Garifuna americans

by Liz Swain


Common heritage and language, rather than geographical boundaries, unite the Garifuna people of Central America. They are the descendants of Africans who escaped slavery in the seventeenth century and intermarried with Caribs living in the eastern Caribbean Island area. Garifuna (ga-RIF-una) refers to the people and the language they speak. Garinagu (ga-REEN-a-goo) is the plural form preferred by these people, whose ancestors settled in the countries of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

The Republic of Honduras is slightly larger than the state of Tennessee. The country measures 43,644 square miles (112,090 square kilometers). It borders the Caribbean Sea between Guatemala and Nicaragua. The west borders the North Pacific Ocean between El Salvador and Nicaragua. Honduras' population in July of 1998 was approximately 5,861,995 people. Ninety percent of the population are of mestizo (mixed Amerindian and European) ethnic origin, 7 percent are Amerindian, 2 percent are Black, and 1 percent are white. Ninety-seven percent of the population is Roman Catholic. There is also a Protestant minority. Spanish and various Amerindian dialects are spoken. The capital city is Tegucigalpa. Honduras's flag consists of three horizontal bands, with a white band in the middle of two blue ones. Five blue stars in the white section represent the members of the former Republic of Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala).

Belize is somewhat smaller than Massachusetts, measuring 8,867 square miles (22,965 square kilometers). The country is bounded on the east by the Caribbean Sea, by Mexico to the north, and by Guatemala to the west. Belize had a population of approximately 230,160 people as of July of 1998. Seven percent are Garifuna, 44 percent are mestizo (mixed ancestry), 30 percent are Creole, 11 percent are Mayan, and eight percent are members of other ethnic groups. Sixty-two percent of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, 12 percent are Anglican, and six percent are Methodist. Small percentages belong to Mennonite, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witness, and other faiths. The country's official language is English. Spanish, Garifuna, and Mayan are also spoken. After a 1961 hurricane demolished the capital of Belize City, the national capital was moved to Belmopan. Belize's national flag is blue with red bands at the top and bottom. In the center is a white disk with a coat of arms. Pictured on the coat of arms is a shield with two workers in front of a mahogany tree. A scroll on the flag reads Sub Umbra Floreo (I Flourish in the Shade).

The Republic of Guatemala is slightly smaller than Tennessee. It measures more than 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers). With coasts on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala is bounded on land by Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Guatemala's population was about 12 million people in July of 1998. Fifty-six percent of the population is of mestizo ethnic origin. These Amerindian-Spanish people are known locally as Ladinos. The remaining population is Amerindian or primarily Amerindian. The country's religions are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and traditional Mayan. Sixty percent of the population speaks Spanish; the remaining 40 percent speak Amerindian languages. Guatemala City is the nation's capital, and the flag consists of three vertical bands. In the middle of two light blue bands is a white band. On the center band is a coat of arms with a green-and-red quetzal, the national bird.

The Republic of Nicaragua is slightly smaller than New York State, measuring 50,464 square miles (130,700 square kilometers) and it is bounded by Costa Rica and Honduras. In 1998, Nicaragua had an estimated population of 4,583,379 people. Sixty-nine percent of the population is mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white ancestry), 17 percent is white, nine percent is black and five percent is Amerindian. Roman Catholics account for 95 percent of the population; the remainder is Protestant. Spanish is Nicaragua's official language. English and Amerindian-speaking minorities live on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The national capital is Managua, and the flag consists of three horizontal bands. A white band is in the center of two blue bands. On the white band are a coat of arms and the words Republica de Nicaragua and America Central. Five stars on the band form an X.


Garifuna history represents the intersection of people from two continents. By the year 1000 A.D., the Arawak people of South America had migrated east to the Caribbean Sea and settled along the coast and islands. They hunted, fished, and farmed cassava, a plant with a starchy root. The Arawaks also traded with the Carib people living along the coast. Intermarriage of the Arawaks and Caribs resulted in a new people called the Island Caribs.

Then Europeans discovered the New World. Christopher Columbus first walked on American soil in 1502 after landing at what is now Trujillo, Honduras. Navigators from other European countries soon followed Columbus. Some claimed New World land for their home countries; others sailed to Africa and enslaved people for labor in the Caribbean. Island Caribs fought to keep their islands. They managed to hold on to two—Dominica and St. Vincent Island (then called Yolome or Yurume).

In 1635, two Spanish ships carried West African peoples captured from the Yoruba, Ibo, and Ashanti tribes of what is now Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Both vessels were shipwrecked near St. Vincent, an island north of Venezuela in the Lesser Antilles. The Africans escaped and swam to shore. The Island Caribs sheltered the refugees. The mixture of these two groups resulted in the blending of ancestry, traditions, and language. The new people called themselves "Garifuna" or "Karaphuna" in Dominica. There is some debate about the definition of the appelation. Gari is African for food, according to Father Amadeo Bonilla, a Catholic Garifuna priest from Honduras interviewed for this essay. In contrast, the authors of Belize: A Natural Destination, say that Garifuna roughly translates to "cassava-eating people."

Garifuna chiefs ruled the people, who had set roles in society. Men hunted and fished. Women raised the children and they also tended the farm, raising domestic animals and growing foods such as cassava. As boys grew, they went with the men. The community organized activities such as war raids and celebrations. The Garifuna religion included rites to appease ancestors.

