Afro Latino Culture - Garifuna

Michael Dawkins
Afro Latino
Culture Essay


           Garifuna people are descendants of West Africans who escaped slavery and the indigenous Carib people. The captured West Africans were of the Ashanti, Ibo, and Yoruba tribes. In 1635, two Spanish slave ships wrecked near St. Vincent and the Africans swam to the island and escape the Spanish. Eventually the Africans mixed with the Carib people. The Carib people are a mixture of the Arawak Indians and Venezuelan Caribs. Garifuna is a combination of all three races: West African, Carib, and Arawak Indian.
                        Although the Garifuna along with indigenous people relatively lived in peace, Europeans were struggling for control of St. Vincent. The British were fighting the French for control of St. Vincent. The French and Garifuna had a trading relationship and a peace pact therefore the Garifuna sided with the French against the British. Trading with the French also encouraged Garifuna to learn the language and adopt French names. Eventually, Garifuna people engaged in the battle with the French. Their leader was a “…flamboyant Black Carib (Garifuna) chief…” named Joseph Chatoyer according to St. Vincent and the Grenadines by Lesley Sutty. Chatoyer was able to lead the Garifuna and the French to victory against the British once however disputes over land led Chatoyer to unsuccessful revolt; Chatoyer met his demise at the hands of the British on March 14, 1795 when he died. The war continued until 1796 when the French surrendered. After the British seized control they separated the light skin and dark skin Garifunas and 4,338 people were shipped to “…Roatan, one of Honduras's Bay Islands” as stated by “The war and imprisonment left the Black Caribs weakened and undernourished. Only 2,026 people reached Roatan on April 12, 1797. The majority left the island and sailed to Honduras. Those who stayed on Roatan established Punta Gorda, the oldest town where Garinagu (Garifuna) have lived continuously.”, stated by
                        The Garifuna, who left Honduras, settled in villages in Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala. In 1821, Honduras and Guatemala joined the United Provinces of Central America union. This alliance sparked the major export of fruit, mainly bananas to the United States. Companies such as Cuyamel Fruit Company founded in 1911 and the United Fruit Company founded in 1913 which employed many Garifuna people. The fruit companies were the main source of employment Garifuna who worked in the fields and also transported cargo on to ships. In the 1930s, the Great Depression greatly reduced the demand for bananas which crippled banana export and led to the closing processing plants. With the onslaught of World War II, Garifuna men were able to find jobs with the merchant marines for the United States and Great Britain. Some Garifuna were able to migrate to the U.S. through the merchant marines, “The employed men remembered their jobless friends. ’These merchant marines surreptitiously allowed their friends and relatives to stow away and many found their way to the U.S. through that illegal modus operandi,’ said Clifford Palacio.”, stated in
                        World War II had allowed the Garifuna merchant marines to settle in port cities: New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles and London. Garifuna who were not in the military also migrated to the U.S., Immigration and Naturalization Service admissions records indicate that 191 Belizeans, 939 Guatemalans, 1,154 Hondurans, and 1,083 Nicaraguans admitted in to the U.S. in 1962. The following settlement numbers are “According to Father Bonillo, an estimated 100,000 Garinagu lived in the United States in 1999. Belizean Garinagu usually settled in Los Angeles. Garinagu from Honduras settled primarily on the East Coast, particularly in New York. Other communities are found in Houston and San Francisco. Palacio estimated Los Angeles's 1999 Garifuna population as between 12,000 and 15,000 people. That year an estimated 60,000 Garinagu lived in New York City, according to Rejil Solis, coordinator of Garifuna Coalition USA. According to Rhodel Castillo, a poet/musician interviewed for this essay, approximately 5,000 to 10,000 live in Chicago.” stated on
