Monument to the eighty-seven victims of the 1990 Happy Land Social Club fire
In 1988, while on a software sales trip to Los Angeles, Jose Francisco Avila had an epiphany. “I had to stay over the weekend unexpectedly,” he recalls. “I knew there were other Garifunas in L.A., but I didn’t actually know anybody. I didn’t have a single name or telephone number that I could call.” Even as he sank into frustration alone in his hotel room, the inspiration began to swell. Although he had achieved almost all of his professional goals, Avila couldn’t escape one disappointed self-reflection - Jose, what have you done for your people? “That was the moment. That directly lead to my involvement in Garifuna activism,” he says. Four short years, and much blood, sweat, tears, and community organizing later, Avila co-founded the Garifuna Coalition, a pioneering non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Garifuna culture and language, and advocating on behalf of the Garifuna community in New York City...
In 1988, while on a software sales trip to Los Angeles, Jose Francisco Avila had an epiphany. “I had to stay over the weekend unexpectedly,” he recalls. “I knew there were other Garifunas in L.A., but I didn’t actually know anybody. I didn’t have a single name or telephone number that I could call.” Even as he sank into frustration alone in his hotel room, the inspiration began to swell. Although he had achieved almost all of his professional goals, Avila couldn’t escape one disappointed self-reflection - Jose, what have you done for your people? “That was the moment. That directly lead to my involvement in Garifuna activism,” he says. Four short years, and much blood, sweat, tears, and community organizing later, Avila co-founded the Garifuna Coalition, a pioneering non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Garifuna culture and language, and advocating on behalf of the Garifuna community in New York City and around the world.
The story of the Garifuna people starts in what is now known as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Caribs and Arawaks, traveling from South America in the vicinity of the Orinoco River, crossed the Caribbean and settled in the various islands comprising the Lesser Antilles. Oral history suggests that enslaved African shipwreck survivors came ashore on St. Vincent and mingled with the Caribs and Arawaks who had settled there. At that time, St. Vincent was an uncolonized, neutral territory. As such, slaves from Barbados and other colonized islands sometimes escaped to St. Vincent, thereby increasing the African population. The outcome of the union of these cultures (mainly African men, and Carib and Arawak women), are the Garifuna. The British referred to the Garifuna as “Black Caribs,” because although they were the mix of the three communities, their physical appearance was that of the African father. Descendent of unions between Caribs and Arawaks were called “Yellow Caribs,” or “Island Caribs.”
In 1762, British and French settlers came to claim St. Vincent; both brought slaves. The free Garifunas soon adopted the culture of the Amerindians to distinguish themselves from the enslaved Africans. In the 20th century, linguists were able to classify the Garifuna language as an Amerindian language, meaning that it is actually the language of the Caribs and the Arawaks of St. Vincent. “It was a matter of survival,” Avila says. Today, the Garifuna are the only community who speak this language.
Both Black and Yellow Caribs resisted British colonization of St. Vincent for over 30 years. In 1795, British regiments combating the United States’ independence were redeployed to St. Vincent to help defeat the Caribs. With reinforcements, the British were able to divide the island; Black Caribs were sequestered in the northern part of the country, while the British established themselves in the area that is now the capital city, Kingstown. According to Avila, this forced segregation only served to strengthen and maintain Garifuna cultural ties, tradition, and language.
On March 14, 1795, the paramount Garifuna chief, Joseph Chatoyer, was killed leading a battle against the British. Demoralized, the Garifuna resistance succumbed to the invaders, who set to rounding up the Black Caribs from around the Lesser Antilles. In February 1796, 5,080 Black Caribs were exiled to Balliceaux, a barren, uninhabitable island adjacent to St. Vincent, where half of the exiled population perished.
A month later, on March 11, 1796, the surviving 2,500 Garifuna were shipped to Roatan, a British-held island directly across from the Spanish colony of Honduras. The ships arrived in Roatan on April 12, 1797, whereupon the Garifuna negotiated with the Spanish to settle on the mainland of Central America. Many of the Garifuna settled on the Honduran coast. Some traveled east and settled in Nicaragua, while others went west and established communities in Guatemala and Belize. Garifuna fighters across the continent soon joined the fight for independence. Three centuries later, their descendents proclaimed Garifuna American Heritage Month from March 11 – April 12, to memorialize the forced deportation of the Garifuna people from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and their arrival in Central America.
