In April 2001, I embarked on a journey of discovery into Belize. The University of the West Indies had launched a new experimental program involving the deployment of scholars, artists, and scientists to its non-campus countries that it served also. Its main campuses were in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. I was granted an assignment to Belize for a month. By formal training, I am a political scientist who, over the years, had constructed his research and scholarship mainly from fieldwork in places like Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Quebec, Guyana, Trinidad, etc. My research interest was focused primarily on ethnic pluralism and conflict examining ways in which social and cultural cleavages were transformed politically into sites of struggle over identity, power, recognition and resources. I was interested not only in the causes of these conflicts but also in the modes by which they were managed especially within a democratic framework. Belize, a multi-ethnic state with eight ethno-cultural communities, was more ethnically diverse than all of the Caribbean countries including Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, and had a special appeal to me since it seemed to have been able to contain the rival claims of ethnic communities so as to produce a harmonious whole. In other parts of the world, this was hardly the case with ethnic strife widespread as they were destructive. In the month that I spent in Belize, I embarked on a journey to all parts of the country seeking out meetings with citizens and groups trying to learn about how they saw themselves in relation to persons form other communities, their identities and issues of communal co-existence. In this essay, I recapitulate some of these conversations and findings locating them within the wider ambit of Belize's features and the theoretical materials on ethnic relations. The method that I applied is a travelogue, which catches a glimpse into the country. A travelogue does not make claim to be scientific exposition based on a carefully selected sample. It is bounded by the route traveled and by the interests of the observer. As a method, it has the advantage of reporting on a wide assortment of events which are often omitted in a systematic and pointed treatise. I have tried to be informative by presenting relevant statistical data so as to temper my presentation from being solely an impressionistic enterprise.
The journey really began before I had set foot on Belizean soil having read a fair amount on Belize. The country was classified as a Caribbean country even though, like the Guianas which are also regarded as part of the Caribbean, it is not an island and sits on mainland territory, in this case, in Central America. Belize was the only English-speaking country in Central America, due to the fact that it was a British colony and has consequently inherited a large number of British institutions. It was not a very large country, about 8,867 sq.mls, the second smallest in Central America, facing the Caribbean Sea. In 2002, the United Nations Human Development Report classified Belize at the 58th position among 173 countries. Its per capita income of about $3,100(US) and literacy rate of 93.2% were comparable to most of the English Caribbean countries. It was embroiled in a serious border controversy with Guatemala that delayed its independence requiring the deployment of British troops for protection. Even though Belize became independent in 1981, Guatemala did not recognize it until 1992 even though the border dispute has not been finally settled to this day thereby leaving the boundary issue inflamed. At least fourteen times more populous than Belize, Guatemala has periodically threatened to invade Belize so that today Belizeans still harbor much suspicion of Guatemalan intentions. The border with Guatemala is 266 kilometers long through which a stream of illegal immigrants and refugees have poured coming not only from Guatemala but other Central American such as El Salvador and Honduras especially since the early 1980s when these countries were experiencing internal civil strife. Belize also shares a northern border of 250 kilometers with Mexico. It has been estimated that the number of these cross border migrants approached 60,000 in the 1990s, the equivalent of about 15 to 20% of the country's population, one in six, turning it into one of the highest percentages of illegal migrants in any country in the world.1 Hence, Guatemala and illegal immigrants have emerged as persistent preoccupations in the Belizean imagination often tainting politics and social institutions.
Even though Belize's population of about 250,000 by 2001 was relatively small, it was diverse, composed of ethno-cultural communities many separated by language, culture, occupation, and residence: Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, Maya, Chinese, Syrian-Lebanese, East Indians, and Mennonites. Two of these communities, the Creoles and Mestizos, constitute about three fourths of the total population so that the country can be conceived as predominantly ethnically bi-polar. By the end of WW II, the Creole ethno-cultural group was the dominant community with about 55% of the population but it was slowly diminishing so that by 1980 their numbers were about 39.7%, and by 2001, it had been reduced to just fewer than 30% while Mestizos steadily grew hovering today around or slightly exceeding 50%. This was a dramatic re-alignment of Belize's ethnic demography stemming from the confluence of two opposite migratory flows. Creoles who were the descendants of the African slaves brought to toil for Europeans mainly as woodcutters in the colonial period were migrating since the 1970s in large numbers to North America. It is possible that in the 1980s that as many Creoles left Belize as Central American immigrants entered the country during the same period. The resulting impact was that the previously dominant Afro-Belizean community on whose back Belize was historically colonized was being eclipsed by a Mestizo population which was constantly being replenished by continuing cross border refugee infusions. I have heard said that the Creole community has become traumatized by this rather rapid fall from its ascendancy, some even claiming that they were being marginalised, even becoming the victims of a peculiar form of "ethnocide" similar to what Aime Cesaire in Martinique described as "genocide by substitution" referring to the heavy infusion of French Europeans into Martinique and the corresponding loss of Martiniquans to France.2
While the population was ethnically diverse, Belize had a unique community of "Garifuna", sometimes called "Black Caribs" who were the descendants of Caribs from the island of St. Vincent.3 While there were remnants of the Caribs still on the Caribbean islands, notably Dominica (4%), and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (5.3%), in contrast, Belize as well as Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, had become home to a significant minority of Garifuna.4 Belize also had Mayas. The other parts of the Caribbean that had an aboriginal population that was akin to the Mayas and Garifuna was Guyana (6%) which had nine tribal communities and Suriname (10%). As a whole, the remaining aboriginal groups in the Caribbean have been barely visible even though there has been an appreciable rise in their self-consciousness in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed by the formation of several representative organizations seeking recognition and economic development.5
I was lucky that my Belizean host was Dr.Joseph Palacio, an anthropologist who was the Resident Director of the University of West Indies Extra-mural School of continuing Studies in Belize. With my keen interest in Belize's people, Dr. Palacio himself was a source of intrigue since he was a Garifuna with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley, an institution at which I was an Assistant Professor at the beginning of my academic career. Dr.Palacio was a "Garifuna", and I was of East Indian background coming originally from Guyana, the descendant of indentured laborers recruited from India for the sugar plantations after slavery was abolished. Dr. Palacio's wife, Myrtle, was also Garifuna. Their home in Belize City was a large two story concrete bungalow and it was a veritable museum of Garifuna art and artifacts. I was given a tour and came face to face with a civilization that had for the most part vanished from the insular Caribbean. The Caribs, Tainos, Ciboneys and Arawaks were the First Nations of the islands and they were practically decimated with European colonization with faint echoes of their past written mockingly in contemporary names like "Caribbean". In the tour of the Palacio home, there was a huge mural of a traditional Garifuna village partly portraying the process by which ereba (cassava bread) was produced very similar to that in Guyana among a tribal community a few miles from where I lived on the Corentyne River in an Amerindian village called Orealla.
I inquired about the Garifuna, an unfamiliar name in the Caribbean where the word "Carib" was the familiar designation of the aboriginal inhabitants. As it turned out, the word "Garifuna" (plural "Garinagu") was a terminology of recent vintage adopted only in 1975 by a group of Garifuna intellectuals including Dr. Palacio, who sought to replace the Anglophone term "Carib" as "a way of expressing identity in a people's own language".6 In 1797, the British expelled the rebellious indigenous Caribs from St. Vincent and practically threw them to the winds dumped on Roatan island off the coast of Honduras, against all odds, they survived, regrouped and re-settled into a variety of communities throughout Central America mainly on the Caribbean coast. The Garifuna historical memory recounts their ferocity in resisting the British and other colonizers on St. Vincent, for which they were summarily evicted en masse. In part, the British anger against the Caribs stemmed from the fact that they offered shelter and sanctuary to escaped slaves from the regimented plantations. In due course, these "maroons" inter-married with the Caribs so that today there is practically no "pure" Carib alive but they have retained their cultural identity and self-definition as an aboriginal people. They have maintained a vibrant network of communications and travel among themselves especially between Dandriga in Belize, Livingston in Guatemala, and Trujillo in Honduras. They have acculturated to the Spanish society around them many becoming Catholics, and while they have preserved old customs, they have assumed Spanish names and have adapted to Spanish culture and language throughout Central America. Belizean Garifuna now have certain characteristic Spanish surnames such as Palacio, Hernandez, Flores, etc. And quite a few are Catholic priests and bishops. In 1832, a number of the Garifuna came to the British colony of British Honduras (later Belize) settling in the south and gradually acculturating to English ways and language. Dr. Palacio was born in one of these first Garifuna villages, Baranco, the primordial place of his first loyalty. Today, the Garinagu have become an integral part of the Belizean mosaic of peoples constituting about 6 to 7% of the population and strongly represented in the area of education. Their contribution to Belize's development has been recognized on a particular day in the Belizean calendar called "Settlement Day". A National Garifuna Council expresses and defends their interests and several Garifuna have become members of parliament and cabinet ministers. The Town of Dangriga in the south of the country is predominantly Garifuna. The Garifuna in Belize have been part of a mass migration to the USA mainly to Los Angeles so that it is said that as many of them live in Belize as in other countries, mainly in North America. Joe remarked that there was a crisis in identity for as the Garifuna migrate they lose their language and ways that make them a distinctive people. Joseph and Myrtle and their two children have refused to leave Belize fiercely loyal to their way of life, speaking their language at home, and actively promoting Garifuna interests in Belize and everywhere they reside. Dr. Palacio was at one time an executive member of World Council of Indigenous Peoples and has previously served as the Head of the Department of Archaeology in Belize. Myrtle is also an accomplished person with a degree from Berkeley and currently serves as the head of Belize's Elections Commission.
I was in Belize City, the capital with a population of about 60,000, which is about 25% of the total population of the country. Belize City was located in Belize District, one of six districts into which Belize was administratively divided. Belize District was the most populous with about 30% of the country's population. I found Belize City quite "Caribbean" with it s familiar small wooden houses and narrow streets. The city, which is below sea level, is traversed by the Haulover River creating two residential sections, north and south, each assigned social significance in the popular imagination. The lingua franca is Belize Creole, spoken with an accent very similar to Creolese in Guyana. Belize City has been regularly buffeted by strong winds during the hurricane season (May to November) and memory of its devastation by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 has prompted the creation of a new capital in 1970 in the inland town of Belmopan, about 80 kilometers southwest of Belize City and almost at the center of the country. Many central government buildings, constructed to resemble the pattern of ancient Mayan open squares, including the parliament, have now been located in Belmopan, which is a Mayan name. Yet it is Belize City that remains the main commercial center of the country. Many civil servants continue to reside in Belize City commuting an hour every morning to Belmopan.
My temporary home was in Belize City, the capital, which is preponderantly populated by "Creoles", the local name assigned to the descendants of the African slaves who were recruited not for sugar plantations as in the insular Caribbean but for harvesting logwood, mahogany and other lumber by the British. The British presence commenced in the mid-1600s in a region claimed by Spain and was alternatingly marked by periods of accommodation and conflict. The final decisive attack occurred in 1798 when a numerically superior Spanish military contingent was routed by the "Baymen" as these English settlers were called. This has become a signal event in Belizean history around which has emerged a mythological basis for the claim of Creoles as the rightful cultural and political inheritor of Belize after the departure of the British. The narrative depicts victory over the Spanish forces in the Battle of St. George Caye by the heroic combined effort of the enslaved African slaves and the British colonists so that Belize's status as a former British colony and today as an independent English-speaking state is due to this historic event. The part played by the Creoles in repelling the Spanish as it is now being recounted attests to their loyalty to Belize as an autonomous and free entity and stands as a symbol that affirms their privileged position above all other communities in the country. This mythology is backed up at the level of culture where today an adapted English culture is dominant in Belize, even though it is now highly Americanized. The main language is English and the medium of instruction in all schools and of commerce is English. The main political institutions such as the parliamentary system are similarly of British origin. The Creoles are the main cultural carriers of this cultural inheritance while others adapt to it. Two respected observers stated this point thus: "Anglophone Creoles came to consider British Honduras as 'theirs', defining it as Black, Protestant, and English-speaking. In doing so, they sought to define all other ethnic groups as marginal outsiders, or 'aliens'".7 They often parade this cultural inheritance in symbolic ways in public to assert their paramountcy .The Creole community is replete with professionals in the areas of law, medicine, education, the public service, etc (but not business and commerce) and there is a well off Creole elite, many mixed with European ancestry and of light pigmentation, locally referred to as "the Royal Creoles". Many Creoles regard themselves are socially superior in status to members of other communities which have had to acculturate to English ways. While their cultural standing has been maintained, the same has not been the case in the political realm because of their diminished numbers. In Belize City however they remain dominant but even this is being restructured with the entry of many Central American "aliens" into the city. Since independence in 1981, there has never been a Creole Prime Minister even though they have occupied powerful cabinet posts and other positions of power. One of the two major political parties in Belize, the United Democratic Party (UDP) is seen by many as grounded in the Creole community presently led by Dean Barrow, from a "Royal Creole" pedigree. It has been remarked to me more than once that Dean Barrow as the Leader of Opposition in the Parliament would never be able to become Prime Minister of Belize since he was Creole.
