Interview with Aleah Ranjitsingh
Oral history interview with Dr. Aleah Ranjitsingh.
Date: April 19, 2019
Type: Oral History
Creator: Christine Calvo
Location: Metro 599, 599 11th Avenue, 8th Floor, New York, NY
Interviewee: Aleah Ranjitsingh
Interviewer: Christine Calvo
Date of Interview: April 19, 2019
Length of Interview : 00:53:54
CHRISTINE CALVO: My name is Christine Calvo and today is April 19, the time is 12:06 pm. I’m in Metro 599 in Manhattan, New York with Aleah Ranjitsingh..?
ALEAH RANJITSINGH: Aleah Ranjitsingh.
CC: Aleah Ranjitsingh.
AR: Yeah, mhm.
CC: And we’re here to record as part of the South Asian American Digital Archive Oral History Project. And so, Aleah?
CC: Where were you born?
AR: I was born in Porto Spain, Trinidad on March 9, 1981.
CC: And where are your parents from?
AR: My parents are from Trinidad. My mother is of African descent. Um, I was told that her mother actually came from Venezuela, was an Afro-Venezuelan, I’m not sure of my maternal grandfather and my father is Indo-Trinidadian. Of course, his great-great, no, it’s his great grandparents were actually indentured laborers who came to Trinidad after 1838.
CC: Can you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in in Trinidad?
AR: Definitely. I grew up in a place called Baratario, which is about 15 or so minutes from the city but you know it’s not very city like at all. Um, a very mixed space which we got to you know persons of different races and ethnicities. Grew up Fourth Street, Baratario. My family still lives on that street. Everyone still lives around us. So the same neighbors, same aunties and uncles are still there. Yeah, I knew everyone on the street the kids would play outside in the evening time and weekends. So, yeah pretty, pretty great place to grow up. And yeah.
CC: Could you describe what was on the street like schools or stores? Or…
AR: So it’s interesting because the street I grew up in is actually comprises of two dead end streets so I lived on a dead end. So the street actually, there was actually, it’s interesting, it’s actually a river. So the street ended on the river bank. So my house, we describe it as being on the riverbank. Not on the riverbank, but you know, if you looked through the fence you would see the river. And then the cross street was also a dead end so it made it super cool to play as kids because the only vehicles that would be driving around that street you know would be my dad’s or the neighbors’. so yeah no schools, completely residential.
CC: And who did you live with?
AR: I lived with my mum and my dad and my siblings. So I’m the eldest of four. I have a brother, Daryl. I’m about sixteen months older than him, then my sister Alima came maybe two years later. Then the baby who’s not a baby anymore. I’m nearly 12 years older than him so yeah he came like 12 years later. So and my grandmother before she passed away also lived there. So we actually lived where she lived and where her parents lived. The house is still is standing and we did what my parents did is that they built a house behind her house and it was very much connected so I lived with everyone in this sort of two houses that are connected and extended.
CC: What was it like to, would you, as the children and mother and father often walk back and forth between the two houses?
AR: Yes, definitely it was two houses because there were, let’s say two living rooms, two kitchens, two bathrooms. So, there was two of everything. But it felt like one house and we still view it as one house. Um, we use language such as, the front house or the old house, you know, the new house or the old house in the back. But it was definitely one house even though there was two of everything, there was only like one, like in terms of cooking dinner, there was only one dinner that was cooked. And which my mother would cook and we would carry dinner to my grandmother, who lived in the front. And the front house was actually a little bit higher than the back house. There was like five steps to get into that front house so we actually called it upstairs and downstairs. And I would have friends come over and they would be like, where’s upstairs? I’m like, oh up those five stairs. So that’s how we understood everything was one. It was two houses, but it was one house for us.
CC: And you explained there were a lot of different ethnicities within your family so what languages did you speak?
AR: English only and of course you know, in Trinidad our own dialects.
CC: Which is...
CC: Oh. [laughs]
AR: Speaking English, but you know we have our own little words. We have saying things. Some Hindi words are still used in Trinidad and part of the everyday vocabulary.
CC: Do you know why your parents moved or are they still there actually…
AR: My parents are still in Trinidad. Still in the same house. My brother actually built a house in the back of that house. So there are three houses on this piece of land in Trinidad now.
