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Black Caribs honor endangered culture in Guatemala

LIVINGSTON, Guatemala (Reuters) - Descendants of African slaves who fled to Guatemala two centuries ago honored their ancestors on Thursday in a wild celebration of a culture threatened by mass migration to the United States.

Hundreds of people from the Black Carib Garifuna culture re-enacted their forefathers’ arrival in Guatemala by dugout canoe, then swayed through the streets to the sound of drum beats and the blowing of conch shells.

The Garifuna are descendants of escaped slaves who mingled with Carib Indians on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. The British deported them to an island near Honduras from where they spread along the Central American coast, arriving in Guatemala in 1802.

Today almost half of Central America’s 200,000 Garifuna live in the United States, mostly in New York City.

In the Guatemalan port of Livingston, home to more than 10,000 Garifuna in late 1970s, the population has dwindled to around 4,000.

Garifuna in Livingston say they face discrimination in Guatemala, and there are few jobs in the port town which is only reachable by sea.

“I own a boat and fishing helps me keep my head above water, but most of the businesses here are Latin-owned and they control the economy,” said Polo Martinez, whose three brothers and two sisters live in the United States.

Many older Garifuna say their lifestyle of fishing and farming is being lost as so many migrate.

Garifuna National Day was created in Guatemala 13 years ago to honor the country’s Black Carib population. Annual festivals in Livingston and Belize are seen as a way of connecting with their roots.


Dressed up as their shipwrecked ancestors in torn clothing, Garifuna danced to fast drum rhythms through the streets of Livingston on Thursday.

Hundreds of people crammed into Livingston’s brick Catholic church for a mass given in Spanish and the Garifuna language that blends words from West Africa with the Caribbean’s Arauak, as well as French, English and Spanish.

Garifuna came to the festival from New York, Miami and Los Angeles, the major U.S. cities where many now live.

Tougher U.S. border controls over the past decade mean those who migrated illegally cannot sneak between Guatemala and the United States as they did in the past and are going north permanently.

“They’ve begun to respond to their problems in the last five years by moving away,” said Alfonso Arrivillaga, who wrote a government report on Garifuna migration this year. “Today more than ever, their presence here is in danger.”

The picture is similar throughout Central America’s Caribbean coast region where the Garifuna struggle to make a living from tourism and fishing.

Tomas Nunez moved to New York 37 years ago but returns to Livingston every year. “This is my tradition, but I’m glad I left when I was little, because there’s a lot of economic hardship here,” he said.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham