The Evangelical Garifuna Church and connected Community Center are not really the type of storefronts that you actively notice going about your business each day, but for one day in April the block of Brook Avenue between East 141st and 142nd Streets is taped off and the modest crowd spills out of the small venues into the street. The actual blocking did not necessarily appear to be sanctioned by the NYPD, but on this sleepy Mott Haven street, no one seemed to mind.
April 12th is Garifuna Day, in Central America and beyond, celebrating the first arrival of the Garifuna people in the area well over 200 years ago.
Inside, tables are set up and women in West African-like dresses speak to each other in Spanish. Yellow, white, and black dominate, as they are the colors that signify the Garifuna flag and culture from Belize to Nicaragua. I traveled in some parts of Garifuna Guatemala and Honduras, and was surprised after a long road in Central America to find people who spoke English. The Garifuna here in New York are mostly from Honduras and surprising to me, all spoke Spanish amongst themselves, rather than English or their Garifuna language.
Hand-written signs were taped to the walls showing off cities where presumably members of the community center were from, spanning all the countries. A table to the right had a wide assortment of sweets to choose from, which many were stacking and stuffing into bags to take home. Smiles were shown my way from everyone, as is usually the case when an "outsider" makes their way into a community. Many men shook my hand and all welcomed me.
Near the back, the prominent thud heard throughout the room was found to be a woman pounding plantain in the traditional way. She seemed to be very focused and only nodded her head when I said the word plantain as part of a sentence.
The only dish on offer from the kitchen in the back was machuca ($12, below), served as a bowl of coconut-based soup and a baseball-sized sphere of mashed plantain. The mash is dense and fills you up quickly, so tear it off sparingly and enjoy the contents of the soup first.
Garifuna people all live near the Caribbean coasts of their respective countries, and as such a big portion of their diet is based on fish and seafood. This soup had both, a nice hunk of fish was accompanied by a small amount of conch and one shrimp. If you sat down at a Garifuna table, everyone would have a bowl of the soup in front of them and a large ball of the plantain would be placed in the center for everyone to grab from while they ate, creating a very communal atmosphere. Here in the community center, I had only my own hands breaking off pieces from the ball.
"Machuca" actually refers to the plantain mash or paste.
Back outside after eating, a percussionist had set up and was entertaining the crowd. Later a man took to the keyboards and sang. For the most part, a DJ played upbeat Caribbean music that got everyone bobbing their bodies.