On September 10, 2022, a group of Mariamman devotees gathered at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Van Siclen Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. Although observing rituals on the street by their mandir (temple) in Brooklyn is common, that day they gathered for another purpose: to celebrate the co-naming of a section of Van Siclen Avenue to Pujari Basdeo Mangal Way. Pujari Basdeo Mangal, who passed in 2016, helped to establish in New York City Mariamman or Kali Mai worship, also known as the Madrassi tradition, within Guyanese or Caribbean Hinduism. The co-naming is a testament to Pujari Basdeo Mangal’s service to the city. It is also part of a larger trend within the Guyanese community in New York City. Since 2021, this emerging community has drawn upon its decades of civic and cultural organizing to visibly claim its belonging to the city through street co-naming. What is particularly notable is how this strategy frequently centers the community’s prominent Hindu leaders. In the past two years, two streets in Queens have also been co-named to honor Pandit Ramlall and Ritwantee Persaud, both prominent individuals who were active in the city’s greater Guyanese Hindu community. Such street co-naming shows how some Guyanese, increasingly known as Indo-Caribbeans, center Hinduism to gain recognition in the Americas. The history of this and related practices not only offer us another story of Hinduism in the United States but also expands our understanding of Asian American and Asian American religion.
Another story of Hinduism and Asian migration to the Americas
Within the United States, Hinduism is commonly associated with Indian Americans. Most Indians, the majority of whom are Hindu, immigrated to the United States post-1965 following the passing of the Hart Cellar Act. Then as now, these immigrants bring their rituals and traditions with them. However, the story of Hinduism in the United States is more complex. From Swami Vivekananda at the World’s Parliament of Religion in 1893 to Alice Coltrane’s transformation to a swamini, Americans of all races and ethnicities have learned about and practiced Hinduism in many forms. The Guyanese are one such community. But who are they? How are they Hindu? And how are their experiences part of the Asian American experience?
Although we know race and ethnicity are social constructs that change over time, the concepts continue to be used in ways that fail to acknowledge diverse experiences and histories. For example, the term “American” is still assumed to be white. Likewise, although “Asian American” is a panethnic category that includes East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian groups, most Americans, including Asian Americans, only associate Asian American with East Asian American communities. As a result, Indian Americans may be hesitant to claim or use the category of Asian American. As an identity category in the United States, Guyanese has this ambivalence too.
Depending on the individual, Guyanese may identify or be identified as African American, Asian American, or multiracial American. This range of possibilities is a product of European colonialism in the Caribbean. European powers took over the land to cultivate sugar, first utilizing Amerindian labor and then importing enslaved Africans in the seventeenth century. Enslaved Africans sustained the plantation economy of Guyana, then called British Guiana, until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. In 1838, British planters adopted the indenture system, which brought both Indian and Chinese laborers to work on sugar plantations until the 1920s. By 1966, when Guyana became an independent nation celebrating its motto, “One Nation, One People, One Destiny,” the term “Guyanese” referred to individuals of African, Asian (Indian and Chinese), European, and Amerindian descent in or from Guyana. These individuals observe multiple religions including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Today in Guyana, Indians are the majority with Hinduism being the second-largest religious group. The majority of Hindus in Guyana are Indians.
Hinduism as practiced in Guyana, and later by the Guyanese diaspora in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, is a product of a very particular historical moment. As Indian indentured laborers left the subcontinent for parts of the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, and Africa in the nineteenth century, they took with them various Islamic and Hindu traditions. The diverse Hindu traditions brought to British Guiana were strategically reformulated to cultivate a unified Hindu and Indian community. Hindu priests chose to integrate Protestant congregational worship structure and abandon practices deemed heathenish to combat perceptions of Hinduism as an illegitimate religion by colonial officials. Through this process, Hindu priests emerged as powerful leaders within the Indian communities in British Guiana, positions that endured as British Guiana gained independence, became the nation of Guyana, and Guyanese thereafter immigrated to New York City.
Becoming visible through Hinduism in NYC
In 2013, the New York City Department of City Planning published a report showing that Guyanese are the second-largest immigrant group in Queens and the fifth-largest in the city overall. Both Afro- and Indo-Guyanese immigrated to the city in the 1970s for economic opportunities in the United States and to escape the violence and corruption of the Burnham government in Guyana (1968-85). Guyanese initially settled in Brooklyn and the Bronx but many were attracted to the safer neighborhoods and better schools in parts of Queens and moved there. As multigenerational Guyanese families pooled their resources to buy houses in Queens, West Indian grocery stores, restaurants, and religious organizations (Hindu, Muslim, and Christian) emerged to serve the growing Guyanese community. As a result, the Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and South Ozone Park slowly transformed from Italian American neighborhoods into Little Guyana.
Guyanese of Indian descent, who are increasingly known as Indo-Caribbean in the city, are the majority in Little Guyana. Indo-Caribbean, a chosen panethnic identity, refers to individuals from Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Suriname of Indian descent who share a history of indenture to the Caribbean. Although Indo-Caribbean is an emerging Asian American community, the community itself hesitates to be viewed as solely Asian American, an identity that tends to obscure their past and homogenizes Asian ethnic groups as high resourced and high achieving. But despite this concern, the community embraces Asian American belonging to become legible and visible within the United States.
In the United States, it is common for ethnic communities to use parades and holidays to be seen or recognized. For example, the Indian Day Parade celebrates Indian independence and renders the Indian American community more visible in New York City. Although the West Indian Day Parade emerges for similar reasons, I found through my research that some West Indians, such as Indo-Caribbeans, have felt their specific ethnic and racial distinctiveness was not represented in these celebrations. Likewise, some Indo-Caribbeans felt that participating in the Indian Day parade would also not represent them.
35 years ago, the Indo-Caribbean community of New York City, desiring to create an event that would simultaneously celebrate their Indianness and Caribbeanness, hosted the first Phagwah parade in Queens. The Phagwah parade might be best understood as a transplanted Caribbean event. Phagwah, more commonly known as the Hindu holiday of Holi, is an official holiday in Guyana and Trinidad, comprised of major public celebrations that recognize the Indian community as part of their national fabric. As an event convened within the United States, where limited understandings of the diversity within ethnic, racial, and religious groups remain the norm, emphasizing Hinduism renders visible the Indo-Caribbean community’s Indianness and Asianness. An uninformed observer would misinterpret the images of Hindu deities on floats and the performing of dances by women in Indian-style costumes as Indian and Hindu. This observer would mistake subtle cues of Indo-Caribbeanness, such as the playing of chutney soca music or the singing of Indo-Caribbean folk songs (chowtal), for Indian music.
From its origins as a small community event, Phagwah has now grown substantially in size and significance. Politicians in New York City show up to court the growing Indo-Caribbean electorate. And although Indo-Caribbeans are comprised of Muslims and Christians as well as Hindus, Hinduism is most prominent in this celebration and continues to be the primary way to render the community visible in New York. Indo-Caribbean Hindu leaders are invited to participate in official ceremonies and to consult on city issues, while the co-naming of streets in New York primarily honors prominent Indo-Caribbean Hindus. Most Indo-Caribbeans in the United States are Hindu, but by staking claims to belonging through visual displays that are Hindu or Hindu-adjacent the community ultimately cements itself as Asian American. The unique history of Indo-Caribbean migration to the United States allows us to rethink who counts as Asian American and how Asian Americans use religion to belong.