The General Store: A Fight Against Immigrant Erasure

In Guyanese-Canadian general stores, staff always greet me with a booming “how you do gyal?” Or, they exclaim “look how big she get!” to my mother, who replies with a laugh. The language is broken English. Other things are sometimes broken too: the floors cracked, the ceiling a bit caved in, water stains spread over its white panels like birthmarks. There’s no money for repairs. Sometimes there’s music playing: reggae hits, soca standards. There’s always some kind of candy next to the cash register. The little boy on the Tunnock’s caramel bar package looks happy to see me.

I like to think of the general store as an after-effect of the immigrant story. It was the ‘80s when Guyanese immigrants began opening general stores in Canada. It was what you did when you wanted to own a business, but you didn’t have a lot of money. Guyanese immigrants needed surpluses of the things they left behind, like Madras curry powder, red-roll, Amla oil, Chico Gum, and Tunnock’s caramel bars. In the back of some general stores you can also find diyas and incense, figurines of Lord Shiva and other Hindu gods, and sometimes Islamic plaques painted with Qur’an verses, like the ones on the walls of my apartment. Most people don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about those trinkets or spices. They are unique to Caribbean diasporic people, things you would find in Guyana as easily you could find the circular shadow made by Guyana’s noon sunlight. Most people also don’t understand that a Guyanese-Canadian general store, or any immigrant-owned general store, has an overarching story of necessity, of resource. That they can act as a home away from home.

When political unrest ousted my mother’s family from Berbice, Guyana in 1983, my grandfather had hope. Canada seemed like the ultimate option: my aunt was already living here, and sponsorship was simple enough. Anything would be better than standing in line for food rations and having salt and rice for dinner. My father’s family was in a similar situation and immigrated in the 1980s as well. While my mother’s family moved to Parkdale, Toronto, my father’s family settled in North York. Both of these nooks of Toronto were amalgamations of immigrant communities. There was an influx of Caribbean immigration at that time, so Caribbean general stores began to pop up everywhere.

My father and grandfather lived on Jane Street for most of their Canadian lives, and there was a Guyanese general store across from my father’s apartment building. In the early 2000s, I visited him almost every weekend. Each weekend I’d drop into the store to buy a snack, usually some plantain chips or tennis rolls. But after a few years, the store closed down and was replaced by small Western grocery store. With higher density construction and a growing population of immigrants who lacked access to community resources, the area experienced a rise in crime, largely instigated by a negative relationship between York Regional Police and the youth of Jane and Finch. Even though rental prices were jacked up, the maintenance for apartment buildings and condos fell apart, neglecting to provide adequate care for its residents and the structures themselves.

There were broken windows everywhere. Broken windows and broken English. Broken English is a term my family uses to refer to Guyanese Creole, and a term that many diasporic people use to describe the shaky understanding of the colonizers’ language. There are some pains the colonizers’ language can’t describe, maybe because it lacks the power to look inward, to understand the repercussions of the power it has to strip away. It lacks an understanding of the complications that follow displacements. Immigration is the first displacement, the others follow. 

Most people also don’t understand that a Guyanese-Canadian general store, or any immigrant-owned general store, has an overarching story of necessity, of resource. That they can act as a home away from home.

When my father moved to Pickering in 2009, we only saw my grandfather about once a month. In 2016, my grandfather passed away from complications due to several strokes. I wasn’t close to him, so the death that struck me harder was my now severed connection to that part of the city. Jane and Finch’s broken English had equated to the smells of curry and baked bread in the hallways of my grandfather’s apartment complex. The smells carried out onto the street, down into the public lawn where Black and brown boys played soccer, and into the West Indian stores we frequented together. That scent changed over the years, to something smoky and muddled. I can’t enjoy it as much anymore; it holds little of what used to bring me comfort.

On my mom’s side of the family, something similar was at work. My grandparents lived down the street from us in Parkdale, and my then-mobile grandfather frequently rode his bicycle to the grocery store. His favourite places to shop for Guyanese groceries were Budget One Stop and Fullworth. At the time of its inception, Budget One Stop was a big, crowded store with grey tile floors and a grey panel ceiling. As a child, it felt like a different world, a comforting one. I remember an old man’s feet, his blackened toes and wrinkled coconut-shell skin. He worked there; he might have owned the place. He sat in different corners of the store and watched as people shopped. He spoke very little, and each year he spoke less.

