007: Jayasri (she/her)
Content Note: This oral history contains explicit descriptions and details of domestic violence and abusive relationships.
Jayasri describes her experience immigrating to New York from Guyana at the age of 17, leaving behind a peaceful and idyllic childhood, and escaping from a situation of parental domestic abuse. She also reflects on motherhood, her relationship with her daughter and her ability to protect future generations from sexism and abuse.
Participants: Jayasri [J] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: March 10, 2019
(00:00) I: Okay so, why don't you tell me a bit about yourself and how you identify.
(00:05) J: My name is [Jayasri]. I identify as she. I'm 65 years old. I was born in Guyana. I came to New York when I was 17 years old. So, I was actually raised in Guyana and lived all my life, the rest of my life in New York City.
(00:34) I: When did you move to New York?
(00:35) J: 1971. I was just 17.
(00:37) I: Oh wow, okay. Did you live with family when you moved to New York?
(00:41) J: Yes, I came to my mom and my youngest sister—eight of us, I'm the oldest of the eight. My mom came to New York first with my youngest sister who has cerebral palsy, and actually she came here just to get medical help. We had no idea at that time what cerebral palsy was. And it turns out, she says, "I can't come back home because this is a life-long thing," and so, two years later, my dad and I joined her and then the following year the rest of the family came.
(01:17) I: How was that transition for you?
(01:19) J: Very difficult. One of the most difficult things, I believe, in my life. In Guyana, even though life was not easy, it wasn't hard either. It was kind of more idyllic because, of course, I was much younger and very protected. My youth protected me. Yes so, coming to New York from a little town where, you know, I rode my bike to school, we didn't have too many things like cars, we still had donkey carts and horse carts, so walking into New York with this massive buildings and subway systems, it was just so dizzying and it took me a very long time to adjust. I longed for home for a very, very long time.
(02:14) I: So, you said a bit about how it wasn't necessarily bad but it wasn't like really great either growing up in Guyana, so what are your strongest memories?
(02:24) J: It's mixed. It wasn't so good because, you know, my dad my was an alcoholic. When he got drunk, he was very cruel. He would beat my mom very badly. He would beat us up too and being the oldest, I got a lot of the brunt of those beatings. The first three of us of the eight really received a lot of those blows. So for that reason, it was not good. Other than that, thank God I grew up in that country, because if I was growing up here, in that toxic environment, I wouldn't have survived. I probably would have been a drug addict or an alcoholic. I just couldn't imagine living in a household that toxic in New York City, which is an actual toxic environment. So thank God it was Guyana and it was our community. Even though it was a mixed community of black and all kinds of people living, we kind of in a way look out for each other, and you know, when I got beaten up, they would look at me and, the looks I would get from them is just like, empathy and sympathy, you know, that kind of thing. No one judged me for it.
(03:49) I: So, do you think the community is probably the biggest reason as to why that abuse didn't lead you to kind of spiraling?
(03:59) J: For sure. For sure. Then of course, you have your relatives who are a bike ride away. So when mom left me for two years, she migrated first with the baby, those two years were like the most impestuous, but thank God I could get on my bike and ride to a relative and get some reprieve. Go back to it again. But yeah, community was a big difference.
(04:33) I: How did it feel being in that community as a girl growing up, but also as the eldest girl in the family?
(04:41) J: That was hard too, but you know, you take it, because it happens to everybody. It's normalized. I was the oldest, so I was chief cook and bottle washer. Just like you said, when my mom left to come to New York and left me in charge, I went to school, but I got up in the morning, I cooked, I come home, I got dinner for them, I ironed their clothes, I washed their clothes, I went to market, and did everything that a mother would do, but still I went to school. As a girl, yes, in the family itself, there was what I thought was favoritism to the boys. The boys gotta go go camping, they gotta go swimming, they gotta go to the movies. “You can't go because you're a girl. You have to stay home.” Of course, I kick up a racket, but they would do other things to placate me, like buy me a new dress, or if I was much younger, “Go get yourself some candy.” That kind of thing.
