BELIZE has long been a country of immigrants. British timber-cutters imported African slaves in the 18th century, and in the 1840s Mexican Mayans fled a civil war. More recently, North American sun-seekers and retired British soldiers have discovered its coast. Light- and dark-skinned men stand side by side on the country’s flag.
The latest migration is from elsewhere in Central America. Thousands of Salvadoran refugees arrived in the 1980s. More recently, Guatemalans have come seeking land. Of Belize’s 300,000 people, 15% are foreign-born. Thanks to higher birth rates, mestizos have overtaken creoles (of mixed African ancestry) to become the biggest group, making up half the population.
Belize now has more native speakers of Spanish than of English or its lilting cousin, Belizean Creole. English remains the lingua franca and the only official tongue. But Spanish is gaining ground: many posters for an election on March 7th are in Spanish and Dean Barrow, the (creole) prime minister, reads translations of some speeches. Naturalisation ceremonies are bilingual, and speaking English is not required for citizenship. Schools teach in English, but Spanish lessons are mandatory.
Migrants are also redrawing the map of the country. While in the rest of Central America people are moving from the countryside to cities, since 2000 the urban share of Belize’s population has fallen from 47% to 44%, as immigrants have set up border towns. In Cayo 7,000 new households have sprung up. Many are in Salvapan, a Salvadorean district complete with tortilla shops on the edge of the capital. It is likely to grow further: land stretching miles into the jungle has already been divided into lots.
The population boom brings relief and strain. Most migrants are of working age, and keep the sugar, banana and citrus industries competitive by toiling for low wages in harsh conditions. But with almost a quarter of Belizeans telling census officials they are unemployed, not all locals welcome the new arrivals. And as Spanish becomes more important, monolingual creoles are losing service jobs.
Along the border, Guatemalans poach game and plants from Belize’s national parks. Last month Belizean soldiers killed a Guatemalan while he harvested palm leaves. The state has had to build roads to remote migrant outposts in the jungle.
Land may yet cause rows as it becomes scarcer. The smart concrete homes of Salvapan, with swings in neat gardens, are a class above the clapboard houses in the creole south side of Belize City. Nigel Encalada of the Institute for Social and Cultural Research, a state-run body, says Central Americans have snapped up land and home loans faster than locals have. “Some say Belizeans have too much pride to apply for help, whereas immigrants are willing to stand in line,” he says. And few creoles seem inclined to move out to the sticks.
Despite these frictions, relations between ethnic groups are generally good. It helps that political parties are not divided along ethnic lines, and that politicians have courted the newcomers’ votes. Giving out land is a favourite tactic: in some regions you can tell when a district was built by checking when the politicians depicted on its yard signs were in power.
In January Belize made over a thousand immigrants citizens, just in time to register them to vote. Some congressmen reportedly paid the $150 fee themselves. With a welcome mat like that, Belize’s immigration boom is unlikely to slow.