LANGUAGE: English; Spanish; local Creole
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (49%); various Protestant denominations (27%); evangelical groups such as Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists; Mennonites; Mormons; Baha'is
Mayan people inhabited for centuries the area know as Belize before the arrival of Europeans. Mayans erected several major centers in Belize around the 1st millennium ad. Many of these constructions are testimony of the existence of rich and diverse pre-Columbian cultures such as Milpa, Xunantuchich, and Caracol. In fact, at 42 m (138 ft), the Sky Palace pyramid at Caracol is still the nation's tallest hand built structure.
Probably at least 400,000 people inhabited the Belize area around ad 900—twice as many as today. Mayan civilization had collapsed by the time Spanish expeditions reached the area in the 16th century, and diseases like smallpox and yellow fever took a heavy toll on the remaining population.
While the Spanish were able, at times, to control the western part of present-day Belize, English buccaneers used the eastern, Caribbean side as a base for their raids and for cutting logwood, which was used in the production of a dye needed by the woolen industry. Mahogany later supplanted logwood as the major export. British settlers forcibly brought in slaves from Africa to do the work. Before slavery ended in 1838, two other groups had made their presence: free Creoles of mixed African and European blood, and Garifuna, descendants of Africans and Carib Amerindians. Soon after, more Maya began fleeing into the colony to escape a war in the Yucatan and forced labor in Guatemala.
Once the Spanish crown lost its leverage in the so-called New World and waves of colonies obtained their independence from European domain, a new and prosperous empire decided to claim the right to administer the region. In 1862 Great Britain declared Belize a British colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and renamed it British Honduras. Immediately, the new colony attracted new capitals. However, as happened in many countries around the world, the Great Depression hit the economy leaving a large part of the population in a dire situation. In addition to the financial situation, the city of Belize was destroyed by a hurricane in 1931. Consequently, a series of strikes and riots, led by the unemployed, exploded and gave birth to a national movement demanding the right to self-determination. In 1950 the People's United Party (PUP) was created and led the independence movement.
British Honduras became the independent Republic of Belize in 1981. The British military, with the support of the United Nations, remained in Belize until 1994 in order to help local authorities in the construction of the new state. Even though Mexico and Guatemala had inherited Spain's claim to the territory, only Mexico dropped its territorial claims (1893). Guatemala, although it did not formally renounce its claim over the country's land, established full diplomatic relations with Belize in 1991. In 2005 Guatemala and Belize agreed that the conflict could be settled by a supranational organization, and in 2008 both counties submitted their case to the International Court of Justice.
In 2008 Dean Barrow won the general elections and became the first black prime minister in the history of Belize. Barrow promised to end crime and government corruption.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Belize is a little larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. It is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the west and south by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. It is flat and swampy along the coast and mostly level in the north. The southern part has mountains reaching a high point of 1,177 m (3,861 ft). Belize's climate is warm and humid. There are 17 rivers. The longest barrier reef in the Americas (about 290 km or 180 mi) runs parallel to its coastline.
Belize had a population of only slightly more than 300,000 in the mid-2000s. Creoles, of mixed African and European ancestry, had been the largest group, but the 1991 census showed that they accounted for only 25% of the population. Mestizos, of Amerindian and European descent, came to 48%. Another 9% were Mayan people. The Garifuna, or Black Caribs, descended from escaped African slaves and Carib Amerindians from St. Vincent and Dominica, came to 15%. There were also East Indians (descendants from immigrants from present-day India), Arabs, Chinese, and about 6,000 Mennonites from Mexico and Canada.
About 40,000 Mestizos were recent immigrants who either fled fighting in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s or came to Belize seeking work or land to farm. In addition, in the late 1980s as many as 65,000 Belizeans were living in the United States, most of them were Creole or Garifuna.
English is the only official language in Belize and the only language of instruction in public schools. The 1991 census found that at least 80% of the population could speak some English or Belizean Creole, which is a dialect of English difficult for outsiders to understand. For 33% to 50% of the population, English or Creole was the first language, but many of these people could not speak standard English well. Spanish was spoken by about 60% of the people and was the first language of 33% to 50% of the population. Smaller numbers spoke Mayan languages or Garifuna as their first language, and the Mennonites spoke Low German as their language. About 33% of the population can speak two or even three languages.
