The Story Behind ‘Garifuna in Peril’

“The land is part of my family, and what do you call it when you sell someone? I won’t sell the land into slavery! … The Garifuna rather die than be dominated!”

The protagonist, Ricardo, speaks these words in the film Garifuna in Peril (Garifuna en Peligro). Directed by Alí Allié and Rubén Reyes (who plays Ricardo), the docudrama tells the story of a Garifuna language teacher living in Los Angeles who tries to build a Garifuna school in Honduras. Standing in his way are a treacherous brother (Julián Castillo) who attempts to sell the land and a conniving tourist company that tries to buy it.

Rubén and Julián are Garinagu themselves, members of the centuries-old Garifuna tribe. Who are the Garifuna, you ask? Well, for that, you need a little background…

Founded on the present-day island of St. Vincent, the Garifuna are descendants of the Carib and the Arawak peoples of the West Indies, as well as the slaves torn from Africa. St. Vincent, though sparsely settled by the French, had remained largely unclaimed during the first 200 years of New World exploration. Then, in 1763, Britain brought the islanders under the crown.

What followed were the so-called Carib Wars, in which the Brits subdued the Garifuna, killing their rebel leader, the now-lionized Satuyé. For their insolence, 5,000 Garinagu were shipped to the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras. When the 11 ships carrying the exiles finally weighed anchor at present-day Punta Gorda in April 1797, only 2500 Garinagu had survived the voyage. Roatán would become the epicenter of the Garifuna diaspora, though they settled much of Central America’s Caribbean coast, from Guatemala to Nicaragua.

Now over half a million Garinagu live in Central America, St. Vincent and the United States, the last being a major center of the global Garifuna community. In 2001 the UNESCO named Garfina culture to its first list of “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humannity,” Punta, a form of Garifuna music and dance, is widely popular among Hondurans, to the extent that “Sopa de Caracol,” arguably the Honduran song, is also punta.

Directors Allié and Reyes hope their film brings awareness to the plight of the Garifuna, who face threats to their way of life from within the community and without. Obstacles come in the form of newer generations of Garifuna abandoning the heritage and culture in an attempt to assimilate into the broader societies of Latin America and the United States. Danger also presents itself in political and economic challenges, governments looking to eliminate any Garifuna presence and business interests plotting to corrupt lands the Garifuna have kept pristine for over 200 years.

I came in contact with plenty of Garinagu during my trip to Honduras, my ancestral homeland, back in 2011. Visiting the famed Caribbean coast, like I did, one can’t help but come across Garifuna children splashing each other in the waves, Garifuna adolescents relaxing under an almond tree as a nearby radio bumps punta, a Garifuna woman beckoning from the doorway of her seaside restaurant, Garinagu at the market selling pan de coco, aceite de coco, aretes de coco — you get the idea.

As a fan of the Honduran national soccer team, and an Afro-Latino myself, I’d known there were Afro-Hondurans. What I didn’t know was that the Garinfuna are their own nation, as Mr. Reyes explained during the Q&A session on Sunday.

Nonetheless, I realized the Garifuna were more than simply black Hondurans during my stay in La Ceiba, a coastal city near Roatán. María, the 50-something proprietor of a tiny eatery near the hotel, was an image of joviality. In her 16-seat shack, where the temperature topped 90 degrees, María offered us sopa de cangrejo and the restaurant’s only fan, in what sounded like Spanish with a Jamaican accent (I didn’t know the Garifuna possessed their own language).

Fifty miles down La Costa, in Tela, Garifuna boys sold the greatest bread ever known to man. Anyone who’s tasted a Hawaiian roll has at least some inkling of the Eden I’m describing. We bought a dollar’s worth (10 rolls) every time we were approached, immediately procuring ourselves a table and three cups of café con leche.

I tell you all this because, as I said, and as the film drives home, the Garifuna culture teeters on the edge of extinction. Furthermore, it’s under attack.

In Honduras, reports have surfaced of Garifuna radio stations being burned down, and both the narcotraffickers and Pres. Porfirio Lobo are open enemies of the Garifuna community. International courts are now hearing cases brought forth by the Garifuna, and groups like the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras have defended the rights of the Garifuna for decades.

The directors of Garifuna in Peril themselves are part of the struggle. Alí Allié, an American producer and director, has been involved with the Garifuna since the filming of Spirit of My Mother, a Spanish-language film on the Garifuna, in the late ’90s. It was while touring with the film in 2000 that he met Rubén Reyes, a linguist and Garifuna expert, who would subsequently co-direct the film with Allié and compile the world’s first trilingual Garifuna dictionary (Garifuna, English and Spanish).

As a second-generation American of Central American descent, I recognize the invaluable contributions the Garifuna have made to my heritage. I can’t imagine a trip to Honduras without the Garifuna there, just as I can’t imagine Honduran music without punta, with its fast-paced drumming and intense hip-shaking.

“Freedom is our destiny” are the last words spoken in Garifuna in Peril, and I hope the preservation of Garifuna culture is written in the stars, too.

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