CC: That’s very much…Do you visit them often?
AR: I try to when I can. The last time I was there was maybe a year ago my younger brother’s wedding. But you know we talk as much as we could, technology Whatsapp. We are able to video chat.
CC: Do you still feel connected to home from here?
AR: Yes and no. Um, you know, being in New York, teaching in Brooklyn..I teach at Brooklyn College. So, I’m in a very Caribbeanized space. So, home doesn’t feel as far away. I’m always around Caribbean people, um, Caribbean music, Caribbean food. So, I’m not as separated as some people could be if they live in spaces where there aren’t as much Caribbeanization taking place. I do feel separated in some ways. For example, today is Good Friday and I know if I was in Trinidad, I would have definitely known that and I did not know that today. Yeah, today is actually a holiday in Trinidad. I would have known it was Good Friday. On Good Friday in Trinidad, one often cooks fish. So, you know, there are all these rituals on certain days. So, yeah, I miss all of that. Today is Friday in New York. In Trinidad, it’s Good Friday. It’s a holiday.
CC: Did you grow up religious in Trinidad?
AR: I did and that’s interesting, because my grandmother was Muslim and she married a Hindu man. And this is my paternal grandparent. And my paternal grandmother was Muslim. She married my grandfather, who was Hindu; which was also very taboo at the time: a Muslim woman marrying a Hindu man. She had my father Fazo, her only child, and he was brought up Muslim. Right? So going to a mosque in a place called El Secorro which is very close to Baratario. One could walk to El Secorro. And then my father marries this Afro-Trinidadian woman which is another huge taboo. And my mother is Christian, very Christian. So apparently there was some agreement when they got married that they would have children. The children would be raised Christian. So there was no question about it. I grew up in churches, long services on Sundays with my mother. But, I couldn’t avoid Islam, for instance, because my grandmother lived with us or we lived with her in this separate or same house, however you want to put it. So on mornings I would go to her bedroom when she would be saying her prayer and I would sit and say the prayer with her. And I would be praying in English because she would have an English version of the prayer book. She would also have the prayer beads and I completely have forgotten the name of it, of those prayer beads. So I would have my own. And sometimes, I would go with her to the mosque on a Friday. I don’t think my mother was very pleased. But how could one avoid, you know avoid this? And then, even though, I never met my paternal grandfather, his side of the family was Hindu. So whenever there were any Hindu religious holidays, we would go spend that day with his family in a place called Chaguanas which is in central Trinidad. So I grew up doing a little bit of everything. But I grew up Christian and I am Christian today. But you know, it was interesting doing a little bit of everything and experience mosque, sorry, experiencing the mosque, going to Christian church on Sunday and then next celebrating these Hindu rituals whenever they would take place.
CC: Could you describe attending the mosque with your grandmother like what did it involve like a regular?
AR: I loved it. I’m the eldest you know, the eldest grandchild. So, I spent a lot of time with her on my own, other than my siblings; like myself and her. And it would entail actually picking out clothes to go to the mosque which I loved. So you know the Muslim woman would cover their heads with what we called an [irni] in Trinidad. And my grandmother had a wardrobe that was filled with [irnis] like different colors. Some of them, they have like sequins and diamond-studded things and them. I think the most exciting part was getting dressed and then picking an [irni] to actually match. You just really want to match the [irni] to your outfit and then meeting up with her friends before. And then you know the mosque community was an interesting space because you know the separation of men and women. The thing is my PhD is in gender studies I think even then, like, I was sort of interested; why the separation? Why the women to the back? But, you know, as a kid, sort of went along with it. Um yeah, so you know getting to the mosque and taking off my shoes and you know finding a place on the floor, on a mat to, you know, to be next to her. And of course not understating anything they were saying, but it’s more, me following what they were doing, in terms of the movements: when they would bow their head, when to sit upright. And I think even though, I didn’t understand, I respect it so much. I get to spend time with my grandmother, that she would bring me there. And clearly, I mean, you know you don’t have to be Indian or of Indian descent to be Muslim. Anyone can be Muslim. We went to these places which were largely filled with people of Indian descent. And here I was, this mixed child you know? But I never felt out of the ordinary. My grandmother never made me feel out of the ordinary. I was always treated well, because I was with her and who knew her. When I think of my grandmother, I think of, you know, those times with her, going to the mosque.
