Hussein Castillo is part restauranteur, part chirpy tourist ambassador. Only twenty-eight, he runs a restaurant called Garifuna Flava in Chicago Lawn, just west of the intersection of 63rd and Western. He’s had luminaries of the celebrity food world step in and pepper his single outlet with awards. Guy Fieri and his bleached hair are stenciled into a wall; a WTTW “Check, Please!” endorsement takes a place of pride. It’s still a small, family-run affair, though, and he tries his damned best throughout to get you to take the first flight out of O’Hare and into Belize City, a prospect especially tempting on an icy day like this. He hands me a CD of his father’s music as I head out the door, bookending a conversation dominated by the music of the Garifuna diaspora. As the title song of Rhodee’s “In Exile” goes: “See my people dancing with pride / My culture must stay alive.”
What is this music you’re playing right now? It’s amazing.
That’s Nelson Gill. He lives here, I believe in Evanston, but definitely in Illinois somewhere. He does a lot of different styles—this song is particularly in a reggae style, but in Belize the music is known as punta. It’s up-tempo, lots of drumming and dancing. There’s also paranda, which is a Garifuna-based style of music.
And the Garifuna are…?
The Garifuna are an ethnic group that lives in Central America. We’re in Belize, Guatemala; we’re in Honduras, in Nicaragua. We have an interesting history: we’re actually Africans that would travel back and forth from West Africa to Saint Vincent, which is near Barbados. It’s a small place, and those that stayed there intermarried with the Carib people and the Arawak Indians, South American Indians that we intermarried with that created this people called the Garifuna. We’re a blend of three cultures, and this started maybe around 1700. So we were on Saint Vincent for a little while, and of course the sun rises and sets on the British Empire. The British came in, we got into a battle with them—a battle that we lost. What was interesting, though, was that our people were not enslaved. The British told all of those that fought: “We’re going to exile you out of this land! You can’t live here anymore!” So, we got on our boats, and that’s in this second picture here [gesturing at one of the many paintings on the walls], which shows boats getting out of Saint Vincent, onto the shores of Belize. A lot of people didn’t make it on that journey, and it’s a big ocean, so those that did live sustained themselves on something called cassava. It’s a root that grows in warm-weather countries like Belize, and we used to make cassava bread, and it’s amazing because it’s a bread that can last six months without spoiling. This occurred over 200 years ago, so we’ve been in Central America for a long time now.
I grew up in Belize, and our Garifuna culture is more Belizean-based now. What we’re now doing here, with our cuisine, is Belizean-based cuisine. Garifuna-based dishes—all Belizeans around the world eat it. Stew chicken rice is a more Caribbean dish, Belizeans eat that. Empanadas is a Spanish-derived dish, and Belizeans eat that too. It’s a great mix of cultures that co-exist in Belize, and there are plenty of different people there. The Garifuna might only make up about 15% of the Belizean population, but so much of the culture is influenced by us. You see this especially in the music, where Garifuna music is the national music of Belize. There’s Andy Palacio, and my father went to high school with him. A few years ago, he ended up having the number one music album in the country. He’s from one of these small villages, and he ended up winning awards in Europe.
So your dad grew up in Belize?
He spent most of his childhood in Belize, yeah. Both of my parents came here in their mid-twenties, and I came here when I was about eight years old. They’re definitely one of those stories, stories of immigrants trying to make it out here in America. They spent a couple months in Los Angeles first, but it was pretty much the case that they came straight to Chicago. There’s a pretty sizeable Belizean population in the city, thousands, maybe, there’s really a lot of us here. Evanston is even known as the sister city to Belize City, and that’s how close the ties are. Evanston is the largest concentration of Belizeans, but they’re everywhere, man.
So why are you all the way down here, then?
There are Belizeans on the South Side. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the eighties and nineties most were in the Rogers Park/Evanston area, but now we’re all over the place. We have a few regulars that come from all over the city, maybe a good mile radius, but we definitely have a sizeable presence here on the South Side. Lots of South Side Belizeans come talk to me and say, “Man, we’re glad you’re here, because this way we don’t have to go all the way up north to get food.”
This is all your place, right? How long has it been open?
