Letter from Belize no. 62

20th March 2017

In the last newsletter the beauty of nature left me speechless so I am making up for it in this very wordy one.

I find it interesting how important our culture is to us by way of giving us a sense of identity or belonging and we display our culture though our food, our dress, our music, our manners, our religious beliefs, our stories, our image of who we think we are.

When I have visited Guatemala and Mexico I have been struck by how very strong their national identity is. They wear with pride their national costume, dance their dances, sing their songs and create traditional crafts. By contrast I have not seen that so obviously in Belize. Instead Belize is a hybrid of many cultures, some retaining qualities of their origins, some happily intermingling or ‘cross pollinating’.

This was displayed very clearly last month during Carnaval time when the Corozal House of Culture put on a splendid presentation in acknowledgement of their 5th Anniversary and at the same time celebrating the rich and diverse cultures that make up Belize.

Carnaval itself has its roots in the Spanish culture having been introduced by the Spanish into Central America where it is hugely popular and it is still observed in many Catholic countries around the world. Occurring each year before Lent it is a time for celebrations, parades with floats, fancy dress, masks and much merry making.

From around 1200 BC the Maya people covered the area from the Yucatan in Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. By 800 AD there are estimated to have been about 800,000 Maya living in Belize but during the 900s many cities were abandoned – the reasons still not clear but attributed to over population, drought, warfare, rebellion and changes in politics and trade routes. The Spaniards arriving in the late 15th Century took advantage of a society already in disarray and set one group against another. They also brought with them diseases for which the people had no resistance and numbers were decimated leaving the remaining diminished population to take refuge in the forests. Today the Maya account for about 11% of the population of Belize. We have friends who have formed a group to preserve Maya culture, reintroduce the Maya language into the schools, to study the spiritual beliefs of the Maya and maintain some of the ceremonies that used to be performed.

The Corozal House of Culture performance began with the Xaibe Nicte Ha Children’s Group representing the Mestizo, who danced to a remarkable recording of an elderly woman singing a traditional song.

Click on any of these photos for a larger view.

They were followed by the beautiful Mestizo ladies of the Raices Mexicanas Returnos Belecenos Dance Group. They were very polished and elegant.

The Mestizo are descended from the union of the Maya and the Spanish. Many historians claim that the Mestizo community in Belize owes its origins to Gonzalo Guerrero — a shipwrecked Spanish sailor who despite being initially enslaved by the Maya later impressed them with his military prowess and was embraced by them. It is said that he became a great ally to the Maya in the struggle against the Spanish conquistadors in Belize. Historians generally accept the view that in the early 16th century he served as a political and military advisor to Nachancan, the ruler of Old Chactemal (Santa Rita, Corozal), and later married his daughter Zazil Há, fathering children that would be known today as the first Mestizo children. Then in the 19th century as a result of the Caste War (Guerra de Las Castas) which was an uprising in Mexico of the Yucatan Maya against the rich Spanish and Mestizo class many Mestizo fled across the border into Belize and settled there. In fact it was this event which made it necessary to create a border separating Mexico and Belize. Today, the customs of the Mestizo are a perfect blend of both Spanish customs and those of the Maya. The Mestizo in most instances are fluent in Spanish and though the British brought with them their Protestant faith, the majority of the Mestizo populace in Belize is Roman Catholic, having adopted the religion of the Spanish.

Next on the House of Culture programme came the Lisanigu Libertad Group, a group of energetic and highly entertaining young Garifuna people.

There are three groups of people in Belize with African roots. There was an increase of slave importation by the British as the need for labor grew in the logging industry. By 1745, slaves made up approximately 71% of the population and by 1779 roughly about 86% of the total population. Of those 80% of male slaves of 10 years or older logged mahogany and imports to England reached a peak of 50 000 tons in 1850. Today there is a small group of the descendents of these people living along the coast south of Belize City.