CC: And you said you never felt, you felt a tied with other Indian people that were at the mosque was there ever a time you didn’t feel a connection with them?
AR: Yes, definitely. At the mosque, yes, I never felt, you know, yeah, out of place. But, yeah there many times in my childhood when I did feel out of place. Um, you know, being mixed, not being “full Indian.” I remember once my grandma had some sort of prayers at the house. She would have had prayers every year to commemorate the passing of her parents. But there was something, it wasn’t just a regular prayers that she had. There was a lot of people, a lot of food. And myself and my mother we decided to go upstairs, well the five stairs to her house to get food. And you know, we’re wearing Indian wear. So we go up. So you know, with my mother, a darker skin woman of African descent, visibly a person of color, visibly mixed you know. And mixing in Trinidad is one very much of phenotype. So looking at hair texture etc. So one could look at me, she’s not of Indian descent. This is very clear. So my mom and I go up the stairs, to get something to eat. And a woman who was there said, “who are these black people?” And my mother and I, we just sort of stood still. Well, this is like, our house. And then my grandmother had to correct that person and put that person in her place. And I remember that clearly and I remember wondering how my mother had felt all of these years as a darker skinned woman of African descent, married to this man of Indian descent, and you know having to be in these spaces with him. Yeah, so, you know, I did it feel it. And then you know I have three siblings we all look alike. We all look like my dad. But where it differs is in terms of hair texture. And as I said before mixedness in Trinidad is very much about phenotype, less about genotype, more about phenotype. So people are looking for these markers of mixedness, so curly hair. And my sister has very curly hair. Even though, we look alike, people will more believe that she is mixed than I am. So even be like, you know, one family, four siblings, we had different experiences in terms of our feelings of inbetweeness. So, I think she was able to maneuver herself a little bit more than I was.
CC: Did your mother, what’s your mother’s name?
AR: Elizabeth, Liz.
CC: Did she ever express her own frustrations? About feeling as an outsider or…
AR: She did not express it in terms of the family. But she expressed it generally in terms of Trinidad society. You know, our last name is Ranjitsingh which is a whole other story in itself. Our last name should be Singh, which is my paternal grandfather’s name. His middle name is Ranjit and at some point it became joined and my father ran with it. So, we are Ranjitsingh. So here she is, this Afro-Trinidadian woman with the last name: Ranjitsignh, clearly Indian or as we say in the Caribbean space, East Indian last name. And I remember once she talked about applying for a job. And she was called in for an interview and it was an Indo-Trinidadian woman who was interviewing her and when the woman saw her, her face changed in disgust or disappointment, because this woman was expecting an Indian woman. So I remember that story clearly and I know she probably has a lot more stories, but it was never expressed. But I remember you now that incident where she and I in my grandmother’s house, just thinking, like wow I’m sure she has a lot of these stories.
CC: Could you talk about your father a little bit what did he do?
AR: Yeah, so my father was a lithographer. He still works for the Trinidad Express which is one of the national newspapers in Trinidad. So his job was pretty much before the papers printed there’s all of the pictures, the articles and what he’s doing is he’s putting it together, placing it you know? That’s how I understand. He’s been a lithographer for years and it’s still not clear to me, but I know, worked a lot of nights growing up he would often work the night shift. Coming home and we’re getting ready for school and he’s coming home, you know, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning when the paper is printing. I remember and he’s still works at the same newspaper, but he does health and safety. So he went and got a certificate. He completely changed careers but still works at the same newspaper. It’s been over thirty...thirty-something years. But yeah, I remember the late nights, the over nights and him and I remember his smell back in those days he smelled like ink.
CC: Like ink?
AR: Yeah ink has a smell, like ink, like newspaper ink. Yeah, he smelled like ink.
CC: Even if he showered he still smelled like ink?
AR: Yeah I feel like his clothes you know. That’s what I remember of him back in those days. Now he’s like a 9 to 5 guy you know doing occupational hazard safety. I remember that clearly, ink.. and some of his clothes would be dirty with ink. and there would always be these blades , because they would use these scalpel blades to cut the prints and the pictures and stuff so there were blades all over the house. That’s what I remember about my dad and my mom worked at the same newspaper. Yeah, so they worked together. And she did the ads. So if someone had to place a classified ad they would come in and speak to her and she would, you know, figure out the ad for them.
