Garifuna Immigrants Bring Faith, Culture, and Challenges to Brownsville

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Thousands of the Afro-Caribbean people have made their home in Brooklyn, celebrating their heritage at a local church.

Double doors open onto the annual Garifuna Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville. (Photo: Jesse Newman/The Brooklyn Ink)

Dilma Suazo, a slight, 22-year-old woman, danced down the aisle of Our Lady of Mercy Church in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, cradling her two-month-old cousin in her arms. Behind her stretched a long line of women bearing divine offerings – tropical fruit and canned goods. All had come for the annual Mass offered earlier this summer for Garifuna immigrants.

As Suazo approached the altar, a chorus of drums rose to a thundering crescendo. Gently, she handed her cousin to Father Tomas Cacho, a Jesuit priest from Honduras, who blessed the child and lifted her in the air for all to see.

For the past 10 years, Garifuna parishioners have gathered at Our Lady of Mercy to give thanks and celebrate their culture with a traditional Catholic Mass. According to Victor Elijio, a Belizean immigrant who serves as deacon at the church, the Mass is a way for Garinagu – plural for Garifuna – in New York to remember their roots amid the challenges of everyday life in America.

Home has long been an elusive idea for the Central American ethnic group, which traces its ancestry to African slaves, Caribbean natives and Arawak Indian tribes. Garinagu, also known as “Black Caribs,” began migrating from Central America to New York in the 1940s after being forced throughout the Caribbean by a steady succession of colonial rulers.

They settled first in Harlem, then moved to the Bronx, and in the 1970s, when the neighborhood was engulfed in flames from a wave of arson, fled to the “suburbs of Brooklyn,” as José Francisco Ávila, a Honduran immigrant and leader in the community, put it.

Today, New York City is home to the largest Garifuna population outside of Central America. Though estimates vary widely, the Department of City Planning in New York approximates that there are around 30,000 Garinagu living in New York City.

In recent years, Garifuna residents have taken steps to raise the profile of their small community. In 1998, Ávila helped found a non-profit organization in the Bronx called the Garifuna Coalition to serve his community’s needs. Under his direction, the coalition lobbied the city for an official Garifuna Heritage Month, launched a voter registration drive and census count, and alerted city officials to their growing constituency.

Though Brownsville’s Garifuna population is only half that of the Bronx‘s, the coalition’s executive director said it is where the modern Garifuna movement began. An organization called MUGAMA – which stands for Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha, or Garinagu Women Marching – was started in the Brooklyn neighborhood two decades ago to unite and support the diffuse immigrant population.

Today, MUGAMA’s mission in Brooklyn has been undertaken by the Garifuna Society of Our Lady Of Mercy Church, which is dedicated to preserving the community’s distinct heritage in a modern urban setting. But MUGAMA’s legacy is plain to see.

“It used to be, no one knew who we were,” said Arnaldo Arzu, a Honduran immigrant and president of the Garifuna Society. “We were afraid to open our mouths. But things have changed. Now we’re proud to show our culture. We’re holding events, running for office and speaking Garifuna in the streets.”

Garinagu are descended from West Africans who, after escaping the wreckage of Spanish slave ships, landed on the shores of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. There, they mixed with local Carib and Arawak tribes, evolving a distinct language, culture and religion that are a mix of native and colonial influences. In 1795, they rebelled against British colonization and were exiled to a nearby island where half the population perished from disease and starvation.

British troops later moved the Garinagu to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. From there, they migrated to the Central American mainland and settled in coastal villages in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

During World War II, the United Fruit Company – the controversial corporation that pioneered the fruit trade from Central America to the United States and was implicated in a coup against the Guatemalan government – hired Garifuna villagers to work on large freighters bearing bananas and bound for the United States. After arriving at the Brooklyn waterfront, Garifuna deck hands made their way north to Harlem rather than returning home.

For Garinagu in New York, identity can be hard to explain. They are black, but (except for Belizeans) speak Spanish rather than English. Still, many Garinagu identify with Caribbean immigrants more readily than other Latinos in the city, since even Spanish is not their native tongue.