Living in Belize City, I was warned right away that crime was rampant and discovered that Belizeans feared crime more than anything else especially personal assaults and robbery. I was warned not to live in an area south of the Haulover River since it was crime and drug infested. Crime in Belize City was an acute problem and the heavy iron barricades on many houses attested to the insecurity of residents especially about burglaries. The word "jacking" was widely used to describe a robbery as in some one being "jacked" or robbed usually at the point of a gun. The most frequent mode of jacking was committed by robbers on bicycle who could easily escape into narrow streets and back alleys. Guns are evidently easily available in Belize City. Over the past year, the police had launched a program of buying back guns from residents. I witnessed on a Saturday at the main city square the public destruction of the guns that were collected. Several observers to the event pointing to the escalation of robberies with guns argued cynically that the gun owners simply traded in their weapons so as to buy newer and better ones. In the frequent debates about the crime situation, many citizens contended that the police force was part of the problem since it was allegedly corrupt and involved in some of the crimes. The Ombudsman's Report that I read showed that more than half of all complaints from citizens from 2000 to 2002 was concerned with alleged abuses and brutality by the police. A report from an investigation of the crime situation disclosed that most citizens lacked confidence in the police as well as the judicial system as a whole.8
The unemployment rate in Belize was about 12% and large numbers of youths in the city probably as many as 30% were jobless. Dr. Palacio underscored the presence of a growing "crack cocaine" population in Belize City and that that was a major source of crimes. Belize had emerged as a drug transshipment point to the USA. However, many local persons had also become addicts. I myself saw several dazed and drugged persons on the streets and I was warned not to display anything of great value. It was argued that the few beggars that were in the streets were "crack heads". Many economic analysts argue that a main pillar of the Belizean economy is based on drugs, much sold to local tourists but more exported. Belize's contiguity to Central America, its porous borders, and its long and largely unguarded coast suggest great opportunity for drug traffickers.
The crime situation had two other dimensions in Belize City that were completely unanticipated. First, like many islands in the Caribbean, Belize has become the recipient of deported criminals from the USA and Canada. These are Belizean citizens who typically have lived only a small part of their lives in Belize but had ran afoul of the law in North America or are hardened felons. They are dumped without notice in Belize and tend to re-enter the crime world with greater sophistication acquired overseas. In 2001, it was estimated that some 150 such persons lived in Belize and the police contend that they contribute significantly to the crime scene. Legislation in Belize has now required these persons to register with the police. Second, as in Los Angeles, there were gangs in Belize City demarcated from each other by the colour of their attire, "Reds" and "Blues". The Los Angeles connection was not likely to be evident to someone coming from one of the islands of the Caribbean. It was a matter of knowing your Geography. Belizeans frequently travel to Los Angeles by road in their cars, making the journey through the Yucatan Peninsula in about two to three days. It is no accident then that larger numbers of Belizeans live in Los Angeles than in any other city in North America. In the Streets of Belize City, I have seen several cars with California license plates. The colour-identified gangs of Los Angeles found their imitation in far away Belize City. But this was not the only crime imported into Belize. It is alleged that several gangs from other Central American states have also infiltrated Belize, mainly running drugs.
To the problems of drugs and crime has been added, especially in Belize City, the spread of HIV/AIDS. Among the states of Central America, Belize had the unenviable record of the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS per capita.9 It was part of a familiar syndrome that combines drugs, crime and HIV/AIDS as has occurred in many other parts of the world. Speaking to one of Belize's Commission on HIV/AIDS, he expressed grave alarm pointing to the role of prostitutes from Central America entering Belize which is economically much better off and freely mixing with the general population. Hence, overall, especially in Belize City, drugs, crime, guns, and HIV/AIDS have arrived.
Walking and driving around Belize City I quickly registered the fact that while it was Creole dominated, about 65%, it was also populated with an assortment of other ethnicities. As I introduced myself to Belizeans and usually before I asked them questions about their own identity and surrounding issues, I would request that they tell who they thought I was in relation to their own domestic diversity of ethnic and racial communities. I am what many people would call an East Indian, or more frequently, Indian in Belizean popular usage. The range of answers I received was startling. One must bear in mind that Belize has a very small "Indian" population of about 3.5%, many recruited from Jamaica by American Confederates who came to Belize after the American Civil War and established sugar plantations. Others arrived directly from India, having been expelled as mutineers. Apart from these, there was also a very small contingent from India that arrived in Belize in the 1960s forming part of the merchant population owning businesses, especially stores. These were called "Hindus". Finally, there was a smattering of Indians, mainly from India and Pakistan, consisting of professionals working with UN agencies.
The first Belizean who described me called me a "Turk". I was bewildered, wanting to know what this category meant in Belize. Later, I learnt that the term was used to describe the shopkeepers who were originally from the Middle East, mainly from Lebanon and Syria as well as the "Hindus". The Prime Minister of Belize, Mr. Said Musa, was such a descendant from this community. I was really appalled. While I was of Indian origin, I certainly did not want to be associated with the Indian merchants in the popular mind. I wanted to affirm my background from the indentured laborers who labored on plantations. Then, about a week later, one Belizean pleased me immensely when he simply called me a "Coolie"! This was the pejorative term that was applied to descendants of East Indian laborers living in the former British West Indian islands and Guyana. Today, I personally do not take offense by being called a Coolie and often would describe myself by that designation.
Walking around the streets of Belize City, I encountered many persons of clear pigmentation selling food from carts. This was a self-reliant occupation typically carried out by relatively poor people. The idea of poor whites was jolting. Quickly, however, I was to learn that these persons were the ones that many Belize citizens refer to derogatively as "aliens" referring to the Spanish-speaking refugees from Central America. I went to one of the carts standing in line and tried the tacos, which were three for one dollar, and they were delicious. I tried to engage the woman seller in a conversation and she spoke with halting English, having developed an ample command of English for her trade. I became conscious of the "aliens" on the streets, many manifestly underprivileged, and learnt that many resided in overcrowded houses and squatter settlements on the periphery of the city. In fact, most of the cross-border migrants gravitated to Belize City, finding it easier to make a living in the informal sector as well as on construction projects. Later, in a discussion with the mayor of the city, he affirmed that no one knew exactly how many of these migrants lived in Belize City and he predicted that when an accurate census was eventually taken, he would not be surprised if the group came to a substantial minority. In any case, the ethnic composition of Belize City was being restructured by migration not only from the migrants but also from other communities as well as from the hemorrhaging exit of Creoles.
There were many other white European-looking persons that I saw in Belize City. They were from the "Mestizo" community, their identity derived from a mix of European Spanish and indigenous Maya since the days of the Spanish conquest of Central America. The Mestizos of Belize were originally drawn from the Yucatan in Mexico during the period of the Caste Wars in the mid-1800s. Today's Mestizos then are longstanding residents only recently emerging as the majority community in Belize, dominating commerce and politics. They are referred to as "Spanish" and where they are confused with the Central American, this generates deep resentment. They are predominantly Catholic in a country where about 62% of the population is Catholic also. Creoles are mainly Protestants. The Mestizos assiduously take full advantage of the best educational institutions in Belize and are among the best educated and economically well off. In Belize City, they were a minority but they were however predominant in other districts of Belize, such as Corozal, Orange Walk, and Cayo. It soon became clear to me that the ethnic distribution of Belize was structured residentially in a way that some districts were constituted more of one ethnicity than another, although all districts were mixed with different combinations of peoples. This was helpful information in my travels. The table below provides this information:
|DISTRICT||% OF TOTAL POP.||PREDOMINANT ETHNIC GROUPS|
|CAYO||20||Mestizo, Creole, Mennonite|
|STAN CREEK||10||Mestizo, GARIFUNA|
|TOLEDO||9||Maya, Creole, Garifuna, East Indians, Mestizo|
Each of the districts had a major municipal centre, but overall, only 48% of the population was urban while 52% rural, with the growth of the rural population outstripping the urban.
In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-racial setting such as in Belize City, it is reasonable to inquire into the problem of communal coexistence and tolerance. I gather that it is not an issue, at least not overly expressed but as one person said to me "hush hush". One fascinating observation that I made regarding the migrant women was that a few were mates of Creoles. Racial mixing was quite unconcealed and prevalent in Belize. No one neither looked nor cared. It seemed that Belize was a veritable melting pot of races and ethnicities, at least on the surface. However, one local observer said to me that the incidence of Creole liaisons with the Central American refugees allowed for a "whitening" via offspring towards acquiring higher social status. In the insular Caribbean, a colour-class stratification continues to prevail privileging degrees of whiteness even after most of these countries became independent accompanied with the rise to power and position of Creoles. In Belize, colour evidently continues to matter, especially in the Creole community. One famous editor of a newspaper referred to this phenomenon as "colourism".
Early in my visit, I looked around for restaurants and small stores to procure some groceries. It was very startling to discover that a very large number of these small shops found practically everywhere in Belize City and in many parts of the country were owned and operated by Chinese who had little command of English. I knew that some Chinese had come to Belize round about 1865 as indentured laborers. It was clear that these Chinese storeowners were not descended from that early community. In Belize, while many of the old Chinese families have migrated and left, a number have remained and currently control several prominent businesses. Several have also intermarried with other ethnic groups and generally they are Belizean as anyone could be. The Chinese population in Belize however is quite varied with many arriving in separate waves in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, with those arriving in the 1960s relatively integrated in the social fabric and quite different from recent arrivals who speak very little if any English.
Many of the recent arrivals have come as economic residents taking advantage of a government policy, rescinded in 2002, that offered Belize citizenship to foreigners with substantial capital for investment. It was clear that the Chinese shops were family affairs and that nearly all of the Chinese who I have encountered had only the barest of links to the rest of the Belizean population. In Belize City, the Chinese have also opened a handful of restaurants. Asking Belizeans about the new Chinese residents in their midst, I found out that there was some resentment in that the Chinese seemed to have gained control of the small scale stores, displacing many Belizeans. None of this was expressed either strongly or openly. Many of the robberies in Belize are directed against Chinese storeowners, allegedly committed by Creole gangs. It is a sore area stirring some inter-ethnic malaise. Another aspect of the Chinese presence in Belize relates to the illegal sale of passports. Many recent arrivals, it was alleged, had acquired passports before ever setting foot in Belize, suggesting complicity between immigration officers and passport buyers.
Another ethnic community I encountered as I visited the supermarket for groceries but indirectly was the Mennonite group. I knew of the Mennonites and their migration to the New World, including Central America. I had read about their presence in Belize but was yet to see one. However, I was impressed with the quality of the chicken that was sold in the supermarkets. I found out that it was practically all produced by the Mennonites who had had arrived in Belize only in the late 1950s, and living among themselves, they had developed a reputation for hard work and had etched a niche in the local market for furniture, vegetables and chicken. Later, I was to run into members of the Mennonite community on Fridays and Saturday's selling furniture at various spots in Belize City. I had the good fortune of an unusual chat with a Mennonite selling furniture. His English was halting but clear; he spoke German. He told me that the Mennonites belonged to different communities. Some came from Canada and these were found at Spanish Lookout in Cayo District. He remarked that these Mennonites had come to accept all modern technology in their lives including radio, television, cars, tractors, computers, farm equipment etc. For him, this was a critical distinguishing point. His community was from Shipyard in Orange Walk District and they did not utilize radio, television, or cars but did use mechanical farm equipment. He said that there was another Mennonite group at Burton where a more austere horse and buggy regimen was a way of life. Dr. Palacio informed me that while the Mennonites have remained separated from the rest of Belizean society, maintaining their own schools and economic autonomy, a few had left their communities and are now living among Belizeans. The Mennonite told me that a number of his people had become wealthy and had acquired much land and established large cattle ranches. They have also gotten in constructing houses, delivering and assembling them from scratch. Generally, the Mennonites are reputed for their contribution to agriculture, poultry, cattle farming, furniture, car repairs, machine repairs, etc. They have stayed away from politics even though their commercial success depends on government economic policy.
Overall then Belize City was marked by ethnic diversity with three recent immigrant groups, the "alien" Central American migrants, the Chinese entrepreneurs, and the Indian and Middle Eastern merchant groups adding to the melange but still not challenging the dominant numbers of Creoles in the City. I saw no resident Whites from the old English plantocracy but saw many Whites who were tourists. From Belize City many ferry services operate taking passengers to the offshore Cayes, referring to the many coral islands occupying altogether over 200 sq. mls of land area serving also as a barrier against strong winds and hurricanes. These islands, attractive for their reefs, beaches and magnificent marine life, had emerged as a primary tourist destination, especially for snorkellers and divers. Belize's coastal coral reef is the world's second longest after Queensland in Australia, extending over 260 kilometers with about 450 quays, several well developed such as San Pedro and Quay Caulker with expensive tourist facilities, many owned by American investors. One Quay, Amberis Quay, is larger than the island of Barbados in the eastern Caribbean. A point of interest that drew attention while I looked at these quays was the large number of Americans and Canadians who had taken up permanent residence in Belize, many living not only on the quays but in such areas Cayo District and Placentia in Toledo District. While this group cannot be described as an ethno-cultural community, it was clear that they added to the diversity of the country's ethnic fabric. I was told that several of these persons were staffing and directing environmental and other NGOs in Belize.
Many Creoles were seen around the city doing petty businesses in the informal sector and a fair number working as taxi drivers. I did see a number of Creoles and Garifuna working in teams of City workers cleaning the city streets and doing other maintenance activities. While I was visiting the Belize City Council where I met the Mayor and several of the council staff, I met an East Indian, Mr. Ramclam, a descendant from indentured laborers, serving as the Council's Legal Officer and, as it turned out, he was the secretary of something called the "Indian Cultural Council of Belize". There were other cultural councils in Belize such as the Garifuna, Maya, Kekchi, Maya-Mestizo and Creole Councils. The existence of these councils and the activist roles that they played in representing and advancing the interests of their respective communities were intimations of ethnic rivalry in Belize. I needed to investigate this aspect of inter-ethnic relations and later I would discover that there was a fair amount of tension and competition among the ethnic communities. Mr. Ramclam gave me the names of some prominent members of the East Indian Cultural Council in Punta Gorta where I was soon to visit. This would open an interesting window to the curious world of the East Indians in Belize.
