Garifunas and Their Culture Brighten Up Pacific NW Cultural Scene
By Wendy Griffin
If people have heard of the Garifunas, an Afro-Indigenous people who live along the Central American Caribbean Coast in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, they usually think of warm weather, sunny beaches, palm trees, and coconut based foods. For example, the Univision program “Magia Garifuna” on Garifuna medicinal practices on the Guatemalan Coast which is part of the Medicina Desconocida show which started in February 2014, is fairly typical of a Garifuna settlement in Central America. So I was surprised that while visiting my brother in Seattle, Washington, he googled Garifunas in Seattle, and found a Youtube video of Garifunas dancing the traditional dance “punta” in the South Park area of Seattle to the live music of a pair of large Garifuna drums.
When my brother and I went to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor’s Center in Seattle, they invited the visitors to leave small notes on kiosks near the exit. The first note that caught my eye there was written in Garifuna just having the word “seremein” (thank you in Garifuna), so I was more and more intrigued to know who were these Garifunas in the Seattle area.
The Garifunas are a mixture of Africans, who intermarried with Arawak and Carib Indians on the island of St. Vincent north of Venezuela, and were exiled to Honduras in 1797 after losing a second war with the British. Taino Indians who form part of the family trees of many people from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean spoke an Arawak language, as do the Garifunas, and so the current culture of the Garifunas has relations to the cultures now in Caribbean like Puerto Rico and Cuba, and also the North coast of Venezuela and Guayana.
Most areas where the Carib Indians lived were not conquered by Spain, but rather later arriving Europeans like the Dutch or the French or the English, because in his letter to the King of Spain when Christopher Columbus visited St. Vincent on his last voyage he said, “the Caribs were very fierce and warlike and the Arawak speaking Tainos docile and friendly, and so it was better if Spain avoided the Caribs’ lands,” which they did ,in general, for the whole colonial period, which is why Dominica, St. Lucia, Guyana, Surinam, St. Vincent , Trinidad and Tobago, etc. became English or French or Dutch and not Spanish. Indians and Blacks from islands near St. Vincent ran away there on rafts up until 1796, when the Garifunas were defeated in battle.
According to Wilbor Guerrero, a Honduran Garifuna from the San Juan Tela area, who lives near the SeaTac airport south of Seattle, there have been Garfunas in the Seattle area for at least the last 30 years when his uncle moved to the area. The Seattle area Garifunas include Garifunas from Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. These Garifunas often come to Seattle after first having lived in other US cities, particularly New York City where an estimated 100,000 Garifunas live. The US is now the country which has the highest population of Garifunas, not a Central American country, which presents challenges to US institutions like schools, hospitals, the Catholic Church, as well as to the Garifunas themselves.
The Garifunas are attracted to Seattle for opportunities such as opportunities for advanced studies, like a Garifuna woman who is getting a Ph. D. while studying the African Diaspora in Seattle, or because there are good jobs here in their field. For example, Wilbor Guerrero works with computers and technology, currently for Sprint, so the Seattle/Bellevue area which is where Microsoft and Adobe are headquartered, is a happening place to be. Sometimes groups of immigrants generate the demand for specific types of services, and so the Seattle area now also has a Garifuna DJ, who is featured on the blog www.beinggarifuna.com in their study of what Garifuna music is popular around the country.
The Garifunas have an incredibly rich culture with their own language which is used in most of the music that they sing or play. There are at least 34 different genres of Garifuna music, most of which also have a type of dance that is associated with them. Some of the dances also have elaborate costumes associated with them. The most famous Garifuna composers have written over 200 songs.
Garifuna music is readily available for sale on the Internet for example from Stonetree Records of Belize, Amazon.com, Folkways Records of the Smithsonian, garistore.com, or on Youtube. Some of the Youtube performances of Garifunas show them singing other Latin American music genres like Spanish reggae or reggaeton. Some of these video clips have gotten over 20,000 hits, reports Teofilo Colon, the owner of BeingGarifuna.com. Garitv.com has videos to watch and to buy.
There are Garifunas who record professionally both in the US, especially New York and Los Angeles, and in Central America. In addition to recording their own music, many Honduran Garifunas play as back up musicians on Garifuna percussion instruments for most of the internationally famous Honduran groups like Guillermo Anderson, Rascaniguas, Angela Bendeck, Silver Stars, etc. The most famous popular song to come out of Honduras “Sopa de Caracol” (Conch Soup), was originally a Garifuna song with Garifuna lyrics, composed by a Belicean Garifuna who had copyrighted it, before the Banda Blanca adopted it for merengue band instruments and partially translated it into Spanish, selling over 3 million copies. The copyright issues were eventually settled out of court.
