NEW YORK — On June 27 the House of Representatives passed a bill introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to designate a national “Caribbean American Heritage Month.”
“Establishing Caribbean American Heritage Month will celebrate the contributions of millions of Caribbean Americans to the United States since the inception of the country,” Lee said, arguing for the bill.
The Caribbean is the source of the U.S.’s earliest and largest Black immigrant group and the primary source of growth of the Black population in the U.S. The region has exported more of its people than any other region of the world since the abolition of slavery in 1834. The fact that there are close to 50 Caribbean carnivals throughout North America attests to the permanence of the Caribbean immigration experience. According to a report by Lee’s office, from 1820 to 2002 more than 68 million people emigrated from the Caribbean region to the U.S.
Caribbean music, such as soca, calypso, reggae, compass and now reggaeton, is having a profound impact on U.S. popular culture. Other Caribbean cultural expressions, like food, dance and art, are becoming established in mainstream America. The prominence of first-and second-generation Caribbean figures in U.S. labor and grassroots politics for many decades also testifies to the long tradition and established presence of the Caribbean population.
Caribbean immigrants add to U.S. tapestry
Today many Caribbean workers can be found in the hospital, construction, service and hotel industries, but there is also a growing professional sector. Estimates of the Caribbean population in the U.S. range upwards from 2.6 million, depending on how one defines the Caribbean.
While the largest Caribbean immigrant sources to the U.S. are Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Haiti, U.S.-citizen migrants also come from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. These U.S.-colonized territories are major gateways to the United States. A large segment of Black migrants from Central America (Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, for example) are also identifiably Caribbean. It’s part of the legacy of the more than one-quarter million laborers who migrated from the English-speaking Caribbean to Central America between 1881 and 1915, reflecting, in essence, the drive to build the Panama Canal.
“The estimate of undocumented Caribbean immigrants far exceeds those of documented immigrants,” said George Irish of the City University of New York Caribbean Research Center. Irish said that for a variety of reasons the U.S. census tends not to reflect accurate statistics on Caribbean immigrants. During the 1990s, Caribbean island nations, with a population totaling 35 million, sent more than 1 million immigrants to the U.S. He added that political representation for Caribbean communities has not yet reached its potential.
Black population growth
According to the Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany, 25 percent of the Black population growth between 1990 and 2000 was attributable to newcomers from Africa and the Caribbean.
While in the 1990s the African American population increased by 10 percent, to 31 million, the number of Blacks from the Caribbean increased by 63 percent, to over 1.5 million.
The New York metropolitan area is the destination of most English-Caribbean immigrants, but emigration to Florida has increased during the last two decades. It is estimated that 6 of 10 Caribbean immigrants live in the New York, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale metropolitan areas. More than half of immigrants from Barbados, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad live in Brooklyn and Queens, New York. The Caribbean Research Center cites data indicating slightly less than half the population of Grenada lives in Brooklyn.
Historic roots of Caribbean-U.S. immigration
The history of African-Caribbean immigration to the United States is a long one. It can be traced back to slavery when the British colonies in the Americas shifted enslaved Africans to different territories, as the demands of capital and the plantation economy dictated.
For example, one of the earliest such exchanges was Barbadians who were taken by their British owners to South Carolina during the 17th century. Many of the earliest Africans to arrive in what would become the United States were seasoned men, women and children from the Caribbean islands.
Immigration from the region to the U.S. gained momentum during the World War II when 50,000 Caribbeans, Black and white, arrived in the 1940s, taking advantage of the rapidly expanding war economy and post-war economic growth. Thousands more came as legal migrant workers brought to work in agriculture, primarily on Florida’s sugar plantations.
By the end of the war, thousands of contract workers from the Caribbean were employed as “W2 workers” in nearly 1,500 localities in 36 states. Many, especially in Florida, toiled in intolerable conditions. Many engaged in acts of open rebellion, ignoring the no-strike clause in their contracts and engaging in other forms of resistance. Others broke their strict contracts and fled from their assigned jobs to other opportunities.
Language and geography
CUNY’s Irish sees proximity to the U.S. and fluency in English as reasons for the disproportionate numbers of Caribbean outflows to the U.S. The civil rights struggles — mostly borne by native-born African Americans — and the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Amendments led to a surge in Caribbean immigration to the United States.
“Since the civil rights legislation that opened the doors to free flow of Caribbean immigrants, we have had a dramatic increase in numbers,” Irish said. “Prior to 1965 we had a mostly middle class migration going to the U.S. for education and to join family — pretty much urban travelers. The post-1965 period saw a tremendous influx of rural working-class migrants.” A new wave of working-class immigration began in the mid-1980s, peaking in the 1990s.