CC: Is that how they met?
AR: I’m not even sure, how they met. But yeah they worked at the same time, same place for a very long time. My mom doesn’t work anymore. She retired. But all my life, they worked the same place at different hours but same place. They met pretty young. My dad was 18. My mom was a little bit older. She was 21, not that much older. So yeah they were pretty young.
CC: And when did you come to the United States?
AR: I came to the U.S. in 1999. I completed high school in 1997 and it was always a dream to come to college in the U.S. My grandmother always pushed me as well to do that. She passed when I was 12, so she didn’t even see like any of this. But I remember growing up, she would always try to show me that the world is huge. And you can actually see the world and you could do all of these things because she was a traveler. We have all these pictures and souvenirs of her traveling around the world. So you know growing up, I always felt I could leave Trinidad and I could see things and do things. So I came, I migrated in 1999. It was more of a like, let me see what New York is and what it has to offer. So my mom came with me and we spent a couple of months. I applied for colleges and I returned to Trinidad and maybe a week later, I heard I got into Brooklyn College which is where I teach now. We came back to New York again.
CC: And 1999, what was New York like then?
AR: It was my first time coming to New York. I had travelled to Canada before. I remember coming to New York and not really knowing much like not knowing where to stay. I heard we were going to stay with an aunt, my mom’s sister. So we get to, I remember we got to JFK and we go through Immigration and Customs. Then my aunt meets us and then I remember at that time, you know, now we have these fancy suitcase with the wheels turning all different directions. But in Trinidad there were these suitcase we call them grips. So grip, you basically just grip it and walk with it. There are no wheels, it’s like rectangles. So I’m here with my big blue grip and my aunt picks us up and there’s no taxi or anything. She takes us to the bus. So we go to the B15 bus. Now I know it’s the B15 bus. And I have to like drag this grip into the bus and I’m sitting, you know, where in the front of the bus, where it’s reserved now for persons with disabilities or person you know need that space to sit. I’m sitting at the front with the grip and blocking up the door. I’m like what is this? And I’m looking around the route from JFK on the B15 bus is not the most beautiful journey. So I’m looking around I’m noticing all these brick buildings and I’m thinking what is this? So that was my sort of first, you know, experience in New York like riding the B15 bus with a big blue grip. And then getting to my aunt’s apartment which was a one-bedroom apartment, which you know I’m fine with. And I’m calling one of my friends from high school and I’m like listen, I’m here, let’s meet up. And my friend Faye, and I was so happy for her. She was the one who came, got me. And she’s the one who showed me New York; showed me how to ride the trains etc. And then I can’t remember the day we came up on but Sunday came around and she was like we have to find a church. I’m like ok. I’m like we literally just came. I’m like listen you go find a church and then when you go and find it, you come and tell me. And she literally found a church across the street, which I’m grateful. Those people in the church: the pastor, his wife, his daughters, they are like my family today.
CC: What was the name of the church?
AR: It was called Praise International Fellowship and the pastor was Bishop Edmund Shepard and he became sort of like a father to me.
CC: And how did you get involved you said they became like a family to you?
AR: Yeah, so my mother said, I found a church, the pastor has these daughters and they’re your age and you need to make friends. And I’m like ok, I’m 18 now, 17 going on 18. So the next Sunday I went to the church. I was like ok, I can do this and I met the daughters. The thing is I was very active in my church in Trinidad. So once they heard, they wanted me to become involved as well. So soon, I was singing and like doing stuff. Yeah, so I became fully involved in this church. And soon I’m going with them to Sunday dinners at their grandmother’s house. She’s looking at me like a granddaughter. We still go there on Sundays to have dinner and I call her granny and she thinks of me as a granddaughter. This is from1999 and my mother pushing me to go to church here in New York.
CC: Do you remember the first Sunday dinner you had with them?
AR: I can’t remember exactly the first one, but I can, you know back in those days, granny, as I call her, she lived in an apt, not where she lives right now, a smaller apt close by. And it’s like all of these people crowded in this little living room. So it’s like their family just like 6 of them, plus myself, plus other persons from the church invited to lunch/dinner. So we’re all crowded in the living room, sitting on the floor, on the couch the television is on. And at that time granny would actually serve us. Now we serve ourselves. She’s like: go into the kitchen and get your food. And these huge servings on these metal trays. Everyone has a...like a metal tray with a bunch of food and you better eat all of it. I remember these metal trays and sitting on the floor with everyone.
