Getting to know myself in the Garifuna sisterhood

Sofia Marcía

27 July 2020

My afro-descendant roots are still unknown to me; although they are evident in my curls, my hips and skin color, which denote a history and roots of African heritage and that I am an afro-descendant woman. I did not wonder about it before, just a few years ago I began to reflect on my own history, and this has led me to a quest for answers, which I have not yet found, or at least not all of them. Who are my black ancestors? Where is my African heritage from? Why are these questions and this quest important now? How do I recover the historical memory I have been denied?

This quest began after I found myself for the first time in a Garifuna community in Nueva Armenia, Jutiapa, Honduras. I arrived there out of adventure, as part of a Holy Week field trip (the ones they advertise on posters hung along the streets in the city center). When I arrived, I had not even finished taking the backpack I was carrying off my shoulders when I was given a gifiti, an ancestral Garifuna drink.

Since this first encounter (because many more followed), I have had this nice feeling that I belong there: that I am not an outsider. The freedom, the solidarity, the pace of life by the ocean, the spirituality and its struggle, since then, are also mine.

One of my grandfathers arrived in Honduras from a village near the border with El Salvador, San Alejos. As a girl, an aunt and my cousins called me “sanalejeña.” We went to visit this place a couple of times; dirt roads, small houses, and people who looked similar to me.

According to studies by Wolfgang Effenberger, although this country has sought to hide its African heritage, there is evidence that Black population existed in the village of San Alejo in the department of La Union in El Salvador. For now, this is the closest to an answer for my questions, and it is nothing but the testimony of a missionary that references the community and the population censuses from 1930 onward, which erase the story of the Black community, reducing it to ninety residents. The rest were erased as though they were a shame or information that should be hidden to avoid tarnishing the region’s history.

Colonial and Western history has hidden our African roots in a constant attempt to erase historical memory. It is a racist imposition that has denied us a profound ancestral richness of knowledge and possibilities of understanding other worlds, from which autonomy and solidarity is built. Such worlds are necessary and urgent given the current crisis we are living. Such lives matter, and in spite of the pandemic, the streets in various cities around the world have filled after the accumulated indignation regarding the death of George Floyd in the United States this past May, to yell loudly that Black lives matter; a constant demand in Brazil and Honduras, where Garifuna communities have resisted for more than 223 years. A demand that crosses borders and that calls us to regain this memory they have tried so hard to take from us.

Although I have not found a clear answer to my questions -one that goes beyond a few testimonies of family or strangers regarding the Black history that accompanies my own existence-, I regain the memory that I had been denied since my political awakening, and I acknowledge in the Garifuna people of Honduras; in every historic struggle that has brought people to the streets in this country in recent years, the Garifuna people have been there resisting, proposing alternatives to a system that has done nothing but disregard their lives, exploit their culture, expel and dispossess them of their ancestral territories.

I cannot recall the protests before and after the coup d’etat in Honduras if not for Garifuna spirituality: drums, maracas, songs, incense, and the constant presence of ancestors accompanying and guiding the demands for justice and dignity in each struggle. And there, fortunately for me, a healing, hope-bearing and dignifying encounter has taken place.
It has been years of shared defiance of the Garifuna people resisting in a country where a large part of the territory is concessioned to extractivist projects. In August 2009 alone, in the midst of a coup, the General Water Law was passed, which permits the concession of 47 hydroelectric plants around the country, in addition to around 302 concessions for mining exploration and exploitation that cover 2,173km2. Tourism projects, the concession of territory to foreign capital for the installation of model cities or Special Economic Development Zones (ZEDE, in Spanish) remain a latent threat.

Something important to mention about the Garifuna people is that it is matrilineal, which means the women have a very important role, and we have seen this each time they are the ones at the front of struggles defending and sustaining their territories. This marvelous experience has also been an important part of women’s and feminist movements in Honduras, as they continue sharing with us from their struggles and path an anti-racist and de-colonial feminism. We saw this clearly at the women’s gathering held in Vallecito Colon; a recovered territory, which received more than 1,200 women and 350 children from throughout the country. A gathering that allowed us to come together and think of a proposal for a different country. From this Female Fighters Assembly, we have been able to sustain a space that articulates the different struggles of women in the country.

In times when the COVID-19 pandemic has come to add to the crises, we find a Garifuna people that, from solidarity and a sense of community, has held and protected its territory and people through prevention and care: entry and exit controls from communities control, ancestral medicine, community kitchens, and collective care.
If anything is clear in these times, it is that the solution is collective, and in the wisdom of the Garifuna people we continue finding keys for this.

Breaking paradigms to build a new reality in these times involves creating new forms of relating to one another. I am convinced we can begin with a simple and deep phrase from the Garifuna people: “Aura Buni Amürü Nuni” (Me for you, you for me), which in the present days is necessary to keep the hope and strength to continue contributing from where we are, and from the bottom of our hearts, to build a different reality.

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