Garifuna Ethnic Group Seeks Voice In New York City For centuries, home has been a transient notion for the ethnic community known as the Garifuna. Pushed around the Caribbean region for centuries by various colonial powers, many sought safe haven in New York City beginning in the 1940s. They've kept coming in small waves, but have maintained a low profile — until now.
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Garifuna Ethnic Group Seeks Voice In New York City

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Garifuna Ethnic Group Seeks Voice In New York City

Garifuna Ethnic Group Seeks Voice In New York City

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For centuries, home has been hard to define for the ethnic community known as the Garifuna. Many sought safe haven in New York beginning in the 1940s after struggling with colonial powers in the Caribbean region. The Garifuna have largely maintained a low profile - until now.

Ahead of the 2010 Census, reporter Jesse Hardman finds out why community leaders are mobilizing the Garifuna to be counted.

JESSE HARDMAN: Ruben Gwaite sounds like a typical East Coaster.

Mr. RUBEN GWAITE: For a living, I dispatch limos. Lots of fun, but I'm also a musician. Yeah, I've been in the Bronx for about 16 or 17 years by now.

HARDMAN: 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.

Mr. GWAITE: The most popular greeting you'll hear very likely is the Garifuna for good morning and it's (foreign language spoken).

HARDMAN: When Ruben 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 the 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 community with its own language, beliefs and practices. Gwaite's people have been trying to hold onto their unique culture ever since.

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 are taking a weekly Garifuna language class.

Mr. GWAITE: (Foreign language spoken)

HARDMAN: 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, it smells like one, too.

(Soundbite of sizzling)

HARDMAN: Mirtha Colon is cooking up some of the typical dishes from her native Honduran village.

Ms. MIRTHA COLON: We're cooking hoodootoo. This is one of the main Garifuna dishes. Mashed plantains and fish soup.

HARDMAN: 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.

Ms. MARIA ELENA BALTAZAR: We've always lived among other people. In Honduras and Guatemala, we live among the majority. And so, you know, you were trying to be like this person, youre trying to be in this class of people, so you have to negate what you are in order to fit in.

HARDMAN: 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, theyre Garifuna again.

But community leader Jose Avila says, why not be Garifuna all the time? In the past year, he's 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, and he's trying to use the upcoming 2010 census to prove it.

Mr. JOSE AVILA: It's not just about being counted. It's about resource allocation. It's about housing. It's about transportation. It's about education, which translates into schools.

HARDMAN: Avila is busy giving talks and showing PowerPoints, 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.

(Soundbite of music)

HARDMAN: Every third Sunday of the month, the Garifuna celebrate their culture with a traditional mass at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in the Bronx. Women in colorful blue and pink traditional dresses and head scarves dance down the aisle, accompanied by men on drums and tambourines.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of horns)

HARDMAN: Following the mass, 47-year-old Raul Melendez leans against the church, trying to stay warm in a driving rain. Melendez says he loves the U.S., but being Garifuna is more important to him.

Mr. RAUL MELENDEZ: (Through translator) The Garifuna person who doesn't speak Garifuna has no identity. The person who has no identity, who has no origin, is buried.

HARDMAN: Two years from now, when the new census results are released, Raul Melendez will find out for the first time just how many of his fellow Garifuna living in the U.S. agree with him.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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