By José Francisco Ávila
“ Our thoughts and prayers are for the families of the 87 people who perished 29 years ago at the Happy Land social club fire on March 25, 1990.
As we commemorate the 29th anniversary of the Happy Land Social Club fire on March 25th, 1990, we should take time to pause and reflect on the meaning of almost three decades of Garifuna struggle and development in this great city, while looking forward to a future brimming with promise and hope.
March 25th is the third significant milestone within Garifuna-American Heritage Month. It offers insight into Garifuna resiliency to overcome great odds, perseverance and struggle as well as a glance at their unique and deep sense of self which is at once the product of a turbulent past, dynamic present, and thriving future. Its significant because it’s the only event within the month, that occurred in New York City, home to the largest Garifuna Community outside of Central America!
The Happy Land Social Club Fire, on March 25, 1990, was an arson fire that killed 87 people trapped in an unlicensed social club in the Bronx. Most of the victims were young Hondurans celebrating, largely drawn from members of the local Garifuna American community. It was through the Happy Land Fire that New York discovered the Garifuna People! I will forever remember the words of Astin Jacobo:
“ Today, Spanish echoes through hallways and on side streets. No one plays stickball anymore, but the soccer games live on, this time among the Honduran immigrants who have carved out a niche here in recent years. And as with other groups, it took a tragedy before the rest of the city learned they even existed. In the Hondurans' case, it was the Happy Land fire. "We felt powerless when that happened. Until a tragedy happens, nobody knows the importance of a community." Astin Jacobo
The Happy Land Social Club Fire tragedy brought attention to New York City's Garifuna community; it also served as the cornerstone for the proclamation of March 11 – April 12, as Garifuna-American Heritage Month!
It served as a turning point to advance the unification of the New York City Garifuna Community, whose members had typically identified by their respective nationalities. The community organizing initiative was based on raising awareness and appreciation of the Garifuna culture and its contribution to the culture and society of New York City.
Garifuna-American Heritage Month provides an opportunity to remember the 87 people who perished 29 years ago at the Happy Land social club fire on March 25, 1990, as well as recognize the significance of Garifunas’ contributions to the quality and character of life of New York City, and, through many events and activities throughout the month, for all people to gain a greater appreciation of Garifuna history and traditions, and of the role Garifuna-Americans have played, and will continue toplay, in New York’s society.
As we reflect on the greatest tragedy for the Garifuna Community in the United States and as we pay tribute to the 87 victims of the Happy Land Social Club Fire, it is my hope that we also experience renewal towards a future brimming with promise and hope.
Gonzalez, David, New Life, Far From The Bright Lights, The New York Times, January 25, 1998