Growing up, Milton Guity Jr. did not pay much attention to his father’s entreaties for him to learn Garifuna, an indigenous Caribbean language.
“He was always trying to teach me, but I kind of just wanted to hang out with my friends and just be a kid,” he said. “An American kid.”
However, as he got older, Guity Jr. started becoming more interested in learning about his roots as a Garifuna — an ethnic group made up of indigenous South American and African descendants in Central American countries like Honduras and Belize.
So in 2012, he decided to belatedly accept his father’s invitation and began taking classes with him to learn the Garifuna language.
“It’s pretty funny,” said Guity Jr., who is now 28, “because all this time he was trying to get me to learn, and then I end up just coming to him.”
Garifuna is mainly spoken in Honduras and Belize and considered to be a threatened language, as it has been largely replaced by Spanish and English in areas where it used to be common, according to the Endangered Language Alliance.
The elder Guity, 53, who was born in Honduras and came to New York in 1987, teaches classes in Garifuna on Saturdays from 1 to 3 p.m. at Casa Yurumein, a center on Prospect Avenue for New York’s Central American population.
Guity has been teaching the language since 2009 but just recently decided to make the curriculum last for the whole year instead of his prior eight-week-long class, in an effort to help his students learn and retain more of the language.
“I realized that if the students come just for an eight-week period, they will always have a gap in the complete process of learning the language,” he said.
Although he will still divide the class up into eight-week sessions, instead of teaching the same information each time, the lessons will build on each other and get more complex as the year goes on.
The Garifuna Coalition, a Bronx nonprofit, estimates that about 200,000 Garifuna live in New York City today, and Guity stressed that keeping the language alive was important because it helps define the identity of the Garifuna.
“Our commitment to protect this language, basically, it’s part of me as a person,” Guity said.
People ranging from age 13 to age 74 have taken the course, according to Guity. Many are Garifuna themselves and sign up to better understand their culture and heritage, but his pupils have also included a Canadian woman who was just very passionate about linguistics.
“She wanted to know the structure of the language, the part that she could not learn in the books,” he said.
Guity described learning Garifuna as similar to learning any other language. His lessons are centered on topics like grammar rules, sentence structure and how to have a conversation.
Flor Mena, a 28-year-old Garifuna teacher who commutes to Guity’s class from Brooklyn, said she viewed maintaining the language as a vital way of preserving her people’s past.
“A lot of our history is oral,” she said, “so if young people aren’t getting the stories from the older generation, then you’re losing a cultural history.”
People can register for the classes at Casa Yurumein, and each eight-week session costs $40.
Guity eventually hopes to expand his program to reach more students and described teaching Garifuna as an essential part of his identity.
“Being Garifuna—having the language—is part of my entire life,” he said.
“That’s why I have to do my part in protecting that language.”