Caribbean NYC has been New York City’s most prominent Latin community since the early 1900s.
The Caribbean is the islands, but it’s also the coasts of Central America and the northern part of South America. New Orleans, Louisiana and Veracruz, Mexico have Caribbean cultures too. From Caribbean culture we get this incredible flowering of the diverse voices of African American culture.
Bahamas and Turks and Caicos
The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos are many small islands in the northern Caribbean, closer to Florida.
The Big Islands
The big islands are the Greater Antilles which include Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Antilles is an old European name for mythical islands somewhere between Europe and India. The First Nations were Indigenous Taíno. The colonizers were Spanish, English and French.
The West Indies
Some call the entire Caribbean the West Indies, but modern usage usually means the Lesser Antilles of the eastern Caribbean. These run from the Virgin Islands down a volcanic arc to Trinidad and Tobago. There’s also Aruba and Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela.
The First Nations were Indigenous Carib. The West Indies had Spanish, British, French and Dutch colonizers.
Caribbean South America
In addition to Colombia and Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana have Caribbean cultures.
Caribbean South America has a stronger Indigenous influence. There is more use of Indigenous instruments.
Colombian cumbia is associated with Afro-Colombians, but listen to the earliest recorded cumbias. They sound more Indigenous than African.
Caribbean North America
These are the Caribbean coasts of Central America up to the Yucatan, plus Veracruz, Mexico and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Creole isn’t a country or a people, but in the Caribbean it’s an important cultural group of first generation Americans.
The entire Caribbean is Creole, a mix of two or more cultures, but the term is most strongly identified with French African communities. There are French footprints all over the Caribbean, even in countries that don’t speak French today.
Sundays at Congo Square in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood was where Caribbean Creole culture became American culture of the United States. Ragtime, blues and jazz come from Congo Square and American popular music descends from these roots.
Much of what is considered Latin culture in New York City is Caribbean.
New Orleans was America’s first big urban center. A lot of African American culture starts there. Mississippi blues is the artesian spring of a lot of American popular culture.
In the Caribbean, you can’t escape the colonizers. We are still going through decolonization. Haitians were the first to get free in 1804, and freed themselves which is a historic humanitarian achievement. Many Puerto Ricans consider the island to be the oldest colony.
There are footprints of so many cultures in the Caribbean. The first pirates were Spanish and Portuguese. They stole so much gold that it attracted English, Dutch and French pirates. It’s not “Pirates of the Caribbean” for nothing.
The First Nations of the Caribbean were Indigenous Taíno and Carib. It’s believed both peoples originated in the Orinoco River valley, the great river in what is now Venezuela.
Trade winds and currents blow directly from West Africa to the Caribbean. Several times a year, they even fertilize the Caribbean with dust from North Africa’s Sahara Desert. Once you enter the trade winds and currents, there is no going back. The wind and currents are too strong.
The European pirates who followed the wind were military expeditions with militant priests. They were on a military mission to find gold and a religious mission to evangelize the entire world in order to trigger the apocalypse and the end of days. That’s crazy.
European diseases and genocidal practice decimated the Caribbean peoples and caused a 90% depopulation in the 1600s. One of the “big lies” taught in the United States is that Indigenous people were wiped out. Almost, but not quite. In the typical pattern of human migrations since prehistory, local men were murdered and women were taken. So we weren’t wiped out, we intermarried. Interestingly, Indigenous social traditions remain part of Caribbean life today – even in New York City.
The pirates were also human traffickers. They kidnapped Africans from West Africa and brought them to the Caribbean to work under the most brutal conditions. The dominant African culture in the Caribbean derives from the Yoruba diaspora of modern Nigeria, Benin and Togo.
Though we share similar Indigenous and African histories, Caribbean cultures are greatly influenced by the last colonizers who were mostly Spanish, English, French and Dutch. Shamefully, the very last colonizer remains our own United States. We scold the entire world about democracy and self-determination, but never freed Puerto Rico.
One of the surprises of the Caribbean is its Asian cultures which are Chinese and South Asian. Facing racist violence, Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad (1862-1869) in the United States moved to New York City and the Caribbean and built the railroads there. Even the iconic Puerto Rican Jíbaro (mountain farmers) have Chinese mixed in.
When human trafficking was outlawed, British, Dutch and French colonizers brought South Asians from India, but also from what are now Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In fact the largest communities in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname are South Asian. That’s where we get the good curry at the West Indian Day Parade.
There are also Irish Caribbeans. Many moved on to the United States, but their footprints remain. Some participated in the slave trade, but most came as indentured servants to escape the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-1653), and later after the Great Famine (1845-52).
The cultural mix of all of the above is Creole which in the Caribbean is usually French African American. But all Caribbean languages are a “creole” mix of two or more languages. For example, Puerto Ricans don’t speak pure Spanish or English. We speak Puerto Rican. It really is it’s own language.
Caribbean NYC History
NYC’s very first immigrant was Juan (Jan) Rodríguez who arrived on a Dutch ship from Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic) in 1613.
“Caribbean Reality Resembles the Wildest Imagination”
Gabriel García Márquez is a Colombian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who wrote about Caribbean life. He’s most famous for “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” His “Love in the Time of Cholera” is set in Caribbean city of Cartagena, Colombia.
Márquez is considered one of the leaders of “magical realism,” a surrealist style of Latin American literature where mystical experience is part of day-to-day life. The Latin world really does live this way.
It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”Gabriel García Márquez interviewed by Peter H. Stone for The Paris Review in 1981
Those who live in the Caribbean know that a simple Caribbean life reads like the wildest imagination. You can’t make this stuff up.