From the counter of Brown's Caribbean Bakery, Earl and Jean Brown sell spicy-hot beef patties wrapped in soft brown coco bread, served hot out of the oven with a sweet West Indian accent.

"At first, my family thought we were crazy to just leave and go to a strange country and start in an unfamiliar profession," says Jean Brown, who was a nurse in Jamaica before she and her husband turned an abandoned auto parts store at 3301 Georgia Ave. NW into a bakery almost two years ago. "But we have tried hard. What you have to do is just work hard, save and have a strong desire for success."

A few blocks away, Ricky Hillocks turns on the outdoor speaker that hangs on the doorway of the West Indian Record Mart, another of the nearly three dozen West Indian-owned businesses along the Georgia Avenue commercial strip. Before long, the bus stop across the street is bouncing to the sounds of reggae music.

When Hillocks opened the first West Indian music store here in 1965, he said he could count his customers on one hand. These days, he no longer counts customers--only cash.

"Just the hassle of getting a visa to come here will make you try to succeed," said Hillocks, 38, who was a hotel waiter in Jamaica before taking a correspondence course in television and phonograph repair, then landing a job serving drinks on a cruise ship bound for the states.

"There is a certain pride. . . . You can't go back home and say it's not paradise over here. The myth is true. Everything you want is here. The catch is you have to pay for it."

Hillocks and the Browns are more than simply classic immigrant success stories. As West Indians who now make their home in Washington, they are part of one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the city--from 600 in 1960 to more than 10,000 today--and part of a group that has established itself as a potent cultural and entrepreneurial force.

For years, West Indians have been noted for their economic success--but recently, some prominent sociologists and economists, including black neoconservative Thomas Sowell, have cited this success as proof of the declining significance of race in America.

Many West Indians consider this a sensitive subject, given the long established "love-hate" relationship with black Americans, yet most of them acknowledge that differences in the history of slavery, education and their status as immigrants has resulted in a culturally different breed of black.

"They West Indians are largely risk takers--they take chances," said Roy S. Bryce-LaPorte, who was born in Panama and is now director of ethnic and immigration studies at the Smithsonian Institution. "There is a high degree of detachment from the system here and no feeling that the system owes them anything. It is the myth of the 'afterlife' that keeps them going--that is, they feel they can always go back home."

"Coming from predominately black countries, they do not see themselves as 'minorities,' " Bryce-LaPorte adds. "For them, being black is not enough to hold them back."

Most of the West Indians now in Washington are from the larger, more developed English-speaking countries--Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana. Sprinkled throughout the area are some from the smaller islands of St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua and Grenada.

Together, they combine for a colorfully ambitious community of handmade signs, homemade food and a distinctive, hypnotic brand of music that has its roots in Africa as well as the 1960's Memphis Soul Review.

Washington's Hispanics and Northern Virginia's Asians easily outnumber them, and the overwhelming West Indian presence in say, New York and Miami make for different worlds.

But there is enough of the old island flavor and sweet smell of success along the banks of the Potomac to satisfy people like Hillocks and fellow Jamaican Tony Carr.

"Of all the American cities I've been in, Washington is most like Kingston," said Carr, 39, host of radio station WPFW's "Caribbean Roots" reggae program.

Symbolic of the new Caribbean presence is the old Billy Simpson's restaurant in Petworth, which was once the principal gathering place for the black power elite in pre-home rule Washington. It folded several years ago when middle-class blacks gravitated en masse to trendier bars and restaurants in neighborhoods where blacks seldom ventured 30 years ago.

Billy Simpson's, 3815 Georgia Ave. NW, is now The Kaiteur, a restaurant and disco owned by three young Guyanese--and they say business is good.

There are other signs of change.

Last year's day-long Caribbean Summer in the Park Day, featuring reggae artists from Jamaica, attracted more than 15,000 people--the largest crowd ever--and several local political heavyweights, including Mayor Marion Barry, even though the Caribbean community has yet to emerge as a recognized force in city elections.

Many of the aficionados were middle-class Washington area blacks who recently developed their appetites for Caribbean sounds while sipping rum punch, sunning themselves and dancing to the rhythms of steel bands while on vacation in the islands. Heretofore, the vast majority of reggae fans have been white.

But Caribbean music has come a long way in Washington since the day in 1972 when Trinidadian John Blake walked into a studio at WHUR-FM and premiered his "Caribbean Experience" show with a single record -- Byron Lee and the Dragoneers playing a reggae version of the theme from the movie "Shaft."

Washington is now a major outlet for reggae, a highly political style of Caribbean music, and the newly evolved soca, derived from soul music and calypso. A recent song by Bob Marley's widow, Rita Marley, called "Sinsemia," sold 15,000 copies in Washington without receiving any air time on local radio stations.

The influx of immigrants has spawned a lively network of Caribbean national associations and West Indian self-help organizations. The countertops of West Indian stores often are covered with pastel handbills advertising upcoming holiday fetes, each one mirroring part of the growing and prosperous community here.

This holiday season, for example, there was the Barbados Christmas ball, a "reggae explosion" at the Jamaican Turntable Club on Georgia Avenue and a special, usually seen only in the islands: a "Natty Dread" New Year, featuring a Jamaican-style "sound system man," or disc jockey with his own equipment, held at a Rastafari flat on Columbia Road NW.

