I visited the Garifuna Cultural Center in Roatan back in December (formerly known as the Flamingo Cultural Center). Since we’re not traveling anywhere now (or in the near future) I want to shine a light on the amazing work this organization is doing on the island. When it’s safe to do so, please, go visit!
Two tiny hands suddenly appeared at my open car window, pulling up a tiny face with inquisitive eyes.
“Hola,” the tiny face said as another face popped up beside her.
“Hola chicas, qué están haciendo?” Hi girls, what’re you doing?
Turns out, they’re just walking down the street and they don’t seem to be in any rush as they pause to chat with the weird gringa sitting in her rental car by the sea.
I invite them to join me as I walk to the Garifuna Cultural Center just a few steps away. Their relatives own it, they tell me in Spanish. So I figure it’s a safe space to bring two girls aged around 6 and 3.
This is the type of community I love to see. It’s a place where two little girls can wander down the street playing together and chatting with a stranger.
Most folks in this neighborhood know them and their parents. But, even if they’re not very familiar, every adult is watching out for every kid.
Because it does take a village to raise kids well.
A Community Space
So we three walk into the Garifuna Cultural Center, where we’re greeted warmly by the vivacious Audrey Flores. She knows the girls and tells them to come in, too.
It’s only about 30 minutes later, as they’re playing happily with Audrey’s daughter, that she asks them where they’re supposed to be.
They tell her they were headed to grandma’s house. So she encourages them along so as not to worry grandma with their absence.
And off they go, hand in hand, strolling down the road together.
Audrey and her sister Nora opened the Garifuna Cultural Center (previously the Flamingo Cultural Center) in Punta Gorda to offer a space for learning, sharing, and growing their community.
As the original settlement of the Garifuna people on the island of Roatan, Punta Gorda carries centuries of history and significant cultural meaning.
Audrey and Nora were both born and raised in New York City by Garifuna parents. They spent every summer school break back in Punta Gorda to be with family and to be part of this vibrant community.
In NYC, too, they were surrounded by other members of the Garifuna diaspora. From Garifuna communities along the mainland coast of Honduras, from Belize, and from Guatemala.
Learning About the Garifuna Diaspora
The history of the Garifuna is as interesting as it is difficult to absorb.
As happened time and time again during the centuries of colonial conquest, the Garifuna we know today are descendants of those who survived British assault, occupation, and attempted genocide.
I do not use these words lightly – the British tried to annihilate the Garifuna in the late 1700s on the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Ultimately, the smell of death and decay bothered their senses. So they deported the remaining Garifuna instead of allowing them to continue dying at a rapid pace.
Today, the Garifuna continue to fight for their place in the world.
The Garifuna Cultural Center in Roatan
At the Garifuna Cultural Center, Audrey and Nora are providing a haven for the community. Here, they share its history and its beautiful customs with tourists who want to learn.
The struggle for authenticity in tourism is not new, and the Garifuna of Roatan have dealt with this for years.
Cruise ship tourists see dancers and drummers upon arrival on the island, but they do not learn the meaning behind each rhythm nor the history behind the style of dance that’s unique to this community.
Rather, they are entertained. And that surface level of interaction with local culture can be detrimental.
Allowing a culture to be used solely for entertainment devalues its purpose and depth of meaning.
And so, these sisters are striving for more.
They want their culture to be appreciated by tourists visiting the island. They take advantage of the opportunity to educate, while also entertaining and inviting others into their world for a deeper look.
A Visitor Welcomed Like Family
I was lucky enough to enjoy a full afternoon with these inspiring women. And it truly felt like I was welcomed into the family.
Hugs instead of handshakes, meeting mom and dad, enjoying a homemade lunch of fried fish and plantains on the dock, and playing with the kids and cousins and neighbors.
I will always be on the outside of the community. But I was welcomed so wonderfully to step in and take a seat at the table to learn more.
The building boasts beautiful murals depicting key moments in Garifuna history. One large section is devoted to explaining the history in chronological order.
Flags hanging from the ceiling represent each step of the Garifuna journey. Ghana, Brazil, Honduras, Belize, and more.
Traditional clothing is on display with descriptive text. Guests are even encouraged to try on the traditional dress after learning about its meaning and purpose.
Guests are also welcomed to make cassava bread using traditional tools and practices. The drumming rhythms are explained while the style of dance is demonstrated with context and insight.
A tourist visiting the Garifuna Cultural Center is given an education alongside a family welcome. You’ll leave having made new friends as much as you’ve learned new facts.
Meet the Garifuna Cultural Center Creators
Audrey is full of joy, her passion for supporting her community emanates from her every step and word. She shares her enthusiasm for her cultural history with a kind heart and a big smile.
Nora has a laugh that resonates across the water, drawing everyone toward her to be part of that joy.
We three chat about how different it is to raise kids on the island instead of the US.
They note how their children wander off to grandma’s house on their own. They toddle down the dock and play together without adults hovering overhead.
They’re pushing boundaries within the safety net of a community looking out for them. Their parents don’t teach them to fear their neighbors.
When a toy is dropped between slats of the dock, a team effort to rescue it fails with a collective hope for another kid down the shore to find it.
There are no tears. Just sharing of other toys and a toddle back inside to color or run or ask grandma for a plantain from her house next door.
Community Activities and Support
While we chat about life and I learn lesson after lesson about the Garifuna past and present, a group of ladies is inside painting and creating crafts to sell.
I love the irony of their snowmen and winter scenes with Feliz Navidad written across the designs.
They’ve never seen snow nor felt its cold in their hands, but they paint them nonetheless in the hopes that tourists from up north will enjoy their work and buy a locally made souvenir to bring home.
This group of local artists comes to the Center twice a week to work, bringing their kids since it’s school break right now.
The kids all play and have fun while the moms chat and create and share stories or suggestions.
It’s an afternoon filled with laughter and lighthearted work. But this is also an opportunity for these women to earn their own income and to get something back from the many tourists who come to their island every day.
Visit the Garifuna Cultural Center
If you’re visiting Roatan and want to learn more about the island’s history and culture, Garifuna Cultural Center needs to be on your itinerary.
This is a unique Roatan opportunity – you cannot learn about this Garifuna community anywhere else except in Punta Gorda!
Besides, it’s a great chance to enjoy delicious food on the water, to maybe dance and play.
And you’ll certainly receive the warmest welcome from two women who are supporting their community with full hearts and ambitious drive.
After all, they’re New Yorkers, too.
Get more tips for your trip to Roatan. I lived there for 3 years and recently had the privilege and pleasure to visit friends and our old island home.