Living in Belize in part meant commuting every day from where I lived to the campus of the University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies (the UWI Center) which was at the other end of town. The taxi drive cost only $5.00 and took me through the heart of the City exposing me to some rundown as well some wealthy neighborhoods, such as Kings Park, one of which was the home of the Prime Minister. The roads were good, few skyscrapers, and lots of traffic early in the morning. There was mixture of old houses and new with lots of small shops with relatively clean city streets. The streets were filled with jeeps, SUVs, and cars as well as bicyclists at peak traffic time. The UWI Center was close to another center of higher learning, the University of Belize which was recently established to cater for the manpower needs for skilled workers in Belize. UB, as it was called, was an amalgam of the old technical institutes and teachers colleges in Belize and it was still experiencing the task of orienting these units to the standards of a university beyond junior college. Many Belizean students attended UB and the school has produced a fair number of graduates especially in business and commerce for the local market. The UWI Center was an extension of the UWI system based in the insular Caribbean and it has tended to follow suit in maintaining exceptionally high standards in its programs. It has developed a sizable number of diploma courses aimed at the general public but it also mounts regular introductory degree courses which are on par with similar courses at the main campuses. A number of these courses are transmitted and taught by satellite originating from UWI in Jamaica.
I was given an office at the UWI Center and was offered Internet facilities. The UWI Center offered computer courses to the public. The presence of the UWI Center and UB attested to the fact that Belize City was the main educational center in the country. It was also home of the most prestigious high schools including St. John's College which was also next to the two university communities. St. John's College was run by the Jesuits and had established the reputation as the elite high school in the country, a place from which some of the most outstanding leaders and professionals in Belize had been educated. St. John's also ran junior college courses.
While using the UWI office, I would walk over at lunch to the Teachers College which was part of the UB campus for meals. There I was to learn some interesting things about Belizean cuisine. The most popular dish was stew chicken with rice and beans. "Rice and beans" was typically Central American and along with the tacos, empanados, tortillas, and tamales on the streets it suggested that the great impact that the Spanish contiguity to Belize has had on its culinary offerings. Dr. Palacio took me out to a couple of Creole restaurants which had more of a Caribbean offering in the use of yams and dumplings. It was also a place to get chimoles, a popular Mayan dish. The restaurants usually have a television set that piped in US programs. The US-based fast food giants like McDonald's were still to penetrate Belize eliminating these small local restaurants. A standard American fare could be easily obtained from one of the tourist hotels. But, for most Belizeans, "rice and beans" and stew chicken was the popular food.
My first trip out of Belize City would take me to Belmopan by bus. I was on my way to visit several towns in the southern part of Belize, to meet with political and community leaders. Belmopan, the new capital of Belize was about 50 miles inland moving upwards on a gradual ascent through changes in vegetation much more sparse than the coast. The early morning express air-conditioned bus carried a large number of Creole civil servants commuting to work in Belmopan. Arrival was greeted with an array of market stalls and traders surrounded by a network of concrete government buildings. The ethnic diversity at the Belmopan market changed dramatically from Belize City. It was more Mestizo, Central American, and Mayan. A large number of the first wave of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in the early 1980s were given accommodation at a camp in Belmopan sponsored by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This part of Belmopan came to be called "Salvapan". Most of the early refugees have been granted permanent residence in Belize found jobs and have adapted finding jobs and building homes. One of the most interesting aspects of this relocation of the refugees was the fact that they sent their children to English medium schools. With all public schools in Belize being instructed in English, these schools have emerged as the most effective tool of social and cultural integration in Belize. Parents of refugee children do not protest against this practice and more than willingly partake in them to the point that they have tended to neglect their Spanish heritage. When asked why Spanish-language schools have not been established, the answer that I have received was astounding: the final destination of most of these refugees was the USA. In fact, because so many Belizeans have relatives in North America and a culture of migration is so well institutionalized that the English medium schools are viewed as invaluable means towards these migratory ends. That apart, the English medium schools have offered an important mechanism of integrating the many diverse communities in Belize towards building a common citizenship.
I stayed over in Belmopan so as to meet with some government officials and leaders of cultural groups. Apart from observing ethnic diversity in Belize, I was interested in looking at how local village and town councils operated as part of a larger project of researching local democracy. I was interested in Belize's sugar industry in part because it was still one of the main pillars of the economy and I came from a country, Guyana, where sugar was still King. The government departments that dealt with local government and the sugar industry were both housed under the same government Ministry. Local democracy had emerged as an important part of Belize's strategy of development and the current government in power was committed to a program of decentralization so as to increase citizen participation in decisonmaking and improve government accountability. Bringing government closer to the people was to be facilitated by transferring more powers and responsibilities of the centralized governmental apparatus to village and municipal councils. I had done a fair amount of research on the subject of decentralization and local democracy and have written a number of essays and books on the subject. This was an area in which I could make a contribution. On my trip to the south, the Department of Local Government through Dr. Wendell Parham, the CEO, arranged for me to meet with town majors and councilors. This was so successful that I was invited to give the keynote address to the annual meeting of Mayors scheduled later for that month in the Free Economic Zone in Corozal.
Before leaving Belmopan, I arranged to meet two important Garifuna leaders since the first town after Belmopan that I was going to was Dangriga, a town with the highest concentration of Garifuna in Belize. The first of these two Garifuna leaders was Mr. Roy Caeytano who was the CEO in the Ministry of Community Development in charge of village councils throughout Belize. He was also the President of the National Garifuna Cultural Council. Articulate and highly educated both in Belize and overseas, he decided that he would like for me to meet with him and his family at his home in Dangriga on the weekend for dinner and wider discussions. The second Garifuna I wanted to meet was famous throughout Belize as an entertainer, Andy Palacio, a key artist who had contributed to the evolution of Belize's unique musical form called "Punta Rock". He has several CDs and has gone on several overseas tours that have brought him international recognition. Youthful and attired in well-groomed Rasta dreadlocks, he met me at the Bullfrog Hotel for a beer. I asked him numerous questions about his background and about the Garifuna but also about the problem of unity and a national identity in Belize's multi-cultural setting. What did all Belizeans share? Laughing, he said three things. First, Punta Rock which has become Belize's main musical form; second, fear of Guatemala; and third, rice and beans and stew chicken. Observing me as being of East Indian ancestry, he mentioned that in the southern town of Punta Gorda which was on my itinerary, there was a popular East Indian band called "Coolie Rebels" playing Punta Rock. He also mentioned to me that Belizeans listen to all kinds of music but included among their repertoire were calypso from Trinidad and reggae from Jamaica.
I was bound for Dangriga on the Hummingbird Highway by bus. It was to be a trip replete with surprises beginning with the majestic Maya Mountains and lush valleys on a winding thoroughfare. Dangriga, the main municipality of Stan Creek District occupying about 840 sq. mls and containing about 14,061 persons (2000 Census), was a preponderantly Garifuna town. Going onwards to Dangriga then, I had expected to find the bus packed with Garifuna passengers. I was therefore surprised when instead it was overcrowded with Central Americans mainly women, with colourful skirts, each having in tow several young children who were all squeezed together on one bench of seats. This was a puzzle, which was soon sorted out as I witnessed the landscape of jungles periodically broken by stretches of citrus groves carefully ordered into symmetrical formations. At its first stop about one hour later, a few batches of women and children descended heading in the direction of a series of wooden shacks and barracks. These were the homes of the Central American migrant workers who were recruited to labor on the citrus plantations doing low paid drudgery, which ordinary Belizeans refused to do at such low wages. The families who exited from the bus were returning from Belmopan either for shopping, medical facilities or both. Many lived in shanty towns such as Pomona, Middlesex and Alta Vista along the highway.10
Citrus, mainly oranges and grapefruits, had emerged as the second largest export crop of Belize valued about $88.5 million in 2001 sent off as "concentrates" to the USA and Japan. Along the Hummingbird Highway, I had noticed large trucks brimming with bright yellow cargoes of oranges destined for two citrus processing factories. The bus stopped long enough at one of these factories where the trucks disgorged their cargo of citrus onto a larger space with hundreds of thousands of oranges and grapefruits where they were, in assembly line fashion sorted, cleaned, squeezed and frozen, as concentrates bound overseas. I found out that the citrus groves ran a range from a few acres to a thousand, the largest owned by a few local families and by the citrus factories which were foreign owned. To be competitive internationally, it is argued that the citrus plantation owners depended on cheap field and factory labor from Central America who constituted a majority of the workforce. In an arrangement with the Immigration Department, the citrus owners themselves were authorized to provide the Central Americans with short-term visas which in practice produced long term and permanent residents. Coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador where wages were about 50 to 60% the Belizean, these migrants found Belize a vastly superior place to live and allowed themselves severe abuses at the workplace habitually underpaid, cheated and verbally assaulted.11 A few years ago in May-June 1999, when Belize launched an amnesty program to regularize the residential status of its resident Central American population estimated to contain as many as 40% illegal persons, many accepted the offer becoming either permanent residents or full citizens. Attempts at evicting illegal migrants never seem to succeed most returning.12
Farther along the highway getting closer to Dangriga, the citrus plantations yielded to rows of orderly banana fields. Stan Creek District was the banana capital of Belize. Actually, the main banana belt was south of Dangriga in such places as Mango Creek and Cowpen. Like the citrus industry, bananas have become one of Belize's major export crops bringing in about $66.7m. in 2000 (falling to $40.5m. in 2001 after the devastation of Hurricane Iris) and providing jobs for some 2,000 persons. Banana production in Belize was in decline until the 1970s when the central government, in an attempt to revive the depressed southern economy and solve the problem of persistent high unemployment, re-organized the industry spending enormous amounts on improving the infrastructure including building its own shipping facility at Big Creek. Run by a Banana Board, the industry, while it created a new industry that employed many persons and literally solved the unemployment problem among Belizeans in the contiguous area to the point of requiring the importation of labor from Central America, was costly to the Treasury and was finally privatized in 1985.13 From an industry that was at one time small scale with numbers of tenant farmers, it had become one under the control of nine owners, some foreign but mainly local investors. Located mainly in Stan Creek District close to Dangriga, the revived industry occupying about 9,000 acres continues to strive. Today, the overwhelming majority of banana workers, about 92%, are Central Americans with only about 3.4% of the banana workforce Creole or Garifuna and another 4% Maya, starkly attesting to the displacement of Belizeans by the deliberate recruitment of inexpensive Central Americans.14 All of Belize's bananas are exported by the Irish-based FYFFES corporation which has a monopoly in purchasing and selling bananas for the overseas market gaining access under the ACP Accord to the preferential high-priced European community. FYFFES was until 1986 an integral part of the multinational banana giant, United Fruit Company, later called Chiquita, which is one of three companies today in control of the banana market in Europe and North America, the others being FYFFES and GEEST of Holland. It has not been a smooth ride however as the industry was plagued as much as the citrus with abuses and exploitation of its migrant labor force. Interestingly, practically all of the laborious work of sorting the bananas is done by part time Central American women who ensure that only high quality bananas from six to ten and a half inches are packaged resulting in the rejection of about 18% of the bananas. In 1995, the migrant workers organized themselves into the United Bananas Workers union and came up against the banana Growers Association which had received between 500-1,000 permits from the government to recruit Central American labor. The labor permits facilitated threats and abuses by the growers and, when representations to the growers were rebuffed, they went on strike in May 1995. Police and military forces converged on the workers packing many of them off to the Guatemalan-Belize border so as to intimidate them into compliance.15
I had become used to banana trees growing several clusters in my own backyard in Trinidad but had never witnessed huge banana plantations such as I beheld with large bunches and big bananas. The banana bunches while still on the trees were wrapped by blue plastic bags to protect them from rodents and birds. While I was in Belize City, I had bought from street vendors batches of about 15 bananas for only one dollar. I now discovered that although these bananas were quite nice they were in fact the discards from these plantations, which exported only the highest quality overseas. The vendors procured the discarded bananas for little and brought them to market throughout Belize. In 2001, Hurricane Iris ripped through the banana plantations doing havoc permitting only about 40% harvesting but it is being rebuilt. I had heard many stories about the interlocking marriage relationship between some of the big banana owners and political party leaders in Belize. This, it is argued, has facilitated the continuing entry of cheap labor from Central America to the detriment of the Belizean labor force. The reaction of Belizeans to the Central Americans has been less than cordial leading to many reports of open ethnic attacks and the evolution of invidious stereotypes hampering inter-racial relations.
From Belmopan, it took about two and a half hours to get to Dangriga Township. The Hummingbird Highway had disclosed a perspective of the varied topographical and geographical diversity of Belize and now several hundred feet back to sea level I was to be indulged with an urban sprawl. Along the Hummingbird Highway, there were other attractions such as its world-renowned bat-infested subterranean caves, which I was unable to visit. While the space around the Hummingbird Highway was preponderantly populated by Central American migrants living in shacks next to the vast stretches of citrus groves literally configuring a different country with its own people, sounds, and endeavors, the next destination was a packed urban area. Dangriga, located on the coast, was a preponderantly Garifuna town with a Garifuna mayor and Garifuna members of parliament, including the Speaker of Parliament, Sylvia Flores. Dangriga was an old fishing settlement pointing to the potential for a marine industry. This I did find, but it was not constituted of a fishing fleet but shrimp farms on land, that is, fish farms next to the coastline. Expatriate owned and controlled, these farms produced 6,367,886 pounds of shrimps in 2001 valued at $46,497,000 thereby making a major contribution to Belize's export sector. But they were not integrated into the Dangriga and Garifuna landscape.
