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Honduran Garifuna Unification, Truth or Myth?

By: José Francisco Avila
By: José Francisco Avila,

Two years after Joseph Chatoyer (Satuye) was killed on March 14, 1795, the Garifuna people were deported from their native land to Central America. It's unfortunate to think that two hundred and ten years later Chatoyer's dream of unity and independence for the Garifuna people lies in ruins.

Honduran Garifunas in New York City today, continue to find that unity remains elusive. Despite many shared concerns, the thousands of Garifunas in this city have no cohesive leadership. No Garifuna organization has managed to bridge the division. While some efforts have been made to try to bridge these divisions, these efforts have been paralyzed by the continued boycotting of some leaders who go around preaching unity but not practicing it. In this article I will address the division in the Honduran Garifuna community of New York City..

It was October 25th, 2003 when Jerry Castro published an article entitled “Garifuna Coalition USA divorces ONECA” on the Garinet website. According to the article, In a letter directed to ONECA's president, Celeo Casildo Alvarez, Garifuna Coalition's president, Rejil Solis, describes the reason of why the Garifuna American Organization, which was founded amidst the Bicentennial in Honduras in 1997 as, "Irregularities upon the planning of the ONECA Assembly in New York."

Two days later, Mr Castro published another article quoting unnamed sources who stated "We made a decision and have been wanting to have this event in New York", says the source who did nor want to be identified. "Our movement does not reflect on the views of one individual, or two or three", continued the source. "We have a goal and responsibility to carry out this event. "

On October 28th, 2003 Mr. Celeo Alvarez Casildo, the Central American Black Organization’s president, responded to Mr. Solis’ letter, stating the following, “I have just returned to my office after an eight day absence taking care of important international commitments for our organizations and communities, finding the unpleasant news of the decision taken by Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc., which you preside, to resign its Affiliation to the Central American Black Organization CABO, arguing "irregularities in the planning and coordination of the ninth CABO Assembly in New York ". The letter concluded with “In order to clear all doubts with reference to the organization of CABO’s ninth General Assembly, it would be very advisable that you enumerate the "detected irregularities" in the planning and organization of the event. Thanks in advance for your attention and await your positive response.”

Mr. Solis did not respond to Mr. Alvarez’ letter and stood by his initial decision to end the Garifuna Coalition’s affiliation to CABO. As a member of the Garifuna Coalition and eyewitness to the events that unfolded, I was privy to information that Mr. Castro was not and which his sources did not reveal and which I will now reveal to set the record straight and perhaps put his issue to rest once and for all, so that we can focus on our future.

The Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. disaffiliation from the Central American Black Organization was the conclusion of over six months of friction between Mr. Rejil Solis, president and Ms. Mirtha Colon, vice-president of the Garfiuna Coalition USA, Inc. The friction reached such a point that the last Garifuna Coalition activity attended by Ms. Colon, was Community Meeting held on May 4th, 2003 at the Templo Night Club to talk about a “Sustainable Development Master Plan for the New York City Garifuna community”. In addition, she did not attend the Coalition’s Fourth Annual Garifuna Nation Retreat, nor responded to any written or voice messages sent or left at her residence, for all practical purposes, she walked away from her position. Neither did Mr. Jorge Centeno attend the Retreat. Furthermore, on September 28th, 2003, the Garifuna Coalition held a special breakfast Celebrating Honduran and Central American Independence in the Bronx, where the guest of honor were Ms. Antonieta Maximo, General Consulate of Honduras in New York City and Earl Brown, Bronx Borough vicepresident. Ms. Colon, Mr. Pablo Gomez and Mr Alvarez Casildo showed up after the breakfast had concluded even though they had been confirmed their attendance. To complicate matters even more, although the Coalition was affiliated with CABO, Ms. Colon was and continues to be the only CABO board member in New York City, therefore, she was the official representative in New York City and leading organizer of the Ninth Annual Assembly. This was reiterated by Mr. Alvarez Casildo in an e-mail message sent to Mr. Solis in response to a message requesting a meeting with Mr Alvarez Casildo and the Coalition’s board of directors.

The friction between Mr. Solis and Ms. Colon, led to the division of the organization, with Mr. Pablo Gomez, president of the Honduran & Central American Parade, Inc., the late Victor Bermudez (R.I.P.), president of Guatemala Garifuna Organization, and Jorge Centeno, president of the Garifuna Cultural Unification supporting Ms. Colon and breaking up any ties with the Garifuna Coalition, USA, Inc, .