The Garifuna were relatively well received on the mainland for having fought against the British. In Honduras, the Garifuna settled in the port city of Trujillo, at that time the capital of the colony. The Spanish, having discovered Mayan silver and gold on the interior, left the Garifuna more or less alone on the coast. Such default segregation again helped the Garifuna to maintain their language and traditions. Garifuna who settled in British-held Belize faced English-speaking blacks, who were considered socially superior to the exiled, exotic “Black Caribs.” But the distinction helped Garifuna language and culture to survive there, as well.
Despite being scattered across shifting geopolitical boundaries, today the Garifuna consider themselves a single community. “We ended up in those different countries, but we speak the same language and we share the same culture,” Avila says. “And as a matter of fact, we accept that we are all related. Everyone from Belize has roots in Honduras. Everyone in Guatemala has roots in Honduras. And the same for Nicaragua. This is why we refer to ourselves as a Garifuna nation. Some people call it a diaspora. We call it a nation.”
Mahogany and lumber fueled the Belizean economy, while Honduras and Guatemala became banana republics. The Garifuna worked as laborers and merchants in both industries. Avila, who has conducted extensive research on Garifuna history and heritage, believes that the Garifuna were responsible for the economic development of La Ceiba, the Spanish-speaking Honduran port city where he grew up. He suggests that early 19th century Garifuna in Honduras traded with Garifuna in Belize. This commerce eventually became the economic engine of La Ceiba, which, in turn, became one of the largest and most important seaports in Honduras.
The first Garifuna began immigrating to the United States in the 1930s. The initial wave was mainly men -- merchant marines from Honduras and Belize who became key players in World War II. They settled in the port cities of New York and New Orleans, the latter being the headquarters of the Standard (now Dole) Fruit Company, which ran significant operations in Central America. In New York, the Garfinua settled in Harlem. “Because that’s where the black community was, “ Avila says,
And we’ve always seen ourselves as black, so we ended up there. But we don’t mingle. We just maintain our own social structure. That allows the culture to be preserved right here in New York City. There were many of our people who I knew who didn’t speak Spanish or English, just Garifuna, right here in New York. The key identifier is the language. And whether they were from Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Honduras, in the USA, we are all Garifunas. But now we need to include another group – the first generation of Garifuna Americans born here!
Avila was born in the Garifuna village of Trujillo in 1954. His parents, both Garifuna, relocated to La Ceiba, the third-largest city in Honduras, when Jose Francisco was two months old. In La Ceiba, school and business were conducted in Spanish, so the Avila children became fluent only in Spanish. Avila’s mother became the official unofficial seamstress for local Garifuna women, and his father was a mechanic who founded the first Garifuna soccer team, and also operated the only social club where Garifunas could dance and entertain themselves. Although they could work as gardeners and waiters, Garifuna were not welcome to patronize and play in the places where they worked. In Honduras, Garifuna were at the bottom of the class system, where they were outranked by “Englicitas,” or English-speaking blacks, and Mestizos, or Latinos.
“It wasn’t as much of an official restriction as much as social stigma,” Avila recalls.
For instance, the English speakers wouldn’t allow their daughters or sons to date a Garifuna. They used to use a derogatory term. They used to refer to us as Caribs, and things like that. Fortunately, I saw my dad operating that club. He was involved with the movement of empowering the Garifunas. He was involved with the unions, too. So I had the opportunity to grow up seeing a leader who was proud of who he was. And that kind of instilled in me a sense of who I was, and I grew up with that pride of being Garifuna.
Avila grew up seeing his mother reading the bible, while his father practiced Garifuna religion, called Dugu, which is kindred to Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil. Before significant events, his father would be sure to put fruit or drink in a corner for the ancestors. “It was always out of respect and recognition of those who came before us.”
In 1969, at the age of 15, Avila immigrated to Boston with his family. “It was quite an experience,” he says.
It was a heated moment in the country’s history. People are surprised when I tell them that, here I am in Boston, and back in those days you were either black, or you were white. But the interesting thing was that, where I knew that I was black, and I knew that I was Garifuna, the whites would call me “black,” but black Americans would call me ‘foreigner’ because I didn’t speak English at the time, and I had a name like Jose Francisco Avila. So they saw me as a foreigner, not as one of them. But that experience only strengthened my sense of identity. That’s where I became interested in researching my culture. Cause the fifteen years that I lived in Honduras, and the six years of education that I completed there, I never really knew anything about the Garifuna. I knew I was Garifuna because my parents told me, and all. But it was never discussed in school, and there was scant documentation. So that sense of being rejected by, you know, the racial group that you belong to, only increased it. Now, it also exposed me to what was going on at the time. The Civil Rights Movement. I saw the birth and development of the Black Power Movement. That kind of helped my sense of identity. Of not being able to identify as a black man, but at the same time, also recognizing that I had a very unique culture.
