A History Lesson, Served as Coconut-Seafood Soup


A report by Francis Lam for The New York Times.

When Sulma Arzu-Brown’s father traveled from his village in Honduras into the city, people pointed at him, at his black skin. When he spoke his language, people laughed. “They said, ‘Look at that monkey, goo goo gaga,’ ” Arzu-Brown told me. When it was time for her mother to be promoted at her job, she stood out a little too much. “Blanca,” her boss said to her, “I know you’re qualified, but I can’t give the job to you. You have family in the U.S. Go there. You’ll achieve there.”

Arzu-Brown told me these stories in a calm voice; not the calm of acquiescence but, I assume, of understanding that the present outshines the past. Her family is Garifuna, the descendants of intermarried Africans and Caribs who live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala. Rejecting the discrimination they faced in Honduras, her family moved to New York in the 1980s, when she was 5.

We cracked open coconuts, grinding their flesh and squeezing out the cream with our hands.

In the Bronx, where Sulma grew up speaking Spanish and English, she felt unknown. To her black friends, she was black. To others, she was Latina. “Sometimes, I’d be called Afro-Latino, but deep inside, I knew we were something else,” she said. “We were Garifuna.” Her parents, scarred from their humiliations, didn’t teach their daughter to speak their language. “But I knew we were Garifuna because we danced the punta at home,” Arzu-Brown says. “Because we ate hudutu.”

Hudutu is a dish beloved by many Hondurans, but it comes specifically from the Garifuna. You can tell it’s from the tropical coast because it’s a soup of coconut milk, teeming with seafood. But its African roots seem clearer when you consider the fact that it’s always eaten with machuca, sweet and green plantains beaten to a mash that resembles the pounded yams of West Africa.

Arzu-Brown invited me to her mother’s home, and I walked into a party about to be lit. Blanca kept her curls in a hairnet while she cooked, waiting to let them down. We cracked open coconuts, grinding their flesh and squeezing out the cream with our hands. People streamed in, some bringing pans of chewy-soft yucca pies, others bringing drums. We cooked, poured drinks and finally ate the hudutu, a many-faceted thing of deeply seared snapper, just-cooked shrimp, tender conch and a broth of coconut milk infused with their flavors. We dipped in sticky, satisfying little bites of machuca. I knocked out two bowls before I realized I was in the middle of a history lesson.

Arzu-Brown’s friends José Ávila and a man who introduced himself as Dream argued about the finer points of where the Garifuna come from, but they agreed that they are descendants of people from St. Vincent who battled fiercely for their freedom against the British colonizers. When the British finally defeated them, they were deemed too unruly to be slaves and sent to die on the isolated island of Roatán. Escaping, they landed in Central America. And for the past 75 years, more and more Garifunas live in New York.

Arzu-Brown explained to me that the people in this house did not learn their history in school or at home, pointing to a mix of racism and internalized shame. “We all had to find it for ourselves,” she said. While in college, Arzu-Brown decided she wanted to know more about where she came from, and 10 years ago, she became the director of the Garifuna Coalition, an advocacy and community-leadership development organization that Ávila co-founded. “Since then, my parents took my example and started to identify as Garifuna,” she said. “Now we have these dinners, we see younger people coming and learning about their culture, and we’re all so proud.”

One of those young people, Perla Gonzales, was Arzu-Brown’s first intern at the coalition. “I always had to identify as ‘other,’ ” she said, “because I wouldn’t just think of myself as black or Latino or Afro-Latino. Now I know I’ve always been a Garifuna. Well, and because our house always smelled like fish.” We laughed, and another friend, an African-American woman named Michele, took a bite of hudutu and hummed with deliciousness. “Now I want to be an ‘other,’ too,” she said, and then went outside to dance the punta while Dream played his drums.

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