American Dream For the Second Generation Guyanese Girl

There is one picture that never ceases to both amaze and perplex me as a daughter of immigrants. It’s my parent’s wedding photo taken in 1988 in an old Bronx photo shop, which likely does not exist today. The photo features a shy, 80-pound bride donning a close-fitting, Victorian era dress (minus the ’80s poofy sleeves) and a white top hat. She’s from the developing nation Guyana and her new husband sports a freshly cropped, curly Afro and gray suit. The liberty blue sky and cloud backdrop envelope their eager smiles.

Kamelia's Parents Wedding Photo (Loving the '80s poofy sleeves on my Mom's dress and retro cloud background) Photo Credit: unnamed Bronx photo shop

Kamelia’s Parents’ Wedding Photo (Loving the ’80s poofy sleeves on my Mom’s dress and retro cloud background) Photo Credit: unnamed Bronx photo shop

At the time my Mom had no family members in America, so my Dad’s cousin, who worked at the thrift bridal store offered a hefty discount on the bridal gear, and witnessed her struggle pulling on dress after dress, each one bigger than the last.

Today when my Mom looks at the photo she remembers how cold it was that February day when my parents (and several of my Dad’s relatives) crammed into a two-door vehicle to accompany them on the photo shoot. When I look at the portrait, I am amazed by how much hope this picture encapsulates. If I were my Mom, a 23-year-old with an arranged marriage entering a new country, I would be running to JFK airport in search for a one-way ticket back to Guyana. But she stayed.

I asked my Mom why did she make such a big move, she was a young woman with experience designing clothing and had already held a job at a local sewing shop. But of course the typical narrative of maternal sacrifice and hope for her daughters followed. Despite my pushback and commitment to unmasking my Mom’s saint-like demeanor, I realized she was right.

Growing up I had the cushion of a home in south Queens, a private school education and a television to teleport me to a slew of dreams I may not have had the time to develop if I were a young woman growing up in Guyana, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with an economy based on sugar and rice farming and gold and bauxite mining. As a 13-year-old Guyanese American, I envisioned myself climbing on top of elephants’ backs, teaching in Africa, visiting my country of ancestral origin, India, and hosting talk shows like Tyra Banks and Oprah. Selfish and bold as I felt, I knew I always wanted more. I would never be the woman in search of one goal: to raise and nourish a family.

I’d like to think the shifting paradigm of the American Dream could be more so described as a journey, not necessarily discovering yourself, because that sounds spiritual and abstract, but more as one designed for “go-getters,” a word my Mom uses to describe my two sisters and me. The word is impartial to the amount of money you make, it’s more so based on what you desire.

Snapshots of Business Life Along Liberty Avenue

One Sunday morning in October 2012, I decided to take a walk down Liberty Avenue—a bustling intersection featuring roti-shops and sari stores in south Richmond Hill, Queens. I started at Lefferts Boulevard and began walking down the avenue noticing the vibrant life of local businesses targeted to a people with Indian roots, Caribbean influences, and an urban ambition. After taking another look at the photos on my not so sophisticated camera, I decided to post them. Why don’t you be the judge. Do these pictures tell a story?

Indo-Caribbean Collegiate Women Talk Marriage

By: Kamelia Kilawan
Article Originally Published in The West Indian Newspaper February 16, 2013

Growing up is hard to do as an Indo-Caribbean young woman in a city filled with exciting career prospects and a home filled with expectations to live up to. You must study yuh books, do da right ting, and geh married.

Indo-Caribbean young women are receiving a college education, taking on full course loads, and making career choices that may not have even been options for their parents. But when it comes to marriage, parental acceptance becomes a tricky factor in the decision. This Valentine’s Day, I interviewed some of my friends and found a trend that more Indo-Caribbean college educated young women are speaking out about their parents influencing who they choose to marry and how difficult it is to suit their expectations.

Amanda Ramkissoon, a 21 year-old college student said there is a lot of uncertainty whether or not your family will accept whom ever you choose to marry.

“My parent’s acceptance is important though they grew up in a different time and are very traditional,” she said pointing out that as immigrants of another country her parents have worked hard for her education and that she feels she should at least choose a life partner that suits their expectations of being vegetarian, Hindu, and financially-stable though she would just like him to be “respectful and intelligent.”

