For centuries, home has been a transient notion for the ethnic community known as the Garifuna.
Pushed around the Caribbean region by various colonial powers, many sought safe haven in New York beginning in the 1940s. They've kept coming in small waves, but have maintained a low profile — until now.
On the cusp of the 2010 census, community leaders are asking Garifuna residents to stand up and be counted.
Ruben Gwaite sounds like a typical East Coaster.
"For a living I dispatch limos," he said. "But I'm also a musician. I was born and raised in Boston. I've been in the Bronx 16 or 17 years by now."
You'd never know it from the accent, but English is actually Gwaite's third language. A native of Honduras, he also speaks Spanish, and is currently re-learning a language that shares its name with his ethnic group, Garifuna.
When Gwaite walks down the street in the South Bronx, people probably assume he's black because of his skin color, or Latino, because he can speak Spanish. Officially, he's neither. Like all Garifuna, Gwaite is a descendent of shipwrecked slaves who landed ashore in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 1600s. They intermarried with Caribbean indigenous groups and spawned an entirely new and distinct ethnic group, with its own language, beliefs and practices. Gwaite's people have been trying to hold onto their unique culture ever since.
Embracing Their Culture
The Saturday morning scene at Casa Yurumein, a converted old convent in the South Bronx, suggests they've done just that. Gwaite, and a dozen other teens and adults, take a weekly Garifuna language class there.
Casa Yurumein is a community haven full of old ancestral photos and cultural artifacts, like wood utensils. Not only does it look and sound like a Garifuna revival, but it smells like one, too. Mirtha Colon cooks up some of the typical dishes from her native Honduran village there.
"We're cooking hoodootoo, one of the main Garifuna dishes," she said. "Mashed plantains and fish soup."
The Garifuna historically were punished for expressing their culture and language back in their countries of origin — a list that includes Belize, Guatemala, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Bronx resident Maria Elena Baltazar says because of that, not everybody born Garifuna stays in the community.
"We've always lived among other people," Baltazar said. "In Guatemala, in Honduras, we live among the majority, and so you're trying to be like this person, to be in this class of people, so you have to negate what you are, in order to fit in."
Baltazar admits in the past she and her Garifuna friends have tended to assimilate outside the home, passing as black or Latino, and when they get home and close the doors, they are Garifuna again.
But community leader Jose Avila says they should be Garifuna all the time. In the past year, he has organized cultural gatherings, award ceremonies and even Garifuna Month in the Bronx.
Avila is convinced that more than 100,000 Garifuna live in New York City, and he's trying to use the upcoming 2010 census to prove it.
"It's not just about being counted," Avila said. "It's about resource allocation. It's about housing. It's about transportation, education — which translates into schools."
Avila is busy giving talks and presentations, explaining how easy it is to be counted and why it's important. He says in the last census, hundreds of thousands of Bronx residents marked "other" for their ethnicity. In order for the Garifuna to get an accurate tally, they simply need to write in the name of their group.
Every third Sunday of the month, the Garifuna celebrate their culture with a traditional mass at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Women in colorful blue and pink traditional dresses and head scarves dance down the aisle, accompanied by men with drums and tambourines.
After a recent mass, 47-year-old Raul Melendez leaned against the church, trying to stay warm in a driving rain. Melendez said he loves the U.S., but being Garifuna is more important to him.
"The Garifuna person who doesn't speak Garifuna has no identity," he said. "The person who has no identity, who has no origin, is buried."
Two years from now, when the new census results are released, Melendez will find out for the first time just how many of his fellow Garifuna living in the United States agree with him.