New Documentary Highlights the Garifuna Wanaragua Celebration in Los Angeles

ACTA - Posted on 18 July 2012

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The cover of the video Wanaragua in Los Angeles 2012, filmed and Edited by Francis EstradaSince the mid-1970s, the rhythms of drummers such as Mingo Alvarez and Ruben Reyes have resonated throughout Los Angeles' neighborhoods, stating to a specific group of people from places such as Dangringa, Belize; La Buga, Guatemala; and Trujillo, Honduras: that Garifuna are here!  The video Wanaragua in Los Angeles 2012 is an affirmation of the presence and energy that the Garifuna community contributes to the cultural fabric of Los Angeles and US society as a whole.  This one hour and fifty minute work, filmed and edited by Francis Estrada, takes us with an ensemble of dancers, musicians, and singers, organized by the chief dancer Flavio “Paps” Alvarez, to the different neighborhoods and homes of Garifuna in Los Angeles as they present the traditional expression of Wanaragua on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The Wanaragua is a celebration that commemorates a resistance to British colonization on the island of San Vicente, where the Garifuna community emerged from Carib, Arawak, and Western African Diasporas.  Through oral histories, it is understood that the Garifuna men fighting against the colonials strategically masqueraded utilizing women’s clothing while the British troops infiltrated the villages.  Not recognizing a male presence within the villages, the British dropped their guard leaving them vulnerable to the attacks of these men dressed as women.  Today the act of masquerading is heightened not only in the usage of women dresses, but also in the use of masks that each dancer wears.  A crown with feathers, flowers, and ribbons further enhances the regalia of the Wanaragua dancer.  The outfit is then completed with a series of shells with seeds tied to the shin of the dancers that have a rattle effect.  Other dancers are dressed in a simple male costume of black shin high pants and a white shirt that is adorned with sashes that cross at the chest and wrap around the waist.  The male costume also utilizes a mask, crown and ribbons.  Today, with the reach of globalization, Nike, Addidas, Pumas, or Reebok tennis shoes are the choice footwear of dancers in Los Angeles and Central America.  The use of tennis shoes makes much sense since the performances most often occur on cement driveways or asphalt parking lots of apartment buildings.

Two Wanaragua dancers sharing in the driveway of the home of a Garifuna community member during Christmas 2010As many public traditional expressions, the Wanaragua has been historically practiced by males.  Most recently, however, women have been making advances within the space as practitioners and contributors to this tradition.  As part of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, master Flavio Alvarez is mentoring apprentice Taija Rae “Tye Tye” Garcia, the first women in her family to dance Wanaragua and a leading member in Alvarez’ ensemble that has been together since 1998.

The video begins with Chief Flavio Alvarez narrating in Garifuna the history of Wanaragua in Los Angeles while the dancers prepare and get dressed for the daylong endeavor.  The opening statement ultimately references the Diaspora, letting people in Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize know that the people of in Los Angeles have Wanaragua. Then the journey begins:

The video literally follows the dancers as they travel from home to home throughout the Southern Los Angeles city.  At each home three drummers set up—similar to other Afro-Caribbean and Latin America forms, this form uses a three drums in which two establish the rhythmic pulse in a coordinated pattern that mixes low and middle ranges, while a lead drum (primera) develops both a competition and dialogue with a single dancer that solos.  Behind the sitting drummers, singers stand performing choruses, establishing a swinging answer and call practice—a form that traces back to Western African traditions.  Once the music is set in a groove, dancers take turns, first by greeting the drummers, singers, those that are present, and those that are remembered, then they begin to express themselves through fast pulsating bounce movements, making the shells on their shins rattle in tempo with the drummers.  Apprentice Taija Rae “Tye Tye” Garcia and master artist Flavio “Paps” Alvarez chief of the Wanaragua ensemble in Los AngelesThe solo dancer then engages a routine of footwork, forcing the lead drummer to follow each move, and hopefully perceive the next.  By the end of the day after dancing at many different houses the lead drummer is well in tune with the steps and movements of the different dancers.  In this tradition there obviously exist certain traditional steps and movements, the video, however, makes clear that these dancers, many of whom were born in Los Angeles, do not live in a cultural bubble, and live complex lives with multiple identities that are informed by their experience of growing up in South Central as Garifuna.  In one clip, for example, a dancer presented various Michael Jackson signature moves.  These movements, at the same time they index US popular culture, they make evident an aesthetic and sentiment that clearly states Garifuna.

Some of the highlights of this video are the quick moments when Paps Alvarez narrated the history of Wanaragua in Los Angeles, a quick statement by Tye Tye Garcia, and the "Paying Respect" to a dancer, Julio Chimillo, who has since passed away.  Another wonderful detail in the video is the dynamic of community within the celebration of Wanaragua.  This was illuminated through different individuals from the audience who jumped in as singers, drummers and most obvious as dancers, feeling the desire and need to participate, to reconnect, and ultimately to be Garifuna.  The video is highly focused on the dance and musical performance.  There are, unfortunately, no interviews, no other narration, no contextualization of who is dancing, singing, or playing, or where they are performing.  This might be a good thing, because it then forces the viewer to go and investigate the Garifuna tradition of Wanaragua.

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