I WAS BORN AND RAISED in Omaha, Nebraska. My mom is white and American and my dad is from Guyana. He left Guyana when he was 18 or 19. My parents got divorced when I was around 10, so I was raised mostly by my mom, but I’m very close to my dad's side of the family. He's one of eight siblings and they all came over from Guyana and centered in Nebraska for a bit. But growing up, I didn't really know much about being Guyanese. I knew my dad said we're Indian. I remember one time asking him, you said we’re West Indian, so what's East Indian? Are those just different sides of India?
He was like, oh no, those are two different places. He’s also been kind of in denial of his Blackness. His father was Indian and his mother was Black Surinamese. But because my grandfather was the male of the household, his culture was dominant, and my dad always said, we're Indian. Despite that, my grandma would tell me, I’m a proud Black woman, so that makes you a Black woman too. So it was all very confusing.
IT WASN'T UNTIL COLLEGE that I met another Guyanese person who was not in my family. And that was when I realized that, oh, there's multiple ways to be Guyanese. It's not a monolith, not everyone knows their whole history. Not everyone knows what ship their great-grandparents came over on and from where in India their families came from. And so it was interesting to meet people like me, who are the children of immigrants and are experiencing being Guyanese-American – and that it's not wrong to do it either way.
I've talked to my dad about why he hesitates to identify as Guyanese. He’s kind of trained himself out of an accent and doesn’t really speak the creole of typical Guyanese, and I think he thought it would be more of a challenge. Coming to Nebraska, he had to adapt, and I think he kind of just embraced being Indian more. The year he came here is also when Jonestown was happening, and so people associated Guyanese people with bad things. I think he also distanced himself from being Guyanese because he was tired of getting questions like:
> "Guyana? Oh, do you mean Ghana? Oh, where is that?” But now he's more embracing of it and it's nice to see him reconnecting with it (to a certain extent).
I USED TO THINK that I had to prove my identity, doing a DNA test to be like, look, I am Black, I am Indian. Now I view it as, being a very mixed person, I am Indian, I am Black, I am white, but I'm not half this, half that, a quarter this, a quarter that. So I've really learned to embrace the fullness of my identities while also being conscious of what spaces I'm in and how I present. I won't ever face the same oppression as Black people in the United States do, and so as a mixed person, it can be part of my identity, but it’s not what speaks the most about my identity. So finding the balance between all of that, while proudly claiming an identity that my family has pushed aside for a while has been challenging. I have also started to really identify with my Indo-Caribbean side in general. It influences a lot of the work that I do and the things that I'm passionate about.
EVERYONE I'M CLOSELY RELATED TO on my Guyanese side is very accepting of my queerness, but there’s definitely a lot of socialized and internalized anti-queerness in Guyanese culture. I’ve seen gender identity being an even more difficult thing people are trying to tackle, especially with pronouns and misgendering people. That said, I’ve been thankful to be surrounded by some really great Indo-Caribbean organizations who have been advocating for making spaces safer, and I also found a really great queer community of POC women and non-binary folks in college, which gave me room to explore and be proud.
DISABILITY HAS BEEN an interesting thing for me. I have Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a genetic mutation, a chronic illness that makes all my collagen defective in my body. It causes chronic pain and my joints dislocate easily and all this stuff, but it's a very invisible illness. Navigating chronic illness as a younger person is already a feat in itself. Navigating it in the Indo-Caribbean community has been more difficult because it tends to be a pride thing about how people are perceived. And so if you're walking with a cane, people will say, oh, everyone's going to stare at you, do you really need that?
> It took a really long time to get over that fear of how I'm being perceived because the words of my family kind of echoed in the back of my head.
Two of my aunts have Fibromyalgia, and they've struggled with chronic pain, and just hearing other people in the family kind of be like, oh, they're exaggerating. And I'm like, well, if they're saying these things to me, then they're probably saying these things about me. If I tell them that, yeah, I'm disabled, they say, but why would you say that? That's not a good thing. And I'm like, it's part of my identity and it's something I claim. It's not a dirty, bad word. I am proudly disabled. And I think it comes from the stigma of showing off a weakness. Even with my grandma, she has Parkinson's and is like, I hate using this walker, it’s so obnoxious, people look at me. And I think it’s just the pride of having been independent and overcome so much for so long. There is just an aversion to being perceived as weak in any way.
Standing up to any elders in your family is hard because they’ll just be like, why can't you just do this? It'll be really quick. And you're like, OK, it’s my auntie, I have to do this for them. While knowing that I'll suffer later for it. Setting boundaries and learning about my body and the boundaries that it sets for me, and then listening to them and being able to assert those is what makes it really difficult. I also suffer from mental health issues, and I think setting boundaries wasn't something I was comfortable doing until I realized that it's self-preservation. I think especially as Black and Brown women, we’re told to be the martyr and sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of others. Seeing my aunt getting up and cooking dinner even though no one asked her, or seeing my grandma persevere through so many hardships, I’ve kind of inherited that generational message of: you have to sacrifice yourself so everyone else can be happy and in turn you will be happy.
I’ve also found a safe space among my friends who are like my chosen family. What’s been really helpful for me in wanting to claim my disability and learn about my disability is finding online spaces of people who have the same illness as me or finding groups for queer Indo-Caribbean people. Finding friendships among people who share similar identities has been one of the strongest things that's kept me going.
LISSA DEONARAIN (she/they) is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and editor. Her films explore social justice issues and themes such as identity, belonging, and memory. Her film Double Diaspora explores the unique and vibrant experiences of the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Queens, New York. You can explore her work here.