Dandriga recollects some of the early strivings of the Garifuna people as they entered Belize at the southern coastal parts, setting up villages including Dangriga. They were soon recruited thereafter by the Baymen as woodcutters joining the Creoles in this founding colonial enterprise. But the Garifuna were also great seamen and wharf workers, a set of interrelated occupations that came to define part of their identity throughout Belize and Central America. In Dandriga, the Garifuna had evolved further into other niches carving out a distinctive claim as educators and teachers. In Dangriga, my host was Austin Flores, a retired High School Principal of high regard among the Garifuna. He ran a small motel located on a beachfront. From the bus top, it was a short walk to Flores motel where I was expected and warmly greeted. An educated, well travelled and very articulate man, Flores was also Vice-President of the National Garifuna Council. I asked him why he did not migrate to the United States which he had visited many times and in which he had several family members, he said that he could not stand racism and preferred living in dignity in Belize. Asked about his retirement pre-occupations, he said he was busy with his motel but also a small citrus farm. He remarked that although there was a high unemployment rate in Dangriga, the Garifuna refused to take available jobs in the banana and citrus plantations arguing that they paid too little. He contemptuously declared that the Garifuna had abandoned village and farm life for the bright lights of towns not only like Dangriga and Belize City but also Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
Dangriga itself was a fairly compact town with a busy and dusty main street, St. Vincent Street, closely rimmed by an assortment of shops, houses and vacant spots. The next day, I took a walk along the main street in the direction of the river that divides the town into two sections. Along the main road I was struck by the remnants of a number of dilapidated houses interspersed with well-stocked stores. In particular, I was struck by a particular dilapidated house, which was partly occupied by young people drinking liquor and playing cards and dominoes. The shops seem to be all stocked with the same plastic wares and cheap household goods and, as in Belize City, owned by Chinese business people. To be sure, a few shops were owned by local residents and I entered one of these after seeing some sweet potato pies, a Garifuna specialty. I struck up a conversation with the storekeeper, a middle aged woman, who told me that she was Garifuna and had migrated from Honduras to Belize. She said that the several Garifuna settlements in Central America shared a common communication grid among relatives who pass across borders frequently.
Proceeding to the river where the bridge crossed, I found a new set of riverain commercial activities both from the small boats plying the water as well from a series of shops that bordered on the confluence of the river and road. Across from river was the fresh vegetable, fish and fruit market of Dangriga which I made a point in visiting the next morning, a Saturday, Market Day. Like many tropical markets that I have seen around the world, this one was full of life, teeming with buyers and sellers, fruits and vegetables spread on the ground, and everyone colourfully dressed for the occasion. At a section where there were quite a few small vendors plying a large variety of familiar fruit and vegetables, I saw "ereba", the white stiff cassava bread, for which the Caribs and other Amerindian groups in the Caribbean were famous. Everyone seemed to know each other and there was quite a bit of socializing and revelry. Next to the market was the river bank to which gathered a number of boats carrying vegetables and fruits from farmers from other parts of Stan Creek District. The supply was abundant and relatively inexpensive.
Mr. Flores had arranged for me to see the mayor of Dangriga, Cassian Nunez, who had returned from Los Angeles to assist in the development of Dangriga. He was most personable and like so many of the Garifuna I had met extraordinarily articulate as he painstakingly took me for a trip through the township. He was very keen about stimulating economic development in Dangriga where the unemployment situation was serious. He saw the need to attract new investment in tourism and small manufacturing businesses as the solution to this end. He remarked that there was an acute shortage of land while simultaneously there existed very large citrus and banana plantations just outside of the town. He was as concerned like Dr. Palacio was about the rise of drug use among the youths and said that the place along the road that I saw with many persons drinking and playing cards was a main staging area for the drug trade and criminal activities. Crack cocaine was a critical problem in Dangriga as well as HIV-AIDS. Along the way, I was attracted by some new construction of low cost houses which it was explained to me was part of a promise that the Prime Minister had made in the last elections to provide 200,000 such houses during his tenure. Cassian was concerned because at mid-point in the life of the new government not much was yet done to construct enough of them. He was asked about political patronage in the construction process and he said it pervaded the entire system so that party stalwarts were the recipients of benefits. He said that was the case in everything in Belize.
At another location of the town, I saw a mass outdoor event in the making on a large football size field on which were numerous plastic chairs crowned by a stage and a podium. It was an Evangelical or Pentecostal religious revival meeting which was very popular in many parts of Central America conducted by expatriate religious groups from the USA. The Mayor explained that the group that I saw was from Guatemala and had found fertile ground in Dangriga as in other of Belize where unemployment was high. I asked about the Garifuna faith and its importance to the Garifuna people today. He said that many Garifuna had become Christians mainly Catholics but also many had combined their adherence to Christian rituals with the Garifuna. I was told about the persistence of traditional "dugu" ceremony and ancestor worship among the Garifuna suggesting that it was one of the authentic Garifuna defining practices still in existence. Many persons I had met in Belize have told me that "obeah" and similar spirit possession practices prevailed but that it was especially pronounced among the Garifuna. I was invited to meet a main practitioner of the dugu ceremony but I declined.
Mr. Flores also felt that I should meet a distinguished Garifuna couple, Eugene and Felicia Hernandez, who were also Garifuna returnees from the diaspora and who had established a home in Dangriga. Felicia Hernandez was famous for her many books on Garifuna folktale and children's books. I was invited to dinner and entered a very substantial but well secured bungalow attesting to widespead fear of burglary in Dangriga. Eugene and Felicia were retired and wanted to preserve the Garifuna way of life and its historical memory. Eugene, who was the one who insisted on returning to Belize, had taken up farming around Dangriga. Felicia reluctantly joined her husband pointing out that she was adapting to all of the inconveniences of Dangriga and was not too dissatisfied. She had written several children's books and had etched much recognition for her work, several copies of which were given to me. They had children who continued to reside in the USA.
When I was in Belmopan, I had taken time out to see Mr. Roy Caeytano who was the current President of the National Garifuna Council. He had invited me for summer with his family at his home in Dangriga that weekend. Cayetano was tall, trim and articulate as well as well traveled and educated with advanced university degrees. He has been a frequently invited person to international conferences on development issues. At dinner, his teenage children and wife joined him in a Garifuna prayer of thanks. Mrs. Cayetano was also a well-educated Garifuna schoolteacher. The home was decorated with Garifuna artifacts and paintings. We discussed many problems of the Garifuna people of which the main one pertained to the loss of the Garifuna language and Garifuna traditions generally in part stemming from the large Garifuna diaspora. I asked Roy about an upcoming Garifuna event sponsored by "The World Garifuna Council" that was scheduled a month later. I was told that the event was hosted by Dr. Ted Aranda, A Garifuna member of parliament in the current government but that the event did not receive the blessing of the National Garifuna Council. Evidently, there was quite a bit of infighting among the Belize Garifuna elite and this was manifested in the event for all of the public to see.
Onwards to Toledo and Punta Gorta, my heart was palpitating with expectations. Toledo is Belize's most southern district, some 1,704 sq.mls or 20% of Belize, bordering on Guatemala. Before leaving Belize City, I was told by Dr. Palacio that Punta Gorda or PG as it was known, was the most ethnically diverse part of Belize: "If you really want to witness diversity, go to PG". Present were Mayas, Garinuga, Creoles, and East Indians. The proportions in Toledo were Garifuna 37%, Mayas 21%, Creoles 7% and East Indians 6-8%. While this diversity attracted me, it was the Maya Mountains that drew my first attention reaching 3,000 feet above sea level at whose foothills was located the largest Maya township, San Antonio. Outside of PG, the Mayas were the predominant community. In PG, however, the ethnic composition was quite different composed of Creoles, Garifuna, East Indians, and Mayas. A sprawling town with a fine boardwalk and extensive road fronting the coastal waters, PG had a cosmopolitan air about it. While Garifuna were the largest community with about 37% of the population, they were not dominant with Creoles numbering 7%, Mayas (Mopan and Kekchi) 15%, Mixed 16%, East Indians 5%. About half of the town was Catholic and the other half Protestant. Five languages were spoken.
As I entered Toledo district, I was confronted by a very large flat forested underpopulated plain truncated by many rivers. There was lumbering operations being conducted by foreign firms, mainly Malaysian, which aroused the wrath of the Mayas and environmentalists. The main road, the Southern Highway, was under construction and was very dusty. It was in Toledo that the Mayas were claiming a Maya Homeland of some half a million acres. My entry into Toledo signaled meeting the largest concentration of peoples of Mayan extraction in Belize. Southwest Belize and the Mayan Mountains are the home of such large Mayan settlements as San Antonio. I was intrigued with this Mayan category since none of the countries of the Caribbean possessed any such grouping. Belize did and for someone coming from the insular Caribbean based in Trinidad, the idea of a Mayan had the exotic aura of novelty. To be sure, before arriving in Belize, I had read about some very large new archaeological digs of ancient Mayan settlements in Belize, and that apart, I have read a fair amount of materials about the Mayas in Central America. However, my prior knowledge of the Mayas in Belize was practically zero. I was equally unprepared for the contestations that I would encounter regarding the Mayas and their identity and claims in Belize. It was in Toledo that these issues were in turmoil focused around the argument that the Mayas of the Toledo District were indigenous to that part of Belize. The Maya Cultural Council of Toledo based in PG, claimed indigenous status of the Mayas as a means of justifying ownership of a vast area that they wanted to be officially declared a "Maya Homeland". The other communities of Creoles, Garifuna, and East Indians in the district challenged this view arguing that Belize was a country of immigrants and that the Mayas of the Toledo district were relatively recent arrivals like everyone else in the area and consequently the claim of a "Mayan Homeland" was not justified.
The school books used throughout Belize recite a clear narrative that conceded that there were Mayan settlements in Belize prior to the arrival of the British woodcutters in the early seventeenth century, but proceed to point out that the present day Mayans in Belize were not descended from this original community of Mayas. Rather, they were recent arrivals and in some cases arriving later than the Creoles and Garifuna. The Mayas in Belize are classified in these school textbooks as belonging to three groupings:
Among the Mopan and Kekchi of Toledo, this history is sharply challenged. They both claim ancestry of the Mayas and thus are entitled to the status of the "first" inhabitants of Belize with collateral entitlements. In Toledo, the Mopan and Kekchi dwell on small parcels of reserve land given to them by the state but they complain that it is very inadequate to sustain their traditional life as slash and burn milpa farmers. It was in 1980 when the Mopan of Toledo first registered their claim for a Mayan Homeland encompassing some half a million acres. The request was not conceded but it has triggered a fierce debate among the various ethnocultural communities in Toledo about the authenticity of the "nativeness" of the Mayans in the areas that they claim. Interestingly, since history is treated as an important tool in constructing a group's identity and registering its claims and complaints, all the communities in Belize have evolved their own historical narrative with each claiming the status of being native and indigenous. The Garifuna for example underscore that like the ancient Mayas, they are indigenous to the New World, and that apart, they arrived in southern Belize in 1802 long before the Mopan and Kekchi. The Creoles argue for priority based on the story of the battle of St. George's Quay in 1798. The Mestizos have taken no back seat to anyone since they have been coming into Belize at least as long ago as the Mayas.
I was staying in a small hotel in PG and was lucky to discover that the Maya Cultural Council of Toledo was scheduled to hold a meeting of its Executive Council on Saturday. I decided to attempt seeing them, after all I was meeting with all communities. When I found the location of their meeting place, I knocked and was met politely. The President of the MCC, Mr. Valentino Shal, asked me to return in the afternoon after their official meeting was over. Before returning, I did have a sense of apprehension since by phenotype I was an East Indian and the East Indian Cultural Council had joined forces with the Creoles and Garifuna against the MCC on the Maya Homeland claim. I was shown a seat and faced about eight interrogating gazing persons who wanted to know about my business. It was a tense fifteen minutes as I explained my mission and handled questions. I stayed absolutely clear of the land issue and focused on my University and its role in Belize. I wanted to know why there was no Maya student in my university and pointed out that we were there to serve them also. That led to many curious questions about UWI and the revelation that they were in need of higher education opportunities especially if scholarships could be made available. Many of the university educated Mayas went to college in the United States with a few attending the University of Belize including the current President of the Toledo Maya Council. This focus on UWI and the need of the Mayas for educational opportunities broke the ice. They entered into a long discussion about their lack of trained people and poverty among the Mayas who they claimed were the most disadvantaged community in Belize. Soon I was serve coffee and cake and the discussion became warm and cordial. I was presented with a colourful book in part compiled by the Geography Department at the University of California, Berkeley, describing the Maya villages in Toledo. It was clear that the Mayas were well connected via the Internet with other Mayas as well as First Nation organizations in the Americas. Subsequently, I met again with Valentino Shal, the President of the Toledo Maya Council and he and I exchanged ideas on development. He outlined his educational interests after he received his degree from the University of Belize but was not too interested in leaving Belize for any length of time. He was an articulate young man and had appeared on radio and television to represent Mayan interests in Belize. Shal had replaced an older Mayan as President of the MCC in part because of his Western education. He was well attuned to Belizean politics and saw himself as defender of the Mayan claim for a homeland. For some time before the Homeland claim became an acute crisis pitching the Mayas against the Garifuna, Creoles and East Indians, these communities talked with each other and had a collaborative working relationship. But ever since these other communities appeared and voiced their opposition before the relevant parliamentary committee in Belmopan over proposal for a Mayan homeland in Toledo, relations between these communities and the Mayas have been strained.
I bypassed San Antonio until a couple of days later having been urged to see this historic Maya settlement. It was only one of numerous Maya settlements but the largest with many municipal facilities. It was built on hills and the roads were narrow and houses small and some adope-like. My main contact was a nurse at the Health Center. She explained that the Health center was the busiest spot in town attesting to the poverty and diseases in the town. There was lot of intestinal worms because of the fact that most children do not have shoes. There was much unemployment and idleness.
