Tag Archive | "Queens"

Reviving Patois: Language of the West Indies

Patois is being taught here in the West Indies, but the movement is slow to reach New York.
Courtesy: Jo-Anne S. Ferreira

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter

Marvel Henry is on a mission to keep alive a dying language, known as Patois. Henry, a 26-year-old native of Trinidad, enjoys sharing his knowledge of the language with others and teaches a bit about the language every day.

“Say it with me, ‘Your shirt is blue. Chimiz-ou blé.’”

However, Henry, who lives in St. Albans, Queens, doesn’t get an immediate response from his students. In fact, he can’t even hear them. He’s teaching Patois online in an effort to keep the only remaining indigenous Trinidadian language alive.

Call it what you want, but Patois is a language that isn’t commonly known among Americans. Also known as Patwa, Kwéyòl and Kreyol, it’s a blend of various languages with roots in colonial Caribbean times.

Add a helping of French, a dash of Spanish, a taste of African and Indian languages, and mix it slightly with a garnish of English. To make matters more interesting, the word “patois” has different meanings in terms of national language. Patois to Trinidadians is French-based, while Patois to Jamaicans is English-based.

Just as Trinidadian Patois is difficult to explain linguistically, it is hard to calculate in terms of how many people speak the language in America. The 2010 U.S. Census has not yet released language data, and the 2009 American Community Survey lumps it into the French language category. More than 1.3 million people fall under this category, but more than 600,000 people fall under the “French Creole” category. Interestingly, Trinidadian Patois is also known as French Creole in some parts of the country. A more realistic estimate of Trinidadian Patois speakers in the U.S. is just over 28,000, as recorded in a separate category in the 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

Regardless of how it’s documented, Henry knows that Trinidadian Patois is a dying language. No one his age or younger really speaks it anymore, he said.

“It’s a heritage language for my family,” he said. “My mom, grandfather, my aunts, they all spoke the language.”

Patois was the dominant language in the West Indies about 200 years ago, but when the British started to colonize the region, English was forced upon natives as the primary language to use. Vishnu Mahadeo, president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, grew up in Guyana when the British were still colonizing the country. He said Patois, known there as Guyanese English Creole, was discouraged from being used when he was in school.

“Speak properly. That’s not English,” Mahadeo recalled his teachers saying to him and his classmates. He spoke Guyana’s version of Patois for a time as a child but stopped by the time he finished school. Using the language while studying under British rule was considered as “uneducated ignorance,” he said.

This prompted West Indians to learn English and to abandon Patois, but some islanders like Henry kept using it.

“At home, it was a private language,” he said.

Though Trinidad and Guyana became independent countries in the 1960s, the effect of not using native languages for decades took its toll on the islanders. Like Mahadeo, many Guyanese immigrants have come to New York, but teaching Patois – be it English or French-based – often stayed behind in the Caribbean.

“When people first came here, it was more important for them to survive. It’s not lending itself to be more structured because of the economic hardship here. Most people are doing it because of personal issues, and they see a need for it,” said Mahadeo.

That’s exactly what Henry is doing. He started a blog called “Klas Kreyol” last December with periodic posts on basic pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. He has since expanded the online instruction to include grammar, phonetics, and the history of the language.

“It’s really sad that I had to teach myself to read and write a language that I spoke every day, a language I learned from my mother,” he said. “Unfortunately, it pains me to say this, but it’s almost extinct now. I hope to change that as time goes along.”

Henry also plays an active role to teach the language via Facebook. A group called “Annou Palé Patwa,” or “Let’s Speak Patois,” has just fewer than 1,000 members, and Henry posts in Patois frequently with English translations underneath.

“Sa ki fèt an fènwè-a, ké pawèt an klèté-a,” he posted Saturday. “That which is done in the dark, will appear in the light.”

Though thousands of Trinidadians now call New York home, Henry said Patois hasn’t resurfaced in the area.

“To my knowledge, there are no official meetup groups or educational programs geared specifically toward teaching it,” he said. “This language is moribund, and revitalization efforts have just begun in Trinidad.”

