Cultural Connections in Belize

Article excerpt

Located in the heart of Central America, just below the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize stands out for its stunning geographical diversity. It has fiat, sometimes swampy plains in the north, picturesque mountains in the west, breathtaking coastal stretches in the south, a large, well-preserved rainforest in the center, and a cluster of panoramic, mostly uninhabited islands--called cayes by the British explorers--in the east.

The variety of its geography is complemented by the diversity of its people. In this country that unabashedly proclaims English as its official language, it is not uncommon to find settlers, both legal and illegal, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador living peacefully and cultivating the land. These hard-working immigrants have enriched the country's economy and culture, enhancing the proliferation of the Spanish language and Latin American traditions.

With a population of just over 200,000, Belize has an ethnic mix rooted in a history that is picturesque, distinctive, and richly documented. Though the majority of Belizeans come from a mixed ethnic background, the country has four main groups--the Maya, the Creole, the Garifuna, and the Mestizo--as well as small but discernible pockets of Europeans, Chinese, East Indians, and Arabs. Each culture preserves its own languages, food, and customs, yet they all manage to coexist in peace, unified by their proud claim of being, first and foremost, Belizeans.

Historical documents show that the Maya have been in Belize since 2500 BC, reaching their cultural, social, and intellectual peak between the seventh and ninth centuries. They practiced advanced agricultural techniques, studied astronomy, invented an accurate calendar, and built magnificent pyramidal temples. One of these, Caracol, is still the tallest building in the country.

From the early sixteenth to the eighteenth century, political domination fluctuated between the Maya and the Spanish conquerors. For example, a sixteenth-century expedition led by the Spanish explorer Davila was quelled by Nachankan, a Maya chieftain, with the help of a Spaniard, Gonzalo Guerrero, who had married Nachankan's daughter. Guerrero is known today as the father of the Mestizo, since his children were supposedly the first born to indigenous and Spanish parents.

British domination and territorial claim of Belize was initiated by Bartholomew Sharpie, a former buccaneer who became a logwood cutter and who subsequently led the "invasion" of British settlers intent on exploiting this resource. Logwood--tinta in Spanish--was used by the British to dye cloth, and Belize was the source of this commodity beginning in the sixteenth century.

British settlers subsequently moved into the interior of the country, seeking to harvest other hardwoods for exportation. The Maya resisted the British occupation of their territory and in 1788 attacked the woodcutters who had settled around the New River in the north. Although they fought bravely, the Maya were forced back into the interior in 1802, and some of them settled around San Ignacio in western Belize. The last Maya resistance against the British occurred in 1872 in the town of Orange Walk, when the Maya leader Marcus Canul attacked the British barracks, demanding rent and a return of lands that had been seized. Canul and his followers were unable to prevail, and Canul was killed by the British.

Today, the Maya of Belize comprise three groups--the Mopan, the Kekchi, and the Yucatec--that together represent about eleven percent of the country's total population. The first of these, which gets its name from the Mopan River, began to settle in western and southern Belize in the early nineteenth century, after fleeing forced labor, military conscription, and heavy taxes in Guatemala.

The Kekchi Maya live in small communities around San Antonio, in the south. Most of the Kekchi came to Belize around 1884, as refugees from the Vera Paz area of Guatemala. …