In the eighteenth century French people settled on St. Vincent and co-existed with the Island Caribs. The British tried unsuccessfully to gain control the island in 1713. The British labeled the Garinagu the "Black Caribs" and referred to the Amerindians as the "Red and Yellow Caribs." That labeling would be used as a tool to discredit Garinagu claims to St. Vincent, according to Mark Anderson, in the paper, "The Significance of Blackness: Representations of Garifuna in St. Vincent and Central America, 1700-1900."

By 1750, the Garifuna population had increased and was prosperous. However, their way of life was threatened after the 1763 Treaty of Paris gave the British control of St. Vincent. The British knew the fertile land of St. Vincent was ideal for growing sugarcane and tried several strategies to obtain it. These efforts included arguments that the land belonged to Red and Yellow Caribs (the Amerindians) and the Black Caribs had no claim on the land. The situation escalated into war in 1772, with the French joining the Garinagu in the fight against the British. The leader during much of these struggles was Joseph Chatoyer, a chief named paramount chief and king in 1768. Chatoyer was respected as a leader, military strategist, freedom fighter, and priest. He signed a peace treaty in 1773 that shifted property boundaries. The British continued to press for more land, however, and by 1795 the Garinagu decided to take their land back from the British. Chatoyer led the revolt, going into battle on March 10 with Garifuna and French soldiers. On March 12, he gave a speech in French titled "The 12th Day of March and the First Year of Our Liberty." While historical accounts state that Chatoyer was murdered two days later, various causes of death are listed. In some accounts he was shot in battle, while other sources said he died in a duel.

After Chatoyer's death, the war continued. The French surrendered in 1796, and the Garinagu continued fighting until the following year. They surrendered, and the British exiled 4,338 people to Roatan, one of Honduras's Bay Islands. The British justified their actions by use of Carib labels. They "seized upon the blackness of the Garifuna to question their [ethnic] purity and legitimacy—and to justify their expulsion," Anderson wrote.

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 have lived continuously.


On September 23, 1797, the 1,465 Garinagu who left Roatan landed at Trujillo. Garinagu also established villages along the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. Women continued to tend the family farm while men worked in pursuits ranging from woodcutting to smuggling.

Anderson noted that racial origin was less of an issue for the Garinagu in Central America. "While in St. Vincent, Garifuna stood as a mortal enemy to the settler economy and the plantation economy," he wrote. "In Central America, where labor was scarce ... they became almost universally recognized as a mobile, versatile, and industrious population."

Politically, Mexico's successful struggle for independence from Spain also brought independence in 1821 to some Central American countries. Honduras and Guatemala were among the five countries that merged as the United Provinces of Central America. British Honduras remained under British control.

Spain continued to fight the new alliance, and Garinagu participated in the unsuccessful 1832 battle to overthrow the Central American president. A large number of Garinagu then fled to British Honduras. They arrived in Stann Creek, now Dangriga, on November 19, 1832.

The union of five countries with varied interests fell apart in 1839. The twentieth century brought greater change when U.S. companies began exporting bananas from Honduras. The Cuyamel Fruit Company made the first shipment in 1911, followed in 1913 by the United Fruit Company. Honduras soon led the world in banana exports and was a world leader for decades. Guatemala became a major exporter, too. With the economy virtually controlled by the United Fruit Company, Guatemala and Honduras were transformed into what some called "banana republics."

For Garinagu during the early 1930s, the United Fruit Company of Honduras and Guatemala provided jobs. In an interview, Clifford Palacio said that employment included work in the fields and also on wharves loading ships. Palacio lives in Los Angeles in 1999 and has long been active in promoting the Garifuna culture.

Several events during the 1930s crippled the banana industry. In the early part of the decade, Panama disease plagued the banana crops. Prices for bananas fell, and processing plants were closed. The start of World War II further reduced trade. As the war continued, hundreds of Garifuna men found work by signing on with the merchant marine of the United States and Great Britain. Both organizations needed sailors because men had enlisted in the military.

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.

Garinagu in British Honduras were British subjects, so they received assignments to aid England during World War II. Several contingents were sent to Scotland and Panama. Clifford Palacio's father went to Scotland and worked in the timber industry to replace Scottish men who went to war. The ship carrying some Garinagu to Scotland was torpedoed. The vessel "barely limped into Liverpool," said Palacio.

British Honduras remained a British colony until 1964, when self-government was approved. The county that is now Belize became independent in 1981, six years after Stann Creek's name was changed to Dangriga, which translates as "standing water." November 19, the anniversary of the 1832 arrival, is celebrated as Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize and in other countries where Garinagu live. Garinagu also celebrate the April 12 Honduras Arrival Day. The 1997 observance drew Garinagu from the United States and Central America to Honduras. They gathered for the bicentennial celebration of what is now known as the Garifuna Nation—people united not by geographical boundaries but by culture and language.


Although there is no official record of when the first Garinagu arrived in North America, a New York City theater playbill revealed that Garinagu may have migrated during the nineteenth century. The playbill was for an 1823 play about Garifuna hero Joseph Chatoyer, according to an article in a 1995 Garifuna Homecoming Celebration program. Playwright William Henry Brown was believed to be a Garifuna from St. Vincent. His play, The Drama of King Shotoway, was said to be based on eyewitness accounts about the Garifuna war against the British. Brown's play was staged at the African Grove Theatre, which was located at the corners of Mercer and Bleecker streets. Founded in 1821, it was the first African American theater, according to the program.


