Celebrating Caribbean American Heritage Month: A Jamaican American Perspective

8 minutes read time
June is Caribbean Heritage Month in the United States.
June is Caribbean Heritage Month in the United States.

Celebrating Caribbean American Heritage Month: A Jamaican American Perspective

June is National Caribbean-American Heritage Month. This annual commemoration was adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 and has been recognized by U.S. Presidential proclamations since 2006.

This year President Trump said, “As trailblazers, Americans with Caribbean roots have sewn their own unique thread into the fabric of our nation.”

As a testament to the U.S. government’s commitment to the Caribbean region, in June 2017, the Department of State and USAID, in consultation with Caribbean stakeholders, released the Caribbean 2020 strategy that serves as a living policy framework to bolster America’s partnerships in six key areas in the Caribbean: diplomacy, security, prosperity, energy, education, and health.

Today, more than four million Caribbean-Americans live in the U.S. What follows is a conversation with two U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) employees who are Jamaican-born Caribbean-Americans -- Carlos Fogarthy, a security specialist, and Dahlia Ruiz, a management analyst in the DSS International Programs Directorate, Office of Protective Operations.

Tell us about yourself and your Jamaican heritage.

Carlos Fogarthy points to his birthplace in Jamaica. (U.S. Department of State)

Carlos Fogarthy: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and migrated to the United States as a teen—moving to New York City, the Bronx.  The winters were harsh for me, coming from a place where I had never seen snow before, getting used to it. I moved into a large Caribbean community, so I’d say assimilating wasn’t as difficult for me as it might have been for other people. I attended high school and college in the United States and had the distinct opportunity of serving in the military for a little over 20 years—retiring from the U.S. Marines. Three of those years were spent as a Marine Security Guard detachment commander at the U.S. embassies in Prague and in Cairo, which is where I learned about the Diplomatic Security Service. I joined DSS in 2012. At DSS, I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world. These travels have opened up my eyes to different cultures and places. 

Dahlia Ruiz: I’m from a family of educators. I was born and raised on the western side of the island of Jamaica and spent most of my childhood there. I attended a prestigious, very strict, all-girls boarding high school, where students and teachers were from all over the world. I then studied abroad in Canada where I received my undergraduate degree—and that opened up an entirely new gateway to new people, cultures and foods. I then came to the United States to pursue graduate studies, receiving a master’s degree. I joined the U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service about six years ago. At the State Department, I discovered that I enjoy working with people from different cultures, foreign affairs, and the field of diplomacy; and therefore I felt the State Department, with its emphasis on diplomacy and people, was my best fit.  

What are some of the Jamaican traditions that you recall as a child?

Carlos Fogarthy: From a cultural standpoint, food is probably one of the biggest things I missed when I left Jamaica. My favorite traditional dish is ackee and salt fish. Ackee itself is considered a fruit, but you still have to cook it. Salt fish, to correlate it in Western terms, is really cod fish. Both are combined to make Jamaica’s national dish. Some of the other traditions I recall as a child are attending sport events such as track and field events and local football (i.e. soccer) matches. I miss enjoying the tropical fruits that Jamaica offers. I can remember picking mangos, or cutting sugar cane—I’m a big fan of mangos. Jamaicans tend to carry their love of food and their religious beliefs with them wherever they live. Christmas and Easter celebrations are huge events in Jamaica. They are two of the important traditions that have remained with me as celebratory times in the United States.

Dahlia Ruiz, born in Jamaica, came to the United States for graduate school and work. (U.S. Department of State)

Dahlia Ruiz: I also miss the food. We are able to import the food here in the United States—but it’s not as fresh as we would like it but we make do with what we have. And, yes, as with most Jamaicans, my favorite food is also akee and codfish. Holidays are very important to Jamaicans. Jamaican Independence Day is a festive time in August when Jamaica gained its independence from England. December—Christmas time—is also another wonderful time. People open their houses—which is one thing I particularly like about Jamaica—everyone is open and kind. As a child in Jamaica, Christmas gifts were given primarily to children; while adults focused on going from house to house eating, meeting, and greeting friends. Families cooked special foods and shared them with other families. My parents also always cooked and served food to the community each Christmas.

How have your Jamaican roots affected your career and outlook on life?

Carlos Fogarthy (background) meets with students at a Jamaican school. (Private Collection)

Carlos Fogarthy: My Jamaican roots certainly influenced my way of life in the United States. I understand the value of hard work, which has become the hallmark of most Jamaicans, and strive to maintain that hallmark. I attack every task with everything I’ve got. Jamaicans are known for their tenacity, taking the opportunities given to them, and running with them. Those traits that I learned at a young age in Jamaica definitely transcended into the adult that I have become. 

My Jamaican roots have impacted my career itself. I understand the struggle that comes from growing up in what one could consider a developing country—the opportunities that are afforded to me—may it be from educational or job/employment aspects. I can understand the importance of those opportunities and making the best of them. The years I lived in Jamaica and experienced the environment and society have helped me stay focused on my goals and my dreams. Recently, I had the opportunity to return to Kingston and perform a two-week TDY at the U.S. Embassy. It was an amazing experience being back in the country of my birth in an official capacity. I worked with an amazing staff of professionals who also took the opportunity to teach me more about the island. I still have relatives there. 

Dahlia Ruiz: We are tenacious when it comes to education. Education is the way to improve our economic stance in life—to change our lives from what it is, to what we desire it to be—in charge of our own lives and our destiny. This is not just in Jamaica—it is in the Caribbean and in other countries. Jamaicans are also warm-hearted. It doesn’t matter how hard life becomes, or how catastrophic the situation is, they always find a light side. Jamaicans always find a way to laugh about it, so it’s not as unbearable as it could be. And that’s one of the coping skills I think I have brought with me and helped me throughout my life. We are also very grateful. We are a grateful people—Jamaicans are.  

Why is a diversity of cultures important to the U.S. government and the workforce in general?

Rural Jamaica. (Private Collection)

Carlos Fogarthy: As representatives of the U.S. government when we are out doing our jobs—sometimes in austere environments—we must remember that cultures are different, beliefs are different, and while we may not always agree with them we must respect them. If you don’t understand this, you are not going to be able to accomplish your mission. We need to ensure the world sees the diversity that makes up America itself; this is what makes our country great. 

Diversity is important within the leadership structure of government, as well as any organization. We are certainly moving in the right direction. Mentoring within the Department can help ensure that we are getting the right people in the right place to reflect what the United States of America is all about

Dahlia Ruiz: Every culture has a way of problem solving. And as times become complex, problems become more complex and more global—problems that affect all of us whether we are in the United States, in the Caribbean, or anywhere in the world. The United States and the State Department would benefit tremendously from using or having a landscape that contains people of all cultures—and not be afraid to bring us to the table to participate in crafting solutions; regardless if there is an accent or different ways of doing things. Don’t be afraid; embrace it. At the end everyone and all nations will be pleasantly surprised at how extraordinary the outcomes will have been. 

Click here to read the full Caribbean 2020 Strategy

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About the Author: Barbara Gleason serves in the Diplomatic Security Service at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.