Who Are the Garifuna?

Annual festival in South Los Angeles reminds members of the little-known ethnic group of their roots—and offers the story to the rest of the city.

A recent Saturday saw members of one of the least known ethnic communities celebrate their least likely path to the U.S. with a festival at McKinley Park at Washington Carver Middle School in South Los Angeles

The Garifuna Settlement Day festivities began at 12 noon on November 14th and stretched into the night, drawing a crowd of 1,500 people or who joined the Garifuna community in getting a jump on the official holiday, which falls on November 19 each year.

A cross-section of local talent joined in lauding the local Garifunas, who are descended from African slaves who took up residence off the coast of Central American when the ship carrying them to the New World crashed near St. Vincent Island back in the 17th century. The Garifuna retained their own language and society for decades, and were eventually resettled on the mainland of Central America.

The Settlement Day festival marks the migration of many Garifuna who fled a civil war in Honduras in the early 1800s. They landed on the shores of what is now known as Dangriga in southern Belize on November 19, 1832.  Belize remains the main center of the Garifuna population, but members of the ethnic group have shifted over the years and mixed with indigenous Central American peoples. The Garifuna now count significant populations in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. A Garifuna diaspora has also led to significant numbers of the group in Miami and New York along with Los Angeles.

South Los Angeles became a common first stop for many of the Garifuna who came to the U.S., and it remains a touchstone and cultural center for them.

The recent celebration in South Los Angeles saw the John Canoe Dancers dazzle the crowd and the Sound City band play non-stop punta music as celebrants feasted on an appetizing aroma of their native foods and strolled among stalls of art and handmade crafts.

“It meant a lot to get together and celebrate with the community,” said Ira Lino, who is a member of the Garifuna Cultural group organizing committee.

Michael Simpliss, a Garifuna from Belize who set up as arts and crafts vendor during the event, said the crowd was very enthusiastic. He noted that his native country recognizes Garifuna Settlement Day as a national holiday, adding that the local crowd showed a spirit worthy of the event.

“People came together to celebrate this cultural event,” Simpliss said. “As a Belizean, I appreciate that Belize has a National holiday and that we came together on this great day.”

Lino commended the president of the Garifuna committee, Roland Castillo, for his great work of 35 years and for holding the organization together. He also credited Martha Martinez as the matriarch of the Garifuna culture in Los Angeles, and thanked her for her efforts to keep the culture alive.

Garifuna Settlement Day was founded by Thomas Vincent Ramos in Belize in 1941. The government of Belize established a national holiday to mark the event in the early 1970s.

In Los Angeles, the Garifuna Cultural Group funds the annual Settlement Day celebration with proceeds from local bus rides, cook-outs and donations from various supporters.

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