Activist rouses Queens Indo-Guyanese voters

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Vishnu Mahadeo, one of the newest members of Community Board 9, in 1999 undertook a small but significant project. Before the winter holidays, he collected funds from shop owners along Liberty Avenue. Within days he had several blocks of Richmond Hill’s downtown illuminated with seasonal lights.

Mahadeo, originally from Guyana and now a 20-year resident of Richmond Hill, wants to do something similar for his Guyanese community. He wants them visible. He wants them heard. Mahadeo works with the city’s Board of Election to register voters and teach new Americans how to exercise their fundamental democratic right.

“I don’t care who you vote for, just register,” Mahadeo said recently over a cup of coffee at the Flagship Diner in Jamaica.

But he soon followed with a message for politicians seeking votes: “It’s your business to get them to vote for you.” Mahadeo said he wants no part of steering those votes.

Mahadeo, 42, flipped over a placemat and began avidly sketching voting districts. His thinning hair was pulled from delicate, dark features into a George Carlin pony tail as he praised America with a zealot’s enthusiasm.

“It’s a living democracy,” he said, pecking an index finger in the air. “If I don’t like you, I vote you out. It’s as simple as that.”

Mahadeo, a father of two teenage girls who is now teaching math at MS 226, previously managed the billing at Jamaica Hospital. Prior to that he worked as an engineer on aerospace projects for Parker Hannifin.

CB 9 District Manager Mary Ann Carey said she first met Mahadeo when he stormed her office raising concerns of the Guyanese community.

“I told him we are looking for people to represent your community,” Carey said, adding that with “his natural exuberance” he quickly got the necessary signatures from the City Council and the borough president to join the board.

Historically, immigrant communities in the United States have tended to vote along Democratic lines, but the Guyanese community is an exception. Since the community began to grow in the 1970s and ’80s, Guyanese have traditionally registered as Republicans, Mahadeo said.

He attributes the conservative registration to three factors: the opportunity for people to vote across party lines during general elections, the Queens Democratic Party’s early brush-off of Indo-Caribbean candidates and lastly residual voting habits from Guyana.

In Guyana, Mahadeo said, people traditionally voted along racial lines. The Indian community “always expressed a preference for the European,” he said. In an ironic twist, when the voters arrived in this country and learned the local elected Democratic officials were people of color like themselves, their old Euro-centric habits kicked in, he said.

Even so, not enough of the community was heading to the polls. When Mahadeo worked for Jamaica Hospital, he saw firsthand the large number of infants born to Guyanese parents.

“I saw it at the hospital. I saw it at my ashram. I saw it as a parent. I saw it at the schools. I saw it at the cricket game,” Mahadeo said.

But the increase, he said, was not reflected in census data or in the attention politicians gave the community.

Part of the problem was the United States’ complicated voting process, he said. In Guyana voting was a mass event. Offices were closed and everybody, even the illiterate, went to vote. If someone could not sign his name, he pressed his thumb onto an ink pad and pressed his print where a signature would normally go.

In the United States economics often kept the Indo-Guyanese at work and away from the polls. Voting along district lines was foreign as were the registration cards and booths filled with clunky levers and switches.

One Election Day, while working as a voting clerk at his local school, Mahadeo saw the cultural divide and its impact on voting.

“I realized how little they knew. They were well-dressed, well-spoken but they were too ashamed to ask for help,” he said. Instead of waiting to be asked, Mahadeo offered to assist them. He then began a registration campaign to bring booklets and a portable voting machine from site to site, teaching people the basics of casting a ballot.

Traveling between mosques, churches, civic centers and door-to- door, Mahadeo had become a missionary of democracy.

But it is a newfound role. In Guyana, Mahadeo never voted.

“It didn’t matter,” he said, because at that time the Guyanese government did not count votes.

“They know to the second decimal place what your vote is,” he said since the government already had calculated the results of the balloting based on ethnic voting patterns. “Democracy is a word that’s discarded.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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