Garífuna Voices of Guatemala: Central America’s Overlooked Segment of the African Diaspora

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Although often disregarded by the roster of contemporary Latin American events, the African diaspora is an integral part of Hispanic culture and its contemporary history. Africans outnumbered Europeans throughout much of the Latin American colonial period, and West Indian blacks were a motive force behind the construction of the Panama Canal. Today, Brazil and Colombia have the second and third largest black populations in the Western Hemisphere. However, several Central American countries have only a small black minority, whose presence is sometimes overlooked. Among them is Guatemala, a multicultural nation in which the black Garífuna compose less than 1% of the population. As is often the case in countries with black minorities, these people have long been disenfranchised and considered inferior by the country’s other ethnic groups. The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords, which were established by the government in conjunction with the United Nations (UN), symbolized the end of a thirty-six year long civil war in which upwards of 200,000, mainly civilian victims, lost their lives. The accords offered words of hope for political inclusion of the Garífuna by officially recognizing multiculturalism in Guatemala. However, in spite of a wave of political reforms since 1996, overcoming the racial inequality impacting the Garífuna community will have to require further political and financial decentralization as well as citizen participation and a much greater focus on economic development.

The Garífuna people – an Ambiguous History of Mestizaje

Central America’s Garífuna population hugs the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Chronic undercounting of Latin America’s Afro-descended population make specific numbers hard to establish. Moreover, there are biases inherent in self-reported ethnic identification, especially in a Latin American context where such categories are less diversified than in many parts of the world. Keeping these limitations in mind, it can be taken from recent census data that there is a population of approximately 539, 600 blacks in Nicaragua (which include many non-Garífuna slave descendants) and about 159,800 in Honduras, known to have Central America’s largest Garífuna population. Belize is home to approximately 20,000 Garífuna and Guatemala to approximately 5,100. These numbers do not include the many immigrants who now reside in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other developed nations. Currently, there is debate over the Garífuna’s right to be labeled “indigenous;” their black appearance yet mixed heritage often has made the term’s application contentious. Only over the past 50 years has anthropological investigation of their ethnic background become systematic, revealing that they have bona fide ethnic roots in Africa as well as the Caribbean islands. Despite this diverse background, the Garífuna have a strong sense of unity, and many scholars, including James Minahan and Joseph O. Palacio, a Garífuna, refer to them as a nation that transgresses political borders. This transnational identity is reflected in their own tricolor flag. Its horizontal stripes are yellow, white, and black; these colors represent Amerindian hope and liberation, peace and freedom, and the oppression and death associated with their African heritage, respectively.

In fact, the Garífuna were once a unified people, originating on St. Vincent Island. The island, long inhabited by Arawak and Amarillo Carib indigenous groups, was the site of two shipwrecks around 1635 in which a number of African slaves were freed. These blacks intermarried with the local natives to form the Black Carib ethnic group. Fugitive slaves from nearby islands continued to boost St. Vincent’s black population, leading to a majority of Black Caribs over Yellow Caribs (indigenous islanders with no African heritage) by the early 1700s. In spite of a 1660 treaty between the Caribs and European settlers allowing the Caribs to maintain control of their land, a British and French takeover ensued. Following a series of agreements, British and French conquests, and Carib uprisings, the Black Caribs ultimately surrendered to British control of St. Vincent and were transported temporarily to Baliseau and then Roatan Island near the Honduran coast in 1797. Researcher Nancy L. Gonzales reports that due to poor living conditions and contagious illnesses, the Black Carib population shrunk by nearly half, from approximately 4,195 to 2,248, over the course of this perilous transition.

Livingston, Guatemala’s primary Garífuna settlement, is said to have been founded in 1802 by Marcos Sanchez Díaz, a Roatan immigrant. The municipality of Livingston, located in the Guatemalan department of Izabal, today has a population of 48,588, of which only 9% are Garífuna, according to the 2002 Census. However, these inhabitants are largely concentrated in the area’s urban core. Livingston, Izabal is one of 53 Garífuna towns along the Central American coastline, according to a 2006 publication by social scientist Valencia Chalá. Nearby Puerto Barrios, Izabal also has a small Garífuna population.

