A Garifuna Voyage


Tomas Sanchez, organizer and president of the Garifuna parliament in Guatemala, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Tomas Sanchez is a community activist in the town of Livingston, Guatemala, which lies at the mouth of the Dulce River and at the edge of the country’s lush Caribbean coast. This area makes for robust fishing, a common occupation among locals, and an astonishing natural beauty marked by a superabundance of migratory and native bird  life.  It is also home to the Garifuna people of Guatemala, who have maintained a distinct culture and language for centuries.

Garinagu (the plural term for Garifuna) have a remarkable history, yet few scholars have explored it with the attention it deserves, leaving many questions yet to be fully answered. What we do know is that the culture first formed on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in the 1600s, some 2,000 miles east of Livingston, when former African captives came to live amongst the area’s native communities. Indigenous settlements had developed years before from an interaction between Carib and Arawak people, who  were among the first groups the Spanish encountered when they landed in the Caribbean in the late 1400s.  How Africans mixed with these communities and adopted a language based largely on Arawak is a mystery.

Some believe the Garifuna community began when a slave ship went aground on Saint Vincent in 1635 (perhaps followed by another years later), with Africans escaping and living among indigenous settlements, forging their own independent society from that point on.  (Their community, it is believed, then became a refuge for future African fugitives.)  Others theorize that indigenous raids on European slaveholders resulted in African re-enslavement under indigenous authority.  The former scenario, in which captives escaped a slave ship (or two) and then resided among native people, is the one most internalized by people in the Garifuna community, who are proud of their independent heritage.   

Regardless of how the community formed originally,  documentation shows that the Garifuna by the 1700s were an independent people who, after years of warring with the English on Saint Vincent island, were forced to relocate to Central America’s Caribbean shore around 1802.  Garinagu then spread out through the coastal areas of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.  Today, the Garifuna make up a trans-national community whose language is spoken by 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras, 21,000 in Belize, 2,500 in Nicaragua, and about 23,000 in Guatemala, mostly in Livingston but also in nearby Puerto Barrios across the Amatique Bay. The community as a whole, including those living abroad, is believed to number about a million people.

Sanchez, a powerful defender of Garifuna rights, grew up in two different Garifuna locales, one in Belize and the other in Livingston (called Labuga in Garifuna).  His reflections offer a glimpse into the aspirations of the Garifuna people as well as his own quest to understand himself and his identity.  

I grew up with my grandmother and her companion, who was the father figure of my life. In my early years, until I was about seven, times were hard, harder than now — my children are not going through the same thing that I went through. Extreme poverty would be another way to put it. But it was also one of the most intriguing periods of my life because we were able to get by and live in a very wholesome way, without money.  We didn’t have any whatsoever.  I was raised with what we grew around the house. 

At the age of seven and a half I was first exposed to formal education, in Dangriga, Belize, which was then called Stan Creek. I went to school there from 1969 to 1976.  (Dangriga, home to a large Garifuna population, lies along the Caribbean coastline about a 120 miles north of Livingston.) 

You could travel from the port right here in Livingston to Dangriga every Friday.  I’m talking over forty years ago.  We took a small little canoe with a small engine, like 15 horsepower, a very risky trip between here and Punta Gorda (a town in Belize on the way to Dangriga), especially near the mouth of the Sarstoon River when it’s bubbling a little bit.  During those days it would take an hour and a half. Now, it’s a 45-minute trip.  

Going south on Main Street toward the port, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

I went there with my grandparents, the people who raised me, because, at that time, Garifuna hands from Livingston were hired to work in the citrus orchards in Belize, specifically in Dangriga. My grandfather first started as a reaper of oranges but also worked with other produce like grapefruits, tangerines and what have you.  Later on he was employed lifting boxes of oranges onto the trucks to take to the citrus company.  

On vacations, we would go back to Livingston from Dangriga, so then I would hang out with friends in my neighborhood in Livingston. This was the first 15 years of my life. Half of that was here in Livingston and half of that was in Belize, where I graduated from the only formal education I have had.

The foundation of my education was in Belize, but I came back here permanently to Livingston when I was 15 or 16.  When I was a teenager, I got involved in so many things. We are talking about 1976 to about 1980.  I was very aware of the civil war activities here in Guatemala, but I was really a rebel without a cause. 

Sanchez never joined the guerrillas, remaining neutral during Guatemala’s civil conflict.  He did, however, act to protect the local Garifuna community from abuses by military personnel. 

We were approaching 1980 then. We put our lives on the line by literally taking away guns from soldiers who were patrolling our town.  They would drink and get stupid on the streets of Livingston and just intimidate people with their guns, and I didn’t go for that.  I started organizing; I would talk with friends and we would agree to go on a rampage and take away weapons, to send a message to the others.  