Since the breakup, there had been no effort from either party to seek reconciliation, therefore, on November 4th, 2004, I sent Mr. Alvarez Casildo an e-mail message stating the following: “The purpose of this message is to explore that something that we often talk about but we do not dare to initiate, engage in a dialog in search of the reconciliation and integration of our community. Therefore I am writing you with the intention that we can sit down to engage in a dialog on this subject and be able to fortify the ties that unite us in our struggle.” As an experienced salesman, I know that a lot of time can be wasted with very little results can e achieved, when you talk to the wrong person, therefore, I chose to go to straight to the ultimate decision maker.

Mr. Alvarez Casildo responded with the following” It is with great pleasure that we receive your communication with its stated objective, you know that we are always open to sincere dialogue in benefit of the interests and yearnings of our beloved people.

Remember that contradiction is a natural law of development... and we must be brave enough to confront our weaknesses and to let our feelings and ideas rise in benefit of our collective development. Wish that you all could attend CABO’s tenth General Assembly, in Bluefields, Nicaragua. I will not be able to travel to New York for the rest of the year, however, it is understood that we have started the dialogue in search of the much yearned unity and coordination of our efforts.”

Since I would not be able to meet with Mr. Alvarez Casildo in 2004, I chose to start the dialogue t the local level, therefore, I wrote Ms. Mirtha Colon, seeking a meeting where we could start the dialogue and we agreed to meet on Wednesday December 15th in the Bronx, to my surprise, Ms. Colon showed up accompanied by Mr. Jorge Centeno and Pablo Gomez whom. I explained to them that the reason for the meeting was to find a way for me to mediate the reconciliation between Ms. Colon and Mr. Solis and that it was my initiative to write Mr. Alvarez Casildo and her in hopes of finding out what it would take to come to some type of understanding between them.. Mr. Centeno was the first one to speak and immediately reverted back to 2003 and that Mr. Solis’ presence was required in order to continue the conversation, however, he did thank me for having the courage to take the initiative in search of reconciliation and subsequent reunification . I agreed to arrange another meeting where Mr. Solis would be present; in addition, we agreed that we would continue the reconciliation process by meeting on a regular basis. The follow up meeting was scheduled for January 17th 2005 and Mr. Solis was in attendance. Just like the previous meeting, most of the time was spent on 2003 without reaching any real agreement on how to move forward.

On February 10th, 2005, after finding out that Mr. Alvarez Casildo would be traveling to New York city, I wrote him a message with the following request: “The purpose of this message is to explore the possibility of a meeting during your visit to New York City next week. This meeting will be a follow up to our communication last November when we agreed that we had initiated the dialogue in search of the much yearned unity and coordination of our efforts. As you know we’ve held two meetings with the involved local organizations.” He agreed to meet and the meeting was scheduled for February 15th in the Bronx, unfortunately, Mr. Solis was not able to attend, however, I was there along with Hazel Perez, secretary of the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc.; Mr. Pablo Gomez, president of the Honduran & Central American Parade, Inc., and Jorge Centeno, president of the Garifuna Cultural Unification; Mirtha Colon, president of Hondurans Against Aids; Celeo Alvarez Casildo President of ODECO and ONECA,; Karen Vargas, ODECO’s legal representative and yours truly, as treasurer of the Garifuna Coalition, Inc.

The meeting was cordial and once again the main topic of discussion was the 2003 events that led to the disaffiliation. However, there was a twist to this meeting because it became obvious during the conversation, that Mr. Alvarez Casildo was more interested in recruiting my organization, New Horizon Investment Club to join CABO, than he was in seeking any reconciliation with the Garifuna Coalition, Inc. or Mr. Solis. Furthermore, he was still expecting Mr. Solis’ response to his October 28th, 2003 letter to Mr. Solis. We left the meeting again agreeing to continue the reconciliation process with follow up meetings. On February 25th, 2005, I traveled to Los Angeles, CA at the invitation of the a local organization and a very reliable source, informed that s/he had heard about my reconciliation efforts but I needed to be cautious because the other parties involved, were not as serious about it, as a matter of fact, had boasted personally to my source, that we were begging to be regain reaffiliation with CABO and that wouldn’t’ happen. Since I was serious about the effort and seemed to be the only one really interested in pursuing reconciliation, I simply left it alone and no one has reinitiated the talks.