(05:50) I: Do you resent any part of your childhood? Or I guess, how do you feel reflecting back on that?
(05:58) J: The only part I resent is—and it's not even a resenting, as you grow older what happens is you begin to understand—I understood that my dad was a sick man, that alcoholism is an illness, that he couldn't handle whatever it is that he couldn't handle, that's the way that he medicated himself. And then whatever it is he couldn't take, he took it out on his wife and his children, and that's the only misgiving. If things had been different, I don't know, I would have been a different person too. So you begin to think, Jeez, if dad was a hunky-dory daddy and was pleasant all the time, how would I have turned out? Would I have striven for excellence? Would I have it made? I don't know. So, who knows? For just right now, at this point in my life, I just take it. But sometimes you have to relive it. Moments in family life you have to live it.
(07:07) I: So what was your home environment like in New York compared to Guyana?
(07:13) J: When I first came and I was younger, same thing, but the first thing I did the first time he hit me, I called the cops, had him arrested, went before the judge—this was in probably 1972. I remember they prepared me to go in front of the judge. I had a huge black eye, because he hit me with the phone, and I said, “No.” I stood my ground. I says, “No, this has been going on for far too long. It's been going over and over. It put me in the hospital twice in Guyana and this is not gonna happen.” So I went before the judge and I told the judge my stories—family court—and the judge gave him a warning and put him on good behavior, right? Then he said, “If you love your family, you're not gonna do this again. If you do it again and have to come here again, you'll have to move.” But I didn't stay around for long. By 19, going on 20, I had to leave. If I didn't leave, I would have been messed up. Because you know, the thing is with this sort of lifestyle is that when mom gets on the defensive, she too had a mouth. Especially coming to New York, she had more strength, she had more power than when she was home in Guyana, just take the blows. Here she could talk it back. So you have these two people just like—'cause you can't hit anymore, he was put on good behavior, just bickering back and forth, and so I just had to leave.
(08:48) I: And how did that feel, leaving?
(08:51) J: Liberating. I had my own life. I was very poor, poor as a church mouse, didn't have a lot of things. I think I was homeless at one point for a little bit, couple of days. But, you know what? It was mine and it was peaceful.
(09:07) I: What was your relationship with your siblings like after you left? I guess like both while you were there, but then after you left?
(09:15) J: I was the caretaker and I remember my brother repeatedly saying, over and over again, he says, “I never knew how much you did until you left.” He says, “You pulled everything together,” ‘cause he had to pick it up. He says, “You were just about everything here.” So, I did for them—they resented it some of them resented that I left, but I had to protect my own sanity.
(09:43) I: Yeah. That's important. What about today now? Do you have a relationship with your siblings?
(09:50) J: I have a good relationship with most of them except for one, the one next to me. And again he keeps bringing it up, “You weren't around, you left…”
(10:00) I: Have you tried to talk to him about that before?
(10:05) J: He's a lot like my dad, so it's no talking. It's like a personality thing. It's that this is the way it is, that's what you did, and you weren't around, you know?
(10:17) I: And after you left, what was your relationship like with your parents?
(10:23) J: You know that's the thing, it got better. Yeah especially with my father. I didn't have to deal with him. So I go and I visit them and I bring him gifts. Even though I was asked by my child, "You know, Grandpa was so nasty to you, so bad to you, why are you so good to him? Why do you go visit him?" That's my father. That's my dad, and like I said, when you grow, you begin to understand that that's a sickness, that's the way he handled it. I always believe in humanity, that when we know better, we do better and if we don't know better, we can't control what we're doing. That's exactly what's gonna happen. I always sincerely believed that that's true, that when we know better, we do better.
(11:16) I: So, when you moved out, what did you do? Where did you go?