I was on my way to PG where I would stay for my visit. I was rather intrigued by the fact that I was going to meet East Indians in fairly large concentrated numbers. On the way to the township of PG, I was shown a series of villages that were East Indian settlements. Who were these Indians? How did they get to Belize and how are they faring? I had a natural curiosity being a descendant of Indian laborers to the Caribbean myself. I made contact with Tyrone Bardalez, an odd name for an Indian, and he was the President of the East Indian Council which was based in PG. I was invited on a Sunday to the home of the Bardalez in the village of Forest Home on the outskirts of PG. On Saturday night I was however free and decided to see if there is any Indian restaurants in the town. The search yielded a restaurant that was run by an East Indian woman and it was said that she would obviously have curry dishes on her menu. When I went to restaurant, I could not see any curry dishes on the menu and asked to see the Indian woman. She was about 30 years old, spoke perfect Belizean English and said that they made mainly general Belizean food for sale but that the previous day they had made a curry dish that was not made the way I would have expected. She said she did not use curry power which could not be obtained in Belize so they used "yellow ginger", an ingredient of curry. They only used this ingredient which in its powered form was produced by the Mayas. The Mayas themselves did not use the item to make a curry dish for themselves but produced it for sale to the Indians. The next day, at the Bardalez's home, a few other Indians also came to meet me. Among them was the acknowledged local East Indian historian, Wellington Ranguy. These were all familiarly looking Indian faces but no one wore a traditional Indian attire and everyone possessed a hybrid English and Spanish name and all were Christians. No Hindus or Muslims among them. They were in a simple but wooden home with an assortment of modern furniture but nothing to brag about. No Hindu or Muslim icons or photos in the house but family pictures and of Jesus Christ. They were most warmly welcoming as if they were meeting a long lost relative and were as cautious about me as I was curious about them. It was a strange feeling of affinity, about the surprise of survival in the New World, our ancestors coming across the Oceans that saw made die and many others dying on the plantations on which they were deployed, discriminated against, mistreated, and oppressed. Even though we were all several generations born locally in different locations in the New World, we seem to have shared sense of belonging in a common narrative of struggle and survival. I told them about Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname where large numbers of Indians lived and where a fairly vibrant Indian cultural retention was in existence. They were very apologetic claiming to be shorn of practically all things Indian remembering little and wanting me to tell them more about Indian life in the Caribbean. They were really surprised with the large numbers of Indians in Trinidad where of a population of 1.3 million, Indians constituted about 42% of the total and in Guyana of a population of some 800,000 Indians were about 56% of the population. I noted that there was an Indian cultural revival in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname with much interaction and that Trinidad had emerged as the site of a very vigorous Indian community constituted of a large reservoir of skilled and well educated persons and professionals as well as a prosperous business community and numerous temples and synagogues. Trinidad was also the home of many Indian cultural artists who produced new local Indian musical songs and dances. Indians had risen to positions of political leadership so that both Guyana and Trinidad had Indian Prime Ministers. They were awed.
Belizean Indians are clearly more Belizean than Indian constituting about 3.5% of the population and living in parts of the country today but mainly in Toledo, Corozal and Belize Districts. They came originally to Belize to provide a cheap source of labor for plantations arriving directly from both India and Jamaica. Mr. Wellington Rangy, the Indian historian, said in an essay he gave me that Indians from India first arrived in Belize in 1858. Mr. Ranguy recounted how after the Sepoy rebellion in India, the British parliament dispatched 1,000 Sepoy mutineers to Belize. Some were settled in Belize City on Queen Charlotte Street while most were consigned to work on sugar and lumber plantations in Corozal District leading to the development of three Indian settlements namely San Antonio, Calcutta Village and Carolina Village. Other Indians lived in Orange walk District, the site of the only remaining sugar refining factory in Belize. that became known as Calcutta Village.
The second batch of Indians arrived in 1872 recruited mainly from Jamaica to serve on sugar and banana plantations that were erected by ex-Confederates who had departed from the American South after the American Civil War. Needing cheap labor, these planters who had acquired tracts of land not far away from PG, they traveled to Caribbean ports such as Jamaica where they acquired East Indians. Most of those who came to Belize stayed after their labor contract expired. Some of those who came to the Punta Gorda area of Toledo District acquired land contiguous to the plantations and became permanent residents of Belize. A series of Indian villages exist today on the PG-San Antonio road named Forest Home, Cattle Landing, West Morland, Fairview, Mt. Royal, Jacintoville and Mafredi. It is said that the Indians in the PG villages have retained some Indian words which can be heard in their conversations which also seem to have a special speech inflection. A number of the Indians on completion of their contract migrated to Belize City and joined the Indian community on Queen Charlotte Street which became known as "Coolie Town".
The Indians I met in Forest Home explained that they were very isolated from other Indians in the Caribbean and that they knew very little about their historical memory but through Mr. Ranguy they were assembling old books, artifacts, and furniture towards establishing some sort of a museum later. They explained without apologizing for it that they had converted to Christianity through their plantation experience and mingling with other communities. There was also a fair amount of intermarriages with other groups. Their names had also changed as part of a simplification process initially and then through Christianisation and acculturation so that Ranghai became Ranguy, Ramcalorinea to Ramclan, Parhemran to Parham, Suphala to Supaul, Mangharan to Mangar etc. In Toledo, many Indians adapted surnames such as Williams, Edwards, Jacobs, and Coleman. I wanted to know the extent to which Indian practices such as food preparations and clothing styles were retained or adapted. Curry remained a dish but it was constructed almost entirely from yellow ginger supplied by the Mayas. They made a curry dish for lunch and it was mainly yellow but tasted just fine. Their clothing was entirely westernized like all Belizeans but they had no Indian music.
I asked about the Indian Cultural Council and was told that they simply followed suit by the example set by the establishment of the Creole Cultural Council, the Garifuna Cultural Council, and the Maya Cultural Council. They had successfully articulated, defended and promoted the interests of their respective communities and they felt that they should do the same. One success that they cited to me was their wresting from the Central government official recognition of the Indian community and their contribution to the development of Belize. At the moment, the East Indian Cultural Council was engaged in a dispute with the claims of the Maya Cultural Council for a Maya Homeland. They had linked their efforts in a coalition with the Creole an Garifuna Cultural Councils to oppose the Mayan demand since the land that is claimed by the Mayas include areas which have been traditionally occupied by Creoles, Garifuna and East Indians. These communities have disputed the position of the Mayas in Toledo that they were the original descendants of the area and countered that the Indians, Garifuna and Creoles were on some of this land before the Mayas had arrived in the area. The issue had become a national affair embroiled in partisan politics. The Minister for Lands was a Mayan and he was supportive of the Mayan land claim. Through the establishment of a Toledo Development Corporation (TDC), these land claims were to be settled so that whoever controlled the TDC would win out in this conflict, which had clearly become ethnic and communalized. The TDC was to be run by a Board and the elections for it had already begun in the convening of village meetings throughout Toledo.
A spot in PG that was highly recommended was the market especially on a Saturday. I went and it turned out to be a fairly small but compact area with an elongated wooden structure facing the sea. The market was busy as it was colourful with a large number of sellers squatting on the pavement overflowing from the wooden low-lying structure and even occupying the street. The vendors were practically all Mayas clustered in small groups most with small children and all selling he same set of bananas, cassava, and sweet potatoes made into small heaps. Some of the Mayas were very reddish clear while others were brownish which was later explained to me as a differentiator between the Mopan (brown) and the Kekchi. I remember one incident that was appalling where a Mayan mother was feeding her infant on a bottle of Pepsi at which I offered an ice-cream cone in its place which was readily accepted and just as quickly passed around. Inside the wooden building were also many other vendors but there was a section, which was for the selling of fish. I entered and the sellers changed to Creoles and Garifuna. Outside of the fish market facing the sea were many fishing boats where many buyers went to purchase directly from the fishermen. I also went out and again noticed that the fishermen were also either Garifuna or Creole. As in the case of the vegetable and fruit market, the buyers were mostly PG town's people, an assortment of everybody. Away from the wooden building almost on an adjacent street the products sold and the vendors themselves changed, his time to Central American hawkers peddling in their small trucks all manner of plastic and tin utensils. Some were selling fancy woven Mayan decorated cloth. Everything was orderly in the blazing sun with no policemen in sight with a festive busy atmosphere. The market was a veritable medley of peoples, Mayas, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Mestizo and even a Mennonite who was selling cut watermelons from a truck. I spoke to the Mennonite, a young man whose command of English was rather deficient.
Later in the day, I made a final and successful attempt to see the local Chairperson of the Creole Cultural Council. Creoles were the largest ethnic community in PG but not a majority, more like a third. She lived in a highfenced well-guarded compound in which was a large barn like house. She was most cordial and after our pleasantries, she ushered me into the big building, which as it turned out was a museum in the making. There collections of kitchen utensils, furniture, beds, and artifacts from the Creole community during the days of slavery and immediately afterwards. It was a fine collection, which was the nucleus of museum to celebrate the Creole memory and contribution to Belize. She was middle aged, confident and articulate.
Cayo District, sharing a border of some 266 kilometers with Guatemala, is the western inland region rising to Mt.Pine Ridge about 305 to 912 meters above sea level. Constituted by about 20% of Belize's population, Cayo is ethnically diverse with significant Mestizos, Creoles, and Mennonite communities (at Spanish Lookout) as well as fair number of North Americans. Cayo is the location of Belmopan, the country's capital, but its main municipality is San Ignacio/Santa Elena with about 7,000 to 8,000 persons. Cayo District has a very diverse economy which, apart from the infrastructure provided by the many government buildings and resident civil service communities, possesses a diverse agricultural base that provides large amounts of poultry, beef, pork, kidney beans, eggs, and furniture mainly from the Mennonite colony at Spanish Lookout. It also has citrus groves, some rice farms, and a number of food processing plants as well as light industries. Apart from these economic activities, it is also the site of two major Maya monuments, Cahal Pech and Xunantunich which draw tourists worldwide. Further, its biodiversity makes it the home of a number of rare bird species such as the scarlet macaws (about 200 left in the world), mammals such as the Bairds Tapir which is the national animal, and reptiles such as the Morelet crocodiles and numerous iguanas, all of which have led to a proliferation of environmental non-governmental organizations in the district. A maze of small motels and resorts have arisen to cater to tourists and environmentalists. But above all of these things, for Belizeans, the most significant event in Cayo relates to the controversial building of the $60m. Chalillo Hydroelectricity Dam across the Macal River that will cause major flooding of Maya sites and adversely affect several species of animals and birds apart from disrupting the livelihood of a large number of residents. The Chalillo Project was shaping up as a site of a major showdown between some environmentalist groups, which themselves are divided on the issue, and the government which is in part alleging that these opposing NGOs are foreign directed and not representative of the will of Belizeans.
The western border of Cayo fronts Guatemala where the town of Benque Viejo de Carmen sits contiguous to a customs and immigration post. Benque had a special appeal to me as a transnational site and the locus of interaction between Belizeans and Guatemalans over an inflamed border that has come to define the relations between the two countries. Benque was literally on the frontline. My travel to Benque was across hilly terrain, verdant fields, and many flowing rivers. Of all the municipalities in Belize, Benque had the only mayor who was not from the ruling political party of Belize. The mayor hosted me and gave me a passionate and long dose of all the harassment and discriminatory actions to which he had been allegedly submitted by the government in power. A Mestizo, the mayor living close to Guatemala was very sensitive to what he deemed as persistent harsh and inhumane way the Belizean Customs and Immigration officers, typically Creoles, dealt with Guatemalans seeking even legally to cross the border. He remarked that he had made an official complaint about it stressing that such practices did not contribute to good relations between Belizeans and Guatemalans. Instead, he argued that it tended to add to Guatemalan antagonism and resolve marked by racist epithets hurled against Belize. Despite, all of this the major pointed to several cross border events that moderated Belizean-Guatemalan relations including soccer matches between schools as well as a particular high school on the Belizean side to which many well of Guatemalan families send their children for an English education.
For Belizeans, the border was a symbol of illegal Guatemalan incursion into their country and Guatemalan ambitions for Belizean territory. For Guatemala it was the doorway to reclaiming territory that they regarded as theirs. Along the border, there is a prominent Guatemalan sign that proclaimed "Belice Est Nuestro" (Belize is ours). Across customs checkpoint was the Guatemalan town of Melchior to which Belizeans travel in fair numbers especially on holidays to procure cheaper Guatemalan products. The Belizean dollar carries greater value in Guatemala so that Belizeans find shopping there quite profitable. I was also told that many Belizean males enter Melchior so as to procure the services of prostitutes for cheap. When asked what were the most distinctive and obvious differences between life in Belize as compared with life in Guatemala, many Belizeans point to the presence of large numbers of young and heavily armed Guatemalan soldiers everywhere. One Belizean asserted that it was a difference between night and day. Objectively, the differences were indeed dramatic. Politically, Belize is a parliamentary democracy in which regular elections have held without interruption since it received self-government from Britain and is marked by a free mass media in newspapers, radio, and television exercised openly by citizens without fear. Several other liberal democratic institutions function well such as an impartial judiciary, a Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsman in a political system where two major rival parties have competed for the consent of the citizenry for leadership and in which political succession has become routine. This was not to suggest that the system worked perfectly but even with its many problems and distortions it has performed fairly adequately with ongoing attempts at political reform in a relatively stable order. Guatemala on the other hand has been chronically unstable, wracked by civil war, repression, and one of the world's worst records of human rights violations. Economically, Belize has a high per capita that is about three times that of Guatemala, a literacy rate of over 80% compared to Guatemala's 55%. Occupying 42,500 sq.mls. and with over 12 million people, Guatemala both in physical size and population literally towers over little Belize with only 8,866 sq.mls and 250,000 people. Historically, Guatemala, a Spanish colony from 1524 to 1821, became independent in 1829 while Belize, a British colony, became independent only in 1981. To Belizeans, it was good fortune that they were not colonized by Spain or overrun by Guatemala which would have imparted a destiny similar to that of Guatemala's parlous economic and political state. As the sole English-speaking country in Central America defining itself more as English Caribbean than Spanish Central American, Belize feels alone and isolated, creating ingrained insecurity against a larger and aggressive neighbour.
Guetamala had claimed Belize as an integral part of its territory justifying this on the basis of its being the successor state to Spain which had sovereignty of the entire region. Over the past century and a half, the Guatemalan claim had been repeatedly inflamed to the brink of an impending invasion only to be arrested by the threat of British counterattack. Britain had actually inserted harrier jets into Belize to symbolize its intent to defend Belize. On entering Belize at the airport, there is a model of a Harrier jet hoisted on display. Negotiations have continued with Belize enrolling a high powered team to secure its boundaries. It seemed that the matter was about to be resolved by an adjustment of the border but it was a proposal that required passage of a referendum on both sides of the border. The border dispute has been very costly to Belize, hampering commercial development and incurring massive costs to maintain an alert military force. Belize has a system of universal military conscription. Incidentally, while I was visiting PG, at the Saturday market, I ran into a small contingent of Belizean soldiers and talked to them. They were all Mayans and I became aware that the Belize Army provided employment and skills training to a large number of Belizeans like the Mayas who would normally be in unfortunate straits. The border issue also plays a crucial role in the Guatemalan imagination turned into a political football for mass excitement and mobilization. In 1992 when the regime of Jorge Sorrano Elias recognized Belize diplomatically even though Belize was independent since 1981, he was subsequently overthrown by the military with an attempt made to withdraw recognition of Belize.
