Sotomayor's team engaged in guerrilla marketing. Photo: Francisco Collazo

“Latin influence in fashion stormed the runway,” read the sub-headline of a New York Daily News article that ran on September 11, in which the author, Leaura Luciano, summed up New York Fashion Week.

Luciano mentioned a handful of designers who are well-known in their countries of origin, among them Rolando Santana of Mexico, Custo Dalmau of Catalonia and Stella Nolasco and Luis Antonio, both from Puerto Rico. She ended the article by quoting Luis Antonio as saying “We [Latinos] are the new blood in fashion.”

These designers channeled a “fun, flirty and sexy” vibe, and, at least in Nolasco’s case, evoked “the sea and sky of her native Puerto Rico.”

But it’s on the island itself, among a group of designers who don’t necessarily aspire to see their creations on rail-thin models sashaying the runways of New York, where the real new blood in Puerto Rican fashion and design is found.

“Los de akí”

Ride through the streets of the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce on any given night and you might see Arvin Soto, Cheche Figueroa and Jorge Luís Gonzalez Escobar engaged in some guerilla marketing.

It’s not easy being an indie brand anywhere, but it’s even harder in Puerto Rico, where chains and established luxury brands tend to sustain the attention–and the dollars–of the upwardly mobile boricuas who have “disposable” income. Soto, who founded the streetwear fashion brand Sotomayor in 2011, advertises on a budget. He and his partners wheatpaste posters and slap stickers onto light poles, trying to raise brand awareness in neighborhoods where their target audience lives.

A tweet from the Sotomayor account critiquing the local habit of buying products made in China.

A tweet from the Sotomayor account critiquing the local habit of buying products made in China.

The products chain brands sell tend to come from abroad and are often made in China; what Soto and Figueroa are trying to do is to develop a fashion consciousness that supports “los de akí.” Their goal isn’t simply to sell t-shirts and hats with images symbolic of Puerto Rican culture, such as the machete, to young, urban “neo-jíbaros.” Instead, their aspirations are to change the very culture of production in Puerto Rico, and to realize both goals, the partners decided they needed to become part of a movement.

More than moda, it’s a movement

Sotomayor joined a growing number of “Diseñado en Puerto Rico” producers–jewelry makers, web designers and coders, architects and interior designers, artists and others– whose objectives are to “nurture a culture of ambition and innovation on the island” that will create viable careers and decrease or possibly reverse the “flight of talent” from the island to the mainland U.S. To do that, of course, they also have to create clientele, inspiring Puerto Ricans to buy local.

Soto, who studied architectural design before changing career paths, draws inspiration from that course of study, particularly minimalist design. There are other influences, too. Soto grew up watching his mother sew. “We didn’t have the kind of money to buy expensive clothes,” he said, “so she made them for us.” He also incorporates references to skate culture and street art in the t-shirts, hats, and other products Sotomayor makes.

The other big inspiration, of course, is Puerto Rico itself. “Fashion and design tend to exploit,” says Soto. “Our ‘grito de lucha,’ our reason for being, comes from the idea that no one needs to be exploited to do what they love. I aspire to have a fashion house. And if I can help people here and give them work, then this is where I want to be,” he says.

Garifuna Hearing IACHR
Garífuna woman from Honduras' Triunfo de la Cruz community, outside the IACHR court hearing in San Jose, Costa Rica in May 2014. Photo: courtesy of Ruben Reyes

In Honduras, where journalists are likely to exercise self-censorship and where the ownership of media outlets lies in the hands of powerful business interests, the success of an Afro-Amerindian indigenous group fighting state eviction from their ancestral lands isn’t likely to make the local news.

This past May, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) held a hearing for the first case ever brought by a Garífuna community–Triunfo de la Cruz–against the government of Honduras. Garinagu members testified that the state of Honduras has encroached on Garífuna land since the mid 1990s, selling plots through falsified documents and granting title to non-Garífuna third parties for tourism projects, without consent from the community. The plaintiffs also state that of 2,800 hectares (7,000 acres) of ancestral lands, only 240 hectares remain.

Earlier this month, a second Garífuna community–Punta Piedra–had its turn before the IACHR at a hearing held in Paraguay, citing similar violations by the state of Honduras, including environmental destruction.

The Garinagu people of Central America are a mix of West African descendants and Carib Indians from St. Vincent. They are a seafaring people; they live by the sea, from the sea, with fishing their main economic activity, and can be found along the coasts of Honduras, as well as the Caribbean coast of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Their ancestors arrived in these parts over a century ago from St. Vincent, after fighting the British who exiled them to Roátan. From there, they spread along the Central American shores, establishing seafront villages. In 2001, UNESCO granted the Garífuna culture an endangered status, declaring it to be “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

“We are the children of Africa and America,” says Ruben Reyes, a renowned Garífuna activist, teacher and filmmaker from Honduras, now residing in California. “There’s no other ethnicity like us,” he adds, “and to deny our existence, they’d have to wipe out the Caribs and the Arawaks because we are children of those tribes. We were here first.”

