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Panel 10, Tuesday, May 31, 2011, 11:00 am-12:30 pm

Moderator: Melissa Gasparotto, Rutgers University
Presenters: Kumaree Ramtahal, University of the West Indies; Elmelinda Lara, University of the West Indies; Sarah Aponte, City College of New York
Rapporteur: Ellen Jaramillo, Yale University

The first presentation was “Opening Doors to Our Cultural Heritage: the Indian Caribbean Museum of Trinidad and Tobago” by Kumaree Ramtahal, University of the West Indies. Ramtahal began with a brief overview of Trinidad and Tobago’s history and geography. The nearby islands were administered as one colony and achieved independence as one state in 1962. The country enjoys a very unique ethnic mix, where the most dominant ethnic groups in the population are of African and East Indian descent. When slavery was abolished among the British colonies in 1838, plantation economies sought other sources of cheap labor. When attempts to draw Europeans proved unsuccessful, indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent were contracted and on May 30, 1845 the first East Indian immigrants arrived. Between 1845 and 1917, approximately 144,000 East Indians came to Trinidad and Tobago as part of a widespread migration of laborers within the British Empire. Only 29,448 returned to India. By 1871 East Indians formed a quarter of Trinidad’s population, and by 1990 their descendants form the single largest ethnic group in Trinidad and Tobago.

The Indian Caribbean Museum in Carapichaima, Trinidad is dedicated to the preservation and memory of the rich cultural heritage of over one million East Indians who settled in various parts of the Caribbean. It is a unique and specialized non-governmental organization, opened on May 7, 2006. Its collection was assembled through field trips by its administrators, and grows through gifts and donations of artifacts and documents. Its vision is to serve the public, providing an informative and enjoyable visiting experience, organize events such as lectures and workshops, to develop collaboration with other organizations and to forge links with other stakeholders in culture, education and tourism. Its purpose is to collect, restore, preserve, arrange and display artifacts and cultural documents relating to the East Indian diaspora in the Caribbean. There are household, agricultural and musical artifacts, print resources, historical documents, coin and art collections. There is a reference library, and a replica of an East Indian clay house on the museum grounds.

The village in which the Museum is located is a tourist attraction site, with four other cultural sites endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism, Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago celebrates Indian Heritage Month every May and also an official holiday known as Indian Arrival Day, so the number of visitors noticeably increases during that time. In 2008, National Geographic included the Museum in its book Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations, which showcases spiritual places and guides travelers who wish to visit them. Rich in social history and cultural heritage, the collection reflects human rights issues, Indian cuisine, religion, education and music. There is anticipated collaboration with a proposed Museum in Kolkata, India (Calcutta) dedicated to its early emigrants in the Diaspora. Plans have been made for creating a botanical garden with some of the rare endangered plants of Indian origin in the museum’s outdoor space, and to erect a permanent screen on a Museum wall for showing historical films and documentaries. Challenges to the Museum include a lack of professional expertise in digitization and preservation, the need to develop finding tools for items in the collection, and because it is a non-profit organization, finances, space, security staffing and collection development.

The second presentation was “Illegal Immigration into Trinidad and Tobago: Human Rights and Justice” by Elmelinda Lara, University of the West Indies. Lara began by showing a map of Trinidad and Tobago and its proximity to North and South America, in order to visualize immigration to Trinidad and Tobago. Her presentation concentrated on immigration patterns during the past five years based on a scan of local newspapers, and highlighted broader social implications and human rights issues.

Immigration to Trinidad and Tobago preceded Columbus, as it was practiced by the native peoples in moving about the Caribbean Islands and establishing trade routes. Today there are patterns of intra-regional migration, migration based on seasonal labor needs, and Trinidad and Tobago have always been a link to Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. It serves as a resting place and a launch pad for migrants; a supplier and receiver of migrants, both legal and illegal; and the country’s multi-ethnic character reflects that. They have had successive waves of settlers reflecting European settlement and expansion, the enforced migration of Africans and voluntary migration of Asians, subsequent migration of Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese and other Caribbean islanders, and finally, migrants from the rest of the world. Some of the reasons for immigration to Trinidad and Tobago have been its relative economic prosperity compared to the uneven economic development in the region, a well-established network of Caribbean immigrants for support, its political stability, and its geographic location between North and South America.

