Garifuna Activist Mrs. DIONISIA AMAYA-BONILLA and other Garinagu Who Recently Passed Away Were Mourned at Garifuna Memorial Mass in Brooklyn on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014

Garifuna Society Choir  of Our Lady of Mercy Church  Enters the Church as the Garifuna Memorial Mass Begins.  Photo of Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Society Choir of Our Lady of Mercy Church Enters the Church as the Garifuna Memorial Mass Begins. Photo of 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.

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Brooklyn, New York — Pioneering Garifuna Activist, Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (a.k.a. ‘Doña Nicha’ or ‘Mama Nicha’) and other Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) were mourned at a Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY, February 23rd 2014.

Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

As various leading figures of the Garifuna Community in New York City came together to remember and reflect; an intriguing picture of these notable Garinagu who recently passed away began to form.  I wish I took notes on this profound afternoon, but I was busy taking photos.  I have to go on memory.  Upon inquiry, Garifuna Singer Musician James Lovell explained that,

“Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla was like me in that she was FOR the Garifuna people.  Her advocacy for the Garifuna community in New York City was impactful and I knew that I had to be here in tribute.  I was not able to go to St. Vincent with her and the Garifuna Coalition in 2009, but reading about her experience as the oldest person of the contingent of Garinagu who traveled to the ancestral land of The Garifuna People for the first time, inspired me.  Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla had diabetes, arthritis, etc yet she made sure that she went to St. Vincent and when I read the quotes attributed to her in various news accounts of that trip, it reverberated with me.”  — James Lovell

Garifuna Singer Musician James Lovell at The Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Singer Musician James Lovell at The Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

 

Garifuna Singer Musician James Lovell singing in Tribute to Garinagu who recently passed away at The Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Singer Musician James Lovell singing in Tribute to Garinagu who recently passed away at The Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

In his sermon, Reverend Edward Mason of Our Lady of Mercy Church talked about meeting with and eventually getting to know Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla over the years.  What struck him was her tireless commitment to educating others about the Garifuna People and her Christ-like devotion to building for her community. Rev. Ed Mason remembered Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla always having a smile on her face and relayed that her life was a textbook example of making a difference in the world.   Again, I wish I took notes.

Reverend Ed Mason of Our Lady of Mercy Church during the Garifuna Memorial Mass on SUNDAY, February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Reverend Ed Mason of Our Lady of Mercy Church during the Garifuna Memorial Mass on SUNDAY, February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

There were other Garinagu who were also memorialized in this Garifuna Memorial Mass.  I didn’t get a full list of names of other Garinagu who were remembered at this mass.  The only other name I remember is that of Mr. Conce Rochez, who also passed away recently.

Members of the Rochez Family who were memorializing their father, Sr. Conce Rochez, who also passed away recently.  This moment is during the 'Our Father' prayer portion of this Garifuna Memorial Mass.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Members of the Rochez Family who were memorializing their father, Sr. Conce Rochez, who also passed away recently. This moment is during the ‘Our Father’ prayer portion of this Garifuna Memorial Mass. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

In his eulogy of Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla (once in English, and again in Spanish), Chairman of The Board Of Directors of Garifuna Non-Profit Organization, The Garifuna Coalition USA Inc; Mr. Jose Francisco Avila recounted his relationship with Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla over the years.  Not only meeting her in 1990/1991, but also working with her at her Garifuna non-profit organization MUGAMA (acronym for MUjeres GArifuna En MArcha), and what he learned from her over the years.

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Comparing her to Black Civil Rights Activist, Rosa Parks; Mr. Avila listed her considerable accomplishments and also read the remarks in tribute to Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla by Congressman Edolphus Towns on the floor of The House of Representatives in Washington D.C. on Thursday, June 12th 2003. 1 .

Chairman of The Board Of Directors of The Garifuna Coalition USA Inc, Mr. Jose Francisco Avila delivering the eulogy to Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla at the Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY, February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Chairman of The Board Of Directors of The Garifuna Coalition USA Inc, Mr. Jose Francisco Avila delivering the eulogy to Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla at the Garifuna Memorial Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn on SUNDAY, February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

It’s Mr. Avila’s style to be clinical or somewhat dispassionate in his public speeches as he delivered his eulogy in a mostly just-the-facts manner.  I thought it was odd that there wasn’t more personal stories from Mr. Avila to help illuminate or demonstrate aspects of Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla’s character and/or personality.  Especially as he apparently worked closely with her for such a long period of time.  Perhaps that was due to time.

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In a reception following the Garifuna Memorial Mass, Garifuna woman Yolanda Blanco (she works with the Board of Education) shared a photo album with me.  The photo album was filled with photos of Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla throughout her daughter’s life (Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla was her daughter’s godmother–a role she served as for many Garinagu over the years).  This photo album was filled with photos at graduation ceremonies, baptisms, holy communions, confirmations, there was even a photo of Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla being present at a Kindergarden class for some presentation of Miss Blanco’s daughter!!!

Garifuna Man Carlos Gotay at the Garifuna Memorial Mass on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Garifuna Man Carlos Gotay at the Garifuna Memorial Mass on SUNDAY February 23rd 2014. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

That was a demonstration of what Congressman Edolphus Towns talked about on his remarks about Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla at The House Of Representatives, where he explained:

“Her importance to the community is reflected by how the residents refer to her, with terms like Mamma, Madre and Abuelita.  Recently, people have taken to call her the ‘glue’ of the community.”  Hon. Edolphus Towns.

As written in the Shakespeare play ‘As You Like It’,

“All The World Is A Stage, and all men and women are players. They each have their exits and entrances, And one man/woman in his/her time plays many parts.”

Mama ‘Nicha played many parts and fulfilled many roles over the course of her long, rich life.  Hopefully she will not be forgotten.

Rest In Peace To Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Rest In Peace To Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

All in all, it was an interesting afternoon.  I wished there was more personal testimony about what Mama Nicha meant to people, though.  May Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla Rest In Peace.

Below are two videos of an interview with Mrs. Dionisia Amaya-Bonilla conducted by Beinggarifuna.com in August of 2012.

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.  2

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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. http://beta.congress.gov/congressional-record/2003/6/13/extensions-of-remarks-section/article/E1235-3
  2. Nancie L Gonzalez, “Sojourners of The Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna” pgs 21-23

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