REPORT #360 August 2000

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Racism in Belize is not what you would expect after hearing stories from Europe and North America. Racism in Belize is practiced against new Chinese immigrants and the ancient Maya, who have lived on this land for more than 10,000 years. Racism in Belize is practiced by Creoles. Mostly from the largest port town in the country, that was once the old colonial capital. Creoles are people who are of African American descent and in Belize mostly are descended from Jamaican British West Indian Regiments that were brought into the old colony of British Honduras by logwood cutters during the era of exporting Logwood trees for the dye industrialization in England and Europe in the mid 1800's to conquer the resident Maya. These Creoles were free Black African/Jamaican soldiers in uniform under British officers of the aristocracy and commercial autocracy of England. They stayed in British Honduras and multiplied. Since self-government these town Creoles have controlled and dominated the political format of the new nation of Belize and made sure that the treasury, the police, the Belize Defense Force and all the political power in the new nation of Belize stays in their hands. For the past forty years these town Creoles have politically sucked 80% of the revenue of the nation collected by the government under their control and spent it on their beloved old colonial capital. In the process, they have cheated, lied and treated as second class citizens, the Mayan population, whose land they have stolen under British rule. The worst cases of subjugation have been the southern areas of Belize and somewhat in the Western districts. Under one pretext or another, they continue to plunder the six districts comprising the new nation of Belize for their own benefit like a feudal plantation.

Paper by Dr. Angel Cal, President of the University of Belize on this subject.

Indigenous people in the Americas have long suffered from the violence meted out by both the institutionalized power of the state and the deep-rooted racism that continues to characterize the very unequal terms in which indigenous people relate with other groups in society.

In Mesoamerica, the downtrodden of the earth are by and large the Maya of Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, that very part of Mesoamerica that gave rise to ancient Maya civilization, whose achievements many claim to be so proud of.

While the actual experiences of the people in each state or nation have differed over time, the underlying patterns remain the same to this day: the Maya are the people who have the least voice and the least power of any sort and continue to have the least access to basic social amenities, including elementary education, basic health care, and suitable housing. The Maya are the people who can least access land, credit, and other public supported services taken for ranted by other sectors of the population. Why did this happen, why does it continue to happen and, more importantly, what can be done to break the continuous cycle of poverty that has been the hallmark of the poorest of the poor of Mesoamerica?

Writing in the beginning of the nineteenth century, Captain George Henderson of the Fourth West Indian Regiment observed, "Not many years past, numerous tribes of hostile Mayan Indians often left their recesses in the woods for the purpose of plunder. This they often accomplished; and if resistance were offered, not unfrequently committed the most sanguinary murders."

When the population of Belize doubled in the 1850s with the immigration of thousands of Mayas and Mestizos of Yucatan and Campeche and when the Kekchi and Mopan Maya began immigrating into southern Belize in the 1880s, the wood cutting companies doing business in Belize welcomed the Maya as a pool of cheap and reliable labor. However, they took legal steps to dispossess the Maya of their land and thereby prevent from establishing themselves as a land-owning peasantry. In southern Belize, the British set aside some Crown land that the Maya could lease for subsistence cultivation, but they could not own the land. In northern Belize, all of the land had been taken over by the lumber companies. Mayans had to pay the companies an annual rent for their house lots and subsistence plots.

The British conveniently categorized both the indigenous Belizean Maya and the Mayan immigrants of the 18OOs as "aliens". This categorization justified treating the Maya en bloc as outsiders of what they regarded as their colony of Belize. Mayan existence was practically denied by the British authorities. They were rendered invisible. For example, prior to the census of 1861, no attempt was made to count the indigenous Maya. The 1861 census lumped all the Maya as immigrants.

Today, we find that the myth is being used for a more sinister purpose. There is the palpable tendency to treat the Maya as "aliens" and to therefore dismiss Mayan claims for fair treatment as a community. It is used to justify the attitude towards the Maya as late-coming "aliens "who have no right to claim any special consideration as a community. The myth also subtly rationalizes in the minds of many Belizeans the racism that the Maya continue to suffer in the land of their ancestors.

Mayan resistance to British colonization in Belize provides us with another motive for the propagation of the "empty land" myth. In twisting and distorting Belizean history, the British expected to punish the Maya for daring to resist the mantle of their version of civilization of the l8OOs. The British almost succeeded in stripping the Maya of their continuous history of resistance in Belize, in effect, making them -- to borrow a phrase from Eric Wolf -- "a people without history". It is important to highlight the fact that it was not the Spaniards who actually challenged the British in Belize in the 1800s; it Was the Maya. The very well documented Battle of San Pedro Yalbac of 21 December, 1866 (which for obvious reasons Belize does not celebrate as a holiday) very nearly expelled the British from Belize.

It is also evident to students of demography that, laws notwithstanding, people cannot be contained by political boundaries. In the 1800s, the Yucatec Maya of northern Belize were as much at home in Kaxil Huinic, Belize as they were in Sajcabchen, Campeche, since they both shared a common culture which overlapped the artificial boundary lines drawn by the Europeans. In fact, the idea of the nation state in Mexico and Central America was just being born in the extremely violent decade of the 1820s and 1930s. As for Belize, it was not until the advent of a national road grid in the 1960s and the birth of the nationalist movement in the 1950s that some Belizeans started to think in terms of Belize as a political concept.

This historical overview sheds some light on the attitudes that persist with respect to Belizes indigenous groups such as the Maya. This perception persists today that the Maya are just one among the several immigrant groups that came to live in Belize and as such they cannot advance any special claim on the land of their ancestors.

What to do to break out of this cycle? Courageous Mayan leaders such as Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Belizean Julian Cho have conscientized the world to the plight of the Maya, using the instruments of dialogue to advance their plea. Perhaps, other leaders might become more militant, as we are now witnessing in Chiapas. Belizean institutions such as the university have the responsibility to educate and to inspire men and women leaders to speak out and actively fight against injustice and in support of the rights of all people.

Belizean statesmen and stateswomen have the power of the state to set structures in place to give the Mayan communities those resources such as education, health care, and housing, land and credit to better utilize their own human resources, respecting the cultural norms of the community. A little closer to home, the government can better support the universitys outreach programs in the Toledo district to help educate a cadre of district leaders who will best utilize the resources of the district for the benefit of the communities.

In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that Belizeans need not be trapped by the distortions of the British, who wished to disenfranchise the Maya of their history, thereby subtly rationalizing the continuous racism to which the Belize Maya continue to suffer. But in the same way that history can trap, it can also liberate, as it can unequivocally show that the Maya had a continuous presence in Belize since time immemorial and therefore, like their brothers and sisters in the rest of Mesoamerica, they have communal rights that must be respected.

Angel E. Cal Ph.D. President, UCB/UB
(Paper presented to Select Faculty from the University of Louisville, State of Kentucky, USA, on 25th February, 2000)

For reference purposes on the Belizean Mayan fight over 300 years against Spanish invaders and the British invaders see:

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