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Brothers who leapt from ‘Jaws’ bridge followed a strong Jamaican connection to Cape and Islands

Leroy Barnes, who worked at the Flying Bridge restaurant in Falmouth, has been coming from Jamaica to the Cape nearly every summer for the past 19 years.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Jamaican brothers who died jumping from a bridge on Martha’s Vineyard Aug. 14 were following a time-honored summer tradition on the island. The brothers, who worked at Nomans restaurant in Oak Bluffs, were also following in the footsteps of fellow Jamaicans who’ve been coming to the Cape and Islands for decades to work in the summer.

Tavaris Bulgin, 26, of Clarendon, Jamaica, was found dead in the water early Monday. A body matching the description of Tavaughn Bulgin, 21, was found Thursday by a shell fisherman on the western edge of Sengekontacket Pond.

Martha’s Vineyard is devastated by the loss, said Carolina Cooney, director of the local chamber of commerce. Jamaica is a “sister island,” she said, and the influence of Jamaicans who have come to work, and live permanently, in some cases, can be seen in the restaurants, grocery stores, and reggae nights on the island.

“We have a very tight-knit Jamaican community,” Cooney said. “They are a part of the fabric of Martha’s Vineyard.”

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The economies of the two tourist destinations have long been intertwined. Jamaica has a hospitality-oriented culture with training programs that certify residents to become professional servers and hosts, but good jobs are scarce. The Cape and Islands, on the other hand, rely on foreign workers, including many from the Caribbean, to fill seasonal restaurant, hotel, and landscaping jobs. The fact that the busy seasons are at opposite times of year, with visitors flocking to the Caribbean in the winter and to Massachusetts in the summer, means people can work year-round between the two regions. Some Jamaican families have been coming to the area for generations.

At JT’s Seafood Restaurant in Brewster, the dishwashers, cooks, and prep workers are all from Jamaica, said owner Bud Noyes.

“If I couldn’t get them, I’d have no business,” he said. “Few Americans are interested in this type of job.”

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Jamaicans account for slightly more than 9 percent of the H-2B temporary worker visas issued to foreign nationals, second only to workers from Mexico, who get the vast majority, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data. The US granted 8,950 H-2B visas to Jamaican workers in fiscal year 2021, up from 4,874 in 2011.

Of the more than 4,000 temporary foreign workers estimated to be on the Cape and Islands this summer, roughly a quarter are from Jamaica, most on H-2B visas, according to Cape Cod immigration lawyer and visa expert Matthew Lee.


Kirtis McDonald took orders at the Flying Bridge restaurant in Falmouth. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The H-2B program has been described as a “political football,” garnering criticism from conservative groups who say it brings in foreigners who might try to stay in the country illegally and from labor advocates who contend the workers are vulnerable to exploitation. US employers were allowed to bring in 121,000 H-2B workers this year, although a new Economic Policy Institute report detailing the prevalence of employers cheating H-2B workers out of wages estimated that the number of visas will be more than 150,000, a record high, when visa extensions and exemptions from the cap are factored in.

In Massachusetts, a crucial connection with Jamaica was established in the late 19th century, when a Wellfleet sea captain started bringing bananas from Jamaica to the United States. He later built hotels in both regions and recruited Jamaican workers to work at his property in Wellfleet.

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As more Jamaicans arrived in Massachusetts’ coastal communities, the Caribbean island’s culture became imprinted on the culinary scene. A number of restaurants serve jerk-rubbed meats and curries prepared by Jamaican chefs or kitchen staff. The Jerk Cafe in Yarmouth is owned by a native of Port Antonio, Jamaica, who first came to the Cape in 1997 on an H-2B visa.

Leroy Barnes, 46, has been coming from Jamaica to the Cape nearly every summer for the past 19 years. During the winter, he works in Montego Bay resort restaurants or as an airport shuttle driver. And every spring, he comes to Falmouth, his “home away from home,” to work as a server at the Flying Bridge waterfront restaurant into October. He rents the same hotel room every year at a property owned by his employer, Cape Cod Restaurants, along with his brother and nephew, who work at the same restaurant. His wife and children occasionally visit, but his main focus is work, he said, sometimes 50 or 60 hours a week when there are weddings or other functions. Over the years, he’s saved enough to build a house and send his children, now 23 and 18, to college.

“You work a lot, and that’s what you’re here for,” Barnes said. “It’s hard work and sacrifice and saving, that’s all it is, regardless of whether I’m working here or in Jamaica. ... I grew up poor, so I work a lot.”

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About 80 percent of the 160-person Cape Cod Restaurants workforce is from Jamaica, said general manager Tyler Hayes, who oversees the Flying Bridge and Red Horse Inn in Falmouth and Clancy’s in Dennisport. A few live on the Cape year-round, but most come on H-2B visas. The program has been a lifeline for seasonal employers on the Cape and Islands, Hayes said, as well as for foreign workers.

“They make enough money up here to take care of their families in a way that they couldn’t if they stayed home,” Hayes said. “That’s why they come, that’s why they put up with the separation from their families, in order to better their lives back home.”

Most customers don’t realize the sacrifice international workers are making, said Todd Rebello, whose extended family owns dining, ice cream, coffee, and retail establishments on Martha’s Vineyard and in Falmouth. About a quarter of their summer employees come from Jamaica, including a woman who was distraught when she found out her young son in Jamaica had fallen and suffered a concussion while she was more than 1,600 miles away.

A large number of the kitchen and wait staff at the Flying Bridge restaurant in Falmouth are from Jamaica.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“They leave their young kids, they leave their families ... and they come here and they stay six or seven months,” he said.

It’s a tradeoff most Americans can’t fathom.

It’s unclear what brought the men who jumped off the bridge to Martha’s Vineyard. The older brother, Tavaris, graduated from the University of Technology, Jamaica, according to news reports, and Tavaughn was a student at University of the West Indies. The owner of the restaurant where they worked launched a fund-raiser to assist their family that had raised nearly $212,000 as of Sunday night.

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Chez Powell first came to Martha’s Vineyard from the Jamaican fishing and tourism community of Whitehouse about 12 years ago to work at Stop & Shop. Powell, 38, now has a green card and lives full time on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife and 4-year-old son. He’s the foreman at Iriescapes MV, a landscape construction company owned by Carter Hakala, an American who has embraced the Caribbean island’s culture so fully that he named his business with the word Jamaicans use to express peace and happiness. Most of the Iriescapes staff is from Jamaica, including several of Powell’s cousins.

Jobs that pay well are hard to come by in Jamaica, Powell said, and the lack of tourists during the pandemic made matters worse. Powell still sends money to his mother back home and helps pay for his nieces and nephews to attend college.

“It’s hard to survive working in Jamaica,” Powell said. “The money you make in Martha’s Vineyard for the month is equivalent to the money you would make in Jamaica in a year.”

The Jamaicans are also vital to the survival of employers on the Cape and Islands, Powell noted.

“It’s benefiting both ways,” he said.

And the connection goes far beyond labor. Paul Niedzwiecki, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, recalled that at the funeral of Cape Cod Restaurants owner Bill Zammer last year, his employees, many of them Jamaican, were seated in a reserved section at the front of the church.

“This is what the American dream’s always been about,” Niedzwiecki said. “Coming to the land of opportunity to work hard and better yourself and your family and become part of the culture. This is just a continuation of the American story.”

Leroy Barnes, Andrie McLaughlin, and Norman Johnson, all of Jamaica, worked at the Flying Bridge restaurant in Falmouth. Barry Chin/Globe Staff



Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.