American Threat to a Proud Heritage


They were never slaves.

That is something Garifuna parents always tell their children about their shipwrecked African ancestors, whose intermarriage with indigenous Caribbeans created a fiercely independent New World ethnicity the European colonialists called the “Black Caribs.”

For hundreds of years on the Central American coast, the Garifuna people kept alive their Arawakan language and Afro-Caribbean music and religion. They outmaneuvered European control and outlasted the onslaught of telephones and tourism.

But immigration may be their Waterloo. More than 100,000 Garifuna--perhaps 50% of their entire people--have migrated to U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago since the 1950s. Here, parents watch their heritage unravel each time their children click on the TV.


Like many in the contemporary immigrant boom, these parents view assimilation as a double-edged sword. They want their children to speak English well and to move up the socioeconomic ladder. But they see the insularity of their close-knit culture as a shield against the pitfalls of urban America.

They worry that assimilation means integrating their children into crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods where disaffected subcultures--gangs, drug users and street punks--block the path to mainstream success. Many want to pass on hard-working immigrant values--and the culture that binds them together--to the U.S.-born generation.

In today’s transnational world, it is more common for immigrants to maintain active ties to their home countries than it was for the early 20th century European immigrant wave. Immigrants see practical advantages in preserving supportive transnational networks that pool access to jobs and opportunities.

And the Garifuna, proud of a society still anchored by deep roots in pre-Columbian America and the African diaspora, do not want assimilation to mean cultural annihilation.

“If you don’t teach kids about their roots and culture, they change completely, and in the end they don’t know who they are or where they’re from,” said Marciana Lauriel, a member of Sonhoca, a Los Angeles group of Garifuna from Honduras. “I always tell my kids: You are Garifuna. The Garifuna fought hard and resisted slavery.”

A growing number of experts think these parents are right. An ongoing bicoastal study on assimilation--the most comprehensive look ever at children of immigrants--suggests that retaining positive ethnic identities can help children tune out American urban static.

“Here is a black group that was not enslaved [and with] a proud history,” said professor Ruben Rumbaut, a Michigan State University sociologist who is leading the study team along with Princeton sociology professor Alejandro Portes. The study further discredits a chauvinistic view equating “foreign” with “inferior” that dates from the days when Anglo-American culture was held up as the ideal to European immigrants of the early 20th century. By 1940, there were about 28 million U.S.-born children of immigrants, many raised to speak English and “be American.”

Encountering Discrimination

Today, there are another 28 million people born in the United States to immigrant families--11 million of them under 18. Some 2.3 million of them live in Los Angeles, and a million more live in Orange County and San Diego, according to updated census data. Most of their parents come from Latin America or Asia, and the offspring face lingering racial stereotypes and discrimination more enduring than the ethnic antagonism directed at the earlier white European immigrants.

The concentration of immigrants’ children is greatest in California, where a third of the new wave of newcomers reside, according to census updates cited by Rumbaut.

“Hence, the long-term effects of contemporary immigration will hinge more on the trajectories of these youths than on the fate of their parents,” Rumbaut said in a recent paper. “These children . . . represent the most consequential and lasting legacy of the new mass immigration to the United States.”

Brushes with discrimination trigger depression and pessimism among children of black Caribbean immigrants, the study found. Some Latino teenagers developed “ ‘oppositional’ or ‘adversarial’ identities which, while protective of self-esteem, disparage doing well in school as acting ‘white’ and as a betrayal of ethnic loyalty,” Rumbaut wrote.

“It’s a very different playing field” for these immigrant children, said Catherine Macklin, a Garifuna expert at UC Berkeley. “They don’t assimilate the way white ethnics could.”

An Effort to Protect Children

In Los Angeles, many immigrant children grow up in tough inner-city neighborhoods, like Pico-Union or South-Central, where an expanding urban underclass is a constant reminder of what awaits the least successful. Garifuna parents fear that the consumer society, mass media and peer pressure will quickly become their children’s guiding signposts. And they don’t trust public schools to give their children an adequate--or even safe--education.

Many hope that parochial schools will keep their children from getting sucked in to the cult of drugs and guns.

“A lot of Garifuna people believe children are better off in a protected environment, where they are less likely to be drawn into gangs,” said Roy Cayetano, the U.S.-educated president of the National Garifuna Council of Belize. “Integration into that kind of group is not a positive thing for anybody--not even Americans.”

One of Cayetano’s in-laws, schoolteacher Clifford Palacio, sent all nine of his children to Catholic schools, though his first job--as a part-time janitor--made it hard to make ends meet.

