BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ and TRONE DOWD
The United States has long been viewed as a beacon of opportunity for the rest of the world, a place where the seemingly impossible is made possible by a person’s drive. For Caribbean nations, that sentiment is no different. The immigrant experience, however, has changed drastically since the influx of Caribbean-born people made their way to the United States in the mid- to late-20th century.
The Queens Tribune sat down with several Caribbean-born Queens residents who arrived in America over the past 40 years—including business owners, government agency leaders and veterans. Many of them started from nothing and found success through hard work, determination and will. Their unique stories are a testament to how much the experience has changed.
Giovanni Sosa, a Dominican-born father of three, came to the United States in 1977 at the age of 13. Sosa told the Queens Tribune that he lived with his aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic until his mother, who was already in the United States, arranged for her son to live with her.
“She was formerly undocumented,” Sosa said. “I don’t remember the details of her case, but she managed to work out the paperwork and petition for me.”
Arriving in the United States was a fresh start for young Sosa. He didn’t speak a word of English, which would prove to be an obstacle. Despite the language barrier, he had great expectations of his new home. He recalled his optimism, getting off the plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport and finding $5 on the floor almost instantly.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be rich—this is definitely the country of money,’” he said. “Needless to say, it was the last time I ever found $5.”
His initial luck didn’t follow through during his first few years in the United States. Sosa lived with his mother in Ridgewood, and attended East New York High School, which offered vocational programs. As a teenager still finding his footing in his new home, he was the target of bullying.
“I was one of those kids who was picked on for whatever reason,” he said. “Being from somewhere else, not knowing the language, I was never the tallest, kind of chubby. There was also that barrier. I felt isolated and alone. Even in school, these issues were not addressed. Not like now.”
The environment in 1970s New York City only made matters worse for Sosa. Gangs were an issue across the five boroughs, and his high school was no different.
“I remember gangs would leave me notes saying, ‘We’re going to beat you up after school,’” he said. “Those were the times when there was a lot of crime. A lot of racial tension. Blacks against the whites. Puerto Ricans against the Dominicans. Not to say that those things don’t exist now, but back in the day, there were many different gangs. Not too different from that movie The Warriors. But I managed.”
Sosa pressed on and took advantage of his education. He knew that he wanted to be a “person of service in life.” He learned how to be an aircraft technician at East New York High, all while maintaining an impressive 90 percent average in his traditional academic classes, and used that to catapult himself into a career in the U.S. Navy.
He said that while the military was a voluntary step toward his greater aspirations, he recognized that, at the time, college was not seen as a viable option for many youths, especially a first-generation teenager like himself. Even with his stellar grades, making sure his family was taken care of was always paramount.
“Thinking back, I always tell my kids [that] if I had the exposure or some guidance, maybe I would have given it some more thought,” he said. “I don’t regret it. I went into the military and did 30 years of service. But I just didn’t think higher education was a viable option. I was one of those kids who always thought, ‘Where am I going to live?’ and ‘How will I make money?’ I didn’t want to expose my family to the financial burden of a college education. Even the idea of going to another state for college was like, ‘What? No way.’ Nowadays, it’s almost automatic.”
In the Navy, Sosa worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming a warrant officer, overseeing a command of more than 500 people.
It was a turning point in his life as he finally had the stability and purpose for which he was searching. During this time, he would also earn his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and two master’s degrees—one in education administration from Baruch College and another in bilingual education at City College. He would retire from the Navy and jump into the education field full time. He is currently the assistant principal of Aviation High School’s Aviation Maintenance Program, which oversees 2,179 students.
Although he said that he never faced any sort of overt discrimination in his many years of service, he always felt an obligation to work harder than his peers in any given situation. It is a principle that he has passed down to his kids.
“I tell them that they will always have to work harder than the person next to you,” he said. “My time in the Navy, there were so many instances where I was the only one being promoted because I had what they were looking for. When your record goes up for an evaluation, there is no picture of you. They go based on what you’ve done. Your work.”
Eight years before Sosa arrived, Franc Rampersaud, born in Trinidad and Tobago, came to the United States. After 30 years in America, he has tried his hand at starting a business—founding the Someday Travel Agency, located at 125-05 Liberty Ave. in South Richmond Hill. He said that starting such a business might have been easier today due to the increase in the city’s Caribbean population.
“In the early days, Caribbean business owners and entrepreneurs had to really work harder than today because they couldn’t get the same help that they could get today,” said Rampersaud. “Back then, we had to work longer hours in order to be successful.”
According to Rampersuad, in the 1990s, Caribbean residents were centered in one area of the city, and sometimes separated into different communities. However, today, he said that there are more Caribbean communities throughout the city, making it easier for Caribbean business owners to choose a location for their stores.
“It’s better today, in the sense that it’s easier to pick a location conducive to your business,” said Rampersaud.
While the increase in the Caribbean population is better for Caribbean business owners, Rampersaud said that it’s also tough due to an increase in competition.
Stanley Raj arrived from Guyana in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, founded Main Street/New York Inc., an insurance agency located at 108-05 Liberty Ave. in Richmond Hill. Unlike Rampersaud, Raj said that it’s more difficult to start a business today, compared to years ago.
“I think the high level of taxes is somewhat of a problem,” said Raj. “There are too many regulations holding back certain businesses.”
Raj said that when he first started his business, there was a learning curve, partly because he was learning about the insurance field and how to sell himself, but also because he was learning how to run a business as a whole.
“Now, 25 years later, I can do anything I want to do,” said Raj.
Raj said that he is proud of the increase and tremendous growth of Caribbean people in the business workforce, from Indian and African Caribbean immigrants to Latino Caribbean arrivals.
“When I worked in Wall Street in the 1980s, I was the first person of Indian origin in the company,” said Raj. “Today, I would see so many people like myself, so many black Caribbean people. We are a force now. Corporations are seeking talented people—people willing to work—and we have a good work ethic. It comes from our culture. We’re hustlers.”
Gregg Bishop, the commissioner of the city’s Small Business Services (SBS), told the Queens Tribune that he always starts his story by saying that he’s an immigrant because he feels that the country would look different if the political environment we have today existed then.
“And I don’t think that’s a positive thing,” said Bishop. “When you look at the 230,000 small businesses that are owned in New York City, almost 52 percent of those are owned by foreign-born New Yorkers who are now running small businesses, and those small businesses are the economic vision of New York City. Now can you imagine if they did not come here under an administration that was open and welcoming, but sort of like what we have now? So, certainly I think there’s something to be said in terms of looking at how this country has prospered.”