I came with a rebellious spirit and something would tell me the soldier was against what was going on, and I would just follow that voice.  But first, we would investigate; if he’s on duty and not drinking, we would respect that, but if he was on duty and drinking, and after a couple of drinks he started intimidating people with his guns, then we would move in.  I was never armed, but I would instigate a fight just to take his guns away.

Sometimes a soldier would be on the streets and be going into a bar, bobbing and weaving, so I would just go and wait in a dark spot and knock him down and take away his gun.  I would make sure he didn’t wake up until I was gone.  I would just choke him to the point where he couldn’t breathe any more, to knock him out.

Usually, though, the soldier would be sitting at a bar and would put his gun down somewhere nearby.  We would sit watching him as he was drinking there, understanding that the first thing I would go for was his gun, so I’m gonna’ spot where it is. I would sit next to him and ask him what he was doing, knowing that could provoke a reaction. At this point I already had a few guys around me  — I wasn’t going to go by myself.  I knew that if I could hit him in the head with a bottle before he reached for the gun I could dominate the game, which is what I would do.  That was my way of fighting back with my group. 

Ok, I was stupid (laughing). 

I had to migrate to the United States because if I had been caught and doing all of this, I wouldn’t be here today telling you any of it. My mom was living in California and heard about what I was doing, so she accumulated four hundred dollars, sent it to me, and that’s what I used to leave Livingston to go to California.  I literally left on the second of February, 1980, and got there on the 18th of February, so I arrived in two weeks and two days, traveling by bus and by train.  I was able to catch a bus to Guatemala City, and from there you could go easily to Mexico City, and then on to the United States. 

You get to meet a lot of people going north, thinking about the same dream that people still have today, that the United States is a land of milk and honey, a promised land where dreams are met or can be achieved, where people have a white picket fence, a white house and a dog called Spot.

Part of my way of thinking was formed in the United States, not really here in Livingston. It’s during my time in the US that I became aware of my identify, as being from a culture that is unique in so many ways.  We’re still in the making, we’re not done yet as Garifuna.  We’re approaching a time, shall I say, for us to start sharing our story, to start writing, telling people what it’s like from the eyes of the Garifuna. 

Main Street, northward, a short walk to the Amatique Bay and the Caribbean Sea, Livingston, July 15, 2021.

I came back from the United States here to Livingston the 23rd of January, 2001, so I have been residing here for the past 20 years.  I’ve gotten myself involved in the community from the bottom, from the base.  I’m a community activist now. I don’t fight any more.  I don’t look for the soldiers.  I’m an indigenous leader who was once a part of this mess (The Guatemalan Civil Conflict), but along with others is now talking about building a new route where we can all travel together towards justice and peace.

In December of 1996,  following 35 years of armed conflict, the government of Guatemala and the revolutionary command (URNG) signed a peace accord under the auspices of the United Nations.  This agreement incorporated previous commitments to improve Guatemalan society and outlined a strategy for a longstanding peace.  

The treaty was renowned for recognizing the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, among them the Garifuna, and declaring them essential in the building of a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual country of national unity.  It also gave those uprooted by war the right to return and live freely in Guatemala.

You have to remember that there were 36 years of war in Guatemala and many of our people became scattered throughout the world, and some of them are coming back.  These are groups that have been part of our history, some of them have been in Peru, some of them in Mexico, I don’t know where, but they had to leave their land and run away or they would be killed.  Politically, we were caught in the middle.  If you didn’t obey what the government was saying, you were a Communist, you were killed, just because you had the guts to speak against the government.  I couldn’t speak then the way I do now.

In the 80s, there were at least 19 settlements in the name of the Garifuna people, on each side of the Amatique Bay (in particular, Livingston and Puerto Barrios.)  The military came at the time, wanting to buy their land, but only symbolically, because they weren’t giving them shit, and if you did not accept their symbolic gift then you and your family could end up floating in the ocean, in the Caribbean Sea. 

Corruption still exists and is in the spirit of our politics, and in other countries  where we live.  As we speak, our brothers and sisters in Honduras are fighting to preserve their land from the government and tourist companies, particularly from  Canada, that would like to make Cancuns out of the areas that belong to the Garifuna people.  They also want to convert Livingston into one of these touristic areas.  That’s a double edged sword. 

As an indigenous group, our land should be sacred to us.  It’s our territory.  That’s where we find the wild animals and trees to make the drums with.  We need the ocean for the turtle shells.  The Garifuna is a civilization.  

We also want to be part of the modern civilization but with everything that comes with autonomy.  We want to call the shots.

The peace treaty was signed the 29th of December, 1996, but there is nothing tangible in the hands of the Garifuna people from the state of Guatemala.  Most of the time we are just used as pawns.  What sells the most is the folkloric representations, like Garifuna dancing, the shaking of the ass.  But there is nothing that we have that is tangible.  