There were Caribbean grocers there too that I’ll never know the names of, but these businesses gave my grandfather the ability to provide my grandmother with supplies for cooking that she’s used all her life. My grandmother is particular, some might even say picky, as my mother is, as I am. It is part of my grandmother’s authority as a woman who never attended school and was married at sixteen. Her work was cooking and caring. Because she can’t read, verbal grocery lists are a way to hold space. Receiving the items and leafing through them, another way. When my grandfather would return with his haul, she would remove one item at a time, looking at it from all angles, up close because her eyes were going bad. She’d conclude something about its suitability and would offer recipes that might make use of it. If it was spoiled or stale, she would be determined not to throw it out. Guyanese culture is making use of every morsel, as every morsel is a gift, a luxury that you’re privileged to afford.

One day, the old man and his feet were gone, and Budget One Stop moved across the street to a much smaller rental space.

One day, my grandfather went to Budget and found a vegan brewery erected in its place. He stopped and looked around. He saw that Budget across the street, half the size it once was. He jaywalked to get to it while cars honked at him. He came home to my grandmother, breathless and rattled.

“One day” is not so vague as it seems. What was really happening was the gentrification of Parkdale, wringing out the ethnic businesses in favour of white millennial ‘minimalist’ aesthetics.

Gentrification is about newness. It’s about remodeling an area to look conventionally appealing, according to middle-class aesthetics. It’s no surprise that these conventional standards often equate to colonial-white standards. White people don’t want to see Chinese soap operas playing on a small TV screen while they buy their avocados. They certainly don’t want a plastic Lord Shiva staring down at them while they pick out their favourite flavour of chips.

Guyanese culture is loud and crowded. It is delightfully crowded by many cultures: it’s an amalgamation of African, Indian, Chinese, and Indigenous traditions. Materialized in the average Guyanese home, it’s the amalgamation of stuff. “Knick-knacks” are everywhere. We have cabinets full of them. Even the contemporary Guyanese, the people my parents call “Canadianized,” must have a room where they hoard their family secrets. Part of this crowded nature of Guyanese homes comes from the fear or guilt of throwing stuff away. When you’ve worked hard to attain each object in your home, getting rid of them isn’t an option. Poorer immigrant families tend to buy things when they are on sale, rather than only when they need them. The convenience of getting into a car and driving quickly to the store is a privilege. In West Indian stores, you won’t find a space that doesn’t reflect this lifestyle. Packed in the corners of stores and on the cashiers’ counters are the stuff of life, the things that make lives go.

Gentrification is about newness. It’s about remodeling an area to look conventionally appealing, according to middle-class aesthetics. It’s no surprise that these conventional standards often equate to colonial-white standards.

Recent trends in minimalism favour a more “sustainable” lifestyle. It’s about throwing stuff out and getting smaller stuff, greener stuff, like metal straws and bamboo pillows. These items are not a long-term solution to environmental issues or climate change, nor do they negate the substantial effects of corporate pollution and destructive capitalism. That’s not to say a sustainable lifestyle should not consist of these products. The problem is the way they have changed the fabric of places, and therefore people’s self-images, enforcing social and cultural hierarchies. Such minimalism is an upper-middle class privilege. I, and many other immigrants who have grown up in low-income homes, cannot afford this lifestyle. These actions are not environmentalism. They are the products of capitalism, and one of the reasons why “Vegandale” branding is so successful. Some immigrant restaurants sell vegan options, but the face of veganism perpetuates an ideal subject who can afford to go vegan-hipster, and it is often a white subject.

