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Winston Brewster

Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King

March 28, 1995

Call number: 2010.019.06

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KING: This is Dwan Reece King conducting an interview for the West Indian Carnival Documentation Project, and today's date is March 28, 1995, and I'm sitting here with Winston Brewster in the evening to discuss his involvement in Carnival and a little bit about his life here in Brooklyn. Blah, blah, blah. So let me start with some real basic questions, if I can. Where were you born?

BREWSTER: I was born in Trinidad. San Fernando, Trinidad.

KING: And when did you come to the United States?

BREWSTER: I came in December, '69. 1969.

KING: And what prompted you to immigrate?

BREWSTER: Work. That's about it.

1:00

KING: Can you tell us a little bit about your life in Trinidad? How old were you when you left?

BREWSTER: Around 30.

KING: OK. As we know, this project's about Carnival, so maybe we can start from the early years on. You told me earlier that you played mas in Trinidad. Can you just kind of talk about that, about your involvement in it?

BREWSTER: Yes. I started playing mas, what we call a sailor on the sea, sailor here on a ship We would bring a lot of big bands and a few hundred people to play sailor. Then you have people play the captain, general, you know. I started 2:00playing that sailor, then I went into what's called fancy sailor. Those, we put on sailor costumes but you carry a headpiece, or maybe like birds or flowers, or crab or any type of animal.

KING: Did you get involved in any other ways, playing instruments or musically?

BREWSTER: No, I never played no instruments.

KING: So did you grow up doing this as a child?

BREWSTER: Yes. Playing mas.

KING: So you came up here in '69? So that would have probably been, if my dates are right, one year after the Carnival moved here in Brooklyn. Did you move here 3:00directly to Brooklyn?

BREWSTER: Yes, no--Queens.

KING: No, you went to Queens. When did you first become aware of Carnival here in Brooklyn?

BREWSTER: The first year I get here.

KING: Did you attend?

BREWSTER: Yes, I did.

KING: Can you tell us a little bit about that, or what it was like? I'm sure it was very different than it is now.

BREWSTER: Yes, it sure was. Well, first, we used to keep more tight to Grand Army Plaza. Didn't have this much people. Didn't have much mas. It was more, you know, like a more get-together when they first start, you know. Just a few mas. We used to go later, sometime around 8 o'clock at night.

KING: So you didn't have many bands. It was basically --there probably wasn't a long route. Just a lot of people.

BREWSTER: Yes. A lot of people. You know, the mas was fewer at that time, and it was more pertain, at that time, for Trinidadians. That's for sure. It had 4:00nowhere all the different countries like Grenada, St. Vincent. We get people from Jamaica. We get people from Trinidad. All those islands, Haiti, all of them now just play mas, and they participate in Carnival now.

KING: How did you --what are some of the biggest changes you noticed over the years? Did you go every year?

BREWSTER: Yes, about.

KING: Now, you didn't play here. You would just come as a spectator?

BREWSTER: Yes, a spectator at the time.

KING: How come you didn't play?

BREWSTER: I just feel that it didn't have the fire, like the fire that was in Trinidad. It was not really interesting, to be honest, to me at the time. Number 5:00one, you couldn't get the type of materials, the kind of things that we usually have in Trinidad to play mas.

KING: Have you seen a change over the years, then?

BREWSTER: Yes, it changed a lot. It changed a lot. Now, we got a lot of big bands, we got a lot of headpieces, a lot of king of the band, queen of the band. When I came here, they didn't have that at the time, you know. And now it's reached almost the potential of Trinidad. Almost.

KING: Almost but not quite. So it never got to the point where you felt like you wanted to participate?

BREWSTER: Yes, I feel that at times, but I don't --I just didn't get into it.

KING: So you came up here for work, and your job --did you just go into welding 6:00immediately, or did you spend a couple of years doing other things?

BREWSTER: No. When I came here, I did some --I work in a factory, what you call a spring factory. Used to make springs. And from there I went into the welding, and since that I am in welding.

