Belize is a close neighbor to the culture described here, so this story, and especially the colors on the tables in the photos, have an air of familiarity:
When Sulma Arzu-Brown’s father traveled from his village in Honduras into the city, people pointed at him, at his black skin. When he spoke his language, people laughed. “They said, ‘Look at that monkey, goo goo gaga,’ ” Arzu-Brown told me.When it was time for her mother to be promoted at her job, she stood out a little too much. “Blanca,” her boss said to her, “I know you’re qualified, but I can’t give the job to you. You have family in the U.S. Go there. You’ll achieve there.”
Arzu-Brown told me these stories in a calm voice; not the calm of acquiescence but, I assume, of understanding that the present outshines the past. Her family is Garifuna, the descendants of intermarried Africans and Caribs who live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala. Rejecting the discrimination they faced in Honduras, her family moved to New York in the 1980s, when she was 5.
In the Bronx, where Sulma grew up speaking Spanish and English, she felt unknown. To her black friends, she was black. To others, she was Latina. “Sometimes, I’d be called Afro-Latino, but deep inside, I knew we were something else,” she said. “We were Garifuna.” Her parents, scarred from their humiliations, didn’t teach their daughter to speak their language. “But I knew we were Garifuna because we danced the punta at home,” Arzu-Brown says. “Because we ate hudutu.”
Hudutu is a dish beloved by many Hondurans, but it comes specifically from the Garifuna. You can tell it’s from the tropical coast because it’s a soup of coconut milk, teeming with seafood. But its African roots seem clearer when you consider the fact that it’s always eaten with machuca, sweet and green plantains beaten to a mash that resembles the pounded yams of West Africa.
Arzu-Brown invited me to her mother’s home, and I walked into a party about to be lit. Blanca kept her curls in a hairnet while she cooked, waiting to let them down. We cracked open coconuts, grinding their flesh and squeezing out the cream with our hands. People streamed in, some bringing pans of chewy-soft yucca pies, others bringing drums. We cooked, poured drinks and finally ate the hudutu, a many-faceted thing of deeply seared snapper, just-cooked shrimp, tender conch and a broth of coconut milk infused with their flavors. We dipped in sticky, satisfying little bites of machuca. I knocked out two bowls before I realized I was in the middle of a history lesson…