Garifuna and the 2020 Census
Gilberto Amaya’s career in international development has taken him to more than thirty countries, where he has implemented renewable energy systems, agribusiness projects, and poverty alleviation initiatives. Along the way, he witnessed the post-independence struggles of sovereign states whose names are rarely heard on nightly newscasts in the U.S. — 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, Virginia, a bureaucracy momentarily stripped him of his identity — and incident that 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 counter, and the Latina clerk heard me speaking Spanish to my wife and called me back.”
For ethnicity, Amaya had checked the box next to “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), which solicits recommendations on ways to improve the accuracy of the decennial count in determining ethnic minorities, and is allied with other Garifuna organizations, scholars, and Afro-Latino advocates working to document the heritage and raise the visibility of the Garifuna people.
The Garifuna are descendants of Africans of mixed tribal ancestry who were captured and shipped from Africa to the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Garifuna historians recount on-board insurrections that ran ships aground. The captives escaped inland and intermarried with indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians, who were also subject to forced-labor bondage. Sometimes referred to as the Black Caribs, the Garifuna led and participated in the unsuccessful Carib Wars aimed at overthrowing British dominion, sometimes with assistance of France, England’s imperial rival.
Although slavery had been banned in England by the late 1700s, the slave trade continued in the Americas. Given public outrage and the growing political strength of the abolition movement, the British demurred, in the Caribbean, from wholesale execution of prisoners deemed guilty of armed resistance. Although many Garifuna died after being captured, others were transported seventeen hundred miles to the west and abandoned to their fate.
“They put more than two thousand people on ships and transported them across the Caribbean to the Bay Islands of Honduras,” Amaya explains. “That’s where the Garifuna people first landed in Central America. And after their arrival on the coast, they eventually moved north and west to the rest of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize, as well as south into Nicaragua. Through migration, some large communities also were established in the U.S., for example in the South Bronx.”
Amaya says New York’s Garifuna population is America’s largest, numbering between 70,000 to 100,000. “But that is only an estimate because we don’t really show up in decennial census data.” Garifuna can also be found in Houston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, both in the U.S. and abroad, albeit in smaller numbers.
The Garifuna are not new arrivals to the United States. “Migration is in our people’s DNA,” Amaya says. “The earliest Garifuna migration to the U.S. was after World War II, when we were recruited to work on the merchant marine ships supplying Europe during the war against the Axis powers. Garifuna 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.”
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 Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. There he met and married Rachel, another Garifuna student at the university. They have six children.
“I went to work for the Honduras government for ten years until I was offered an opportunity to work for a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor on projects in Latin America,” he says. “Later, they decided I would be more useful to their work in Africa.”
The contractor preferred that 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.
The dramatic growth of the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States, captured in the censuses of 2000 and 2010, did not go unnoticed by America’s political elites. Amaya remembers the raw opportunism and frantic attempts of both the Democratic and Republican parties to tap into what was perceived as a potential source of voters. Likewise, corporations, awakened to an emerging customer base and potential consumer market, began to look for Spanish-language spokespeople.
“I remember the lawyers all over the region where I live in Virginia running around, struggling with their broken Spanish to reach out to the Hispanic population because it was growing so fast.”
According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics in the U.S. today number almost 60 million, more than 18 percent of the population. By 2050, that number is projected to rise to approximately 133 million, and Hispanics will comprise one-third of the population. Hispanics are “the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority,” the Census Bureau reports, and ten states already have at least one million Hispanic residents.
For many Americans, the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are interchangeable, but for purposes of the census “Hispanic” refers primarily to descendants of people from Mexico or other polities once under Spanish colonial rule, while “Latino” refers to the populations of Central and South America (Latin America), but includes Brazil, which was colonized by the Portuguese.
How the descendants of the millions of Africans forcibly imported into the New World defined themselves is rarely addressed. In some countries, Amaya explained, those who owned slaves included them in census responses as an indicator of wealth. After independence, “governments sought to present a whiter face to the world in order to attract European immigrants.” The hierarchical color codes denoting mixed blood and status, with “black” at the bottom, were maintained as a social construct but discarded for purposes of the census.
“Wherever you go — and I’ve been around, in Latin America and Europe and lots of other places — it doesn’t matter the type of regime, left or right, democracy or autocracy or theocracy, black people are always in the same position, at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“And in my work, 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 its [own] numbers.”
With guidelines set by the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Census Bureau has tried to address the issue with a linguistic panacea of sorts. Hispanics and Latinos, according to the Census Bureau, are not a race but rather an ethnic group that can be of any race. The bureau notes that, “in 2000 and in 2010, the Some Other Race (SOR) population, which was intended to be a small residual category, was the third-largest race group. This was primarily due to Hispanics identifying with any of the OMB race categories. In addition, segments of other populations, such as Afro Caribbean and Middle Eastern or North African populations, did not identify with any of the OMB race categories and identified as SOR.”
The 2020 census race categories will be the same as they were in 2010: white, black or Afro American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and as many as eleven boxes to denote Asian.
In order to be recognized as Garfuna in the 2020 census, Amaya will have to write “Garifuna” or “Honduran” on the form under origin:Hispanic and then check the box for black or African American. Presumably, he will be counted as both. Amaya estimates that, when adding the Afro Latino population to the black/African American one, the combined percentage of the total U.S. population is probably closer to 20 percent.
At the same time, his insistence on raising the visibility of the Afro Latino presence in America has caused discomfort in some quarters. Indeed, he’s been accused of being divisive when he points out that the diversity of the Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S. is not fully represented.
Amaya’s letter to a Census Bureau director addressed “the concern increasingly voiced by millions in the Afro Latino community, a significant growing segment of the Hispanic population in the United States, which doesn’t see itself recognized, equitably represented, and sharing equally in the benefits — including representation in government, employment services, and so on.”
Locally, Amaya has been working with the District of Columbia’s Complete Count Committee to ensure that Afro Latinos are counted in the 2020 census. During the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation‘s annual legislative conference in September, he was a key organizer of a panel, “The Decade of the Diaspora: A Conversation on the Afro Descendant Experience in Latin America,” hosted by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA). Actor Danny Glover was a speaker, as were several Garifuna activists. Although the event focused on the challenges and conditions of Afro Latino communities abroad, the question of identity resonated throughout the discussion.
In 2001, UNESCO recognized the Garifuna language, dance, and music of Belize and neighboring Honduras as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangibles Heritage of Humanity.” Spoken, Garifuna is a mellifluous tongue comprised of African dialects, Carib, Arawak, and elements of French.
Amaya is fluent in Garifuna and cites preservation of Garifuna language and culture as something most Garifuna are committed to. He is heartened by individuals like Ruben Reyes, who co-produced and starred in Garifuna in Peril, a film that portrays how modernity has affected Garifuna communities. Amaya sees the census as a valuable tool to foster Afro Latino and Garifuna unity and prosperity.
“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.
“We have our challenges,” he adds. But at the same time he trusts that Garifunas’ “fierce resilience” will help chart their path forward.
Gilberto Amaya is working to make sure it does.
Khalil Abdullah is a former executive director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, a former editor/writer for New America Media, and a former managing editor of the Washington Afro Newspaper.