Mahadeo said English spoken by Trinidadians and the Guyanese in New York is often “populated with Creole words” to develop a sort of Patois in the area. He said enclaves in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park speak it in places of worship, restaurants and libraries – places in the community where Trinidadians and the Guyanese often gather.

References to Patois in recent pop culture are “very scant,” Henry said, but West Indian artists like Trinidad’s Machel Montano and Guadeloupe’s Admiral T incorporate the language in “Vibes Cyah Done,” a remix of one of last year’s most popular songs in the West Indies.

In any case, Henry hopes his blog encourages not just New Yorkers but people from anywhere in the world to learn Patois. He relaunched the site on Facebook last month with links to Patois music and a YouTube channel with audio and video lessons. In addition, he is working on creating a dictionary in Patois that he hopes to complete some time this year.

Though he said he enjoys teaching others from anywhere in the world, he wants to start actual classes in New York this year. Starting in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Henry said he hopes that the demand to learn Patois helps keep it alive.

“I was not going to let this language die,” he said. “It contains a lot of our history.”

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Brazilian Church Embraces Dual Language Community

by Nia Phillips, Brazilian Beat Reporter —

Walk through the doors of the First Brazilian Baptist Church in Astoria, Queens any Sunday afternoon and everything said, heard, and read in its sanctuary will be in Portuguese.

On Friday nights, however, it feels like a different place. Most of the words spoken are in English.

The Brazilian church, housed in a large white building on 18th Street, began offering English language services late in the summer as part of an effort to attract young second-generation Portuguese as well as other English speakers in the area. The English language program is known as JAMP, Jovenes e Adolescentes Ministrando com Propositos—Young Adults and Adolescents Ministering with a Purpose.

On Sundays, English speakers can hear a translation of the Portuguese service and sermon using headphones.

But Friday services are typically conducted in English. About once a month, they are dual language with simultaneous translation. On this particular evening, the music and announcements are in English and the main discussion is in Portuguese.

Twenty-nine year old Marianna de Souza leads the talk. She speaks in Portuguese about many things most teenagers and 20-somethings care about: college, work, making friends, Facebook, texting, boyfriends, and the Internet. She mentions all of these topics to lead an interactive discussion about fitting God into your schedule.

For every phrase she says, Bruno Borges, 26, repeats it in English.

Borges is a certified translator and often interprets services for English speakers at the church. Sometimes the youth have to help him with some of de Souza’s Brazilian slang. They call out the English word he’s looking for, causing him to smile and shrug his shoulders. The youth respond to de Souza’s questions in a combination of English and Portuguese.

This is normal because the people attending the service live this reality: living between their own American culture and the Brazilian culture of their parents.

Embracing a dual language congregation is becoming part of the church’s identity. Diogo Izidoro, 22, is one of JAMP’s leaders as well as very active in many of the church’s other ministries. Even though he’s the pastor’s son, he says he represents the audience the Friday night services were created for. He moved to the United States from Brazil with his family at the age of five, and appears and sounds to be American in every sense.

He says that incorporating English is not just convenient, but a necessity for Brazilian congregations. “Brazilian churches are changing the way they are based in their reality. English speaking services are crucial because they retain the youth.”

Without adding an English-centered service, Izidoro said many youth like him are likely to attend American churches or not go to church at all.

Borges said another aspect of this move was because many young people were becoming lost in the Portuguese-only service. “Although their parents are Portuguese speakers, their reality is completely different. Their language is different.”

The reality has helped create the mostly English Friday service that has elements of both American and Brazilian culture. For instance, the service’s music reflects that heard in non-language specific youth services including those of the very popular Hillsong United and Jesus Culture by a couple of the church’s youth bands.

One of the guitarists in the band is Eric Maciel, 18. Maciel, a Columbia College freshman, said one factor that influenced his college decision was its proximity to the church. Maciel’s parents are Brazilian, and he grew up in Long Island.

Maciel doesn’t think incorporating English within the church is causing it to lose its Brazilian identity. “Even though the majority of us are all Brazilian we were born here,” He said. “I know that I am more comfortable speaking English than Portuguese, and I am not the only one so this change happened a couple of month ago and we have all embraced it.”

