Garifuna celebrate their heritage at City Hall

Garifuna celebrate their heritage at City Hall
The Garifuna event wrapped up with a performance by the Chief Joseph Chatoyer Dance Company, costumed in the traditional colors of yellow, black and white.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

In the spirit of the evening, echoing Garifuna colors, New York City Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson wore a dress in bold geometric designs of black, yellow, and white at the City Hall event ‘Celebrate Garifuna Heritage.’ “We should celebrate the culture of the Garifuna every day,” she beamed.

“Welcome to your house,” bid Gibson whose 16th Council district in the Bronx represents many of the attendees at the joyous homage to the Garifuna held in Council Chambers, on April 12.

Gibson emphasized how New York City is home to the largest Garifuna concentration outside of Central America (an estimated 100,000). She said, “We celebrate the conclusion of the 10th annual Garifuna-American Heritage Month, tonight.”

Master of ceremonies, community advocate Jose Avila reminded the audience of some history: The Garifuna were forcibly removed from St. Vincent and the Grenadines on March 11, 1797, and April 12 is the date in 1797 when the Garifuna landed in Roatan, Honduras.

“There are two significant dates of the intersection of the Garifuna in the U.S.,” Avila said. In 1823, William Henry Brown, the first known black playwright in the U.S. wrote The Drama of King Shotaway, based on the life of Garifuna Chief Joseph Chatoyer who led a revolt on St. Vincent against the British colonists in 1795.

The other, a tragic reminder, is March 20, 1990, when 87 — mostly Garifuna perished in the Happy Land social club fire in the Bronx. The news coverage spotlighted this community previously unknown to the wider NYC population.

Noting that “this is the fifth time in 10 years we’ve celebrated in ‘the people’s house (City Hall),’” Avila respectfully acknowledged VIPs in attendance including the consul generals of Honduras and Belize.

Then, Sulma Arzu-Brown, an Afro-Latina Garifuna writer and entrepreneur challenged those present during her keynote address, “The Garifuna are the bearers of amazing consequence. This is the second time we came to an unknown land while maintaining our culture. We must be strong and stay together.”

“I didn’t end up here on my own,” she revealed, pointing out mentors in the audience. “I want to give others opportunities. What part are you going to play in helping others with resilience and success?” she asked.

Three members of the community who have made outstanding contributions received proclamations.

Philadelphia transplant, civic leader James Cordice played a leading role in the provision of 5,000 meals for Caribbean athletes in the Penn Relays. He is also founder of Danca Garifuna in SVG and is on the Garifuna Coalition USA board.

Bronx resident Honduran-American Janel Martinenz is a Afro-Latinidad Community advocate, multi-media journalist, founder of the blog “Ain’t I Latina?” and co-founder of 2020Shift, an education startup. She speaks on issues of diversity, media, technology and entrepreneurship.

Bronx native Andy Romel Ordonez began his musical career at age nine playing bongos in Sante Fe, Honduras, joining his father’s band at 13. He released his first album Mi Tradicion in 2015 and since has been traveling the world playing Garifuna music.

The evening wrapped up with energetic dance performances by the Chief Joseph Chatoyer Dance Company.

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