Sabitri Mariapain moved to Schenectady from Guyana in 1975, but she still pines for her homeland at times.
To combat those feelings, one summer day about a decade ago, Mariapain invited other local Guyanese families to get together for a picnic. The informal gathering grew over the years, eventually becoming the Guyanese Family Fun Day. This year’s fun day is Saturday, Sept. 5, in Schenectady’s Central Park.
Although the city’s Guyanese population has grown exponentially since Mariapain followed her parents to the States — they moved here after her brothers joined the U.S. armed forces — she has enjoyed close bonds with fellow Guyanese in the area since she arrived here at 16.
We would always get together at homes, at weddings, she said.
Those bonds were further tightened by the get-togethers at the park, and in recent years, the fun day has attracted even non-Guyanese. Mariapain believes that’s important because there are a lot of misconceptions about Guyanese in the area.
Not long ago, for example, Mariapain said a co-worker mentioned that ducks had been disappearing from Central Park. `She said, ‘All the Guyanese are cooking up the ducks with curry,’` Mariapain said.
Those kind of rumors may have been fueled by reports of a Guyanese man slaughtering a goat in his yard a few years ago, Mariapain said. What non-Guyanese don’t realize, she said, is that in Guyana, there are no refrigerators or freezers.
`You butcher the animal and that’s your dinner,` she said.
The festival is a way to bridge that cultural divide — to show `we’re just people, like Americans.`
At the same time, Mariapain and her fellow Guyanese look forward to showcasing the things that make their native land unique: their food, their customs, their history.
Guyana is an English-speaking country in South America (one of just five non-Spanish speaking territories on the continent). It achieved independence from Great Britain in 1966 and is home to a number of immigrant groups, with many tracing roots to India.
The lure of the United States — and Schenectady in particular — is often cheaper housing and better jobs, Mariapain said. And it’s not just the Guyanese seeking Schenectady; the city has actually sought Guyanese. Former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski actively recruited Guyanese from the five boroughs of New York to Schenectady, reasoning that they could buy and renovate some of the city’s dilapidated homes while also opening businesses.
`In New York City, people were paying a lot of rent, and Mom and Dad were just doing basic jobs,` Mariapain said. In Schenectady, meanwhile, foreclosed homes were often being handed to Guyanese immigrants for just $1.
Onkar Singh left New York for Schenectady three years ago. But in his case, cheap housing and dreams of opening his own business weren’t the lure.
`I lived in Queens for a number of years,` he said. `I don’t need the hustle and bustle of a big city.`
Leaving the Big Apple behind was hard in at least one way, though: In Queens, Singh regularly played cricket, a game that is hugley popular in Guyana.
So, in 2006, Singh helped form the Schenectady Softball Cricket Association, whose teams, made up largely of Guyanese, play on Sundays at Central Park.
The fun day, which Singh will emcee, kicks off with cricket at 9 a.m. There will be other games throughout the day, most of them catering to kids and requiring few bells and whistles, like potato sack and three-legged races.
`We don’t have Toys R Us in Guyana,` Mariapain said. `People learn to do things with just homemade stuff.`
There will be dancing and music, as well as a curry competition. Curry is a staple in Guyanese cooking thanks to the country’s ties to India, but Mariapain noted Guyanese cuisine differs somewhat from traditional Indian fare.
`There is a lot of hot stuff, a lot of curry and cinnamon,` she said. `But the spices vary. There’s also influence from Jamaica and Trinidad.`
There will also be a Miss Guyana contest, and Mariapain has put together a play that showcases life in Guyana.
For many people, the play will offer a look at the life they once lived. Mariapain said the festival draws Guyanese from all over the Northeast and even Canada, and it’s common for folks to run into people they knew from back home.
`You lose touch with friends or people you went to school with,` she said. At the fun day, `they would end up meeting.`
Mariapain attributes the success of the fun day to the fact it offers Guyanese `a comfort level.`
`I personally get lonely here sometimes,` she said.
Singh likes that the day is `a way of keeping in touch with our roots.`
And beyond that, he just enjoys having fun.
`I like to see the joy and smile on people’s faces,` he said.
The ninth annual Guyanese Fun Day is Saturday, Sept. 5, at 1 p.m. in the music haven at Schenectady’s Central Park.