Gilberto Amaya’s career in international development has taken him across more than 30 countries as he implemented renewable energy systems, agribusiness projects, and poverty alleviation initiatives. He witnessed post-independence struggles of sovereign states whose names are rarely heard on U.S. nightly newscasts — Burkina Faso, Togo, Zambia, Zimbabwe. A native of Honduras, he has memories of blending into and being welcomed by communities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America.
Yet, near his home in Fairfax, Va., a bureaucracy momentarily stripped him of his identity. The incident sparked Amaya’s quest to have “Garifuna” fully recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“After conducting some public business at a government agency in Virginia,” Amaya recalled, “I was leaving the line, and the Latina clerk heard me speaking Spanish to my wife and called me back to the counter.”
For ethnicity, he had checked Black.
“You checked the wrong box,” the clerk said. “You can’t check Black. You speak Spanish. You have to check Hispanic.’”
Today, Amaya is a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations (NAC), designed to solicit recommendations on ways to improve the accuracy of the decennial count in determining ethnic minorities. He is allied with other Garifuna organizations, scholars and Afro-Latino advocates to document their heritage and expand their visibility.
The Garifuna, descendants of Africans of mixed tribal ancestry, were captured and shipped from Africa to the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Garifuna historians recount on-board insurrections that ran the ships aground. The captives escaped inland, intermarried with the indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians, also prey for forced-labor bondage. Sometimes referred to as the Black Caribs, the Garifuna led and participated in unsuccessful revolts, the Carib Wars, to overthrow British dominion, sometimes with assistance of France, England’s imperial rival.
Though slavery had ceased in England by the late 1700s, the slave trade continued in the Americas. Given public outrage and the political strength of the abolition movement, the British demurred, in the Caribbean, from wholesale execution of prisoners deemed guilty of armed resistance. Though many Garifuna died after being captured and held in austere privation, others were transported 1,700 miles westward and abandoned to their fate.
“They put more than 2,000 people on ships and transported them across the Caribbean to the bay islands of Honduras,” Amaya explains, “and that’s where the Garifuna people landed in mainland Central America. From their arrival on the coast, they eventually spread northwest to the rest of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and south to Nicaragua. Through migration, some large communities are here, like in the South Bronx, New York.”
Amaya says New York’s Garifuna population is America’s largest, between 70,000 to 100,000, “but that is only an estimate because we don’t really show up in decennial census data.” Garifuna communities are also in Houston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere here and abroad in smaller concentrations.
The Garifuna are not entirely new arrivals in America.
“Migration is in our people’s DNA,” Amaya states. “The earliest Garifuna migration to the United States was after World War II, when they were recruited to work on the merchant marine ships supplying Europe during the war against the Axis powers. They weren’t conscripted into the U.S. military, but many chose to remain in America after the war and never returned home. They sent for their families to join them in America.”
Education was Amaya’s path to the United States. He grew up on the Honduran coast, an outstanding student who became the first Garifuna to graduate with a degree in industrial-mechanical engineering from the National University of Honduras in the
capital, Tegucigalpa. There he met and married Rachel, a Garifuna, also a student. They have six children.
“I went to work for the Honduras government for 10 years until I was offered an opportunity to work for a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor for projects in Latin America,” he says. “Later, they decided I would be more useful to their work in Africa.”
The contractor preferred Amaya be U.S.-based, so the family moved to Philadelphia. He earned his master’s degree in international development from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Wherever you go — and I’ve been around, in all of Latin America, in Europe, and different places — and I’ve read about different places — it doesn’t matter the type of regime, the left the right, a democracy an autocracy, a theocracy. Black people are always in the same position, at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“And, in my work, poverty alleviation, I have to look at those things and say, so why are we being sold the idea in Latin America that we’re all the same, that we have the same rights, the same opportunities, yet we’re always at the bottom? Nowhere is there anything close to a racial democracy. I came to the realization that it was a deliberate effort by the white Hispanic elite to keep the situation like that, and to inflate their [own] numbers.”
Amaya contends the same dynamic has been at play in the United States. Though Afro-Latinos contribute to the growth of the Hispanic population, their presence and needs have been marginalized by those whose outlooks and priorities are infused with the stigmas of the colonial past.
When Amaya got involved with census work, he recalls only those who identified as white in leadership positions or as spokespersons for national Hispanic organizations, and similarly in media and government, even during the Obama administration.
“We are promoting the inclusion of Afro-Latinos in census work,” Amaya said. “I work to get the word out about the differences that exist on the census and the invisibility of the Afro-Latinos within the larger Hispanic population.”
Khalil Abdullah, a former executive director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, is a writer for Ethnic Media Services. He is also a former editor/writer for New America Media and former managing editor of the Washington Afro Newspaper.