Born in 1969, Aurelio Martínez is a Garifuna percussionist, guitarist, singer, and songwriter who hails from Plaplaya, Honduras. Martínez, who goes by Aurelio, was born into a family of musicians. Today, he is considered one of Central America’s major artists and a cultural ambassador of the Garifuna people.

Aurelio is dedicated to using his music to promote social change and to protect Garifuna language and culture.

Aurelio’s artistry is influenced by the late Garifuna musician Andy Palacio, whose song Watina is below. The two were friends, and shared an investment in protecting Garifuna language and culture.



Aurelio’s music is lively and danceable, but sometimes he ventures into darker territory. In the song “Yange,” Aurelio sings,




You went away in search of a better life
To the sea and found the death
You went away in search of a better life
To the sea and found the death
How hypocrites they are
They bring you already sick and with very much pain
Mum ran around the world
Looking for doctors and medicines

As Aurelio explains, Garifuna music combines African beats, indigenous Caribbean melodies, and Spanish guitar. Garifuna music is a form of storytelling. When you listen to Garifuna music, you learn about the Garifuna past.

The Garifuna, also called the Garinagu, are an indigenous people descended from the Carib peoples of the Lesser Antilles and African slaves. Today, Garifuna presence in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua disrupts the standard narrative of Indigenous Caribbean extinction.[1] In order to understand this narrative and how it came to be so widespread, we have to take a look at the history of colonial-indigenous encounters in the Lesser Antilles.

Students of Caribbean history have long been taught that before the invasion of Europeans, the Caribbean was inhabited by two major ethnic indigenous groups: the Arawaks of the Greater Antilles, and to the south, in the Lesser Antilles, the Caribs. The standard narrative is that the Caribs were a fierce, warlike people who invaded the Caribbean from mainland South America, pushing the Arawak north. It is no accident that their very name– the Caribs— sounds so similar to cannibal.[2] According to historian Melanie Newton, “Seventeenth-century French missionaries were chiefly responsible for propagating the idea that the Caribs invaded the Lesser Antilles from the South American mainland and conquered the original ‘Arawak’ inhabitants. This implied that the Caribs were not truly ‘native’ to the Caribbean region and had no more territorial rights there than Europeans. As Peter Hulme notes, ‘there is probably not much truth at all in this story,’ but it is repeated often in Caribbean historiographical works…” [3]. The casting of Caribs as not-really-indigenous served as a convenient justification for colonial aggression against them and their forced removal from their homelands. Unfortunately, the historiography on Caribbean indigeneity has tended to propagate this misconception.

Another misconception rooted in colonial policy that historians of the Caribbean have often repeated is that two easily distinguishable indigenous groups inhabited eighteenth-century St. Vincent, the “Black” Caribs and the “Yellow” Caribs. By the eighteenth century, enough African and African-descended people had formed communities and had children with Caribs that colonists felt compelled to distinguish between “pure” Caribs and those of “mixed,” visibly African ancestry. The French and British explained the birth of the Black Carib population through a myth in which a group of African captives bound for Barbados ended up shipwrecked on St. Vincent in the mid-seventeenth century. According to legend, the Caribs living in St. Vincent then rescued and enslaved the shipwrecked Africans. As the Black Carib population grew and competed with the ‘true’ Caribs for resources, the two groups went to war. According to European sources, both the “Black” and “Yellow” Caribs deployed mass rape as a tactic of war, executing rival men to ensure the growth of their own populations. As Newton explains, “account[s] of the shipwreck myth is an especially clear illustration of how Europeans deployed racist rape fantasies in order to displace their own genocidal intentions onto Africans and Caribs.”[5]

Newton explains colonialists’ insistence on distinguishing between”Black” and “Yellow”caribs in terms of partus sequitur ventrem, the legal doctrine underpinning Atlantic slave systems in which children inherited their mother’s legal status as free or enslaved. She writes, “in the slaveholding era Afro-indigenous ‘mixing’ was especially dangerous, for such children might be slaves who could invoke the claims to territory and sovereignty of free aboriginal people. The increase in the number of Caribs of visible African ancestry was accompanied by the French and British colonial articulation of a narrative that denied the Carib-ness of so-called Black Caribs” [6]. In the eighteenth-century Atlantic World, blackness was so heavily associated with enslavement that all black people were regarded as potential slaves. For potential slaves to lay claim to indigeneity– and, therefore, to land–could upend the whole system of African chattel slavery. In creating the categories of “Black” and “Yellow” Caribs, colonists aimed to make blackness and indigeneity incompatible with each other.

