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Fighting For Their Families Back Home
On April 20, 2002, many thousands of people marched in Washington, DC and in California to protest global distributions of power and wealth, once again demonstrating the strength of the movement against corporate globalization. At the same time, in the living room of a Harlem apartment a group of Honduran immigrants came together as part of an ongoing campaign to support their native village, under attack by large-scale landowners and international financial institutions.
The people assembled are immigrants from Sambo Creek, a village of 4,000 on Hondurass Atlantic coast. They, like everyone else in Sambo Creek, are Garifuna, people of African descent who have lived for centuries in a culture distinct from the mainstream of Latin America. Garifuna society developed in the 17th century when English slave ships crashed off the coast of Saint Vincent island, and the African survivors joined with the islands Arawak Indians, blending the two cultures. The British later forced the Garifuna off Saint Vincent and shipped them to the mainland. Today, most Garifuna live in Honduras, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America in small coastal towns that are isolated from the rest of their countries by language, culture, and economics.
Traditionally, Garifuna village economies revolve around small agriculture and fishing, with women growing the crops while men fish. Communities own their land communally, based on old agreements with the government. Any given plot of land may have been handed down through a family for more than 200 years, but without formal registration of ownership.
Over the past 50 years, coastland has become extremely valuable to the international hotel industry and to large Honduran landowners. In that time, these interests have taken over much of the land that had belonged to the Garifuna for centuries. In Sambo Creek, a single politically connected landowner has illegally occupied about half of the village, including farmland, beaches, and land that had been used for housing. Today that land sits unused, waiting to be transformed into luxury homes, while the population of Sambo Creek lives in tiny houses crammed together on streets with no sewer system.
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This past July, Sambo Creek residents began a campaign to reclaim their land. For more than a week, Garifuna activists lived there, building shanty houses out of cardboard, wood, and aluminum. Then the police came in and started shooting into the area and beating the activists, throwing seven of them into jail. Alberto Bernandez and another member of the New York committee traveled to the village to support the protest. Along with local activists, they met with the head of the Honduran ministry dealing with land and agriculture. At the meeting, the minister promised to help the Garifuna recover the land, recognizing that they have both the legal right to it and a great need for it. The official helped free the arrestees from jail, but since then Sambo Creek has seen few results from his promises. The government claims that they are re-evaluating the ownership of some of the stolen land, but, says Bernandez, officials are playing it both ways, and there are no signs that the stolen land will be returned any time soon.
Along with the theft of Garifuna land over the past several decades, multinational companies have over-fished the oceans that the villages depend on for subsistence. In response, the government has implemented restrictions against the sustainable methods used by the Garifuna as against ecologically devastating industrial fishing. American companies have illegally laid claim to many of the small islands where Garifuna men stayed overnight during their fishing trips.
In 1994, Bernandez, along with Santos Garcia, another member of the New York group, joined a campaign to solve some of these problems through political channels. With other Garifuna in the U.S., they worked to build immigrant support for a presidential candidate from Hondurass Liberal Party. Yet, even when their candidate won, there was little change in the governments treatment of Sambo Creek.
The debts that all Latin American countries have mean that we have lost the ability to control our own countries policies, says Santos, who worked for the Honduran Labor Department before coming to the U.S. All we can do is follow the dictates of the World Bank and IMF, which are advocates of the rich. Santos notes that these institutions demand spending in urban areas, meaning that the government is forbidden to finance projects in villages like Sambo Creek. Besides, he says, the money that is lent to the government ends up going back to its source. The lenders control the project, send the engineers who get huge salaries, decide what materials will be bought, and who to buy them from.
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Bernandez adds that even the projects that end up being financed are often defective; Every time we have a hurricane the bridges have to be rebuiltthe ineptitude of these people is unbelievable.
Many Sambo Creek residents dream of finding work in another country. Many are waiting for visas to the U.S. Those who have made it are committed to supporting the relatives they left behind. For the past 20 years, Garifuna immigrants have organized groups to support their villages back home. About 125 people from Sambo Creek now live in New York City and a majority of them are actively involved in meetings and fundraisers designed to help their home community.
The group meeting in Harlem is the steering committee that represents these constituents. They plan fundraisers and report back to the larger community at general meetings, where the entire group votes on the use of the money raised.
The New York City group works closely with a parallel committee in Sambo Creek. Most members return home to visit as often as they can and when they do, they often attend meetings in the village, helping to coordinate their activities with the communitys needs.
Dominga Martinez, the vice president and host of the meeting, tells a story about life in the U.S. that would be familiar to immigrants from all over the world. She works two jobs and goes to nursing school at night. She also takes care of her aging father.
When we come to this country, its an opportunity for us, she says, so we try to help out the people who are back there. Its a small town, but people are very united. We want to help the place, so people dont feel the only way to succeed is to leave the country.
When asked, the first accomplishment that members of this committee point to is the creation of a secondary school in Sambo Creek. When these immigrants were children, the village had only a primary school, covering first through sixth grade. Parents who wanted their children to get more education had to send them away to a larger city.
In 1996, the group began raising money for a school and communicating with Honduran teachers who were interested in the project. Meanwhile, in Honduras, people from the village applied political pressure to get the school built. Eventually the government responded to popular support for the school and made its construction into a public project. But the school that opened in 1998 was more a public relations ploy than a functional institution. It was dramatically underfunded and had few of the supplies necessary to provide students with a decent education.
With help from the New York group, the community was able to get better materials and to build a new classroom and a library. Now the school, originally designed for 60 students, serves 120 from Sambo Creek and another nearby village. Soon, the group hopes to raise enough money to provide it with computers.
The work of the Sambo Creek community, both there and in New York, goes far beyond local projects in its scope. In recent years, Garifuna organizations, including the one in Sambo Creek, have joined with Misquitos and other native groups in the fight for land reform. They have organized caravans of buses from villages around the country to hold a unified march on the capitala very expensive project which Garifuna in New York helped finance. A national Congress of Garifuna organizations has participated in international activities around issues of racism in Latin America and elsewhere. For the Sambo Creek immigrants in New York, the work of meeting their communitys immediate needs is intimately tied to challenging some of the most powerful financial interests in the world.
Bernandez pounds his point home: The fundraising we do is all about building institutions that can create consistent change. And dramatic change. Z
Livia Gershon is a labor activist and freelance writer in New York City.