Reuters reports that descendants of African slaves who fled to Guatemala two centuries ago honored their ancestors on Thursday in a celebration of a culture threatened by mass migration to the United States. Hundreds of people from the Black Carib Garifuna culture re-enacted their forefathers’ arrival in Guatemala by dugout canoe, then swayed through the streets to the sound of drum beats and the blowing of conch shells.
The Garifuna are descendants of escaped slaves who mingled with Carib Indians on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The British deported them to an island near Honduras from where they spread along the Central American coast, arriving in Guatemala in 1802. Today almost half of Central America’s 200,000 Garifuna live in the United States, mostly in New York City. In the Guatemalan port of Livingston, home to more than 10,000 Garifuna in late 1970s, the population has dwindled to around 4,000.
Garifuna in Livingston say they face discrimination in Guatemala, and there are few jobs in the port town which is only reachable by sea. “I own a boat and fishing helps me keep my head above water, but most of the businesses here are Latin-owned and they control the economy,” said Polo Martinez, whose three brothers and two sisters live in the United States. Many older Garifuna say their lifestyle of fishing and farming is being lost as so many migrate.
Garifuna National Day was created in Guatemala 13 years ago to honor the country’s Black Carib population. Annual festivals in Livingston and Belize are seen as a way of connecting with their roots. Hundreds of people crammed into Livingston’s brick Catholic church for a mass given in Spanish and the Garifuna language that blends words from West Africa with the Caribbean’s Arauak, as well as French, English and Spanish. Garifuna came to the festival from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, the major U.S. cities where many now live.
Celebrations wera also held in Honduras and Belize. In Belize, celebrations took place on November 19. At break of dawn, a large group of Garifunas proceeded to the beach side where they boarded boats with palms in hand, for the reenactment of the arrival of the Garifuna to the shores of Belize. From afar, the sounds of drums and traditional songs in the Garifuna language broke the silence of the early morning. As the boats approached the shores, the music turned to one of happiness symbolizing their ancestor’s joy and triumph in finding new land. It’s a very symbolic event that proceeded with a traditional thanksgiving mass, traditionally considered, solemn and highly spiritual in the Garifuna culture.