Meet "Don" Jesus Ken, a Belizean cañero/revolutionary and descendant of the Cruzoob Maya General Berdardino Ken (Maya General during the caste war).
Former Clerk of the National Assembly, Jesus Ken, is the subject of this week’s Personality of the Week column (AMANDALA). This story will have to be told in at least two parts, as we will trace Mr. Ken’s life from his origins in Xaibe, Corozal, to his party political career in the early to mid 1960’s, the period during which he rose to prominence as a revolutionary among the cañeros of the North.
Xaibe means “crossroads” in Yucatec, Mr. Ken informs. During his boyhood days, the village was very small, having about 50 houses, but today it has grown. While some of their Mayan cultural traditions—brought down to Belize by their ancestors who fled the Caste War of the 1840’s—have been lost, some have still remained etched in their social fabric. Everybody in the village was related, but over the more recent years, people have migrated into Xaibe from other parts of Belize, adding to its diversity.
Mr. Jesus Ken was born on February 29, 1932. His birthday comes once every four years and so he has celebrated 18 birthdays, but that was not a big deal to him, he said, because his people had a different concept of life.
He explained that Xaibe is very rocky and doesn’t get much rain. It is a tough place to live, because the agricultural potential of the land is limited.
“You really had to work very hard to get through,” said Mr. Ken. But he said that he has always loved hard work. People managed to survive by working around the area, in the old ranchos (or sugar cane plantations) that were still operating in the area.
Mr. Jesus Ken described his family as “quite privileged.” His father was the only grocery store owner in Xaibe, and he had several little branches in other villages such as Patchakan, San Joaquin and San Andres, he informed.
“One of the things I believe impacted my social conscience at the time when I was a child, in the late 30’s (37/39), was the story going around about Antonio Soberanis. Because the men folk of my village used to come to my dad’s store to relate what they had heard and what they knew about Antonio Soberanis, so much so that at one time he came to the village,” said Mr. Ken.
[Soberanis had headed a labor movement centered in Belize City beginning in the 1930’s.]
According to Mr. Ken, the men of the village had to borrow money to give contributions to a fund to support Mr. Soberanis in his activities and travels, and while he assisted his father to hand out the money, he soaked up what information he could.
“I was there listening and it was playing on my spirit of adventure. I was really hungry to hear more. I loved the excitement. I was always asking questions, always wanting to know,” he elaborated.
Mr. Ken attended school in Xaibe up to Standard 4. His father then sent him to Corozal Town to finish primary school at St. Francis Xavier, but as soon as he completed Standard 6, his father put him in charge of the grocery store.
He said that he wanted to go to high school, but his people did not put much emphasis on formal education, and pulling him out early was really a form of protest.
“The culture that I grew in was not much in favor of having forward education,” said Mr. Ken. “If you could recall, it’s a form of protest against the masters. Mostly, it was the white people, the Spaniards, Mexicans and then the British.”
At the time Jesus was only 13, and his dad gave him an on-the-job course in managing the business and put him to run the store while he went back to his people in Yucatan, Mexico.
It was a learning experience for him, and what he remembers today is the shock he experienced to see that some people could get credit from the store while others could not.
It was his father’s rule that if a debtor did not pay his or her bill at the end of the week, they could not get anything more on credit. But Jesus Ken dispensed with this rule when his father went away. His father returned to find empty shelves, and when his father came back he remarked, “Son, I realize this is not your life.” So ended that leg of his job experience, which lasted three years.
He accepts today that there was wisdom in his father’s credit rule, and said that he can now even defend it.
Afterwards, Ken went on his own. Driven by a thirst for adventure, he labored in both Belize and Mexico, meeting people from all walks of life and learning of some of the revolutionary struggles in the region.
At the age of 16 he went to Zoh-lagula, State of Campeche, Mexico, to work at a lumber mill.
“I left with one Belize dollar in my pocket. I stayed at Zoh-lagula and came back with that same dollar and extra cash. I’m not a big spender. I stayed about 4 months and got homesick. I wanted to see mommy again,” he reminisced.
With the money he brought back, he bought a plot of land right in front of my parents’ house. On it sat a 30’ by 24’ thatched house. He purchased the entire package for $80. It was close to this property where he later built the home where he would eventually raise his family.
In Belize he became a cane cutter, starting at a time when the sugar industry was just beginning to spread out. He went back to Mexico to work as a trailblazer in mahogany camps, again motivated by adventure.