Since the early 1800s, the first Garífuna settlers in Guatemala have been joined by descendants of black slaves who worked in Central American coal mines and a small number of Culies, who are dark-skinned and of an East Indian background. Collectively, these groups find themselves far outnumbered by the Maya, Guatemala’s largest indigenous group that contains approximately twenty-two subgroups, each with its own language. Many deny the concept of an “indigenous” Garífuna. Scholar Nelson Amaro, for example, in his 1992 Guatemala: Historia Despierta, argues that the blacks who always lived along the Caribbean coasts have mixed with members of the Guatemalan indigenous population, leaving only direct slave descendants and Culies, as the black segment of the Guatemalan ethnic makeup. The black inhabitants of Puerto Barrios and Livingston, however, claim otherwise. Luís Fraczúa, former director of the non-profit ASO-Garífuna, was quoted by Valenica Chalá as stating: “We are repudiated here because of the color of our skin, but what they cannot tolerate is that we come from the same race of the Arawak Indians.” This identity issue is further complicated by the fact that race in Guatemala, as in much of Latin America, is not primarily defined by skin color. Rather, the dominant “Ladino” ethnic group, which ironically stems from intermarried Mayans and Europeans, is defined by adopting European norms, language, and clothing. Any Maya or Garífuna citizen, who cares to do so, can thus assume a Ladino identity, both privately and publicly, and deny their heritage.

Garífuna Culture

In spite of these long-standing pressures for assimilation, the Garífuna have maintained a rich culture with strong Caribbean and African traits. Their language is a creole dialect of indigenous languages originally spoken on St. Vincent (Kallínagu & Arawak), with African phonetics and mild French, English, and Spanish influences. Although their language is slowly being overhauled by English Creole and Spanish, they tend to be bilingual in the latter two idioms and have a literacy rate above that of Ladinos. The Garífuna value education in general, as supported by a 2005 UN Development Program study indicating that their youth and adults, ages fifteen to twenty-four, have an average 6.8 years of schooling. Although low for some standards, this education level is higher than that of any other indigenous group in the country and is substantially higher than the average in the area of 5.5.

This emphasis on language and education is accompanied by vibrant musical, spiritual, and culinary traditions. Popular Garífuna dances are accompanied by drumming and usually tell a story: the foot-circling of Hunguhungu recounts the Garífuna´s expulsion from St. Vincent, la Chumba alludes to sexual restrictions placed on blacks during slavery, and la Punta was originally practiced during funerals to help the spirit’s transition into the afterlife. This traditional dance reflects Garífuna religious practices, which are Catholic yet carry elements of ancient African spirituality. Their traditional dress also is of Afro-Caribbean style. Staple foods include rice and beans, seafood, and tamales prepared with plantains, bananas, beef broth, coconut milk, and yucca. Economically, the Garífuna have relied heavily on fishing, hunting, agriculture, and logging and participated in Central American banana shipping. In 2001, UNESCO classified Garífuna language, music, and dance as one of the “Nineteen Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Impact of the Armed Conflicts

For thirty six years beginning in the early 1960s, Guatemala was tormented by an armed conflict between the military and leftist revolutionary forces. Underlying this civil war was a ruthless ethnocide: the local UN Clarification Commission traced 93% of more than 200,000 assassinations to the Guatemalan state. Maya people were the victims of 83% of these killings, not to mention disappearances and displacements. With their isolation and negotiable indigenous status, Garífuna communities had a slight advantage: they were largely considered “safe havens,” and some Mayans fled there for refuge. Nevertheless, the victims of the remaining 17% of assassination incidents remain unaccounted for. Considering this figure, along with other factors, the ethnocide was an effort by the elite to “cure” Guatemala’s long-standing “indigenous problem” once and for all. It is likely that the Garífuna were among the specifically targeted victims of these human rights abuses. It was also during the armed conflict period in question that the Garífuna’s economic situation began to grievously suffer, according to Luís Fraczúa: “From 1950 to 1968, there were only colored people in Puerto Barrios docks. Then they were laid off with the excuse that the company went bankrupt. In reality, it had to do with the racial problem!” Although Frazcúa’s statement is rankly speculative, it gains validity when seen in a historical context of monumental incidents of racial cleansing.

The 1996 Peace Accords – Words of Hope followed by Stark Realities

At the time of Guatemalan government reform, the 1996 Peace Accords were drafted in collaboration with the UN. On January 20, 1997, the UN Security Council fortified the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), a combination of the UN’s existent human rights mission carrying the same acronym and a group of 155 military observers and health care professionals. MINUGUA’s role over the three following months was to ensure a ceasefire between the government of Guatemala and the guerilla group, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). Amongst the fundamental reform embodied in these accords, Accord Five on the identity and rights of indigenous peoples is the most pertinent to the Garífuna people. It acknowledges that Guatemala is a “multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual” country and that “the parties recognize and respect the identity and political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the Maya, the Garífuna, and the Xinca people.”