Belizean folklore is a combination of European, African, and Maya beliefs. Creoles speak of a phantom pirate ship seen at night, its rigging lit by flickering lanterns. It is credited with luring sailors to destruction on the treacherous coastal coral reef. "Greasy Man" lives in abandoned houses, and "Ashi de Pompi" resides in the ashes of burnt houses. They come out at night to frighten people. Sisimito or Sisemite are great hairy creatures that carry women off to mate. They are impossible to track because they can reverse the position of their feet to heel-first, making it appear that they are walking in the opposite direction.
Of Mayan origin is a belief in four-fingered "little people" of the jungle, the duende. When encountered in the jungle they must be given a four-fingered salute, hiding the thumb. The duende can cause disease, but placing gourds of food for them in a doorway will prevent an epidemic. They can capture people and drive them mad, but they can also grant wishes and confer the gift of mastering a musical instrument instantly. Xtabay is a lovely maiden who leads men astray in the forest. Also of Mayan origin is the belief that Saturdays and Mondays are lucky, while Tuesdays and Fridays are unlucky.
Many Creoles and Garifuna believe in obeah, or witchcraft. A black doll made from a stocking stuffed with feathers from a dark fowl and buried under the victim's doorstep can cause great harm. Shoes are frequently crossed at bedtime to keep evil spirits from occupying them during the night. A certain species of black butterfly is said to bring early death or at least bad luck to its beholder. To ward off the evil eye, the Garifuna paint an indigo cross on the forehead of an infant.
In 2008, 49% of Belizeans were Roman Catholic, while 27% belonged to various Protestant denominations, including Anglicans (5.4%) and Methodists (3.5%). Evangelical groups like Pentecostals (7.4%), Jehovah's Witnesses (1.5%), and Seventh-Day Adventists (5.2%) have been gaining on the mainstream Protestant denominations. Other religious groups include Mennonites, Mormons, and Baha'is.
St. George's Caye Day, on September 10, originally celebrated a British victory over the Spanish. It now commemorates local heroes and is celebrated with parades, patriotic speeches, and a pageant. Independence Day is celebrated on September 21. Both days are occasions in Belize City for street parades, floats, and block parties. The birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, April 21, is also a national holiday, as is Commonwealth Day, May 24, and Columbus Day, October 12. Garifuna Settlement Day is on November 19, commemorating the day in 1832 on which a large number of their community reached Belize from Honduras in dugout canoes. The Garifuna also hold a New Year's celebration, called Yancanú, from December 25 through January 6. It is named for a Jamaican folk hero, "John Canoe." Baron Bliss Day is celebrated on March 9 and honors a British resident who died while on vacation in Belize and donated his fortune to the construction of local libraries, schools, and other institutions.
San José Succotz has fiestas on March 19 and May 3. In the south there are traditional fiestas in San Antonio around January 17 and in San Pedro towards the end of June. These fiestas resemble their counterparts in Guatemala.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Mestizo and Maya customs are similar to those of their counterparts in Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Garifuna infants are baptized at the first opportunity. They have already been bathed ritually on their ninth day of age in water steeped with various herbs and leaves. Godfathers are more important than godmothers. Young children are generally indulged, but some are sent to live with another family, usually of a higher economic and social position, in order to obtain an education. Sometimes the Catholic Church acts as the caretaker for such children.
A death in the Creole community is observed with an evening wake in the home of the deceased. Guests bring gifts and take refreshments while praying, singing, dancing, and playing games. Burial is usually the next day. A second wake is held nine days later. Although Catholic, the Garifuna also have a deep belief in the power of the gudiba, deceased ancestors, who are honored.
Greetings, gestures, body language, visiting customs, and dating among Mestizos and Maya are similar to the customs observed by their counterparts in Guatemala and the Yucatan. Creoles carry Old-World courtesy to the point of being reluctant to declare a negative; thus "maybe" or "possibly" usually means "no." Young people often meet at public dances, but Creole or "Spanish" (Mestizo or Maya) girls are rarely allowed to attend unless there is a special occasion.
In dollar terms, the national income per person of Belizeans is among the highest in Central America, but the cost of living is also high because so many goods must be imported into this small nation. In 2008, about 30% of the population lived under the poverty line and around 3,000 inhabitants were living with HIV/AIDS. Poor sanitation in rural areas contributed to a high incidence of intestinal parasites, especially among children. Malaria remained the leading health problem, and dengue fever, also carried by mosquitoes, staged a comeback in the 1980s. There were fewer than 100 physicians in Belize in the late 1980s.