(11:20) J: I went, lived with my boyfriend who became my husband.
(11:25) I: That's nice. And then…?
(11:27) J: We finished school together and life just went on.
(11:31) I: That's nice. So what was it like then, being in the role of a wife and a mother when you had kids?
(11:41) J: Being a mother was one of the highlights of my life. I would say for the first 11 years, I got to live. I got to re-design my own childhood, right? Just watching her play and draw and paint and be happy. You absorb those and you kind of re-live. It's almost as though I did myself. It was kinda hard to even imagine but it gave me that chance to kind of like re-pattern my own abusive childhood.
(12:21) I: No, I definitely understand where you're coming from with that. I'm trying to figure out how to word this I guess I'm allowed, but to decide to let...I guess not even that, but...a relationship between your child and your father then, how was navigating that for you?
(12:46) J: I did not allow her to spend much time in that toxic—especially leaving her alone. And I think she knew it, but couldn't explain it. And I didn't want to reveal too much but I didn't want anyone to say harsh things or curse around her, so it was always that, when I take her over, I'm there. Yeah it was guarded, both sides of the family 'cause, you know, even with her paternal grandparents I was always on guard because you don't know you haven't lived with them, I don't know.
(13:33) I: Was your dad ever upset about that kind of relationship?
(13:38) J: I think they never really accosted me, or brought it up to me but the way families work, or my family work, is that they will pass remarks, and those remarks, you know what they're thinking. You know I would hear it, “You don't trust us with her?,” and that kind of thing, but I never really answered the questions. I had to protected myself but I also have to protect my daughter. I know want her exposed to.
(14:13) I: And did you ever have a conversation with your daughter about that part of your childhood? Or about why you have this relationship with your father and why you don't feel comfortable leaving her alone?
(14:27) J: Her grandfather's been gone a long time, I think she knew. I remember one time I was taking her over. I don't know if he was still around, but I remember her, I think he was still around because she was very little and she said, "Are we gonna go visit Grandma? Grandma critique." Because you know Grandma is always criticizing, criticizing. And then I realized she understood more than I-- she never really asked me. And until there her curiosity is to why particular things, and answer the questions, but I don't think I should go and say, “You know what? This is why I did so and so.” But if she asks, if it's a query that she has to clarify things in her own mind, as to why I am the way I am or why this was so, then she'll ask. And every once in a while she does and I'll give her the answers. I never really hid any, anything that she asked for.
(15:32) I: I guess, going off of that, the question that you had asked me also, do you feel like you want to kind of shelter experiences that you've had from future generations, or would you want to talk openly about them?
(15:55) J: You know sometimes, we protect a person, a younger person. For instance, my mom—my mother's mother abandoned her when was a baby. She didn't know that, she got a whole different crooked story that they told her so that she wouldn't feel abandoned or not loved. And it wasn't until her mother was gone—her mother died in her 90s, my grandmother died in her 90s—that she came to understand that the mother gave her up. She did have a sort of relationship with the mother who would come and visit her. The mother lived way up in the country and would travel to the city, Georgetown, where my mother grew up. My mother, part of her life she grew up in an orphanage. Her dad was an alcoholic as well, but he wasn't abusive, but he couldn't take care of her because...yeah. So, we want to protect—it's like when you're given up for adoption, right? They don't tell you until you reach a certain age where they feel that you can handle it, that's something that might be important for you to know. Or if you ask a question, you know? So, it's not a matter of hiding, but a matter of appropriateness, as to when do you reveal this. When should this person know or a community know? Do you tell little children about the Holocaust? Or do you wait until they're in 10th grade or 9th grade or something to bring it up in small ways? It's like that.
(17:49) I: Sorry I just, I got so wrapped up in you talking about your life, it's really wonderful that you're sharing all of that. This is a good question. What do you think stands in the way of women across generations building relationships with each other, and what has helped you build relationships across generations?
