Lívingston is one of Guatemala’s most culturally diverse regions, with Garífuna, Hindu, Q’eqchi’, and ladino cultures peacefully coexisting here. Of these, the Garífuna and Hindu influences are particularly interesting because they are not found elsewhere in Guatemala, giving this region a unique flavor.
Guatemalans are often surprised to see Afro-Caribbean people when they visit the Atlantic Coast, looking upon them with a certain sense of wonder fueled by a form of racism familiar to the country’s Mayan people. A number of far-fetched myths have been affixed to Garífunas, including the belief that seeing an Afro-Caribbean person on the street (outside of Lívingston) means you will soon come in contact with a long-lost acquaintance. Also common is the general suspicion of widespread practice of voodoo and cannibalism by Garífuna peoples.
Guatemala’s Garífuna population numbers about 4,000 and traces its history to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Ethnically, they are a mix of Amerindian and African peoples and their language comes from the Brazilian Arawakan language family.
These Arawak-speaking peoples migrated from northern Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans in the New World and lived peacefully on the island until they were subdued by Carib speakers from the South American mainland. The African element of their bloodline came about after intermingling with the survivors from the wreck of a Spanish ship carrying Nigerian slaves just off the coast of St. Vincent. These people eventually became known to the British as Black Caribs — in their own language, Garinagu. Garífuna is the Spanish translation of this word.
In the 1760s, the British tried to take St. Vincent but were driven off by the Caribs with help from the French. The Caribs would continue to oppose the British on and off for several years until finally being defeated in 1796, when they surrendered.
The Garífuna were subsequently captured and imprisoned by the British before being shipped off to the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras. One of the ships transporting the prisoners was captured by Spanish forces and sent to the Honduran mainland. Only 2,000 Garífuna made it to Roatán, as many died during their imprisonment on St. Vincent or along the subsequent journey.
Pleas for help from the Garífuna stranded on the tiny island of Roatán were answered by the Spanish forces who arrived some time later to take survivors to Trujillo (Honduras), where they were conscripted to serve in the armed forces or work in agricultural fields. The Garífuna continued to move along the coast, eventually settling other parts of Honduras as well as Nicaragua. Some were taken to southern Belize to work in logging operations, from where they spread to Guatemala, establishing Lívingston in 1806.
Today, the largest population of Garífuna can be found along the coast of Honduras (100,000), but there are also sizable populations in New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Like other ethnic groups in Central America, they have been emigrating to the United States in increasing numbers since the 1970s.
Modern Garífuna speak Spanish, English, and the Garífuna language, which melds French, Arawak, Yuroba, Swahili, and Banti. Central to their culture are music and dance, namely punta, a form of musical expression with obvious West African influences incorporating ritual chanting, mesmerizing drumbeats, and rhythmic dancing. A traditional Garífuna band consists of three large drums, a turtle shell, a large conch shell, and maracas. You will probably hear live punta music at least once during your visit to Lívingston.
Also common is punta rock, a more modern version of popular Garífuna music. Another fascinating traditional dance is the yancunu New Year’s dance, similar to those of indigenous South American rainforest peoples with distinctly West African musical origins.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com