To bring some stability to border relations, the United nations has offerred its good offices Belize and Guatemala reached an agreement on November 8, 2000 to establish "an Adjacency Zone" one kilometer wide of the Adjacency Line within which the existing settlers would be left alone but with no further settlers allowed. Both Belize and Guatemala registered complaints leading on January 17, 2001 to a Plan of Action to implement the November 8 agreement but this was sent to an arbitrator for final settlement. During the periodic threats by Guatemala to invade, the Maya leaders of Belize, egged on by overtures to break rank with Belize and support Guatemala refused, and instead declared their unequivocal support for the inviolability of the present Belize borders.
It is difficult to overstate the salience that the Guatemalan dispute makes on Belizean political life not only in relation to the border delimitations but also in regard to the refugee influx and illegal entry of Central Americans into Belize. With the dramatic influx of "aliens" into Belize beginning in the early 1980s, this factor came to taint much of Belize's politics and discourse on the issue of ethnic demographic balance. The Creole and Garifuna community was particularly estranged and critical in seeing their comparative numbers eroding. However, there was another reason for their being critical of the influx stemming from the fact that many of the Central Americans espoused racist attitudes to them referring to the as "negritos".16 This was experienced first hand on plantations and workplaces in these countries where West Indian Blacks had sought employment. To be sure, much of this behavior was instigated by "divide and rule" practices of plantation owners. Arriving then in Belize, it was not entirely unexpected that many of these "aliens" received a cold shoulder and worse from Belize's Black population.
The political parties became embroiled in the "alien" and refugee issue with the United Democratic Party, often identified with the Creole section of the population, openly campaigning against their entry and continued presence. The People's United party was labeled as sympathetic with Guatemala and the Central Americans, fairly or unfairly, so that in the 1984 elections, the first after independence, when the UDP made "aliens" its main platform, it successfully evicted the PUP from power. Again, this happened in 1993 when the British decided to remove most of its troops in Belize, the Central American issue reared its head again resulting in the loss of power of the PUP. Regardless, under George Price, the PUP leader and Belize's first Prime Minister, his government and party was tarred with the political brush of being pro-Guatemala and Central American. One educated Creole woman told me bluntly that the present PUP government favored illegal immigration since it provided the votes to win elections. To be sure, the PUP has showed greater inclination of negotiating with Guatemala and regularizing border relations emphasizing that it was an inescapable part of the geography of Central America. The UDP on the other hand has recited the mantra of its being Caribbean distancing itself from Guatemala as much as possible. In all of this, it was also argued that the USA favored the Guatemalan side of the dispute because of powerful role of the Chiquita banana lobby in the US Congress. Chiquita grows much of its bananas in Guatemala.
The refugee and "alien" issue has turned on the question of patriotism. I heard it said many times during my trip that Guatemala remains a problem and that not all Belizeans hold Belize with equal loyalty. I found this position difficult to understand especially in the light that Belizeans prefer to be Belizeans and nobody else with a sense of being unique and different, some of this identity expressed in relation to the Guatemalan "other". Being Belizean makes them more similar to North Americans, a preferred point of reference with which they share the English language. The migrant influx has also affected labor relations. Trade unions in Belize argue that Central Americans are deliberately recruited as cheap labor so as to marginalise Belizean workers who in turn have developed hostility to the "alien" presence. It is argued that it is not true that Belizeans are lazy and refuse to work on the citrus and banana plantations but rather that they were pushed out by cheap labor of the Central Americans. Finally, the refugee and "alien" issue had become ethnically criminalised with many Belizeans imputing to the Central Americans not only unhygienic lifestyle but crime and drugs. All of this despite the fact that many refugees and illegal migrants have become permanent residents and citizens, sending their children to English-medium schools and acquiring homes and jobs, with a firm commitment and loyalty to Belize with absolutely no desire to return to their old homes. In fact, I was reliably told that the children of the migrants have become so anglicized that they risk forgetting their Spanish heritage.
Cayo is also a main region where a colony of the Mennonites of Belize reside at Spanish Lookout. They came in 1958 from Manitoba, Canada, Chihuahua in Mexico and Germany. There are six main communities at Blue Creek, Shipyard, Little Belize, Progresso, Spanish Lookout and Barton Creek. While I did see a few of them, men in denim overalls and straw hats, women in bonnets and long dresses, mainly in towns doing business. I did not actually get the opportunity to talk with anyone of then at length until later. In Cayo, though, the Mennonites who arrived in Belize came from, Manitoba Canada. I did find out that they lived in a closely-knit semi-isolated community exercising exclusive control of their schools, churches and financial institutions while maintaining robust commercial links with the rest of the Belizean economy. They had evolved a reputation as producers of poultry, eggs, furniture, pork, beef, and used cars. They have added to Belize's ethnic diversity even though they remain unintegrated socially, culturally and politically in mainstream Belizean life. I was told by Dr. Palacio that a few had actually left their colonies and joined mainstream Belize. From my discussions with one of them, I gather that the colonies are different in relation to their level of adoption to Western technology, with those at Barton Creek practicing an austere adherence to a "horse and buggy" life style devoid of any radio, television, and vehicles while those at Spanish Lookout are immersed in all forms of technology. There are a few which are in between such as Shipyard which utilizes machinery for agriculture and furniture making but avoid vehicles and electronic gadgets. Some Mennonites have become very prosperous selling products in the Belize economy and have further expanded their assets and properties by acquiring more land and investing in cattle ranches. One of the problems which they seem to experience realities to the young who may drink and commit offenses. I gather that the male leadership of the colonies may still engage in meting out corporal punish on offenders although there are several cases where the offenses required Belize police to be summoned.
My final trip took me to the north of Belize into Orange walk and Corozal Districts. For a variety of reasons, I was intrigued by this region bound by the Rio Hondo River separating the Mexican State of Quintana Roo on the north and by Peten District of Guatemala on the west from Belizean territory. To begin with, geographically, this northern region is part of the Yucatan Peninsula marked by continuities of Mayan relics which attract visitors worldwide. Second, this was the area where Belize as a British outpost and an English colony started with the extraction of lumber. Third, it was also the region where a number of East Indians were brought to labor on the sugar plantations and there were several existing Indian settlements attest to this fact. Finally, it was the location of Belize's only duty free economic zone aimed at stimulating Belize's manufacturing sector. I should also add to all these reasons the importance of the Mexican contiguity to Corozal. Mexico's Yucatan had provided the Maya and Mestizo settlements into northern Belize leading today to the descendants of the Mestizos becoming the largest part of the Belize population. Mexico continues to exert a major cultural impact on Belize, apart from the fact that the north is mainly Spanish speaking, practically all of Belize's electric power is supplied by Mexico, and many Belizeans regularly drive through Mexico on a three day trip to California.
With about 70,000 residents, Orange Walk and Corozal are predominantly Mestizo, over 75%. I was taking the trip in the company of David Fonseca, the Mayor of Belize who was going to the Corozal Free Trade Zone on the Mexican border to attend the annual Mayors meeting. I was scheduled to address the meeting talking on the subject of decentralization and local democracy. I was also privileged to remain after my talk to listen to the mayors engage in a frank discussion of the problems in Belize's cities and towns. All of the mayors appreciated my lecture and enthusiastically invited me to come to their municipalities. I had actually come to know a few of the mayors having already visited Dangriga, PG, Benque, Belize City, and Belmopan.
The Northern Highway thrusts forward towards Orange Walk and Corozal witnessed by distinct changes in increased heat and dryness on a flat semi-arid terrain. The sight of sugar cane evoked nostalgia in me having been born and raised on a sugar plantation in Guyana. Concentrated almost equally in Corozal and Orange Walk Districts, the sugar industry, which provides the largest part of Belize's export revenues, occupies 60,000 acres of the agricultural land. Intensely cultivated by manual labor supplied by Central American recruits, the farms average about 13.4 acres with a number as large as 1,000 acres. In 1999, sugar accounted for 10.2% of Belize's GDP, 24.7% of all export earnings, 33.2% of all agricultural exports. Even though the industry has witnessed a downward trend over the last five years and has been sustained by high preferential prices from the European Union and the USA, it still provides a livelihood for about 40,000 families and supplies employment to 13% of the Belizean work force directly and indirectly. Belize Sugar Industry, the main employer is owned by an Employee Trust (81.9%), and runs the only sugar factory still operating in Belize today.
I spent a good part of an entire day in the Corozal Economic Zone which struck me as a devastated area, noisy and dusty, everything under reconstruction. One person likened it to the Wild West. Everything seemed to be in a mess of unpaved streets and loud construction vehicles coming and going in all directions. Cars and trucks were plentiful everywhere, more than the roads could accommodate. It seemed as if something like a gold rush was in progress although it could be drugs instead. There were numerous stores and factory outlets which imported raw materials duty free and converted or assembled them into inexpensive consumer goods. There were familiar brand goods including Nike sneakers, tools, cameras, TVs, tools, fabrics and clothes, household goods etc in establishments mostly run by Belize's Chinese and East Indian merchants. Only Mexicans and tourists were permitted in the Zone as buyers. A casino was recently opened aiming to attract tourists from as far away as Merida and Cancun. The impact of the Zone on the northern economy has been positive providing employment directly for about 1,000 Belizeans and stimulating light manufacturing.
I accepted the invitation by the mayor of Orange Walk to spend some time in his town. But I did spend some time and over night in Corozal town. The word Corozal derives from the Spanish name for the cohune palm tree, the Mayan symbol of fertility. Situated on the Bay of Chetumal just below the Mexican border, Corozal Township was a seaside community of about 12,000. Looking very much architecturally like a Mexican small town with the familiar central plaza bound by the town council and Catholic Church buildings, trees lined its wide streets. Remarkably, it possessed a museum that housed many relics of the Maya past making it as well as the nearby Mayan archeological sites at Santa Rita and Cerros main tourist attractions. Everywhere I went, Spanish was spoken but when I asked questions in English, I received replies in English making the town bilingual. Its schools are all conducted in English without resistance The town depends on the sugar industry as well as tourism and the employment from the Zone for its survival. It has a string of fine hotels on its lovely coast where I stayed but has been hit periodically by hurricanes. I should remark that Corozal town is also a major transportation hub in Belize standing at the beginning and end of many journeys into Mexico.
Orange Walk lured me in part because it was the site of Belize's only remaining sugar factory. All sugar from Corozal as well as Orange walk must be brought here and as I traveled during the harvest season, the roads were packed wit trucks carrying sugar cane to the factory .I wanted to witness the sugar production process, taste the molasses, eat the sugar cane itself and smell the aroma of sugar factory. I could only do some of this because of time constraints. After an escorted tour of the sugar operations, I was given a guide by the mayor for a familiarity round of visits in the town itself. I was very surprised with the size of the town's commercial center and the vigor of its activities rivaling anything that Belize City can offer Orange walk was much more a brisk commercial site than Corozal town which is sleepy by comparison. Although predominantly Mestizo, it contained quite a significant community of Creoles, Chinese and East Indians as well as Central Americans who provided the main labor force for the sugar industry manual work. My guide was actually a close aide of the mayor and I soon learnt that his father was the owner of a major honey farm in Orange Walk. Honey was produced mainly in Orange Walk and Corozal in Belize. In our discussions, I discovered that Orange walk suffered from some common urban problems such as drugs and crime. But, it also suffered from dustiness, which was named by residents among its top problems. I was told that for young people, the north was a desert of opportunities and many migrate either of Belize City or the USA. There were many complaints about land scarcity and the need to be politically connected to get a piece of land. Sugar which was still king here had superceded logwood and mahagony but it also was in crisis. Many of Belize's Mestizo elite had made their fortune in sugar but have now moved into commerce and tourism. Many still own extensive tracts of land.
The following observations rely both on the many interviews and observations that I have made not only from my month long travels in Belize but from reading a fait amount of the literature on Belize. I also benefited from three follow-up trips to Belize during which I continued to interview and observe and collect data. Even so, after a couple of years of studying Belize, it hardly qualifies me as an expert. I make no pretenses. This then is work in progress which will continue over the next years ahead and during which I expect to make many changes to what follow. I shall forth my observations in enumerated sections.
1. Why is there no open ethnic and racial strife in Belize unlike many parts of the world which also have multi-ethnic populations?
I asked this question repeatedly everywhere among scholars and the educated as well as politicians and lay people. The answers varied. One frequent response argued that the ethnic communities are spread out through the country with each enjoying pre-eminence in it own region. This is a spatial theory of ethnic conflict in which separation provides a buffer among the communal sections. Deriving logically from this argument is the conclusion that physical proximity and contact promote conflict. Much of this thesis flies in the face of another theory which posits that ethnic and racial conflict tends to occur when groups live apart and consequently do not know each other seeing each other through stereotype. In this view, the solution is more contact which will facilitate knowledge of your neighbor as promote understanding, tolerance, and cordial relations. I suspect that both theses are correct depending on the sort of separation or contact that is experienced by the groups. Hostility or friendship may not be spatially related at all but what is important regardless of distance is the perception of each other mediated through the media, schools, leaders, etc. Inter-group relations are learned not constructed from the imagination.
