Written By: Delaney Rodriguez
“Be your own person but please don't leave behind what makes you who you are.” This is the mantra that 20-year-old Ameena Sheriff has used in her journey to accepting and loving the rich cultural and historical legacy in her family.
Ameena’s family is from Guyana, her parents moved to the US when they were both younger than 10. She identifies as a Muslim Guyanese American, but she wasn’t always in touch with her culture.
“The West Indian culture is amazing but I didn’t recognize that growing up. I was a very shy kid growing up in Minnesota and didn’t know much about being Guyanese or West Indian. And now that I’m older, I have to deal with a lot of misunderstandings.”
She described the complicated relationship between West Indian and Indian cultures, “A lot of Indian people will tell me ‘well, you’re not from the Desi community so you’re not really Indian’ and then I have to explain the history of my culture to let them know, ‘No I am Indian.’”
A history lesson may be helpful for those of us who may not understand the complicated ethnic and cultural background.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries Indian indentured workers were emigrating to different parts of the world. The movement to Guyana commenced in 1838 (1845 to Trinidad and Jamaica); it was stopped the following year and began again in 1845, suspended three years later and continued uninterrupted from 1851 to the demise of the system during the First World War.
Within this 80-year period, roughly 238,979 Indians landed in Guyana from the ports of Calcutta and Madras, of which 65,538 were repatriated. By 1917, Indians comprised 42% of the Guyanese population, and the population has remained roughly the same through today.
With this history, it is easy to see why Ameena may find it frustrating to be told she is not who she is.
She resents being told that she is lucky for having lighter complexion than many Indians, “I hate when people say that. I wish I looked more Indian. I am proud of my culture and I want people to know.”
When Ameena begins to worry that she is not in touch with her culture, she turns to her mom who always tells her, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, you carry it inside of you.”
This message from her mom rings true when she talks about her culture. Her voice lit up with enjoyment when she talked about West Indian music “It’s so unique and upbeat. It’s hard to describe but it’s a mix of Indian and Chutney music. It’s sort of like Drake’s song ‘One Dance’ if you’ve ever heard that.”
Ameena loves talking about her background with others whether it’s people in her community or educating those outside of it. “Being a Muslim Guyanese American is what makes me who I am today; I believe that no one should try to be someone they aren’t. I want everyone to embrace their true self because that is what got me to where I am today. Also, growing up even though my family is Muslim, we were brought up to celebrate so many holidays such as Eid, Holi (Pagwah), Christmas, Diwali and many more and thats not just my family its all of the West Indian countries. Trinidad is one of the known countries with the most holidays which is super cool. Growing up that way taught me to have an open mind and the willingness to learn about others.”
To see more of Ameena and her journey please follow her @ameenasheriff