It is difficult to determine exactly how many Garinagu migrated to the United States because U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service admissions records are based on country of birth. Ethnic origin is not listed in the records that date back to 1925. Forty-two people from Belize were admitted into the United States that year, and some perhaps were Garinagu. Each year through 1930, 57 or fewer Belizeans were admitted to the country. In 1931, admission records showed 28 people from Belize, 179 from Guatemala, 159 from Nicaragua, and 123 from Honduras.

Garinagu men came to the United States during or just after World War II, according to Clifford Palacio. Men worked as merchant marines, and sea duty took Garinagu to ports around the world. They returned home with stories of new places that inspired other Garinagu men to enlist. Some settled in port cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans. Most worked in the United States and then returned home to their families. Garifuna Americans living in cities ranging from New York to Los Angeles spoke of how military service brought them or their fathers to the United States. In addition, some Garinagu, primarily from Belize, settled in London. During the 1960s Garinagu women began emigrating. In 1961, Palacio says, Hurricane Hattie's destruction in Central America opened the door to legal immigration.

In 1962 INS records showed admissions of 191 Belizeans, 939 Guatemalans, 1,154 Hondurans, and 1,083 Nicaraguans. In comparison, in 1997 the INS admitted 664 Belizeans, 7,785 Guatemalans, 7,616 Hondurans, and 6,331 Nicaraguans.

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.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Garinagu in Central America have long been valued as teachers. They are also known for their flair for languages. That was an important skill because Garinagu were dispersed to countries where their language was not the mother tongue. The Garinagu first migrated to Honduras, which was then controlled by Spain. Other Garinagu migrated to what was then British Honduras. The Garinagu spoke Garifuna and learned their country's official language. The Belizean Garinagu came to the United States as English speakers. This gave them some advantages over the Spanish-speaking Garinagu from Honduras.

Not even fluency in some English, however, prepared retired prison chaplain George Castillo for the culture shock of New York City. Reverend Castillo described his immigration experience in his 1996 autobiography My Life between the Cross and the Bars. With the Garifuna quest for education in mind, he left Dangriga, Belize, in 1952. At the age of 21, he was astounded by the skyscrapers, traffic, and the fast-paced life. He was amazed that electricity, not kerosene lamps, illuminated homes. Other challenges were in store. "I had never used a telephone, radio, television or kitchen appliance, and wondered if I would ever be able to master them," Reverend Castillo wrote. He did learn, and he found opportunity and advancement in the U.S. Air Force. Military service shortened the time for citizenship, and he fulfilled his dream of entering the seminary. He married and started a family.

Castillo also discovered another reality of American life—discrimination and segregation. The lesson in prejudice came during a bus ride from New York City to Texas. In Mississippi, he was ordered to the back of the bus. When the Castillo family wanted to rent a home in Maine in 1960, their landlady hesitated before accepting them— she would only rent to the Castillos if the white tenant living next door gave permission.


Garifuna traditions, customs, and beliefs reflect the bond of community and respect for elders, both living and dead. As recently as the 1950s Belizean villages would hold a community cleanup. Men used machetes to hack away the growth on roads, and women and children took on other responsibilities. The day ended with a celebration, said Rhodel Castillo.

While marriage is established legally through a civil ceremony or a church service, an older ceremony used to unite couples in Honduras, said Father Amadeo Bonilla. The tatuniwa wuritagu ("the drinking of coffee") brought together the couple and their parents, who were joined by family members and the elder, an older person respected for wisdom. The ceremony started with the elder seated next to an empty chair. The woman's parents brought her to the man. They "gave" her to him. When she sat next to him, those in attendance drank coffee.

One tradition, the Dugu, is regarded as a belief by some Garinagu. The Dugu (the Feasting of the Dead) is the most elaborate of three Garifuna ancestral rites. It is also regarded as the most sacred. According to an article by Sebastian and Fabien Cayetano on the Garifuna World website, a Dugu ceremony is scheduled after a request made by a deceased ancestor to a bueyi (priest/healer). The rite is scheduled to appease the ancestor. Arrangements are made for food, beverages and performers, who include drummers and singers. The other two ancestral rites are the Amuyadhani (Bathing of the Spirit of the Dead) and the Chugu (Feeding of the Dead).


Garifuna proverbs bring vivid images of Central American life: "The monkey believes in his own tail" (you can't trust others to do things for you); "Don't say that you will never drink this water again" (Never say never); "If someone hasn't touched your tail, don't turn around" (Mind your own business); "Today for you, tomorrow for me" (What goes around, comes around); "Just the same, not dying, not getting better" (Still the same, no better, no worse); "If you don't get into the water, you don't get wet" (If you don't try, you don't succeed).


Coconut is a popular ingredient in Garifuna food. Offerings include coconut candy, pan de coco (coconut bread), coconut water, leche de coco (coconut milk), and coconut soup. Sere is a stew of fish cooked with herbs in coconut cream. A popular dessert is grated banana cooked in sweetened coconut milk.

Also common in the Garifuna diet are vegetables such as sweet potatoes and yucca. The food associated most with Garinagu is cassava bread. It used to take several days to make the flat bread. Preparation included extracting poisonous juices from the plant before it could be used to make the bread.


