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Liminal Spaces

Grace Aneiza Ali

Postface: A Brief History of Migration from Guyana

Grace Aneiza Ali

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1Guyana is historically a country of migrations. And continues to be in a contemporary state of flux. As a multi-cultural nation of Amerindians, British, Portuguese, Africans, Indians, and Chinese, Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. The country’s religious landscape equally reflects its dynamic population: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Catholic, among others. In the present day, the Guyanese diaspora can be found in the global metropolises of London, New York City, and Toronto.

2Guyana’s location in the northeastern region of the continent, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest—coupled with a history of British colonization that it shares with nearby Caribbean islands—allows for the nation’s hybrid cultural identity between Caribbean and South American. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, Guyana’s lands were subjected to European explorers and colonists, its territory changing hands among the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and, finally, the British empire. From the early 1600s to the 1800s, the British utilized the enslavement of Africans in their vigorous pursuit of wealth via sugar production. When slavery was abolished in 1834, the British instituted the system of indentured servitude that lasted until 1917, bringing Indian and Chinese laborers into the colony—a measure that would later define Guyana’s modern multi-cultural landscape and also set the tone for decades of ethnic conflict between Africans and Indians. Often violent and politically explosive, the ethnic tensions fueled and exploited by the British themselves would scar Guyana throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

3Guyana now has a population of 787,000 and over one million living in its diaspora—an exodus that began as early as the 1940s. In 1948, the British Nationality Act gave British citizenship to all people living in its commonwealth countries and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many ambitious dreamers in British Guiana took advantage of the British Nationality Act and began making their way to England. As the first significant group of Caribbean immigrants to arrive in Britain, they became known as the ‘Windrush Generation, ’ after the SS Empire Windrush, the inaugural ship that brought the first Caribbean immigrants to Tilbury Dock in Essex, England in 1948.

4They left because it was necessary that they imagine a world beyond British Guiana. At that time, there was no university in the colony. For example, the University of Guyana (UG), the first of its kind in the country, was established only in 1963 and initially offered limited evening classes under British governance. A desire for professional and economic advancement inevitably meant migration. The early 1950s would become a period rife with intense political unrest as the movement towards gaining independence became more forceful. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Guyanese immigrants primarily chose Britain as their destination—a choice that made sense to many as the colony was still under British rule. However, a backlash against the increasing number of the colonies’ Caribbean-born workers and their families moving into Britain’s neighborhoods led to the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which would overturn the Nationality Act of 1948, citing it as an unregulated approach to immigration.

5In the mid-1950s, another movement of migration to North America unfolded as Guyanese became part of a larger trend of Caribbean people, particularly those from the British colonies, shifting to the United States and Canada and specifically to urban cities like New York and Toronto, respectively. In April of 1953, the colony had undergone its first democratic election and yet it would take another thirteen volatile years, marked by highly oppressive policies by the elected government, before gaining independence in 1966.

6Many did not wait and orchestrated their own independence. With new restrictions placed on migrating to the United Kingdom, Guyanese then turned to the US. The US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had removed prior conditions that restricted entry into the US based on race and ethnicity quotas and skilled labor, making it easier for Guyanese citizens to migrate to the US. In fact, the 1965 Act ushered in a great wave of immigration to the US from all over the world. Seeing America as their new ‘El Dorado’—the new land of opportunity—from the 1950s to present day, the US has steadfastly remained the largest diasporic node for Guyanese. The majority of Guyanese immigrants leaving Guyana still choose to make the US their home, particularly New York City, where Guyanese immigrants now make up the city’s fifth largest immigrant population. In the 1970s and 1980s, another movement of emigration unfolded as Guyanese began shifting to Canada. By 2001, Toronto emerged as a prominent node in the Caribbean diaspora as one of the largest and oldest Guyanese populations outside of Guyana.


A Curator and an Assistant Professor and Provost Fellow in the Department of Art & Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in New York City. Ali’s curatorial research practice centers on socially engaged art practices, global contemporary art, and art of the Caribbean Diaspora, with a focus on her homeland Guyana. She serves as Curator-at-Large for the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in New York. She is Founder and Curator of Guyana Modern, an online platform for contemporary arts and culture of Guyana and Founder and Editorial Director of OF NOTE Magazine—an award-winning nonprofit arts journalism initiative reporting on the intersection of art and activism. Her awards and fellowships include NYU Provost Faculty Fellow, Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow, and Fulbright Scholar. She has been named a World Economic Forum ‘Global Shaper.’ Ali was born in Guyana and migrated to the United States with her family when she was fourteen years old.


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