Monday, May 31, 2010

Epicenter of the Garifuna Culture

New York Is the Epicenter of the Garifuna Culture
By Jose Francisco Avila

During a recent visit to Honduras, I attended the Afrodescendant Women Forum in Tegucigalpa, where I had a conversation with various Garinagu where someone commented "It would be nice if we could hold events like these, more often, instead of just in April. To which I answered, in New York City, you can attend a Garifuna event just about every week, which really surprised them. I continued, as a matter of fact I will dare to say that New York has become the epicenter of the Garifuna Culture! That really blew their mind! I am certain that someone will disagree, therefore, let me share some factual evidence.

The First Intercontinental Garifuna Summit Meeting

In 1991, I along with other Garifuna activists organized the First Garifuna Summit Meeting which was celebrated in New York City on. The Theme for this meeting was “Uwala Busiganu, Garinagu Wagia”, (Don’t Be Ashamed, We Are Garifuna). We also chose the slogan “Garinagu’s Path to the 21st Century”. The purpose of the meeting was to adopt a bold and decisive challenge to seriously and collectively begin to focus on our Garifuna culture, and to mobilize all Garinagu to seek meaningful solutions to our varied problems. The First Garifuna Summit Meeting served as a catalyst for many important accomplishments in the Global Garifuna Community. It is recognized as the beginning of the modern day Garifuna (Afro descendants) movement in the United States and Central America. It became the grassroots movement that organized the Commemoration of the 200thanniversary of the arrival of the Garifunas to Honduras on April 12th, 1997 (The Garifuna Bicentennial).

That same grass roots movement organized the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. in 1998 to build a powerful progressive coalition that brought together all Garifuna organizations to work together on unifying issues and begin to forge a common progressive vision, obviously, we understood “That a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership — and not one or two charismatic leaders — can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.”[1] It is this understanding that made it possible for the Garifuna Coalition to successfully petitioned the various New York branches of government, giving New York the honor of proclaiming the First Garifuna Heritage Month in the World! As part of the celebrations it also hosted the first ever Garifuna Heritage Awards, as well as the Third Annual Joseph Chatoyer Memorial Mass, Garifuna Day and the Miss Garifuna Cultural Pageant.

In addition, New York is home to two Garifuna language teaching centers where according to the New York Times “Speakers of Garifuna, which is being displaced in Central America by Spanish and English, are striving to keep it alive in their New York neighborhoods. Regular classes have sprouted at the Yurumein House Cultural Center in the Bronx, and also in Brooklyn, where James Lovell, a public school music teacher, leads a small Garifuna class at the Biko Transformation Centerin East Bushwick. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.”[2]The preservation of the Garifuna language through language revitalization, lexical expansion programs and the promotion of teaching, learning and practicing is s one of the objectives of the UNESCO’s Proclamation of the Gariifuna Language, Music and Dance as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Promoting regional Garifuna festivals with a view to confronting the erosion of the Garifuna culture in the heart of modern day communities is another objective of the proclamation. Therfore, in celebration of its ninth anniversary, the Chief Joseph Chatoyer, Garifuna Folkloric Ballet of New York participated in the Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade on Sunday, May 16 and on May 23, “A splash of color and the toe-tapping/hip-swaying sounds greeted parade goers as the Hamalali Wayunagu Folkloric Garifuna Dance Company of New York strutted in the 2010 Bronx Week Parade.[3]On May 29th, Casa Yurumein presented a Tribute to 90 year old Garifuna Musician Marcelino “Don Marasa” Fernandez, whom according to Roy Cayetano is “Yet another of our legends and unsung great ones”. [4]

During the month of June as we celebrate Caribbean American Heritage Month, the Hamalali Wayunagu (Voices of our Ancestors) Garifuna Folkloric and Modern Dance Company will represent the Garifuna Heritage in the Caribbean American Heritage Month at the New York City Council Ceremony on June 10th, celebrating the heritage of the region's peoples and our continuing contributions to the evolving story of this City and Country. On June 12ththe Garifuna Pastoral of Our Lady of Mercy Church will celebrate its annual Garifuna Thanksgiving Mass in Brooklyn; on that same date, members of the Board of Directors of the Garifuna Coalition, Inc., will participate in a Consultation on St. Vincent and the Grenadines Draft Diaspora Policy, sponsored by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Consulate General in New York and The SVG Diaspora Committee of New York, to share our views and suggestions for improving relations between the Garifuna Diaspora and the Ancestral Home of the Garifuna People! The Garifuna Catholic Community Assembly Committee will hold its third Garifuna Catholic Assembly “Garifuna Spirituality in an acculturated world” on June 19th. On June 24, I will present a lecture on Garifuna History at Monroe College, where Miss Luz Soliz, Hamalali Wayunagu's Director and Choreographer is teaching a Caribbean Dance class based on the Garifuna Music and Dance. As descendants from Africans in mainland St. Vincent, who intermarried with the Caribs and Arawaks, the Garifunas or Black Caribs, are part of the unique cultures and melting pot of ethnicities that have their roots in the Caribbean. Can I hear an “Itarala!” (Amen).

All of the above activities are an integral part of the “Garinagu Wagia” (We are Garifunas) campaign, which has the nurturing and promotion of Garifuna pride at the center of its community organizing initiative and in creating awareness and appreciation of the Garifuna culture and its contribution to the culture and society of New York. The strategy is to plan, organize and execute a series of activities to promote the Garifuna Community in New York City, “The Capital of the World”. It was this organizing initiative that led to the development of the first ever Garifuna Census 2010 campaign to make sure that Garinagu are counted in the United States.

According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg "Our city has always led the nation - not just in celebrating holidays, but in pioneering the most innovative and ambitious new ideas. In so many areas, whatever happens happens here first. New York is, as Mayor Koch once famously said, 'where the future comes to audition.” [5]

Therefore, having pioneered the proclamation of the first Garifuna Heritage Month in the world in New York, the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. is organizing an ad-hoc committee with Garifuna Organizations around the nation, to petition the U.S. Congress to establish March 11th- April 12th, as Garifuna-American Heritage Month in the United States of America, in observance of the anniversary of the exile of the Garifuna people from St Vincent on March 11th, 1797 and their settlement in Central America on April 12th, 1797.

As the evidence presented above proves, New York has become the epicenter of the Garifuna Culture and it is our hope that as the New York Garifunas have pioneered the nurturing and promotion of Garifuna pride at the center of their community organizing initiative and in creating awareness and appreciation of the Garifuna culture, Garifunas around the world will replicate our example.

[1]Obama, Barack, Why Organize? Problems and promise in the inner city, Illinois Issues, 1988
[2]Roberts, Sam Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages. The New York Times, April 28, 2010

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