The internationally acclaimed punta rock is a modern adaptation of the sacred Garifuna punta music. Belize is regarded as the "cradle of punta rock," and Belizean Andy Palacio is described as the "King of Punta Rock." He is a former teacher whose commitment to his culture led him to develop and popularize punta rock during the 1980s. He has performed in the United States, France, and other countries. Other punta rock musicians known in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean include: Herman "Chico" Ramos, Aziatic, Horace "Mahobob" Flores, Paula Castillo, Peter "Titi-man" Flores, and Thamas "Bootsy" Lauriano. The punta rock groups playing in Los Angeles in 1999 included Libayan Baba, Ibanyani Band, Wagiya Band, Gunwin Band, Wahima Band, and Satuye Band.


Garifuna songs tell stories ranging from the loneliness of being far from loved ones to the commemoration of an event. Their dances include the punta dance, which is performed by couples who try to outdo each other with their moves and the hunguhungu, a circle dance. Another dance, performed at Christmas, reflects the history of the Caribbean, according to an article by Sebastian and Fabien Cayetano. The wanaragua, also known as the John Canoe dance, was performed in the Caribbean, when slaves were allowed to dance and enjoy themselves for an extended time. The dancers wore headdresses and rattles on their knees and painted their faces white or wore masks made from basket material. They visited the homes of their masters. The slaves danced and were rewarded with food and drink. Today the masks are made of screens and depict either male or female faces. Men compose and lead the songs. Some costumes have skirts for the female dancer. This dance is no longer a Christmas tradition in the United States. It can be seen in performances of Garifuna entertainment. However, the Cayetano brothers wrote that in Belize and other areas dancers go from house to house during the Christmas season, scaring children and collecting payments.


Garinagu observe Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. They also celebrate two days related to their history. April 12 is Garifuna Arrival Day, the anniversary of the arrival in Central America. While the 1997 bicentennial attracted international attention, this day is observed more on the East Coast where Honduran Garinagu migrated. 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.


There were no documented health and mental health problems for Garifuna Americans beyond those that face other Americans. These include the lack of affordable health care, according to Dr. Jorge Bernardez, a Honduran Garifuna who was practicing in Los Angeles in 1999. Garinagu may consult a bueyi (traditional healer) when modern medicine proves ineffective, Dr. Bernardez said in an interview.

The strong Garifuna community bond extends to concern about health issues in other countries. The AIDS crisis in Honduras prompted Garifuna Mirtha Colon of New York to found Hondurans Against AIDS in 1992. The organization focuses on AIDS/HIV education to the Garifuna community in Central America and New York. HIV was "prevalent in one adult in 100" in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Health Organization's June of 1998 "Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic."

Another issue surfaced when members of New York Garinagu groups met for retreats during the late 1990. "There was guilt, anger and frustration that we were deported [in 1797] and we never knew that. A couple years ago, we started rebuilding our history," said Mirtha Colon.


Garifuna spellings vary because there is no common orthography (method of spelling), which is spoken in five Central American countries. For instance, the name of the Garifuna leader Chatoyer is sometimes spelled Satuye. Garifuna was for years an oral tradition, with history relayed to others through speech, dance, and song. Gender plays several roles in the Garifuna language. As with languages like Spanish and French, there are masculine and feminine words. Words in the Garifuna language can also identify the gender of the speaker. A man would identify the sea as barawa, while a woman would say barana, said Garifuna poet Rhodel Castillo. He traced the gender differences to the intermarriage of Carib men to Arawak women. However, it would not be incorrect for a man to say the female word.

Some pronunciation tips for speaking Garifuna have been provided by Pamela Munro, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Most Garifuna consonants are pronounced as in English. Additional consonants include ch (pronounced as in church, sometimes sh in ship. ) The r and h sounds are sometimes deleted by speakers. For vowel, a is pronounced as in father or sofa, e as in bed or ego, i as in police or bit, o as in Ohio, u as in Lulu. The sixth Garifuna vowel, ĂĽ (u diaresis, u umlaut), is written as a slashed i. To approximate the pronunciation, pronounce u with the lips spread wide (not rounded), as they would be when pronouncing i. Nasal vowels are pronounced like oral vowels, except that air is released through the nose rather than through the mouth, said Professor Munro. They are written with n following the vowel letter: in en an un onĂĽn.

The first vowel of a two-syllable word is stressed. The second vowel of a words with three or more syllables is stressed. Any word that does not follow these rules must have its stress marked. Stress is written if it falls on the second syllable of a two-syllable word or on the first syllable of any longer word. Stress is written with an acute accent on the stressed vowel.


Common Garifuna greetings and expressions include: Mábuiga —Hello; Buíti binafi —Good morning; Buíti amidi —Good afternoon; Buíti ranbá weyu —Good evening; Buíti gúyoun —Good night; Ayóu —Goodbye; Seremei —Thank you; Úwati mégeiti —You're welcome; Belú —Come in (to the house, used in place of "Welcome"); Buída lámuga lidi b?n —Good luck; Adüga ba —Congratulations (Literally "You made it"); Buídu lá buweyasu —Have a good trip; Bungíu bún —God bless you (when someone sneezes); Bungíu buma —Go with God; Bungíu buma súwan dán —God be with you always; Magadei bámuga —Get well soon; Buíti báüsteragüle —Happy birthday; Mábuiga Fedu — Merry Christmas; Búmagien láu sún ísieni —(Sincerely, as in the close of a letter; Buídu lámuga básugurani ugúyen lábu súwan dán —Best wishes today and always.