KING: Now, when you came up, did you bring your family with you, or had you started a family then?

BREWSTER: No. I came here alone. My mother was here. My brother was here. But I personally came here. My wife and children was in Trinidad.

KING: And did they join you eventually?

BREWSTER: Yes, they joined me about two years after.

KING: Now, your mother and brother, where did they live? Were they in Brooklyn?

BREWSTER: My brother lives Queens. My mother lives in Queens.

KING: Well, what of your primary involvement? Why you were referred to us is 7:00that you work as a vendor. You're the first vendor I've interviewed, so lucky you. So I wanted to talk a little bit about your role as a vendor. How did you first get involved in doing that during Carnival? Why did you do it? What does it entail, and what's the experience like?

BREWSTER: Well, got into the vendor because --well, they didn't had a lot of vendors at the time, and the people up there were lacking food. They didn't have all these vendors. I started it one year --

KING: What year did you start it?

BREWSTER: I can't remember exactly.

KING: You said you've been doing it about six years, so maybe about 89', 88' or something like that.

BREWSTER: Around that. The first year, well, it was interesting, and well, put it this way: to be honest, with money. Make some money. And we cook the West 8:00Indian food, and every year it gets better. I make more money. I started doing with one stall. Now I do with two.

KING: Oh, you do two?

BREWSTER: Yeah, I do two stall.

KING: And what kind of location do you get, generally?

BREWSTER: Well, one of my locations is Nostrand on Eastern Parkway, and the other one is Classon on Eastern Parkway.

KING: Oh, you actually do operate two separate --?

BREWSTER: I operate two separate stores. I hire people. I hire about seven people every year.

KING: So you make a profit off of this, generally?

BREWSTER: Sure do. We got a million people. I sell basically like about what we call at least a thousand roti on that day, plus a lot of food. So that is really the reason. And it's tough, too. It's a lot of work.

9:00

KING: How soon do you have to start preparing things? And even the whole process, like registering or all of that?

BREWSTER: Well, we register about a month before, and we start to prepare the food about at least a week before.

KING: You do it out of your house?

BREWSTER: Yes. I do it here.

KING: A large freezer, he's pointing out to me. OK.

BREWSTER: That's a freezer too. So what we do, we season our meat. We don't like to season our meat and cook the same day. We just season it, and then we put it back in the freezer. So it stay there, take the seasoning, which is very spicy, and we start to cook the day before.

10:00

KING: Do people come seek you out, your booth? What I'm asking is, I guess, there are a lot of vendors and a lot of people making the same dishes, and not everybody's tastes the same.

BREWSTER: No, they don't.

KING: You do find that out. And the competition, or how does that work?

BREWSTER: For once, there is, uh, people sell roti, like the Guyanese or the Jamaicans sell the roti, the peas and rice, but we has banner on my two stalls, it's banner that says, "Brewster's" and then a mark of Trinidad, dinners and roti. So that specify that we are Trinidadians.

KING: So the nationalities, so people look for that, for which island they come from?

BREWSTER: Because, not to put down anybody, but far as a Trinidadian, we 11:00consider ourselves make the best roti. So…

KING: I never thought about it that way. I don't know why I didn't.

BREWSTER: So those from Trinidad, they would buy roti from the Trinidadians. Even the Americans or the Canadians that come down here for the Carnival.

KING: Hmm. I never even thought about it at that level.

BREWSTER: Yes, because you will find that the Jamaican roti is a little different.

KING: What --this might seem like a silly question, but one of the things we're talking about Carnival, because it's such a festive event, a celebration, and food and music are so much a big part of celebrating. I don't know if you have any perspective on that or the whole event I'm assuming when Carnival started out there weren't any vendors or very few. I mean, how has that proliferated?

BREWSTER: You are right about that. When it started, it was --they didn't have 12:00much vendors, like you said. What the people do used to have is maybe little tables and so on. No big stalls like now. They just have a little table, and they sell the roti out of of coolers. They make the roti all of the morning, fold it, put it into the coolers, and sell it at tables and so on. That's how they used to do it. At that time we didn't have to pay for spots and thing like that.