(18:12) J: I think the biggest thing is perception, things that we perceive. I mean, we see each other, right? We don't know each other, but we have a certain. We do it ourselves, we have this perceptions of, “this person might be that way,” or “she looks that way, so I'm not gonna bother going there or building a relationship with them,” or so on. Even the people that you have relationship with, we still have those perceptions. Like my mom and I—I might have a way of imagining how she would respond if I said a particular thing or brought out a particular thing. We've had our clashes over issues and things we see, but I think perception is the biggest thing and to break down those perceptions, open those doors and take it for what it is, each generation taking it for what it is. This is the way I feel about this. This is the way I see it, and the other being ,"All right, that's who you are, that's how you are, and we can still have a relationship. We can still love each other. W still care for each other." It doesn't mean that...yeah.
(19:35) I: It's understanding different perspectives in life, right? What are some messages that you've learned throughout life or things that you were taught throughout life that don't necessarily serve you today?
(20:02) J: I think one of the messages I got clearly was that as a woman, you have a certain place. As a member of a particular group, racial group, you have a certain place. In Guyana, growing up in Guyana, we suffered some racism there. Here in New York, we suffer some racism here as well. What I would like to tell the others is that you really can't live with other people's expectations. Know who you are, right? The only person's expectations is your own expectations of yourself, and it's very difficult. It has this almost like a discipline, 'cause you walk into an office, you walk into a family, you walk into a mandir, a church, there's certain expectations they have, you know, particular expectations. The only expectations your own, for you, and nobody else. And the other thing is, being content. Whatever it is that you have, when you're content, you don't really care about what you think about me, I'm happy inside. Happy is not really the word, but being...I like the word content better. You know, this is my little bowl of rice. You may have caviar and champagne, that's fine. I'm quite content with this right now. If I could teach generations to come it's that, it's you. It's on the inside, it's not what's on the outside. It's nobody else's expectations, but your own.
(22:15) I: That's really wonderful, yeah, and really important, I think. What is your relationship, now, with the larger community?
(22:27) J: I don't have much of a relationship in the sense that I'm retired, so I'm not going out to work anymore. I've begin to face with that. But I'm at home, and if I were to say...the thing is it's this: it's that once you find that contentment, like I just said, once you find your own place of who you are, you understand who you are, then all the stuff that's playing out there is just a play—the politics, the racism. When you talk about the police having machine guns and militarized police, I saw that in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. Something happened and they closed the entire block down and I saw this stuff playing out. It's like cops and robbers on the street, but this time it was like machine guns and dogs and all that stuff. So let it play out, but don't get emotionally involved. Don't place too much on those things, on what's playing out outside. Just be steady with how you feel. Take care of your own emotions. Take care of your insights. Take care of your mental capacity, because that's what's gonna serve you throughout your life. When you break down, you get physically sick, so you have to take care of that. It's like having a candle with a light, and protecting it so it wouldn't go out. So all that stuff's going to be playing out. Don't get emotionally involved, don't get upset. Just know, protect yourself.
(24:19) I: Do you miss Guyana?
(24:22) J: More and more, I'm not beginning to. Yes, I missed Guyana for a long, long time. Guyana was a state of mind for me. Even now, it's sometimes when I'm going to bed, I imagine myself back there, in a safe space—that's what I was. It was safe, and I felt safe. Even though my dad was all that, I still felt safe. We slept with our doors and windows open. We didn't have telephones. I don't know if you've ever heard this, but if something happened to you three miles away from home, they know before you. People at home know before you.
(24:59) I: Yeah, dad would tell me that.
(25:00) J: You get so because, you know, people care, and you felt safe. My drunken dad fell down one day off his bicycle, and the next thing you know you have like four guys bringing him home, "Where do you live?" It's like you felt safe. It's the safety aspect. I miss that and I know there's nowhere in the world that's like that anymore. I can't imagine.
(25:28) I: Have you gone back to Guyana?