Family and Community Dynamics

For more than two centuries, the mother was the focus of the home in Garifuna society. She raised the children and tended the farm while men went away to hunt or fish. As the economy changed, men had to accept jobs that took them away from the village—and sometimes out of the country. This matrifocal arrangement placed women as heads of the households. According to Sarah England, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California-Davis in 1999, this situation gave women independence and also established them as the "spiritual and maternal glue that holds society together." Other characteristics of matrifocality include the remittance of money by immigrants to mothers back home, allocating the care of children to women relatives and the formation of "female-centered mutual aid societies. England found in her 1998 paper "Gender Ideologies and Domestic Structures Within the Transnational Space of the Garifuna Diaspora" that when Garifuna women migrated to the Untied States some of these practices continued. Garifuna women in the United States banded together for support, and working women gave remittances to their mothers, as they sent their children back home to be cared for by female relatives.

Garifuna American men and women continue to maintain a strong community bond. Their efforts focused on transmitting the Garifuna heritage and helping Garinagu in the United States. This was demonstrated in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Belizeans "Don Justo" Flores and Christola Ellis-Baker founded the Garifuna Sick Aid Association. The group provided financial assistance to members when faced with costs associated with illness and death. The organization also worked to maintain Garifuna culture, traditions, and customs. They organized the first Garifuna Settlement Day celebrations during the 1960s to commemorate the arrival of the Garinagu to Belize in 1832.

Belizean Anita Martinez founded the Wagiameme ("Still Us") Performing Troupe and cofounded Project Help. The group initially helped a woman who needed kidney dialysis. Since she had few relatives, the community came together and helped. The woman recovered and returned home. Project Help continues to offer financial assistance.

As of 1999 the Los Angeles community has a Garifuna choir, a pageant, a language study group, soccer clubs, dance groups and square dance groups, a dinner dance, and a fraternity. Garinagu have also worked with the American consul of Belize to sponsor trips to Belize for the Settlement Day celebration. Groups in other cities such as Chicago branch out to work on immigration, health and other issues.


In Los Angeles during the late 1970s, the Concerned Belizean Association gave a plaque to every high school and university graduate, including Garifuna graduates. However, by mid-1999, only Garifuna graduates were acknowledged in an annual newsletter.

In New York, programs of Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha (MUGAMA) include an outreach to the Spanish-speaking community. English as a second language classes were started in 1990. Implementation of Spanish-language GED in Spanish in 1996 made it easier for people to get their high school diplomas. Since 1996, MUGAMA has held summer cultural programs for children. Each June, MUGAMA sends letters of congratulations to Garifuna graduates. The group also issues two scholarships annually.


MUGAMA illustrates the matrifocal Garifuna tradition that Sarah England described. The organization was founded in 1989 to showcase Garinagu during the March International Month of the Woman. The group recognizes Garifuna women during March. MUGAMA helps organize the celebration associated with Garifuna Arrival Day and provides educational and cultural programs. MUGAMA's center has been the site of forums on employment, education, immigration, domestic violence, and child abuse.


Garifuna identity with African Americans in various ways. They attend Catholic services where drums and dance are part of the service. They celebrate their culture during African American History month in February. Furthermore, some museums and universities include Garifuna displays in programs in exhibits related to African American history. In addition, because of their unique Afro-Latin heritage, Garinagu also identify with Hispanics.


The majority of Garinagu are Roman Catholic, and a highlight of their worship is the Garifuna Mass. The Mass opens with a procession that symbolizes a welcome and that life is a procession to heaven, said Father Bonilla. Another procession precedes the Gospel reading. During the offertory procession, the people give thanks by presenting gifts to God. The Mass ends with a final procession that is both a "great goodbye" but a reminder to return again for Mass.

A dramatic example of Mass is the thanksgiving service that opens the November 19 Belizean Settlement Day celebration. The service starts at 9:00 A.M. and the service and songs are in Garifuna. Liturgical dances during the processions serve as a forms of prayer.

Another Garifuna tradition is a novena, the recitation of the rosary for nine days after a death. Garifuna teacher Clifford Palacio implemented that tradition in Los Angeles in 1979. Those gathered sang hymns in Garifuna, Spanish, English, and Latin. The activity usually culminates in a beluria, an evening rite that includes punta dancing, choral singing, drumming and storytelling. There is an abundance of Garifuna food served.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Garinagu work in occupations ranging from real estate to religious life. Sarah England found during her research that Garifuna women in New York worked in factories and as home attendants. Men continued to work in the marine industries, including employment on cruise ships. Garinagu across the country continue to gravitate towards education. According to Clifford Palacio, many in Los Angeles work as teachers at Catholic elementary schools. The military continues to draw Garinagu, with sometimes a second or third generation Garifuna on active duty.

Many Garinagu work as nurses and several practice medicine as doctors. In addition, they are also represented in religious groups. Sister Ruth Lambey is a Catholic nun belonging to the Holy Family order. Garifuna Americans ordained to the priesthood in 1999 include Fathers Martin Avila in San Francisco and Milton Alvarez in Chicago. Brother Thomas Herman Joseph ministered in Chicago, and Deacon Santiago Lambey served as an ordained layman in Los Angeles.

