Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America

Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America

Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America

Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America


"Provides a vivid and evocative portrait of the dynamics of gender and the evolution of women's consciousness in this small but very complex multiethnic society. McClaurin's own voice throughout the book is eloquent and subtle, always attentive to both the private and the public implications of women's words."--Daphne Patai, author of Brazilian Women Speak: Contemporary Life Stories
"Insightful and inspiring."--O. Nigel Bolland, Colgate University
"McClaurin has sensitively enabled three Belizean women to speak frankly about their difficult lives. Her]self-awareness and interpretations deepen our understanding of these women and their environment."--Zee Edgell, author of Beka Lamb
This engaging ethnography is set in the remote district of Toledo in Belize, Central America, where three women weave personal stories about the events in their lives. Each describes her experiences of motherhood, marriage, family illness, emigration, separation, work, or domestic violence that led her to recognize gender inequality and then do something about it. All three challenge the culture of gender at home and in the larger community. Zola, an East Indian woman without primary school education, invents her own escape from a life of subordination by securing land, then marries the man she's lived with since the age of fourteen--but on her own terms. Evelyn, a thirty-nine-year old Creole woman, has raised eight children virtually alone, yet she remains married "out of habit." A keen entrepreneur, she has run a restaurant, a store, and a sewing business, and she now owns a mini-mart attached to her home. Rose, a Garifuna woman, is a mother of two whose husband left when she would not accept his extra-marital affairs. While she ekes out a survival in the informal economy, she gets spiritual comfort from her religious beliefs, love of music, and two children. The voices of these ordinary Belizean women fill the pages of this book. Irma McClaurin reveals the historical circumstances, cultural beliefs, and institutional structures that have rendered women in Belize socially disenfranchised and economically dependent upon men. She shows how some ordinary women, through their participation in women's grassroots groups, have found the courage to change their lives. Drawing upon her own experiences as a black woman in the United States, and relying upon cross-cultural data about the Caribbean and Latin America, she explains the specific way gender is constructed in Belize.
Irma McClaurin ia an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Florida.


Sitting here at Chaa Creek, staring out at the Maya Mountains, I am awed by the events that have brought me to this country. On September 9, 1990, I first traveled to Belize, Central America. Almost four years later I have arrived again, this time to finish a book. As I stare out at an expanse of verdant mounds cascading the sky I am elated over being here; I feel as if I am sitting in the palm of some great being, looking upward into eternity. Yet I am saddened by the knowledge that the next time I return to Belize, to this "diamond in the rough," another human dent will have been made somewhere. Already I can see land being cleared down below me--whether for planting or a road, I don't know, but the imprint is visible and seemingly permanent.

On the days that I tramp through Terra Nova, a national land reserve set aside to preserve the plants and trees used by traditional healers in Belize, or Monkey Bay, a private land reserve, I am acutely aware that my footprints are indelible. Even as I work with a crew of scientists and student apprentices to map and tag the forest growth and, we hope, preserve this last precious resource, I know that I have unwittingly stepped on a plant, smashed a seed, and possibly destroyed the very things we set out to save. This is the dual-edged sword of human existence: creativity and destruction.

Change, welcomed or not, is inevitable. I know this from the fact that since my first site visit to Belize in 1990, and since my extended stay in 1991 to do fieldwork, so much has happened here. The country has grown by over forty thousand people since the census of 1980, with a number of Central American immigrants still uncounted.

It is raining people in Belize. Spanish-speaking refugees seek serenity from the political and economic turmoil of their native Guatemala and El Salvador that threatens to annihilate them. They escape to sanctuary in Belize. One refugee camp has sprung up outside of Belmopan, the capital. It is called the Valley of Peace. But all is not peaceful in Belize.

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