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Schenectady festival celebrates the culture and community of immigrants from Guyana

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.

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