Avila experienced white flight first-hand in his Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, and graduated from Bentley College, a business school in the Boston suburbs, where the minority population was just two percent. Avila’s career as an accountant took off; he moved to Dallas and traveled widely. He visited Garifuna friends in Boston and New York, but was not an especially active cultural advocate until his epiphany in Los Angeles in 1988. Upon returning home to Dallas, Avila began compiling a database of Garifunas across the United States. He shared his epiphany with others in the local Garifuna community, and in the pre-internet era, enlisted the help of friends and family across the country in collecting names and mailing addresses. In February 1989, Avila and others held a Garifuna meeting in New York City where he met Dionisia Amaya, the founder of Brooklyn-based Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha (Garifuna Women’s Organization). Avila and Amaya became fast friends and allies, and together harnessed local Garifuna energy to plan a community summit for the summer of 1990.
Tragically, on March 25, 1990, eighty-seven people were killed in the Happy Land Social Club on Southern Boulevard in the East Tremont section of the Bronx. Julio Gonzales, a recent Cuban immigrant, entered the club and quarreled with his girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, a club employee. Gonzales left the club, doused the only exit to the building with gasoline, and set it on fire. Trapped inside the burning building, eighty-seven people, including the club owner, died from smoke inhalation within minutes. Fifty-nine of those were Hondurans, and seventy percent of the Honduran victims were Garifuna.
New York City’s Garifuna struggled to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. Everyone lost someone. But the tragedy also energized the community. Two days after the fire, the New York Times’ Tim Goulden published an article about the event, entitled, “Fire in the Bronx; Hondurans Lack Place to Grieve Over Fire.” The article struck a significant note with Avila. “Besides the title, it describes the Garifuna community as the most disorganized immigrant group they have ever dealt with in the city,” he remembers. “And it proceeds to mention that it was so disorganized that, unlike other groups, they had no landmark. No church, no club where you can actually identify what the group was. And it was true. It’s amazing, because even when I speak in public, that’s how I introduce the community. I say I represent a community that up until March 25, 1990, no one knew. And even Garifunas have said to me that they didn’t know that the victims were mainly Garifuna.”
The Happy Land Social Club fire was the worst fire in New York City since the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster in 1911. City Halls response was to order the closing of 583 social clubs located in buildings that did not meet fire and building codes. This action had far reaching implications in a city where clubs are squeezed out of storefronts by escalating commercial rents, where they are occassionally improvised on vacant lots, and where poor, working-class immigrants find it difficult to convince unwilling landlords to make sorely-needed, life-saving repairs. It also revealed how little is understood by the general public, the media, and the City about the important role social clubs play in New York Citys immigrant and ethnic commuities.
The fire at the Happy Land Social Club generated a contentious atmosphere around many of the citys ethnic social clubs, and made the ambiguous nature of the term "social club" a subject of public debate. Although Happy Land was called a social club, it was also akin to an "after hours discotheque," since there was no membership and people were charged an entrance fee at the door for nightly entertainment. Yet the Happy Land Social Club, like Avilas fathers club in La Ceiba, was a regular meeting place for recent Honduran immigrants, headquarters for the communitys soccer team, and the site for community celebrations (three birthdays were being celebrated the night of the fire). In the political fallout that followed the fire, New Yorkers distanced themselves from the stigmatized term "social club," and began referring to their organizations as "community centers."
After closing scores of social clubs out of safey concerns immediately following the fire, the Mayor established a "Temporary Commission on Social Clubs," chaired by Rudolph Rinaldi, Commissioner of the Department of Buildings, and included representatives of Latino communities in the city. City Lore was asked to offer comments before the commisison, sharing some of the research we conducted for an exhibition hosted at the Museum of the City of New York. As advocated, our perspective was simple: the clubs have played a crucial role in helping new immigrants adjust to urban life in the U.S. They contribute to the stability and well beign of New Yorks ethnic neighborhoods. Rather than shutting down the clubss facilities when they were not up to code, the city should have assisted the clubs in bringing their facilities up to city standards; they should have helped to fix up rather than shut down the clubs.
