The extraordinary diversity of Belize’s tiny population (about 320,000) allows Belizeans to be doubly proud of their heritage—once for their family’s background (Maya, Creole, Garífuna, Mennonite, etc.) and again for their country. The mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) population has risen to about 50 percent of the country’s total, with Creoles making up about 25 percent, Maya 10-12 percent, Garífuna 6 percent, and others 9 percent (in the 2000 census). Here’s a bit of background about Belize’s diverse demography, but keep in mind that every one of these groups continues to mingle with the others, at least to some extent, ensuring continuing creolization.
Creoles are a mix of two distinctive ethnic backgrounds: African and European, and they use the local English-Creole dialect. Many Creoles are also descended from other groups of immigrants. The center of Creole territory and culture is Belize City. Half of Belize’s ethnic Creoles live here, and they make up more than three-quarters of the city’s population. Rural Creoles live along the highway between Belmopan and San Ignacio, in isolated clusters in northern Belize District, and in a few coastal spots to the south—Gales Point, Mullins River, Mango Creek, Placencia, and Monkey River.
Cheap labor was needed to do the grueling timber work in thick, tall rainforests. The British failed to force it on the maverick Maya, so they brought Africans whom they enslaved, indentured laborers from India, and Caribs from distant Caribbean islands, as was common in the early 16th and 17th centuries. “Creolization” started when the first waves of British and Scottish began to intermingle with these imported enslaved and servants.
Also referred to as “Ladinos” or just “Spanish,” mestizos make up the quickest-growing demographic group in Belize and encompass all Spanish-speaking Belizeans, descended from some mix of Maya and Europeans. These immigrants to Belize hail from the nearby countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. Once the predominant population (after immigration from the Yucatecan Caste War), mestizos are now the second-most populous ethnic group of Belize. They occupy the old “Mexican-mestizo corridor” that runs along New River between Corozal and Orange Walk. In west-central Belize—Benque Viejo and San Ignacio—indigenous people from Guatemala have recently joined the earlier Spanish-speaking immigrants from Yucatán.
Small villages of Maya—Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’—still practicing some form of their ancient culture dot the landscape and comprise roughly 10-12 percent of Belize’s population. After the Europeans arrived and settled in Belize, many of the Maya moved away from the coast to escape hostile Spanish and British intruders who arrived by ship to search for slaves. Many Mayan communities continue to live much as their ancestors did and are still the most politically marginalized people in Belize, although certain villages are becoming increasingly empowered and developed, thanks in part to tourism (although some would argue at a cultural cost). Most modern Maya practice some form of Christian religion integrated with ancient beliefs. But ancient Mayan ceremonies are still quietly practiced in secluded pockets of the country, especially in southern Belize.
The, Garífuna people, in plural Garinagu, came to exist on the Lesser Antillean island of San Vicente, which in the 1700s had become a refuge for escaped slaves from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Jamaica. These displaced Africans were accepted by the native Carib islanders, with whom they freely intermingled. The new island community members vehemently denied their African origins and proclaimed themselves Native Americans. As the French and English began to settle the island, the Garífuna (as they had become known) established a worldwide reputation as expert canoe navigators and fierce warriors, resisting European control. The English finally got the upper hand in the conflict after tricking and killing the Garífuna leader, and in 1797 they forcefully evacuated the population from San Vicente to the Honduran Bay Island of Roatan. From there, a large proportion of the Garífuna migrated to mainland Central America, all along the Mosquito Coast.
On November 19, 1823, so the story goes, the first Garífuna boats landed on the beaches of what is now Dangriga, one of the chief cultural capitals of the Garinagu. They landed in Belize under the leadership of Alejo Beni, and a small Garífuna settlement grew in Stann Creek, where they fished and farmed. They began bringing fresh produce to Belize City but were not welcome to stay for more than 48 hours without getting a special permit—the Baymen wanted the produce but feared that these free blacks would help the enslaved escape, causing a loss of the Baymen’s tight control.