Politics and Government


Military service has long been a tradition for Garinagu, but it is difficult to determine how many Garifuna Americans served in the military. Under the U.S. Department of Defense's statistics for the ethnic background of active duty personnel Garinagu are classified under the broad category of Latin American ancestry. The figures do provide an overview for service that would include Garinagu as of March 31, 1999.

In the U.S. Army at that time, 3,287 men and 623 women were of Latin American ancestry on active duty. Of these, 170 men and 42 women were officers. In the U.S. Navy were 1,076 Latin American men and 193 women. Forty women and 206 men were officers. On duty with the Marine Corps on March 31,199 were 1,172 men and 73 women of Latin American ancestry. Seventy-two men and one woman were officers. On active duty with the Air Force were 59 men and 18 women of Latin American ancestry. Seven women and 32 men were officers. Coast Guard service attracted the greatest number of people of Latin American ancestry. On active duty on March 31, 1999 were 5,594 men and 907 women. Of these, 480 men and 90 women were officers.


The Garifuna Americans' strong ties to their former countries were best illustrated by the 1997 celebration that marked the 200th anniversary of the Garifuna arrival in Honduras. People from Central America, the United States, and other places planned the celebration held in Honduras. They traveled to Roatan for the re-creation of the arrival from St. Vincent. Garinagu from different countries met together as the Garifuna Nation, a people bound by their ancestry.

However, that transnational connection started before the bicentennial celebration. Honduran Garinagu who migrated to New York City remained activity involved in politics back home, according to Sarah England. That involvement included 1993 fund-raising efforts in New York City to support a Honduran mayoral candidate. The money was used for buses to take voters to the polls, England wrote in her 1999 paper, "Negotiating Race and Place in the Garifuna Diaspora: Identity Formation and Transnational Grassroots Politics in New York City and Honduras."

These transnational people visit their former countries and make remittances to relatives living there. Some Garinagu living in the United States told England they were saving money to buy a home in Honduras.

Garinagu from around the globe are also connected through the Garifuna World website. The site contains information about history, entertainment, travel, and other topics. The click of a mouse brings samplings of punta rock. The "People Connection" features a chat room, bulletin board, and archives that provide a virtual library of Garifuna information. In 1999, there were letters of congratulations for MUGAMA's tenth anniversary. Joseph Flores, the son of "Don Justo" Flores, wrote of the fledgling Garifuna celebration in Texas. Another posting in May of 1999 demonstrated how far Garinagu have traveled. A woman married to a Garifuna wrote from Southeast Asia. The couple named their son Chatoyer, and they wanted more information about the hero.

Belizean scholar Dr. Joseph Palacio once asked if Garifuna culture would survive migration. Clifford Palacio offered his assessment in May of 1999. "Our culture will survive, given the determination in which we hold on to our traditions and spiritual beliefs," he said.

Individual and Group Contributions


Dr. Jorge Bernardez (1958– ) was born in Manali, Honduras, and is board-certified in family medicine. He lives in California and is well known for promoting the Garifuna language and culture. His children speak the language. His book, Wabagari: Wagucha, Wechun, Wererun ( Our Life: Roots, Culture and Language ) was scheduled for publication in the fall of 1999.

Clifford Palacio (1930– ) was born in Seine Bight, Belize, and has long been active in promoting the Garifuna culture in Los Angeles. His efforts included organizing the Garifuna Settlement Day celebration. During the 1990s he conducted weekly Garifuna language study sessions.


Manuela Sabio, a secondary education teacher in New York City, founded Wanichigu Dance Company in 1988 to teach Garifuna traditions and values to youths. The company's name means "Our Pride," and the troupe performed August 17, 1997 at New York City's Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival.

Anita Martinez (1951– ) was born in Belize. In Los Angeles, she founded the Wagiameme Performing Troupe and is co-founder of Project Help. She is a volunteer with Project Success, a program that targets at-risk students. She and her daughter, Shantel Martinez (1980– ) are co-directors of the troupe whose name means AStill Us" in English. Wagiameme consists of female dancers between the ages of 14 and 21. They perform dances and skits portraying Garifuna life. In addition to performances at the November 19 Settlement Day celebration, the group's performances included the Bob Marley Reggae Festival in Long Beach.


Jocyelin Palacio-Cayetano, Ph.D. (1961– ) was born in Dangriga, Belize, and in 1999 was the director of outreach activities for the IMMEX (Interactive Multimedia Exercises) project at the University of California, Los Angeles. IMMEX is a Windows-based problem-solving software program used in the classroom.


Antonieta Maximo (1942– ) was born in La Lima, Honduras, and immigrated to New York during the 1970s. She was active in New York theater during the 1970s and the 1980s. She appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. She won the best supporting actress award from the Organization of Latin American Actors for her work in Contrastes during the late 1970s. Maximo also wrote the play's nominated theme song, "Me Llamen En Vagabundo" ("They Call Me A Vagabond"). Other theater credits include an appearance in the play The Motion of History. She appears briefly in the 1992 movie Malcolm X. She played a doctor in the 1980s movie Spanish-language movie Amigos ( Friends ).