KING: That's changed. Everybody pay, gotta register.

BREWSTER: That's right. You got to have your health certificate from the city, and stuff like that.

KING: I've heard this from other people who run booths, do people ever use your booth as a gathering place? Do you have familiar customers that come back year after year?

BREWSTER: Yes, I do. I have a lot of customers. That's why I have that sign with Brewster's every year. A lot of people come there. Because maybe I might have 13:00the best roti on the Parkway, you know.

KING: I'll have to try it next year. How was it going the first year? How did it go?

BREWSTER: Oh, it wasn't that good, you know, because we could not afford to fix the food the way we're supposed to do it. That, as I said, we used to have it in coolers. But people, basically, everybody sells different. My experience as a vendor, cooking on the spot, doing what you do on the spot, you get a lot more people. You get a lot more sales, because people, the food at the time is freshly cooked.

[Interview interrupted.]

KING: We're turning the tape back on. We're talking about your first time out as a vendor and how it went.

14:00

BREWSTER: Yes, as I said, at first it was tough. But now we can know how to do things here at the present time. Now we doing things it in a different way. Now we have our stove on the Parkway. Gotta a big stall, so we do a lot of cooking right there. So the people is seeing the food in my stall prepared there. Nothing is wrapped. Everything is individual.

KING: [unintelligible]

BREWSTER: Yeah. So it's different now. Some people sell with the food wrapped. Already wrapped. A lot of people don't like to buy food already wrapped. West Indians especially. Cause they're not sure of what is in it.

KING: And how it looks before.

BREWSTER: So I learned that, so I do very good.

KING: Good, good. I'm impressed. I don't know if you ever get a chance, because 15:00I'm sure you're very busy. Do you notice anything, just kind of observing the people, since you're just kind of in the mix of everything as a vendor, like the spectators, any changes that way, or any unique flavor or something like that? How did things go this past year? It was conceivably different because of certain…

BREWSTER: It's beautiful now, because, what I like about it now is not only when they started it started as Trinidad Carnival. Now it's a West Indian Carnival. So it's more interesting now. We got a lot of people, as I said, from all different part of the West Indies joining now. So you get very big, and very nice. So, now as I said it's West Indian.

KING: What do you like best about that? I mean, you say it makes it different.

BREWSTER: To say that all these little cultures, although we basically have the 16:00same type of culture, but all these different culture from all these islands gotta join in and we get a big West Indian, which I think it should been from the start.

KING: Were there other people around for it to have been like that at the start?

BREWSTER: No, as the committee would say about it, you know, they reach out a little more to different peoples, and they find all people, and we're not talking about only West Indians, now. We're talking about Canadians, Americans --all of them come here now and join in the festival and they play mas.

KING: When do you think that shift started to grow? I mean, you said, like in '69, it was basically Trinidadian.

BREWSTER: Yes, when it first started. Well, maybe you might have found one or two people, but it was basically Trinidadian. I would say at least, oh, that 17:00started about ten years, at least, I would say ten year ago. People started coming slowly, and now it's reached a point --now, when we started we just had a few thousand people. Now we're talking about maybe a half a million people, or maybe more.

KING: Let me ask you kind of a philosophical question. What kind of effect does Carnival have on the Caribbean community here in Brooklyn, and vice versa; I mean, working together as one?

BREWSTER: Well, it's --well, Trinidad is what we really consider --we consider Trinidad as the land of the calypso, where calypso started, and calypso is 18:00culminated with Carnival. Without calypso, we don't have any Carnival, because that's the music for the Carnival. OK, we had always wanted in Trinidad, I would say, one of the biggest Carnival. Or we say, Brazil, after Brazil, I think we has the second biggest Carnival. The rest of the islands, which is with us right now, they always had Carnival, too, but they're Carnival was, what to call --just a small --

KING: Different scale. Jamaica's just starting one.