The 1980 census found that 70% of Belizean houses were made of wood, 12% of concrete, and 7% of adobe. Creoles generally live in white painted clapboard bungalows, often on stilts and with corrugated-iron roofs. Outside the towns, most Garifuna live in two-room oblong frame houses with palm thatch or iron roofs and leveled mud floors. The kitchen is a separate building of similar construction. Yucatecan Maya mostly live in huts of plastered limestone or palmetto trunks with steep thatched roofs, while the Kekchí Maya have houses of rough-hewn planks topped with palm thatch. In Belize City, elite families live in oceanfront neighborhoods.
For many ethnic groups and for the lower class generally, a formal marriage ceremony is not necessary, but wider kinship ties are in place, including close links to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and nephews and nieces. Marriage between members of different groups has been widespread. The average number of births per Belizean woman who has completed her child-bearing years, as measured in 2008, was 3.5 children. Single parents, usually women, head many lower-class households in Belize City.
The business dress for men is a short-sleeved cotton or poplin shirt and trousers of tropical-weight material. Ties are seldom worn. Women generally wear simple cotton dresses.
Belizean cuisine reflects ethnicity and international influences. The midday meal is the main one; Creoles call dinner "tea." Corn tortillas, stewed chicken, and rice and beans are widespread staples. For Mestizos and Mayans, the diet is much like that of Guatemala, with corn tortillas and beans as the staple foods. For members of both cultures, tamales —cornmeal with chicken or vegetable stuffing that is steamed in banana leaves— and Mexican-style chilies and roasts are also traditional dishes amongst their cuisine.
In the interior, wild-game dishes, like roast armadillo and roast paca, have a Yucatecan flavor. Among Creoles, rice and red kidney beans are the staples, often accompanied by fried bananas or plantains. A wide variety of stews are another Creole influence, which can include barbecued chicken, beef, and pork. The Creoles and Garifuna consume lots of fish, usually boiling or stewing it in coconut milk or frying it in coconut oil. The Garifuna also make fiery-hot cassava fritters from a gruel prepared by cooking and crushing cassava in coconut milk. Another Garifuna dish is hudut, a stew composed of pounded plantains, fish, and coconut milk. Nanche is a sweet liqueur made from crabou fruit. Many Belizeans mix the local rums with condensed milk.
Belize has, by Central American standards, an enviable educational record. More than 90% of all adults can read and write. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of 5 and 15. In 1992, 96% of all primary-school-age children were in school. However, only 36% of secondary-school-age children were in school. A joint partnership of government and churches manages the school system. The University College of Belize was established in the 1980s. Other institutions of higher learning are Belize Teachers' College, Belize School of Nursing, and Belize College of Agriculture. The Mennonite community owns and administrates its own schools.
Half of primary school graduates receive secondary schooling, and just a small and privileged sector of the elite gets higher education.
Among Mestizos, marimba music is popular. A marimba ensemble is made up of half a dozen men playing two large wooden marimbas, which resemble xylophones, perhaps supported by a double bass and a drum kit. The nation's top marimba group in the early 1990s was Alma Belicena. Mexican-style mariachi music is also heard.
Brukdown is the name given to Creole music played by guitar, banjo, accordion, steel drums, and the jawbone of an ass. It is accompanied by lyrics that often express social satire. Calypso is sometimes heard but has largely been displaced by reggae. Cungo is an offshoot of reggae. In the 1980s, Garifuna players made "punta rock" the rage throughout the nation. Its instrumentation includes maracas, drums, and turtle shells. Merengue, salsa, punk, and rap are also popular.
The Yancanu festival of the Garifuna begins with the blowing of a conch shell at midnight on Christmas Eve. Anywhere from 6 to 12 dancers—usually men only—perform in bright long-sleeved shirts, kiltlike skirts, and knee-length stockings, also wearing masks. Strings of seashells make rustling noises as they dance and sing, accompanied by a group of four drummers who keep time with the palm of the hand. Among Creoles, the punta is a wake dance in which a couple occupies the center of a ring formed by hand-clapping and chanting onlookers, accompanied by the beat of a drum. Maya dances are still performed at fiestas held in the south and west of the country.