“In my trips over the Mexican border, my social consciousness was further sharpened in conversations with workers there. A lot were ‘refugees’ from Mexican Revolution. That’s what Quintana Roo was for,” he narrated. “Some of them had actually fought in the Mexican Revolution and [we had] conversations about social justice and land reform and all these things, just based on what I had been reading at home. My father was a very informed person when it came to social issues. Every time I came back, I used to talk to people about this ideology – workers’ rights, social justice, land reform and things like that.”
In the 1950’s he worked on several plantations—sugar and citrus—both in the north and the south of Belize. He expanded his adventures to the Stann Creek Valley, where he earned the reputation of being a “troublemaker.”
“So I started to make Xaibe my base. I was still working in sugar cane plantations and still kept on talking with the workers. But as I tell you, it was a difficult period in organization, because our people had very big ideas of how to go about things. When we talked about taking over the land, I will tell you, even among the workers and the peasants, some of them were very much against it, because of some misconceived idea about justice, because you shouldn’t take a thing that doesn’t belong to you,” he said.
Mr. Ken was, perhaps, stirred by the same revolutionary spirit of his ancestors.
He said that as a child, his people told him the history of their ancestors of Yucatan. He learned of his great grandfather, Bernardino Ken, who was a general in the Mayan army in Santa Cruz. They used to come to Belize to buy the war materials, Mr. Ken said, adding that he had come from a resistant tribe.
“I used to explain to them that it is a worse sin for a landowner to deprive them of a means of livelihood, depriving them of land…” said Jesus Ken.
He ventured off to the citrus fields of Pomona, Stann Creek, where Mr. David McKoy had also headed a labor movement of which, he said, he was unaware at the time.
“My first activity in the valley was in Middlesex,” Mr. Ken said. “We caused a strike there among the fruit pickers. We were successful, but I got kicked out of the place. No problem! I believe in what I am doing.”
But he said that the Middlesex foreman, Mr. Mallet, wasn’t satisfied with kicking him out, and went around the valley telling people not to hire him, because he is a troublemaker. Don Emilio Zabaneh hired him.
“I found out that he had a farm and he had nobody to look after it… So I told him I was interested in working. He asked for my name and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the same troublemaker? But he said, ‘Mallet is not my boss, so I do what I want with my field…’ He gave me the key for his place and he liked what I did there.”
Zabaneh was satisfied with his performance and said, “If you don’t have anything else to do, you can still take care of the place, and I’ll still give you a weekly allowance and you can look after the bar for me.”
It wasn’t long, however, before he returned to the cane fields of Corozal, and the time was ripe for him to spread his wings on the national political scene. After 10 years of spreading the word in the fields, the momentum in the workers’ movement intensified, Mr. Ken added.
“My brother was studying here [in Belize City] in St. John’s College. He said, ‘Why don’t you meet with Mr. George Price?’ My work was independent of any political movement. [My brother] said that Price was fighting for the same things: workers rights, social rights for the people. In 1958, I called on him; I met him in Belize City. So I told him that we were working towards a workers’ organization and he asked me to help his party up North.”
According to Mr. Ken, there was rift between the representative of Corozal and the party. He agreed to join with the PUP in 1960. Around that same time, they increased the number of seats in the House of Representatives from 9 to 18, and Corozal was split into north and south.
In Belize City, Jesus Ken made friends with people like Vernon Leslie (the first Belizean tutor of the University of the West Indies), Reverend Rodwell Hulse, and Woolrich Harrison Courtenay.
“Mr. Price remarked to me, ‘But all your friends are not my friends.’ I said, ‘You said it, my friends are my friends.’”
“It was during the time of the village council movement, and these people were the ones that used to help organize the councils,” he added. “My first attorney for the union was Vernon Courtenay.”
Mr. Ken founded the Northern Cane Workers Union in the late 1950’s, but it didn’t get registered until some time around ’61 or ’62, he added.
“So it was during the time that this political development came about that the workers asked me to run [for elections]. They said, ‘Why don’t you get into politics.’ They wanted me to be their spokesperson,” he recollected.
The best paid workers got about $15, but still, the cañeros pinched off 25 cents and 50 cents to put into a common fund to allow him to campaign, so that he could run on the PUP ticket in 1961.
This began a new phase of Mr. Ken’s life of activism, and we will chronicle the period from the 60’s onward in Part II of this story.
Note:The Chan Santa Cruz Maya(Cruzoob Maya) are a tribe of Yucatec Maya speakers who still continue their tradition of the talking cross in Felipe Carillo Puerto and other villages in Quintana Roo Mexico.
Courtesy: Belize Yucatec Maya/Amandala Newspaper