Monday, November 06, 2006



LOCATION: Honduras

POPULATION: 5 million

LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; local dialects

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (95 percent); Protestantism (Methodist, Church of God, Seventh-Day Adventist, Moravian, and Assembly of God churches); native religions combined with Christianity

Honduras is the second-largest country in Central America, but one of the poorest. The magnificent Mayan ruins at Copán are the remains of a civilization that flourished there between the fourth and ninth centuries AD. Christopher Columbus landed in Honduras on his last voyage in 1502. In search of gold and silver, the Spanish conquered the land beginning in 1524. Within twenty years, the native population was reduced to only eight thousand by disease, mistreatment, and the export of slave to other countries.

Central America freed itself from Spanish rule in 1821. Honduras, however, did not become independent until 1838. Dictators ruled the country and there have been some three hundred internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government since then. A number of civilians have been elected president since the 1950s, but several of them have been overthrown by the military.

Honduras has a long Caribbean Sea coastline on the north and a small Pacific Ocean coastline on the south. Except for its coastal areas, Honduras is a mountainous country. Its numerous valleys are used for agriculture and raising livestock. Bananas, coffee, and cotton have been significant crops. Guatemala is the neighbor to the west, El Salvador to the south and west, and Nicaragua to the south and east.

With just over 5 million people, Honduras is not a crowded country. About 90 percent of all Hondurans are mestizo, of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry.

Spanish is the national and official language. English is understood by many along the Caribbean coast. Black Caribs (Garifuna) are descendants of freed black slaves and Carib Indians, and speak a language related to Carib. Miskito, who are of mixed Indian, African, and European descent and live along the Caribbean coast, speak an Indian tongue with words from West African and European languages mixed in.

A folklore belief common throughout Central America is that a human being and a spirit, usually an animal, are so closely connected that they share the same soul. If one dies, so will the other. This belief is not as widespread in Honduras, however, as it is in neighboring Guatemala.

Honduran folktales are about a variety of spirits, many of whom live in wells or caves. One popular story is about El Duende, an imp with a big sombrero, red trousers and a blue jacket, who courts pretty young girls by tossing pebbles at them. Curanderos are faith healers who are believed to be able to cure nervous ailments and drive away the evil eye, the vista fuerte.

Lempira was a sixteenth-century Indian chieftain who fought the Spanish. He is much admired as a folk hero, and the national currency is named for him.

Nearly 95 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. However, there has been rapid growth among evangelical Protestant groups such as the Methodists, Church of God, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Assemblies of God.

Many Hondurans have combined traditional Amerindian religious practices, such as offerings to the sun, with Roman Catholicism. Each community has its own patron saint. Pilgrimages to saints' shrines are common. Most houses have an image or picture of a saint displayed on a wall.

Black Caribs combine many elements of African religion with Methodist religious practices. Most Miskito now belong to the Moravian Church.

As in other Latin American countries, Christmas (December 25) and Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday in late March or early April are the main religious holidays. A Christmastime tradition is the posada, a celebration held each night beginning on December 16.

Between December 25 and January 6, Garifuna men celebrate Yancunú with dancing, singing, and the wearing of masks to bring prosperity in the new year. On January 15 of each year, pilgrims from Honduras and other Central American countries attend a celebration in Esquipulas, Guatemala, home of a dark-skinned wooden sculpture of Jesus. The feast day of the Virgin of Suyapa, Honduras's patron saint, is on February 2. In the basilica in Suyapa there is a tiny wooden image of her that is believed to have miraculous powers.

Of the secular, or nonreligious, holidays, the most important are Independence Day on September 15, and the birthday of national leader Francisco Morazán on October 3. He was the last president of the United Provinces of Central America, a federation that only lasted from 1823 to 1842.

Most infants are baptized and the baptism is usually followed by a celebration. In the upper and middle classes, dating is restricted. A prospective suitor is checked out carefully by the girl's family and wedding engagements of several years are common. Perhaps half of all Honduran couples, however, live together without a marriage license or a religious ceremony. A novena, prayers said during nine consecutive days, is commonly held after a person's death and usually at home. A second novena may be held six months later.

Friends express affection more openly than in the United States. Men often embrace on meeting and departing. Women often embrace and kiss one or both cheeks, or at least touch cheeks.

Since most Hondurans are named for a saint, they celebrate their saint's day as well as, or in place of, their own birthday. Friends and relatives are invited to the home for a celebration.

There has been less class conflict in Honduras than in the other Hispanic Central American countries.

At least two-thirds of the Honduran people live below the poverty line, about one-third have no access to health care, and about one-fifth of all young children are malnourished. The typical dwelling is a two-room adobe bungalow with a tiled roof. Poor peasants, however, live in one-room huts made of bamboo, sugarcane, and corn stalks, with dirt floors. Most poor peasants farm small, marginal plots of land, or they work for wages on larger farms. Migrants from the country to the city generally live in crowded slums.

