Communities that Teach Us Through Persistence

Living in the small, rural community of Orinoco on the isolated Caribbean coast of southern Nicaragua, Mateo is a Garifuna leader and healer who uses ancestral medicine made from medicinal plants to promote the health of his community. He knows how important his teas and poultices are because often community members can’t afford to get to the hospital in the city of Bluefields. The Garifuna—an Afro-Indigenous group in Central America—only number about 5,000 people in Nicaragua; they are treated like country bumpkins when they travel from Pearl Lagoon to Bluefields. Furthermore, when they make it all the way to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua on the Pacific Coast, they’re discriminated against for being Black and Indigenous.

The Garifuna of Nicaragua belong to the pan-Garifuna community of Central America and beyond. The Garifuna are a Central American, Afro-Indigenous people born of the Caribbean and watched over by loyal ancestors. Worldwide, the pan-Garifuna community numbers about 300,000 – 400,000; they inhabit communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, 100,000 of whom live in the United States and Canada. The Garifuna are a hybrid group who emerged as a people a couple of hundred years ago on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent from the intermarriage of shipwrecked West Africans destined to be sold as slaves, escaped slaves, and local Indigenous groups, the Arawak and Red Caribs. The Garifuna ended up in Honduras when exiled there by the British in 1796, and their diaspora continued from there to include Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, as well as Nicaragua, the focus of this piece. The diasporic movement of Garifunas seeking work and moving around the region is a constant trait.

In Surviving the Americas: Garifuna Persistence from Nicaragua to New York City, my co-author, Leonard Joseph Bent, describes his childhood growing up in Orinoco on the remote shores of Pearl Lagoon: “During my childhood, it was delightful for me to visit the communities. It was so good and enjoyable to see and be near nature. I can remember when leaving Bluefields in my father’s little dugout boat, or my uncle’s barge boat, to go to Pearl Lagoon and then to Orinoco, Brown Bank, La Fe, San Vicente, or Marshall Point, we would pass by areas rich in flora with leafy vegetation. We could see a lot of yolillos (yolk trees), mangroves, lilies, orchids, coco plum, pine trees, maypole trees, oak trees, and other timber trees. We would also pass by areas rich in fauna, observing pelicans, albatross, herons, crocodiles, alligators, howler monkeys, squirrels, varieties of birds, and some snakes (poisonous and nonpoisonous ones). We would ride across wide rivers and narrow rivers with crystal waters. In some areas, we would take our bucket and fetch water to drink, so fresh and clean. When getting in the lagoon in the Pearl Lagoon area, the water was crystal clear and turquoise. We could see to the bottom where white sand and green grass served as food for manatees and fish. In the lagoon, there were varieties of fish in abundance—snook, copper mouth, bass, catfish, jack, mackerel, tarpon, shark, swordfish, junefish, dolphins, turtle, and stingray.”

Today, however, many challenges face the Garifuna communities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua due to the depletion of the fishing industry to the detriment of artisanal, local fishing practices from the Garifuna communities on one hand, and illegal land grabs by mestizo settlers on the other. This, in turn, has contributed to increased poverty and exclusion for the Garifuna communities, which has led to renewed diasporic economic arrangements as communal lands get occupied by settlers and rural families are forced to send family members abroad to earn income. These economic and political developments, with their historical roots in tensions between the colonizing forces of the Spanish and the British on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, are aggravated by how the Nicaraguan government continues to promote internal colonization and the extractive practices of the past in the Caribbean communities rich in natural resources yet marginalized by discrimination due to location, ethnicity, and poverty.

In addition to the influx of settlers, some Garifuna consider selling their land because of poverty due to there not being as much fish. According to Mateo, some community members have sold land to the mestizos because they don’t want to farm the land anymore: “they think the Black man shouldn’t be a farmer, should be fishing.” The difficult part of this is that fishing has been so depleted in the Pearl Lagoon and out on the sea due to overfishing by the commercial fleets that many are unable to earn a living fishing. One of the school teachers in Orinoco told us: “We don’t work. The fish is bajo, bajo, bajo. A lot of people live hand to mouth.” So, they sell the land because they don’t want to be farmers but then have to fish to survive and there are fewer and fewer fish.

