By: Nodia Mena
Punta is an expressive dance and music style among the Garifuna people, who are of mixed African and indigenous descent and live in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. This dance consists of circular motions of the hips while holding one’s core upright and moving one’s feet slowly to the sound of the drums “garawon” (pronounced gara-uhn). Garawons are played by men, usually four of them; two play the background sound, “la segunda,” which is a steady and deep rhythm resembling our heart beat. Along with this rhythm, women sing lyrics containing messages of love, desire, betrayal, fear, pain, happiness, and all the learning experiences that have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Punta is performed during Christmas and New Year celebrations and its purpose is to commemorate ancestral struggles of survival. These celebrations, in which the dance is performed, are the only exposure we have to Garifuna’s cultural traditions.
Punta dance is an essential part of my life. Every time I hear the music and every time I dance to it, I am transported to the farthest and most pleasant childhood memories and happiest moments in life. One of my favorite recollections of dancing Punta as a young child involves my grandmother, mama. I was wearing a small red top and a very wide flower-print skirt. It was “La Feria de San Juan”, an annual event in “El Barrio Cristales”. This event presented everyone in town with the opportunity to dress up, get together to have a good time, and escape the routine of our daily lives. While dancing, I was totally oblivious to the significance and history of the event, but what made me so happy was the fact that I was with mama, and for reasons I could not understand, the “dun, dun”of the drums slowly took hold of my body and soul.
Growing up, Punta was a source of joy. However, once I began middle school it took on different connotations. Non-Garifuna people began viewing me in a sexualized way. This made me anxious, even scared while dancing Punta. I began to fear non-Garifuna people coming from different communities, whom I felt were looking at me as if I was an exotic specimen created for the sole purpose of their entertainment. It seemed as if all they expected was for me to shake my hips to provoke the most heretical visions in their minds. I began to recoil emotionally. My self-doubt increased when I realized there was not a single text book in school that included information about the existence of the Garifuna. Teachers simply did not include any elements of Garifuna culture in our curriculum. It was as if my heritage was not part of the culture or history of Honduras. This disconnect was traumatic and it used to make me feel as if I was invisible, insignificant, and an outsider. Being that I will never be valued beyond the exoticism of their view of me, I was compelled to pursue my education and go somewhere -anywhere- I could express my full humanity.
For many years, I wondered whether mama ever felt the same way whenever she euphorically shook her gluteus maximus to the rhythm of the garawon. If so, was dancing Punta her coping mechanism? She is no longer with us and I never had the opportunity to ask her. So, I began to look at scholarly sources to find out about my history. Since 1635, the Garifuna have endured one after another series of challenging events. The indigenous Arawak women witnessed the assassination of their husbands and were taken as wives by their killers, the indigenous Caribs. Then, this newly-formed society incorporated enslaved West Africans who had been shipwrecked after being abruptly uprooted from their land. The new community, the Garifunas, formed by Arawaks, Caribs and members of the moku tribe among others from West Africa, were viewed as outcasts by the British, who had ownership of the land inhabited by the Garifuna. The colonizers proceeded to expel them. They were sent first to the deserted island of Balixeau, in Saint Vincent in 1763, where many of them perished. Survivors were sent to Honduras in 1797. I don’t know if mama, with a second-grade elementary school education, would have ever been able to explain to me her most intimate thoughts about the experience her ancestors endured. Yet, I witnessed how she lived a life based on a sense of community that Garifunas might have developed during the 31-day forced migration from Saint Vincent and started practicing from that day, April 12th, 1797 on the shores of Roatán Island in Honduras.
Along with a strong sense of community, Garifunas developed extraordinary resilience, which I have been fortunate to witness over the course of my life. I have listened to the “Garifuna International Anthem,” Yurumein. This song calls for the leader to settle with the group at the first place where the sea connects with a river: “Leimun shuluruty duna warubeite ñin ba bagurey bugura wabu”. At the gatherings where women dance punta, one is the lead singer and the others follow. Even if they know the song, they wait for the leader’s cue, which provides them with a sense of security. This is also a way of commemorating past experiences lived together coming from Saint Vincent. Now I understand why, for several years, mama allowed three of four women from her inner circle to sharecrop at her farm in Mohaway. I also understand why these women and many others will gather to make “casabe”- a flat bread made out of yucca (a white root with brown skin used in the Caribbean and West Africa alike). The bonds between Garifuna women are strong, as was their respect for mama. Indeed, several members went so far as to build mama’s kitchen in the collective spirit of Yurumein.
Even after 220 years, we still speak our own Garifuna language, practice our traditions and rituals, cook our own unique food, and of course, continue to practice our dance. We dance Punta when we are happy or celebrate someone’s birth and we dance Punta in a sorrowful way when someone dies. As I have come to understand, Punta dance is our coping mechanism, and a way Garifunas remember, with a strong spiritual power that bonds us together. It is also a way of perpetuating the unity and hope that kept us alive during our forced migration.
Nodia Mena is Garifuna—of African and Indigenous descent—from Honduras and serves as a Coordinator of the Afro-Latin American/Latinx Studies Project at UNC Greensboro, where she is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations.