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and others. The Trinidad-born attorney, H. Sylvester Williams, who had ties to the United States, was one of the leaders of the first Pan-African Congress which met in London in 1900.

During the 1920s, Caribbean immigrants were drawn to Socialist and Black Nationalist groups in the United States; the majority of the members in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association were from the West Indies. Caribbean American political activity reached a new level in the mid-1930s when Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants began playing an important role in the Democratic party in New York. Mervyn Dymally, a Trinidadian immigrant, founded the Caribbean Action Lobby to mobilize ethnic ties into a political interest group focusing on international and local relations. The first black to serve as Lt. Governor in California and the first foreign-born person elected to the U.S. Congress, he was a leading proponent for aid to the English-speaking Caribbean. Other notable politicians were Maurice Gumbs, the founder of The Harriet Tubman Democratic Club, and Ernest Skinner, who ran for City Council in Flatbush, New York, in 1985. While Skinner lost the election, he paved the way for other West Indian Americans.

George Padmore, the great pan-Africanist who was highly decorated in Ghana, founded the International African Service Bureau. In the 1930s and 1940s Padmore, C.L.R. James, and Eric Williams joined W. E. B. DuBois and others in criticizing foreign interference in Africa and discrimination against blacks in the United States. In the 1960s Trinidadian Stokely Carmichael (1941- ; also known as Kwame Toure), a black nationalist and civil rights organizer, served as a major force behind the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). His two books, Black Power Politics of Liberation in America and Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism, are highly regarded in political circles. In the late 1960s, the Black Power Movement in the United States attracted the Caribbean's urban poor and many organizations were formed throughout Trinidad and Tobago using its slogan. Among these were the Black Panthers, the African Unity Brothers, the African Cultural Association, and the National Freedom Organization.


Trinidad's rich deposit of oil and its strategic location have attracted many foreign powers over the years, most notably the United States. In 1940 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt leased three strategic military bases in British-Caribbean territories (one of which was Trinidad and Tobago) from Winston Churchill's British government. The Americans then built a sizable air strip in Port of Spain and a superb naval installation at Trinidad's well-placed deep-water harbor at Chaguaramas Bay. These actions resulted in increased employment and major development projects (through the U.S. Navy and Public Works Department), including the building of roads and bridges for wartime operations, and the recruitment of many Trinidadians and Tobagonians by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Furthermore, American interest in the Republic eased the immigration process to the United States. Many Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants who have become naturalized U.S. citizens continue to serve in the U.S. military, though in smaller numbers than during World War II. Because few of these individuals identify themselves as Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants, it is difficult to accurately access their number in the U.S. armed forces.


The government of Trinidad and Tobago does not allow for Trinidadians and Tobagonians to hold dual citizenship abroad. Therefore, naturalized U.S. citizens do not vote in the Republic's elections. Nonetheless, whether they are U.S. citizens or temporary residents, most Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants maintain constant communication with their home country. They read the Trinidad Guardian, the Punch, the Bomb, the Express, and other national papers and watch news programs broadcast over satellite dishes. Temporary residents also vote in Trinidad and Tobago's general elections and remit funds regularly to family and relatives in the Republic.

Historically, the U.S. government has maintained good diplomatic relations with Trinidad and Tobago, which in recent years has received federal loans to recover from its economic recession. In spite of strained diplomatic relations between the U.S. government and the late Prime Minister, Eric Williams, over the closing of the U.S. naval base in Chaguaramas in the 1970s, the oil boom in Trinidad (between the 1960s and the early 1980s) kept Trindadians and Tobagonians among America's favorite peoples of the Caribbean Basin.

Individual and Group Contributions

Trinidadians and Tobagonians have enriched American culture in many ways. The following individuals are most notable.


Trinidadian and Tobagonian Americans were among the first blacks to enter American academy. Eric Williams, the late Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, taught at Howard University and gave lectures at several other distinguished American colleges and universities. His books Capitalism and Slavery and Columbus to Castro have been reprinted dozens of times since they were first published in the 1940s and continue to attract interest in the United States. The works of C.L.R. James (one of Trinidad and Tobago's first political philosophers) and Stokley Carmichael, have likewise inspired political thinking on American campuses.


Errol John is an internationally acclaimed actor and playwright who produced the well-known Moon On A Rainbow Shawl. Geoffrey Holder (1930– ), an outstanding American producer, director, and choreographer was born in Port of Spain and has lived in the United States for over 50 years. In 1975 he won a Tony Award for directing and designing costumes for The Wiz. Other Trinidadian artists who are well known in the United States include: Boscoe Holder, Noel Vauctrosson, Pat Chu Foon, painter M. P. Aladdin, and sculptor Francisco Cabrallo.


Trinidadians have been involved in American journalism since the early 1800s. The literary genius and political scientist C. L. R. James edited the International African Opinion and wrote many books on Caribbean and American history and politics. One of James' most renown works is Black Jacobins, which documents the black struggle in the Haitian Revolution. John Stewart, a popular Trinidadian writer who did his undergraduate and graduate study in the United States, was also a lecturer for California State University.