After noticing a lack of awareness about her home country's arts, Maximo concentrated on promoting Honduran culture. That effort frequently spotlighted Garinagu. She founded the Honduran American Cultural Association in 1986. That year, the Honduran government gave her the prestigious José Cecilio del Valle award for promoting the country's culture outside Honduras. In addition, Maximo paints and writes music and poetry. She wrote, directed, and performed in the 1984 production of Donas. Garinagu played most of the roles. She began showcasing culture and other Honduran subjects on Conversando con Antonieta Maximo, ( Conversing with Antonieta Maximo ) a half-hour television talk show. The weekly program debuted in 1994. Guests included painters, artists, writers, the archbishop of Honduras, doctors, politicians, and community leaders. In 1999, Maximo was working on a documentary about the Garifuna arrival at Honduras. She planned to complete it at the end of the year.


Justin Mejia Flores (1918-1994) was born in Dangriga, Belize, and was known as "Don Justo." He was a member of the Honduras National Soccer Team during the early 1950s. A renowned musician in Central America and the United States, Don Justo made and played several instruments. He wrote, produced, and released several records with his band El Ritmo Caribe. He was a founding member of the annual November 19 Garifuna Settlement Day Celebration of Los Angeles during the early 1960s. While working as a machinist in Los Angeles, he wrote his first book. Tumba Le, published in 1977 was a fictional account of life, love, sports, and fun in a Garifuna village. Other books included The Garifuna Story—Now and Then ; the first Garifuna dictionary compiled and published by a Garifuna; the first Garifuna calendar; and The Story of Mary and The Christ Child in Garifuna ; The Anthropological Study of the Garifuna Language, and The Life and Obituary of Aunt Dominica.

Rita Palacio (1935– ) was born in Dangriga, Belize, and her poem, "The Garifuna Woman" is found on the Garifuna World Website.


Rhodel Castillo (1959– ) was born outside Dangriga, Belize, and is a poet who sets many of his works to music. His poem "Our Children Must Know" is heard at the beginning of the 1998 documentary, The Garifuna Journey. His album The Punta Rock Medley was released in 1998 and was working on a second album during 1999. He founded the Progressive Garifuna Alliance.


Reverend George Castillo (1932– ) was born in Dangriga, Belize, and is a United Church of Christ minister. In 1973 he began 20 years of service as a chaplain in the Federal Bureau of Prisons systems. He wrote about that service in his 1996 book My Life Between the Cross and Bars. Since retiring in 1993, he has given lectures and workshops on subjects such as the importance of marketable skills for prisoners, humane prison treatment, and support for families.

Mirtha Colon (1951– ) was born in Honduras and is the founder of Hondurans Against AIDS in 1992. She is president of the New York organization provides AIDS/HIV education and support in Central America and New York. She works in New York as a social worker.

Dionisa Amaya (1933– ) was born in Honduras and is one of three founders of MUGAMA (Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha). She is a retired guidance counselor and has been involved in Garifuna community activities in New York since 1974.


Leonard Cayetano (1961– ) was born in Cirque Arena, Toledo, Belize, and in 1999 was the director of operations and production at Earthlink Internet service.

Identical twins Tomas Alberto Avila, a mechanical engineer, and Jose Francisco Avila, an accountant, established a global link for Garinagu through the Internet in 1996. It was expanded to the Garifuna World website in 1997. Audio clips allow visitors to hear Garifuna music.



Channel 34, Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Un Conversando Con Antonieta Maximo (Conversing with Antonieta Maximo) is a half-hour talk show with a Honduras focus. Host Antonieta Maximo, a Honduran Garifuna, has been on the air since 1994. Her guests have included the archbishop of Honduras, the Honduran ambassador, artists, writers, and doctors. The program airs at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays.

Contact: Antonieta Maximo.

Address: 537 West 59th Street, New York, New York 10019-1006.

Telephone: (212) 396-3752.


WHPK-FM (88.5).

Belizean Rhythms is a half-hour weekly broadcast from the University of Chicago. Belizean host Randolph Coleman brings listeners the musical sounds of his homeland. The show airs at 6:00 P.M. Saturdays, and regularly features "news, views, interviews, and recipes."

Contact: Randolph Coleman.

Address: Reynolds Club, 5706 University Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637.

Telephone: (773) 702-8289.


Garifuna World Website

Contact: Tomas Alberto and Jose Francisco Avila.

Address: P.O. Box 6619, Johnsville Station, New York, New York 10128-0011.

Telephone: (800) 859-1426.

Online: .

Organizations and Associations

The Garifuna umbrella organization of 1999 started out for the most part as a group of friends who had migrated to the same city. They met together to celebrate holidays such as the Nov. 19 Belize Settlement Day and the April 12 Arrival to Honduras Day. The groups organized community celebrations and also united to help their community with issues including education, health, and immigration. As more groups formed to address issues, Garifuna Americans in the 1990s formed umbrella groups to coordinate communication among groups in the community. Groups sent delegates to the umbrella organization meetings.

Garifuna Coalition USA.

Founded in May 1998 as the umbrella group for Garifuna organizations in New York City. One year later, the coalition encompassed 14 organizations including MUGAMA (see below).

Activities in 1998 include an annual retreat. Membership in groups overlaps, with members from various groups participating in the April 12 Honduras arrival commemoration.

Contact: Rejil Solis, Coordinator.

Address: 2189 Pitkin Avenue, Number 3-B, Brooklyn, New York, 11200.

Telephone: (718) 385-0577.

Garifuna Settlement Day Group.

