(With VIDEO) Garifuna Community Activist DIONISIA AMAYA (“Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”) Passes Away At The Age of 80 in Honduras.

Garifuna Community Acitivist Dionisia Amaya (a.k.a. "Doña Nicha" or "Mama Nicha") (she is wearing the white hat and is standing using a walker) surrounded by family and friends after being interviewed by Beinggarifuna.com at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn in August 2012. -- Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Community Acitivist Dionisia Amaya (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”) (she is wearing the white hat and is standing using a walker) surrounded by family and friends after being interviewed by Beinggarifuna.com at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn in August 2012. — Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright 2014 by Teofilo Colon Jr.  (a.k.a. “Tio Teo” or “Teofilo Campeon”) All Rights Reserved.  Telephone: (646) 961-3674.

Twitter:  @beinggarifuna

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La Ceiba, Honduras, Central America — Garifuna Community Activist Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”) passed away earlier this morning after being afflicted by a massive stroke (which arose from complications from her diabetes) last week.  The stroke resulted in a coma and this morning she left us to be with the ancestors.

Garifuna Community Activist DIONISIA AMAYA being interviewed by beinggarifuna.com in August 2012.

Garifuna Community Activist DIONISIA AMAYA (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”) being interviewed by beinggarifuna.com in August 2012.

Response to Mama Nicha’s passing has been widespread.  Garifuna-American Carlos Gamboa, one of many Garinagu mentored by Doña Nicha, noted that she was,

“An incredible woman in the Garifuna Community.  A force full of Love, Grace, Tenacity, Giving, Intelligence, Perserverance, and a Gift for Caring for others. She will be missed.  I always called her my Second Mother.  A title that she would respond to by saying, “You are the son that I never had”.  — Carlos Gamboa

Born on February 8th 1933 in La Ceiba, Honduras, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla migrated to the United States of America in May of 1964.  In 1974, she began a long vocation or calling as a respected leader and community service provider for the Garifuna community in New York City.  She became an American citizen in 1977.

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She helped organize COPRODH (acronym for the Spanish name for the Committee for Development in Honduras), an organization that provided support and resources for victims of Hurricane Fifi / Tropical Storm Orlene in 1974.  She worked with them for two years, providing help and supplies/materials etc for Hurricane vitmis as well as for he Honduran community in the United States of America as well.  Ever since, Dionisia Amaya has been noted for her insistence on encouraging the Garifuna community to use  education to enhance their quality of life.

In 1979, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla decided to go to college, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education with high honors from Medgar Evers College.  Later, she earned a Masters/Advanced Certificate in Guidance and Counseling from Brooklyn College.

Garifuna Activist Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla posing with the co-director of the independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL, Ruben Reyes (at right) at a screening of the film in La Ceiba, Honduras on October 21st 2013.  Photo by Jorge Garifuna.

Garifuna Activist Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha or Mama Nicha) posing with the co-director of the independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL, Ruben Reyes (at right) at a screening of the film in La Ceiba, Honduras on October 21st 2013. Photo by Jorge Garifuna.

Garifuna Activist Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla at the screening of the independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL in La Ceiba, Honduras on October 21st 2013.  Photo by Jorge Garifuna.

Garifuna Activist Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (a.k.a. Doña Nicha or Mama Nicha) at the screening of the independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL in La Ceiba, Honduras on October 21st 2013. Photo by Jorge Garifuna.

The book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”  edited by Elliott R. Barkan has a biography that is instructive, it explains,

“In 1976, Amaya was a secretary when a merger left her unemployed for six months.  During that time she set her goals on her own education and went to school to earn her general equivalency diploma (GED).  She then went on, earning a B.A. in education and an M.A. in counseling.  She became a teacher for second and sixth grades in New York City and for a time also taught reading classes.  Amaya worked as a teacher and counselor for sixteen years.” – from book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”

“While she was teaching, Amaya continued her involvement with the Garifuna community.  For her, it is crucial that recent immigrants learn English and obtain an education, so that manual labor is not their only employment option.  Her education enabled her to contribute significantly to her community, and she has since dedicated herself to providing that community with the same opportunities, working to educate it in all possible avenues–via the schools, the church, and the public sector. ” – from book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”

“For example, in January 1989, she came together with other Garifuna women leaders (Mirtha Sabio and Lydia Sacasa-Hill)  for the purpose of garnering international recognition for Garifuna women’s accomplishments.  This group of women organized a conference and MUGAMA (A Spanish acronym for ‘Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha’ or ‘Garifuna Women on the March’)  was born.  A year later it became a nonprofit organization, and it now offers English as a second language (ESL), GED, and citizenship classes for adults in New York City.  Amaya served as secretary and president of MUGAMA before becoming its executive director.  She provides resources to inform and empower the Honduran Garifuna population and also teaches classes for the organization. ” – from book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”

“In 1991, MUGAMA served as one of the sponsors of the First Intercontinental Garifuna Summit Meeting at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.  This historic event brought together Garinagu from all over the United States for a cultural and political exchange of accomplishments, goals, and resources.  Amaya recounts that at the summit MUGAMA passed a resolution to begin a fund for a scholarship to be given every two years to help students in college. ” – from book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”