Statistics do not provide an accurate count of illegal immigrants; the numbers in actuality are much higher than that. A large number of Nigerians and other Africans have been entering recently. Africans mainly come through unauthorized ports of entry or if they come legally, overstay their legal stays. They engage in paid employment and are mainly employed by private security agencies. If caught, they are arrested and face detention, but because of the distance, it is difficult to repatriate them quickly, resulting in long periods of incarceration and complaints of poor treatment. Illegal immigrants from other Caribbean countries are by and large employed in both skilled and unskilled jobs in any trade. If caught, they are deported quickly, and because of the proximity, they often return. Among Central and South American illegal immigrants, a significant number of women work in the sex trade, and this human trafficking is a cause of concern to the government. Chinese illegal immigrants also come through unauthorized ports of entry or if they come legally, overstay their stay. There have been reports of collusion with authorities or persons unknown to receive work permits for a fee, and also in human trafficking and criminal activity. Chinese illegal immigrants face deportation but in some instances they are regularized because they don’t depend on the government for employment and they create businesses which are seen as a boon to the economy.

In terms of human rights dimensions, the basic human rights of illegal immigrants are not protected. There are reports of sweat shops, inhumane conditions and habitation, Chinese workers sleeping in restaurants, etc. In the case of Africans, lengthy incarceration prior to repatriation leads to complaints of poor treatment, and they were at one time kept in prisons with common criminals. The government has since established detention centers. In cases of human trafficking, the victims/illegal immigrants aren’t paid for their labor, their passports are confiscated by the traffickers, and they are reluctant to go to the authorities because they are here illegally. The response of the government has been to enact an anti-trafficking in persons law, and to establish a financial intentions unit that tracks and investigates sources of funds used in illegal activities that involve immigrants.

The third presentation was “Preserving and Documenting the Presence of Dominicans in New York during the Early 20th Century” by Sarah Aponte, City College of New York. Dominicans are one of the largest and fastest-growing Latino population groups in the United States. The greatest concentrations are in the New York/New Jersey region. The New York City borough of the Bronx has the largest Dominican population, while Washington Heights/Inwood is the most populous neighborhood.

Dominicans have been coming to the U.S. since 1613 when Juan Rodríguez, a Black or Mulatto from Santo Domingo, was brought to the New York area by a Dutch merchant ship exploring the northeast coast of North America. After landing in New York harbor, Rodríguez was left for a few months while the Dutch crew returned to the Netherlands. He was still there when another Dutch ship arrived in the area which was populated by Native Americans. This makes him the first recorded non-native person residing in the Hudson Bay area, first non-native merchant, first immigrant, first Afro-descendant, first Latino and, of course, the first Dominican to reside in what is today New York. His story was not well-known until the 1990s and today, the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute is conducting further research on Juan Rodríguez. The Institute is also compiling information on Dominican immigration to New York from 1892 to 1924, gleaned through the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation website. This material is helping to reconstruct and contextualize the early Dominican presence in the U.S. So far, ships’ passenger lists obtained from the website have helped to compile a list of 5,191 Dominicans who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. The main characteristics of these immigrants were: they were mainly of color, between 25-34 years of age upon arrival, could afford 1st or 2nd class tickets, carried more than $50, were able to provide an address where they would stay in New York City, and they were overwhelmingly single (until they married and established families). The highest numbers arrived between 1919 and 1921. According to data analyzed from these lists, many of these immigrants became U.S. citizens and established homes and businesses in the New York area.

