What Does It Mean to Identify As Garifuna?

I vaguely remember one of my first trips to my parents’ homeland of Honduras

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Photo: Courtesy of Janel Martinez

I vaguely remember one of my first trips to my parents’ homeland of Honduras. No more than six years old, the two-week trip was filled with family, daily visits to the beach—just steps away from our house—and lots of food. We ate tortillas (de harina) with crema every morning and hudutu, known as machuca in Spanish, nearly every afternoon. I looked forward daily to the mashed platanos and coconut soup with king fish and seafood, falmou.

Although we were thousands of miles from my home, the Bronx, New York, the traditions I was experiencing in Honduras had remained. With New York City having the largest Garifuna community outside of Central America—approximately 200,000 Garinagu, plural for Garifuna, in the Bronx alone—it’s no surprise my people have preserved our culture through language, food, dance, and art, among other forms. Our culture has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which declared Garifuna language, music and dance a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Garinagu can be found in Honduras, but the adopted homeland for some is just one stop in a lengthy, resilient history that begins on the continent of Africa and spans across modern day Central America and the United States.

Never enslaved, we are descendants of West African survivors of human cargo ships that were wrecked off the island of St. Vincent. With origins that blend Arawak, Carib and West and Central African, the Garinagu remained in the area, resisting European control. English troops tried to conquer the island, but our resistance prevailed. Joseph Chatoyer (or Satuye), a Garifuna leader, led a successful revolt in March 1795, leading both Garifuna and French soldiers to victory. However, he was killed two days later and the fighting continued. Two years after, the English decided to exile my people from St. Vincent and we were left on the Honduran Bay Island of Roatán, essentially to die. A reported 2,500 Garinagu, which is only half of the people that set sail on the voyage, made it. And when the land could not sustain us, my ancestors left to settle in other parts of Honduras while others went to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. Today you’ll also see Garinagu not just in New York City, but Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Houston, to name a few places.

My parents would hint at this complex, yet inspiring history by relaying bits and pieces of what they knew of our lineage. I was told one of my late great-grandmothers remembered coming to Honduras, but that’s where the story stops. She couldn’t recall exactly where she came from beyond the Honduran shores.

Like many descendants of Africa, we are an oral people, passing on stories, history and our native tongue, Garifuna, via word of mouth. That preservation of history happens through storytelling, as well as music and dance forms like punta, which is very fast and energetic, involving side-to-side hip movement, and paranda, which includes the guitar and a slower, more Spanish influenced rhythm. The call and response chanting found in our songs, and between the beat of the drum, maracas and shell, and motion of our bodies all tell our story.

Spirituality is another realm of preserving our traditions. Although European-rooted faiths and spiritual practices are becoming more prominent within the community, many still observe Garifuna-based spiritual practices. When I returned to Honduras for my abuela’s beluria, a celebration of her life, it reawakened my pride in my culture. The traditional garb, the chants and dancing all reminded me of the beauty and African-ness of my culture.

Outside of family and friends, growing up, many were clueless as to the language we spoke and how we fit into Black identity within Latin America. But the conversation around Garifuna culture is growing immensely with Garifuna musicians, activists and innovators centering our narrative in their work. Just take a glimpse at #CentralAmericanTwitter and more fittingly #GarifunaTwitter to see how millennial Garinagu are discussing and uplifting the culture.

April 12, 2018 marked 221 years since our arrival to Roatán. The goal was to kill us, but we live on through our many traditions and also new-age practices that’ll preserve our stories for years to come.

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