In a sense, this serves as a space for Brazilian-Americans to feel more comfortable within the language and culture they experience most of the time.

On Sunday afternoons, more than the sounds of Portuguese can make churchgoers feel at home. After service they can enjoy a large plate of Brazilian food, choosing from an assortment of meats, rice, and black beans. They can even finish it off with a can of guaraná, a popular Brazilian soda, if they please.

A delicious meal can appeal to everyone regardless of language skills. Adding more English is now seen as an important means to help keep the church open. First Brazilian is completing its 30th year in the community. It’s been on its 18th street location since 2002 and has a congregation of about 200 people. Friday service is part of the church’s transitional phase with adapting to the reality of its congregation—more English dominant members.

Borges said that becoming more of a dual language church is logistically difficult. It’s not just about Friday and Sunday services, but adding English within the church’s other ministries too. “We are not fully prepared to have only English speaking members,” he said. “Although we are in America, our whole church structure was designed for Portuguese speakers and English guests, but that reality is changing and we are in the phase of adjusting.”

Adjusting does not have to mean Americanization and eliminating the Portuguese language mission of the church. “Since the youth are mostly second generation Brazilians the church is becoming more and more Americanized, but that is something to be accepted and not feared,” Maciel said. “Then again, I don’t think that our church will ever get rid of the Brazilian roots in it; that is what makes us different and something that I personally will hold on to.”

The church’s preservation of its Brazilian roots is evident on Sunday afternoon. Preschoolers stand in front of the congregation reciting and singing bible verses during service. They go one by one, speaking into the microphone and receiving a bag of candy from their teacher when they finish.

A little girl sings what she’s learned in Sunday School. “Deus é bom pra mim,” she sang. “God is good to me”—in Portuguese.

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Fight for Flights: Queens Travel Agencies vs. Internet

Mala Maraj, owner of Ibis Travel, expanded her office space last month to cater to more customers.

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter —

Sharda Hosein’s phone at Someday Travel Agency in South Richmond Hill never seems to stop ringing– not that she’s complaining. She smiles as she picks up the phone and immediately engages in a conversation with a potential customer.

“The sooner you grab on, it will be better for you,” she says over the phone. “If the specials run out, then the price is going to go up. It’s the cheapest already. It’s not going to go lower than that.”

Hosein says these conversations with customers are crucial in keeping the agency alive. Like most travel agencies nationwide, Someday Travel faces growing competition from the Internet. Thanks to the Web, travelers can book flights online without leaving home or talking to travel agents over the phone.

In essence, the role of travel agencies as middlemen is being challenged daily, but they’re fighting back with better bargains, personalized attention to customers and first-hand knowledge of travel destinations that no website can match.

Though summer is over and Christmas is still a few months away, now is the best time to travel to Trinidad and Guyana, says Hosein. Fares for flights to the two Caribbean countries are at seasonal lows, and the flock of travel agencies that line Liberty Avenue in South Richmond Hill is vying to catch travelers’ attention.

Most agencies are offering trip prices that are lower than ones offered online. For example, a round trip to Trinidad the day before Thanksgiving will cost $457 at Ibis Travel on 121st Avenue and Liberty Avenue. Owner Mala Maraj found the online equivalent of this offer at $517. A round trip to Guyana at the same time of year costs $400 – an all-time low, Maraj says. Compare this to the current online deals, starting at $463.

Maraj, Hosein and other agents in the area say that their prices might not always be cheaper than those found online, but they provide constant availability and service to their customers. Often, travelers who experience problems with ordering online have trouble getting their issues resolved, especially when it comes to getting refunds, Maraj says.

“Websites have glitches. The customers, they can’t get the help they need online. They need to talk to people. That’s what we’re here for,” she says.

Maraj explains that agents like her can customize and negotiate deals unlike ones available on the Internet. For example, her agency Ibis can reserve ticket seats for up to 24 hours if a customer needs time to come up with the money. Most websites, Maraj says, won’t hold on to those seats for travelers. Maraj makes an effort to lock down the seat (and the price, in most cases) to ensure that her customers get better service than what the Internet provides.

