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Songs of cultural resilience
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Songs of cultural resilience

The history of the Garifuna and how they maintain their cultural heritage.
Garifuna Collective © Belize Travel Blog

The Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) of Belize are an indigenous group with a history that is as similar as it is different from that of other indigenous groups. Every Easter Saturday since 2014, Hopkins Village in western Belize, comes alive, in a celebration of the culture of the Garinagu. The Hopkins International Parranda Music Festival aims to “enable indigenous people to unite around a worthy cause developing cultural pride in an era when much of the Garifuna culture needs to be preserved.”

Yurumei (Arawak), the original inhabitants of St Vincent, in the Caribbean, were conquered by the Kalipuna (Caribs), who took the Yurumei women as wives. This new mixture of people were the inhabitants that black Africans encountered around 1635 when they were shipwrecked near the island. Over a century and a half, the groups mixed, to produce the ethnic group known as the Garifuna or Black Caribs.

By 1750 the Black Caribs were the dominant group in the population, which also included French settlers. In 1763, the British Crown invaded St Vincent. As with the stories of many British invasions, in the name of the Crown, the British upset the natural order, killed, captured, and exiled the inhabitants of the island. Those that were exiled, were sent to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. From there, the Black Caribs migrated to the mainland and settled along the coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and today that is where you will find many Garifuna communities.

WIB sat down with Trina Palacio, a Garifuna student from Belize who is currently studying Economics at The University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus. Palacio helped us understand what it feels like to be Garifuna in Belize. She explained that she often experiences a sense of double consciousness as a Garifuna. According to Palacio, with their rich history, some people do not always understand what it means to be Garifuna, because they have preconceived notions about what it means to be indigenous. “If you’re indigenous then why is your skin dark? Why is your hair kinky? Why do you have a Spanish last name?”  The questions are sometimes endless, she says, and having to constantly explain who you are, and why you are, can be exhausting and frustrating.

“Are you Carib? Are you Arawak? Are you African? Are you Vincentian? Are you Belizean?

I am Garifuna”. Palacio says proudly.

Undoubtedly, globalisation encourages biocultural uniformity as it allows for the effortless exchange of products and information. Biocultural uniformity speaks to the idea of having a main culture, and language. This push for uniformity encourages language death as linguistic diversity is discouraged either directly through government policies, or indirectly by concentrating economic activity in cities, making it difficult for rural areas where most languages develop, to remain viable options for the next generation of speakers.

The reality now is that not all languages can be taught in all the schools, spoken in every televised program, and written on every official document. In part, this exacerbates the double consciousness experienced by Garinagu in Belize because “everybody’s mixed up like rice and beans” Palacio says with an ironic tone. There are at least eight ethnic groups in Belize, each has their own language and culture.

The Garinagu struggle to maintain their language as an entity apart from its cultural activities, as there are not many fluent speakers. In addition to the loss of intergenerational transmission, the Garifuna language is considered endangered in Belize because many speakers are bilingual, speaking the country’s official language, English, and Spanish, which is the second most spoken language. Nevertheless, pieces of the language are maintained through cultural practices. Such cultural practices involve singing in their native tongue, and dancing traditional dances. Palacio describes her people as “very happy,” and explains that they frequently express themselves and their cultural traditions through traditional song and dance.

One such traditional song and dance is Punta, usually sung and danced at any social event. The dance is an expression of a sexual dialogue between male and female dancers, and the music involves responsorial singing, also known as call and answer singing.

In the 1980s, Punta Rock was developed as a way to preserve Garifuna music among the younger generations of Garinagu. Punta Rock involves provocative adaptations to the traditional Punta dance. This is accompanied with electric bass guitar, a synthesized keyboard, and a drum machine. Pen Cayetano’s, the creator of Punta Rock, idea for cultural preservation was great. It worked so well that today Punta Rock isn’t popular just among Garinagu, but it is the most popular music and dance in Belize.

However, it may be argued that this aspect of cultural preservation was at the cost of linguistic deterioration, as many young Punta Rock artists have now opted to use more English, and even Spanish, and much less Garifuna in their songs. The evolution of traditional Punta sung in Garifuna, to Punta Rock sung in English, Spanish, and Garifuna, may not seem like such a big issue, however, it is.

Punta Rock is a bittersweet metaphor of what it means to try to maintain your cultural identity in a bioculturally diverse world where globalization persuades governments and individuals that cultural uniformity is best.

Palacio admits that her people’s language is difficult to learn to write, but it may very well be preserved as an oral language through songs. While many young people are not fluent speakers, they can sing, and understand the songs, she reassures. Sure, if you go to Hopkins on the east coast of Belize, you are certain to come across people casually speaking the language, and of course you will hear it spoken at festivals such as Hopkins International Music Festival, but some may wonder if that’s enough. Is it possible to preserve a culture without preserving its language?




From the outside looking in, linguists are concerned as it is a commonly held notion that it is not possible to preserve a culture without its language. However, considering that languages are much like species, in that they can adapt to a changing environment, and evolve, then we can understand that a changing culture does not spell disaster for its people. Languages evolve, and cultures change. Perhaps, linguists are concerned that what it means to be Garifuna in 2016 is not what it will mean to be Garifuna in 2076. This though, is no real concern because we define who we are.

In the words of SIL International, an organization serving language communities worldwide, building their capacity for sustainable language development, “language is an expression of who we are as individuals, communities, and nations.”

Author’s note: WIB would like to thank Trina Palacio for her contribution in this article.

Caribbean Connections
La Tisha Parkinson

La Tisha Parkinson is a final year student at the University of the West Indies St Augustine reading for a BSc in Biology with a minor in Environmental Natural Resource Management. Her passion lies in ecology and related themes such as biodiversity, and conservation. A Trinidad and Tobago national, La Tisha simply tries to make a positive impact in the world with everything she does.
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