At the turn of the 20th century there was a vibrant Hispanic cultural and literary circle in New York City. There were 341 Hispanic periodicals published in New York State before the 1960s, mainly written in Spanish. In 1916, at least 29 journals were on the topic of Latin America, highlighting the growing interest in Latin American affairs at that time. For example, Las Novedades, or Las Novedades: España y los Pueblos Hispanoamericanos, a weekly Spanish language publication in New York City, was also distributed to Spain and throughout Latin America. Founded in 1876, it was Dominican-owned between 1914 and 1918. Its articles covered political, literary, business and cultural issues relating to Latin America and of particular interest to the Dominican community in the U.S. and New York. That many articles were written by Dominicans is of interest today because this was occurring at a time that is not generally recognized as being a period of Dominican presence in the U.S. At a time when the numbers of Dominicans in New York City was presumed to be relatively small, Las Novedades was widely distributed and published much about an active Dominican community in the city. In 1915, the publication announced that the intellectual, essayist, philosopher, philologist and literary critic Pedro Henríquez Ureña, one of the most prominent Dominican writers of all time, had joined its editorial staff. Scholars use the articles he published to trace his political thought regarding the U.S. The headquarters of the journal was also home to a library, bookstore, and printing office offering services to travelers and residents. They even had a department that served as a clearinghouse for questions from Dominicans in the U.S. and New York, and Las Novedades serves as a source that documents the growth of this community since it published the names of persons arriving or departing the city. Aponte says this is a work in progress and she intends to continue recovering works published in Las Novedades written by or about Dominicans and to make them available collectively.

Questions & Comments:

Melissa Gasparotto (Rutgers University) to Lara: The statistics you presented on illegal immigration, are there groups that contest those numbers? Have you seen competing analyses of the numbers of illegal immigrants into Trinidad and Tobago?

Lara: Not just yet because the statistics are recent, covering 2005 to 2009. The ones for 2009-2011 are still in progress (of being compiled).

Mary Jo Zeter (Michigan State University) to Lara: About Chinese immigration, we know the Chinese are investing a lot on infrastructure projects in Africa and Latin America. Are Chinese laborers coming to work on the infrastructure, and overstaying?

Lara: We’ve had successive waves of Chinese immigration since emancipation in the 1920s and 1970s, and we’re seeing another wave of immigration, because we have a Chinese community, albeit a small one. The pattern we’re seeing now is also associated with legal Chinese immigration whereby the Chinese government has worked with ours in contracting short-term Chinese laborers for infrastructure development. What’s happened is that illegal immigrants and also the Chinese criminal element have used that opportunity to illegally enter.

Gasparotto to Ramtahal: You mentioned a few organizations appearing in the educational archives that’s included in the collection, and one was a Canadian organization?

Ramtahal: The Canadian Mission, a Presbyterian-based organization sought to educate the East Indian community, teaching them to read and write in English. They studied Hindi, and published books and hymns in order to convert the East Indians to Presbyterianism. They opened several primary and secondary schools and were instrumental in educating the community.

Gasparotto: Are the Canadian Mission’s documents available outside of Trinidad and Tobago?

Ramtahal: They should be available in their own archives and some are also in the library where I work (University of the West Indies), but the Museum has a lot of their documentation.

Zeter to Ramtahal: Are you in the process of cataloging the Museum’s documents collection?

Ramtahal: I don’t work for the Indian Caribbean Museum. As a new organization they lack a lot of professional expertise in preservation, information technology, etc. that needs development.

Nerea Llamas (University of Michigan) to Ramtahal: You talked about the Museum collaborating with a museum in Kolkata; are there strong ties between these countries?

Ramtahal: They communicate through their High Commissions and network to bring artists on tours through the Caribbean to showcase the culture.

Gasparotto to Aponte: I wasn’t aware until now of the Dominican publications in New York for this time period; besides Novedades, are there more?

Aponte: Yes, we’re still tracing them all, but as far as we know, that was the only Dominican-owned one at that time. We found out that El Diario La Prensa was at one point owned by a Dominican.