The Taboo of Culture & Race

August 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] V5-8-My VoiceIn the Bay Islands, the 200 years of rivalry and armed conflict between English islanders and Spanish was followed in 1853 with 150 years of ambiguous neglect on the part of the Honduran government and disdain on the part of the islanders.

For all this time Bay Islanders’ different ethnic, religious and cultural groups have settled and stayed in different parts of the island interacting with each other only in town, at work, and on the streets. Catholic Garifuna stayed in Punta Gorda, black protestants settled in Sandy Bay and Flowers Bay, while white islanders built their homes near good harbors and sheltered southern slopes of French Cay and Jonesville.

In his 1966 book The People of French Harbour: A study of Conflict and Change on Roatan Island, David K. Evans identified in the Bay Islands a scale of social stratification based on skin color. The long-in-use derogatory expressions of: ‘caracoles,’ ‘Spaniards,’ ‘indios’ and ‘negritos,’ have taken on a new life. The initial disdain that they carried, has washed down, but by no means disappeared.

While foreigners who arrived on the islands intermarried with all these groups and integrated, the late arriving ladinos had to build their homes in the interior of the islands, then crowded the booming areas of Los Fuertes and squatted by the side of the road and on land that they were “allowed to watch.”

While foreigners, mostly English speaking, were welcomed, the Spaniards- symbolizing the governing Honduras, were treated with mistrusts. As rich ladino families took on English as their language and over time managed to become “islanders,” most poor ladinos remained on the island’s periphery. Over the last 10 years their numbers have grown to where they form half of Roatan’s population.

No one wants to be considered the bottom of the totem pole. Ladinos, while the biggest group on the islands, make up its widening bottom base, but occupy that place with ill ease.

Deep suspicions within all Bay Islands communities remain and simmer. They rise to the surface in times of conflicts and elections. Recent such occasions came during RECO disturbances, foreigner and ladino land conflicts, and then most recently during the Barbaret boat deaths.

Foreigners who could understand Spanish watched in disbelief as slogans of “get out gringos who steel our land and kill us” were repeated over and over again. This took place on air on Channel 4 and Channel 9, during the call-in “news” shows that are set-up for entertainment and resemble a cross over between Jerry Springer and Imus. The TV personalities dominating these shows are all ladino as are most of their callers.

Within three days after the Barbaret incident, patronatos vice president, another ladino, marched through the streets of Coxen Hole with a loudspeaker shouting “get out Gringos who take away our beaches!” A few moments later, a semi-comical moment came as a Flowers Bay black islander man told the crowd, “We’re running all the ‘Choreados’ (dirty Spaniard) off our island!”

Ladinos used “the Gringo” as a distraction to hide their own mistrust and resentment of the white islanders and black population. The Barbaret incident exposed deep seeded resentment that the ladinos feel towards the foreigners.

While these people reflect on the society that surrounds them, what was revealed is scary. Ladino community is insecure, full of suspicions, and harboring a sense of conspiracy. Ladinos often look at foreigners both with envy and disdain. They want to be wealthy like them, but at the same time they resent their economic status. The foreigners, categorized by most ladinos as ‘Gringos,’ are often in verbal conflicts reminded that they are only guests here. The inability of many foreigners to regulate their legal status makes them particularly vulnerable.

Foreigners also are not without fault either. They often harbor and speak out with a sense of superiority and self importance. They put down the islanders for their “laziness and apathy” and ladinos for their “lack of education and stubbornness.” Foreigners often grow a sense of resentment of the incompetent and abusive central government that changes laws, but doesn’t follow them and can be bribed with a few hundred Lempiras.

Amongst the Bay Island’s foreign consignment, it is perhaps the Canadians and Americans that are most notorious for their inability and unwillingness to learn Spanish. This fact is often misconstrued as threatening to the ladinos, who show the same disinterest and opposition at learning English.

These cultural, racial and religious tensions and conflicts are usually a taboo subject in Honduras and on the Bay Islands. While many Hondurans and Bay Islanders would like to see themselves as one big happy family, the reality is quite different. Their archipelago all through its history has harbored a deeply rooted conflict that is cultural, racial and religious in nature. [/private]

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