Mateo’s shepherding of the communal land he cultivates is for the future. His connection to the land is inspired by the past and the present; Mateo simultaneously seeks advice from and receives guidance from his ancestors on what plants and herbs to use through his dreams, and says the cultivation is “also for those who come afterwards,” meaning the next generation. In this case, Mateo’s grandson.

Despite threats from natural resource depletion and settler incursion, Orinoco and surrounding Garifuna communities persist because of their connection to the land and the sea. Other positive forces include the importance of family and kin, including ancestors, and Garifuna adaptability to change. Their spirit of persistence and resistance not only serves to help them survive but also serves as an inspiration for other small, beleaguered communities worldwide who endeavor to persist in the middle of adverse situations.

To learn more about the persistence of the Garifuna in Nicaragua, you can read Surviving the Americas: Garifuna Persistence from Nicaragua to New York City

One of the four co-authors of Surviving the Americas, Serena Cosgrove, PhD is an anthropologist and sociologist who teaches in the International Studies program at Seattle University. She serves as the director of Latin American Studies there and is the faculty coordinator for SU’s Central America Initiative. You can follow the SU Central America Initiative on Facebook at Seattle University Central America Initiative.

May 21st: World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development


[Photo courtesy of]

May 21st is the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and, on this occasion, our partners at Entreculturas-Fe y Alegría Spain offer an educational resource oriented to learning from indigenous cultures how to interact with nature and to discover that in our day to day we can incorporate actions of care and commitment to the Earth.

Three out of four conflicts in the world have a cultural dimension. Overcoming cultural divisions is urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development. Culture, in its rich diversity, has an intrinsic value both for development and peace as well as social cohesion.

Cultural diversity is a driving force for development, not only regarding economic growth, but as a way of achieving an enriching intellectual, affective, moral and spiritual life. This is made evident through the Treaties on culture, which provide a solid base for the promotion of cultural diversity.

Simultaneously, recognising cultural diversity- through an innovative use of the media and ICTs in particular- generates dialogue between civilizations and cultures, contributing to the promotion of respect and mutual comprehension.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was adopted in 2001 and then, the United Nations General Assembly declared the May 21st the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, through the 57/249 resolution in December of 2002.

Coffee cultivated by Tzeltal indigenous families in the northern jungle of Chiapas, Mexico

Capeltic is a social economy and solidarity company formed by Tzeltal indigenous families from Chiapas and collaborators that work for social justice and the defense of the territory, generating social property and business efficiency.

The Tzeltal community is part of the Mayan family. They are currently the largest indigenous group in Chiapas. Like many other indigenous groups in Mexico, and throughout the world, Tzeltal communities have been historically subjected to structures of domination and impoverishment, which is the reason why, throughout the years, they have had to organise to resist and recover the property and the fate of their territory.

The most important activity for this community is small, familiar and diversified agriculture: they produce corn, beans, squash, and chili, and they include commercial crops such as coffee. As many other families, production schemes are for self-consumption, so crop diversity is essential to ensure their harvest is strong and avoid dependence on a single product.

The work of Capeltic and Yomol A’tel in the Tzeltal territory has its origins in the Jesuit Mission in Bachajón, which, since 1958, has accompanied the resistance of 600 communities in the Selva Norte region of Chiapas.

This Tzeltal communities in the Selva Norte region of Chiapas currently grow 100% organic coffee that, with a lot of work and meticulous care, arrives at the Capeltic cafés, an economic and social way to take control of the destiny of their territory.

This initiative was created after the Tzeltal producers considered unfair the profits they received when selling their coffee (the price was determined by the economic fluctuations of the American stock market and the interests of the intermediaries). Therefore, they organized themselves to seek a comprehensive alternative: add value to their coffee, ally with intermediaries who shared their philosophy of respect for the environment and to create cafés (usually located in the universities of the cities) in which they could sell their product at a fair price, raising awareness and transmitting their values to society.

The goal of this project is to become a reference in quality and social participation in different points of sale, with the intention of contributing to fair and dignified work for small indigenous producers and their families, and to become a cooperative and intercultural space that promotes positive relationships in the community it serves. The efforts are concentrated in changing the power relationships that currently affect Tzeltal families and the urban context of the families they work with.

These kind of initiatives are key to promoting the defense of human rights and the rich diversity of the indigenous communities’ culture .