In late July, the first waves of COVID-19 were cresting in Honduras, and Tegucigalpa, the capital, was the epicenter. As overwhelmed hospitals buckled under the number of cases and a government-ordered lockdown paralyzed the city, Ella Guity wondered whether it was time to go back and join her family in Rio Esteban, the small fishing village where she grew up, and where her ancestors are buried.
The Guity are Garifuna — an ethnic group with African and native American roots that’s spread across the Caribbean coasts of northern Central America. Once known as black Caribs, they now identify with the name of their ancestral language. There are an estimated half a million Garifuna. Ella’s family are among the thousands who have left Honduras’ rural communities for domestic cities over the past few decades in search of economic opportunities.
Ella moved to Tegucigalpa with her mother, Tomasa; sister, Heidi; niece, Michelle; and cousin Mabel 13 years ago. They carried their Garifuna identity, language and customs with them. In their new home far from the coasts, the Guity found a strong demand for their culture’s staple dishes. To cater to this demand, they started an informal business, which they ran out of their home. For years Ella and Tomasa worked side by side making coconut bread and coconut oil; casabe, a type of yucca flatbread; and gifiti, a rum-based herbal elixir.
Before the pandemic, the family business thrived in Tegucigalpa. Every day, Ella, Tomasa, and Heidi covered the capital on foot, going door to door and advertising the rolls, twists and pastries they sold with a signature sing-song shout, “Pan de coco! Pan de coco!”
Ella and her kin were fixtures in the city, from the sprawling working-class neighborhoods to the affluent hilltop residential high-rises. People in Tegucigalpa might not have known their names, but they knew their coconut bread.
COVID-19 Reaches Honduras
In early March, news of the pandemic’s crawl toward Honduran borders spread around Ella’s neighborhood, raising concern. Would it reach Tegucigalpa? Would the family fall sick? As fear-mongering posts on social media painted doomsday scenarios, Ella did her best to preserve the family’s routine. But when rumors became lockdown announcements, she had to act.
The single mother’s priority was the well-being of her daughters, 9-year-old Jirian and 5-year-old Eleny. Both were born in Tegucigalpa and had never known any home but the capital. Prior to the lockdown, the two had just started their school years in third grade and kindergarten, respectively. While Eleny loved going to school, Jirian told her mom she was bullied due to her skin color. Ella had experienced racism too, but she knew how to handle herself, shouting down catcalls and slurs on the street. When bigots messed with her girls, though, she drew a line.
Ella told the administrators what Jirian was enduring at school, but she says they turned a blind eye. That indifference, coupled with the looming pandemic, prompted Ella to send the girls to Rio Esteban, where they could go to school in the Garifuna system. Days before travel within Honduras was restricted, Ella sent Jirian and Eleny to the village and entrusted them to her Aunt Josefina’s care.
Ella did her best to focus on her work. But a month after the lockdown began, on March 15, Tomasa’s health suddenly faltered. She hardly ate and suffered constant panic attacks. At first, Ella thought that her 60-year-old mother had COVID-19. The test came back negative, though — yet Tomasa’s mental and physical condition continued to decline. Losing her active lifestyle and being confined 24/7 in a tiny home was taking a toll, Ella says.
One late April evening, when she couldn’t physically get out of bed, the frightened Tomasa told Ella that she needed to receive traditional treatment in Rio Esteban or she feared she’d get worse. The following morning Tomasa skirted quarantine movement restrictions and returned to Rio Esteban for the first time in over a decade.
Once back, Tomasa was taken to her elderly mother’s house. Village elders brought ancestral root-based tonics and helped her swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Tomasa bounced back to her fiery self after a week of community care but a part of her heart was still in Tegucigalpa, where Ella was. She begged her daughter to come home — to leave behind the urban haze and breathe in the same sea breeze that had healed her on the land where their ancestors settled centuries before.
Ella Resists Leaving
But Ella couldn’t leave. Not by choice but by the lack of it. There was no work in Rio Esteban, and as the family’s sole provider, she couldn’t afford to flee the city. What was true in 2007 was still true in 2020: Ella earned more in the city, with or without a pandemic. If she stayed in Tegucigalpa, she could send money to provide for her daughters and Tomasa. It was a sacrifice she was willing to make. Even though the business had been reduced to filling special orders for long-term customers, it was the only possible income.
By August, the economic squeeze had affected Tegucigalpa’s formal and informal sectors alike. Ella says she noticed criminal activity in her downtown district growing in step with economic desperation. Yet she stuck it out, hoping for a change in policy that would allow her back on the streets. The government’s messaging regarding food vendors was mixed. Sometimes those who defied the lockdown were fined; at other times, Ella was seemingly free to work.
Eventually, the unpredictable, erratic governance and lockdown policing scared her into staying inside the four walls of her home. Ella was the last Guity who held out in the capital.