CC: When was, have you ever felt like New York is your home?
AR: I have. I do. What’s interesting is that I teach a course at Brooklyn College. It’s called the “Caribbeanization of North America.” The idea that Caribbeans don’t just migrate, we bring us a sense of portable identity. We transform spaces. And I remember a year ago, a student talking about the idea, well the language of immigrants. The idea of back home, people, immigrants, particular Caribbean immigrants will say “I’m going back home.” But then, here is home as well and a student said to me, well you know, I think home is a place that you’re not at. So if you’re in New York, home is Trinidad and if you’re in Trinidad, home is New York. So I feel that, like I do have two homes. I feel like, here is home, but I do want to go home to Trinidad and see my family. But then I see my family and sometimes I feel like I have to go home. I have to go back to work. Because life continues etc. So I do feel I have two homes but Trinidad is always home . Trinidad is where I belong. I feel like I belong here too, it’s so complex. I love New York because in New York you can be anyone you wanna be. That’s why I love New York you can be anyone you wanna be. Any day of the week you can get on the train and there’s’ someone dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume. And you just look up and you continue on and it’s not like Halloween, it’s Tuesday right? You can be anyone you wanna be. In Trinidad, I feel like there’s more of a sense of an invisibility. It’s a more familiar space in that way but its where my family is. My parents are there. My three or two of my siblings are there. Now, I have nieces and nephews and when I go back to Trinidad and I stay in the same house I grew up in. Until recently I stayed in my old bedroom. Things, all my books are still there even after all these years. My books are still there. Things are still there. So there’s something about that.
CC: Would you ever want to move the things in your old room to the room here?
AR: I’ve thought about it but it’s expensive. So whenever I go back I take a couple of books. Books are meaningful to me, every time I go back I take a couple of books with me.
CC: Do you recall what books you have over there?
AR: I have I actually have a Spanish language version of “The Alchemist.” I’m like why is that book still there? Not that I’m very fluent in Spanish but it was a gift given to me. I know I have Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s, “Living to Tell the Tale.” I know that they’re on my desk. Those are the two I remember that are there. I can close my eyes and see it on my desk. So I think those are the next I’m gonna bring with me.
CC: Who brought the love of reading to you?
AR: That’s a good question, because no one in my family likes to read. Yeah I don’t know. I’m not sure where that came from, loving to read, loving to research to study, to know more. I’m not sure. I think, so, in grandmother’s house there was a room. We called it a back room. I don’t know we have a lot of descriptions that make no sense. It used be the back room before we added another house to the back of that room, but we still call it the back room and apparently my great grandfather, apparently, he loved books and he loved to read. So that, in that room was a beautiful bookcase with all these books. I remember as a child going into the backroom which we weren’t supposed to go into . And just looking at his books in the bookcase. His books are still there. We still have all these books. Yeah, lots of books. So I remember as a child being just being fascinated by this bookcase. And all of books in there and just going through them and flipping through them. So I’m not sure if that’s where it came from just myself in this back room looking at these books.
CC: And you said you teach gender studies?
AR: And Caribbean studies.
CC: And Caribbean studies.
AR: Gender and Caribbean studies.
CC: How did you decide to dedicate yourself to that field?
