Friday, April 11, 2008

Club Tragedy an Awakening for Garifuna

Club Tragedy an Awakening for Garifuna

By Edna Negron

New York Newsday

Sunday August 18, 1991

Jury Gets Replay of Confession

A tropical breeze permeated the air in the East New York housing complex where activist Felix Miranda and Dionisia Bonilla greeted the group of black women congregating in the court yard of the Riverdale towers.

"¿Ida biña nidugeñu?" Bonilla asked. "How are you, my family?" Bonilla a native of Honduras was speaking Garifuna, a patois of Indian and African root languages which indigenous to the Caribbean coastal towns of Central America and makes use of some Spanish and French words.

Miranda and Bonilla are members of an emerging immigrant community in New York City known as Garifuna or Black Caribs.

Although Garinagu have been migrating to the United States in search of a better life since the 1930s, the community was virtually obscured in New York until the Happy Land Social Club fire.

Fifty nine of the Happy Land victims were Hondurans. More than 70 percent of the Honduran victims were also of Garifuna descent. An estimated 50,000 live in the South Bronx, Brownsville and East New York of Brooklyn, and on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

As the trial of Julio Gonzalez unfolds in the Bronx, Garifuna leaders say the community is becoming more vocal and visible in New York.

"Happy Land was an awakening", said Bonilla an educator and founding member of Mujeres Garifuna En Marcha(MUGAMA), an organization of Black Carib women.

Black Caribs are racially mixed people who are descendants of 18th Century Carib Indians and African Free-Slaves. After they reveled against the European colonization during the late 1700s, they were deported from the island of St. Vincent by the British. They later settled in beachfront villages in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

While they share Roman Catholic religious belief, Garifunas maintain practices of their own culture, such as the traditional dance called Punta, which is danced after nine days of praying the rosary and is dedicated to the souls of the deceased.

For months, members of MUGAMA and the United Garifuna Association have been surveying Garifuna families in an attemp to identify their housing, education and business needs. They grant Garifuna students who are eligible for English as a second language and bilingual services in the New York City public schools, and to establish an all purpose community center.

For the most recent Garifuna immigrants coming from economically strained Central America, it is the younger men in their 20's and single women who face harder economic times- often working menial jobs here to support family members back home.

The impetus to organize, leaders say, was the pain and confusion family members experienced when they tried to get help after the Happy Land fire.

"One of the problems was that the people didn't understand how the system works, how to get assistance" said José Francisco Avila, a Texas based national activist.

So last month, for the first time in New York, Garifuna leaders held a conference at Medgar Evers community College, at which they outlined an agenda to unite the community, including long range plans to build a Garifuna enclave of businesses and homes.

"We want economic participation" said Miranda a member of the United Garifuna Association, a Brooklyn-based organization. "But we have a great number of High School dropouts."

The Board of Education alerted school districts by memo about the growing number of Garifuna children, many of whom are Spanish-speaking; while some from remote towns in Honduras speak only Garifuna. In the school system, teachers discovered these group of children who were black, had Spanish surnames but who did not speak English or Spanish. "They spoke a different language" said MUGAMA President Lydia Hill.

"These Garifuna children were not receiving services in the school system." Meanwhile in the East new York apartment where Bonilla and Miranda conducted their survey, maintenance worker Enemesio Mauricio, a father of four, said Happy land was still a learning experience for the community.

"We talk about it a lot then, and we still talk about it. Everytime we meet in a restaurant or hall we always remember the tragedy," Mauricio said. "From then on, Happy Land made us aware."

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