Life on the Edge (of South America): A Look Into Guyanese Culture at Stuyvesant

Learning a little about the Guyanese students at Stuyvesant and their unique culture.

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By Rajhasree Paul

At first glance, Guyana may seem like a meek country in the northeast corner of South America. It’s a country, however, of great complexity: home to beautiful wildlife, the widest single-drop waterfall in the world, and one of the largest gold mines. Though it has a population of slightly less than a million people, Guyana has a rich history, which led to the unique culture and traditions practiced by Guyanese people today. This distinctive culture can be found in a handful of students right here at Stuyvesant.

Guyanese culture is made up of a blend of customs from many different countries. The British founded the colony of British Guiana in 1814. After 152 years of British control, Guyana became its own independent nation in 1966. During the British mandate, many people of different races emigrated from and immigrated to Guyana, resulting in a diverse population. Sophomore Ethan Andrews, who is half Guyanese on his mother’s side, shared that “Guyana is a melting pot of African, Indian, and European, especially British since it was a British colony.”

While most Guyanese people identify with a specific ethnicity and religion, it is common for them to still partake in other religious traditions. “There is a Hindu festival called Holi where you throw around colored powder and water, and even if you’re not Hindu everyone celebrates it,” said sophomore Katelan Balkissoon, who lived in Guyana until the age of four and visits frequently. “You also have something called Carnival every year, and it’s just like a giant party everyone goes to.” Guyanese Creole, a main language spoken in Guyana, also represents the mixture of religions and cultures because it is a blend of English and African languages, along with a bit of Dutch and Indian.

Guyanese culture is based on strong, and somewhat traditional, morals. In Guyana, everyone is extremely close, and it's important to be friendly to one another. Balkissoon said, “In Guyana, even if you’re not related, everyone is sort of family.” In addition, many Guyanese people, especially those who are older, have conservative mentalities when it comes to family and gender roles. Senior Rebecca Ramsammy, whose parents were born in Guyana, shared, “Because of the way the culture is built, [my parents and I] are not very close, and it’s more of a functional relationship between us.” Balkisson also explained, “Women have a more traditional role where they stay home, and they cook, and they clean and take care of their children.” These values extend past Guyananese. “The neighborhood I live in [in New York City] is ethnically Guyanese, so every time I go to visit back home in Guyana, it's like the same exact culture,” Ramsammy said. “It’s not really like I’m leaving there ever.”

For the small percentage of students at Stuyvesant who are Guyanese, the culture played an important role in their upbringing and their understanding of the world. Senior Reva Singh’s parents were both born in Guyana. “Being Guyanese has given me a better understanding of the impact of colonization and how racism is a very nuanced issue that is not black and white,” Singh explained.

Ramsammy shares this mentality, explaining, “We always watch cricket every year; that’s something that’s a big part of my life, like I play cricket sometimes on the side.” Cricket is a sport first introduced to Guyana by the British when the country was colonized and has now become a huge part of Guyana’s culture.

Though the Guyanese students no longer live in Guyana, they are still very much attached to their Guyanese roots. Even though Singh was born in the United States, she explained, “I really like Guyanese food; it’s something I really enjoy. I like little aspects of Guyanese culture.” Ramsammy, also born in the United States, said, “I would say I’m very in touch with my culture. It is very special to me.”