Started in the 1960s in Los Angeles to celebrate Settlement Day, the group by 1999 was a nonprofit organization. Representatives in mid-1999 included the Garifuna Choir, the Honduran Sociedad Negra Hondurena de California (the Society of Black Hondurans of California), the Youth Group, UBAFU (Power), and Project Help.

Contact: James Castillo, President.

Address: P.O. Box 11690, Los Angeles, California 90011.

Telephone: (323) 234-8202.

MUGAMA (Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha).

Founded in 1989, the group's name translates as "Garinagu Women Marching." Honduran Garinagu Dionisia Amaya, Lydia Hill, and Mirtha Sabio founded the group to recognize the accomplishments of Garifuna women in the New York tristate area. The organization branched out and its activities include awarding scholarships and offering English as a Second Language classes.

Contact: Dionisia Amaya.

Address : 420 Watkins Street, Brooklyn, New York 11212.

Telephone: (718) 485-6484.

Progressive Garifuna Alliance.

Founded in 1991, the alliance is dedicated to preserving and advancing the Garifuna culture. Represents the approximately 5,000-10,000 Garinagu in Chicago. Activities include staging the Nov. 19 Belize Settlement Day celebration, educating the public, and holding town meetings to inform the community about issues such as immigration. Alliance members perform Garifuna dances and music and give talks on their culture at area festivals and museums.

Contact: Rhodel Castillo, Founder.

Address: 4943 South Champlain Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60615.

Telephone: (773) 548-9870.

Museums and Research Centers

In 1999, a group in New York formed to create a Garifuna culture center, which will be the first of its kind in the United States. However, both public and university museums have held exhibits about the Garinagu. Sometimes the exhibits are tied into the February celebration of Black History Month. Generally, these exhibits have included cultural demonstrations that include dance and food. Another feature is the screening of the no set exhibit.

The Garifuna Journey

A traveling exhibit centered around a 46-minute documentary of the same name produced by filmmakers Andrea Leland and Kathy Berger. The documentary was filmed in Belize and involved Garinagu from that country and the United States. The documentary has been part of multimedia exhibits at museums. A study guide was under development in 1999.

Contact: Andrea Leland or Kathy Berger, Leland/Berger Productions.

Address: 1200 Judson Avenue, Evanston, Illinois 60202.

Telephone: (847) 864-7752.

Sources for Additional Study

Anderson, Mark. "The Significance of Blackness: Representations of Garifuna in St. Vincent and Central America, 1700-1900." Transforming Anthropology: Journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists, Volume 6, Numbers 1 and 2, 1997. A Unit of the American Anthropological Association.

Castillo, Reverend George. My Life Between The Cross and The Bars. Shalimar, Florida: G&M Publications, 1996.

Garifuna World Website. .

England, Sarah. "Gender Ideologies and Domestic Structures Within the Transnational Space of the Garifuna Diaspora." Selected papers on Refugees and Immigrant Issues, Volume 6. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, 1998.

——. "Negotiating Race and Place in the Garifuna Diaspora: Identity Formation and Transnational Grassroots Politics in New York City and Honduras." Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 6 (1) 1999.

Gollin, James D., and Ron Mader. Honduras: Adventures in Nature. Santa Fe, NM: John Muir Publications, 1993.

González, Nancie. "Garifuna Settlement in New York: A New Frontier," International Migration Review 13, No. 2, 1975.

Humphrey, Chris. Honduras Handbook. Chico, CA: Moon Publications, 1997.

Merrill Tim, editor. Guyana and Belize: Country Studies. Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1993.

Mahler, Richard, and Steele Wotykins. Belize: A Natural Destination. Santa Fe, NM: John Muir Publications, 1993.

Munro, Pamela. "The Garifuna Gender System." Trend in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 108. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter and Company, Offprint, 1997.

Norton, Natascha, and Mark Whatmore. Cadogan Guides: Central America. Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993.

User Contributions:

Thanks for the information! I really made use of it.
This is really a great site! My teacher could use this site to teach us but ... too bad he didn't see this site ...
Pure Enlightenment. It is high time for a Garifuna Summit. The objective would be for us to reach out to other Africans in the diaspora who still suffer the scourge of slavery with a view to instill a strong sense of cultural identity. We are a rich people, sad not many of us know it.

This site is awesome! I am a proud garifuna woman. I thought I knew all there is to know of our history and culture. This site proves that one learns with every passing day. Thanks! Big time!
Sharron Williams Gelobter
Thank you for this site, very interesting. I am a Garifuna attorney originally from Belize living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am also a poet and short story writer. While researching for my new collection of short stories I came across your site. I am always looking for more websites dedicated to our people. I came across yours today and learned even more about us.

Best wishes,
This article is amazing! It is so well detailed and provides information on every single subject. I found it very useful and full of information.
very good site, I am from st vincent and the grenadines and even us vincentians do not know the full history of our country and our sole national hero joseph chatoyer. To add to the article, the garifuna were first exiled from mainland st vincent to one of our grenadine islands called balliceax. That island is now for sale 30 million us dollars last time i heard and is owned by a relative on mine. The garifuna traveled back here a few years ago from belize to set up the monument on the island and every year we have a celebration on the island. However the island is void of any settlement, it is basically an uninhabited island. Bones were found from persons visiting the island of the garifuna people who were stuck there. The island is very small and cannot really support life especially in those days and the large amounts of people that were exhiled there. Later on the then shipped the garifuna from balliceax to central america. Basically that island was used as a transhipment point for the garifuna.

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