Accord Five’s major sections are: 1) Indigenous identity, 2) Fighting discrimination, 3) Cultural rights, 4) Civil, political, social, and economic rights, 5) Equal commissions, and 6) Resources. Specified cultural rights include those of language (spoken, written, and institutionalized), spiritual practice, use of traditional attire in any area of everyday life, recognition of scientific and technological contributions, and the communities’ inclusion in education. The fourth section asserts the right of the indigenous to govern their communities through a reform of the country’s municipal code and calls for their representation at all levels of government. It also states the need for inventories of current land title practices and administration along with the relevant legislation that assures the indigenous’ rights to the territory they have occupied for centuries. Lack of specification regarding land rights is obviously problematic, since most of the natives to whom this section of the legislation applies do not have titles or funds to obtain them, and the land they reside on officially is property of the state, or, at times, of private corporations. The overlap between land and culture rights become evident in this section, but how such overlap can be addressed in practice remains unclear. Several of Accord Five’s sections mention that the indigenous should be authors of their own development, yet, it remains questionable whether this is truly possible in a nation where all power and control are still in Ladino hands.

Thus far, the effective implementation of the Peace Accords has been impeded by several of these unresolved issues, as is evident in the current state of Guatemala’s Garífuna communities. It should be noted that the Maya, Guatemala’s largest native group, are the only ones mentioned separately from the collective indigenous grouping that includes the Garífuna and Xinca. For example, the text calls for Maya educational concepts to be taught in schools and demands support for the founding of a Mayan university. The Maya also receive special emphasis with regards to language, indigenous identity, and sacred land. In part, these specifications make sense considering that the Maya, overwhelmingly, bore the brunt of the civil war burden. However, the Garífuna had shared their de facto exclusion from Guatemalan society for many decades before this latest round of combat, and this lack of emphasis on their present status forebodes further negligence of their needs.

In an interview with COHA, Danilo Mejía, director of the Garífuna development non-profit organization Asociación Afroguatemalteca (AFROGUA), confirms that the current direction of the Peace Accords’ implementation reflects the prioritization of the Maya:

“…the government only brings up the Maya people in its exhibitions. Discrimination against the Garífuna by the government and partly by the Maya people drives this dialogue – they often solely speak in favor of the Maya and use the name of the Garífuna people when it is convenient. The Maya have their own institutions, but the Garífuna do not have the necessary budget for such institutions, neither from local nor from foreign governments. Cases in point are the gift shops at La Aurora International Airport: one can find all kinds of Maya artisanry, but nothing Garífuna.”

Although the UN Development Program found that the Garífuna’s average Human Development Index (HDI) in 2005 was notably higher than those of other indigenous populations, income was not a primary contributor. Limited budgets for Garífuna communities are also part of a circular relationship with persistently weak local economies. For example, although electricity has become more accessible since the 1990s, a lack of paved roads and adequate transit still trouble Livingston and Puerto Barrios. Such a frail infrastructure, along with a coastal location, makes these towns highly susceptible to natural disasters. High rates of unemployment are still the norm among the Garífuna. The Garífuna in Guatemala have maintained a largely agricultural economy which relies on fishing and game, corn, rice, beans, plantains, and yucca. Unfortunately, their harvests have not been accompanied by adequate soil preservation and fertilization techniques, leading to intense deforestation at each new sowing time. This neglect, largely due to a lack of proper technology, has resulted in a deterioration of soil quality in Livingston’s terrain. In its most recent web-report on Livingston’s economy, the Municipal Information Service of Inforpress Centroamericana (SIM), a regional societal analysis group, indicated a need to push forward with less soil-reliant activities such as ecotourism and artisanry, while continuing with small-scale fishing.