Two weeks ago, several hundred came to the Capital Hilton Hotel for a "Caribbean Christmas Festival" starring "King Obstinate," billed as the "Antigua Calypso King," and the High Voltage Caribbean Originals of New York, and featuring limbo, voodoo and fire dancing.

The success of many West Indians here can be attributed to the try-twice-as-hard work ethic common among black Americans who, during the 1930s and '40s, were so determined to succeed that they often worked two and three odd jobs just to get ahead.

But there most of the similarities end.

Many of the West Indians come from island countries with extraordinarily high literacy rates--97 percent in Barbados, for instance. They were raised in a British tradition that gave them a sense of self-confidence not found among some earlier immigrant groups nor among native blacks who migrated northward during and after World War II.

Unlike most immigrants, moreover, West Indians seldom become U.S. citizens, preferring instead to retain their own nationality--a decision some say allows them to view any hardships as only temporary impediments that one day will be outweighed by their financial success.

Until the 1960s, there had been only a trickle of West Indians to Washington, most of them coming as students. Then, in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Service established what was known as "The Golden Handshake," increasing immigration quotas for newly independent Caribbean countries.

This coincided with a finding by the U.S. Labor Department that there was a shortage of "sleep-in help" as well as clerical workers in the United States. Unabashedly entreprenurial with a profound aversion to the "pauper's roll," as the welfare list is called in the Caribbean, scores of West Indians came to fill the gap.

The majority of those here still tend to be middle-class diplomats, however, or persons lured here by the prospect of a college education or the opportunity to start their own business.

But there also is a new group of immigrants that has had a clear impact on the West Indian community here. It includes laborers, tradesmen, former farmworkers and the Rastafarians--the matted-haired members of a Jamaica-based religious group that believes former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the reincarnation of God and that blacks should repatriate to Africa.

While some in this new group also are lured by educational and business opportunies, many have come simply to get away from the small, congested and ingrown island countries of the Caribbean.

Often they are strident critics of Caribbean government policies they consider not progressive enough, and closely follow the affairs of their nations on programs such as "Caribbean Roots" and Von Martin's "Caribbeana" show on WPFW-FM and Blake's "Caribbean Experience."

"The new West Indian in Washington is different," says Leo Edwards, a sexagenarian from Jamaica who is former president of the Caribbean Students Association at Howard, past president of the Caribbean American Intercultural Organization here and a respected elder in the local West Indian community.

"He's not interested in education the way the old was. When I was growing up, the question posed was, 'Will the world be better off as a result of you being here?' Your concern was supposed to be for your fellow man. Now there are no moral consequences of behavior, only how will it affect my posterity."

The fight over scarce jobs has created some friction in black neighborhoods. At the same time, however, West Indians credit themselves with increasing black American cultural awareness, and there has been a cross-fertilization of cultures.

Reggae, for instance, is one of the major directions in black music, and the King of Reggae was the late Bob Marley, a Rastafarian who died in 1981. At the time of his death, the sale of recordings by Bob Marley and the Wailers accounted for 10 percent of the gross national product of Jamaica.

Nearly every song in the latest album by Afro-American soul singer Stevie Wonder, "Hotter than July," which includes "Happy Birthday To You," the ode to Martin Luther King, is based on reggae rhythms and instrumentation.

The record stores along Georgia Avenue are often a focal point of activity among West Indians here.

At the E and E One Stop Record Mart on Georgia Avenue, "Honey Boy" Martin stands behind the handmade counter covered with business cards from other West Indians who live or work in the area--accountants, lawyers and realtors, renovators and cosmetologists, plumbers and refrigeration repairmen.

"It's all right here," says Martin, a 38-year-old Jamaican who sings reggae in Baltimore clubs part-time. Martin built a recording studio in the basement of his store, and his band, Unconquered People, practices there nightly.

"I love my country, but a man got to make a move to be successful in life. Ever since I was growing up, I have been thinking about owning a record shop or a recording studio.

"I have worked construction, security jobs, cut grass, swept floors, washed cars, pumped gas and carried groceries to achieve what I wanted," he said proudly.

"No robbin' and stealin', man," he said. "The only way to deal with it is through the Bible: 'By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.' See, you've got to help yourself. People will help you, but they have to see that you are trying to help yourself."

The relative success of the West Indians has been apparent for some time. According to the 1970 Census, the median family income for black Americans was $5,888 while the typical West Indian family earned $8,971--about 50 percent more. This compared with a national average of $9,494 for all races. No such figures are available yet for 1980.

Even for bakers Earl and Jean Brown, controversy surrounds the perceived difference between black Americans and West Indians, but they say the debate is constructive and aimed at establishing more unity among blacks--the "One Love" that is the subject of an oft-quoted Bob Marley song.

"Black Americans are different because they were born into a system of social benefits," Earl Brown contends. "There is no 'safety net' for the West Indian, consequently, he has to have more drive. For example, it's easier for black Americans to get a business loan."

His wife, Jean, interrupts with a stern, "No . . . The banks think all blacks will fail, whether you are from Africa, America or the West Indies. It's not fair to say that we are so much more successful than other blacks.

"When you go to the banks for a loan, they say, 'Black businesses are speculative . . . goodbye.' We all have to start from the bottom. And if you wait for a handout, you won't get anywhere."