In July 2005, the sixth annual Garifuna Nation retreat was held in the Poconos, PA and among the attendees, were Sixto Pastor Ovado, Mayor of Limon, Dr. Tulio Mariano Gonzáles García, General Coordinator of Honduras Ecosystems Project, Bernard Martínez Valerio, President of the Partido de Innovación y Unidad, PINU -SD, Mrs. Elida Herrera from Black Honduras Women Association. Miriam Álvarez Solano representing La Ceiba’s mayor, and Ms Dionisia Amaya, President, Solo Mujeres, who had all traveled from Honduras. Except for Ms.Amaya, this was the first time that these Garifunas had experienced a Garifuna Coalition retreat and they were impressed! What impressed them the most, was to see various Garifuna organizations working together under an umbrella organization for the benefit of our community, specially since there’s no such organization in Honduras, since various Honduran Garifuna organizations came together to create the Honduran National Black organization in 1996, which unfortunately has ceased to exist. Therefore, they chose to start a Garifuna Coalition branch in Honduras to serve as the coordinators for the eighth Annual Garifuna Nation Retreat to be held in La Ceiba, Honduras, April 8th – 15th 2007. Since the Retreat would coincide with the 210th Anniversary of the Arrival of Garifunas to Honduras and Central America, the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. saw it as an opportunity to again try to pursue the reunification of the Honduran Garifuna organizations.

With this objective in mind, they wrote to Mrs. Maria Elena Maximo and Mr. Francisco Ruiz, president and vice-president of Jamalali Uagucha,Inc. USA Mr. Pablo Gomez, president of the Honduran & Central American Parade, Inc., Zenon Murphy Valentine, producer of the Centro America TV Show, Jorge Centeno, president of the Garifuna Cultural Unification; and Mirtha Colon, president of Hondurans Against Aids; inviting them to meet with their respective organization’s board of directors to present the Honduras 2007 project plan and invite them to join them. These letters were followed by personal phone calls by Mr. Solis to each individual, in addition to e-mail messages confirming the receipt of the letter and their availability to meet. The first person contacted was Ms. Colon, who informed Mr. Solis that she would be out of the country most of January and would meet with her board of directors upon her return and get back to him. Mr. Centeno, Gomez, and Valentine never responded to any of the communication.

In the meanwhile, Mr. Francisco Ruiz, called Mr. Solis upon receipt of the letter and scheduled an initial meeting for Tuesday, February 7th , which Mr. Solis and I attended. Mr. Ruiz expressed his pleasure with the invitation for Jamalali Uagucha,Inc. USA, to participate in the Honduras 2007 project, as well as the opportunity for other joint projects in the future. Due to the fact that Ms. Maximo was out of the country, we agreed to a follow up meeting on February 10th , where we presented the project to the Jamalali Uagucha, Inc.USA’s board members who were very receptive and willing to participate. In addition, they shared their excitement with the opportunity to work together in pursuit of the Garifuna unification and agreed to schedule a follow up meeting for February 25th. .

On February 4th, Mr. Solis received a message from , Ms Colon, proposing a meeting for Saturday, February 11th at 6:00 PM. Furthermore, she stated that she had communicated with the other organizations and they had agreed to hold one meeting with the following organizations: Honduras, Central American and International Parade Committee, Centro America Show, UNCUGA, Comunidad Garifuna de Guatemala, and Hondureños Contra el SIDA. Despite initial concerns about this counterproposal, the Garífuna Coalition Board agreed to meet.

The Garifuna Coalition was represented by Mr. Rejil Solis, president, Marcia Gomez, vice-president, Emelinda Hill, Assistant-treasurer and Jose Francisco Avila, treasurer. Although the meeting was scheduled for 6:00 PM and most of the Coalition’s representatives and Mr. Centeno were present, the other organizations did not show up till 6:30. The meeting started at 6:50 with a 30 minutes dissertation by Mr. Centeno on Garifuna history, focusing on unity to set the stage. Next Mr. Rejil Solis proceeded to present the Honduras 2007 project and then paused to ask if there were any questions. Mr. Valentine raised his hand and proceeded to state that he had two questions one for Mr. Solis and another one for Mr. Avila. His first question was about the 2003 Garifuna Coalition, USA, Inc. – CABO break up and why it occurred. Mr. Solis explained that the invitation letter was very specific as to the purpose of the meeting and he did not think that the meeting was the appropriate place to discuss this issue. Mr. valentine insisted on getting an answer and was not willing to discuss any other topic, unless he got an answer. At this point, I asked Mr. Valentine, why did he wait three years to ask the question, when I had left various messages in his mobile phone’s voice mail, trying to schedule a meeting to settle any differences and he never responded to any of them. I also reminded him that this was the first time he had attended a meeting of this nature. However, Mr. Valentine would not change his position and Ms Colon’s participation was limited to supporting MR. Valentine’s position. Once again, Mr. Solis tried to bring back the meeting to its intended purpose and mentioned that if we could not come to an agreement, perhaps we needed to end the meeting. At this point, Ms Bartolome Guerrero, interjected, saying that it was obvious that there was no reconciliation and that there were issues that needed to be addressed among some of the organizations before, we could come to an agreement. Therefore, she suggested that we conclude the meeting and reschedule a follow up meeting, once the remaining issues had been addressed.

