riday night in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a crowd of a two-dozen or so gathered at the Steve Biko Transformation Center to celebrate a holiday and talk about a problem.
The audience clapped and participated as a succession of cultural activists took center stage, singing, dancing, and lecturing, in celebration of Garifuna Settlement Day, a national holiday for the Garinagu people of Central America. But from time-to-time a speaker would focus on a problem the New York City Garinagu face: preserving their language. Roughly 100,000 Garinagu live here (mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx), which is more than a third of their world population, according to the Endangered Language Alliance. And many of the young Garinagu don’t speak the language.
An anecdote taken from the liner notes of the 2007 hit Garifuna song “Watina” illustrates the pervasiveness of the problem: When the Garifuna musician Andy Palacio greeted an old man in Nicaragua in their native tongue, “The man embraced him and would not let go. He could not imagine that someone so young could speak Garifuna, having thought that the language would perish with him.”
Biko Center co-founder and program director Tyrone Uwusu (ooh-woo-su) Slater says maintaining the language is paramount.
“One of the primary objectives is the restoration of the language, especially among the youth,” said Slater, 58.
The Garinagu’s struggle to preserve their language is one that many people from the African diaspora can relate to. “You can hear it in their tongue,” said Antonia Dixon, 48, who is not Garinagu. “They were able to retain their language whereas a lot of us who came out of slavery lost our language.”
The Garinagu are one of several New York City Afro-Caribbean groups working to preserve their cultural heritage, which has roots in St. Vincent. After a slave ship wrecked off the coast of the island in 1635, the West Africans on board intermarried with the local Arawakan and Carib tribes before the British expelled them from St. Vincent in 1796, leading them to migrate to Honduras, Belize and other Central American countries.
The Garifuna language is a dialect of Arawak. It’s a mixture of Arawak, Carib, French, and English and comes out in a mellifluous flow of hard consonants. UNESCO proclaimed it a “Masterpiece of the Heritage of Humanity” in 2001, noting that “virtually no documentation of the language exists.”
That makes learning the language especially difficult for the new generation. Shana Mejia said transliterations of her ancestors’ language do not make it any easier.
“There’s those long words that have the double a’s, double e’s, and then the i-e at the end,” said Mejia. “Those are hard for me to say.”
To preserving their language, Garinagu leaders are working to inspire cultural awareness. Musician and activist James Lovell teaches neighborhood children Garifuna through song and often helps organize teaching trips to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. A video recently posted on Teofilo Colon Jr.’s “Being Garifuna” blog shows Lovell addressing kids before he led them in a song in Garifuna.
“You’re gonna stand straight, and then when you speak, you’re gonna speak so people can hear you,” he told the children. “Don’t be afraid to speak up because when you speak up, that’s empowering. If you know what you’re talking about, nobody can fool you, nobody can take advantage of you.”
Alfonso Cayetano, the president of the United Garifuna Association, said he started teaching Garifuna when he realized the importance of educating his daughter about their heritage. Cayetano referred to the work as a “torchlight parade.”
“We are passing the torch, the knowledge, to others,” said Cayetano, 62. “Once the torch is extinguished, we are dead, so we have to pass it on to others.”
Friday’s Garifuna Settlement Day celebration is also a part of the cultural preservation efforts. The November 19 holiday originated in Belize in 1941. It commemorates the arrival of the Garinaju’s ancestors to Belize after the British colonial government expelled them from St. Vincent in the late 18th century. The festivities that occur at family get-togethers during the holiday have a higher purpose, said Rosita Alvarez, the organizer and emcee of Friday’s event.
“I believe we need to think about more than the singing and the dancing and the fun part of it,” Alvarez said. “It’s more than that.”
Bushwick’s Steve Biko Transformation Center is a hub for much of the cultural preservation efforts of Garinagu leaders. Slater, a Garifuna born in St. Vincent, said his mission is to pass on his heritage.
“The work is about the dignity of your people,” Slater said. “It’s about instilling pride, respectability, even protection.”
Friday night’s Settlement Day celebration at the Biko Center ended with a feast. Alvarez and others had prepared a buffet of darasa — wrapped banana tamales — and bundiga — green banana puree — along with fish, chicken and sweet breads for dessert. On Sunday, she would be coordinating the official Garifuna Settlement Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville.
Alvarez, took over the Garifuna Settlement Day Mass in 2007 when financial concerns threatened to shut it down. She often pays for food and event space with her own money, earned at her day job on the clerical staff at the city department of education.
“Don’t even think the Garifuna nation will die because it will not die,” event organizer Rosita Alvarez said. “It will remain.”