I have discovered that Belizeans do harbor many negative stenotypes of each other derived less from personal knowledge and more indirectly from prior prejudices and rumors. Depending on a variety of factors including contiguity, prejudice, and fear, it is just as easy or difficult for a Creole in Belize City to harbor positive or negative sentiments about Central American "aliens", Mayas, Mestizos or Garifuna living in Belize City as in Punta Gorda or any where else. Geographical separation or neighborhood contiguity may not by itself be determinative. Empirically, it would be useful to test the hypothesis that asserts that a particular ethnic community has different sentiments and evaluations of another community depending on their spatial separation or closeness. My suspicion is that the tolerance that exists in Belize derives less from spatial separation and more from other factors such as the fact that each of the major communities has pre-eminence in its own geographical sphere which limits inter-ethnic contests over power, recognition and resources. In places like Punta Gorda and Belize City where there is more inter-ethnic contact in the daily lives of all communities, there is competition for scarce material and symbolic resources including employment and respect. Empirical research needs to be done to ascertain the true state of affairs in these towns. There is no denying that inter-group stereotypes and prejudices exist among Belizeans. How are these managed publicly in communities living in close contact as in towns and workplaces?
2. How strong or weak is ethnic identity in Belize?
It will be useful to begin by offering a definition of ethnicity before proceeding to answer the battery of questions on ethnicity that will follow. Ethnic identity emerges from collective group consciousness that imparts a sense of belonging derived from membership in a community bound putatively by common descent and culture. As a subjective phenomenon, it imparts to the individual, a sense of belonging and to the community a sense of solidarity.17 Identity as belonging can be acquired through membership in various communities bound by one or more social attributes such as race, language, religion, culture, region, etc. In each case, the individual perceives subjectively and emphatically regardless of objective and empirical facts, that his or her relation to a linguistic, religious, or cultural community is a unique link that confers a special sense of personal value, importance and collective meaning. Often this identity is formed in contradistinction to the claims of other groups to a similar sense of uniqueness so that in a real sense identity formation is a relational and comparative phenomenon locked into "we-they" antipathies which may be mildly benign or overtly hostile. To belong is simultaneously to include and exclude, to establish a boundary, even though this line of demarcation may be, as Barth noted, fluid and situational social constructs that are "subjectively held categories of ascription and identity by actors themselves".18 Ethnic identity expressed as a solidarity structure serves important instrumental functions in daily life such as facilitating the acquisition of material gains such as jobs and conferring expressive and emotional satisfactions.19 In multi-ethnic environments, where an individual may move from one context to another, from one situation to another, from among affines to strangers, it is not unusual to find multiple identities in operation.
3. Is Belize a place where ethnic group consciousness is strong? Are members of the eight ethnic communities in Belize deeply immersed in their group so that much of individual behaviour can be explained from their membership? Does their ethnic membership make them rivals or even antagonists to other communities? As subjectively held constructs, are these Belizean identities malleable and opportunistically worn and discarded depending on the situation? Is there an overarching Belizean identity that subordinates ethnic membership to a national idea?
Many persons that I spoke to at first declared themselves Belizean. Especially, this was the response from Creole and Garifuna persons in Belize City. On probing however I did discover the existence of an ethnic map, a consciousness of one's own group identity and an awareness of similar identities among compatriots. Everyone in Belize that I spoke to had a mental ethnic geography that located him or her comparatively with others. With little prodding, it quickly came out for discussion. The group that most quickly called itself by its symbolic ethnic marker was the Mayans in Punta Gorda. In fact, at one point I thought that they had arrogated to themselves the sole title of the authentic inhabitants of the country claiming indigenous status. This however was only a "mask of confrontation" in relation to their claims for a Maya homeland. What is however important in ascribing to oneself an identity is often it subsumes a claim. Clearly, some of these designations can be dangerous when ascribed collective identities assume the form of hegemonic cultural claims that omit or marginalise the interests and self-definition other communities. Whether this is done by Mayas in relation to their claims of indigeneity and a homeland or Creoles in relation to their self-ascribed heroic role in founding the Belizean state, it all underscores the point that identities are potentially dangerous constructs in multi-ethnic states. They can be manipulated against other groups for material and symbolic gains, even promoting oppressive ends as Edward Said pointed out.20
Many issues in Belize have become ethnicized and racialised. Writing an article entitled "Towards An Understanding of Racism in Belize" in the SPEAR newsletter, IDEAS, Garifuna Kathrine Mendez argued that the legacy of colonialism and slavery in creating a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society had reverberated in widespread prejudice and discrimination. She said: "One of the legacies of this system is racism, which we deny exists in Belize. Inter-ethnic and cross-racial hostility also exists in Belize. What we try to do is convince ourselves that we live in peaceful coexistence with each other or that racism is relatively mild in Belize."21 She continues her argument about the impact of the colonial past saying "those systems continue to be perpetuated today in different forms and with different levels of sophistication."22 She gave several cases in her experience to illustrate her position of which two will be cited. Case 1: "A Mestizo teacher in Orange walk explaining to his Standard IV students that his children are not accustomed to black people and if a black person stayed at his home and woke up in the nite, his children would run". Case 2: "My Mestizo neighbour in Orange Walk whose home I used to visit telling a Mayan man in Spanish not to be afraid of her dog because it would bite only people of colour".23
Ms. Mendez went to describe her own experience with being called by ethnic derogatory epithets pointing to the larger picture of ethnic groups in their own privacy referring to others by uncomplimentary slurs. She said that she was called "kerub", "negrita salmbambu", "caribita" etc. While travelling through Belize, I did run into the use of many derogatory ethnic names apart from "coolie". They included "pania" for Mestizos, among others. Stereotypes are often found as part of the package in ethnic name calling. None of this is surprising in practically any multi-ethnic society. What is interesting about Belize is the "hush hush" way it is articulated and practised. It may well be much more insidious than the appearance of open inter-racial cordiality may suggest. The charge by a major newspaper editor of Belize that society is marked by an ideology of "colourism" is as disturbing as it is suggestive.
Probably the issue that has drawn most commentary along ethnic and racial lines is migration. Like a hydra-headed monster, it has assumed many forms. In relation to the issue of citizenship and belonging, while it was repeatedly asserted that Belize was "a country of migrants", a statement found everywhere in schoolbooks and tourist literature alike, the problem of priority in migration has become contentious. No ethnic community is prepared to take a back seat to the claims for priority and status by another community, each seeking instead to indiginise itself in its own historiography.
Migration has taken a severe toll on the fate of the "alien" Central American community. Anthropologist Mark Moberg had described the impact of the entry of cheap Central American workers on the attitude of Belizean workers: "Conflict between ethnic groups which originated in many instances from displacement of high-paid Belizean workers by immigrants has increasingly assumed a phenotypic, cultural and linguistic dimension".24 The workplace in the production of bananas and citrus is now marked by ethnic stratification and stereotypical rigidities with Creole, Garifuna, and Maya employees likely to be found in supervisory roles while the "aliens" serve as manual field workers.25 But the Central American presence had taken a larger societal toll. While those who seek to defend the migrants underline their contribution to the development of farming expertise and skills in Belize, the rest of the Belizean population and the media lambaste them as unwelcome criminals: "Given daily recitations in the media of the alleged criminality, violence, and racism of the Central American migrants, it is not surprising that the newcomers have not been well received".26 In a report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belize, it was observed that "there are unfortunately numerous stories of refugees who have been objects of racial harassment, assaults by Creole youths, or mistreatment at the hands of the police".27 In public places, the harassment has been described in more detail: "In public, Belizean youths often relish humiliating jokes at the migrants' expense; in shops central Americans may be pushed aside and told frequently by Belizeans to wait; on buses they lose their seats to Belizean passengers. Entering a bar, frequently migrants may be loudly greeted with 'Go home, Paisa, we do not want aliens here'. Paisa, short for paisano, alternates in private speech with such overly derogatory references as 'Yellow-bellied Pania' (Spaniards)".28 The harassment and assaults in turn had been met by similar racial epithets and stereotypes in which Afro-Belizeans are described as indolent, obstreperous, and primitive. The language of insult and counter insult has today gone underground but the underlying attitudes persist making this a sore area of inter-ethnic relations in Belize. As central Americans adopt Belizean permanent residence and citizenship, relations have moderated with the testimony of several cases of inter-marriages between the Black community and them. The stigma persist nevertheless kept alive by the continued entry of Central Americans into Belize albeit at a lesser pace than the 1980s.
Migration has also become a perennial issue in the general elections of the country with ethnic overtones entangled. This is indisputably a sensitive site where the ethnic factor had periodically merged with political campaign rhetoric as a strongly articulated force. Specifically, the influx of "aliens" from Central America and the fears that it had triggered had been capitalised upon by the United Democratic party against the People's United Party which has been accused as sympathetic to Guatemala. While both parties are multi-ethnic, it is generally perceived that the UDP has a hard core of Creole support and the PUP a similar level of Mestizo adherents. Generally, however, the two parties are not ethnically based formations and they had each taken power winning and losing the same constituencies in different elections. In the 1984 elections, the UDP openly charged the PUP regime with encouraging Central American migration as a method to "Latinise" the electorate. Anthropologist Nigel Bolland articulated these points: "In fact one of the most important consequences of Guatemala's persistent claim to Belize has been the perception of internal disunity and mutual suspicions with Creoles in particular fearing recolonisation. The Guatemalan threat encourages Creole Belizeans to continue to think of the Spanish-speaking Maya and Mestizo Belizean as the British thought of them, namely as representatives of an alien culture. Many Creoles feel that Belize is and should remain a predominantly English-speaking country and fear that the "latinization" of Belize will displace them."29
The PUP was defeated and again in the 1993 elections with the same result. Even today, some still make the same argument alleging that the PUP had registered the "aliens" for political gain. There is the stigma that has stuck that the PUP is pro-"aliens" and pro-Central American with the subterranean subtext that it is also a Mestizo-dominated party that has defined Belizean identity not as Caribbean but Central American. There is an ethnic shadow involved in these associations. Echoes of this perceived ethnic polarisation at election time is now heard in the view that Dean Barrow as a Creole leader of the UDP will not be elected as Prime Minister in the next elections. The two occasions when the UDP wrested power from the PUP occurred when its leader, Manuel Esquivel, was a Mestizo. The larger point however suggests that there is for political purposes an alliance between the Creole and Garifuna community versus the Hispanics and Mayas. This is yet to be proven decisively but there are suggestive intimations outlining this ominous. The instigator of this alignment of ethnic forces into the political partisan realm would clearly be assigned in part to the two migratory processes of Central American influx and Creole-Garifuan outflow resulting in Mestizo ascendancy.
Overall, it is safe to infer from the materials that I have been exposed to that ethnic consciousness is pervasive evoked in some situations more than others. The raw materials of ethnic consciousness are visible but not dense and overwhelming so as to define every situation or crisis. Ethnic identity in Belize, embedded in aspects of language, religious and regional differences, is not a badge that appears to be always worn so that it dominates every action and inspires every plan. In some ethnically inflamed societies such as Guyana and Northern Ireland, and Sri Lanka, ethnic symbols as an emblem of identity are inscribed in practically all spheres of life and in individual choices. This is not the case in Belize. In negotiating life's daily challenges, other parameters assume salience such as economic interests. Most Belizeans seem to operate on the basis that socio-economic standing determines life chances more so that membership in an ethnic community. They are found in many inter-ethnic associations and workplaces together sharing space and camaraderie. Families expend monies to improve their children's educational preparation so that they may acquire decent jobs. While certain groups may feel disadvantaged because of historical background or cultural practices such as the Mayas, there appears to be a sentiment that education and training can overcome these barriers towards individual betterment. All of this is not to gainsay the argument that there is a greater incidence of poverty among some ethnic groups than others. What it argues is that there is no overt system of closure that creates rigid ethno-economic compartments like a caste order. There is more classism than ethnicism at some levels of life in Belize. There may be silent prejudices against those who are not Black or Central American, but there is upward mobility everywhere and large concentrations of middle class Blacks as well as large concentrations of Poor Whites. In effect, there is little consistent correlative coincidence between colour and economic well being in Belize.
Do ethnicity and colour matter in Belize then? In some ways for some persons suggesting structural bottlenecks in mobility for some but not a universal practice that pigeonholes people into rigid stratified ethno-economic compartments. In a society that is multi-ethnic and derived from a colonial system that espoused a hierarchy of races and ethnicties, it would take time for all the accretions of the past in terms of prejudice and racism to be completely jettisoned. However, it is quite conceivable that in place of colour and ethnicity especially among the well off, a new order of hierarchy can emerge based on clientelistic practices having very little to do with race and ethnic category. New forms of colour blind oppressions can emerge out of clientelistic, family and clan networks cutting across ethnicity and race. Some of this is already evident in Belize.
4. Is there racism in Belize?
How has Belize like the new societies of the Caribbean fared, having traversed the terrain to decolonisation and modernity, with regard to the persistence of racism? How far has Belize proceeded in establishing a society free from ethnic and racial particularism, and based on merit or compassion? To answer these questions, one must examine the full kaleidoscope of cultural and political forms that have emerged in the society.
Racism is an ideology that seeks to justify the skewed allocation of resources in favor of a group on the basis of alleged phenotypical and biological differences. What is critical about this definition is that one group deliberately discriminates against another using fictive differences. Generally, ethno-cultural communities in practically all polyethnic states tend to compose their claims to a distinctive identity by attributing to themselves in their narratives of origin not only cultural and historical differences but racial myths of superiority over rival groups. With rare exceptions, racial claims tend to be implicated in the construction of cultural identities. Some of these racial claims have tended to be quite explicit as in the old apartheid South Africa but in many others, such as Belize, the racial claims are less evident, intermixed with other factors, and frequently denied altogether. In Belize, solidarity communities are categorized in part by their culturally constructed traits involving language, religion, region, and sectional values. This is witnessed in the sorts of biological racist terms that are often used in stereotypical portraits and abusive language employed in depicting other communities. I have heard the word "primitive" as well as the "n" word used as well as references to "whites", "yellows" etc. Racio-phenotypical traits are clearly implicated by the prevalence of racial slurs and invidious stereotypes in day to day interaction. It is not important that racial categories are accurately described or scientifically grounded by the communities but perceived to be true becoming part of a social map that guides daily interaction.