Several of Trinidad and Tobago's most brilliant minds have left their indelible marks on North American and Caribbean literature. V. S. Naipaul (Vidiadhar Surajprasad), Trinidad's premier novelist, is well known in the United States as a prolific writer of nonfiction and fiction whose works often address violent race relations. Born in Trinidad in 1932, he has studied, traveled, lectured, and written in the United States. Among his nonfiction writings are the following: Finding the Center, Among the Believers, The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in Trinidad, India: A Wounded Civilization, The Overcrowded Barracoon, The Loss of El Dorado, An Area of Darkness, Middle Passage, and A Turn in The South. This last book gives an elegant, but disturbing first-hand encounter of the darker side of American race relations and racial injustice in Atlanta, Charleston, Selma, Birmingham, Tallahassee, Nashville, Tuskegee, and other southern cities. Naipaul's fiction is equally impressive and includes: The Enigma of Arrival, A Bend in the River, Guerrillas, In a Free State, A Flag on the Island, The Mimic Men, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, A House for Mr. Biswas, Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira and The Mystic Masseur, and more recent works. Lynn Joseph, a Trinidadian-born author who migrated to the United States during her college years, writes children books for Trinidadians and Tobagonians in the United States and the Caribbean.


Trinidadian Tobagonian American Denise Plummer became the World's Calypso Queen in 1992-1993. Billy Ocean (1950– ), a well-known Trinidadian recording artist from London, won fame in the United States with the hit single "Caribbean Queen." Many less well-known Trinidadians and Tobagonians have studied and taught classical music and dance in American colleges and universities. Carol LaChapelle, for example, is a highly regarded educator who teaches choreography at the School for the Performing Arts in New York City.


Trinidad and Tobago's primary sports are cricket and soccer but basketball, netball, table tennis, track and field, golf, horse racing, and water sports are also popular. Among the Republic's most famous athletes is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947– ), born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., a first-generation Trinidadian American who became one of the greatest centers in basketball history and was named Most Valuable Player by the National Basketball Association six times. Lesley Stewart and Claude Noel were well-known boxers who lived in the United States and had many title fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and elsewhere. Sir Larry Constantine, who lived for a short time in the United States, was one of the world's greatest cricket players. Hasley Crawford, a sprinter who lived and trained in the United States, was a 1978 Olympic gold medalist for Trinidad and Tobago.


There are many periodicals, papers, radio stations, and television networks in the United States that cater to the Caribbean population.



A quarterly journal established in 1985 by the City University of New York's Association of Caribbean Studies to discuss and publish issues of importance to Caribbean Americans.


A quarterly publication established in 1970 by Trinidad & Tobago Association; contains items of interest to the West Indian community.

Contact: C. J. Mungo, Editor.

Address: 380 Green Lanes, London, N4, England.


A New York magazine, founded in 1977 by a Grenadian who lived in Trinidad and New York, it reflects the demographic interest and views of the American Caribbean community.

New York Carib News.

Founded in 1981, it is a weekly newspaper tabloid that covers Caribbean politics in New York.


KISS-FM, WBLS, and 95.2.

These New York stations play calypso at designated hours.


A New York Caribbean radio station that plays music from Trinidad and Tobago and other countries.


CSN, the Caribbean Station Network.

This station is a major news center in New York.

Organizations and Associations

Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

Governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Christopher-Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago. Objects are to promote cooperation and understanding among member states; integrate the economies of member states through the Caribbean Common Market; coordinate the foreign policies of member states; harmonize the policies of member states concerning commerce, health, education, and social affairs. Maintains reference library of 50,000 books, periodicals, and archival material. Publishes CARICOM Perspective three times a year.

Contact: Edwin W. Carrington, Secretary General.

Address: Bank of Guyana Building, P.O. Box 10827, Georgetown, Guyana.

Telephone: (2) 69281.

There are a number of important Trinidadian and Tobagonian organizations in the United States: Trinidad Alliance; Caribbean Action Lobby (founded by Mervyn Dymally); West Indian American Day Carnival Association (founded by Rufus Gorin in New York); West Indian Cricket Club (with branches in Ohio, New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, and other states); Brooklyn Council for the Arts, and Trinidad and Tobago-New York Steel Band Club. There is also the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and the Caribbean American Media Studies Inc., which is dedicated to the study and dissemination of information about recent West Indian immigrants.

Museums and Research Centers

Carib Culture Center.

Contact: Laura B. Moreno, Assistant Director.

Address: 408 West 58th Street, New York, New York 10019.

Telephone: (212) 307-7420.

Sources for Additional Study

Bird, Adrian Curtis. Trinidad Sweet: The People, Their Culture, Their Island. Port of Spain, Trinidad, West Indies: Inprint Caribbean, 1992.

Foner, Nancy. New Immigrants in New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Gordon, Monica, and Suzanne Michael. Emerging Perspectives on the Black Diaspora. Maryland: University Press of Americans Inc., 1990.

