A Transnational Sense of "Home": Twentieth-Century West Indian Immigration and Institution Building in the Bronx

By Lightfoot, Natasha | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2009 | Go to article overview

A Transnational Sense of "Home": Twentieth-Century West Indian Immigration and Institution Building in the Bronx


Lightfoot, Natasha, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Caribbean immigration remains central to New York City's history, as more than a million migrants from various Caribbean territories have settled the city's neighborhoods from the turn of the twentieth century to the present. Furthermore, Caribbean migrants have made invaluable contributions to this city's economy, political landscape, and cultural production. Especially after changing immigration laws in 1965 widened the possibility for entry to the US, the city's cadre of Caribbean migrants increased exponentially. This paper focuses in particular on migrants to the Bronx from the Anglophone Caribbean (conventionally known due to Columbus's blunders as the West Indies), and seeks to place the historical experiences of said migrants in this borough within the larger literature on West Indians in New York City.

The previous two decades of scholarly research on West Indians in New York has established the significance of studying black immigrants to introduce race as a key factor in identity formation debates that underpin the broader literature of American immigration. (2) This scholarship has also shown that the creation of multiple kinds of community institutions has been extremely valuable to West Indian settlement in New York City. Such institutions greatly aided their transition to city life. Furthermore, as the paper will argue, these institutions have supported their maintenance of a tripartite identity in the process, simultaneously nationalized to their various home countries, West Indianized (as in a broader "pan-Caribbean" identity built from encounters with West Indian migrants from different islands), and to a considerable degree African Americanized as well, especially in successive generations, but even in some ways among the first generation. These layers of identity exist both in tandem and in tension with one another at given moments within the narrative of West Indian immigrants' progress in New York City.

Recent scholars of West Indian immigration have encapsulated their identity formation process as evidence of transnationalism, essentially defying the boundaries of the nation-state and the traditional concept of a "homeland" as a singular place. (3) Ethnographer Karen Fog Olwig, in her revealing study of West Indians in the US, Canada and Britain, Caribbean Journeys, investigates immigrants' transnational social networks and concludes that the contours of their identities are multilayered, being neither fully embedded within the places from which they left, nor within the places in which they settled. Her findings show that migration extends the local social relations immigrants built in their countries of origin over long distances and creates similar social relationships in their new destinations. Therefore among West Indian migrants and their descendants not only family and kinship, but also affiliation with their "home" island is socially constructed, being defined by everyday practice within social networks, rather than the fact of location or birthplace. (4) Ultimately, the BAAHP interviews demonstrate how multiple locations and extended networks of family and friends in the islands, in the Bronx, and beyond, all inform West Indian migrants' transnational identities, their evolving practices of community, and their hybrid socialization over time in New York City.

West Indian immigrant institutions in New York City have historically been both informal and formal in nature. Specifically, this migrant community frequently depended upon "migration machines" to use Charles Tilly's apt term, as a way to aid their transition into city life. Tilly defines "migration machines" as "sending networks that articulated with particular receiving networks in which new migrants could find jobs, housing, and sociability." (5) Also West Indians quickly moved to join or establish formal institutions as well, including small businesses, churches, benevolent societies, sporting clubs, cultural societies, and political organizations. …

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A Transnational Sense of "Home": Twentieth-Century West Indian Immigration and Institution Building in the Bronx
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