BREWSTER: Right. On a smaller scale. And now we reached a point up here where we started to establish Carnival in Boston, as you know. OK, they're going to Atlanta.

19:00

KING: Miami.

BREWSTER: We have in Canada, Miami, and so people from all these different countries, like Canada, Canadians, people from Atlanta, all of them get into the same Carnival, get into it now, so I think that's why it's that big now.

KING: Do you think Carnival has any role in developing the community here?

BREWSTER: Sure.

KING: I mean, a lot of times, like the Puerto Rican parade is kind of a statement of the community. We just had St. Patrick's Day. I mean, that kind of role? Because a lot of times, what's interesting --you don't only see the bands, but you also see a lot of political figures. You also see a lot of people trying to get people to register to vote.

BREWSTER: That's right.

KING: And I talked to several people who said that they think some of the changes --one of the statements they make a lot is, this is a cultural statement, but also a way to show them that "we're a voice to be reckoned with. We're a presence that's here."

BREWSTER: Right. That is exactly what's going on here now. Because as far as 20:00Carnival is--to me, to be honest, putting it this way, this might be the only festival that have over maybe a million people, and you don't get, what you would call --nobody get hurt. Don't get no killing. Things like that. It's clean for the amount of people. And the people get together from, I said, whether there's Trinidadians or wherever they're from. They come down there, as far as I've noticed, everybody enjoy themselves. And it's reaching out in the community, because people getting to know more about it, getting more closeness. You know, it bring the closeness to people together. And I do put in a lot of money into the community, and into the city, too.

21:00

KING: How do you see it reaching out into the community?

BREWSTER: Well, put it this way. As a culture, well, people who never knew about the basic sense of Carnival --I'm not speaking about West Indians, because all West Indians know about Carnival, besides I think, Jamaica, which they still know, though they not had Carnival, they do know about Carnival. But I would say now that everybody now getting to know very basic of Carnival, you know, what it is like, and they got it from where they're from. You know regardless of where they come, most of the people end up on the Parkway, so that show that it has a lot of interest in coming to because all these people turn out. Not only to the community, but you gotta understand this is almost on the States. But a country like Canada, there's a lot of people from Canada come down here. We have 22:00hundreds of people from Canada. Come from Boston. They come from all parts of the country. Texas. You name it.

KING: Do as many people come to Brooklyn's Carnival as they might go to other Carnivals, particularly in the United States, or is Brooklyn's Carnival looked at as the big Carnival?

BREWSTER: It is the largest, because it is here that the Carnival in America was born.

KING: Here, OK.

BREWSTER: In New York, Brooklyn, Eastern Parkway. That's where the Carnival started.

KING: It's kind of like the great-great grandfather, Trinidad, and then here's another generation, and then from there --

BREWSTER: It spread out, because of like, there are a lot of people first used to come from Boston, their main place, they used to come here to play mas. Although they had the Carnival, they used to come to New York here to play mas. That was where to really be seen. Since they would come here, and then other 23:00people, West Indians that they live in Boston and so on, just decided to start their own Carnival, so it spread. So as I said, it's a community thing, but it's spread all over the United States, or most of the states, anyhow.

KING: Now, do you go to any of the other Carnivals in the United States?

BREWSTER: Yes, I goes to Boston. I goes Miami; every year.

KING: You do?

BREWSTER: Yeah.

KING: But you don't go back to Trinidad?

BREWSTER: I have, the last time I went to Carnival in Trinidad, I was 80', 1980.

KING: That's been about 15 years.

BREWSTER: Yea.

KING: So you're not one of those people that go annually?

BREWSTER: No, I don't go. I don't. I don't think I miss much down there. Maybe I've lived here so long.

KING: Could you not miss it so much because there is something here? It may not be exactly what it is in Trinidad. Let's say there was no Carnival here at all.

BREWSTER: Well, then I think I would be going there.

24:00

KING: You'd be gone.