Shocked by the crime and violence of America, Palacio became such a jailer of a father that South-Central youths called him “the warden.”

Once he found work as a schoolteacher, he watched the children while his wife got her teaching degree at night. If he didn’t like his children’s friends, he vetoed their parties, even on Saturday nights.

“There were so many negative forces pulling against the values and principles we tried to instill,” Palacio said. “You keep reminding them there is a jungle out there. We trained them from the cradle, showing them the evil they might meet.”

Today, his children are grateful. Not one succumbed to gangs, drugs or teenage pregnancy. One has a doctorate, another is a college basketball star; others work for the government, military or law enforcement.

One thing Palacio did not teach his children was the Garifuna language. Several already spoke Spanish, and he worried about their English. Now retired, Palacio thinks that was a mistake, and he runs a study group to promote Garifuna fluency to members of the U.S.-born generation.

“The people who became slaves lost everything,” Palacio tells them. “Our ancestors suffered so that today we can still claim a distinct language, a distinct tradition, of our own.”

Jorge Bernardez, 39, a family practitioner at the Acute Care Clinic at the USC Student Health Center, moved to America when he was 7, and came of age in a multicultural era in which ethnicity was becoming a badge of pride.

His Garifuna American family demonstrates the flexible endurance that is the historic paradox of the culture.

Bernardez says he and his wife--a Garifuna woman he met on a trip to his native Honduras--speak only Garifuna when they are home with their five children.

The Bernardez family was among a wave of black and Latino newcomers to Gardena. When white and Asian children began to taunt the Bernardez children with racial insults a few years ago, he put them in Catholic schools, telling teachers that they might sometimes speak Garifuna to each other.

But the three school-age children--10, 11 and 12--do fine in English and now are learning Spanish, their father’s second language. And Bernardez is exceptionally articulate in English, his third language.

A History of Overcoming Obstacles

The triumph of the Garifuna language over years of discrimination--both in Spanish-speaking Central America and historically black, English-speaking Belize--underlines an indomitable ancestral pride.

The Garifuna saga apparently began with the sinking of a shipload of African captives, destined for slavery, somewhere near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. It appears in accounts of the early 1600s, according to Catherine Macklin, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the Garifuna.

Survivors were taken in by Caribbean Indians. For generations, they lived together undisturbed, becoming one of the first communities of free blacks in the New World, whom Latin Americans called cimarrons, or maroons. Most free blacks were escaped slaves.

Eventual French settlers kept an amicable distance. But when the British took over St. Vincent in the late 1700s, war erupted. The Garifuna heroes of that conflict still are celebrated.

The British soldiers won, and in 1797 the Caribs on that island were told to renounce their language and culture--a regime already imposed on the Irish--or face deportation. A British ship took hundreds--or by some accounts, thousands--of intransigents to Roatan, a tiny island off Honduras’ malarial Atlantic Coast.

On St. Vincent, the Garifuna language quickly died out.

But in Central America, unhampered by high mortality rates suffered by enslaved Africans, Garifuna culture flourished. When they did work for Europeans--even side by side with slaves--it was as paid laborers.

Living in coastal villages--primarily in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize--linked by constant boat traffic, they became known as expert navigators of the reefs and shoals of the Caribbean, and many are successful sailors and even ship captains and sailors today.

In their language, only one notable African word--mutu, or “person,” from the Bantu mountu --is believed to have survived. The African castaways on St. Vincent probably spoke different African languages. So their adopted Arawakan language, brought by South American Indians, became the base of the Garifuna tongue.

But their African religion, music and folkways survived.

Their “Anancy stories"--in which a spider spins a web of trickster tales like the African American Brer Rabbit fables--are straight out of Africa, anthropologists say.

Their punta music is an heir of the African drum culture. The dance can be used for ritual healing or as prayer. It can also be a sensual courtship dance.

And in modern times, “punta rock"--it’s really closer to funk--has become a staple of the Belizean youth scene. In Honduras, a pop group turned a catchy Garifuna punta tune into an international hit, but their failure to credit the Garifuna triggered an outcry.

Anthropologist Nancy Gonzalez, who studied the Garifuna for 30 years, thinks their festive wakes--enlivened by dances, storytelling and games--may have been influenced by Irish indentured servants exiled to the Caribbean.

But the African ancestor and spirit possession rituals are undiluted, an especially remarkable feat considering the disdain of 19th century Protestant missionaries, who called Garifuna “devil worshipers.”

