Cultural Connections: From the Caribbean to the nation’s capital
By JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Hyattsville resident Janine Dowden is no stranger to adversity. Growing up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, Dowden suffered trauma at age 12 when she survived a car accident that left burns on 65 percent of her body. “My aunt was living in Washington, so she assisted in getting me to Children’s Hospital. I spent eight months in the hospital the first time. Every year after that until I was 18, I would come to the U.S. for follow-up treatment because I had osteomyelitis and 90 percent of my bones were infected,” said Dowden.
Dowden also experienced a political coup d’état as a child when Grenada “became militant — there was the people’s revolutionary army.” After leading Grenada for several years as a police state, Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was assassinated by his own army. “The morning of his death, a neighbor called my mother and said that she had a bad dream and recommended that [my mother] not send us to school. A lot of people were killed. We could hear the tanks shooting because Fort George was only 3 ½ miles away.”
Then, in 2004, when Dowden was pregnant with her daughter, she lived through Hurricane Ivan, which devastated her homeland. “Everything was destroyed, but we were lucky. In our village, ours was one of the few houses that stood. Before the hurricane, there were 425 houses, and afterwards there were six. After you live through a hurricane, you never want to experience that again. It was the most horrifying experience. The next morning, it looked like a bomb went off. There was debris all over the place.”
Despite enduring these tribulations, Dowden also knows good fortune and the importance of community. She has many fond memories of her childhood in a small village overlooking the sea. Within a close-knit island community, “everybody knows everybody and is related to each other. There’s an unwritten rule that when you walk down the street, you have to say hello. Otherwise, when you get home, your mother would already have heard that you passed by someone without saying anything. When I grew up, the village raised the children.”
According to Dowden, Grenada’s rich cultural diversity fosters a climate of tolerance and its people embrace differences. “Growing up in the Caribbean, we don’t understand racism. It doesn’t matter what you look like because everyone is all mixed up. In August, we have Carnival to celebrate the emancipation of slavery. Nobody sleeps for a week. People go to house parties or a ‘lime,’ which is a big party on the beach where people cook ‘oil down’ [the national dish made of local delicacies such as yams, breadfruit, and salted pig tails among other ingredients].”
Dowden and her daughter were finally granted a green card to move to the U.S., nine years after first applying for it. They immigrated to Hyattsville one year ago to join Dowden’s mother and sister, who have lived here for many years. Given her multiple visits to the U.S. over the years, Dowden has not experienced much culture shock, “except for how rude people can be. Americans are very impatient and need instant gratification. They want to get what they want at the exact time they want it.”
Dowden enjoys living in Hyattsville “because it is like a little family, and everyone knows each other, so it reminds me a lot of home. People will check up on you. We all have keys to each other’s houses.” She also appreciates the convenience of life in the U.S. and the lower cost of material goods. “The cost of living in Grenada is extremely high. When you go to the supermarket, you buy things you need, not what you want.”
At the same time, she becomes wistful when reminiscing about Grenada. “I miss home. It’s very different here. When I’m home and driving around, I always see someone I know. Sometimes it’s just hard being here. You’re so anxious about everything and just want to fit in. Even though I had visited the U.S. many times, when I moved here everything was new and felt foreign, just distant. Eventually, when I get old and retire, I will return to Grenada. It will always be home.”
“Cultural Connections” is dedicated to highlighting Hyattsville’s rich cultural diversity by sharing the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled here.