The collapse of agriculture in many islands has devastated their economies. The growing replacement of agriculture by tourism in the Eastern Caribbean has greatly increased the urban population and led to neglect of rural communities as well as greater migration to the U.S. from the Caribbean countryside.
The influx of direct, capital-intensive and labor-intensive foreign investment has accelerated the push to migrate out of the region, to the extent that these investments overwhelm small-scale agriculture and manufacturing and displace workers who must then seek jobs elsewhere.
St. Lucia’s popular calypso artist, Mighty Pep, laments on the impact on his country:
All-inclusive tax elusive
and truth is
they’re sucking up we juices
buying up every strip of beach
every treasured spot we reach
for Lucians to enter
for lunch or for dinner
we need reservations, passport and visa
and if you sell near the hotel
I wish you well
they will yell and kick you out to hell
(From the Calypso song “Like an Alien in We Own Land”)
Capitalist globalization has had a lasting and very powerful impact on the English-speaking Caribbean, and the cultural reach of the U.S. corporate media is very strong.
“Particularly because much of the Afro-Caribbean population is English-speaking,” it has been easier for “American media to penetrate directly to them,” said John Logan, professor of sociology at SUNY Albany. U.S. cultural influence has been greater in the Caribbean than in many other parts of the world, he said.
U.S. cultural products — film, cable TV and music — predominate in a region where ownership of the means of cultural production is minimal. Many in the Caribbean share the same television programming with the U.S. This shared cultural space has also been a migration pull to the U.S. Many have argued that this pervasive U.S. cultural presence and the extensive kinship, ethnic and employer networks have created widespread expectations of settlement in the U.S. For millions in Caribbean territories, the United States is now an urban alternative to their home capitals.
But economic questions are decisive. Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica, said in a special appeal for Black solidarity with the Immigrant Worker’s Freedom Ride in 2004, “What is all too often missed in discussions about immigration is that the massive global flow of people over the last 20 years is the direct result of the legacy of colonialism, wars and economic crises driven overwhelmingly by governments and corporations,” he said.
“To put it more bluntly,” Fletcher said, “immigrants in huge numbers come to the United States for a better life precisely because the U.S. and U.S.-supported regimes have made life in their countries of origin often inhospitable.”
Solidarity and shared experience
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in an interview with The New York Times, indicated that solidarity and shared experience are salient features of the African American experience. “[African Americans] have joined forces over the years with Africans and people from the Caribbean to fight colonialism and poverty,” he said. He pointed out that the colonial struggles in the Caribbean and the African continent were similar to the patterns of struggle and degradation that Blacks in the U.S. experienced.
According to the conservative, Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, the United States has intervened in the Caribbean Basin with military force over 60 times in support of its declared interests in the region, more than anywhere else in the world. These military actions included some lengthy occupations: 25 years in Haiti, nine years each in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The invasion and occupation of Grenada in 1983 coincided with a great wave of population outflow from the Eastern Caribbean to the U.S.
Brain drain and remittances
This population outflow has had a particularly negative effect on the small island economies, creating a real “brain drain” as the hemisphere’s countries with the least resources continue to supply the U.S. with thousands of skilled workers. Recently there has been active recruitment of teachers from the region to better help serve the thousands of Caribbean immigrants in the New York City school system.
Speaking of some of the underlying economic factors, CUNY’s George Irish said, “It really shows to what extent immigrant population is pivotal to the survival of Caribbean countries … when you consider that in many of the Caribbean countries remittances from the U.S. account for a significant percentage of their revenue. In the island of Monserrat, remittance is the second highest revenue earner.”
Recently, however, there has been a new kind of “remittance”’ to the Caribbean — the forced repatriation of “undesirables.” As Irish points out, this phenomenon has peaked under George W. Bush and after 9/11. Referring to it as largely a Republican, right-wing phenomenon, he points out that it is part of the Bush administration’s anti-immigration trend.
“Most of these islands are not able to absorb the level of deportation,” Irish said. “It has really upset the social equilibrium in most places. Some of these people didn’t even grow up in the islands.”
The Caribbean community in the United States has grown and matured over the decades, and now a number of leading figures from Caribbean backgrounds are in the top leadership of trade unions, civil society and participate in government at all levels. With the inception of “Caribbean American Heritage Month, many expect greater coalition building, solidarity and advocacy on behalf of this important region of our hemisphere as well as for the full equality of Caribbean immigrants in the United States.
Martin Frazier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is PWW contributing editor on African American/Caribbean/African affairs.