Such transitions are generally slow to take hold, and many Garífuna individuals have had to take survival into their own hands by immigrating to countries with better economic opportunities and sending home remittances. Their departure from Guatemala, primarily to the United States and the United Kingdom, peaked in the 1960’s and 1970’s but continues today. According to the 2002 Guatemalan census, 132,228 homes in the country – 2.4% of which were in Izabal – reported at least one person who had permanently moved to the United States within the past 10 years. This does not include many who temporarily take jobs abroad, only to return home at a later date. Universidad de San Carlos anthropologist Alfonso Arrivillaga reported to COHA on June 1, 2010 that Harlem and the Bronx in New York City currently support the largest condensed Garífuna population. Also forming notable communities in California and Texas, Garífuna migrants primarily occupy household maintenance positions. Of the lucky few who are able to advance economically, some find factory employment or a Navy post, while a small number move higher up the socio-economic ladder by furthering their education.

It comes as no surprise that such continued economic plight, underrepresentation, and prejudice are accompanied by continued political apathy on the part of the Garífuna. In his Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations, freelance writer and researcher James Minahan reports that mistrust of the government has long been widespread among Central America’s Garífuna population after they were ousted from their native island of St. Vincent. Garífuna community leaders support Minahan’s notion. Fraczúa alluded to historical knowledge passed down across generations: “For a very long time, we heard blacks were in charge of several public positions until they turned into honorary activities. When these activities became paid positions, blacks were ignored.” Mejía of AFROGUA confirmed that “[his] ancestors preferred not to be involved in politics; they said that one could get killed or that all politicians are thieves… [and] it is still believed [among the Garífuna people] that politics is dirty and murky.” Such perceptions are shared by many indigenous groups and have unwittingly proven to be barriers to local, national, and international attempts at achieving the goals laid out in the Peace Accords, which also serve to confirm long-held skepticism on the subject.

From Laws to Implementation – Attempts at Garífuna Progress

Among the multiple areas of development addressed by national and international projects in Guatemala since 1996, decentralization and land rights efforts are especially relevant to the Garífuna’s involvement in their own development. Decentralization, a strategy of increasing federalism by spreading out political and financial authority among lower levels of government, has been encouraged in many Latin American countries in order to prevent the return of autocracies, according to a 2004 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

While Guatemala’s departmental heads remain appointees of the President, there have been efforts to increase the clout of municipalities across the country, where mayors are directly elected by residents. The National Association of Municipalities of the Republic of Guatemala (ANAM), led by a board of departmental heads and including many mayors, dates back to the 1960s. Its decentralization efforts, however, lacked strong federal enforcement and indigenous participation prior to the 1996 Peace Accords.

The 2001 Estrategía de Reducción de la Pobreza, or Strategy of Poverty Reduction (ERP) and the 2002 Ley de Descentralización (Decentralization Law) put a national government voice behind these efforts. While the former included the objective of fortifying and decentralizing public administration, the latter called for municipal autonomy that incorporated social solidarity as well as respect for multiculturalism and multilingualism. Once again, limited implementation of these idealized goals has provoked harsh criticism: In a 2003 presentation to Guatemala’s Presidential Planning and Programming Department (SEGEPLAN), Virgilio Álvarez Aragón, scholar and current director of the Guatemalan branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLASCO), pointed out that the ERP had remained virtually unimplemented. This lack of implementation was due to the absence of a necessary dialogue between citizens and different levels of government. Similarly, Senior Research Associate Gary Bland stated in a 2002 Woodrow Wilson Center report on decentralization in Guatemala, that a major problem typical of Latin American countries is the lack of acknowledgement and discussion of the nation’s current governmental structure, which precludes any solid progress toward decentralization.

These laments are clear reflections of the sense of aloofness and apprehension regarding all forms of authority that the Garífuna, along with most other indigenous people, retain, causing a deeply felt gap between the governing and the governed that is difficult to bridge. To complicate matters further, the National Statistical Institute of Guatemala (INE) acknowledged in a 2005 presentation on the ERP that it lacked the proper tools and human resources to properly evaluate the program’s effectiveness. With regards to indigenous rights to land ownership, governmental initiatives beyond the 1996 Peace Accords have been scarce at best.

To counter this lack of resources and ingenuity, foreign entities have stepped in and tried to assist. One example is USAID’s Decentralization and Local Governance Program, which was implemented in thirteen different municipalities from 2005 until 2009. Its last report, published in September 2008, indicated promising advances. USAID developed a municipal integrated financial administration and tax code, implemented the use of Guatecompras, an online source for contracting and procurement information, and increased voter participation in the 2007 mayoral elections. Unfortunately, the spread of these successes to Garífuna communities has been hampered – none of Izabal’s municipalities were included in USAID’s project. Another problematic aspect of USAID’s work in general is that it comes from an external source and does not reflect a form of organic internal growth. Once again, decentralization appears to be coming from the top down. In an interview with SIM, Director of the USAID program Jorge Escoto explains that one problem with Guatemalan decentralization is that it has been, paradoxically, imposed by the central government instead of being requested by the municipalities themselves. Although USAID’s work seems to have had positive results, it would be a mark of progress if copies of their initiatives in other municipalities were preceded by a needs assessment and opinion poll to better understand the communities’ self-identified necessities.

