Don Steele of Jamaica, center, who goes by the nickname Danny, plays a game of dominoes at the Jamaica Minnesota Organization's annual picnic on Aug. 17, 2019 at North Mississippi Regional Park. Credit: Simone Cazares | MPR News

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Standing in a park in Brooklyn Center, Jamaican immigrant Don Steele basked in the culture he grew up in roughly 2,000 miles away.

“Look at the face of the people,” he said. “They’re happy, they’re joyous. If you notice something, nobody ever mention about cellphone use and stuff. People are engaging, talking to each other, and that’s unique.”

Steele and his community had gathered earlier this month for the Jamaica Minnesota Organization’s annual picnic. The event is held to celebrate Jamaican Independence Day, but it attracts people from all over the Caribbean. It is a chance to come together and celebrate their heritage. Many of them look forward to it all year.

In one corner of the picnic, an intense game of dominoes was being played. Steele was one of the players. He’s lived in Minnesota for more than three decades and sees the state as his home, but events like the picnic are important to him. They remind him of life back in Jamaica.

“I need this to refresh my mind and the culture, so it’s big,” Steele said. “Even watching the domino game … Biggest pastime and stuff, just bring back so much memories. The music and dance [bring] me back, you know what I mean? You see people here you’ve seen for years come together, and you just have a fun time.”

The Caribbean community in the Twin Cities is not as large as in cities like Miami or Toronto, but it’s growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly 8,000 Caribbean people living in Minnesota.

Brent Bidjou of Trinidad and Tobago is one of them. He said others may not always recognize a Caribbean person when they see one.

“We are probably a larger community than people may necessarily understand or appreciate, because we don’t fall within a specific box,” Bidjou said. “We are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-racial.”

The Caribbean community has changed over the years, but there are people who remember what it used to be like. Yvette Trotman is a longtime member of the Caribbean community in Minnesota who helped start many of the Caribbean associations in the area today. She said most of the people who moved to Minnesota came for jobs and education. At first, living in different areas made it hard to get together. The community wasn’t as connected as it is today.

“It was very difficult initially,” Trotman reflected. “We weren’t neighbors, we lived in different places. It was lonely to begin with, but we were focused on our careers … the majority of the Caribbean people that came initially, the core group, were all professionals, doctors, lawyers, dietitians and engineers.”

Eventually, a tight-knit community began to form — through the game of cricket, among other ways. Charles Peterson, originally from Antigua and Barbuda, said the sport was one of the first activities to bring people together.

“Everything was like word of mouth,” Peterson said. “People hear that there’s a cricket game, or some people just come down for a few hours and watch, people just come and watch, or bring a lunch and sit around in the park. And then we’re always looking for players.”

READ: Cricket building friendships, bridging gaps across Minnesota’s immigrant communities 

Now, decades later, the Caribbean community has come a long way. Trotman said the core group of immigrants still does a lot together, but she’s happy to see more of the community’s children and grandchildren. She hopes the culture will continue to be passed down for years to come.

“A man without a culture is nobody,” she said. “Knowing your culture and understanding your culture and teaching others about your culture and teaching your children about your culture … it’s very important.”

Simone Cazares is the community engagement reporter for MPR News.