A lonely, tough existence for blacks in Guatemala

04/13/2014 6:28 PM

04/13/2014 6:28 PM

Getting to this old port town required us to rise early from our Hotel Catamaran cabins on pylons over water.

The tour that my partner Bette and I took of this Central American country included stays in nearly a half-dozen hotels over close to 10 days on the invitation of anthropologist Robert Hinshaw and his wife, Linda. Hinshaw, who has studied Guatemala since 1963, eagerly showed us the sights, people and culture the couple respect and adore.

Livingston was a must-see place in this nation bordering Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize. Until Livingston, Bette and I were the only black people we saw in the country of 15.4 million.

Livingston is where people who were part of the African diaspora live in Guatemala. To get here required a long boat ride from Lake Izabal to Rio Dulce and on to Amatique Bay, which spills into the Caribbean Sea. We saw fishermen cast their nets into the water and use discarded plastic water bottles as flotation markers.

The scenery and wildlife were fantastic, including cliffs, islands and many species of exotic birds. Women and girls paddled up to our boat to sell handmade bracelets.

In Livingston we walked from the boat dock through the small town. Tourist shops opened onto the street filled with people. The Hinshaws walked ahead while Bette and I snapped many photographs.

Philip Flores, 59, stopped the Hinshaws to talk. The Livingston native was educated at the University of Chicago, Hinshaw’s alma mater. Flores, who’s black, led us through the community he loves, speaking candidly about difficulties people face.

Livingston traces its history to shipwrecked African slaves brought to the Americas in the 1600s by the Spanish. They lived and mixed with the indigenous people. The Garifuna, as they were known, were fiercely independent and occupied the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent. In the Spanish, French and British colonial struggle for then-global dominance, the British defeated the Garifunas and relocated them to the Honduran Bay Island of Roatan.

The Garifunas spread from there eventually founding Livingston in the 1700s. As Flores walked us by the shoreline of the open sea and then through the paths that connect people’s homes, he explained that Livingston was affected by Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Mayans fleeing war-torn areas settled in Livingston, a remote, tranquil location. But the influx of people disrupted the life and commerce of the black community.

Flores said black families live and send their children to school in Livingston. But few own businesses anymore, and opportunities for jobs are mostly gone.

Black people live at the bottom of Guatemala’s socioeconomic ladder, he said. He seemed surprised to hear the same is true in the United States.

When he was in college, the 1970s offered so much promise. Times have changed with blacks suffering civil rights and socioeconomic losses in the U.S.

Flores showed us the poverty and described how people in Livingston couldn’t rely on the government for help. There is no Medicare and Social Security here.

Just a lot of destitution and poverty. Flores took us into the home of two elderly black women who depend on the community’s assistance to make ends meet.

Flores pointed to a statue that Catholics had placed in the water just off the shore. The white colonial era it represents remains a sore spot for many here.

We passed more homes with children out front. Before we could consider giving them coins or anything, Flores advised against it. He said such charity only creates a culture of dependence.

Before leaving, we made donations to a community food program that benefits black families of Livingston. We wished we could do more in this historically rich, bountiful country of many needs.

Next week, what might be done to improve the lives of all Guatemalans?

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