Just Don’t Call Them Afro-Latino

Sulma Arzu-Brown of the Garifuna Coalition ( Photo by Roxanne L. Scott for Voices of NY)

Sulma Arzu-Brown of the Garifuna Coalition (Photo by Roxanne L. Scott for Voices of NY)

Tired of her friends telling her who she is, Sulma Arzu-Brown sat down with her black and Latino friends one day to explain one thing: she’s not black and she’s not Latino – she’s Garifuna.

Arzu-Brown, 35, the interim executive director of the Garifuna Coalition USA, an advocacy group in the South Bronx, realizes that the identity of the Garinagu, plural for Garifuna, is difficult to explain in the U.S. where people tend to be easily pegged.

The Garinagu, dark-skinned and often Spanish-speaking, are descendants of indigenous groups of Central America and Africans. Too often, they end up being identified simply as Afro-Latino or black.

But such simple categorization erases their indigenous roots and ignores their shared language, Garifuna, whose roots are primarily Arawak and Carib, with hints of English, Spanish, French, as well as a smattering of some African languages.

In New York City, the 200,000 Garinagu face issues other immigrants do – including poverty, affordable housing, access to health care and economic development. But the Garinagu also fear a loss of their particular identity by being absorbed into more dominant groups like African Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.

The 35-year-old Arzu-Brown hyphenated her last name when she married to preserve it, one of the remaining Garifuna names, which means “the desire of.” Arzu-Brown came to the U.S at the age of six from Santa Fé on the coast of Honduras. Her mother wanted to move to the U.S. after being denied a promotion at the bank she worked at because of the color of her skin. Arzu-Brown was always aware of her Garifuna heritage. “I’ve always known I was Garifuna only because we ate hudutu (coconut-based seafood stew) and my parents spoke Garifuna in the house.”

But she really became interested in her culture when the Garifuna Coalition used to meet in the basement of her mother’s home in the Bronx. At first unaware of the purpose of the meetings, Arzu-Brown questioned José Francisco Avila, now chairman of the Garifuna Coalition. He told her that it was to form the Garifuna Coalition, a group that would empower and educate the Garifuna community by organizing and providing resources.

An attendee in traditional attire at the Garifuna Heritage Month celebration last month in Brooklyn (Photo by Roxanne L. Scott)

An attendee in traditional attire at the Garifuna Heritage celebration in Brooklyn in April. (Photo by Roxanne L. Scott)

Among the coalition’s activities since then has been sponsorship of the Garifuna Arts & Culture Appreciation Month in NYC during the month of May. Last month, a wide range of events, including a performance by the Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble, a dance party and Garifuna cinema were held to showcase the community’s distinctive music and dance.

Garifuna music is as varied as its language, but it is most notable for punta music. Played on instruments including drums, maracas, turtle shells and guitar among others, the music has a West African and Caribbean feel.

If New Yorkers have heard of the Garinagu, it’s likely to be in the context of the Happy Land Social Club fire in 1990, which killed 87 people, most of them Garinagu from Honduras. But the Coalition’s activities have changed that – for Garinagu themselves, as well as for New Yorkers.

Arzu-Brown sat in on those early meetings of the Coalition, and that started her on a path to a rediscovery of her culture. That was eight years ago, and she’s been attending the meetings ever since.

“What José was able to do is teach the members of the organization the history of the Garifuna people. That turned into changing how we look at ourselves. At that point I was no longer Honduran, I was Garifuna,” she said.

Arzu-Brown was so inspired, she taught her parents the history. Despite speaking the language at home while Arzu-Brown was growing up, they had little knowledge of Garinagu history.

After slave ships were wrecked on St. Vincent in the 1600s, Africans found refuge with the indigenous population, creating a new group of people. By the mid-1700s the English arrived and warred with the Garinagu for decades.

In 1797, the Garinagu were chased off the island and shipped to the island of Balliceaux where they were imprisoned. Those that survived the horrific conditions were eventually shipped to Roatán island off the coast of Honduras. The Garinagu later established settlements off the coast of Central America.

Fascinated with what the Garinagu survived, Arzu-Brown fell in love with the history and began teaching it to her parents. Soon they started identifying as Garifuna as well.

Arzu-Brown understands the importance of knowing one’s history and culture. Having worked in the media corporate world for companies like ESPN and Time Warner, Inc. she always noticed that people who knew where they came from were more outspoken and knew what they wanted. Not knowing why, she was intimidated in those meetings, not speaking up and not asking questions. That changed when her journey of learning about her history started. “Knowing who you are really changes your self-esteem. There was a point I was very insecure and I didn’t realize it was because I had an identity issue,” she said.

It hasn’t always been an easy road for Arzu-Brown to learn about being Garifuna. During her journey she had a black friend who also tried to identify her as black. Her Latino friend did the same. That’s when she decided it was time to enlighten them. “It’s time for me to explain who I am to you, rather than you thinking you can identify me,” she said to them. Her friends accepted her identity.

“They introduce me as Garifuna. Now they know the term and can explain what it means,” she said.

At events held by the Garifuna Coalition, it’s not easy to unify a large group of people that span the coast of Belize to Nicaragua under one umbrella. Many identify most strongly with their hometown. Even the Garifuna language can cause divisiveness. “We need to speak English because that’s the unifying language we all speak. Our brothers and sisters from Belize do not speak Spanish. The first-generation Americans don’t speak Garifuna. They can’t be a part of a movement of making change if they don’t understand,” Arzu-Brown said.

But she remains hopeful about the future of her heritage. This year Arzu-Brown went back to her home in Honduras with her two daughters. Arzu-Brown took her older daughter to the beach. “I told her, you see all of this? You do know that it’s yours. This is the land of the Garifuna. It is ours. It was ours since 1797 and I will pass this on to you. So make sure you always feel proud of who you are,” she said.

Roxanne L. Scott is a freelance reporter and student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: “Just Don’t Call Them Afro-Latino” by @WhosWorld #Garifuna [MUST READ] | LivingInColorBlindness

  2. Pingback: CUNY Graduate School of Journalism Clips of the Week » CUNY Graduate School of Journalism

  3. Hi,
    thank you for this interesting article. I am a photographer and journalist from Switzerland, following a personal project on languages in danger in NYC. I went to the website of the Garifuna Coalition USA, but the phone number they give is not in function and the inquiery form is missing. Would you have a contact for me?

    Thank you,

    Michel

  4. Pingback: Finding Garifuna Food and Culture in a Harlem Home

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*