AR: I’m not sure when that came to me. I know as a child I was always so curious about the disparities, and you know how boys and girls were treated as a simple a thing as chores. I remember my grandmother, let’s say we were moving things around the house. She would say don’t push that...like let you brother do that. Or let’s say all the kids are playing outside on the street on Saturday like at 6 pm, my grandmother is yelling at me, from the gallery down the street, “Aleah come home, come bathe!” Because, you know, you have to take a shower like at 6 and put on nice clothes and just be clean. But my brothers are outside until like 9 pm and I always question that, you know, why, sort of the difference in how we’re treated. So you know I always had this curiosity about it. Then you know getting into Brooklyn College, I wasn’t a women’s studies or gender studies. I wasn’t sure at first. I was an environment studies major is what I wanted to study, but the program at Brooklyn College was really new and they were trying to figure it out. And I was like, no, I don’t want to be part of this figuring out. So I said let me try... What did I say? I would switch majors, said let me try English. Then, I was, of course, I love all the English majors, think it’s important. But sitting in class on Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and I was like what am I doing ? This can’t help me create any sort of change. I’m sure I can but it’s how I felt in that moment. So then I switched to philosophy and I took one philosophy course. I remember it was the fall of 2001. I remember 9/11 happened. I remember the morning. I had my philosophy class and that happened. I always connect made that connection there. I remember that. And then philosophy wasn’t working out so I thought maybe I could try history but in my first semester I did a political science course. I remember I got an A and the professor had wrote on my final paper, “you’re a very good student. Maybe try majoring in political science or history.” So I was like ok maybe I’ll try this political science thing. And I did. And then some of the courses were cross-listed with women and gender studies classes. And I think that’s when I developed an interest in it. But not just women and gender studies generally but specific to the Caribbean and Latin America.
CC: What about that culture in gender studies about did you find?
AR: I love, also Latin American, I see it all as Caribbean. I love the history of it yeah and then me myself being a Caribbean woman I wanted to interrogate more of that.
CC: Is there a particular aspect of the studies that you liked to dive into?
AR: It has shifted but I was always interested in politics, women in politics, how women are seen in political system. My PhD thesis was on women in Venezuela & the president Hugo Chavez and the socialism in Venezuela. That’s always been my interest in looking at political systems, political ideologies but in a particular how women are viewed maybe how they benefit, how they lack benefit.
CC: Are you politically involved here?
AR: No, I’m not. [laughs]
CC: That’s fine. [laughs]
AR: I’m not. I’m aware of everything’s that’s happening. What’s interesting is I don’t like politics at all. I know what’s going on and I read a lot in Trinidad. Because, I returned to Trinidad in 2008 to pursue my PhD. And I worked at the Parliament in Trinidad for like a year or so. I was upfront seeing politics happen right? And I don’t like it. I don’t want to be involved in it in that way. I mean, being part of organizations, that, of course, are political in nature or how do I say organizations that are fighting of certain causes in a women’s rights….
CC: Like activism…
AR: Yeah, activism. That’s the word I’m looking for. Yeah being an activist is being political because politics is person. But I don’t want to be involved in politics first hand at all.
CC: And you said you worked in the parliament in Trinidad?
CC: What did you do there?
AR: I was procedural clerk or as what we say in the U.S., a clerk. So what we did or what I did is that, I can’t even explain how I found myself doing this, but when the parliament is in session: so you have the government ministers, opposition on the other side, Speaker of the House. Then there’s always two persons sitting in the middle of them and their job is to give procedural or parliamentary advice, so I was one of those persons,
AR: Yeah, I’m not sure.[laughs]
CC: That’s classified.[laughs]
AR: [laughs] I’m not sure how I ended up here in the middle of a debate a government debate like at 2 o clock in the morning and we’re sitting here .
CC: Do you remember a particular debate?
AR: No, but I remember being part of, so, let’s say they’re debating a bill. The House of Representatives could send a bill to a committee. So I was actually part of the committee as well. So when the committee is formed, I am the assistant secretary to the committee, taking notes, producing the reports from the committee. There was a bill it was actually called The Children’s Act and one part of this bill spoke about sexual relations among children like at what age should it be criminalized. And I’m at sitting at this meeting, like two government ministers going at it and I felt like one wanted to cry. It was just so, I always remember that, just being with them as they debated this bill and I remember I left parliament and the bill ended up lapsing. The bill wouldn’t pass for another two years. I’m like, politics. [laughs]
CC: Do you want to me tell...you said you don’t remember, you didn’t meet your grandfather.
CC: Do you remember any stories that were told about your grandfather?