But attendance at the Brooklyn Mass was indicative of how the Garifuna culture has survived – and thrived – for so many years. Inside the chapel, worshippers stood shoulder to shoulder, arms lifted in prayer and hips swaying to the fierce vocals of the Garifuna Society Choir. Women and girls wore traditional, checkered dresses with matching bandanas knotted at the napes of their necks. Men fanned themselves with programs printed in Garifuna, a graceful language strewn with vowels.

Members of the Garifuna Society of Our Lady of Mercy Church gather for a celebration. (Photo: Courtesy of Manuela Sabio)

Despite its achievements, Manuela Sabio, a 60-year-old Honduran immigrant who founded the Garifuna Society, said her community faces significant challenges, both at home and abroad. More often than not, the challenges are shared; what happens in Brooklyn affects life in Garifuna villages and vice versa.

Some of the struggles Garinagu face in Brownsville – unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, poor health and youth crime – are shared by many residents there.

Others are common to immigrant groups throughout America. While early Garinagu migrants became professionals – schoolteachers and police officers – in New York, said Sabio, newer arrivals are more likely to find minimum-wage jobs as construction workers or home health aides.

Still others are tied to economic and political realities in Central America. The World Bank ranks Nicaragua and Honduras as the second – and third – poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and geographically isolated Garifuna villages are among the most impoverished places in both nations.

Throughout Central America, the Garifuna population suffers from political and economic marginalization and racial discrimination. In 1937, the Honduran government led a brutal massacre through many Garifuna villages. According to Witness, an international human rights organization, leaders have used the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch to appropriate Garifuna lands for the development of large-scale tourist resorts since 1998. Even today, many Garifuna villages have inadequate access to basic necessities like drinking water, medical care and education.

As in many immigrant communities, there is pressure on Garinagu in America to send money to their families at home, help relatives migrate to the U.S., and support them once they arrive. According to Sabio, remittances sent from abroad make up the majority of income for many Garifuna households in Honduras.

Sabio was 16 years old when she decided to follow her older sister to Brownsville. She remembered her sister’s first visit home to Honduras — her styled hair, high heels, light skin and new English vocabulary. “Your relatives come home and they’re dressed like kings,” said Sabio. “I wanted to be like my sister. I said, ‘I want to go to United States.’”

Last summer, two Garifuna men were among the 72 Central and South American migrants killed in northeastern Mexico by a group connected to Los Zetas drug cartel. Recently, despite her warnings, a young relative of Sabio’s traveled from Honduras to Mexico to attempt the same border crossing. When he was captured by an armed gang and held for ransom, Sabio had to pay $3,000 for his release.

The AIDS epidemic in Central America is another grave concern for Garinagu in the U.S. The United States Agency for International Development recently reported that El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala account for the majority of Central America’s total infected population.

The same report designated the Garifuna community as a “most-at-risk” population, given the stigma that deters villagers from talking about and protecting themselves from the disease. Since Garinagu travel frequently between Central America and the U.S., they create a bridge for the disease between countries, resulting in a rate of HIV/AIDS infection that can be double or triple that of other communities in New York City, according to a 2001 article published by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Sabio provided for her cousin’s six children in Honduras when their mother died of AIDS. “It was not easy,” she said. “I had to work two jobs. One week, I would send a pair of sneakers; the next week they’d have a hole in their pants. They got to know me very well at the Goodwill here.”

Like other Garifuna elders, Sabio worries that their language and heritage will be lost as young people assimilate into American culture. She makes it a point to teach her granddaughters the Garifuna language, show them traditional dances like the punta, and cook Garifuna food like cassava bread and hudutu, a coconut milk soup with fish and mashed plantains.

“It’s our identity,” Sabio said. “Without an identity, you are like a leaf, just floating in the air.”

But Suazo wasn’t worried. “Young people used to keep their identity on the down low so no on would laugh at them,” she said. “I definitely had an identity crisis when I was young. But now people know who we are and I grew up to be proud of who I am.”

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One Response to “Garifuna Immigrants Bring Faith, Culture, and Challenges to Brownsville”

  1. Teofilo Colon Jr
    August 5, 2011 at 5:27 AM #

    Mr. Jesse Newman,

    Lovely article on Garinagu in New York City. I will link to it on my Being Garifuna blog.

    Teofilo Colon Jr.

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