The undiluted Protestant contempt survived too. A World Wide Web site of the Global Prayer Digest of Pasadena describes the Garifuna as “Christo-pagans” whose receptivity to Christianity is “indifferent.”

“Some people are said to sign contracts with the devil,” it said, calling for churches to send in “missionaries who have had experience in Africa among animistic peoples,” and ignoring the fact that many Garifuna worship at Catholic and other churches.

Like the Jews, the Garifuna defined themselves not by a country or territory, but by a language and culture, and retaining that became central to ethnic survival.

Joycelin Palacio, one of the oldest children of Clifford “the warden” Palacio, has rediscovered an ethnic identity she might have taken for granted--or even chafed against--back in modern Central America.

Palacio always understood Garifuna as a child, but when she got older she learned to speak it. She recently addressed the Garifuna Congress in Belize in fluent Garifuna.

Now, she wants to use technology--Garifuna sites abound on the Internet--to help the Garifuna stay in touch. With a doctorate in instruction technology from USC, she is well qualified. So is her husband, Leonard Cayetano, a Garifuna engineer at Internet provider Earthlink.

Such Garifuna power couples speak to other strengths, experts say. “One of the most admirable things about the Garifuna families I have met are the high values they put on educational achievement, and the unified community,” said UCLA linguist Pam Munro.

Uniting the Community

Today, the Garifuna have gone global. There are Garifuna Web sites with history essays, bulletin boards and poetry in English, Spanish and Garifuna. The home pages even have links to the Internet virtual bookstore Amazon, listing everything from the Garifuna Bible to the most obscure academic treatises.

Keeping the 25,000-strong Los Angeles community together is the job of leaders like Anita Martinez, a Belizean Garifuna from the village of Seine Bight who is married to a police officer who is also a Garifuna.

At their South-Central home, she leads 20 Garifuna teenagers in a traditional dance troupe and teaches them the old songs of the sojourner society: “If only I had wings/I would fly away with the lightning/If I could walk on the sea/I would be gone.”

Another leader is Tomas Zuniga, a Honduran Garifuna who co-founded the Garinagu Empowerment Movement, or GEM. It publishes a directory of Garifuna businesses in Los Angeles and a newsletter that notifies readers of upcoming city construction projects likely to generate thousands of jobs. It prints the winning Garifuna identity essay and awards the writer a partial college scholarship.

Los Angeles has Garifuna punta bands, drum lessons, dances, language and history classes, holiday celebrations, contestants for the Miss Garifuna pageant and even a Garifuna Career Day.

The appearance of a few Garifuna kids among the Belizean youths who introduced American-style gang violence to Belize--where violent crime had been rare--underlined the importance of efforts that anthropologist Catherine Macklin says are explicitly designed “to use Garifuna identity to insulate young people from these urban evils.”

“The simplest techniques involve reminding youngsters that they are ‘different’ and come from a proud tradition of mobile, persistent people who have succeeded in maintaining their legacy over the centuries, in numerous nations, despite hostile physical and social environments,” she wrote.

UCLA linguist Munro said the strategy “is serving them well. They seem to be doing a good job of resisting some of the less attractive aspects of Los Angeles minority society, like gangs.”

“I think it’s very important for individual well-being. It lends a sense of mission and a sense of identity,” said Keith Kernan, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences. Kernan is co-conducting a study of the educational aspirations and achievements of black American children and those of two immigrant groups, the Garifuna and Belizean Creoles.

Young Person’s Perspective

But if the immigrant children assimilation study is correct, Garifuna Americans may suffer the same fate as their predecessors and lose their language to the mighty tsunami of American popular culture--an inevitability that has earned America a reputation as a “language graveyard.”

In America, the Garifuna future could look a lot like Milton Palacio, the youngest son of “the warden” of South-Central.

Milton, 20, at Colorado State University on a basketball scholarship, has no interest in learning Garifuna.

He can dance a mean punta, but prefers hip-hop. His favorite singer is the late rapper Tupac Shakur. His favorite actress is Halle Berry.

Garifuna history “is interesting and everything,” Palacio said. “But the most amazing thing, to me, is coming to America and raising your kids the right way.

“I think my parents were real strong to raise nine kids in America who never got into drugs or gangs. That’s what I find admirable.”


Times researcher Julia Franco contributed to this story.


The Garifuna Homeland

The Garifuna people settled along the Caribbean coast hundreds of years ago. Today, there are still numerous settlements, but more than 100,000 Garifunas, perhaps half their population, have migrated to the United States.