The international community has also been more responsive than the Guatemalan state in enforcing indigenous land rights. Since 2006, the World Bank has been running its Land Administration II Project, which sets out “to foster the process of achieving land tenure security… through the provision of efficient and accessible cadastral and land administration services.” While this language leaves the actual beneficiaries of the land unclear, its Indigenous Peoples Plan details that the land they inhabit will generally be deemed “community land” and owned by all residents, indigenous and non-indigenous, in all of the eight departments involved, which include Izabal. Of the thirty indigenous sacred sites identified throughout the departments, three are Garífuna sites. The project’s most recent 2010 procurement plan, however, again brings up the question whether the Garífuna remain overshadowed by Guatemala’s Maya population – e.g., as of yet, no budget is listed for Izabal.

Local Initiatives and Success Stories

In addition to the mixed blessings of assistance coming from the national government as well as foreign institutions, the Garífuna people have several of their own non-profit organizations, and a few individuals have broken through the glass ceiling of racial stratification. Chalá’s research in 2006 indicated that ASO-Garífuna, the aforementioned non-profit of which Fraczúa was the director, was one of the community´s most well-established organizations. Founded by Bonaficia Núñez to address economic concerns, ASO-Garífuna was 50% black from the start, bringing a broad range of voices to the table. Approximately forty five out of the organization’s 130 members were actively involved, and they collaborated with World Children in New York City by matching American charity-sending families with approximately 800 Garífuna children in Guatemala. ASO-Garífuna also raised funds for a proper dock in Livingston, as well as an ambulance and a visitor’s center.

Mejía explains that he became motivated to start AFROGUA when he noticed that Garífuna youth did not have enough of a voice and that his generation, in spite of having received more education than their parents, was not facing a predictably rosier future. Mejía states that “we have…worked directly with Guatemalan Foundation for Indigenous Development (FODIGUA), and SEGEPLAN….We also have indirect contact with other Garífuna organizations.” These connections between local non-profits and the government are perhaps the most promising of all attempts to move the Garífuna forward. The only obstacles facing these organizations remain their often short-lived nature and lack of funding and project support. Mejía confirms: “For each project we have to knock on different doors to see if they can approve it, and today it has become much more difficult to get projects approved and hence to stake out [AFROGUA’s] goals.

While much work remains to be done for the progress of Garífuna communities as a whole, the community’s increased visibility in Guatemala, and in other areas, is notable. Mejía points out that the government’s Commission against Discrimination and Racism (CODISRA) has been led by a Garífuna who also briefly held the post of Vice Minister of Culture. CODISRA has maintained Garífuna representatives to this day and has tracked a number of discrimination reports by indigenous citizens. The country now also celebrates el día del Garífuna on November 26th. MINUGUA also has used television and billboard advertisements featuring Maya and Garífuna figures to promote multiculturalism and encourage indigenous pride. The Garífuna have produced a handful of scholars, including Pedro Espinoza, P. Oritzm Pacífico Lorenzo and Joseph Palacio. Mario Ellington Lambe has become Guatemala´s first Garífuna lawyer, and Garífuna Patricio Lorenzo has been mayor of Livingston since 2008. In 2004, Puerto Barrios-born Marva Weatherborn became Guatemala’s first Beauty Queen of African descent. The late Andy Palacios, who died in 2008, was a renowned Belizean musician who incorporated strong political messages into his songs. In 2004, he was named Cultural Ambassador and Deputy Administrator of the National Institute of Culture and History of Belize.

While not all of these figures are of pure Guatemalan descent, they remain significant to the Garífuna’s progress in Guatemala. As Arrivillaga explained to COHA in an interview, “one must look at the Garífuna as a transnational nation.” A key question this analysis brings to mind is whether their transnational sense of solidarity, created by their expulsion from their own homeland, might prevent them from becoming fully active citizens in their separate countries. This difficult concern is particularly relevant amongst the small Garífuna population in Guatemala and one that the nation’s community leaders and politicians must continue to address.