BREWSTER: Yeah, but so far there is at least --don't care what they do, I don't think they could ever reach the standard in Trinidad, because the people

[Interview Interrupted]

KING: OK, I was just stopping to check the tape. It's moving now. So we were talking about people coming from Trinidad…

[Interview Interrupted]

KING: So just a few more things. We're continuing the interview, and I'm hoping the rest of this-picked up. It looked like the tape was running. You were talking about participation. That there are more kids, more and more children are participating over the years.

BREWSTER: Yes, Cover the years. We have got a lot of children now. Even, we have the children's parade on Saturdays. We had a parade on the street on Saturday, 25:00and it's a lot of kids out there. So I have seen where we would be --it would be getting bigger, because these kids now, all these people play mas have the kids play mas. Some of them don't, but they have the children playing, so that's show an expansion. As long as the children are taking part, you know, that's showing that the culture is expanding.

KING: Regeneration.

BREWSTER: It's not only for the adults, right.

KING: Right, which is great. Maybe there's no answer to this question. You've talked about the things you like about the Carnival. Is there anything that you don't like or that you'd like to see changed, or like to see different?

BREWSTER: The only things that I know won't happen, but when we started here, we used to go until 7, 8 o'clock at night. Now, you know that changed. One of the 26:00changes I hope that they would change is that the masqueraders would come out in time. That's always our problem. And not only in Brooklyn. We speak in the sense of Trinidad.

KING: So you end up waiting hours there, too.

BREWSTER: Always. And you see the bands would leave and come within a certain way. When the bands do come up, you find most all of the bands coming up one after the other. I wish that would happen. I wish that they would have a change that they could have a sort of distance between the bands. But some time like 6 o'clock, now when they stop us it's at six. All the bands have to be off the street. Sometimes 6 o'clock some of the bands not even reach half way up on the Parkway. So a lot of people doesn't see some of the mas. So that is one other thing I wish they would change. People can come out a little earlier.

27:00

KING: Have you noticed any kind of particular problems that have developed regarding Carnival over the years? And how has the community dealt with them?

BREWSTER: Oh, probably the onlyest problem was last year with the Jews here. You know, we had a little problem. They wanted us to keep our Carnival, I think it was Sunday instead of Monday.

KING: The conflict with Rosh Hashanah, the dates, and the amount of people.

BREWSTER: Right. Which, I find that very unfair. We have been keeping this since the start always on the Labor Monday, and this is for years, now. And I think it was unfair for what was asked. Because they have their time, and we got ours, and I feel that was very unfair. But I don't know what happened, but they did work out something. This year, the masqueraders was kind of scared. We was 28:00backwards this year, because nobody didn't show if we would have even have it.

KING: Did you notice any kind of leveling off of numbers? I know I talked to some band leaders and they said some people didn't register this year. That their numbers were --

BREWSTER: Yes, because of the same problem. A lot of people, because as I said, we didn't show. If we'd have kept --if they would have allowed the Carnival, the parade to go. So a lot of people were very skeptical. A lot of them.

KING: But you did OK a far as your business was concerned?

BREWSTER: Yes. Yes.

KING: I think we had an interview with one vendor. She decided, they have a booth every year, but they decided not even to bother this year, because I think part of the agreement was that they would really shut down on time, and they said that their peak time giving out food was like 4 o'clock.

BREWSTER: Five, four, five, six.

KING: By the time you get to your peak, you have to shut down.

BREWSTER: Yes, what happened is, while the people is watching the mas, the mas 29:00start to come up in parade, while they're watching the parade, they keep seeing the parade. Mostly when the bands is already practically gone or about finished, that's the time when people are ready for food, and that's the time we supposed to stop. So it was really tough. Last year, the police gave us a hard time. At six o'clock they pass around, close down, close down. I experienced that this year, because at my store, we had a lot of people line up, and there's three police come and they stand up there; make us turn out the stove, cut off everything. That's it. Tell the people, this store is closed. This store is closed. But that's the time when the people really come here to buy the food, when the parade is almost finished. Some people buy a lot of food to take home with them.

