The Garifuna People in New York City

November 29, 2016

miriam-suazo-moore-at-100816-garifuna-perormance1By Lil Nickelson

On October 8th 2016 a Saturday evening, my friend Cherlyn Davis invited me to attend a dance performance with her at Symphony Space on the upper West side that one of her fellow shareholders Felix Gamboa, in her Esplanade Gardens building had invited her to attend.  We went to see the Chief Joseph Chatoyer Dance Company’s present: Garifuna Dilemma In The USA and Felix Gamboa is the Executive Director of the company.

I thought I had no idea what Garifuna was or what their dilemma was as we entered the building, but I’m always open to learn and expand on my knowledge base so I was game to attend.  All my life I’ve always firmly believed that New York City is a melting pot for the world and I figured this is some African people that I never knew existed because most the audience were dark skinned people like Cherlyn and I.

As the master of ceremonies began to speak about the program I realized that they spoke not one, not two, but three primary languages: Garifuna, Spanish and English.  The dance company’s mission is to maintain and preserve Garifuna heritage and culture by teaching dance, drumming, folkloric songs, the Garifuna language and spirituality.  The Garifuna people are mixed race people of West African, Island Carib and Arawak people; 75% are from Honduras, 15% are from Belize and the last 10% are from Guatemala.  The largest Garifuna population outside of Central America resides in New York City, about 100,000 strong in Harlem, South Bronx and the East New York section of Brooklyn.

I immediately started thinking about one of my good friends at Reuters Maira Suazo Hodge; her parents were from Honduras.  When I attended her Dad’s wake at the Weldon Funeral Home in East Harlem is when I realized that Maira spoke Spanish fluently.  As I sat through the performance I wondered in my head if her family were Garifuna; what a small world we live in.  I really got into the show because the dance moves reminded me of African dance, while the colorfulness of the outfits reminded me of Spanish dancers.  The fact that they were speaking three languages throughout the entire performance intrigued me as well.

They started the program singing their national anthem and then they paid tribute to the Wanichigu Dance Company, which was the first dance company Felix Gamboa joined when he migrated to NYC in 1985 and then the musical play began.  There were ceremonial dances performed by women, acapella songs and dances performed by males and spiritual ceremonies performed by all.

At one point, they were speaking in Garifuna and I started laughing as if I understood them.  Cherlyn turned and asked me what was I laughing at because she knew I didn’t know the language; it was just instinctive to me and the people around us that did speak the language were laughing as well.

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garifuna-dilemma-in-the-usaBy the end of the show some of the original dance members of the Chief Joseph Chatoyer Dance Company came on stage and that’s when I saw someone who I thought looked a lot like Maira’s younger sister, Miriam Suazo Moore.  The very next day after church I called Maira to ask her if her family were Garifuna people.  She replied yes we are and she asked me why I asked her that?  I told her of the show I attended the previous evening and she asked me if I saw her sister Miriam?  I belted out that was her dancing on the stage!  Cherlyn had commented doing the show how Miriam was busting some moves up on the stage with a shoe boot on one foot.  We spoke for another two hours and she commented her she was bilingual while Miriam was trilingual because she visited Honduras more with their Mom then what Maira did and she was able to pick up their native language as well.

From previous visits to Maira and her husband’s brownstone in Brooklyn over the 20 years I’ve known her I noticed that Miriam had taught her son to speak Spanish first and then taught him English, while Maira’s two daughters only spoke English.  Maira once commented how seeing how easily her nephew spoke Spanish and then picked up English so quickly if she had it to do over again she might have done the same with her girls.

What a rich heritage Garifuna people come from.  Just image that two Spanish ships carrying West African slaves became shipwrecked in 1635 off the coast of St. Vincent.  The slaves swam ashore to escape and were sheltered by the island’s inhabitants, Island Caribs who were mixed race of Arawaks and Caribs.  They take pride that they escaped slavery; 162 years later they were forced off St. Vincent by the British in 1797 and they fled to the coastland Central America countries of Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

Many Garifuna men came to America during World War II as merchant marines when America was in need of sailors.  After Hurricane Hattie destroyed Central American coastline countries in 1961, America opened its doors to refugees and more Garifuna came to strengthen their community in New York City.  After the 1960s migration, has largely consisted of Garifuna people reuniting with families or overstaying their visas.  That was when America still cared about helping immigrants and building walls and fences to keep people out wasn’t on our minds.  I hope and pray that we as a nation can remember and not be so quick to want to exclude entrance or deporting those that overstayed their visas.

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