Pearly Ramnauth’s 1992 journey from Georgetown, Guyana
essay written by Crystal Chester
Born in the beautiful third world country (Guyana), with thirteen siblings to take care of, no means of modern commodities, and an economy where 199 Guyana dollars equals one U.S. dollar, Pearly Ramnauth has her work set out for her. Join her journey to the United States, facing multiple decisions and testing her will to keep her family together. Discover how one opportunity can, and did, change lifestyles and beget morals that are unbreakable. When oppportunity knocks, you need to seize the once-in-a-lifetime chance.
‘Rain ah fall ah roof -yuh a put barral fuh ketch am.’ When rain falls, get a bucket and quickly collect it. Opportunity knocks and you need to seize the once in a lifetime chance. This wise Guyana proverb describes the road of immigration that gives citizens an opportunity to move forward in their lives. Pearly Ramnauth, a proud immigrant to the United States, says why she took her opportunity, “My immediate family [is] over here. And with [my granddaughter] coming, and nobody to take care of [her, I] decided to go [to America;]” 1 The story of Ramnauth is an enticing one. Born in 1946 she grew up in Guyana, South America; Ramnauth lived day to day with “a lot of excitement.”2 Guyana is a South American country located next to Venezuela and above Brazil. Although situated near many Spanish speaking countries, Creole English is Guyana’s first language. Home of the all natural Kaieteure Falls, a single water fall that is 5 times taller than Niagara Falls; Guyana is also overflowing with fruits such as coconut, papaya, mango, and banana. A beautiful country filled with nature, Guyana’s main export is rice and sugar cane. Leaving her beautiful homeland behind, Ramnauth made the decision to be with family; her daughter, Maloney and her son, Tony. For her it was a short trip on a plane, but the effect it had on her family justified her choice. Ramnauth’s immigration was an opportunity for her and her whole family to enjoy a better standard for living.
Life in Guyana at the time was a picturesque farm life characterized by cattle grazing and dirt roads. Farm work was very common and huge families were a requisite for income. “We were a big, big family,” says Pearly Ramnauth.3 As the second eldest of thirteen children, Ramnauth had a lot of responsibility at a young age, she says “I used to go in the backdam and reap rice, and do farming… [the backdam] would have these little ponds and [we] would catch fish.”4 Ramnauth grew up in poverty, in what is considered to be a third world country. She did not have expensive conveniences such as stoves or many natural resources, such as firewood. Ramnauth says “We had to make, like, two little holes to push the fire and dirt in...And you set your pot on the fire and you had to find and push the dirt, to keep the fire.”5 After morning meals, Ramnauth had to walk a long distance to school. At age six, Ramnauth walked four miles to school barefoot. Thankfully, Guyana’s weather is a warm year-round. She says “It was a long walk, but we enjoyed it.
Going to school there were a lot of guava trees by the beach, so when we’d get a break from school, we’d eat and [then] go back to classes.”6 One major treasure to Ramnauth and her family were the natural fresh-water trenches. These were little rivers of running water that came from the northern rainforests. They were the only source of clean water for Ramnauth and her family. The family depended on this water. “You didn’t have pipe water, you would use the trench water to wash your dishes, wash your clothes, [and] bathe”; she says.7 Also, the black water trenches were a source of comfort for the Ramnauth family. Coming from the northern rainforests, the black water was stained from trees and shrubs, turning its color pure black. This water, although seems nasty and dirty, was actually used for cooking and drinking.
Working in the trenches and taking care of the younger children, there was a lot of work for Ramnauth to do before the day was over. In addition to operating a rice farm, Ramnauth’s parents raised cattle, but most of their product was rice. Without a plow or tractor, farm work was very hard work for Ramnauth’s family. It would take days of working in the backdam fields, doing hard work in order to harvest the rice. Ramnauth explains that after picking the long, thin stalks of rice plant, the shell of the rice needed to be removed. In order to do that, the cattle would have to grind the shell to expose the white grain of rice. It was very hard work. “We were poor [and] things were very tough,” explains Ramnauth.8 Fortunately, things made a turn for the better when she met Allan Ramnauth.
