This Is What It’s Like To Grow Up Garifuna

credit: Janel Martinez

Growing up, Saturdays were always my favorite day of the week. It wasn’t because I got to catch morning cartoons — Doug, Recess and Pepper Ann — between chores or that I had dance class. It was because I knew hudutu, machuca in Spanish, would be on the menu.

My parents would tag team on the creation of this savory dish made of mashed green platanos, a ripe one for good measure, and soup, which had fish, crab or some type of seafood mixture. Sometimes, we’d even switch it up with freshly made chicken soup.

My favorite sopa is falmou, which is made with fish and coconut milk, the product of draining the fruit, grating its meat, placing it into the coconut water and squeezing it until it produces milk. After the soup was made, and the plantains were boiled and cooled, it was time to mash them in the hana (mortar) with the pilón (pestle). It’s no easy task to smush it into a plantain ball, but so worth it when it’s time to sit with family to devour several hours worth of work.

Like hudutu and other Garifuna dishes, our cuisine reminds me just how rich our history and culture is. It’s even been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which declared Garifuna language, music and dance a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

Garifuna was never an identity I had to unearth; it was a culture and way of being I experienced within and all around me.

I’m not fluent in Garifuna, the term that describes both who we are and our language, but it was spoken in my household. A reported 200,000 Garinagu in countries such as Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, as well as in the U.S., speak our native Black Carib/Arawakan tongue.

Visits to see relatives in Ciriboya and Iriona in the Colón section of Honduras, where many Garinagu reside today, were reminders that even 221 years after our arrival on April 12, 1797 in Roatán as exiles from St. Vincent, our culture remains intact.

The survivors of shipwrecked Spanish (and possibly one Portuguese) ships enroute from West Africa — Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone — to be sold as slaves in the Americas, we made it to St. Vincent, where we were welcomed by the local Caribs.

The fusion of West and Central African, Black Carib and Arawak people is what birthed the Garinagu.

While English troops tried to conquer the island, our resistance was strong. Garifuna leader Joseph Chatoyer, or Satuye, led a successful revolt in March 1795, leading both Garifuna and French soldiers to victory. Sadly, he was killed two days later. Fighting continued, but two years after, the English decided to exile our people from St. Vincent.

Still, throughout our struggles and resistance, we were never enslaved.

I wasn’t privy to much of this history until my 20s, when I began piecing together bits and pieces of stories and information online. Many of it isn’t documented because, as descendants of Africa, we’ve shared and passed on information orally — even down to the spelling, which is another reason you may see slight variations in words or phrases.

While I experienced Garifuna culture regularly, through food, music, dance — specifically punta — and language, it wasn’t until my grandmother’s beluria, a celebration of life after death, that I wanted to discover more.

Family came from all over Honduras and the States to celebrate her legacy throughout the day and night. I remember vividly how a procession of women from Ciriboya, dressed in beautiful traditional garbs, were singing, moving toward our front yard in unison where everyone stood waiting. It nearly brought me to tears.

I think back to that day often because, as a Bronx, New York-born, Garifuna-American, I navigate several cultural identities at the same time, and feel as connected and detached from each at given times.

Yes, technically Honduras is home, but so is St. Vincent, and there is even a place in West Africa that holds my familial roots, though I haven’t quite pinpointed where.

There’s also the complex layer of being raised in the U.S., where, if you’re not digested in a certain way, your identity is deemed less than. This is a reality for many Black Latinxs that identify with nationality but also with race, ethnicity, country of birth and current location.

Being Garifuna, I appreciate our complex but beautiful history and am thankful I can trace my roots back to the continent. It’s debatable, but I did take an ancestry test and my results confirmed a lot of what I already knew: I’m 80.9 percent Sub-Saharan African with 75 percent of that being West African.

I plan to pass Garifuna culture down to my future children, and trust they’ll do the same. As a matriarchal culture, sustaining this history begins with us, and I’m striving to do my part by continuing to write and document the stories of Garifuna women — starting with myself.

Read: 13 Women Share What It Means To Be Garifuna

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