Women of the Tocamacho community celebrate 210 years since the arrival of Garífunas in Honduras.
Credit: Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras
Garífunas Confront Their Own Decline
By Michael Deibert
The Garífuna culture, a "masterpiece" of human heritage according to UNESCO, could disappear as the result of the privatization of Central America's beaches.
MIAMI, Honduras, Oct 6 (Tierramérica).- "The Garífuna were the best sailors in the world," says Jermonino Barrios, standing barefoot on this slender thread of land between the Laguna de Los Micos and the blue Caribbean Sea.
Barrios, 67, a former soldier, speaks proudly of his ethnic group, whose members are scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
"Before, we had 200 or 300 Garífuna living here; now there are only a few," he tells Tierramérica.
"They went to the United States for work, and other places," he explains with a note of regret, gazing back at the collection of thatched-roof huts lazing under palms trees that front the crashing surf.
In the tumultuous history of Europe’s incursion into the Americas and the trafficking of slaves from Africa to its shores, their are few stories as dramatic or moving as that of the Garífuna.
The group's genesis can be traced back to the sinking of two Spanish galleons off the coast of the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1635. The Africans who survived the shipwreck intermarried with members of the local Carib tribe that was the dominant population on Saint Vincent at the time.
Adopting an Amerindian language from the Arawak family, the Africans’ discourse eventually gestated into the language that is today recognized as Garífuna.
Although it contains some French elements, the language is quite apart from the Creole spoken in current and former French possessions such as Haiti and Martinique, and other languages like Spanish. Garífuna remains unique as it is still primarily Amerindian in its roots, as opposed to African.
Because of their intermarriage with local tribes, in fact, the Garífuna themselves were often referred to as "Black Caribs."
In 1797, amidst disputes between Britain and France over Saint Vincent, the Garífuna were banished from Saint Lucia by exasperated British colonial authorities to the island of Roatan, today part of Honduras. Nearly 3,000 Garífuna and their descendants subsequently spread out to mainland Honduras and along Central America's Caribbean coast, from Nicaragua to Belize.
Scorned by many as outsiders, the first record of a Garífuna presence in Belize, for example, is an 1802 letter complaining to a local British magistrate about some 150 Garífuna in a settlement along the Belize River.
"The general impression among the magistrates was that these people were dangerous," says E. Roy Cayetano, a founding member of the National Garífuna Council of Belize, at his home in Dangriga, a southern town that is a center of this culture.
However, over time, the group’s unique ethnic and linguistic heritage came to be viewed as worthy of protection.
An important figure in the development of Garífuna consciousness was the Honduras-born journalist Thomas Vincent Ramos, who was strongly influenced by the Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Ramos migrated to Belize in the early part of the 20th century and founded the Carib Development and Sick Aid Society, and established the first Garífuna Settlement Day Celebration in 1941, which celebrates the first arrival of the Garífuna people on the shores of that country.
Later, other hazards emerged, which the Garífuna are trying to face down today. Whereas there was no travel by road to Toledo, Belize’s southernmost district, until 1965, today drivers can zoom through the region on their choice of two highways.
In Honduran villages like Miami, situated along idyllic stretches of sea and sand where the Garífuna made their home, outside developers and commercial interests are encroaching, seeking to lure the Garífuna away from their traditional way of life.
For now, the only thing this village has in common with the popular U.S. tourist city in Florida is the name and the Caribbean Sea.
Near the Central American Miami, a sign proclaims that the land is property of the Honduran Tourism Institute and that a beach and golf resort are slated for construction. Local residents say that the government of President Manuel Zelaya recently sold the land to developers.
In recent years, one of the most poignant voices in defense of the Garífuna’s vanishing way of life was that of Belizean musician Andy Palacio, who died earlier this year.
Palacio described the Honduran village in a 2007 song of the same name, where, over a deceptively jaunty paranda beat, he sang in the Garífuna language about how he "took a trip to the river near Miami/When I looked, I was surrounded by soldiers/They were asking me for my papers."
"There’s clearly been a lot of cultural erosion, and erosion of the language," says Cayetano, speaking of the forces that lure young Garífuna away from the traditional lives of fishing and farming.
"The youngest people are not learning the language anymore, and the average age of the people who can speak Garífuna is getting older and older... We find ourselves having to deal with a wage economy and we have difficulty with it. It seems to promise a lot, because we see that people with money have power," he adds.
Some steps are being taken to address this decline. The National Garífuna Council of Belize, for example, was formed in the early 1980s to help promote and preserve Garífuna culture in that country, and recently was instrumental in helping to construct the Gulisi Primary School.
Named after a Garifuna heroine who survived the deportation to Roatan, the Gulisi school promotes Garífuna language and culture alongside a standard curriculum.
In 2001, the dance, music and language of the Garífuna were declared "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Surveying the beach at Miami, and the future of the Garífuna, one thinks of a local hymn, "Baba" (father), whose message seems tailor-made to the difficult times the Garífuna find themselves in today.
Anihein baba wama, furíeigiwamá lun Wabúngiute
Íderalámugawa lídangien sianti
Anihei baba wama, furíeigiwamá lun Wabúngiute
Dúsuma lámuga wachara ya ubóuogu...
(The Father is with us. Let us pray to our God.
That he may help us out of the impossible.
The father is with us. Let us pray to our God.
That our wrongs may be less here on earth...)
* Michael Deibert is an IPS contributor.