In Honduras, the coastal location of Garinagu homes–often consisting of beachfront, thatched-roof mud houses–became a curse after a 2009 coup d’état ushered in governments bent on the construction of “Model Cities” or “Charter Cities,” and intent on boosting tourism and development backed by foreign investment, irrespective of indigenous lands.

“The land grabbing and forceful sale of Garífuna territory started in 1994 with Triunfo de la Cruz,” explains Teresa Reyes, a member of the Triunfo de la Cruz community and long-time activist with OFRANEH– the grassroots Honduran Black Fraternal Organization, representing the 46 Garinagu communities in Honduras. Teresa also served as a translator at the IACHR hearings. “They claim to be developing the country, but they’re not doing it for the indigenous people. And in the meantime they’re damaging the environment and polluting, causing all sorts of illnesses.”

For the Garinagu, the loss of land isn’t just a violation of rights. Stripping a Garífuna of his or her territory is like stripping that person of his or her identity and soul. The land on which the ancestors settled is an essential part of the culture. The earth–with all of its natural resources, from the rivers and forests to the sea–is considered the source of their livelihood.

More Garinagu communities along the Honduran coastline face a similar fate of being stripped of their land–despite holding title. There’s San Juan, Travesia and the island of Cayo Cochino, all of which have successfully petitioned the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and await a hearing.

Ongoing state-mandated evictions

The situation is becoming dangerous,” notes Ruben Reyes, referring to the state-mandated evictions as well as the drug runners who trespass and use Garífuna territory. He notes that Garinagu people are not even allowed to walk the beach from Triunfo to Tela, as their ancestors once did, because armed guards patrol the areas.

On social media, more than a dozen disconcerting photos surfaced this month: witness-captured images of evictions in Barra Vieja. One photograph in particular, shows an elderly Garífuna woman sitting outside, helpless as blue-uniformed Honduran policemen haul furniture, mattresses and other household goods out of her thatch-roof home.

At least 159 families still live in Barra Vieja. “They said the only way they will leave is if they are dead,” says Teresa Reyes.

Not surprisingly, behind every eviction looms a multimillion-dollar project. Barra Vieja, for instance, is located at the entrance of the planned $122 million Indura Beach Project in Bahia de Tela–in which the state holds 49 percent of shares–for the construction of a high end resort and golf course.

“We are not against tourism and development,” says Reyes. “But we want to have a say, because it’s on our land. We don’t want to disappear like other indigenous cultures. That’s why we went to court.”

Up next for expulsion? The Garífuna community of Nueva Armenia, where the government gave away indigenous land to palm oil producers and where violent incidents have taken place, including the burning down of several Garinagu homes.

Hints of IACHR support for Garinagu

There may be hope for the Garinagu, as the IAHCR has shown particular interest in finally moving forward with these petitions. The Triunfo de la Cruz hearing before the IACHR is only the fourth case ever admitted relating to indigenous people’s land rights, and took ten years just to reach this point.

At the hearing in Costa Rica, the Honduran state attempted to put into question the Garinagu peoples’ very indigenous status, even using the term “Afro-descendants,” but the Court rejected it.

“They’ve been imposing this name on us and we don’t want it,” explains Ruben Reyes, who traveled to San Jose for this significant event. “It would be like denying Garífuna.”

Like a similar case in in Paraguay, the state of Honduras claimed that the Garífuna themselves invaded Miskito territory when they arrived in 1797. But IACHR Commission member James Cavallero denounced the state for encroaching on indigenous territory without first consulting the Punta Piedra community.

Honduras’ Garinagu leaders are hopeful. Ruben Reyes believes the newly created Garífuna Nation, a non-profit made up of various Garífuna organizations from Central America, St. Vincent and the US can help litigate these cases and provide Diaspora support.

As for the IACHR hearings, Teresa Reyes believes they will make a difference and help Garinagu recover their lands. “The Court’s decision will be mandatory and the state of Honduras will have to enforce it, whether they like it or not. An IACHR decision will also establish precedent, which will help not just the Garinagu, but all the other indigenous communities who are being persecuted in the name of multimillion dollar projects.”

For now, Garinagu communities in Honduras continue to live in fear, facing discrimination, eviction and potential violence. The IACHR could take a few more months or up to a year to issue a decision on Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra, but it may just be their only hope.