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Cultural connections in Belize.

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Historical documents show that the Maya have been in Belize since 2500 BC, reaching their cultural, social, and intellectual peak between the seventh and ninth centuries.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. They are subsistence farmers, cultivating corn, beans, and rice and raising pigs to supplement their diet. They speak their own dialect and maintain their indigenous traditions--particularly in such areas as marriages and ceremonial and religious feasts and rituals--alongside Christian practices.

The Yucatec Maya were refugees who emigrated from Yucatan, Mexico, at the time of the Caste War in the late nineteenth century. They live primarily in the northern part of the country, and out of the three Maya groups are the most "Hispanicized" since they speak both Spanish and their indigenous dialect and are mostly Catholic.

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The Maya of Belize are much respected today for their contributions to society, particularly in the fields of education, agriculture, and politics. The government of Belize actively promotes the teaching of the Maya culture and language in the country's primary educational institutions.

The Creole, who make up about 30 percent of the total population, are descendents of the African slaves brought by the British to work in the mahogany and logwood industries. Often the slave masters, usually of English or Scot origin, mixed with the African women and produced different racial shades. The Creole live primarily in Belize City and still maintain many customs that can be traced to their African heritage. One popular tradition, which has its origins in the folklore of the Ashanti people of Ghana, is the story of Anancy, a mythical talking spider who because of his guile, wit, and cunning always manages to get the upper hand in any situation.

Creole food and music are popular in Belize. The Creole language--spoken across the country, even by the Maya of the north--is derived from English and is similar in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar to the Creole spoken in Caribbean islands such as Jamaica. The Creole are proud of their British heritage, reflected in their English, Scottish, and Irish surnames.

The Garifuna, formerly known as Black Carib Indians, make up seven percent of Belize's population. They are descended from the Island Carib people of Saint Vincent, in the eastern Caribbean, who had intermarried with escaped African slaves in the eighteenth century. In Saint Vincent, the Carib people fought against the Spanish, then the French, and later the British to keep themselves from being enslaved. Finally, after several battles, they were captured in 1798 by the British, who banished about 4,000 of them to the shores of Central America. They first appeared in Belize as a group around 1802 and formed villages and small, self-supporting towns in the east and southeast portions of the country, along the Caribbean coast. The British settlers who also inhabited these areas were fearful of this independent, fierce, and free people and did their best to turn their own African slaves against them. They labeled them "devil worshippers" and propagated undocumented tales that depicted the Carib as cannibals and witch doctors.

After the 1832 revolution in Honduras, a large number of Garifuna fled that country and landed along the southeastern coast of Belize, in the district now called Dangriga. Today, the Garifuna are a prominent and respected segment of the Belizean population, leaders in education and culture. Their music, the punta, has become internationally known, thanks to such great artists as the late Andy Palacio. The Garifuna rarely intermarry with other ethnic groups and proudly protect their customs, language, and traditions.

In Belize, the term Mestizo refers to the racial mixture of Spanish and Maya, and the first Mestizo people who settled in the northern Corozal and Orange Walk districts, around 1850, were refugees of the Caste War of Yucatan. They were later joined by many Maya immigrants and expanded their settlements to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. Other immigrants from Central America subsequently arrived, and today this ethnic group comprises about 43 percent of Belize's total population. This segment dominates the country's culture and traditions, particularly in terms of the Catholic religion, the Spanish language, and family life.

Like the Garifuna, the Mestizo embrace their traditions, customs, and culture and propagate them through their literature and legends. In the past, they were widely considered to be secondary citizens and were the recipients of negative ethnic humor. However, changes in the educational system in the 1960s opened doors to greater opportunities, and today Belize's Mestizo people form a prominent part of society, holding positions as businessmen, politicians, and educators.

In the 1950s and early '60s, these culturally and linguistically diverse ethnic entities joined together in a peaceful, progressive "revolution," led by a proud Belizean native, George C. Price. Belize achieved full political independence from Great Britain in 1981. Today, the people of Belize enjoy the stability, security, and freedom brought about by years of democratic government inherited from British colonizers. At the same time, they struggle to seek their identity since they have cultural, linguistic, economic, and social ties throughout both Central America and the Caribbean.

Dr. Victor Manuel Duran chairs the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, and is the editor of An Anthology of Belizean Literature: English, Creole, Spanish, Garifuna.
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Author:Duran, Victor Manuel
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:2BELI
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:1459
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