Ramkissoon is of Trinidadian and Guyanese descent and grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens. She is in her senior year at Baruch College and holds a grade point average threading the path of Magna Cum Laude.

She has dated in college and had a high school boyfriend that she kept a secret from her parents for two years but has not found someone she believes to be a life partner who shares the values of her and her parents.

Ramkissoon said she would consider if her parents gave her suggestions of who to marry. “They know what they’re looking for and I think that saves a lot of time in terms of me wandering around hoping to find someone and trying to build a connection,” she said in an interview commenting that it is difficult to find the one in a city with so many options.

Farzana Ghanie said if you find someone your parents accept it makes the life after the marriage a lot easier even though it may take a while to find the right person.

“You don’t want to have to choose between the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with and your family,” Ghanie said.

Ghanie, 21, who grew up in Queens Village, works as a student leader in three college departments advising fellow students while pursuing a double-major in Communications and Psychology. She mentioned how difficult the search to find a life partner is while balancing a hectic schedule.

“It’s even harder nowadays with school and work and everything else in between,” she said noting that she will not bring a potential partner home until she is absolutely sure her parents would approve.

But there is a significant challenge for some Indo-Caribbean girls growing up in the city and are instructed by their parents to remain completely immersed in their studies in high school and college—later facing the pressure to find a life partner.

Radha Singh, 26, who is studying acting education at New York University commented on the struggles faced by many young women to follow the conflicting expectations of their parents.

“Indo-Caribbean girls are expected to only focus on their education without the distraction of any male companions, however, once they reach a their late teens, they are suddenly pressured by their elders to find a husband. In this case, there is no actual time for these girls to find anyone because the length of time to do so was never permitted by their parents,” she said.

Singh said she will not marry until she finds someone who she falls in love with but she noted an additional challenge that many men are falling behind in terms of their education level.

According to 2010 Census Bureau data, nation wide women are earning more bachelor degrees than men. The widest gap in education levels exists among young people between the ages of 25 and 30, where 36 percent of women in this range hold bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to only 28 percent of men.

But in an analysis of 2010 Census Bureau data conducted by Philip Cohen a sociologist at the University of Maryland, once married women have children they fall behind in earnings compared to their husbands. According to Cohen, in only 20 percent of all married families does the wife earn half or more of all family income and in 35 percent of marriages, the wife earns less than 10 percent.

For many women the decision to get married is never a simple choice. Ramkissoon said that she would not mind getting married and making less money because she would appreciate being a Mother while having the support of a husband.

Although she pointed out in all aspects of marriage from tying the knot to having a family, “It’s not just thinking about your self.”

Grandma Julain Khilawan Pardesi

Sunrise November 4, 1935 – Sunset August 6, 2012

The late Julain Khilawan Pardesi: “Mama” of 6 children, “Grams” of 17 grandchildren, and “Granny”of 20 great-grandchildren.

Stepping out of the attic facing the top of the staircase I struggle to keep a stack of toys within my grip. I slowly inch one little foot onto the next step. I can barely see the end of the stairs.

With much concentration I reach halfway down the stairs but suddenly one foot trips in front of the other. In a split second my toys and my little body come crashing down the stairs.

My Grandma turns around and looks at me face down on the floor, my arms and legs sprawled out, and my toys scattered around me.

She stretches out her hand and offers to help me up.

Then she says, “Kameel, take your time and peel your pine.”

Last year I wrote an article in tribute to my Grandma titled “Our Female Sages” It was published on August 6, 2011. This year on August 6, 2012 my Grandma passed away.

I had no knowledge that my Grandma wouldn’t be with me exactly the year after my article about her was published but I have taken it as a symbol that time was always on my Grandma’s side.

Sometimes I wonder how was my Grandma so successful at being a Grandma. I think the answer is she always made time for herself and for others. In my home, anytime a pamper needed to be changed, a tear wiped, or a warm smile offered she was there.

My Grandma lived with me, my parents, and my two sisters for nearly two decades. Growing up I became accustomed to hearing her cassettes playing the tunes of Hindu bhajans every morning.

When I was five, I had stomachaches that only she could treat with hot black tea and sugar but really it was her comfort and understanding that helped me the most.