“They put their faith in us,” she says. “We try to win.”

The Internet has become the more popular option for younger travelers, but Maraj says older travelers who aren’t quite as comfortable using the Web form a loyal customer base for agencies like hers. She notes that some younger travelers wind up at her agency, because they don’t have the time to hunt for deals online.

In addition to the personal attention that agents offer, Maraj says that her customers can contact the agency at any time – even after they have flown to their destination. If travelers have questions about where to go, what to do, and how to travel, Maraj encourages them to call the agency. Even when the office is closed, Ibis offers a 24/7 customer service hotline – a service that other agencies don’t provide.

“We never leave you on the trip,” she says. “As a travel agency, if you don’t have the slight edge, you won’t make it.”

The fight for customers among travel agencies in South Richmond Hill is split among several businesses in the area. At least nine crowd up Liberty Avenue from 120th Street to 129th Street. Travel Span and Ibis Travel are on the same side of the avenue by 121st Street, only three buildings apart. On the next block, Sandra’s Travel Agency is on one side of Liberty by 122nd Street, while Yulini Travel Agency is almost directly across from it and PanAmerican Travel is on the corner.

“There seems to be a travel agency on every block,” Hosein says. “So much competition. To save one dollar, customers will leave you to find another agency.”

The goal of these businesses at the moment is to get travelers ready for “peak season,” which starts on December 15 and ends in mid-January. Maraj says tickets are selling fast, and the longer people wait to buy them, the more expensive the fares become.

“During the lull time, it’s always advised to buy,” she says. “Now is the best time to fly.”

Despite the major dip in prices now, Maraj says that most travelers opt to fly just before Christmas. Some started looking for Christmas deals as early as June, she says, and even if some still haven’t gotten around to booking trips, they’ll settle for the high prices that come with peak season.

“People don’t mind the cost then,” she says, “As long as they get home.”

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Nations United Through Sport

by Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter —

On the international cricket stage, rivalries between national teams can be intense. The India-Pakistan rivalry is among the greatest in sports. Games between the two teams have incited riots, flag burning and fights in the stands. In the New York-based Commonwealth Cricket League, however, Indians and Pakistanis play side-by-side with handshakes, smiles and only friendly teasing. Tensions are minimal in the league.

The Commonwealth League, the oldest in New York City, has 72 teams. Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, Guyanese, and Sri Lankans, all rivals back home, are often teammates here. They are carrying on a favorite pastime from home.

“We are all like brothers. We treat each other like brothers. We’re good here. No probs, never ever,” said Mohit, a player from Punjab, India as he excitedly cheers his team on at Kissena Park in Flushing. The league will continue playing most Sundays in parks throughout the city as long as weather permits.

Badsha Chowdhury, from Bangladesh, said the sport serves to unite rather than divide.
“The good thing about Commonwealth Cricket League is that when you build a team you really don’t see who’s Pakistani, who’s Indian, we build a team according to the players, so we have a group of guys, 12 guys playing together. So when they come together we don’t care about your race, your religion, nothing. It’s just one team,” Chowdhury said.

Mohit said that cricket is a more lighthearted game here in New York than back home in India.

“Over there we play with more passion, and cricket is like a religion to us. Over here it is okay, it’s like for fun, and we guys are playing but that’s a good thing. Because over there we never get the chance to play with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, this and that,” he said.

Manish Sharma, a Punjabi taxi driver and the captain of the Commonwealth team Elite, said the mix of nationalities helps players with their game.

“When you are playing domestic it’s completely different because you understand their language, you understand many things, what are they talking about, you see what sort of game planning they’re having. Here you may have to figure it out,” he said.

Manish enjoys navigating these challenges. “That makes me feel like I’m playing international or something,” he added.

Mustafa Diwan, the team captain of Commonwealth team Rajput, also enjoys playing with a variety of nationalities and likes how that changes the game.

He said there are, however, some challenges to playing cricket in New York.

