Posted by Gina Kawas, MA Candidate at CLACS – Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU
My ethnographic research in Honduras had two objectives: to study the evolution and socioeconomic impact of the Palestinian diaspora, and comprehend their assimilation/creolization in Honduras. The assimilation was fast-paced, and provoked a disconnection with their homeland after the first generation of Palestinians arrived.
Being born in Honduras and having Palestinian descent myself [on my father’s side], I can relate to this disruption. My father never spoke to me about our Palestinian roots; it was my grandmother who used to tell me stories about what forced our family to migrate. The reasons, which I preliminary share with the subjects of my ethnographic research, were mainly poverty and the repression caused by the Ottoman Empire. Hence, the bulk of Palestinian immigration that arrived to Honduras did so in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which means that they did not have to face the post 1948 dispossession and dispersal caused by the creation of an Israeli state [the Al-Nakba, or catastrophe].
Through diaspora theory studies and conducting interviews with first, second and third generation Palestinians, I sought to understand the reasons for migrating and the process of acculturation in their new host country. After conducting extensive –and numerous– interviews I have drawn on the conclusion that the disconnection occurred during the second generation of Palestinians living in Honduras. Many efforts were made among the members of the first generation to keep their heritage alive. Examples of such conducts include the creation of Palestinian Clubs, football teams, as well as restaurants and aid efforts directed to help other Palestinians migrate as well; whether to reencounter with their families or to seek a more prosperous future in Latin America.
Second generation Palestinians began intermarrying [with native men and women] and losing interest in preserving links to their cultural past. The loss of the Arabic language is a prime feature of such behavior. For instance, most of my interlocutors told me that they had to speak Spanish [the native tongue] in order to thrive professionally. This was intensified as these migrants slowly started to become the country’s new economic elite. Through innovations and importing/exporting, a nascent merchant and commercial class was born; one that accrued high levels of social capital that are currently maintained.
It has been fascinating to gain insight into the historical, social and economic context in which these communities have shaped the economic and social landscape of a once very agricultural country whose incipient economy relied mostly on two or three crops. Historians and economists have given unofficial rough estimates that at present, Hondurans of Palestinian descent control around fifty percent of the Honduran GDP. As mentioned in my previous post, this has generated friction between the local population and Palestinian-Hondurans, particularly in the last year, when corruption scandals involving politicians and the economic elite -comprised mainly of Palestinian descendants, came to light.
Lastly, another interesting finding that I encountered through my intergenerational research, is that a very small group of third and fourth generation Palestinians are regaining a sense of their Palestinian identity [Palestinian-ness]. They are in the process of establishing a Palestinian Youth Organization, and have made protests in Honduras when the Israel-Palestine conflict intensifies [i.e: the Gaza offensive last summer]. Some have even visited and done volunteer work in Palestine and are learning Arabic.
This resembles the very organized Palestinian communities in Chile and Brazil, the two other countries in Latin America -along with Honduras- that host the largest Arabic populations in the hemisphere. In these countries, the organizations founded by first generation Palestinians to maintain their heritage survived, as did the link with their homeland through generations, including language. But then again, in these countries, Palestinians have not been as successful in the political and economic arenas.