Food was always given with a smile, the gentle force of her hospitality, and with a tale.

Saijan baji she said would, “Help me see better” and pumpkin would “make me smarter”–it was those tales that would cast a giggle on me and my sister’s faces. We would always wonder if she really meant it or if she was just trying to get me to eat.  Nevertheless food became a way for my Grandma to teach us the lesson she would never feel full until we were.

My Grandma serving up some baji to her grand-daughters.

She reminded us even though we were girls to “take your book seriously” Her dream as a young girl to become a teacher was not exactly fulfilled but she taught me and my sisters to make the most of our education, help in the house, and be a part of Hindu culture.

My Grandma with me and my sister “Minty”

Underneath every piece of wisdom she gave us was her mark of a good person–to love yourself no matter what wrong you do and love your parents no matter how old you are.

She was born in Plantation Albion in Guyana and her roots from late parents Betty and Arron Erriah were of strength, tenacity, and passion. My Grandma was an intelligent student in Guyana but was married at the tender age of sixteen and later had six children.

At thirty my Grandma became a single mother due to the death of her husband. She was faced with the challenge of feeding six mouths and ensuring a safe roof over her children. She took on the task by becoming a rice vendor selling in the marketplace–measuring dozens of twenty gallon bags of rice each day.

After her children grew up and were acclimated, my Grandma moved to New York City in 1984. She took care of her grandchildren but never stayed confined to the home. She visited all parts of Europe, United States, and the Caribbean while encouraging other family members to come along for the ride too.

It was in this time of her life that she witnessed some wonders of the world–something very few are able to. Yet with all of her travels she still made trips back to Guyana to host annual jhandis at her home.

My Grandma was able to do all of this within her seventy-six years of life. In her words she “took her time and peeled her pine” Even in the last few months that she lived she reminded me to do just the same.

As an adult I am always in a hurry to do things, to be successful, to make sure I get a chance to try everything even if I can’t see what is at the end of the stairs. But my Grandma was able to do so much in no hurry at all and I’m sure she will rise to her final destination.

My Grandma passed away this past Monday August 6th 2012 in her own bed at home. Her hands were loosely clasped with a murti of Lord Krishna by her side.

The Vision for Shri Trimurti Bhavan from Pandit Chunelall Narine

Shri Trimurti Bhavan, called a “thriving Ozone Park temple” by the New York Times has made strides in the spiritual, cultural, and community life of many Indo-Caribbean Hindus. During the course of 14 years, the mandir has become a hotspot attracting politicians like Eric Ulrich and Mayor Bloomberg as well as spiritual leaders like Sri Swamiji. The temple youth have also played a prominent role in the Jamaica Bay Clean-Up Campaign. As the mandir celebrates its 14th anniversary, the leader and pandit-in-charge Chunelall Narine explains how the mandir has progressed and reflects on the future of Trimurti in its need for expansion.

Spiritual leader of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan mandir, Pandit Chunelall Narine.


What is your vision for Trimurti? Any current or future plans underway?

My vision for Trimurti is expansion. I think we have literally outgrown this mandir especially when we have important functions here, we run out of space. My vision is down the block, if it becomes available, then we should purchase more real estate in the future and expand our operations to include more youth and do much more for our seniors because we don’t have a program for our seniors right now. We purchased another building down the block which would be used as a cultural center but that building is in limbo right now. As it seems right now, it will fall in the hands of those that occupy it. My vision is to grow in size and to expand our activities, to do much more for the youths, seniors, and congregation.

City Councilmember Eric Ulrich greets a crowd at Trimurti in 2009. (Photo Courtesy of Gabel for News)

Explain more about the cultural center. What are some ideas for the way it would be run and what activities would be held there?

The cultural center would mean to implement a lot of cultural programs for our children like music programs, dance programs, and Hindi classes. The culture is about the youth. So at the cultural center we’d like to put the youth in charge. We have some brilliant youth here with technology at their hands. One of the things I’d also like to see is a permanent drama class. We were very successful in the few dramas we did for this mandir like Bhakt Prahlad and Ram Banwas. I’d like to see more of this happen…dramatizations, and re-enactments of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other related Hindu texts.