The upper and middle classes generally have domestic servants and live in houses with thick adobe, brick, or concrete walls. Many have grillwork over the windows and balconies on the upper floors. These homes usually have an enclosed patio instead of a front yard.

Families are usually large—the average family has five children. In addition, grandparents, plus aunts and uncles and their children, may also live under the same roof. The various branches of a family share and cooperate. They find work for unemployed members, provide loans, and take in needy relatives. As in other Latin American countries, compadres, godparents, also provide support to family members.

Most people dress casually. Men wear loose trousers and shirts. Women wear one-piece calico or cotton dresses, or loose blouses and skirts. Open sandals are a common form of footwear. Traditional costumes are worn only on special occasions. At such times, women may wear silk dresses, or cotton dresses embroidered with silk, using old Mayan patterns and designs.

One Amerindian group, the Tolupanes Indians, were the only distinctive dress in Honduras. The men wear a balandrán, a one-piece, sleeveless garment. Women wear brightly colored dresses and silver necklaces with brightly painted beads made of dried seeds and thorns.
12 • FOOD

Tortillas, made of cornmeal rolled into thin pancakes, are the staple diet of Hondurans. Tortillas are supplemented by beans, the chief source of protein. The poor usually eat tortillas and beans for every meal. Although pigs and chickens are widely raised in the countryside, their meat is reserved for special occasions. Green vegetables are not common in the average diet.

Mondongo, a richly flavored tripe soup, is a popular Honduran dish. Other specialties include carrots stuffed with cheese, creamed beets and plantains, and corn dumplings in honey.

The Black Caribs (Garifuna) eat cassava, the roots of a tropical plant, in the form of big tortillas, and a mash made of ground plantains and bananas. Other dishes eaten by the Black Caribs include flour tortillas that are dipped in coconut soup with crab, and a soup made from coconut milk to which clams, crab, shrimp, fish heads, and plantains are added. They also make a beverage out of fermented corn and sugarcane.

At least one-fourth of Hondurans cannot read or write. Education is free and mandatory between the ages of seven and fourteen, and the majority of all school-age children are in school. But fewer than half of those enrolled in public schools complete the primary level. The middle and upper classes generally send their children to private schools, which are often run by churches. The main institution of higher learning is the National Autonomous University of Honduras, located in the capital city, Tegucigalpa.

In 1847, Father Jose Trinidad Reyes founded what later became the National University. Juan Ramon Molina was an important poet in the nineteenth century. Poet and historian Rafael Heliodoro Valle was the most respected Honduran literary figure of the twentieth century. Other twentieth-century Honduran writers include novelist Argentina Díaz Lozanto and poet Clementina Suarez.

Among twentieth-century Honduran painters are Arturo López Rodezno and Carlos Garay. The primitive landscape paintings of José Antonio Velásquez are much admired.

Drums and the flute were the musical instruments of the Indians before the Spanish conquest. The most popular musical instrument now is the marimba, which is similar to the xylophone.

More than half of the labor force is not formally employed. This includes subsistence farmers, small shopkeepers, and self-employed craftspeople. Women often seek jobs as domestic servants or, in urban areas, work as street vendors. Men supplement their income from tilling their small plots of land by working on plantations for part of the year. The small middle class consists of professionals, merchants, farmers, business employees, and civil servants.

As elsewhere in Central America, fútbol (soccer) is the most popular sport. The so-called Soccer War of 1969 followed matches between the national teams of Honduras and El Salvador. In that struggle, which lasted four days, more than one thousand Hondurans were killed. Honduras also has bullfights. Traditional sports still played at fiestas, or festivals, include greased-pole climbing and the carrera de cintas, a horseback-riding race in which the rider, at full gallop, must run a stick through small rings.

Salsa, merengue, and Mexican ranchero music are popular, and social dances are held. Television is generally available only in the cities. Radio, however, reaches every part of the country. Fireworks are part of every celebration. There are more than twenty Honduran folk dances, reflecting Spanish, Amerindian, and African influences.

Artisans carve objects (ranging from wall hangings to furniture) from mahogany and other tropical hardwoods. Baskets, mats, and hammocks are woven from plant fibers such as henequen. Ceramics include porcelain objects in the form of animals, especially roosters. In addition to pottery, other crafts are embroidery and the production of leather goods such as belts and purses.

Nearly two-thirds of the Honduran people live in poverty. Most of the people do not have access to running water and sanitation facilities. Diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, malaria, typhoid, and pneumonia are serious health problems. Unemployment and underemployment are high. The country produces only two commodities to sell: bananas and coffee. The crime rate has risen in the 1990s, and domestic violence against women is widespread.