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Garifuna-American Heritage Month A Transformational Celebration of Garifuna Resiliency

History is about identity; about the first time we learn about ourselves. The Garifuna people are one of the many “marginalized people” whose full stories have been left out of the history books. When you have knowledge of your history, it changes your perception of yourself.

According to historian Carter G. Woodson “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

The erasure of the history of Garifuna people in my birthplace of Honduras, was what led to my quest for racial, cultural and ethnic identity, and to self-identify as Garifuna, no qualifiers required! It also played a role when I authored the proposal, submitted by the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc., to the Honorable Adolfo Carrion, Jr, Bronx Borough President in 2008, to issue a proclamation designating March 11th – April 12th of each year as Garifuna-American Heritage Month in The Bronx beginning in 2009.

My objective was to ascertain that future generations will learn that the Garifuna American legacy and history is inextricably linked to New York and to renew their connections to the land of their ancestry, pass on their Garifuna history and traditions to the next generation, and commemorate events which foster ethnic pride and exemplify the cultural diversity that represents and strengthens the spirit of the people and the State of New York.

To achieve the objective, I emphasized the fact playwright William Henry Brown wrote and staged The Drama of King Shotaway in 1823, a play which is recognized as the first Black drama of the American Theatre, and had as its subject the 1795 Black Caribs (Garifuna) defense of the Island of Saint Vincent against British colonization, led by the Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer. I also highlighted that Garifunas have been migrating to the USA since the 1930s and as a result, New York is home to the largest Garifuna population outside of Central America and half the population lives in the Bronx.

I also mentioned that in 2009, the Garifuna community would celebrate key milestones, such as the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Carib American Association, Inc., the first Garifuna Nonprofit registered with New York State in 1946, as well as the 20th anniversary of the founding of Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha (MUGAMA), Inc. and Organización de Damas Limoneñas en New York, Inc, as well as the 19th Anniversary of the Happy Land Social Club Fire, where the majority of the victims were members of the Garifuna Community and how the city discovered the Garifuna community.

Those New York historic milestones, along with the observance of the 214th anniversary of the death of the Paramount Garifuna Chief Joseph Chatoyer on March 14, 1795 and the 212th anniversary of the forcible deportation of the Garifuna people from St Vincent, on March 11, 1797, and their arrival to Central America on April 12th, 1797, also served to commemorate the survival of the Garifuna Heritage and Culture. The proclamation was presented at the official launch of Garifuna-American Heritage Month at the Garifuna Advocacy Center on March 11th, 2009.

In 2010, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin introduced New York Assembly Resolution K1120, Memorializing Governor David A. Patterson to declare March 11- April 12, 2010 as Garifuna-American Heritage Month in the State of New York. That resolution started the curation of Garifuna History in the Legislative Historical Archives, in the New York State Assembly and the Senate.

Despite forcible deportation and subsequent Diaspora, Garifuna traditional culture survives today. It is a little known story that deserves its place in the annals of the African Diaspora.[2] On April 5, 2016, Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., introduced Senate Legislative Bill No. S07175, AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to instruction on the Garifuna people. On April 8, 2016, Assemblyman Luis R. Sepulveda introduced Assembly bill No. A09791, AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to instruction on the Garifuna people. Both bills proposed an amendment of Section 801 of the New York State Education Act to include the History of the Garifuna People. Assemblyman Sepulveda was joined by Assembly member cosponsors Latoya Joyner, David Weprin, Maritza Davila, William Magee, Annette Robinson, Andrew Raia, Michael Blake, Marcos Crespo, Vivian Cook, Ellen C. Jaffee, Janet Duprey, Linda Rosenthal.

The purpose of the bills was to increase awareness and cultural competency throughout the New York State community by making the Garifuna people a mandatory part of our education curriculum. Specifically, the bill called upon the regents of the university of the State of New York to include the “the history of the Garifuna People” to a previously established list of pedagogically important historical topics. This section also ensures that their rules regarding attendance during the instruction of this added materials, be enforced by the commissioner.

The proposed amendment states that Subdivisions 1 and 3 of section 801 of the education law, as amended by chapter 574 of the laws of 1997, are amended to read as follows: “In order to promote a spirit of patriotic and civic service and obligation and to foster in the children of the state moral and intellectual qualities which are essential in preparing to meet the obligations of citizenship in peace or in war, the regents of The University of the State of New York shall prescribe courses of instruction in patriotism, citizenship, and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery (including the freedom trail and underground railroad),the Holocaust, the history of the Garifuna People, and the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850, to be maintained and followed in all the schools of the state. Both bills were referred to the respective legislative chamber’s Education Committee.

On January 30, 2017, Assemblyman Luis R. Sepulveda introduced bill No. A03972 for the 2017-2018 Regular Sessions of the New York State Assembly. On March 3, 2017, Senator of Ruben Diaz introduced Bill No. NY S04925 for the 2017-2018 Regular Sessions of the New York State Senate. The job of the Senate is to work with the Assembly and the Governor to enact, amend or repeal statutes which make up the body of laws within which we live. This involves drafting, discussing and approving bills and resolutions.

The Education Committee evaluates bills and decides whether to “report” them (send them) to the Senate floor for a final decision by the full membership. After consideration, the committee may report the bill to the full Senate for consideration, it may amend the bill, or it may reject it. The BilTrack50 website, lists the Senate bill as Dead/Failed 12/31/2018.

While the bill failed to make it pass the Education Committees, it provided the New York Garifuna Community, the rare opportunity to participate in the lawmaking process, and better understand the process, and more significantly, it helped us identify those points where our contribution is important and sometimes crucial. That is an invaluable lesson we can pass on to future Garifuna generations.

History is about identity; about the first time we learn about ourselves. I have no doubt that future Garifuna generations in New York, will learn about the Garifuna legacy and history, that will allow them to renew their connections to the land of their ancestry, pass it on along with the worthwhile traditions to the next generations. That despite efforts to exterminate us, not only did we survive, but we have thrived!

We’d like to express our sincerest gratitude to Assembly members Luis Sepulveda, Latoya Joyner, David Weprin, Maritza Davila, William Magee, Annette Robinson, Andrew Raia, Michael Blake, Marcos Crespo, Vivian Cook, Ellen C. Jaffee, Janet Duprey, Linda Rosenthal, for cosponsoring Bill A09791 to amend the New York State Education Law Section 801 to include the History of the Garifuna People. We also thank , Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., for introducing Senate Legislative Bill No. S07175, AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to instruction on the Garifuna people.

As my brother Tomas Alberto posted on Facebook, “Garifuna American Heritage Month, is a Transformational, empowering sociopolitical celebration of Our Historical Resiliency. It has perpetually curated and archived Garifuna History, in the State of New York’s legislative and Governor’s historical archives.”

By José Francisco Ávila

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