Youths from Trimurti gather to clean up Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York on April 2011 Earth Day. (Photo Courtesy of Kamini Doobay)

During the last 14 years how has Trimurti progressed?

An area we have developed is in youth development and empowerment because one of the main focuses for this mandir is the youth. This means harnessing the capabilities of the youth in areas of music, academics, and so on. We have counseling sessions and music classes and the youths are given an opportunity. Now you may think the youth get a chance to sing here, so what happens to the other community out there? Well whatever happens here is also aired on Jyoti Satsangh on TV, so more than 10 million people are watching so the youth can expose their talents to 10 million people. We’ve also managed to produce at least three brilliant young pandits who serve the outside community as well. These pandits are the future leaders of tomorrow.

What are some of the reasons individuals come for counseling in Trimurti?

Couples come here with problems, family problems, and social problems. We sit down with them, interact with them, and help them to resolve whatever they are experiencing. Many people have gotten a lot of help here. Many people have also come with physical problems and illnesses. They pray and manage to get cured because of their faith. We’ve seen phone calls coming in the middle of the service where people are called right away for emergency treatment and relief from their problems.

Sri Swamiji visits the sprawling altar of Trimurti in July of 2000. (Photo Courtesy of Datta Peetham)

How does the administrative and executive body interact with the membership of Trimurti?

Another thing I must mention is that many mandirs today have administrative problems, with the executive, where they cannot get along. There are people who are power-hungry and people greedy for power and they have their own personal agenda when it comes to the mandir. And you can see many mandirs are split because of this now at the administrative level. And at this mandir, thanks to God and to a very capable executive body, we have not experienced that here. We have a very harmonious relationship at the executive level and at the membership level.

Shri Trimurti Bhavan Inc. is located at 101-18 97th Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. To learn more log on to www.shritrimurtibhavan.org and to receive weekly updates join the group Shri Trimurti Bhavan on Facebook.

Behind the Scenes of an Indo-Caribbean Beauty Pageant

A veiled beauty glides onto the stage. She sparkles in a magnificent sequined top. Her ankles chime with the sound of ghungroos. Her flowing skirt raises through the air while she twirls around the stage like a Rajasthani dancer. In a dramatic stop of music, she drops to the floor. She lifts the ends of her sparkling yellow veil to begin. 

Pageant contestant Tatiana Pooran performing a dance for her talent.

On April 22nd at the Golden Terrace Banquet Hall located at 120-23 Atlantic Avenue in Queens, eight Indo-Caribbean young women competed for the SPA Indo-Caribbean National crown during a pageant of talent, elaborate gowns, regal Indian wear, and messages of being role models to girls in the Indo-Caribbean community.  Each pageant contestant  performed a dance for the talent portion of the pageant and graced the stage with signature walks, air kisses, and waves at the audience. You could feel the nerves and anxiety in the air as the girls performed their walks on stage to win the Miss Indo-Caribbean National Queen 2012 title giving them a year long reign as a national spokesperson representing the Indo-Caribbean community.

One may wonder what it’s like to be on stage as a contestant. The experience could be quite nerve-racking as each girl was called upon so the judges could make their decisions and the audience could cheer for their favorites. Sarah Jardine, winner of two SPA titles Miss USA 2011 and Miss Universal Royalty said, “It’s a long process to get prepared for a pageant as a contestant. You have to have the time and dedication and you have to want to do it. You have to get your outfits,  you have to get your talent ready,  you have to make sure everything is ready for the day you go on because anything can go wrong on that stage and you have to know how to catch yourself and make it look like it was on purpose.”

But for Jardine, the experience is a commendable one that gives her a purpose as an Indo-Caribbean to “Show girls of Indo-Caribbean culture that you can do this and you can represent your community by bringing about awareness…A lot of people don’t know what we’re [Indo-Caribbeans] about and how similar we are to the Indian culture.”

A performer of the Fusezion dance group.

Behind the scenes of the pageant the girls were hustling to get dressed and making sure their outfits were perfectly intact with the help of mothers, family members, friends, and the team they came with to help them prepare for the experience. I managed to speak to some of the former queens and new contestants and came across how much time it takes and how expensive it is to prepare for this pageant.

Behind the scenes pageant queens help each other tie saris.

