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American Dream : Caribbeans --Driven Immigrants

April 25, 1985|EDWARD J. BOYER | Times Staff Writer

For Roland Yorke, the consuming passion to immigrate to what many of his countrymen still consider "the land of milk and honey" began with Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Adam Clayton Powell staring down at him from the pages of Ebony magazine.

Growing up in Belize (then British Honduras), Yorke, 42, recalls that poor people who could not afford wallpaper covered their walls with pages from Ebony.

"You could look on the walls and see all of these pictures," Yorke said. "I was tremendously influenced by being able to identify with black Americans. I wanted to leave home and make it in the real world."

Yorke made it to the "real world" in 1961 when he was 18, landing in Harlem with a Belizean friend who was later killed in Vietnam and becoming, by his own assessment, "a very good dishwasher."

College Degree

Twelve years of struggle later, with a sociology degree from Syracuse University in his pocket, Yorke headed for Los Angeles where he helped organize the Concerned Belizean Assn. and now works as director of the county's Willowbrook Senior Citizens Center.

His odyssey duplicates one that tens of thousand of immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean have been following for generations, making their way to American cities from island nations stretching east from Jamaica and sweeping south to Trinidad and Tobago, from Guyana on the South American mainland, Belize in Central America, Bermuda and the Bahamas (Atlantic countries with strong cultural ties to the Caribbean).

New York, with this country's largest concentration of Caribbean immigrants, was often their first stop. Since the 1960s, however, increasing numbers have been fleeing the harsh Northeastern winters for California's climate.

With no language barrier to overcome, and driven by a work ethic characteristic of immigrant groups, they have seized educational and economic opportunities often unavailable to them in their own countries.

Based on Class

"Distinctions in the West Indies are based on class rather than race," said Los Angeles Municipal Judge Alban I. Niles, a native of St. Lucia, a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean with a population of 100,000.

"If you went to school, you could be anything," he said. "That was drilled into you. Consequently, West Indians who come here tend to be hard-driving, ambitious, and they go out to achieve something."

The success of established Caribbeans, however, has left some caught in what they call "in-betweenity"--competing tugs from their countries of origin and their country of residence. And the promise of prosperity, some Caribbeans say, is luring increasing numbers to enter the country illegally, sometimes to their disappointment.

"Only in the last five years have we been able to get American television at home," said Sylvia Flowers, an urban planner who was born in Belize. "People see all these things on television and think that all Americans are really wealthy. But when they get here, they find that life in this country is very hard, looking for a job is hard--just adjusting to life in a city like Los Angeles is a completely new experience for them."

For thousands of these immigrants who arrived earlier, however, the adjustment period is behind them, and they often pursue the American Dream more aggressively than their neighbors who were born in this country.

Altadena dentist Lennox Miller said there are probably hundreds of physicians and dentists from the Caribbean in the Los Angeles area. A former USC track team member, Miller won medals for Jamaica in the 100-meter dash at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.

Preponderantly black, Caribbeans are concentrated in South-Central Los Angeles, home to more than half of their estimated population of 70,000 in the area. But they point out that their countries are melting pots and that their number in Southern California includes blacks, whites, East Indians and Asians arcing in ethnic rainbows from the Simi Valley to San Dimas, from Lancaster to San Diego.

Theirs is a richly diverse culture bound together, among other things, by reggae and calypso music; a passion for dominoes; distinctive food such as curried goat, cassava, fried plantains, conch; and an addiction to cricket.

City Councilman Robert Farrell, acknowledged by Caribbeans as their greatest friend in local government, dreams of one day persuading recreation authorities to lay out an oval cricket field in a South-Central Los Angeles park. Residents and recreation officials alike would be stunned by the hundreds, if not thousands, of Caribbeans who would turn out for matches, he said.

Cricket League

As matters now stand, the 21-team Southern California Cricket Assn., with five teams made up primarily of Caribbean players, is quietly prospering on three fields laid out in Woodley Park in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area.

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