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My Garifuna -> Garifuna Day

Lidani Garifuna Times interviews Dr. Joseph Palacio

By: Jerry Castro
For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Joseph Palacio is a hustler, just like the artist Cassidy says on his new single featuring Jay-Z.

But there’s something special about this “hustla”. He is smart, and humble. His responses to the questions we asked were firm and direct.

And if you ask about his resume, his ambition and his plans, please, look no further.

Lidani: Can you tell us a brief about yourself and the field of study you have been involved in?

Dr. Joseph Palacio: I was born in the village of Barangu in southern Belize and neighboring to Labuga, Guatemala. My field of study has been anthropology. I started in archaeology and gradually spread to social and cultural anthropology. In both fields I have worked for the government of Belize and the University of the West Indies in Belize. I have lived in Belize City for the past 22 years. I have three children – Vincent, Aniki, and Arreini.

Lidani: How have Garifuna responded to the current situation of the economy, the sale of lands, AIDS; what are the current needs to address these issues…?”

Dr. Joseph Palacio The issues of the economy, HIV/AIDS, the sale of lands, etc are some of the most pressing that we are facing as a people. Each one by itself is complex and should be dealt with separately. And I normally do not like to give glib answers to problems confronting us. For that is a major part of the problem – not taking time to analyze our situation but always answering with some definitive but half-baked solutions.

But you have asked me the question. My response is that these are issues that confront any group of people who are caught between two distinct and disjointed worlds. For us they are coastal Central America and inner city United States. Furthermore, there continues to be a deliberate move by hundreds and hundreds of our people to relocate permanently to the United States, leaving behind a residual population in what are quickly becoming our “former” home villages in Central America.

Caught in this context of relocation, we are increasingly losing our foothold in Central America, for there are waves of landless Latinos from the hinterland, who are seeing potential where the Garifuna had seen despair. Even Belize, the least Latino of all Central American countries, has experienced the large-scale migration of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans since the 1980’s, making the blacks a dwindling minority.

I started by saying that there are other people, who are caught in a similar situation of displacement and relocation. The Maya in Belize are such a group. The results are forthcoming in the inability to retain possession of land, irreversible cultural erosion, economic poverty, which limits self-esteem and in turn leads to HIV/AIDS, etc.

I hope I have started to show some of the complexities of this question you asked. I have also started to show the need for the Garifuna and others in similar situations in Central America – blacks, Maya, Miskito, and other indigenous peoples – to work together to see how they can arrest this bottomless pit that is swallowing all of us.

Of course, education has always been the one passport poor people have had to be able to move into a better life. I encourage our young people to take their education very seriously. In my case, my own movement through education came, thanks to my family, the government and people of Belize and likewise the same for Canada and the United States. I mention “the people and government” because I received scholarships from several sources enabling me to progress from primary school to university.

One final thing I will say about HIV/AIDS. It is a disease that is killing our people. But there are other diseases that are not receiving as much attention. They are diabetes, hypertension, and glaucoma. There is hardy one of us over 40 years of age, who does not have one or more of these public health problems. It is the responsibility of each one to see about his/her health and that of our family members.

Lidani: If not a doctor, what other field would you have chosen for a profession?”

Dr. Joseph Palacio: I have often asked myself this question. I probably would have become a fisherman; and a lousy fisherman at that.

Lidani: How can you describe the role of Dr. Gonzalez in outlining specifics about Garifuna history?

Dr. Joseph Palacio: As you know, Dr. Gonzalez started her career as anthropologist among the Garifuna in Labuga (Livingston) in the 1950’s. She has been the most prolific student and writer about our people. Besides, her analysis has led to other fields in anthropology, such as gender studies, migration, and interethnic relations. It is necessary to emphasize that her work on the Garifuna not only uncovered much information about our people but also led to the study of other major fields in the discipline. I lost communication with her while she was teaching at a university in Guatemala. This shows her dedication to education within the sub region. If she reads this, I hope that she will communicate with me urgently.

Lidani: “Why is Garifuna cultural identification important both in history and within the Garifuna community?”