KING: I didn't think about that.

BREWSTER: Yes. Carnival, a lot of people while they finish and they're going home, they stop and they buy the roti and something to take home with them.

30:00

KING: My last question. I'm going to give you kind of two questions in one. Do you think Carnival gets enough recognition in New York City, and do you think it makes any kind of statement to the community, the wider community here?

BREWSTER: I hope it do. I hope it do. I think it do make a statement. I think it do make a statement. If they didn't make a statement, my opinion, we might not be able to have that parade this year.

KING: Good point. Good point. That's an interesting point. Because a lot of people are talking --I think there was a lot of political maneuvering. A very tense situation.

BREWSTER: It was a tension, and I think it would have ended up in a real -because when come to Carnival, truly, that's --it is a insane situation when you come to Carnival, as I said, regardless of what it is get them to Carnival. 31:00And we, so much years we get into this now, and what almost happened last year wasn't right. You know, so that year wasn't that big show-up. As I said, a lot of people didn't show up, as I said, we would have not had a parade. But further coming to it, I feel, honestly, it do a lot. Why I really believe that, if it didn't do a lot to the community, all these people from the community wouldn't be out there. As I said, we're not talking about just West Indians.

KING: Wider.

BREWSTER: We're talking about people. We talking about Whites. A lot of Whites have been there. I don't know if you ever go there for Carnival.

KING: Yeah.

BREWSTER: A lot of Whites this year. A lot of them come from Canada. A lot of them come down from Canada. So we reach out a lot to the Americans, you name it. As I said, it is open. All the festival is open. We don't pick and choose as far 32:00as Carnival. We don't care who you is, so long as you want to participate, that's good enough for us. So I think in that sense, we do reach out. You know, to anybody who want to come and join our festival, you know, they're welcome.

KING: Well, that ends my questions. Is there anything else you'd like to add for the record?

BREWSTER: You seems like a nice person.

KING: OK. Well, I want to thank you for your time. I hope all of this came out. I think it was the batteries. So that ends our interview here.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Winston Brewster

Winston Brewster was born in San Fernando, Trinidad. In 1969, at the age of thirty, he immigrated to the United States. Brewster first lived in Queens, where his family was located. He then moved to Brooklyn, where he still resided at the time of this interview, in 1995. While he participated in mas in Trinidad, he did not participate in Brooklyn, New York. Instead, Brewster was involved as a vendor of Trinidadian food. When not preparing to sell food at his two stalls, he worked as a welder.

In this interview Winston Brewster discusses his involvement as a food vendor at Brooklyn's West Indian Carnival. He reflects on the early days of the Carnival in the late 1960s; noting the changes in the route, number of spectators, and how the structure of food vending has evolved. He also notes the Brooklyn Carnival's parallels to the Trinidadian Carnival. Brewster discusses the impact of the Carnival on the Caribbean community and the wider New York community; noting the presence of a growing multicultural participation. He considers the Carnival's enormity and suggests that the cultural presence can and has influenced the city's political decisions. The specific example provided concerned a controversy in 1994 when the onset of the Jewish holy day Rosh Hashanah coincided with Carnival. Interview conducted by Dwan Reece King.

The West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records include photographs, oral histories (audio and transcripts), publications and research, and ephemeral materials relating to the Carnival and the project itself. The materials were collected and created within the context of a documentation project undertaken by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1994, which later culminated in an exhibition. Exhibition materials are not included in the collection.

Citation

Brewster, Winston, Oral history interview conducted by Dwan Reece King, March 28, 1995, West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records, 2010.019.06; Brooklyn Historical Society.

People

  • Brewster, Winston
  • West Indian American Day Carnival Parade (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Topics

  • Caribbean Americans
  • Carnival
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Ethnic identity
  • Jews
  • Multiculturalism
  • Race relations
  • Street vendors
  • Trinidadian Americans

Places

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Eastern Parkway (New York, N.Y.)
  • Trinidad

Transcript

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Finding Aid

West Indian Carnival Documentation Project records