I expressed my agreement with Ms. Guerrero’s suggestion and emphasized that this was the reason why the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. had extended individual invitations to each organization for an initial meeting. With plans for a general assembly once we had met with all the organizations individually. However, it was Ms. Colon and the other organizations who had chosen to meet this way and despite our concerns, we agreed to meet with them. Mr. Solis proceeded to announce that the meeting was adjourned.

Ms. Gurrero asked me not to drop the unification effort, because she wants to see it become a reality and she’s willing to mediate the reconciliation effort. I promised her that I am committed to the Garifuna Unification effort and would not stop pursuing it and that I accept her offer and will work with her. That is why I am concerned at the attitude of my fellow Honduran Garifunas, who portray a united African Descendants group in Central America, yet continue to promote segregation and separation within the country with the largest Garifuna population and exporting it to the USA; hence the title of this article, “Garifuna Unification, truth or myth”. How can these organizations talk about unity when they don’t even take the initiative to seek reconciliation and when someone else does it, they show up only to boycott the effort? Mr. Valentine is the producer of the longest running Garifuna TV show in New York City, yet in the three years since the CABO incident, he has never extended an invitation to Mr. Rejil Solis or me to discuss the situation, as a matter of fact neither did Mr. Castro. The only coverage Mr. Valentine gave the issue, was an inflammatory message on his former Honduras New York website, which is what Mr. Castro quoted in his Garinet article, is that considered impartial journalism? Mr. Centeno on the other hand is a Unification Church reverend who preaches unity, even in his organization’s name, however, I’ve yet to see him practice it in New York City’s Garifuna community, I presume he’s satisfied with the Garifuna souls he’s saved as a spiritual leader. Each time we’ve met, he has spent most of his time defending Ms. Colon and Mr. Alvarez Casildo, instead of maintaining an objective and impartial position that would allow us to move forward with the unification efforts. Ms. Colon is a Social worker by trade and the most prominent female Garifuna leader in New York City, yet, she seems to be satisfied to have the support of Mr. Gomez and Centeno, while developing relationships with other African descendants around the Americas, even though her own people remain divided and segregated. How can we claim to unite others when our home community is in disarray? How long are we going to continue talking about 2003? I challenge each one of them to prove that Garifuna unity is not elusive and that Chatoyer’s dream of unity for the Garifuna people does not lie in ruins

As we approach the the 210th anniversary of our Arrival to Honduras an Central America, it is my hope that a new day will dawn for the Honduran Garifuna people. Let's not forget that last year we commemorated the 210th anniversary of the death of that great Garifuna leader Joseph Chatoyer and next year we will commemorate the 210th anniversary of our deportation to Central America. Are we going to continue pleasing those that cowardly killed our great leader and then proceeded to divide and conquer us? Or, are we going to prove that in spite of their efforts we continue to be the proud and tenacious and united people they feared?

I certainly hope that it's the latter and invite Mr. Pablo Gomez, president of the Honduran & Central American Parade, Inc., Zenon Murphy Valentine, producer of the Centro America TV Show Jorge Centeno, president of the Garifuna Cultural Unification; Mirtha Colon, president of Hondurans Against Aids to join the Jamalali Uagucha, Inc. USA, the Garifuna Coalition, Inc, and their affiliates, to work together to make Chatoyer’s dream of GARIFUNA UNIFICATION a reality in New York City as we travel the path towards a bright future..

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Other Articles By José Francisco Avila
02/23/04 Honduran-Americans Seek Political Empowerment
10/04/03 Community Recognition Awards

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