Kasinitz, Philip. Caribbean New York. New York: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Kessner, Thomas, and Betty Boyd Caroli. Today's Immigrant. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Langley, Lester. The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century. Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Sander, Reinhardt W. The Trinidad Awakening: West Indian Literature of the 1930s. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Sowell, Thomas. American Ethnic Groups. Massachusetts: The Urban Institute, 1978.

Williams, A.R. "The Wild Mix of Trinidad and Tobago," National Geographic, 185, No. 3, March 1984; pp. 66-88.

Worthman, O. C. Contemporary American Immigration. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

User Contributions:

I didn't get to read everything from this site, but what i have read i injoyed very much. My father is from Trinidad and my grandparents were from Grenada and Barbados. I hear so much about Trinidad when ever my father and i get together, that reading this site makes me want to vist the West Indies even more. I also have a friend that is my age that is also from Trinidad. Since my father had left when he was a tenager around 1970's he has caried so many this from his home land. He has also tought me how to cook, dance, and speak like a Trinidadin. Well again thank you for taking the time to make this web site.
signed, a daughter's pride.
Veronica Franklin
Due to a presentation that I had to prepare for school, I came across this site. It is awe some that we have this site where we can relate to things that we miss. Keep up the good works. I have been living in the US for the past 15yrs and am a citizen.
Dianne Le Maitre Maraj
Please send me correspondances concerning Trinidad and Tobago such as Carnival and any up to date things that are going on in Trinidad.
trini girl
good article but not completely accurate- the flat bread is the roti and its served with meat at shops and with vegetables at Hindu functions. There is also no mention of doubles (curried chick peas served with a fried bread) which is one of the most popular food item here .
Ed Panchoo
Thank so much for writing this article; It brought back memories from when I was a kid growing up in the Caribbeans. My parents are from the Grenada; however I was born in Trinidad. I came to America ( New York City) when I was nine years old. I am married to my wonderful wife Tria who is American and has no Caribbean background. Furthermore, my mother is bi-racial (White/Black)and father is bi-racial (Asian Indian/Black) as well. As you can tell I am well diverse; Some day i would love to write a book and tell my personal story of being a Caribbean Immigrant in the United States. I have a fascinating story to tell everyone.

Currently I live in Florida and I am attending school at the Axia College. I found this article when I was conducting research for my paper on Caribbean Immigrants in the America. Thank you for writing this article.

Excellent article! I was wondering, do you know if it was popular for Trinidadians to give children of for adoption? Also, any reason why the true divide between American born vs island born Trinbogians? Plus you have any clue for how it would be for youth growing up in America, planning to return home as an adult...the transition? You spoke on venturing from TnT but not back to!
Thank you for providing such rich, detail and direct information on Trinidad Tobago. I was searching the web to learn how to find Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigrants. I can across your info in that search. My biological father is from Trinidad Tobago and was last seen by my mother, Rita Exum back in 1971. His name is Lawrence Stewart or Lawrence Stuart. He is about 60 - 62 years of age. If you could provide information as to what I should do to find him please email me.

Thanks again,

Antonio R. Daniels
Madge Williams
I was born in Trinidad and migrated to the US a few years ago. Life has not been without its tests, but for now I can say it is good. Recently I have been working on a book that I had started while I lived n Trinidad. Sometime in the early part of 2013 it will be on the market. It is basically for (that was my earliest projection) for young people. It tells a story about young people searching for real life, until the main characters found a life in Jesus.
By the way the article you wrote is all insipiring. Hoping to ready some more, and by the way last night I went to a small caribbean store and the roti and goat was great.
this is one of the most categorized and detailed descriptions of Trinidad And Tobago that I've ever come across. A fine job done indeed.
This is a wonderful, informative, piece about the twin island state. I thoroughly enjoyed the history. Although brief, it's a very good introduction for people to grasp the general identity of the cosmopolitan nation.
I was born in Venezuela in 1960, my mother was a Trinidadian when I was born, nevertheless, the goverment of Trinidad and Tobado do not allow me to have citizenship being a son of a Trinidadaian woman, because they said I was born when Trinidad was not a republic. Can any one help in this matter or give me a feed back? thanks.

Also, my mother has an inheretence (land with oil) from her granfather ,but her relayives there, do not allow me to show her dociments, because she die aiready.
rachael rist
I am writing an article on expression of emotions and I am wondering if you can provide me with any information regarding Trinidadian way of expressing their emotions. thank you
While this is fairly good and informative article, please be corrected that the title of the national anthem is called "Forged from the love of liberty" it was written by Mr. Patrick S. Castagne. And we Trinidadian and Tobagonians of various races are referred to as Afro-Trinidadian, Indo-Trinidadian etc. Since we are a twin island nation, we are also locally called Trinbagonians, or just "Trinis". And for the record, please correct your grammar in racial relations from "black" to "Black" or "African" the former is very offensive.(see Overview para2, sent.2).
I am a native Trinbagonian.

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: