African American Studies
Jose Francisco Avila was born in the Garifuna village of Cristalis, near the city of Trujillo in Honduras. He moved with his family as at 15 years old to the United States because his parents wanted better opportunities, specifically educational opportunities, for him and his siblings. They moved to the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, where Avila had to quickly learn English at the Boston School for Immigrants, before attending Solomon Lewenberg Junior High School and Boston English High until 1981. Living in a predominantly Black neighborhood in a city with a relatively small Garifuna community, there was constant questioning of his identity, how a person could be Black and speak Spanish, considered a “foreigner”, yet he coexisted and assimilated over time. Because of the racial unrest surrounding busing in Boston, Avila and his wife decided they did not want to raise their young son there and moved to Dallas, Texas. Avila discussed the music scene in Boston, particularly surrounding Garifuna and other Latin American artists who trained at music schools there.
Avila considered Dallas a culture shock, because of its Hispanic population and how speaking Spanish as a Black man there was taboo. He discusses the profound racism within the Hispanic community. In Honduras, when he was a child, no one talked about race. Now, he can proudly claim to be an African descendant, Afro Latino, and Garifuna. There is reluctance in some communities to use the term “Afro Latino”/ “afrodescendiente,” deriving from the Spaniard’s caste system in the New World, but he encourages other Garifunas to embrace it. He discusses mestizaje and colorism within the Hispanic community. Avila realizes now that his father was fighting for justice for Afro Latinos in Honduras before he was born, organizing the first Garifuna soccer team, but it wasn’t until being in America that he learned about racism, as Blackness was absent from his history books. He didn’t learn about how the Garifunas descended from Caribbean Amerindians and Indigenous Africans that escaped slavery who were deported from St. Vincent and the Grenadines yet maintained their culture. Avila sees knowing one’s history as essential for knowing one’s identity.
Avila began organizing for Garifunas in the Bronx in 1989 at 671 Prospect Avenue at the Club Cubano Internacional. He traveled the country for work, so was able to visit the Bronx on the weekends and organize summits on the Garifuna language, culture, and identity, even reunifying the Garifuna diaspora at international events, like the Garifuna Bicentennial in 1997. His work also allowed him access to then nascent IBM computer technology to reach out to many Garifunas for organizing. Avila sees the arts as important for maintaining Garifuna identity in diaspora, especially for American-born Garifuna who may not speak the language, including Garifuna fusion with jazz, hip hop, and reggaeton, but also visual arts.
African American History Project, Bronx, "Avila, Jose Francisco Interview part 1" (2022). Oral Histories. 342.