Discrimination may not always be based exclusively on phenotype; it is often linked to and combined with other differences. In these instances, racial myths are articulated into a mix of cultural, religious, linguistic and other differences and turned into a mode defining inter-group relations. As a result, the term ethnic is brought into service because of its wider scope. Ethnicity refers to a collective sense of consciousness often constructed on racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, or regional claims so as to assert exclusive group identity against rival claims of other groups. Race is often a component of the phenomenon of ethnicity, but is not always present or self-evident. In the Belizean context, the racial factor is frequently implicit in ethnic group differentiation even where it would involve persons who are mixed. Racial mixing does not produce racial tolerance but may evolve into new forms of racial-constructed categorization. While today, the formal trappings of social differentiation and discrimination built around open racial difference have been removed, much inequality and petty oppression persist around a colour continuum. This nuanced continuum engages many variations in colour to which, ironically, racial traits are constructed. The practices of "colourism" are impregnated with racial motifs which are now more likely to be manifested through subtle ways. The historical context has changed, and the victims and victimizers are differently attired. The political, social, and economic milieux have been transformed. Basic structures of struggle in the context of scare resources and the quest for power and privileges point to a new drama in which old colonially inspired themes of distinction and discrimination are played out. The actors in the diverse Belizean landscape are not antagonistically the same: Whites against Blacks. It is now mainly Blacks against Blacks; Blacks against browns; high browns against low browns; Africans against Indians, blacks against yellows, etc. In Belize, as in most of the Caribbean, the actors are non-White. Nigel Bolland spoke well on this subject: arguing that this state of affairs "is partly due to the colonial legacy of racism which discriminates particularly against people of African descent -both Creoles and Garifuna -while relatively favoring those with lighter skins and straighter hair. A light-skinned Mestizo child who learns English and attends a prestigious St.John's College is more likely to rise into the Belizean elite than a dark-skinned Creole-speaking child of African descent."30
The resources for which the new racial struggle is conducted are no longer the control of the labor of non-White persons to produce sugar, tobacco, and cotton on plantations. It is now jobs, status, and privileges in a stratified order deriving its resources from multinational corporations, multilateral aid agencies, and other international sources The tools of control are no longer slavery and identureship, explicit laws of discrimination, residential and occupational segregation, and formal codes of deference. They are now colour prejudice, custom, cliqueism, clientelist networks, kin connections and appearance. This is all defended by neo-racial notions of group identity and solidarity, in group behavior and communal traditions. The overt manifestations and consequences are not always obvious. They have to be sought in the thinking, ideologies, elite structures, leadership recruitment patterns, cultural preferences, and substructural expression of the actors.
5. How much ethno-cultural consciousness exists in Belize? Is there a cultural revival in progess today?
Anthropologist Dr. Joseph Palacio has observed that with the improvement of economic conditions in Belize, there is a cultural revival in part aimed at procuring access to opportunities and resources. Said Palacio: "The prevailing spirit of tolerance, the opening up of roads, the availability of wage labour and improved facilities for education and health together created opportunities for ethnic groups to re-evaluate their status as Belizeans. Among the Maya, Garifuna, and Mestizo, there has been a process of ethnic revivalism and even ethnogenesis."31 By ethnogenesis, I assume that he means the attempt by each community to write its own experiential narratives and record its historical memory. History is often deployed as a tool of re-constructing a community's image of itself especially if it had been colonised or placed in a position of subordination and exploitation. Its narratives define the image of the group and asserts its demand for dignity and recognition. Mythmaking is important to identity formation, and in Belize, intellectual leaders of the ethno-cultural associations construct their own version of historical reality with a view to promoting not only their symbolic representation but to advance their claims for material resources. There is a veritable historigraphical war in progress as witnessed just recently by an editorial headline in the Amandala newspaper entitled: "The Battle of Belize".32 The editorial discussed versions of Belizean history which are being promulgated by different groups. Apart from these symbolic roles, it also serves instrumental claims as Palacio underscores in the Belizean ethno-cultural revival underway: "Particularly in the case of Belize, the Garifuna and Maya are using ethnicity as a method of inserting themselves into the new Belizean nation thereby being able to extract socio-economic benefits for themselves and their progeny".33
The group that was most curious in terms of attachment to an ethnic community was the East Indians. Having lost practically all their old values in religion and rituals including the loss of traditional Indian names, food, and attire, they still seemed to think that they were Indians but only in a secondary sense of belonging to Belize first. One young Indian from Corozal told me that when his secondary school put up a program to highlight Belize's ethnic diversity, he was chosen to exemplify East Indians but that he knew practically nothing about them and wanted to know about "his culture". The East Indian Cultural Council has made it as part of its program to learn more about Indians in the Caribbean and to recover something of their lost Indiannness. In a sort of cultural revival that is current going on in Belize, they will literally have to invent their Indianness. When I met the representative of the Kreyol (Creole) Cultural Council in Punta Gorda, they took me into her little museum of Creole artefacts indicating to me that this was an important project that was necessary for the survival of Creole memory. Similarly, Garifuna leaders such as Roy Caeytano had lamented the increasing loss of their language and way of life and were keen about reviving it. The Garifuna with whom I had contact articulated and affirmed a Garifuna identity not necessarily superimposed on their Belizean identity but parallel to it. While it would be an exaggeration to say that there was an ethno-cultural war going at low key in Belize, it was clear that the different ethnic communities had come to realise that unless they get organised and mobilised as in their respective cultural associations, they would get little of the rights, resources, and power to which they feel entitled. The struggle over the land claims of the Maya and over the control of the Toledo Development Corporation illustrate the mobilisation of ethnic identities for protection and profit.
I had expected to discover a full-blown ethnic struggle between Creoles and Mestizos over the demographical change of their relative numbers especially protestations from Creoles over their dramatically diminished standing. What I found instead was a symbolic one way war in which the Creole group continues to celebrate in the mythology of the battle of St. George Quay their priority over others. In response, there is a remarkable quiet among Mestizos about their identity or numbers to the point of being defensive. In fact, I could not find an exclusive Mestizo Cultural Association but instead a tiny regional Maya-Mestizo Cultural Council which has little to do with the main body of Mestizos. It seemed that they were the least overtly organised as a cultural community. The Mestizos however were very strongly represented in politics and commerce and a number of prominent Mestizo names crop up among the wealthiest families in Belize. They do resent being misidentified as Maya or Central American, and as one educated Mestizo woman told me, they go about in their daily existence denying their part Maya identity. There are very quietly educating their children in the best schools in Belize and, as one Creole newspaper editor remarked, they do not like the Creoles go into classical subjects but into commerce and science. I was told that St. John's College, the finest secondary school in Belize, is where they all go. It is clear that the Mestizos are very much conscious of themselves as a community specifically descended from the Yucatan in the mid-1980s and have as much right as anyone else to be called "indigenous" to the land and in building Belize. Mestizos are mindful that they have overcome the demographical pre-eminence of the Creoles but seem unwilling to flout this fact into an assertive claim for rights or resources. They are however slowly "encroaching" on the public bureaucracy which has been dominated for so long by Creoles so that as one person remarked to me "they are now found everywhere in the civil service".
Clearly, there was an unevenness in attachment to their groups, with some wearing their ethnic sub-national identity very lightly while others very strongly. There were some forces and factors that appeared as unifying towards establishing a commonly shared Belizeanness which Andy Palacio described well as Punta Rock, fear of Guatemala, rice, beans and stew chicken, and the English language. I suspect that there are some issues which tend to arouse ethnic assertions and others which do not. On the question of Creole supercession by Mestizos, I gather that Creoles as Creoles are galvanised around their loss of status and power. Generally, ethnic labels are not overtly exhibited and not turned into a symbol of collective mobilisation suggesting that other factors are at work qualifying the role of ethnicity in daily life such as crime, drugs, unemployment, HIV-AIDS, corruption, etc.
6. Is there a hierarchy of ethnic groups? What is the structural nature of the mosaic? Are ethnic boundaries being erased and a melting pot being fashioned?
With self-determination in self-government and the departure of the British, Belizeans were put in charge of their own homeland. Already, many old hierarchies built around European dominance were modified and old economic structures that maintained disparities were removed. A new economy was being fashioned with private business and the public service offering employment and income. While in the past the public service had become the carrier of status and respect, in the contemporary period it faced challenges from new industries and economic endeavours. Skills and training were becoming the definers of economic well being for most of the population. A good deal of this was determined by non-ethnic criteria.
There is extensive inter-racial mixing in Belize creating a population that is increasingly becoming "brown". It is easy to imagine that there is a meltingpot in the making in the creation of a new Belizean person. This sort of optimism must be tempered by the Caribbean experience where new forms of racism and ethnic formations have evolved in the context of new mixes. One needs to remember that ethnic groups as self-conscious collective communities are created from fictive diacritica. colour and race are only one set of data that entire the construction of the ethnic mix. Region, religion, values, language, etc can contribute to a differentiation of people of the same colour or race into separate ethnic formations. The racial mixing therefore cannot mean more tolerance and less racism.
Is there an overarching Belizeanness and a Belizean nationalism? If it exists, it has little to do with racial mixing and more to do with shared experiences in sacrifice and suffering. The Guatemalan border and its inherent fears offer a shared dimension of life. So does the English language and extensive bilingualism. Some food such as rice and beans and stew chicken as well as some musical forms like Punta Rock offer uniting strands. Against the unifying factors are many disuniting ones such as poverty and inequality which divide citizens. The political system seems to be a commonly shared arena of collective debate and decisionmaking but it is suspect by too many citizens. While election turnout has been very high by any standards, it does not point to a sense of citizen efficacy and participation. Race and ethnicity have not asserted themselves in the political process so that political mobilisation is cleaved around these factors. This is a good thing in so far as it points to a fluid situation in which citizen partisan loyalty cannot be taken for granted. Political discourse however seems to be very strident. Radio talk shows have emerged along with a proliferation of civil society groups pointing to a measure of citizen engagement in influencing governmental decision-making.
1Joseph O. Palacio, "Social and Cultural Implication of Recent Demographic Change s in Belize", Belizean Studies, 21(1), 1993.
2See Helen M. Hintjens, "France in the Caribbean" in Europe in the Caribbean edited by Paul Sutton and A. Payne (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 37-70.
3See Nancie Gonzalez, Sojourners of the Caribbean:Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988); also William V. Davidson, "The Garifuna in Central America:Ethnohistorical and Geographical Foundation" in Black Caribs: A Case Study in Biocultural Adaptation (New York: Plenum Press, 1984), pp. 13-36.
4Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean vary in size: Belize 17%, Suriname 10%, Guyana 6%, St. Vincent and the Grenadines 5.3%, Dominica 4%, and Trinidad and Tobago .03%. See Joseph Palacio, "From One Brink to Another: Aboriginal Peoples in CARICOM at the Close of the 20th Century", CARICOM Perspective, June, 2000, pp. 87-91.
5Ibid., p. 89.
6See Myrtle Palacio, "Dangriga BZ or USA? Out-Migration Experiences of a Garifuna Community in Post-Independence Belize". Paper presented at the "Beyond Walls: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Belize" conference, hosted by UWI School of Continuing Studies, in Belize, November 21-24, 2001, p. 2.
7Nigel Bolland and Mark Moberg, "Development and National Identity: Creolisation, Immigration, and Ethnic Conflict in Belize", International Journal of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, 2: 1995, pp. 1-18.
8"Crime", IDEAS (SPEAR Newsletter), 1999.
9See "HIV/AIDS", IDEAS (SPEAR Newsletter), Vol.4, No.3, September, 1999.
10Mark Moberg, Citrus, Strategy and Class in Belize (Iowa: University of Iowa, 1992).
12See Joseph Palacio, "Social and Cultural Implications of Recent Demographic Changes in Belize", Belizean Studies, 21(1), 1993, pp. 3-12.
13See Mark Moberg, Myths of Ethnicity and Nation: Immigration, Work and Identity in the Belize Banana Industry (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).
15See SPEAR /NTUCB Task Force, Fruit of their Labor: Living and Working in the Banana Region of Belize (Belize City, March 2001).
16See Mark Moberg, Myths of Ethnicity and Nation, op. cit.
17W.W.Isajiw, "Ethnic Identity Retention", in Ethnic Identity and Equality edited by R. Breton, W.W. Isajiw, W.E. Kalbach, and J.G. Reitz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), p. 35.
18F. Barth, ed., "Introduction", in Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969), p. 9.
19Crawford Young, "The Dialectics of Cultural Pluralism:Concept and Reality", in The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: The Nation-State At Bay? edited by C. Young (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), p. 23.
20E.Said, "East Isn't East", Times Literary Supplement, February, 1995, p. 3.
21Kathrine Mendez, "Towards an Understanding of Racism in Belize", IDEAS (SPEAR), Vol. 6, No.1, July, 2001, p. 6.
24Moberg, Myths of Ethnicity and Nation, p. xxx.
26Ibid., p. 88.
27Tommie Sue Montgomery, "Refugees in Belize: Belize 1991". Report of the UNHCR, Belmopan.
28Moberg, Myths of Ethnicity and Nation, p. 88.
29Nigel Bolland, "Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Politics in Belize", in Identity, Ethnicity, and Culture in the Caribbean edited by Ralph R. Premdas (Trinidad: School of Continuing Studies, University of the West Indies, 2000), p. 11.
30Nigel Bolland, "Ethnicity, Pluralism and Politics in Belize", in Identity, Ethnicity, and Culture in the Caribbean edited by Ralph R. Premdas(Trinidad:School of Continuing Studies, University of the West Indies, 2000), p. 11.
31Joseph M. Palacio, "May the New Creole of Belize Please Rise", IDEAS (Spear), Vol. 6, No. 1, August 2001, p. 3.
32"The Battle of Belize", Amandala, 12 August, 2002, p. 10.
© Ralph Premdas, 2002.HTML last revised 28 December 2002.
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