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Story Publication logo January 31, 2013

The Garifuna and Migration: A Blessing and a Curse


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The Garifuna have historically been forgotten in Honduras and currently face one of the highest HIV...

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In many ways, a typical scene in a Honduran Garifuna village looks much like it would in many small towns in Latin America. On a given day, men ready boats for a fishing excursions, boys play soccer along the beach, while women manage corner stores and prepare fried fish and rice dinners. Chickens and pigs roam pot-holed streets, and there are frequent power outages. People are warm and cordial, eager to give directions and engage outsiders in conversation.

Still, cultural differences are apparent among the Garifuna, an Afro-Caribbean people who are descendants of West African slaves and the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks. They speak their own language in addition to Spanish, and often someone can be heard playing a tambor—Spanish for "drum"—in an African-influenced style. But there is one cultural nuance here that is a surprise in this Spanish-speaking Latin American country: the use of English. It's common for a local to ask in passing, "How's it goin', man?" Women can pepper their sentences with short English expressions. And some older men can carry on a conversation in impeccable English.

Heavy migration is the reason for this. Many Garifuna men leave here because employment is so hard to find. They work on cruise ships or fishing boats, which gives them a taste of many countries and languages. Others find their way to New York and Los Angeles, which have large Garifuna communities. Migration can help families as men find more lucrative jobs and send home remittances to their families. Restaurant owner Samuel Guity says he built three houses with the money he made abroad. "I learned English on Carnival Cruise Lines—as a dining room waiter," says Guity, 56. "It was hard to find jobs here."

But there's a serious drawback to this migratory trend: it helps fuel the HIV epidemic in these communities. Men often leave home for months at a time and can have sexual relationships in areas where the virus is prevalent, such as ports, says Karla Zepeda, technical director in Honduras for Global Communities, a non-profit that works with the Garifuna. Some come home HIV positive without knowing it and then have unprotected sex in the community. "Migration is a huge factor in the prevalence of HIV," Zepeda says. A 2008 World Bank report agrees, saying the epidemic has partly been driven by "the high levels of mobility among the ethnic Garifuna population, especially via the merchant marine and contact with the Garifuna population in the northeastern United States."

It's a story often heard in these villages: a husband or partner goes off to sea, comes home, and soon the wife starts feeling ill. She gets tested and finds out she has HIV. Sometimes the men don't know they're carrying the virus; other times, they do know but don't tell their partners. Juliana Ramirez, a mother of five who lives in the Garifuna town of Sambo Creek, contracted the virus from her husband, who had gone to fish in Colombia. "You're calm at home, but your husband is on the streets," says Ramirez, 57. "He slept with someone there. After he came home he didn't know and I didn't know, and he came to sleep with me." She now lives alone, taking care of some of her grandchildren. "I don't want to live with him anymore because he infected me," she says.

It's more common to hear the stories of women who were infected by men. Male Garifuna are less likely to speak openly about their diagnosis; in fact, of the 19 HIV positive people interviewed in depth for this project, only five were male. But some men do speak out. Magno Julian Garcia, a 41-year-old percussion player, says when he left to play drums with a traveling ballet in Mexico, his ex-wife slept with another man back home. "She was with a man who had HIV," Garcia, who now has the virus, said outside his home by the beach in Sambo Creek. "She knew but she never told me. I don't know why."



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