In his native India, he said, there are grounds everywhere made specifically for cricket.

“Here, the grounds are not well-maintained,” he said. “We don’t have good facilities.”

Because cricket fields in New York are used for a variety of sports, the grass is not properly cut for cricket, Diwan said.

One of the regular umpires, Christian Singh of Trinidad, said this is because cricket is not a big sport in America.

“Not many Americans play. In baseball fields, they usually cut the grass more often,” he said.

Diwan said that although the Commonwealth Cricket League is open to any nationality, it’s unusual to see anyone who isn’t South Asian or West Indian. One may think that British players would join, given Britain’s historic connection to cricket.

Not the case, said Diwan. “It’s rare to see a player from Europe.”

Even so, the players stressed that anyone is always welcome. This particular Sunday, an English player happened to be on the field.

Daniel Melamud, hoping to get back into a sport from his childhood, recently visited a cricket store and met Mohit. Mohit invited him to come play.

“Today I’m meeting all these guys for the first time, and they’re people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and everyone is incredibly welcoming and friendly. It’s nice to hear different stories and to see everyone’s passion for the game,” he said after running off the field.

Sharma said that while there is goodwill between nationalities, the true rivalry comes out when friends play each other.

“When your friends are playing, you really want to win that game, you know. You eventually try to get them aggravated one way or another, by talking or by doing anything else.”

After the game, Sharma said, teams put any competition aside to enjoy each other’s company.

“But then, it’s always happy ending, we get together, have barbeque, have a couple of drinks, that’s how we finish it up.”

Members of the Commonwealth Cricket League play on Sundays in Kissena Park in Flushing.

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From the West Indies to Queens, Cricket Carries On

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter — 

Ralph Tamesh looked at the sky and shook his head. Rain had squashed his plans for the day – literally. As he surveyed a small cricket field in Queens last month, he knew the game would have to be rescheduled, but he held out hope that the rains would let up. They never did.

Tamesh is the president of the Indo-Caribbean Federation, a New York-based organization that hosts an annual cricket match between teams representing Trinidad and Guyana. The game brings together hundreds of West Indians and cricket fans from all over the city and carries on a love for the sport that goes back nearly 175 years on the shores of the Caribbean.

When slaves from colonial India came to Trinidad in 1838, they brought with them the game of cricket – a British sport that resembles baseball. Since that time, Trinidadians – Trinis, for short – have embraced cricket as an unofficial national sport.

Yesterday, the West Indian men’s cricket team won the World T-20 Championship. For Tamesh, this recent success comes from a natural love for the sport.

“At a very young age, you’ve got a ball and bat in your hands,” he said. “It’s part of the culture. They grew up with it, and they look up to older players. They want to mold themselves into that.”

Ozone Park resident Glen Lorick is the captain of the Trinidad team that plays in the tournament, which is now in its 22nd year. When he was 19, he came to the United States with a desire to play cricket.

In the United States, cricket fades in comparison to baseball in terms of popularity, Lorick said, but in Trinidad, it’s considered their national pastime.

“While growing up, all of us, neighbors, that’s all we do,” he said. “We got a passion and a love for it. That’s our main sport.”

Many Trinis like Lorick who have come to America have carried on that passion for the game, and New York City in particular has transformed into a cricket mecca for this community and for West Indians in general.

Eight cricket leagues spread out across the city, six hardball and two softball, also known among Trinis as “winball.” Lorick said Trinis don’t have a specific league or club, but it isn’t hard to find them.

“Most of us play in different clubs,” said Lorick, who plays for the Staten Island Cricket Club in the Metropolitan League. “Trinidad’s team [for the tournament] would be based on guys playing in about seven or eight clubs in the area. We don’t play for the same club, but we play for the same country together.”

Lorick, along with Tamesh and Guyana’s captain Karan Ganesh, selected their national squads after evaluating players’ statistics and performances in their leagues. Both teams narrowed their rosters to a starting 11 lineup and a few alternates. Tamesh said the quality of players in this tournament has always been top-notch.