In May, 1992, the Temporary Commission on Social Clubs issued an interim report recognizing the importance of ethnic social clubs in the city, and offering a number of excellent recommendations. The Commission recommended the establishment of a central clearing house to provide information for clubs on legalizing their premises and obtaining financial help and technical assistance. It further recommended that an ethnic clubs division be set up in New York Citys Department of Cultural Affairs to oversee the clubs, and provide some of the funding needed to establish safe, legal premises. The report also recognized the "need to simplify the laws so that non-techically oriented association operators can plan what must be done to legalize their premises," and recommends that a "task force of technical professionals be established to review the existing applicable codes and reduce them to readily understood language." Finally, it suggested that city agencies such as the Board of Education find ways to make their spaces in schools and elsewhere available inexpensively to non-profit social clubs.
As a result of the Happy Land Social Club fire, many promises were made to New York City’s Hondurans in general, and specifically to the Garifunas. From the then-president of Honduras, to the Catholic bishop, and Mayor David Dinkins, authorities promised to build a cultural center to prevent a tragedy like that from happening again. That promise remains unfulfilled to this day. However, in 1992 the adjacent section of Southern Boulevard between East Tremont Avenue and East 178th Street was officially co-named Ochenta Y Siete Boulevard (Boulevard of the Eighty-Seven). Three years later, Councilmember Jose Rivera (now Assemblyman Rivera) worked with then-Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and others to erect a monument to the Happy Land Social Club victims in the small park across Southern Boulevard from the former illegal venue.
The New York Times article moved Avila, and motivated him to change the perception of his community, who, at the time, did not publically identify as Garifuna. The fire and article exposed the need for an umbrella organization, and the paucity of research on the needs of the community.
Over July 4th weekend in 1991, Avila, Amaya, and others held the First Garifuna Summit in New York City. The theme of the summit was, Let’s Not Be Ashamed; We Are Garifuna. Having advertized through the mail, and via phone and fax, the organizers were pleasantly surprised when 150 people attended. Twenty flew from Los Angeles just to attend the conference. With the goal of reuniting the Garifuna diaspora, the second summit was held in Los Angeles the following year. 400 people attended, including representatives from all countries of the Garifuna diaspora. It was the first time that such large numbers from the Garifuna diaspora came together under one roof, seeking common goals and objectives as a people. Also in attendance was Belizean Roy Cayetano, the first Garifuna linguist. Cayetano was the first to identify the Garifnua language as Amerindian. At the summit, Cayetano presented his endeavors toward standardizing the language, and later that year, he published the first Garifuna dictionary. Summit participants also began planning for the 200th anniversary of the Garifuna’s arrival is Central America. Five years later, 2000 Garifuna from around the world gathered in Honduras to celebrated what became known as the Garifuna Bicentennial. The Honduran government declared April 12 as Garifuna Day, erected a statue of Joseph Chatoyer on Roatan, and issued commemorative stamps to commemorate the occasion.
In 1998, Avila moved to New York City and helped to found the Garifuna Coalition. The organization provided a framework for legitimizing long-held objectives of maintaining culture and language, lobbying around issues that the Garifuna community confronts here in New York City, and establishing relationships with other organizations across the country and the region. The Coalition was born at the same time as the internet, so one of the very first websites created was dedicated to Garifuna culture. “Garifuna World” allowed Garifuna around the globe to stay in touch and continue the conversations started at the summits. Roy Cayetano, then Belize’s Minister of Education, spearheaded a successful, partially web-based campaign, to have Garifuna language, music, and dance declared as masterpieces of intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO. This lead to what is known today in Central America as bilingual cultural education. As of 2001, Garifuna children learn the Garifuna language in Central American schools.
Through Avila’s efforts, the Garifuna Coalition was granted 501 c3 status in 2007. With foundation and government support, the Coalition soon developed an initiative to raise awareness and appreciation of the Garifuna community, and its contribution to the culture and society of New York City. The initiative led to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. issuing the proclamation of March 11-April 12 2009 as Garifuna American Heritage Month. In subsequent years, Assemblypeople have introduced resolutions in the New York State Assembly to declare these dates as Garifuna American Heritage Month in the State of New York. Avila notes, “Garifuna American Heritage Month has uplifted the Garifuna community from obscurity to the pinnacle of recognition by raising awareness and appreciation of the Garifuna Community and its contributions to the culture and society of New York City.” Today, New York City is home to the largest Garifuna population outside of Central America with over 200,000. The majority of NYCs Garifuna live in the Bronx, while Brooklyn is also home to significant numbers. Currently, the Coalition is promoting an economic development strategy to position New York City as the epicenter of Garifuna arts and culture. (March 2015)
Interview with Jose Francisco Avila, March 4, 2015 by Molly Garfinkel