Some Garifunas have won international prizes for their music such as Andy Palacio whose Garifuna Collective played without him at the Vancouver Folk Festival in Vancouver, Canada this year, and Aurelio Martinez, who played this year at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. The Garifunas of Seattle have formed their own Garifuna dance group which performs around the area, said Mr. Guerrero.
Garifuna films are another way to see Garifuna dances and hear the music. In the film Garifuna in Peril which was shown at the Langston Hughes Film Festival in Seattle this year, there are several examples of powerful Garifuna dances, and 19 different cuts of Garifuna music accompany the movie which is set in both Los Angeles and near Tela on the North Coast of Honduras. That movie is now for sale at www.garifunainperil.com as is Ali Allie's first Garífuna movie El Espiritu de Mi mama, and some Belizean Garífuna movies like one by Aziatic, a popular Garífuna singer.
The movie tells the story of a Garifuna teacher worried about the loss of the Garifuna language both in Honduras and in the US who tries to build a Garifuna school in his hometown near Tela, Honduras, but runs into problems with the expansion of a nearby tourist resort. There are 159 Garifuna videos on Vimeo.com, dozens on Youtube including Discover Rio Platano Biosphere In Search of Ciudad blanca which featuresGarifuna Roberto Marin from Plaplaya talking about medicinal plants and the lack of protection in the Biosphere in spite of international funding. The Garifuna films of the Garifuna Emergency Committee of Honduras which are about Santa Rosa de Aguan after Hurricane Mitch and about an illegal highway being built though the Honduran Garifuna’s protected water catchment area and fields to reach the endangered UNESCO World Heritage site Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve are available through Witness.org. Mauricio Productions is another good source on the Internet for Garifuna videos.
The Garifunas make over 40 different kinds of crafts, including musical instruments, tools to prepare traditional foods, canoes, jewelry, etc. Examples of these Honduran Garifuna crafts were on exhibit at a talk sponsored by the Anthropology Club at Western Washington University (WWU) in November 2013, and then were donated to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington (UW), together with other Honduran rainforest Indian crafts by WWU graduate Wendy Griffin. Garifuna crafts and the Garifuna movie Revolutionary Medicine were also shown recently on the Society for Applied Anthropology conference in March 2014, which also had three talks related to Honduran Garifunas and a whole panal on Belize, which included issues of the Garifunas in that country.
Griffin’s book “Los Garifunas de Honduras: Cultura, Lucha y los Derechos Bajos el Convenio 169 de la OIT” (The Garifunas of Honduras: Culture, Struggle and Rights under ILO Convention 169) which is the result of a 10 year study among the Garifunas, is in libraries at WWU, CWU, and at the UW Burke Museum. While currently out of print, negotiations are underway to make it available as an e-book, through e-libros. The Burke Museum also has a preliminary version of the English version of this book.
CWU and WWU also has her study of the dances, music, and musical instruments and ceremonies with dances of all 4 Afro-Honduran groups (Garifunas, Miskitos, Black English speakers, and Ladinos) in David Flores’s book “La Evolución Historica de la Danza Folklorica honduereña” (The Historical Evolution of Honduran Folk Dances). Her book on Bay Islanders and Black English speakers is available for free on the Internet, as is her study “Garifuna Immigrants Invisible” which is on the Garifuna in Peril website under About Garifunas.
Other good resources on the Garifunas are Nancie Gonzales’s Sojourners of the Sea and Tomas Avila’s Black Carib-Garifuna which is available from Amazon.com. Tomas Avila is a Garifuna living in Providence, Rhode Island, and his book includes articles by leading Belizean Garifuna intellectuals. The updated Spanish version of Gonzales’s book “ Los Peregrinos del mar”, published in Honduras, includes a section on Garifuna immigration and its effects which the English version does not have.
The main general book I have seen on Garifunas in New York is Dr. Sarah England’s book on Afro-Central Americans in New York. Note that the book on Garifuna religious ceremonies in New York “Diaspora conversions” calls them Black Caribs instead of Garifunas. Both of these titles which may confuse people who do not know that the people now called Garifunas used to be called Black Caribs or in Spanish “morenos”, and some librarians have gotten confused because the Garifunas speak their own language, and so classified them as Garifuna Indians, instead of Afro-Hondurans or Afro-Central Americans. As noted above, the Garifunas are not the only Afro-descent people in Central America or Honduras.