Family Traditions: Garifuna Settlement Day

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The Palma Family in 2013 wearing traditional Garifuna clothing visiting the Pen Cayetano Studio Gallery. From left to right: Larry, Irulan, Paul, and Carol Moreira-Palma. Photo courtesy of Irulan Palma

Nov. 19 marks Garifuna Settlement Day, the birthday of my cultural heritage and the most anticipated day of the year, where my entire household is required to cook.

One of the most-celebrated national holidays in my homeland of Belize, Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates the arrival of the Garinagu people to Belizean shores on Nov. 19, 1802.

Initially destined for slavery in North America, a human cargo ship carrying West Africans wrecked near the island of St. Vincent. After some time, seeking refuge, they began intermixing with the indigenous Arawakans present on the island. Thus, the Garinagu people were born.

The original Garinagus were exiled to Roatan, Honduras before immigrating to Belize (at that time, British Honduras), Guatemala and Nicaragua. Today, most Garinagus live in Belize and Honduras.

Every Nov. 19, a reenactment of Garifuna arrival occurs in Dangriga Town, Belize — home of the largest Garinagu population in Central America. Typically, most of the population, as well as international visitors, travel down to watch the celebrations.

For the celebration, onlookers will see Garinagu people in boats carrying cassava, sugar cane and plantain sticks representing the food brought with our predecessors, eagerly paddling to shore. More importantly, the heartbeat of our ancestors will be heard through the Garifuna drums as they are played on the shore.

The Garifuna drums are integral to Garifuna culture, so much so that every piece of music stemming from the culture utilizes these instruments. The use of drums also extends to religious music. Most Garinagus are Roman Catholic, and in a traditional Garifuna Mass the drums drive every hymn.

After the reenactment of Garifuna Settlement, the drums pave the path for traditional dances — such as the Jankunu — and a carnival-like parade.

Since moving to the States, my family has not gotten to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day. Thus, it is essential that we ensure our culture remains alive. 

Drum making is maintained in my extended family, drum playing is continued amongst my siblings, our Garifuna language is occasionally spoken within the household, and our favorite Garifuna dish, hudut, is made every year.

Making hudut is a full family ordeal. The dish is a stew consisting of a coconut-milk-based gravy called sere, well seasoned with a variety of spices, cooked with okra and multiple roots, and served with fufu and fish (my family only eats red snapper).

Fufu is a plantain based side dish, equivalent to bread for soup, and making the fufu is what brings the family together.

In order to make it, a mixture of both ripe and green plantains must be boiled and then beaten in a mortar with a stick. Like drums, my extended family also carves mortars and sticks. 

While my mother makes the sere, it is up to the children to beat the plantain. There is a very specific slam and swirl method that creates an efficient mashing process for the plantains.

Most of the time, it becomes a contest amongst my siblings, and now my niece, to see who can beat the most plantain fastest — though my parents may argue that it is a contest of who can get the plantain to fly out of the mortar the farthest.

Much to my mother’s dismay, no matter how old we are, some plantain still ends up all over the floor. Despite the annual mess and extension of the already long cooking process, it is all worth it in the end, as the act of using the same tools and eating the same foods as our ancestors is preserved.

Culture is the bag we always carry with us no matter where we go. No matter where we live, our cultural identity follows us everywhere.

It is up to us to determine how we preserve that identity and find meaning through annual acts. Without celebrating the birth of my heritage, Garifuna culture would be lost, so I am incredibly thankful for my family’s efforts to celebrate Nov. 19, even if things get a little messy along the way. 

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