Hispanic Heritage

How Houston's Afro-Latino Garifuna Community Is Keeping Its Culture Alive

The small-but-mighty Garifuna community in Houston is upholding their Central American roots.

By Juan Antonio Sorto September 28, 2022

Mirna Lacayo stands behind the counter in her store, Wadani.

Image: Marco Torres

Five years ago, Mirna Lacayo, 43, and her family left New Orleans to settle in Houston. While they would have loved to settle in El Barrio (which encompasses the area bordered by Liberty Road, Waco Street, Lyons Avenue, and 59 North) due to the cultural history that the area represents to the Afro-Latino Central American Garifuna people, recent rapid gentrification combined with an increase in property values meant the family had to look elsewhere. They ended up in the suburbs of Pearland

For native Houstonians, the area where El Barrio is located is commonly referred to as Fifth Ward or “the Nickel”; its African American roots can be traced to the end of slavery. One of the community’s institutions is the Evergreen Negro Cemetery, which serves as the burial site for former slaves, Buffalo soldiers, and World War I veterans, and has been assigned a historical designation by the Texas State Historical Association.

Mirna Lacayo understood the economic power and opportunity that El Barrio continues to provide for the local Garifunas, who have called the neighborhood home since the 1980s. According to some locals who wish to remain anonymous, El Barrio allowed Garifunas to blend in with the established African American community, thus avoiding potential seizure by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

"While Garifunas, who primarily have black skin features, are located in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, ICE was focused on detaining people who had brown skin features. I believe this is what allowed our culture to prosper in El Barrio," said an alderman of the community.

In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, Lacayo decided to open Wadani, the first Garifuna grocery store in the United States, despite living in Pearland. The store is located on Lyons Avenue, a 45-minute daily commute from her house. Lacayo shares the space with her sister-in-law’s business, Wani Spirits and More.

"What makes my store unique is that all the items that I sell come directly from the communities,” Lacayo said. “These are items that you will not find at your large scale and local convenience store." 

While there is no accurate data on the official number of Garifuna people that live in Houston, Santos Sambula, who has lived in El Barrio for over three decades and is a member of the Garifunas Association of Texas, estimates that there are around 7,000 members in the region, with most of them concentrated in El Barrio. Nationally, Garifunas are also concentrated in Los Angeles and New York City.

“Our native governments, including the United States, struggle to properly identify us in their census tract,” explains Sambula, who was previously a nurse and professional soccer player in Honduras. “Garifunas are more than a race and culture, which cannot be defined by a numeric equation.”

Since their arrival to the coast of Honduras in 1797, after being expelled by England from the Caribbean Island of Saint Vincent, Garifunas have struggled to be recognized by the international community. In 2001, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), formally recognized the traditional dances, language, and music of the people. Yet, for this community and other Afro-Latino ethnic groups living in the United States, this recognition has been slow to achieve. In 2012, the United States Census Bureau established the National Advisory Committee (NAC) on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations to provide a more accurate census tract of indigenous groups residing in the United States. While Sambula and Lacayo have yet to see the results from NAC, they have made it a priority to keep their history alive within their community. 

Santos Sambula playing the drums.

Image: Marco Torres

Sambula, who mostly speaks Spanish, says that part of the reason Garifunas settled down in El Barrio was its proximity to the Houston Ship Channel and the pre-established Fifth Ward African American community. 

“Our people are mostly fishermen and ship workers by trade. El Barrio allowed us to blend into the community while continuing to practice our trade and traditions that we left back home,” he explained. On April 12, 2009, Santos and the Garifunas Association of Texas were successful in getting the City of Houston to declare April 12 Garifuna Heritage and Survival Day, a recognition that he proudly displays inside his house.

Many have begun to acknowledge the importance of April 12, 1797, the day the Garifunas arrived at the coast of Honduras, for their culture. “The day our ancestors arrived in Honduras, we added Afro-Latino to the long list of classifications, which includes Black and Caribbean,” says Sambula. Around his home, he also proudly displays several yellow, white and black flags representing the Garifuna colors. He explains that each April, El Barrio hosts one of the largest Garifuna celebrations in the nation. 

In 2002, he formed the Ballet Garifuna dance and music group, which is composed of youth, adults, and seniors. “Garifunas use dance and music as a way to pass our history from generation to generation,” says Sambula. Lacayo adds that in addition to using dance and music to teach about their history, the rituals are also used as a way to honor the dead. “Since most people do not have the financial means to have a proper wake in Central America, Garifunas often turn to dance, music, and food to say our farewell to the deceased,” says Layaco, who also cooks traditional Garifuna dishes to sell at her store and church. 

For the Garifunas of El Barrio, celebrating special events also offers an opportunity to sell their products. The heart and soul of these events are anchored at the Christian Garifuna Church, Wani Kitchen, and La Esquina Caliente HTX, which all come alive on weekends. La Esquina Caliente HTX and the church are located within walking distance of the Deluxe Theater and Fire Station 19, while Wani Kitchen recently relocated to the outskirts of El Barrio, near Frenchtown. 

All three entities also serve a specific purpose during average weekends. On Friday and Saturday nights, La Esquina Caliente HTX, a lounge and restaurant, attracts young adults to enjoy a variety of DJs playing modern Garifuna music. On Sunday mornings, the local church serves as the spiritual center for the community and on Sunday afternoon, Wani Kitchen plays host to local live Garifuna bands, who sing in Spanish and Garifuna native language, a mixture of French, English, Spanish, and Arawak Indian. 

“These events provide another opportunity to bring our culture together and maintain a sustainable income,” says Layaco. While El Barrio is currently experiencing rapid gentrification and displacement, for the estimated 7,000 Garifunas in Houston, the area continues to be a place where their culture and traditions are still practiced, even if it means a 45-minute drive across town.

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