                        Many Garifuna were shocked by the technology in the cities which they had no previous experience with in their lives. Since Garifuna had settled in many places, they knew several languages which made them excellent teachers.  Garifuna men still continued to enlist in the military and armed forces because it sped up the citizenship process.  Garifuna still continued to practice Chugu. Chugu is an offering involving candles, food and dance that usually start off with someone having a dream the night before. A Buyei is the spiritual leader (similar to a priest) who conducted the rituals. Garifuna dance and song carried over to the U.S. with dances such as the Punta where hips are rocked back and forth and swayed rapidly. Another dance is the wanaragua also known as Jon Canoe where dancers wore white masks to imitate the oppressive slave holders. Garifuna also observe Christian holidays and they celebrate Garifuna Arrival Day which is April 12 and “The November 19 Belize Settlement Day is observed with a daylong celebration on the closest weekend. The observance in Los Angeles starts with a Garifuna language Catholic Mass. The Garifuna Choir sings and dancers perform sacred dances. The celebration in cities including Chicago and New York features speeches, dancing, music, and food.”,
            Garifuna language consists of 45 % Arawak, 30 % Carib, 10% French, 10% English and 5% Spanish. Words in Garifuna identify the gender of the speaker which dates back to the Arawak men who had a different language from Carib women. Garifuna word pronunciation is similar to English
                        Garifuna in New York City mainly live in the South Bronx. The Bronx has a large Puerto Rican population and a growing Dominican population therefore it is predominantly a Spanish speaking community. Many young Garifunas speak Spanish, so they try to blend in with the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Young Garifunas are ashamed to speak Garifuna because they think it sounds like an African language. Older Garifunas still speak Garifuna and continue traditions. Although older Garifunas still embrace the culture, the younger generation has to carry on the language and tradition to keep it thriving out.
                        It is difficult to accurately count the population of Garifunas in the U.S. because many of them claim that they are Hispanic. This is an emergent problem amongst Garifuna people because they are denying their heritage. Many Garifuna people don’t know about their history, because they speak Spanish, they put Hispanic as their race when they should put Black or other depending on the options given. There are a few reasons why some Garifuna claim they are Hispanic. Since being Black and having African decent is looked at negatively, some Garifunas don’t want to associate themselves with their African roots. Here is a lot of pressure to want to be Hispanic especially in the Bronx, where Garifunas wouldn’t want to be outcaste. Another important explanation is that several Garifunas lack knowledge of their history.        
                      The education of the younger Garifuna generation is critical which has to be handed down from the elder Garifunas. Randy Nunez-Nery recalls when he was younger, he had moved to the Bronx from Livingston that school taught Puerto Rican history and had celebrations or events dedicated to Puerto Rico. He felt ostracized because he was the only Black person in the class and Garifuna and African history was not mentioned at all. That is a real life example of what many Garifuna children deal with at school and in the neighborhood. That is why they choose to identify with Puerto Rican and Dominican culture.
                        Garifunas maintain their unity even though they are in the U.S. Many Garifunas still practice Chugu which always involves a significant social gathering. Garifuna parties are observed for holidays such as “Jon Canoe”. Guatemalan festivals are also popular as well as in November 26 are when they celebrate Garifuna arrival. Garifuna bands and singers such as “GNG”-Garifuna New Generation perform in Garifuna and continue to expand their presence in the U.S. and Caribbean. Making a trip back home to Guatemala to see and support their family is another way Garifuna unity remains largely in tact.   



St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sutty, Lesley, Macmillan Education LTD., 1997

Garifuna Settlement in New York: A New Frontier, Gonzalez, Nancie L., International Migration Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Special Issue: International Migration in Latin America (Summer, 1979)

The First Primer On The People Called Garifuni, Palacio, Myrtle, Glessima Research
 & Services, 1993.

Internet Web sites

Page 1- History- Arrival in St. Vincent
Page 2- History- Garifuna Economy in Central America
Page 3- History- Arrival in Untied States
Page 4- Garifuna in New York City-Assimilation

Page 5- Garifuna in New York City-Culture 

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