Among Belizean painters are Manuel Carrero and Manuel Villamer, and among sculptors, George Gabb and Frank Lizama. Writers include Zee Edgell, Zoila Ellis, Felicia Hernandez, Sharon Matola, Yasser Musa, Kiren Shoman, and Simone Waight.
Although there is a serious labor shortage, the unemployment rate was about 15% in the early 1990s, and the rate was over 40% for youths who had dropped out of school. Many Creoles seek higher-paying work abroad and send remittances home to their families. Garifuna men often venture from their communities for seasonal work, then return to their villages. The labor shortage has been eased by large numbers of migrants from Central America. In 1994 the minimum wage was $1.12 an hour, but only $0.87 for domestic workers. The normal work week, by law, was no more than six days and 45 hours.
Women experience an unemployment rate 2½ times higher than men. Jobs available to women typically have low status and wages, and few women are in top managerial positions. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, but women often are underpaid for work similar to that performed by men.
Sport culture in Belize has British influence, especially in sports such as soccer and cricket. However, the United States has also influenced Belizeans in the practice of basketball and softball. Soccer is today the most popular sport in Belize, closely followed by basketball. There are a number of horseracing meets around New Year's, and bicycle races are held. Other sports include polo and boxing.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Among Creoles, all national celebrations are accompanied by open-air dancing, called "jump-up." Almost all villages, particularly those along the Caribbean coast, have their own discos, playing Afro-Caribbean music. There are only two or three cinemas, which mainly show films imported directly from the United States. Dish antennas now receive and rebroadcast more than 50 television channels via satellite signals, offering fare such as CNN News from Atlanta, Cubs baseball games from Chicago, and Spanish-language telenovelas (soap operas) from Venezuela.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Souvenirs like straw baskets and carvings in wood, slate, and stone can be found at the National Handicrafts Center in Belize City. Jewelry is made from black coral.
The migration of "Spanish" from Hispanic Central America into Belize is a cause of social tension in what has been until recently a prevalently English-speaking Creole society. A "brain-drain" of educated Creoles taking up residence in the United States has exacerbated the situation. Petty crime is rife in Belize City, and youth gangs have established a foothold there. Imported crack and powdered cocaine can now be found, in addition to a plentiful supply of marijuana. About half the rural population does not have access to pure water. Water pollution, coral removal, and spear fishing threaten the barrier reef and its marine life.
Although women constitute over half of secondary school students, achieve higher scores on standardized tests, and have higher graduation rates than male students, they remain seriously underrepresented in skilled and professional positions. The majority of women in Belize are concentrated in traditionally female, low status, and poorly paid occupations, such as manufacturing, tourism, and domestic work. Despite constitutional provisions on equal pay for equal work, women consistently receive less pay than men for the same work and occupy lower level positions even in occupations where they predominate. In addition, rural women have the highest unemployment rate in the country (20%).
Important factors inhibiting women's opportunities to work include the high incidence of teenage pregnancy, the scarcity of childcare services both in rural and urban areas, and the fact that the government does not support or subsidize childcare. In 1988, nearly 70% of all children were born to single mothers and one of five births was a result of an adolescent pregnancy. In addition, since 1992 Belize has ranked second (after Honduras) in Central America in AIDS incidence. There is no legislation specifically prohibiting trafficking or the exploitation of women. Although the government recognizes the need to promote improved health standards for sex workers, the incidence of HIV/AIDS continues to increase at an alarming rate.
Regarding political participation, few Belizean women hold decision-making positions in the government, although women's representation in political leadership positions is increasing slightly. From 1975 to 1993 there were only three women in the government as heads of departments. In 1998, 6 out of 12 magistrates were women. As of November 1998, women held 4 seats in the 38-member parliament (10.53%), a cabinet of 16 included 1 woman (6.25%), and 10 women (out of 58) served in local government (17.24%).
McClaurin, Irma. Women of Belize: Gender and Change in Central America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Peedle, Ian. Belize: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Interlink Books, 1999.
Setzekorn, William D. Formerly British Honduras: A Profile of the New Nation of Belize. Rev. ed. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.
Taylor, Douglas MacRae. The Black Carib of British Honduras. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1951.
Thomson, Peter. Belize: A Concise History. Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, 2004
Whatmore, Mark, and Peter Eltringham. Guatemala & Belize: The Rough Guide. 2nd ed. London: Rough Guides, 1993.
—by R. Halasz.