According to Jessica Hussain the 2011 Miss Mystic Masala, “On my pageant I spent approximately $6,000. And my costume was about $1,500.” She chuckled and told me ” I’m going to do a photo shoot and sell it back.” Natasha Rambrich, the runner-up for the Miss Indo-Caribbean Nationals 2012 title noted, “It took me three months to prepare for the pageant and have all of my outfits ready.”

Pageant contestant and runner-up Natasha Rambrich in her evening wear.

Gayatri Teakram, mother of pageant contestant, Sangeeta Teakram said, “I have to be honest with you. This is a very expensive pageant to enter. One has to  be prepared financially to get their daughters or sister involved. All of the expenses are on the contestants. You have to be prepared to take the risk to do this.” After asking her what is her ambition as a mom to send her daughter to this pageant she said, “I’ve also been a promoter myself and also a TV personality back in Guyana. I’ve always been involved in this and for that reason I feel that my daughters should have an experience of knowing what it is like so they don’t live a life of not knowing it.” Teakram mentioned that she trusts her kids and explained once a child has identified her personality, no pageant can change who she is at heart.

Jessica Hussain, Miss Mystic Masala 2011, told me of her perseverance throughout the SPA pageants and her inspiration for entering. She recalled, “Ever since grew up as a little girl I wanted to be in a pageant. And now when I see Toddlers and Tiaras on TV I wish I could have had those. But living in Guyana you don’t have those opportunities. I came here in 2003, and I thought to call this organization SPA. The first pageant, Miss Galaxy, I didn’t win and the second time I tried for the Mystic Masala pageant and I got it.”

Crowned winner of 2012 Miss Indo-Caribbean National Seema Saroop.

Yet what may be the most significant beneath the luxurious gowns, beautiful costumes, and glittering make-up is the strive for a presence and voice as Indo-Caribbean young women. Monica Sanchez the CEO of Miss Caricom, an international pageant in its ninth year, said “Let us not forget that it is really difficult to be a beauty pageant contestant. It’s difficult to stand on stage and face your Mom, or your Dad, or your best friend. Please understand that the girls in pageants deserve a lot of support. It’s really encouraging to see such a large turn out tonight and understanding that this community at least understands the importance of pageants. It’s not just beautiful girls walking on stage, its an education in and of itself. Anyone that enters a pageant becomes a little more educated, a little more secure, a little more beautiful.”

The contestants at the 2012 Miss Indo-Caribbean Nationals waiting for the results.

The SPA pageants have enabled the winners to take advantage of pageant benefits and interact with the Indo-Caribbean community. In Tina Basdeo’s final speech as a former titled queen she said,”Along with my fellow queens we have photo shoot meetings, exclusive makeup artists, and talented dress designers. We made everlasting friendships and business partners as well. The SPA Productions USA  gave us the opportunity to visit churches around the Tri-State area and perform with many different artistes from charitable events. None of this wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for Jennifer and Aunty Rani.”

According to Jennifer Prashad-Hawaldar Executive Director of SPA Productions USA and CEO of Trust Claim Insurance Adjustment Recovery, “These contests are more than a beauty pageant.” She noted that the pageants are about having “intelligent, well-mannered, and cultured young women.” She explained SPA is the “leading Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization to make appearances at public speaking engagements and charity events generating awareness for a variety of causes.”

Free cupcakes promotionals from a local community business in the lobby of the SPA pageant.

However, it seems the pageant depends on the support of many sponsors from businesses like Singh’s Roti Shop and has generated literally a lobby of community business promoters. When entering the hall of the pageant, you’re surrounded by a sea of promoters from DJs to make-up artists and members of New York Life to promotions like free cupcakes. The beauty pageant has become a hotspot for anyone planning a wedding, sweet sixteen, or event to locate community businesses.

Sangeeta Teakram crowned and given a SPA queen title by former queens.

The SPA Productions USA has become an Indo-Caribbean pageantry organization that has grown tremendously during the past few years and has also produced queens who are committed to the livelihood of the pageants. For many queens the pageants are much more than about having a voice and platform while being an Indo-Caribbean spokesperson. As Tina Basdeo stated, “My reign is over but I’ll be a part of this organization forever.”

Photos and text by: Kamelia Kilawan