AR: My maternal, I didn’t meet any of my grandfathers. so my maternal grandfather, my mother’s grandfather his name was Conrad. Apparently, he was at my parents’ wedding and apparently he’s in the pictures. So he’s in my parents wedding. My mom says he did see me. He died after I was born. One memory, my mom always tells me, so my dad when he was courting her, he’d come up to their house. They lived in place called Diego Martin, four roads, it’s like a hill. It’s like you literally have to climb a hill to get to these houses up there. So my dad was courting my mom and he would come to the house. And if my grandfather felt it was too late, my mother said that her dad, my grandfather would turn off all of the lights and he would start closing all the windows really hard. So that my father would get the idea. That it’s late. So I remember that. I always remember, so my mother’s mother died when she was 16. I don’t really know much about her but my mother said you know, after she died, my mother is the youngest girl. So all of her elders sisters moved away. So just basically her, her dad, and two younger brothers I believe. So it was my mother’s responsibility to cook for her father. And she was a really bad cook. She would just make rice and it would be soft and horrible but he would eat it. He would sit and he would eat whatever horrible food she cooked for him. So that’s what I know of Conrad Singh. That was his name.
CC: Did they ever--so you talk about how as a little girl you noticed differences between boys and girls and how they were raised what were some of things you had to do as a girl in your family
AR: Hm, I can’t play until midnight outside. I think just being a girl. It’s, I think, that’s what fostered my love of books and quiet nights. Quiet time and quietness. Because I think boys are allowed to be rowdy and loud and this idea that boys will be boys. so that my brother was being “boy” I’m like quietly reading .I can’t think of anything per say. yeah one thing I can think of so my dad is like you know fixing his car, he would call my brother .you know he’d be like come see you have to learn to do this thing or the other. as we grew older that very much changed. and my dad would involve my sister and I into anything related to the car. So now I feel confident in dealing with cars because he included us.
CC: Do you remember one of the times he asked you to come help fix the car?
AR: I cannot remember. but i remember being older what’s interesting is even though I’m the eldest I was actually one of the last of my siblings to learn to drive besides the baby. I was one of the last persons. I remember buying a car with my dad. My dad and I went to see the car .we bought the car ..and everything to do with this car he would be like Aleah come, come see. you know if it’s to go to the mechanic. I’m there with the mechanic, if it’s a change or anything you know I’m there with him. he felt that as a woman I should be able to handle myself if a situation arises.
CC: Could you describe like grade school I don’t know if its grade school in Trinidad?
AR: Yeah it’s called primary school
CC: Yeah. Primary school.
AR: So I went to Baratarios’ Boys’ Roman Catholic school. I went to a boys’ school because apparently the girls’ school burned down. Apparently, this is a story: so they put all the girls in the boys’ school but never changed the name. I feel like in my records I went to Baratario’s Boys’ Roman Catholic school, which wasn’t too far from my home. We could actually walk. But my dad never let us walk my dad. That’s one thing with my dad even though he would work nights he would get up or come home and drop us to school. sometimes he would pick us up from school he would bring us lunch ,if we didn’t like nothing to pack for lunch early that morning. he would buy lunch and bring it for us. So I remember primary school well, wearing these uniforms, wearing these blue overalls with white shirts. So you go to primary school until you’re about age 11 and you set the standardized examination which will tell you which will tell which high school you will get into.
CC: What was the name of the exam?
AR: It’s called Common Entrance, the name has changed now it’s called SCA and I have no idea what that stands for. Because you know, I’m from the back in the day. It was called common entrance. Common Entrance is like an SCA today. It’s like this real rigorous sort of thing that I think children as young as ten are put through. Because, you know, feel this burden like your life depends on the results of this examination. You know because the high school you go to will determine the rest of you life. So I remember, you know studying for Common Entrance. I had a really good teacher at that time Ms. Critchlow. So I remember the summer before Common Entrance she had, there was a summer camp. So we were there every day that summer. It was fun but you know we were preparing or doing all of these practice examinations. And I remember I did examination on April 1st 1992. It was like All Fool’s Day. So I did my Common Entrance on April Fool’s Day in 1992. I remember getting up that morning getting to the school and lining up and it was a Roman Catholic school. So there was all of this prayer and everything and I did this exam and I felt I did well and then the results came out, and one of the schools I passed was not one for the schools I had chosen. I had not heard of this school before. I remember I cried my eyes out, because it wasn’t one of those prestigious schools. And I remember my grandmother says oh you know I could--my grandmother had all of these connections--my grandmother was like, oh, I could have you be transferred to this top school to [Senegastan?] Girls’ High School. But my best friend in primary school, she had passed for another school and she ended up transferring to the school that I had passed for. So, I was like ok, well, I have my friend and we went to the orientation. I think it was the best thing to ever happen to me to go to this school.