In 1796, after a century of fighting between the Caribs, the British, and the French, the British exiled the Caribs of St. Vincent to mainland Central America.[7] The British transported some 4,338 Caribs to an uninhabitable island called Balliceaux, after which point they were transferred to an island called Roatán off the coast of Honduras. As historian Julie Chun Kim pointedly notes, “of the 4,338 Caribs who were deported to Balliceaux, only 2,248 survived to make the trip to Roatán.”[8] Eighty-three “Yellow” Caribs were returned to St. Vincent by British General Ralph Abercromby. Abercromby stipulated that St. Vincent’s remaining “Yellow” Caribs “should not be allowed to intermarry with the Blacks upon pain of forfeiture of their lands and being sent away.”[9] Here, again, is evidence of colonial anxiety about black and indigenous “mixing,” and an attempt by colonial powers to prevent such mixing from occurring.

Today’s Garifuna are descended from the Caribs deported to Central America over two centuries ago. Despite tremendous odds, the Garifuna have survived, built thriving communities, and continue to practice their culture. But there are challenges: the Garifuna experience significant discrimination and dispossession. For example, Garifuna who live along the Honduran North Coast are being dispossessed of their land by a state intent on creating a business-friendly environment for foreign developers.[10] Their struggle is bound up with that of all indigenous peoples who seek to hold onto land, political freedom, and cultural autonomy in the face of globalization and ongoing colonial aggression.

The Garifunas’ very presence in the Circum-Caribbean as an indigenous people of visible African heritage defies the colonial logic of black and indigenous incompatibility. It is imperative that we do not proliferate the genocide of indigenous Caribbean peoples by writing them off as ‘extinct.’ As a Garifuna cultural producer, Aurelio is testament to the continuing survival of the Garifuna people. As Aurelio says, “My people have a long history of resistance that goes back to the days of slavery and our homeland of St. Vincent. My music is an expression of freedom and hope. Garifuna music wants to transmit a message of peace and community.”

By Jacqueline Allain


[1] For more on the narrative of indigenous Caribbean extinction, see Tony Castanha, The Myth of Indigenous Caribbean Extinction: Continuity and Reclamation in Borikén (Puerto Rico)(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); Melanie J. Newton, “Returns to a Native Land: Indigeneity and Decolonization in the Anglophone Caribbean,” Small Axe 17 (2013): 108-122.

[2] Neil L. Whitehead, “Black Read as Red: Ethnic Transgression and Hybridity in Northeastern South America and the Caribbean,” in Beyond Black and Red: African-Native Relations in Colonial Latin America, ed. Matthew Restall (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), pp. 223-243; Melanie J. Newton, “‘The Race Leapt at Sauteurs’: Genocide, narrative, and Indigenous exile from the Caribbean Archipelago,” Caribbean Quarterly 60 (2014): 5-28.

[3] Newton, “‘The Race Leapt at Sauteurs,’” 15. See also Louis Allaire, “On the Historicity of Carib Migrations in the Lesser Antilles,” American Antiquity 45 (1980): 238-245.

[4] Newton, “‘The Race Leapt at Sauteurs,’” 18. See also Julie Chun Kim, “The Caribs of St. Vincent and Indigenous Resistance during the Age of Revolutions,” Early American Studies 11 (2013): 117-132.

[5]Newton, “‘The Race Leapt at Sauteurs,’” 17.

[6] Kim, “The Caribs of St. Vincent and Indigenous Resistance during the Age of Revolutions,” 131.

[7] Kim, “The Caribs of St. Vincent and Indigenous Resistance during the Age of Revolutions,” 131.

[8] As quoted in Newton, “‘The Race Leapt at Sauteurs,’” 19.

[9] Sharlene Mollett, “A Modern Paradise Garifuna Land, Labor, and Displacement-in-Place,” Latin American Perspectives 41 (2014): 27-45.