In the Guyanese culture during the 1950’s, girls and boys were not allowed to freely converse and court each other. It was taboo for a boy to be seen talking with a girl, if they were not engaged. Ramnauth’s marriage was arranged and she was married into a wealthy family. Unfortunately, the wealth would not be shared until Allan’s grandfather passes away 10 years later. So as a wedding gift, the Ramnauth family gave the newlywed couple a part of the Ramnauth acreage. They began their married life together in a small clay hut but because Ramnauth came from a poor family, she worked hard to earn lots of money. Her first child, Maloney Ramnauth was born in 1966. Because of her love of money, Ramnauth worked hard at the Buffalo Garment Factory. Ramnauth had no time to ‘babysit’ Maloney. Instead Ramnauth’s mother, who lived in Zarg, took care of Maloney and babysat her while her parents worked. Ramnauth’s hut was in Georgetown and they had to commute. Ramnauth tells of times at Zarg, when she and Maloney had to wait for her husband to come back from work and pick them up on the motorcycle. The only way they got home was if he came to pick them up. She claims that sometimes she and Maloney would wait until midnight before he arrived. It was a small price to pay; otherwise things were going fairly well.
Fortunately at this time, Guyana was going through a transition. After being ruled by the British for many years, Guyana finally declared its independence and started to prosper. “[Allan] worked as a mechanic for the Guyana government, and I worked at [the] Buffalo Garment Factory, for a number of years,” says Ramnauth.9 Things were at the peak of prosperity when the Ramnauths had their second child, a boy, 7 years later. Since, there “was nobody to take care” of Tony, and Ramnauth didn’t want to burden her mother again so she decided to quit her job and start a poultry farm.10 And did she! Ramnauth “started with 25 baby chickens” fed them, took care of them, and sold them: “I got a lot of money,”11 she says. The poultry farm grew to accomadate the thousands of chickens. The farm still exists today. Pearly saved so much money that she had to hide it in the crevices of the house for fear of thieves. When Tony was born, the Guyana government was run by the corrupt President Forbes Burnham who rigged the election and held the favor of the police. During this time, “flour was illegal...and had to be bought in the black market.”12 Times were difficult. By the end of 1986, Maloney, Pearly’s first child, was taking her final exams at the University of Guyana in Georgetown.
To escape from the harsh of reality, Ramnauth took a vacation to America- which she had always wanted to visit. Since their family was well off, they had traveled many places before. She visited family in St. Martin, Canada, and had even made a trip to Guyana’s sister country Trinidad and Tobago. But throughout her lifetime she had never visited the United States. “You hear a lot of stories and I’ve seen in a lot of movies about America,” she exclaims.13 So in 1986, Ramnauth and her daughter applied for a yearlong visa and they went to New York to stay with some relatives. While in America, Maloney fell in love and decided to get married after finishing her schooling in Guyana. Ramnauth believes that education is the most important thing for her children. Even today, she encourages her grandchildren to reach for higher education. Pearly’s belief in education streams from when she was in Guyana, and there was nothing she could give her children, other than education. So Maloney was not allowed to get married until she graduated from The University of Guyana. Maloney decided to permanently move to the United States, to leave her family and start her own family. After graduating with a Bachelors degree in Biology, Maloney and her husband moved to New York, leaving her parents and brother behind. At this time, Ramnauth was still in Guyana, watching her son, Tony grow up. Ramnauth shines as she tells of the high awards he received, including the highest academic recognition for his school. Tony also graduated, moved over to New York, and stayed with his sister for the first three years. Finally, Pearly and her husband decided to follow their children when Maloney was expecting a baby and there was no one to help raise her child. After experiencing the same dilemma with her children, Pearly sympathized and in July of 1992 she and her husband moved to New York. “My immediate family is over here,” explains Ramnauth when asked why she relocated, “…We bought a house and we stayed together.”14
Family has been the number one priority for Ramnauth, since she was a child growing up. At first it was difficult to get a visa in Guyana, but when Ramnauth and her husband finally did receive their visa, they immigrated to the United States as soon as they could. Ramnauth states that as soon as Maloney heard that they were coming, she rushed over to the immigration office to file their papers. Apparently the couple couldn’t relocate until July, when they would get a stamp on their passport. They waited and finally got the chance to move out. Her family left everything they previously owned behind but Ramnauth says she has no regrets. She gave away her chicken farm to her sister-in-law, along with their land, saris, and anything else they had owned. When Pearly made the decision to immigrate she made a life change for her family. She paved a pathway for her family to immigrate and after a couple of years “[her] sister Lucy and niece Shanta came over,” and started new families.15 She set an example for others to follow. But although she led the pathway to a better life the transition between Guyana culture and American culture is painstakingly difficult.
