During a recent visit to Belize, I had the opportunity to learn more about the Garífuna culture and experience a little of their Independence Day celebration.  The Garífuna culture is spread throughout the country with strong influences in the cuisine and music of Belize.  From the very beginning I could tell that I would like Belize. My experience began at the border crossing between Guatemala and Belize by bus.

Once past immigration, my mind was put at ease as I listened to sounds of reggae music from the bus speakers.  At first glance, I noticed the differences between people in Belize and the rest of its neighboring countries: the majority of people I saw were of African descent instead of Latin like so many of the others living around Belize.    

I soon found out many of these people that were unique to the coastline of Belize and scattered along the Caribbean coast of other Central American countries were the Garífuna people.  I learned that their history began when two Spanish slave ships wrecked off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent around 1635.  Carib Indians and Arawak people inhabited the island and the groups mixed to create a new culture, called Garífuna. However, when the British settled St. Vincent, they banished the Garífuna people to a desolate island off the coast of Honduras where they struggled for survival.


Copyright Juan-Carlos Cuellar/

Years later, the Garifuna people slowly established villages on islands and along the coasts of southern Belize, Guatemala, and northern Honduras where they managed to keep some of their own culture like the African traditions of music, dance, religious rites, and ceremonies; Every year, the Garífuna people of Belize have a Garifuna Settlement Day Festival on November 19th in celebration of their culture. To mark the first arrival of Garifuna in 1832, there is a reenactment of how their ancestors arrived to the mainland with people riding canoes ashore while waving banana leaves and palm fronds.

People waving cassava- a small shrub whose starchy, potato-like root is used in a variety of Garifuna and African cuisine-symbolizes the crop that sustained the Garifuna people during their settlement days. The annual festival celebrating Garifuna Independence consists of drums, dancing, food, art, education and traditions in commemoration of the Garifuna people's arrival on November 19th to the Belize shores. Originally celebrated only in southern Belize, today the celebrations are spread throughout the country with traditional seafood food dishes and island music.

The Garífuna people's speech is mainly made up of an English dialect with a French and Carib-Indian blend.  At first, I had a hard time understanding the locals, but once I heard the music and the rhythm, I felt a connection.  In fact, I seemed to have felt a rhythmic connection every time someone spoke.

San Pedro on Ambergris Caye (pronounced "key"), just off the coast of Belize City was the highlight of the trip. I was in a tropical island with white sands, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and water as bright blue as the sky. Paradise!  Live music played every night in the town square thanks to the lingering celebrations of Garifuna Settlement Day Festival. Rhythmic sounds filled the streets at night.  My two days were filled with snorkeling with sharks and rays, eating delicious seafood and enjoying the rhythms of the nightly drumming and dancing. Getting a taste of the Garifuna Day festivities was a great way to end my trip.




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