Many Garifuna people call Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua home. And here in the United States large population concentrations of Garifuna people can be found in major cities like The Bronx, Los Angeles, Houston, and New Orleans.
Keyanna Gotay is a proud Garifuna woman that advocates for the inclusion, elevation, and celebration of Garifuna people and their culture.
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“Garifuna is an ethnic group, culture and language. It is a mixture of African, Arawak, and Carib. Garifunas were intended for slavery but were never slaves, our history begins on the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Our ancestors were exiled and landed in Roatan, Honduras,” says Gotay. Born in The Bronx, New York to parents from Honduras Gotay recalls her grandfather being someone that taught her the importance of being proud of her Garifuna culture adding that he even tried teaching her the Garifuna language. “But it’s hard. I don’t have someone to consistently speak it with,” says Gotay. This type of cultural education stands out to Gotay because when she was younger she knew she was Garifuna but did not always understand what that meant. Even with these conversations with her grandfather, she still struggles to fully understand her identity.
Social media by other Black Latinxs has helped Gotay find a community that feels like a safe place to learn about her history and culture.
The words of fellow Garifuna woman, Janel Martinez, have helped her understand her identity. “Janel says, ‘Identity isn’t clear-cut. It’s complex and multilayered. As I journey through life, just as my current experiences influence how I identify, new encounters and knowledge will further shape it. No matter which term I use, my pride in my African roots will forever be a constant. Let there be no confusion as to who I am: a Black woman.’ “
With the continued support and encouragement from her grandfather and fellow Garifuna women, Gotay started to share her journey with others via social media. The more she learned and shared the more she said the need to create something that Central American and Garifuna people could use to celebrate their identity. In 2017 she launched her store, Brown Sugar and Canela. “I didn’t see much representation in clothing brands. It started off with only Afro-Latina shirts but of course being Garifuna and Central American, I [had to] have shirts for that population as well.” The store includes merchandise like pins that proudly state “Central American” and shirts that boldly state the same. But it’s the currently sold out “Garifuna” shirt that stands out the most. The shirt includes the colors of the Garifuna flag and offers is a succinct history lesson with its front and center design which reads African + Arawak + Carib | Garifuna.
“The importance of Garifuna representation is important to me because it is becoming a dying culture do to many assimilating to other cultures and even having elders not teaching us much about it.”While some may think that Garifuna is the same as Central Americans it’s important to make the distinction according to Gotay because “Garifunas are only Central American due to being displaced by colonizers. We have our own culture separate from Central Americans. All but one Central American countries speak Spanish. Garifunas speak Garifuna.” Gotay went on to say that people know about Garifuna culture even if they aren’t aware of it, “people know about punta but they don’t know that it was Garifunas that created punta.”
Her advocacy work has led to many exciting opportunities.
On the 220th year anniversary of Garifuna people arriving in Honduras, she had the opportunity dance punta in a traditional outfit with the colors of the Garifuna flag on at her alma mater, North Carolina Central University. The following year she participated at a panel at Brown University to talk about the expansiveness of Black identity and culture. “I don’t think these events are coincidences.” As someone that once felt lost and unsure of her identity Gotay wants other Garifuna to know that they shouldn’t feel alone and to be proud.
“Our ancestors beat slavery, have been from various parts of the world and we still have maintained our culture. Unfortunately, many can’t say the same.” She wants all Garifuna to teach their culture and history to younger generations, “Garifuna nuguya. Garinagu wagia.”