AR: Why was it the best thing? Well, it was a coed school. It wasn’t the girl school. But not that. So my best friend at the time, she had transferred to come to the school with me, but our friendship didn’t last long. As we began the school year you know she became more popular. I wasn’t popular. But, you know, people knew me. I was friendly, you know and I really had to make friends, like come out of myself. I was always very shy. So I had to come out of myself and the friends I met at that high school I still have them today. The people I have known since I was eleven and 12. So I think it was meant to be in some way to pass the examination for a school that I didn’t even choose or know about. It was called Woodbruck Government Secondary School.
CC: It’s very official.
AR: Yes. [laughs]
CC: Is that a public school would be here like...
AR: Yeah like a public school.
CC: And then who was one of the friend that you made there?
AR: So there is Fay who I mentioned before who taught me New York and she actually moved back to Trinidad like last year. She was like listen, this winter is too much I’m going back to Trinidad after like 20 something years. There’s my friend Mannifer. She lives in Maryland with her husband and her two kids. We were actually in the same class every year for high school.
AR: Yeah, even though at a certain time there were like students could choose different classes and they would end up in a whole different homeroom. We were in the same home room for high school. In Trinidad it’s five years. So the full five years of high school and I go out there to see her family. I’m the godmother of her youngest son.
CC: It’s very close.
CC: It sounds like you make a lot of families in school, here, you still have your own family back in Trinidad…
AR: Yeah I think it’s important here because I don’t have my family here. So like I have to rely on this extended family.
CC: Do you, we’re about to wrap up soon, but is there anything on that note of family that for the project you would like for us to understand or any point to I guess., one second I wrote it down…What do you think is the most important part of your experience that we should understand and if that I can break that down some more..
AR: Yeah, sure.
CC: Yeah just thinking about your journey, coming here, growing up…Is there anything that you think about often?
AR: I sometimes think about just the entire journey and how it happened.
AR: Yeah, just how it happened. Sometimes, I think about where did this desire even came from? I think it was fostered by my grandmother telling me about, you know, the world. There are things to see and just the desire. Where did this come from? How did I decide to leave Trinidad? I mean, today it's not uncanny for people to migrate, but being seventeen and being so sure I wanted to leave. Like, I was really sure. And I’m grateful for my mother for believing in me because she came with me and she spent a little time with me before returning. So I’m really grateful for her. But you know, when I think of the journey, I think of where did this come from at seventeen to do this? And then I was a very shy person to come make it in New York. To be in New York one has to be bold. One has to advocate for themselves. So I think I really became who I am in New York. I was born and raised in Trinidad but I grew up in New York. I definitely grew up here. And I think New York is a special place because it is a Carbibbeanized spaced. So even though I’m away from home, there are pockets of home here. I can go to Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn. I can get anything I want in Trinidad. Or like I remember when I first came, I would go home for Christmas because I love Trinidad Christmas. I would go home every Christmas and the persons would be like, oh when you come back bring me this or bring me the stuff and I would. Then you’re being stopped in customs like, what is that in your suitcase, right? But now, I’m like no, go to Flatbush Avenue, go to Liberty Avenue, Queens. And you know I think that makes the journey to New York not as hard as it could be. I’ve had friends who have migrated to different spaces and they’re like listen I get so lonely here. I just really want a doubles, which is an Indo-Caribbean street food. I want a doubles. I want a roti and I’m like oh, well, I can just walk out on the street and get one of these things. So, I think yeah New York for me, I’m not saying New York is easy. New York is hard. It is hard. Like I’ve been through so much but I’ve been able to overcome everything. I’ve gone through like I said before I was raised in Trinidad but I grew up here. And I’m thankful for my parents and I’m thankful for this mixed experience I had in Trinidad. My grandparents and my parents being mixed ethnicities and mixed religions. I think it made me very open to a lot of things here in New York and not to just close off myself.
CC: Because that could have been very easy to do.
AR: Yeah it’s easy when you’re not accustomed to things or not familiar with things.
CC: All right, it’s 12:59
AR: O.K. It’s been an hour.
CC: I will be ending the interview here.
AR: Thank you.
Collection: SAADA Archivists' Collective Materials
Item History: 2019-05-28 (created); 2019-09-17 (modified)
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