The Atlantic Lowlands Feature


The Garífuna

Guatemala's Atlantic coast presents a different ethnic makeup than the rest of the country. It has a substantial percentage of mixed indigenous and African descent known as the Garífuna. They speak one of Guatemala's 23 constitutionally recognized non-Spanish (and one of two non-Mayan-based) languages.

The Garífuna word for Garífuna is "Garinagu," but British-colonial powers called them the "Black Caribs," a term which sounds decidedly politically incorrect today. In the eyes of the British, "black" distinguished them from the "good" (from a British perspective) "Yellow Caribs," indigenous Arawak peoples in the British West Indies that had not intermarried with African slaves. Following a 1797 revolt on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, British authorities exiled the Garífuna to the island of Roatán, off the coast of Honduras, then under British control. From there they dispersed to the mainland, settling Central America's Caribbean coast from Belize through northern Nicaragua.

Some 17,000 of their descendants live today in Guatemala. Music, dance traditions, and the Garífuna language remain here on the coast, even if old-timers lament the creeping outside influences, namely Spanish, rap, and reggae. Migration from Central America (largely in the 1980s) means that today the United States contains the world's largest Garífuna population.

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