Under the peace agreement, public funds were to be channeled to social investment and to broaden opportunities for indigenous groups held back by discrimination, specifically the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna. The treaty also promised an economic policy that would optimize growth, prevent processes of economic exclusion, and attack unemployment and impoverishment. 

The document’s high hopes and dreams have not been realized.

We want equal decision-making, and we want financing from the resources of our territory.  I don’t know how many yachts and fancy boats go in to this bay every day, but are they using anything from that activity to educate the Garifuna people?  Let’s get back something from our resources and let’s put that into education, let’s put that into health.

We also need to work together to form our own institutions. We are beginning to talk about establishing an institution for the Garifuna people of Guatemala that would have a headquarters, a base to address any issue that regards the well-being and future of the Garifuna people. 

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

We are also beginning to talk about an academy for the language of the Garifuna people in Guatemala.  We didn’t speak Spanish in my day. I learned Spanish along the way.  

When I was in Belize, people felt shame in speaking Garifuna, and when I came back to Livingston at 15 my identity had been torn completely into pieces. Some of us still have our language intact, but I think we are the last generation that is holding on.  That’s why it’s so important for me to go out there and spread the word. 

My third son was born a couple of houses from where I was born but he was not raised with the language.   Being an activist, I lost track and didn’t teach him Garifuna at home.  I want to be part of the team that is creating this new road where we have to leave it so clear that the language will be understood.

Children playing outside their homes on the Caribbean side of town, Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Livingston, Guatemala, July 15, 2021.

Sanchez’ quest to revive the language, especially among the younger generation, is part of a greater effort to illuminate the richness of Garifuna culture and history.  Considerd the community’s first blogger, Sanchez has exposed readers to much of Garifuna society, its spiritual side as well as its daily reality.  What emerges from Sanchez’s writing is a belief that the Garifuna are on an historical journey, one in which the mission of past generations is carried on by those of the present and future.

I can speak on behalf of what the dreams of my ancestors were.  They were the ones who paved the way, and I am just a conduit.  In 1802, Marcos Sánchez Díaz came; he is the spiritual guide and founder of Livingston. There are articles on my blog where I state that Marcos Sánchez Díaz held my hand.  He held my hands tight when I would blog. I haven’t blogged since the 14th of August, 2019, and I don’t know if I will pick it back up. It depends on what he tells me, and what the spirits say.

When I was growing up, everything was spiritual at home, but I did not understand then what I do now. We have a mixture of different beliefs. We have beliefs about our ancestors from Africa, their connection with water or their connection with land, their connection with stars, connection with the dead.  In our culture the dead can manifest themselves through the body of a living person, and they can come to you in dreams.  They can come to you in different ways that you might not understand in the moment, but later you put the pieces together. 

I’m just part of this journey that began more than 224 years ago.  The fact remains that the Garifuna were here from 1802, and today we are still crying out against discrimination, injustice. We want to create a route towards justice and peace for the Garifuna people.

We don’t want to shed any more blood for land.  Over two hundred years ago they took our land and killed our people. We were on the verge of genocide.  They did this in Saint Vincent, and that’s why we came here.  There were Garifuna people fighting for their land, and the ones who didn’t succumb landed here. 

Our ancestors used to have knowledge so profound that they could travel these waters day and night just by looking at the stars. They were feared and revered people in canoes. We, whom you see today, are the current generation of these people.

Tomás Sanchez, speaking in front of the Amatique Bay, July 15, 2021, Livingston, Guatemala.

This narrative evolved from an interview I conducted with Sanchez on July 15, 2021.

For background on Garifuna history and culture, the following works are extremely enlightening:  Christopher Taylor, The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival, and the Making of the Garifuna  (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012); Michelle Ann Forbes, “Garifuna: The Birth and Rise of an Identity through Contact Language and Contact Culture” (PhD diss., Univ. of Missouri, 2011); Élmer Mauricio Enríquez Bermúdez and others, Discriminaciones (El Salvador: Fundación Heinrich Böll, 2020). Also noteworthy is a first-hand account of Livingston in the 19th century by Alfred de Valois, Mexique, Havane et Guatemala. Notes voyages (Paris, 1861), re-published in Spanish as México, Habana y Guatemala: Notas de Viaje (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2015). 

Sanchez’s blog can be found at: http://garifunareality.blogspot.com

Author: storiesfromguatemala

Dr. Stephen O'Brien is a historian who resides in both Guatemala and New Haven, CT collecting oral testimony to gain insight into various historical and cultural forces. He has a PhD from Yale University in History, with a concentration in modern Latin America, and is a Fulbright-Hays scholar. He has taught at Trinity College in Connecticut and at Saint Louis University in Madrid, Spain. Before that time, he was a reporter and anchorman in local tv news in the United States.

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