We’ve just reached about four and a half years now. We opened in May 2008, and it was our first time doing the whole restaurant thing. The genesis of this whole thing came from my mom and my dad, and my mom’s the one who cooks this food back there in the kitchen! So what you’re eating right now is exactly what I would eat at home. Before all this, my mom was working for Catholic charities, my dad was in the family services industry, helping kids in foster homes, and so they were doing a bunch of different things first. I was at school, doing my college thing, getting through my undergrad years, doing some grad school before all of this opened. I would just always want my mom’s food, and it was always a big hit even with non-Belizeans, with all my American friends in school who would come home with me. With that in mind, and being a Garifuna, we were looking for something to highlight our culture, because there just aren’t that many outlets for our culture: meeting spaces, places where we could get together, grow as a people together. This was an important way to bring that to our people. Belizeans come here to have their meetings; we’ve had art exhibits, we’ve hosted some delegates from Belize before, we’ve had people who were donating goods to Belize come here to have their ceremonies. And so this has become a place for all Belizeans and Garifuna people to meet so we can help our people back home, and it’s a place that didn’t exist before.
Do you go back home much?
I don’t get to go back home all the time, because this business is beyond a full-time job. [Laughs] It’s just us: me, my mom, my dad, and so it’s a lot of work. All day, every day. Business is okay right now. Things definitely could be better, but it’s a growth process, and we definitely think we have an excellent product right here. We also have a unique story, and part of the experience here is that you get to learn about Belize and its culture at the same time. Our servers are more than happy to talk to you for more than twenty minutes, and I want them to have that sort of interaction because it’s not just about the food. We know you’re going to love the food, but it’s also: “Hey, maybe you’re going to take a trip to Belize one day, and let’s talk about that!” We’ll tell you about the Belize Day festival here, on the first Sunday of August every year, and people from all over the country come here to Chicago for that day. There are so many Belizeans in the U.S. right now, maybe as much or more than there are in Belize. There’s been a steady emigration from Belize for decades now, and there are people who have been here for a long time. There’s a woman who came in here on Sunday who said that she hadn’t had stew chicken and rice for forty years!
[A man waves at us off the street and enters]
“Hey, man. How’s it going? Could I get some panades? [Corn patties stuffed with hashed buffalo fish] Just want to order them now, I’ll be back in maybe fifteen minutes.”
[Beckoning a server over]
Could you get some panades ready to go? He’s going to go to prayer first. Just one order, that’s it.
Is that something that’s very common, having people from the community just drop in for their lunches?
Yeah, yeah. We get people from the community come in all the time. The guy who just ordered is from IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which is a really awesome community organization that works to bring rights to their people, bring artists in to tell the story of their people. We’re definitely an established part of this neighborhood now, and all the neighborhood organizations around here come in at some point. We definitely feel like we’re part of the Chicago Lawn area.
Chicago Lawn’s a very mixed community. There’s been a huge increase in Hispanic migration here to these areas—Chicago Lawn, Marquette Park, and so in the past decade the population has almost doubled. You got a good mixture of people: there’s a Lithuanian Museum right down the street from here [the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture], and you still sense the huge Polish and Lithuanian communities that used to be here. You’ve got a big African-American population here too. It’s an interesting mix, and it’s something that I like. You go three blocks that way and there are taquerías and all sorts of different Hispanic restaurants right there.
What’s your own story?
I initially grew up in Rogers Park, but Bronzeville was where I spent most of my time. I used to run on the track of the University of Chicago! I went to the University of Notre Dame for a year, but tuition got a little too expensive so I moved to UIC, where I also had my graduate education. I put that to the side though, because I needed to get the restaurant to where it needed to be. We talked about opening this up for a long time, but talking about it and doing it are totally different things. After a while, I just dived in and helped my folks get this up and running, and now it’s four years later. I still live in Bronzeville. It’s a little further north, but I still really like the area. It’s not a bad trip out here to the restaurant at all.
But home still feels like Belize, and what you’re doing here is more than just a restaurant serving food?
Look, the big takeaway is that at Garifuna Flava, we want it to be a staycation. We want you to come here, enjoy our food, our culture, and if you have any questions we want people to come in inquisitive. Any time is a good time to go to Belize, really, it’s eighty degrees all the time, and days like today I definitely miss the weather back home.