“In addition to these activities, for twenty-two years Amaya has been an active member of the Catholic Church and in 1996, was appointed a Eucharistic minister at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brooklyn.”  — Leticia Hernandez-Linares – from book, “Making It In America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans”

My cousin Brian Colon posing with Garifuna Community Activist Dionisia Amaya (a.k.a. "Doña Nicha" or "Mama Nicha") as they attended the Graduation Ceremony of my cousin (Brian's sister) from junior high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn in June 2013.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

My cousin Brian Colon posing with Garifuna Community Activist Dionisia Amaya (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”) as they attended the Graduation Ceremony of my cousin (Brian’s sister) from junior high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn in June 2013. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

When Beinggarifuna.com informed the public about elections for new officers for MUGAMA, it explained: MUGAMA (A Spanish acronym for ‘Mujeres Garinagu en Marcha’ or ‘Garifuna Women on the March’) Inc was founded in 1989 by Dionisia Amaya, Mirtha Sabio, and Lydia Sacasa-Hill to showcase Garinagu during International Woman’s Day so that the accomplishments of Garifuna Women in the New York tri-state area could be recognized.  The name translates into Garifuna Women On The March.

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It was incorporated under the nonprofit organization laws of the state of New York on June 28th 1990 to:

  1. preserve and advance the history and culture of the Garifuna people through cultural and educational activities;
  2. encourage and support the education of the Garifuna community in academic pursuits, leadership and personal growth.

Eventually the organization branched out and its activities included awarding scholarships and offering English as a Second Language classes. According to The Garifuna Coalition USA Inc, when it awarded MUGAMA a Garifuna Coalition Recognition Award in 2009,

“MUGAMA was the first organization to promote the Garifuna culture in New York City, as well as the first to celebrate April 12th as the Arrival of the Garifunas to Central America.  It was also the first Garifuna nonprofit organization in New York City to receive 501 ( c )(3) tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  In 1996 it also became the first to receive an operating grant from the New York Foundation, therefore, representing the modern era of Garifuna nonprofit organizations. ” — Garifuna Coalition USA Inc

Also, in response to the Happy Land Social Club Fire in 1990, MUGAMA named a college scholarship after one of the victims of that tragedy, Juan Carlos Colon-Guity Jr (my cousin).

Mujeres Garinagu En Marcha (MUGAMA).

Mujeres Garinagu En Marcha (MUGAMA).

In an article on the MUGAMA organization in City Limits, a New York City based non-profit  news agency that publishes investigative and in-depth reporting on urban life and policy, explains what made that group matter.  It noted that it provided a means for, “a speck of 50,000 people among New York’s welter of immigrant groups to find a balance between the need to assimilate and the desire to preserve a distinct cultural heritage”.

Cover of Program for the 1989 MUGAMA Debutante Ball.  An Example of their Innovative Promotion of the Garifuna Community in NYC. Program is Property (and courtesy) of Jocelyn Amaya.  All Rights Reserved.

Cover of Program for the 1989 MUGAMA Debutante Ball. An Example of their Innovative Promotion of the Garifuna Community in NYC. Program is Property (and courtesy) of Miss Jocelyn Aranda. All Rights Reserved.

Inside the Program of  the 1989 MUGAMA Debutante Ball, which includes names of the participants.  This is  an Example of MUGAMA's  Innovative Promotion of the Garifuna Community in NYC. Program is Property (and courtesy) of Jocelyn Amaya.  All Rights Reserved.

Inside the Program of the 1989 MUGAMA Debutante Ball, which includes names of the participants. This is an Example of MUGAMA’s Innovative Promotion of the Garifuna Community in NYC. Program is Property (and courtesy) of Miss Jocelyn Aranda. All Rights Reserved.

From promotion and preservation of the history and culture to the Garifuna people to its advocacy on behalf of Garinagu in New York City, MUGAMA made an impact in New York City and that is only PART of the legacy of it’s co-founder Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla. According to a 2009 press release by the Bronx based non-profit organization, Garifuna Coalition; Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla:

  • was one of the organizers of the First Garifuna Summit Meeting in New York City in July of 1991 under the theme, “Uwala Busiganu, Garinagu Wagia” (“Don’t be ashamed, We Are Garifunas.” in the Garifuna Language).  As a result of the Summit and the increased promotion of the Garifuna Culture, New York City’s Board of Education recognized Garifuna speaking children with Limited English Proficiency as being entitled to Bilingual Education and English as a Second Language and were able to receive instructional and/or support services in Garifuna.  The outcome was the first Garifunas were hired as assistants to support these children.
  • also organized the first HIV/AIDS seminar in the Garifuna Community in 1991 by the founders of the organization known as Hondurans Against AIDS, Inc.
  • in 1992, she co-organized the Second Garifuna Summit Meeting in Los Angeles, California with the theme, “Separation, Dispersion, Reunification.”.  It was the first time that Garifunas from St. Vincent, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and the United States got together under one roof.  The only representative from the Garifuna Diaspora missing was from Nicaragua and it was due to the political situation faced by the country at that time.  It was at that Summit that the Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Garifunas Arrival to Central America was first conceived and in 1995 Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonila organized the Garifuna Bicentennial Committee that was responsible for the Bicentennial Commemoration in Honduras, in April of 1997.
  • In May of 1998, she was a co-founder of the Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc and one of its original directors and in May 2000 became a co-founder of the New Horizon Investment Club in New York City.