I can’t talk about this without bringing my Muslim identity into the mix. Slogans like “morality on tap”, created by the Vegandale Brewery, imply moral superiority, devaluing non-vegans. Am I, a Caribbean Muslim who eats meat, allowed go to a vegan bakery, since it is technically halal? In theory, of course I am. Yet, the labelling of non-vegans as barbaric in their slaughtering of animals pushes exclusionary rhetoric that impacts non-vegan Muslims, as well as Black and Indigenous people and other people of colour, the most. This coincides with issues of cultural capital: names and terms that my family and I might not know because we haven’t assimilated enough into mainstream, white society. Words like “vegan” and “vegetarian” mean the same thing to my dad. My mom and I had never heard of oat milk until someone at a downtown coffee shop asked what kind of milk I wanted in my $5 hot chocolate. While we have our own shared meanings and forms of cultural capital, capital is only as useful as the society that deems it as such, and we are left explaining ourselves into circles or saying nothing at all.

At Naraine’s Bakery on Weston Road, I used to touch everything from the packets of salseo (chicken foot) to the warm loaves of plait bread on the cooling rack. As a young child with social anxiety, I was rarely comfortable outside of my home. But at Naraine’s and other Guyanese establishments, I felt a semblance of family, a place where I was allowed to touch things and ask questions. My father, even as a grown man, felt the same. I don’t know what to do with my hands inside of a vegan bakery. I usually place them in my pockets. I don’t make eye-contact. I’ve stopped going in “just to check it out.”

Sometimes I see white people at Fullworth and they are not uncomfortable. They peruse Jamaican spices with a squinted eye. They don’t understand what a pepper called “ball o’ fiyah” means, but they can guess. They relish how cheap the ball o’ fiyah is. They speak very slowly to the cashier and do not remove their earphones. They are so cultured.

While many immigration scholars argue that a lack of assimilation makes it more difficult for immigrants to attain social mobility, the communities that enclaves build are beneficial to immigrant well-being. They are factors of survival.

Cultural authority is all about holding space. When I look at Guyanese culture, as it is presented to me by my family, I see that most things are tinged by British colonization and our history of indentured labour, which stripped many Indians of their social status and identities in the name of colonial economic growth. In many cases, women’s jewelry was taken away and both women and men’s clothes were replaced with plantation worker’s clothes. Women’s sexual identities were illegitimized. The indentured era held a simultaneous pressure to be “civilized” by colonial standards, as well as to work hard enough to earn a day’s wages, which was often only a few cents. This theft of humanity greys the area around what I own as an Indo-Caribbean person, what I can truly say belongs to our collective culture. My parents recited Bible verses in school even though my mother was Muslim, and my father didn’t practice a religion. Names of my family members were misspelled by English border officials and now those misspellings are just considered their names.

In this regard, owning a business and employing your own people is a triumph. I believe ethnic enclaves are often a form of resistance. We often see brown people who own convenience stores or general stores stereotyped in popular media, such as Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons. Even Cadbury’s 2018 kindness campaign commercial shows a little white girl receiving free chocolate from a brown man’s store for her mum’s birthday. The Canadian version of the ad uses the slogan, “there’s kindness in everyone.” It seems to imply that there’s kindness even in brown men who are presumably Muslim (the brown actor in the commercial had a beard). There’s an air of sympathy for people from low-income, immigrant backgrounds; the media views this social status as one of suffering.

Though there may be suffering involved in building a home in a new country, there is also agency that keeps communities together. While many immigration scholars argue that a lack of assimilation makes it more difficult for immigrants to attain social mobility, the communities that enclaves build are beneficial to immigrant well-being. They are factors in survival. Despite Western generalizations of immigrant sob stories, there exists a genuine solidarity not displayed in pop culture, that of humanity and a common goal: empowerment in the face of displacement.

When I am feeling disengaged and discouraged, I think of a story my father told me. In the 1970s, his Berbice school was visited by British dignitaries. The Union Jack was raised on all flag poles, flying in preparation to welcome them. The night before the visit, my eleven or twelve-year-old father and his friends snuck onto the school grounds and pulled the flags down. It was a subconscious act of resistance, passed off as boys having fun. They were given wild cane beatings once they were found out. They laughed as the bruises formed. This was an act of solidarity that told the colonizing dignitaries what we have often been told as immigrants: you are not welcome here. This space belongs to us.

As a second-generation immigrant in a country that holds increasingly damaging anti-immigration rhetoric, it is more important than ever to pull the colonizer’s flag down, rage against it. Remind ourselves it’s just a piece of fabric. We will try our hardest to weave ourselves out. Claiming and protecting our general stores is just one way to do that.