Coming from a wealthy lifestyle in Guyana to starting from nothing in America was an eye-opener for Ramnauth. “When I first came over it was like, ‘Wooow’ it’s so good, so cheap. Comparing to Guyana, it’s US dollars!”16 In Guyana at the time the currency exchange was 199 Guyana dollars to 1 U.S. dollar. Guyana was a third world country. Ramnauth strictly believed that “you can make it in America. You come to America and you can make it, once you’re not lazy, you can do it.”17 Pearly and her husband took this opportunity and used it to their advantage.
Even though they couldn’t bring all their riches from Guyana over to America, they decided to work hard and “make a [new life for their families] living [together],” for themselves and their family.18 As for Ramnauth, she decided to fulfill her dream of being a nurse. She wanted to study nursing as a little girl, but she couldn’t because her family was poor and she was an elder daughter. Her duty was to take care of the younger siblings. Although her education didn’t give her much of an advantage, she became a nurse’s assistant, and still continues that occupation today. Her husband continued to work as a mechanic, and the two worked hard enough to buy a house and live next door to their daughter. As she remembers her home country, Ramnauth says” things [got] better after those days, better and better…You know, it’s more like a little America over there now[ in Guyana]”.19
Ramnauth’s transition to an American lifestyle went smoothly, but it did take some time. Even now Ramnauth loves to “make a lot of money”20 However when she was raising chicken and making lots of money, she rarely celebrated any holidays or festivals. The culture of the Guyanese people actually comes from the Indians and Africans that the British brought over as slaves, but because of the lack of freedom, there were not many celebrations. There were birthdays and anniversaries, but very little culture. However, because of the Indian influence on Guyana, Hinduism is wide spread, but it was more of a label than a religion. Ramnauth says that there weren’t many religious holidays celebrated. In fact, Ramnauth used to be a Hindu believer. But, when she came to America and met with Maloney’s husband, the whole family attended Christian services, and gradually became Christian. Today in age, Pearly still cooks original Guyanese dishes such as curry and rice (a thin brown gravy with meat and potatoes but is very spicy), chowmein (Long Chinese yellow noodles cooked with vegetables and spices), cook-up rice (Rice and anything else that taste good in a pressure cooker pot), dal (grind and pressured yellow peas), and roti (Guyanese tortillas). Although these dishes are very similar to those of India, the tastes of the spices incorporated in the dishes are not the same. The main things that Ramnauth brought over from Guyana were food and family.
Being an immigrant is an experience to remember. Everyone has a different story and likewise Ramnauth says she “[has] no regrets” in her decision.21 The main reason she left Guyana was to be with her family. In 2001, Tony married and in the following years had two children. In 2004, after Maloney and her family moved to California from New York City, both Tony and Pearly’s families were alone. Maloney’s job had moved and it was impossible for her and her family to stay in New York any longer. When she moved, Ramnauth felt a loss because she had wanted her immediate family to be together. The bond between families was put to the test and in 2005, Tony moved and settled in California as well. When Tony moved, Ramnauth felt that it was imperative that Ramnauth and her husband had to follow. Being separated was not an option back in 1992, and it still was not an option in 2004! Currently, Pearly Ramnauth is working at Kaiser Permanente as a nurse’s assistant. She is patiently waiting for her retirement in the coming years. She is enjoying her current life with her two children, two in-laws, three grandchildren, and her retired husband. She concludes saying, “I’m 63 now…two and half years more and then I’m retired. I’ll take a trip to Guyana, or New York, or Canada, where my family is, St. Martin...Especially my family, I love my family…”22
‘Rain ah fall ah roof -yuh a put barral fuh ketch am.’ Opportunities don’t come every day so when they do come, take a chance and enjoy yourself. Ramnauth’s immigration experience is one that opened the door for herself to enjoy something she loved: her family. Her journey started with one small step. But without that step, it would have been impossible to make that journey. If turtles don’t peep their heads out of their shells, they can’t see where to go. ‘Turtle nah walk if he nah push he head outa he shell.’
1. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 9.
2. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 1..
3. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 1
4. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 1
5. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 1.
6. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 1.
7. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 2.
8. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 3.
9. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 5.
10. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 5,6.
11. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 6.
12. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 7.
13. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 13.
14. Ramnauth. 26 May 2009. 9.
15. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 12.
16. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 8.
17. Ramnauth. 26 May 2009. 9.
18. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 9.
19. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 11.
20. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 11.
21. Ramnauth, Pearly. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 13.
22. Ramnauth. 25 May 2009. 16.