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On June 12th 2003, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla was subject to a tribute and recognition by Brooklyn Congressman Hon. Edolphus Towns in the House of Representatives.  Hon. Edolphus Towns explained that,

“Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla worked for the Board of Education for 16 years.  She began as a paraprofessional, and would later go on to teach following the completion of her education.  Ultimately, she became a school guidance counselor, a position she continued until her retirement in 1996. Dionisia’s biggest role in the community is being the coordinator of MUGAMA’s education program.  Her importance to the community is reflected by how the residents refer to her, with comments like: Mama, Madre and Abuelita.   Recently, people have taken to call her the ‘glue’ of the community.” — Hon. Edolphus Towns.

On January 18th 2004, Brooklyn Borough President proclaimed a  Mrs. Dionisia Amaya Day in Brooklyn. Retired in 1996, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla taught English as a second language to students in Honduras at the Barauda Bilingual School.

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In July 2009, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla was a part of delegation of Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) from Central America and The United States of America who traveled to the ancestral homeland of the Garifuna people, St. Vincent as part of a ‘Vincy Homecoming’ or Garifuna Reunion.  Here is a press release from the Bronx based non-profit organization, Garifuna Coalition USA Inc regarding Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla being a part of that Garifuna Reunion.

Below are two links to an interview that I conducted for Beinggarifuna.com in August of 2012.

While I didn’t have many direct dealings with Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla.  I did note the love and respect that Garinagu had for her.  When I conducted the above interview in the basement of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn.  A number of Garinagu came down to pay homage, say hello or simply watch as the interview was taking place.  Many asked where and when could they see this interview.  Doña Nicha impacted many lives and they all wanted to ensure that the interview reflected positively on her and the Garifuna community as a whole.

Mrs. Dionisia Amaya was certainly a tenacious woman.  During the summers of 2012 and 2013, I received numerous telephone messages from her because she wanted to talk to me about an urgent matter regarding the Garifuna community.  Retired, she spent her summers in New York City and used the time to try and continue her advocacy work, in particular for the organization that she co-founded, MUGAMA. Sadly, other than one telephone conversation in 2012, I didn’t really get a chance to speak with her at length about the urgent matter that she wanted to talk about. Because of photographic assignments and writing postings for Beinggarifuna.com, it became difficult for me to reply to her request for a talk.  I regret not making the time to talk with her.

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She is survived by her husband Mr. Alejandro Bonilla.   As more information becomes available, I will include it here. Her viewing is scheduled for Tuesday, February 4th 2014 in La Ceiba, Honduras and her burial is scheduled for Wednesday, February 5th 2014.

Rest in Paradise, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (a.k.a. “Doña Nicha” or “Mama Nicha”).  Sakuritina wafedirunu würi to.

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ABOUT The Garifuna People

The Garifuna people are people of African descent (in other words, Black people) whose ancestry can be traced to Africans mixing with Carib Indians and Arawak Indians on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. From this fusion of race and ethnicities in St. Vincent Island, a distinct culture and language arose.  They are noted for being one of the few (only?) peoples of African descent (again, in other words, Black people) in the Americas to have maintained aspects of their ancestral culture and full use of their ancestral language for everyday use over the course of hundreds of years.

After being defeated in war with the British on St. Vincent in 1796; 1004 men,  1779 women and 1,555 children for a total of 4,338 people (mostly Black Caribs, as the Garifuna people were then known) were captured and taken to Baliceaux, a small island, a rock, basically, off the coast of St. Vincent.  This took place from July 1796 through February/March 1797.  About 2,000 Garifunas died of a mysterious and very infectious fever while living on Baliceaux awaiting their fate.  1

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In early March 1797, the remaining Garifunas were loaded onto the HMS Experiment and other ships.  Once they were rounded up, the convoy were taken to a Bequia, which is another island off the coast of St. Vincent. They proceeded to go to Grenada to get water, then Jamaica for refueling, then finally Roatan, Honduras, arriving on April 12th 1797.

Finding much of Roatan unliveable, the Garifuna people petitioned officials representing Spain and it’s government (which controlled much of Central America at the time) to be allowed to move to the Honduran mainland.  Upon being allowed to move to the Honduran mainland, namely the port town of Trujillo, Honduras in May 1797; the Garifunas settled many towns and villages along the Caribean coast of Honduras.  They also migrated to the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Belize (then known as British Honduras) and Nicaragua over the years.

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Notes:

  1. Nancie L Gonzalez, “Sojourners of The Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna” pgs 21-23

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