“The spectators, the cricket fans in the New York area know this is one of the biggest games of the year, and they look forward to it because of the competitiveness,” he said.

The rivalry between Trinidad and Guyana at the annual tournament has always been feisty, Lorick said. He has been a part of the event since its first game in 1989. During the first few years, fights would break out in the stands between fans of the two countries, he said. He couldn’t put his finger on why fans got hostile, but tension eased as time passed. Lorick said the mood changed once the fans saw that players from both countries respected each other and the game.

“Right now, it’s just bragging rights, and we get along really well,” he said. “When we come to the ground, we have fun with it. It’s just a day of cricket.”

Nevertheless, the tournament has brought out the best in both nations. Guyana has the edge in victories, winning 15 of the 22 yearly matches.

“Everybody looks forward to seeing the game,” Tamesh said. “They’re rooting for their own country. They want to see their country win. The cricket is very competitive, but at the end of the day – the camaraderie between the players and the spectators – they all have a good time.”

The competitiveness of the match has roots in each country’s desire to be a cricket power, especially in the Caribbean. In prominent international tournaments, neither country has its own team. Rather, a team is formed with players from the countries and territories in the region.

“The level of cricket is very high in the Caribbean,” Tamesh said. “The nature of the selection of the West Indies team, you have about seven countries that are vying for a player to get into that team, so they all have to play at their best.”

In New York, cricket is well established within the West Indian communities, but Lorick said that the future of the sport depends on whether or not the new generation picks up the passion from the older one.

“Competitively, cricket is here, but we’re having a problem in New York,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time, and I thought 20 years ago, we’d have introduced cricket into the school system. Fortunately, we did it about five or six years ago.”

The Public Schools Athletic League was created in 2008 with 14 schools in the city. Now, 26 schools form five mini-leagues, compete for an annual championship, and play in the Mayor’s Cup all-star game at the end of the school year.

Though Lorick said he enjoys the rivalry and driven nature of cricket, he emphasized that the sport shouldn’t be taken so seriously.

“In life, when we leave here, we don’t know what tomorrow brings,” he said. “In any sport you’re going to play, please just enjoy it for the game, for the fun of it. Enjoy it like when you were a kid. Just enjoy whatsoever you’re doing today.”

Note: The tournament was played on Saturday, September 15. Guyana won the match in front of nearly 400 spectators at Baisley Pond Park.

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Slideshow: Hindus Celebrate Lord Ganesha

by Colleen McKown, Indian Beat Reporter –

Color, music and dance filled the streets of Flushing in late September as Hindus gathered to celebrate the festival of Ganesha Chaturthi. The festival is dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god worshipped for auspicious beginnings.

The Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapti Devasthanam, also called the Hindu Temple Society of North America, has put on a major Ganesha Chaturthi Celebration in Flushing annually since 1977.  The festival lasts nine days and culminates with a grand procession.

A devotee who identified himself as Padmanabhan explained the significance of Lord Ganesha.  “This particular god Ganesha, anything you would like to do in your life, like a marriage, or finding a job, or getting anything at all, he removes all the obstacles, that is the belief.”

Maadhuri Shankar, a student at Stony Brook University who lives in Flushing, has been coming to the temple for as long as she can remember.  She said the event always sees a huge turnout.“Basically the whole community comes out.  A lot of people from the tri-state area if not further, come out for this auspicious event.  There’s like thousands of people here right now,” Shakar said.

Devotees in traditional Indian clothing paraded Ganesha through the streets on a chariot as they chanted, drummed, trumpeted and danced.  Everyone gathered for food at the temple following the three-hour parade.In India,  thousands of clay images of Ganesha are processed through streets before being immersed in the ocean.  The ritual symbolizes Ganesha’s energy flowing out to bless the universe.  In Flushing, devotees emulate this ritual by immersing a clay Ganesha into a small pool and dancing around it during the procession.

Shankar has a packed schedule as a student, but is glad to be spending her Sunday at the temple.   “We really like to come and take time out of our busy days and give our offerings for Ganesha,” she said.

Photographs: Colleen McKown and Dhiya Kuriakose


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