(25:31) J: I took my daughter back, I think 2008 or 2007? That was the last time. I promised to go back again to visit the hinterland, the falls, so we didn't get to see that.
(25:53) I: And what was that experience like, going back? With your daughter, also?
(25:58) J: We went on a Christmas when everybody was gone (both laugh). So it was very isolating and we didn't get to have the good time that we should have had. But we get to see part of Essequibo, which was beautiful. Beautiful country.
(26:14) I: What were her reactions being there for the first time?
(26:17) J: Ehh (both laugh). She went before that with Fordham University. She took a group of kids to do some kind of social work with the lepers and orphanages and so on. But it was closed for her because it took her from one spot to the next spot, so she didn't get to walk the streets and go into the restaurants and so on.
(26:43) I: You said that you would go back, in the future?
(26:45) J: I would go back, not for the city though, because I understand the city has changed so much, but just to feel the earth beneath my feet, to smell it, to see the wildlife.
(26:58) I: How do you feel about it, about Guyana, now that you've lived in New York for so long? I know you said that for you it will always hold that sense of safety. But you said that it was more of a state of mind, for you now?
(27:16) J: Well, the reason I say that, you know, there's a song that says, "New York is a state of mind," but Guyana is a state of mind, meaning that I only have to go back in my mind to feel that safe again. Imagine yourself when you were growing up. I think the safest we feel are when we are children and our parents are protecting us. I felt safe up until the day I left. I remember getting robbed. Two little boys robbed me, they took a stick and they hit my, broke this thing, the money I had in my hand, the change I had in my hand—I mean that's how simple we were—fell and they grabbed the money and they left. You know what I did? I walked to my grandfather and he looked at it, and he took me to the hospital, and they put balm on it. It was like that, I didn't have to call the cops. Life was so simple. So, I reflect back on the times when I felt most safe and that's any time in Guyana.
(28:24) I: Have you been able to feel even remotely close to that kind of safety in New York?
(28:37) J: Yes, and that comes with the contentment. There's a safety in contentment. I'm not going to get anything. I have everything. So yes, but it's also fleeting too, because when you're together, especially when you're with family. If I'm with my daughter and my husband and we're having a good conversation over a good meal, it feels good. It feels safe.
(29:09) I: What was it like, I guess, coming here for the first time, and not having that sense of safety anymore?
(29:18) J: When you're flying in that thing coming here you don't know. When you hit ground and you see all this awesomeness all over, you don't know what the heck to make of it. You're just doing. You're just going. Everything is so new for you. A simple thing: my mom took me to a soda fountain—back then, 1970s, used to call them soda fountains—and the guy gave me a straw with paper over it. We never had that in Guyana. I look at this thing like what the heck to do with it? I put thing—the whole thing—in and he told me you know you have to take it off. He was laughing at me, "Take it off." And it's small things. There were big things too. The biggest thing was the racism., white vs. non-white. We got into a neighborhood that was Irish. One side was Irish and the other was Italian. I look at my mom I says, "I thought we were coming to America, I didn't know we were going to Ireland and Italy." It was just like this whole big deal. We were even discriminated, racism. African-Americans discriminated against us and you can actually hear the rhetoric. We went in the store, we bought two rugs, and this African-American says, "Oh these Indians are coming here and they're buying up everything. Where'd they get all this money from?" So dealing with all of that. I used to wrap myself in a cocoon of back in Guyana, just to feel safe. The subways was like torture, total torture just having to travel those. Coming from a place like that to here at the time that I did...I was just 17, very protected, didn't go to parties, didn't have that kind of life. You have to protect yourself, take care of yourself.
(31:25) I: I think that's it, unless you have something final that you'd like to say, I don't know. No?
(31:31) J: No.
(31:32) I: Okay.
(31:33) J: Thank you.
(31:34) I: Thank you, also, for sharing. It was really wonderful.