All Hail Queen Garifuna: Acknowledging My Heritage with Amani May

By Jenay Wright — Latin America isn’t One face, One place, One culture, One language or ONE tradition. Latin America is filled with so many different cultures, traditions, people and even languages.

The diversity is endless and we see this because of its African , Indigenous and Eurocentric features over time. We must acknowledge prominent cultures within Latin America like Garifuna people , who are mixed -race descendants.

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Courtesy of Amani May  

A true Garifuna Afro-Latina, Amani Clotter will take us on a cultural journey about her Garifuna heritage. 

What does the term Afro-Latina mean to you?

Afro-Latinos are people of African descent whose African ancestors were sent to Latin countries, most likely due to slavery. I found that the easiest way for me for explain Afro-Latinos is to say that the term “Afro-Latina” is similar to the term “African American”; we are part of the larger culture except our African ancestry is highlighted in our identity. Then again, that’s how I understand and experience my own heritage. I know of people who are half African-American and half Latino and they describe themselves as Afro-Latino. Either way, I’ve found that the term Afro-Latina is worth being prideful of as it encompasses different experiences and backgrounds.

How do you embrace your Afro-Latina pride?

I embrace my Afro-Latina pride by actively participating in my culture and educating others about my culture. I speak Spanish in public, despite the confused stares and the nasty looks I get from both African-Americans and Latinos. I am obviously Black with my African features and locs. No, I don’t look anything like the Latinas you see on the telenovelas on Univision and Telemundo, but that does not mean Afro-Latinos do not exist. We are here! We always have been! And we are proud of our roots!

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Courtesy of Amani May 

What are your roots?

Both of my parents are Garifuna and I identify as a Garifuna Afro-Latina. My mother is from Livingston, Guatemala and my father is from Puerto Cortez, Honduras. Though we are Garifuna, our ancestors have lived in Central America for centuries so we have adapted some of the aspects as the Latino culture such as the Spanish language, the food, and Christianity. Therefore, many Garifuna consider themselves as Afro-Latinos.

Why is it important for you to preserve your culture ?

It is super important for me to preserve my culture because I want future generations of Garifuna-Americans to know enough about the culture to embrace it fully and participate in it. I’ve noticed that many Garifuna who were born and raised in NYC, like myself, do not embrace the Garifuna culture as they born into the “American culture” and adopted it as their own. Our Garifuna ancestors were never slaves, in fact we fought against slavery and were banished and yet we are still here!!! Our culture is still thriving due to our ancestors and our fighting spirit!!! I want my kids to know what it means to be Garifuna and be proud of their ancestors and heritage, just as I am.

What does it mean to be Garifuna for those who aren’t sure ?

The Garifuna people originated in St. Vincent after Africans were brought to the island. We are a mix of Arawak Indian, Island Carib, and African. Our language, which is also called Garifuna, is a mix of Arawak and African dialects. In fact, our language is split between men’s speech and women’s speech, where the words men use have more African and Carib roots whereas the words women use have more Arawak roots. In 1797, after warring with the British after try tried to enslave the Garifuna people, we were banished and roughly 5000 Garifuna people were put in small canoes and left to die.

About 2,500 survived the long trip to Roatan, Honduras, where we first came to shore. After that, we migrated to mainland Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, where many Garifuna villages still exist. Our culture is very distinct from the cultures of the countries to which we migrated. We have our own traditional food, like “hudutu” which is a soup with mashed plantain, fish and coconut. We also have our own spirituality which is a blend of African spirituality and Catholicism, and we have our own drum-based music and dance called “punta.” Drums are central to the Garifuna culture and music. They are used in all of our ceremonies and rituals.

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Tell me about some Garifuna customs and traditions ?

I’m not sure if this is true of other cultures but it is custom that we refer to our elders as “tia/tio” (aunt/uncle) even if they are not related to us, as it is a sign of respect. The Garifuna culture is also very respectful of our ancestors. We have a ceremony called “chugú” where an entire family (including distant relatives) gathers and participates in rituals comprised of a blend of African-based and Catholic spirituality. The family must wear traditional Garifuna garments and the chugú is held in a simple hut at a secluded location outside of civilization.

It must be led by a Garifuna spiritual leader who has learned all of the rituals and Garifuna prayers from elder Garifuna spiritual leaders. These leaders are chosen by our ancestors and must undergo a long process before being able to lead chugús. If I am not mistaken, there are only two spiritual leaders in my mother’s town, and a cousin of mine has recently been chosen by our ancestors. The chugú is a long and intense ceremony where we honor our familial ancestors through drumming, singing, dancing, eating and praying.

What are some of your fondest memories while celebrating your Garifuna culture?

Watching the Jankunu dance, which is a dance done by Garifuna males around Christmas, where they dress up in all white complete with a “white face” mask. The dance is a mockery of the British when they tried  to enslave us. I love watching the dance between it involves a lot of hopping and intricate feet movement. The drumming and the traditional songs sung by women that go along with the dance is so intense and so spiritually moving. I love to be among my people and celebrating our history, experiences, and existence.

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Courtesy of Amani May

Do you speak the Garifuna language how prominent is it to your culture?

The language is very prominent in our culture. It is how we differentiate ourselves from other Afro-Latinos in our Latin countries. Although both my parents speak fluent Garifuna, for some reason they did not teach me the language. We all speak Spanish and English to each other. I decided that I must learn the language so I have been attending Garifuna Language classes in the Bronx, NYC on Saturdays with instructor Milton Guity, a Garifuna from Honduras. It is a difficult language to learn, I must admit, as the rules are completely different from the English and Spanish language. However, I am trying my hardest to learn the language of my people and ancestors, slowly but surely.

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think about the Garifuna community ?

The first word that comes to mind is family. I always say “all Garifuna are related one way or another” and it’s especially true in my mother’s hometown, Livingston. The Garifuna community there is very small and very connected. We are all practically related and we all know each other’s business. If I want to know about a specific person, all I would have to do is know their last name and I would know all about their family. I love how the language is central to our culture, a Guatemalan Garifuna and communicate with a Honduran Garifuna and a Belizean Garifuna with no issue. We all share the same customs and rituals and we all see each other as family.

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Have you ever struggled with your identity ? If so what did you do to overcome that obstacle?

Of course I have! My journey to honoring my identity was a long one. As a child, I used to visit Guatemala every summer with my mother so I was always connected to my people and community, but I felt a lot of pressure to just hide that part of me and adopt the American culture and beliefs every time I returned to NYC. In high school, when I realized that the school was mostly Latino, I started becoming more comfortable with explaining my heritage.

Unfortunately I experienced a lot of “you’re too black to be Latina” from other Latinos and “you think you’re better than us Blacks because you speak Spanish” from other Blacks. I felt it was a lose-lose situation so I completely shut down at the time. By college, I stopped caring what others thought and embraced my Garifuna heritage publicly. I received some negativity but mostly people have been genuinely curious and now I’ve been received with love. I always loved being Garifuna. I love having a culture outside of the American culture. I see it as a blessing  more than anything else, honestly.

What do you love most about being Afro-Latina?

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Courtesy of Amani May

I love that I can celebrate my ancestors and my heritage freely. I love meeting new people who also identify as Afro-Latina and I love learning about the experiences of other Afro-Latinas. Finally, our voices are being heard!!! 

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