The Garífuna language is a mixture of Amerindian, African, Arawak, and Carib, dating from the 1700s. The Garinagu continued to practice what was still familiar from their ancient West African traditions—cooking with a mortar and pestle, dancing, and especially music, which consisted of complex rhythms with a call-and-response pattern that was an important part of their social and religious celebrations. An eminent person in the village is still the drum maker, who continues the old traditions, along with making other instruments used in these singing and dancing ceremonies that often last all night.
There are a number of old dances and drum rhythms still used for a variety of occasions, especially around Christmas and New Year’s. If you are visiting Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight, Punta Gorda, or Barranco during these times (or on Settlement Day, November 19), expect to see, and possibly partake in, some drumming. Feel free to taste the typical foods and drinks. If you consume too much “local dynamite” (rum and coconut milk) or bitters, have a cup of strong chicory coffee, said by Garinagu “to mek we not have goma” (prevent a hangover).
From 1844 to 1917, under British colonialism, 41,600 East Indians were brought to British colonies in the Caribbean as indentured workers. They agreed to work for a given length of time for one “master.” Then they could either return to India or stay on and work freely. Unfortunately, the time spent in Belize was not as lucrative as they were led to believe it would be. In some cases, they owed so much money to the company store (where they received half their wages in trade and not nearly enough to live on) that they were forced to “reenlist” for a longer period. Most of them worked on sugar plantations in the Toledo and Corozal Districts, and many of the East Indian men were assigned to work as local police in Belize City. In a town aptly named Calcutta, south of Corozal Town, many of the population today are descendants of the original indentured East Indians. Forest Home near Punta Gorda also has a large settlement. About 47 percent of the ethnic group lives in these two locations. The East Indians usually have large families and live on small farms with orchards adjacent to their homes. A few trade in pigs and dry goods in mom-and-pop businesses. Descendants of earlier East Indian immigrants speak Creole and Spanish. A few communities of Hindi-speaking East Indian merchants live in Belize City, Belmopan, and Orange Walk.
Making up more than 3 percent of the population of Belize, German-speaking Mennonites are the most recent group to enter Belize on a large scale. This group of Protestant settlers from the Swiss Alps wandered over the years to northern Germany, southern Russia, Pennsylvania, and Canada in the early 1800s, and to northern Mexico after World War I. The quiet, staid Mennonites and their isolated agrarian lifestyle conflicted with local governments in these countries, leading to a more nomadic existence.
Most of Belize’s Mennonites first migrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. A few came from Peace River in Canada. In contrast to other areas where they lived, the Mennonites bought large blocks of land (about 148,000 acres) and began to farm. Shipyard (in Orange Walk District) was settled by a conservative wing; Spanish Lookout (in Cayo District) and Blue Creek (in Orange Walk District) were settled by more progressive members. In hopes of averting future problems with the government, Mennonites made agreements with Belize officials that guarantee them freedom to practice their religion, use their language in locally controlled schools, organize their own financial institutions, and be exempt from military service.
Over the 30-plus years that Mennonites have been in Belize, they have slowly merged into Belizean activities. Although they practice complete separation of church and state (and do not vote), their innovations in agricultural production and marketing have advanced the entire country. Mennonite farmers are probably the most productive in Belize; they commonly pool their resources to make large purchases such as equipment, machinery (in those communities that use machinery), and supplies. Their fine dairy industry is the best in the country, and they supply the domestic market with eggs, poultry, fresh milk, cheese, and vegetables.
More than eight languages are commonly spoken in Belize. English is the official language, although Belizean Creole (or “Kriol”) serves as the main spoken tongue among and between groups. There are an increasing number of Spanish speakers in Belize, as Central American immigrants continue to arrive. Spanish is the primary language of many native Belizean families, especially among descendants of Yucatecan immigrants who inhabit the Northern Cayes, Orange Walk, and Corozal Districts. As a tourist, there are only a few areas of Belize, mainly rural outposts in northern and western Belize, where knowing Spanish is essential to communicate. The Garinagu speak Garífuna, and the various Mennonite communities speak different dialects of Old German. Then there are Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’ Maya tongues. Still other immigrant groups, like Chinese and Lebanese, also often speak their own languages amongst themselves.