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Afrodescendant population struggle to be taken into account
Louisa Reynolds
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Afro-Guatemalans feel invisible in a country where a deep racism persists.

Afro-Guatemalan journalist Joanna Wetherborn experienced racist abuse for the first time at the age of 16 when she attended a new school and was bullied by her classmates. “Nobody talked to me. It was hell. Kids used to exchange drawings depicting me as a beast,” she recalls.

Two years later, when she finished high school and applied to study at the state-funded University of San Carlos, Wetherborn found she was not eligible for a scholarship, as funding was only available for Mayan and garifuna students.

As the descendant of Jamaicans who emigrated to the city of Puerto Barrios, close to Belize’s southern border, in the 1920s, to work for the US banana corporation United Fruit Company, Wetherborn belongs to a minority of creole Afro-Guatemalans rather than the garifuna ethnic group, mixed race descendants of West African, Central African, Carib and Arawak people, who live along the Caribbean coast of Central America.

“I refused to label myself as garifuna purely to meet a quota and get a scholarship so I had to apply for a student loan instead,” says Wetherborn.

During her university years, Wetherborn often found that her lecturers appeared to be taken aback by the fact that she was intelligent and got top grades. “My performance surprised them. They always stereotype you as the girl who dances and cooks dishes with coconut milk. They never talk about our achievements or our contributions to the economy,” she says.

Like many other Guatemalan women, Wetherborn is often subjected to street harassment by men and says that black women are often targeted in a particularly vicious and violent manner. “They (men) graphically describe how they’re going to rape me, which they don’t do to other women walking ahead of me. All women suffer harassment but other women are not harassed in such a vulgar and morbid way because there’s a sexualized stereotype of black women as being sexually available, as women who are there to be used,” says Wetherborn.

Absence of reliable data
Guatemala’s afrodescendant minority was officially recognized for the first time when the Guatemalan armed forces and left-wing guerrilla groups signed the 1996 Peace Accords, ending a 36-year-long civil war in which more than 200,000 civilians were killed.

The agreements, which were woven into the Guatemalan Constitution, acknowledge that Guatemala is a “multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual country” and that

“The parties recognize and respect the identity and political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the Maya, Garifuna, and Xinca people.” However, this official recognition of the afrodescendant community excludes non-garifuna blacks such as Wetherborn.

One of the first steps taken by the Guatemalan government towards addressing the needs of the afrodescendant population has been the provision of bilingual education garifuna and Spanish, since 2014, in three schools in the municipalities of Livingston and Puerto Barrios, in the eastern department of Izabal, where the majority of students are garifuna.

Benneditha Cantanhede da Silva, an expert on afrodescendant and garifuna issues, says this is an important step towards preserving garifuna culture as migration and fear of ridicule if they speak their own language has led many garifuna children to abandon their native language.

However, the absence of reliable census data on the afrodescendant population makes it difficult to implement wider public policies to address its specific needs.

The latest official statistics on the afrodescendant community (based on the 2002 census) place the number of black Guatemalans at 5,100, less than 1 percent of the population. However, research carried out by various garifuna organizations estimate that the real figure is closer to 200,000, including some 10,000 creole afrodescendants.

“A census is crucial because invisibilization leads to a lack of public policies. As long as we don’t know who they [the afrodescendants] are and how many they are, public policies will be based on pure fantasy,” says Cantanhede da Silva.

Racial discrimination
At the crux of the problem, believe afrodescendant leaders, is the deeply ingrained racism in Guatemalan society, embodied, for instance, in racist depictions of black people in the media.

In January this year, Jimmy Morales, a former comedian who ran for the right-wing and pro-military National Convergence Front (FCN), took office. Throughout his acting career, one of the roles he played, in blackface and donning an afro wig, was Black Pitaya (black dragonfruit), a character that exploits offensive stereotypes about afrodescendants.

“It’s a character that ridicules afrodescendants and wormed its way into the collective imagination with his bland jokes. Guatemalans are afraid of this population, they refer to people of color as ‘dirty blacks’ and ‘lazy blacks’ and make jokes about them,” says semiologist Ramiro MacDonald.

In compliance with the Peace Accords, the Guatemalan government created in 2002 a Presidential Commission Against Racism and Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples (CODISRA) to investigate and prosecute cases of racial discrimination.

However, afrodescendant leaders say that non-Mayan voices often go unheard in this institution. “CODISRA alone cannot fight racism in Guatemala. When people talk about multiculturalism in Guatemala they refer to the diversity of Mayan cultures and when you dare to speak about other identities people feel uncomfortable. Even though we’ve had a close relationship with indigenous groups, the opportunities for participation are so limited that people think that if you highlight one group you’re taking away their space,” says Wetherborn.

Garifuna leader Gloria Núñez de Silva, a Guatemalan representative from Afroamérica XXI, a Latin American Afrodescendant organization. believes political representation is the only way to ensure that afrodescendant voices are heard but clientelist practices and the huge amount of resources needed to launch a campaign have prevented garifuna women from running for office. Afrodescendant leaders often point out that black politicians such as Mario Ellington Lambe, who served as Minister of Culture and Sport under the administration of President Oscar Berger (2004-2008), are only appointed to ministries that are underfunded and have little political clout.

“We’re fighting to be taken into account and to be seen from the waist upwards rather than from the waist downwards. One of our greatest challenges is political participation. As garifuna women do not engage in corruption, they end up marginalized because positions have a price. To run for mayor you need to pay 1.5 million quetzales [US$65,500],” says Núñez. – Latinamerica Press.


Young garifunas from the municipality of Livingston preserve their traditional music. / Louisa Reynolds
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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