Dr. Joseph Palacio: Garifuna identity is significant for several reasons. But the one that I will focus on is its uniqueness. For this reason UNESCO declared it oral and intangible heritage of all humanity – a most special award indeed. The perspective that I maintain and elaborate in the paper you mentioned is the indigenous peoplehood of the Garifuna. Here I refer to the blending of African and Native American as well as the fact the this took place in a small island with social and environmental factors that greatly facilitated the birth and nourishment of this new socio-culture. I find it lamentable that the Garifuna in the United States have not paid much attention to their Native American heritage, given that the re-awakening of aboriginal peoples in North America is one of the most influential social movements to have overtaken that continent within the past three decades; and it keeps getting stronger. I think that our young people have been overcome by the exclusivity of black consciousness, which is an American phenomenon but has always been alien to us as a people. I am hoping that your electronic magazine should take this as a major challenge for your readership.

Lidani: What has been your greatest achievement in the University of the West Indies?

Dr. Joseph Palacio: At the UWI I tried to generate an active continuing studies programme, especially in community development and for persons, who normally would not have the chance to go to university. Also I promoted a good amount of research on topics that include refugees, migration, indigenous peoples, history, and community development. The proceedings from this research effort are available in many publications as well as in the library of the University in Belize. Finally, I tried to enhance our building to be something worthy of a mini-campus in Belize. Using the above skills I tried to maintain a strong current of Garifuna studies. Some of the highlights include studying the technology of the Garifuna and doing some videotape on how to revive it. It is interesting that some persons are now re-learning our traditional technology – such as basket weaving - from these video-clips. I did not believe that I would be witnessing this in my lifetime – so quickly has our culture eroded and it is happening around us everyday.

Lidani: Can you tell us something about a special person that you have written about?”

Dr. Joseph Palacio: I think that you are talking about Gulisi, about whom I wrote in a recent article published in the Journal of Eastern Caribbean Studies entitled “Reconstructing Garifuna Oral History – techniques and methods in the story of a Caribbean people”. In this article I spoke about the use of oral history in reconstructing aspects of Garifuna history that stretches from St. Vincent to Central America. As you know, there are several survivals from St. Vincent in today’s Garifuna communities. There are, for example, Chatoyers in Livingston (spelled as “Satoye”). But there had never been exposed in the literature direct biological links from Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer to Honduras and eventually to Belize. I was fortunate to interview a woman in Dangriga, who claimed to be the granddaughter of the granddaughter of Joseph Chatoyer. The daughter, from who this descendant came, was named Gulisi. She was born in St. Vincent, survived the massacre and the exile to Roatan, and from there made her way to Belize and eventually settled in the Commerce Bight area just south of Dangriga. I encourage students to read the article not only for the story of Gulisi but also how to approach history as a living force that spreads from one generation to another.

Lidani: In your free time what do you do?”

Dr. Joseph Palacio: I seem to have less spare time these days, contrary to what I had anticipated before retirement. I am hoping to spend more time in Barranco, Punta Gorda, and Livingston. I am also doing quite a bit of writing using several notes that I have accumulated over the years. You ask about food – a good topic. I love the wide variety of Garifuna dishes and I try prepare them myself whenever possible. My favourite is tikin, especially with lots okra, cabbage, and tomato. This should be washed down with chicha made from pineapple rind soaked not more than two days, preferably in a mahogany hana. There are dozens of Garifuna recipes that someone should study seriously and use to build an entire catering industry.

With respect to partying as a young man, I did not do too much. Part of the reason is that I was in Belize City from the age of 14 to 20, boarding most of the time with a Creole family. I did not feel at home in Belize City. Besides, I just could not afford going to parties, as whatever pennies I accumulated went toward school expenses. During the holidays we enjoyed ourselves very much in the village. Even there one had to be aware to start saving the pennies to bring back to the city.

My final message to the youth – study; work hard; give yourself some challenge in maintaining something positive about the Garifuna culture that you will be able to showcase and pass on to your children. Mabuiga, Joseph O. Palacio.

This interview was conducted by Jerry Castro for © Lidani Garifuna Times Magazine, All Rights Reserved.

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