Hyphenated Identities: Priya Devi Deonarine

Priya Devi Deonarine, M.S., is a first generation American of Indo-Caribbean ancestry from Somers, Connecticut. The daughter of Guyanese immigrants descended from North Indian villagers, Priya grew up innately aware and inquisitive. Hungry for knowledge, she began writing at a young age. Priya is currently a school psychologist in East Hartford, CT, where she assesses urban youth for disabilities and promotes social-emotional wellbeing in elementary school. She is also planning on becoming a sexual assault volunteer crisis counselor. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with loved ones, cooking, reading, and traveling.

Twice Removed: A Personal Account of Indo-Caribbean-American Identity

Do you ever rehearse what you want to say? The conversations surrounding my identity feel like a repetitive speech or explanation that still leaves unanswered questions. As a proud first-generation Indo-Caribbean American, my hyphenated identity reflects loss, resilience, and growth. I cultivate incomparable strength from it by being able to connect with diverse individuals, empathize with numerous social ideals, and balance assimilation and tradition in order to progress.
The British brought my great-grandparents to Guyana from India as indentured laborers after the abolition of slavery. On the South American coast, Guyana is culturally connected to the West Indies due to its melting pot of races, love for British past-times such as tea and cricket, and Caribbean music. Firstly, Indians had to assimilate into greater Guyanese society whilst keeping their traditions alive. Nevertheless, the amalgamation of ethnicities and cultures forced a reshaping of Indian identity. The caste system faded, food changed due to the availability of ingredients, spelling was Anglicized, and languages were gradually forgotten, Punjabi dhol beats transformed into tassa drums, and chutney music emerged from fusing Bhojpuri folk songs with island rhythms. Indians blended with other migrants and every facet of their original homeland was altered into a specific, vibrant niche intertwined with their demographics and geography.
It’s critical to note the deep-seated effects of colonial policies on Indo-Caribbean identity, with many longstanding implications still haunting us today. India was highlighted as a replacement for cheap labor after the collapse of slavery throughout the British Empire. Many families were lured away with the promise of sustenance or kidnapped to undergo a brutal sea passage, followed by degrading dehumanization on sugar cane plantations. Displaced on a foreign land, most never returned to India, and were systemically oppressed through inhumane working conditions and exploitative contracts.
In particular, Indian women suffered both sexual assault from British overseers and domestic violence within their own community. Additionally, the prevalence of rum as male labor relief created a cycle of addiction that disproportionately put women at risk for abuse, single parenthood, and financial insecurity. British leaders began to request that Indian children have English names and encouraged conversion to Christianity. This stirred painful, internalized feelings of confusion, inferiority, and resentment from a collective identity that had already been traumatized. Once independent, colonial structures facilitated violent racial prejudice between Guyanese of African and Indian descent, leading to a mass exodus.
           Hence, Indo-Caribbean identity is molded from tremendous historical sufferings and adaptability. With this weight, my family started over in America, thus illustrating the second removal from their home country. It was overwhelming, with some continuing to Anglicize names and converting in an attempt to blend in and escape prior adversity or negative feelings associated with trauma. Personally, my parents utilized this opportunity to educate my brothers and I about our immensely unique history and instill a deep connection to our roots, whilst understanding that we were American-born and will inevitably have generational differences.
           Indo-Caribbeans are distinct from other hyphenated identities in that assimilation and struggle occurred twice across three continents, with each migration leaving behind and changing certain aspects of identity. Upon arrival, Indo-Caribbeans did not feel “Indian enough” or included in the greater Indian American community, despite having the same racial background and similar inequalities. Indeed, the Indo-Caribbean perspective was largely unknown within the diaspora. Instead, Indian Americans at times looked at Indo-Caribbeans with a mix of curiosity and bewilderment at our accented creole, unusual spellings, and blended dishes, music, and rituals. At worst, ridicule and exclusion further perpetuated feelings of shame.
           These examples exemplify why I sometimes felt discomfort amongst cliques of Indian American students at university cultural events. I explained that we don’t have separate sangeet, haldi, and mehendi ceremonies before a wedding, but rather one called maticoor due to a historical lack of resources. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn classical dance, grow up near a temple, or celebrate holidays largely, as I was from a rural New England town.
           Now, I am extremely grateful for my twice-removed hyphenated identity. The Caribbean backdrop has transformed Indian identity as I know it into a remarkable fusion found nowhere else in the diaspora. I love the colorful beauty and ancient intricacies passed down from my Indian heritage, alongside our adaptations. I enjoy both educating others while learning more of Indian culture that we lost along the way.  It has allowed me to be part of and find commonality among many and advocate against evils still found in all societies, such as gender inequity, mental health awareness, and abuse. Being American is inherently linked with the cultural and religious traditions I was raised with, whilst giving me greater ability to voice my opinion and follow my own path. Overall, America has laid the foundation for my mixed family to find security in our hyphenated identity despite original uncertainty, as it binds us toward betterment and a sense of being for generations to come.

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