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Sunday, May 17, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gaining A New Life - Losing A Culture? -- Garifuna Immigrants Try To Combat Media, Consumerism

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - They were never slaves.

That is something Garifuna parents always tell their children about their shipwrecked African ancestors, whose intermarriage with indigenous Caribbeans created a fiercely independent New World ethnicity the European colonialists called the "Black Caribs."

For hundreds of years on the Central American coast, the Garifuna people kept alive their Arawakan language and Afro-Caribbean music and religion. They outmaneuvered European control and outlasted the onslaught of telephones and tourism.

Perils of immigration

But immigration may be their Waterloo. More than 100,000 Garifuna - perhaps 50 percent of their entire people - have migrated to U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago since the 1950s. Here, parents watch their heritage unravel each time their children click on the TV.

Like many in the contemporary immigrant boom, these parents view assimilation as a double-edged sword. They want their children to speak English well and to move up the socioeconomic ladder. But they see the insularity of their close-knit culture as a shield against the pitfalls of urban America.

They worry that assimilation means integrating their children into crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods where disaffected subcultures - gangs, drug users and street punks - block the path to mainstream success.

Many want to pass on hard-working immigrant values - and the culture that binds them together - to the U.S.-born generation.

Assimilation vs. annihilation

In today's transnational world, it is more common for immigrants to maintain active ties to their home countries than it was for the early 20th-century European immigrant wave. Immigrants see practical advantages in preserving supportive transnational networks that pool access to jobs and opportunities.

And the Garifuna, proud of a society still anchored by deep roots in pre-Columbian America and the African diaspora, do not want assimilation to mean cultural annihilation.

"If you don't teach kids about their roots and culture, they change completely, and in the end they don't know who they are or where they're from," said Marciana Lauriel, a member of Sonhoca, a Los Angeles group of Garifuna from Honduras.

"I always tell my kids: You are Garifuna. The Garifuna fought hard and resisted slavery."

Like the Jews, the Garifuna defined themselves not by a country or territory, but by a language and culture, and retaining that became central to ethnic survival.

Consumerism and media

In Los Angeles, many immigrant children grow up in tough neighborhoods where an expanding urban underclass is a constant reminder of what awaits the least successful. Garifuna parents fear that the consumer society, mass media and peer pressure will quickly become their children's guiding signposts.

And they don't trust public schools to give their children an adequate - or even safe - education.

Many hope that parochial schools will keep their children from getting sucked into the cult of drugs and guns.

Schoolteacher Clifford Palacio sent all nine of his children to Catholic schools, though his first job - as a part-time janitor - made it hard to make ends meet.

Shocked by the crime and violence of America, Palacio became such a jailer of a father that South-Central Los Angeles youths called him "the warden."

If he didn't like his children's friends, he vetoed their parties, even on Saturday nights.

"There were so many negative forces pulling against the values and principles we tried to instill," Palacio said.

Today, his children are grateful. Not one succumbed to gangs, drugs or teenage pregnancy. One has a doctorate, another is a college basketball star; others work for the government, military or law enforcement.

One thing Palacio did not teach his children was the Garifuna language. Several already spoke Spanish, and he worried about their English. Now retired, Palacio thinks that was a mistake, and he runs a study group to promote Garifuna fluency to members of the U.S.-born generation.

"The people who became slaves lost everything," Palacio tells them. "Our ancestors suffered so that today we can still claim a distinct language, a distinct tradition, of our own."

Remembering the old songs

Keeping the 25,000-strong Los Angeles community together is the job of leaders such as Anita Martinez, a Belizean Garifuna who is married to a police officer who is also a Garifuna.

At their South-Central Los Angeles home, she leads 20 Garifuna teenagers in a traditional dance troupe and teaches them the old songs of their culture.

Los Angeles has Garifuna punta bands, drum lessons, dances, language and history classes, holiday celebrations, contestants for the Miss Garifuna pageant and even a Garifuna Career Day.

Such efforts, says anthropologist Catherine Macklin of the University of California at Berkeley, are explicitly designed "to use Garifuna identity to insulate young people from these urban evils."

"The simplest techniques involve reminding youngsters that they are `different' and come from a proud tradition of mobile, persistent people who have succeeded in maintaining their legacy over the centuries, in numerous nations, despite hostile physical and social environments," she wrote.

UCLA linguist Pam Munro said the strategy "is serving them well. They seem to be doing a good job of resisting some of the less-attractive aspects of Los Angeles minority society, like gangs."

Munro sees other strengths in the Garifuna approach. "One of the most admirable things about the Garifuna families I have met are the high values they put on educational achievement, and the unified community," she said.

But if the study of immigrant children assimilation is correct, Garifuna Americans may suffer the same fate as their predecessors and lose their language to the mighty tsunami of American popular culture - an inevitability that has earned America a reputation as a "language graveyard."

Won't learn Garifuna

In America, the Garifuna future could look a lot like Milton Palacio, the youngest son of "the warden" of South-Central.

Milton, 20, at Colorado State University on a basketball scholarship, has no interest in learning Garifuna.

Garifuna history "is interesting and everything," Palacio said. "But the most amazing thing, to me, is coming to America and raising your kids the right way.

"I think my parents were real strong to raise nine kids in America who never got into drugs or gangs. That's what I find admirable."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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