Ella looked for work and spent her free time posting pixilated social-media videos — adorned with heart emojis — of her girls running on the coast in Rio Esteban. “I can’t wait to see you again. I love you so much,” read one of the many posts.
One day in mid-August, when movement restrictions had been relaxed, Ella decided that she’d had enough. She and her neighbors, other Garífuna stranded in Tegucigalpa, pooled their resources, hired a minivan and headed for their ancestral village. After a day of on the red-dirt mountain roads out of Tegucigalpa, Ella was home.
Once her solitary 14-day quarantine — mandated by village elders — was complete, Ella rushed to Aunt Josefina’s house. Jirian and Eleny were distance-learning under their aunt’s stern tutelage when, midway through their lesson, they heard Ella’s voice calling. The two dropped everything, ignoring Josefina’s protestations, and jumped on a smiling Ella. Jirian embraced her mom’s waist as tears rolled down her cheek from behind thick glasses. After nearly six months apart, Ella’s family had reunited.
You Can Go Home Again
Ella wasted no time downshifting to life in Rio Esteban. Back under the roof where she’d been raised, Ella began to unlearn the defensive postures that were necessary to survive in Tegucigalpa. The urban adversities she faced in the capital didn’t much exist on the Garifuna coast. The music of people speaking Garifuna surrounded her. Food was abundant. The soil was fertile, and the sea bountiful. Community support was everywhere; neighbors and family offered to help Ella. They furnished her home with beds for herself and her girls, and provided food while she got her bearings.
In the eyes of the villagers, it didn’t matter that Ella had left Rio Esteban 13 years prior. They were kin. After less than a week back in her hometown, Ella began to question the rationale of the last 13 years of her life: Was life in the capital worth the struggle — pandemic or not — when the village, despite its economic limitations, so quickly and ably provided for her?
Ella wasn’t the only wayward rural-to-urban migrant having doubts. Many people who had left the countryside to settle in Honduras’s metropolitan areas were starting to head back home, reversing a decades-long migration trend. COVID-19 is what finally turned the tide. A small but significant number of disaffected immigrant city dwellers had decided that the plague was a good reason to leave the city.
For Ella, life in Rio Esteban meant not having to work all the time. In Tegucigalpa, virtually all she’d done was work; every Lempira she made went toward paying expenses. The city’s inflation rate and cost of living meant she’d barely had time to rest or find time for her girls’ milestones, despite the fact that she’d lived with them.
Reunited with her daughters, Ella took charge of the girls’ pandemic-restricted education. She oversaw their distance-learning classes, taught them the Garifuna language just as Tomasa had taught it to her and supervised their playtime with their neighbor’s children. Ella cooked all their meals and, if the children were good, their favorite dish — a folded flour tortilla filled with refried beans, sour cream, avocado and fried chicken, called baleadas.
Ella also found time to renew her bond with Tomasa. For years they had been more co-workers than mother and daughter. Living in Rio Esteban again, they were able to reestablish their filial relationship.
Yet their business sense remained just as vibrant. When she returned to her hometown, Ella noticed how Garifuna tradition, particularly as it related to food, was being neglected. People from the community preferred to eat modern dishes rather than to prepare their ancestral foods.
So the mother-and-daughter team are working towards opening a pulperia, a Honduran general store, specializing in Garifuna staples — not unlike the informal business they ran in Tegucigalpa. They plan to make and sell labor-intensive items such as yucca bread and the root’s countless derivatives, alongside modern interpretations of the coconut pastries they perfected in Tegucigalpa. For over 10 years, their coconut bread spread Garifuna culture to every corner of the capital. In Rio Esteban, Ella hopes that their pulperia will inspire youth to celebrate what their ancestors gifted them.
A New Life
Now that they’re fully planted in Rio Esteban, Ella and her daughters dip into the sea every other afternoon. The girls lived most of their lives in the mountain-ringed capital, so Ella wants to make sure they can claim their Caribbean birthright by knowing how to swim. Jirian and Eleny have taken to the water as if they’d grown up on the coast where Ella had been raised, rather than on the steep streets of Tegucigalpa. In October, on the day before a weeklong national holiday, Ella watched her daughters’ pirouette in the shallows during low tide. A breeze carried the scent of rain from the nearby cloud-forest mountains that hide the village from the rest of the country.
“Rio Esteban might not have all the things the capital has, and there might not be a lot of work,” Ella said, as the weightless joy of her daughters’ laughter bounced off the waves, matching her unburdened tone. “But I know we won’t go hungry or ever need to be apart. We’re happy here.”
Tomas Ayuso is a writer and photographer from Honduras. His work focuses on Latin American conflict as it relates to displacement and rural-urban struggles. His Instagram is www.instagram.com/tomas_ayuso and his Twitter is @tayuso
This project was partially funded by the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.