The Garifuna are descended from the intermarriage between West African Slaves and the native Caribs. In 1797 the British deported over 5000 Garifuna men women and children from St Vincent to Roatan, an island off the northern coast of Honduras and in 1802 a small number of them moved to Belize as free men, no longer slaves. In 1823, suffering from illness and starvation and fleeing violent confrontations in Honduras, more Garifuna arrived on the southern Belize coast and settled there. The free status of the Garifuna in a settlement whose black population was still enslaved created quite a predicament. In those early years, the Garifuna was not embraced by the white or influential “landed” class, and contact between African slaves and the Garifuna was largely discouraged. The Garifuna were also restricted from entering politics and their attempts to improve their living conditions through the sale of produce in Belize Town was hampered by an ordinance decreeing the need for the Garifuna to obtain permits in order to do so.

The Garifuna, despite the early attempts of the British to dislodge them or keep them wholly incapable of advancing within the settlement, proved to be a resilient people. Many of them adopted Roman Catholicism while maintaining many of their distinctly Afro-Carib customs.

I was delighted by how very African the dancing was. I could well have been at Vic Falls!

The Garifuna dancers were followed by another burst of youthful colour from the Masala Dance Group representing the East Indian community.

And then a remarkable performance by a man, a cane farmer, and his daughter using machetes in the style of an East Indian martial art.

After the abolition of slavery “East Indians” as they were referred to, perhaps in order to distinguish them from the original “Maya Indians”, were first brought to Belize between 1870 and 1880 as indentured labour to supplement the African laboring population.  There is not a great deal of recorded history regarding the first East Indians that arrived, but there is enough to suggest that throughout the Caribbean, the East Indian community proved to be industrious and thrifty. Though initially they were contracted to work on the newly implemented plantation estates, some of them, after having served out the length of their contract chose to engage in entrepreneurial activities.

“Ah wah no who seh Kriol no gat no kolcha” (I want to know who says Creole has got no culture) are the lyrics to a song written by Leelah Vernon, Belize’s queen of Creole who sadly died only a week before the presentation.

The Corozal Methodist Integrated Dance Academy put on an energetic and creative dance to a medley of Leela Vernon’s songs to commemorate her and to represent the Creole people.

The Creole community (the third group with African roots) is often accused of having no true culture of its own (hence the words of Leela’s most well known song) but in fact, of all the ethnic groups, it may be the one that is most identifiable and accessible to the masses. The Creole in Belize are descended from African slaves and their white European masters. After the abolition of slavery in 1838 as the social and racial constraints imposed on masters and ex-slaves slowly dissolved, unions between the two became more frequent resulting today in what we know as the Creole of Belize. The Creole language is common among the various ethnic groups.

A new addition to the programme this year was a fantastic performance by the Chinese.

After slavery was abolished the Chinese, like the Indians, were brought to work in Belize as indentured or contract labourers. In 1865, about 470 Chinese labourers arrived in Belize to work on newly established sugar estates in the Corozal and Orange Walk districts but by the following year about 100 of them had died from overwork as well as the shock of a new diet and the harsh environment. Many that survived that first year relocated to Mexico and by 1871 the importation of Chinese labourers and contract workers on the plantations was deemed a failure and was discontinued. Some Chinese chose to remain in Belize and many of them initiated ventures into the retail industry, opening small shops and laundries. Today the Chinese population is roughly 2% of the entire population and like other groups they have retained many of their traditions.

Next up on the programme was our very own Roy and Adam who attend our weekly meditations. Along with Roy’s sister and other family members, they put on a song and dance routine as the Corozal Comparsa Carnaval Group. In the Carnaval tradition this was an amusing kind of satire sending up the snobbish rich elite. In the past the women’s roles would have been played by men heavily made up and with plenty of padding to make them look very voluptuous.

And finally we had another Carnaval song from, again, our very own, Brad and Christina.

Whew so you can see how it is that one is not struck by a single strong national identity. This is the culture of Belize, an absolute kaleidoscope of diversity.

I have taken most of my information from the NICH (National Institute of Culture and History) website.

Don’t forget to check out our Facebook page under Belize Gateway Trust Foundation.

My love to all

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