THE BRONX — Longtime friends Pablo Blanco and Hector Zapata were at a Caribbean heritage conference last year when they began to discuss the status of their people, the Garifuna.
Since the Garifuna — whose lineage includes West African slaves and indigenous Caribbeans — migrated to New York in the early 20th Century, they steadily joined the workforce and entered the school system, while still sustaining their native dishes and dances and language. And yet their culture remained little known outside their own enclaves.
“We’re basically still invisible as a community,” said Blanco, 37, who lives in the Bronx.
So the two resolved right then to form a company that would trumpet the Garifuna story and culture to the world, beginning with the music.
A year later, their company, Elite Carib International, is gaining recognition, which they hope will continue Friday with a concert they are hosting in Manhattan featuring the renowned Garifuna musician, Rolando “Chi Chi” Sosa.
“We decided to use the music as a vehicle to capture people’s imagination,” said Zapata, 43, of Harlem. “Then, slowly but surely, feed them pieces of the history.”
The Garifuna are descendants of West African slaves who, in 1635, were being transported to South America when they shipwrecked off the coast of the Caribbean island St. Vincent, where they took refuge and intermarried with the local Arawak and Carib people. In 1797, they were exiled by the British and eventually settled in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.
Today, New York City is considered home to the largest Garifuna population outside of Central America, with most based in Brooklyn and The Bronx. (Many of the 87 people who perished in the Happy Land Social Club fire of 1990 in East Tremont were Garifuna immigrants from Honduras.)
Blanco grew up in The Bronx, but would often visit his family’s Garifuna hometown in Honduras.
Still, he knew little about his people’s history until 1997 — the 200th anniversary of their exile — when a college professor suggested he watch a documentary about the Garifuna.
“It lit a fire in me,” Blanco said.
He began to attend Garifuna festivals, ask his grandmother about their history and chart his lineage, eventually discovering that an ancestor had been aboard one of the British vessels that removed the Garifuna from their island home.
Blanco was not the only American Garifuna reconnecting with his roots.
In New York in recent years, there have emerged Garifuna blogs, language classes, dance clubs and even a movement to write in “Garifuna” on census forms, rather than check off black or Hispanic.
“It’s a reawakening for us,” said Zapata, who was born in Honduras and lives in Harlem.
All of this has raised the community’s profile in New York — but it still hasn’t earned Garifuna culture much mainstream attention, said Mirtha Colon, president of Casa Yurumein, a Bronx group that sponsors Garifuna language classes and an annual Miss Garifuna pageant.
“We have gained recognition as an ethnic group,” Colon said, “but there’s still more to go.”
Blanco and Zapata want to use their company to secure a permanent spot for Garifuna music on the world stage, where it has only occasionally seen the spotlight.
They are promoting Sosa, a Honduran composer and producer who plays 22 instruments in the paranda style — a folksy Garifuna genre that combines acoustic guitar, multiple drummers, call-and-response singing and storytelling lyrics — “like Bob Dylan singing in our language,” Blanco explains.
Besides the music events they have hosted, the pair has also launched the Wani (“Our”) Arist Achievement Awards and, next year, they hope to organize a Garifuna art show and a history forum.
“We survived wars, exile,” said Zapata. “It’s a remarkable history that has to be told.”
Sosa and the Garifuna Jazz Band perform with reggae artist Richie Lane and the Legendary Band at S.O.B.'s (204 Varick St.) on Aug. 9 beginning at 11 p.m. Buy tickets here.