POPULATION: Over 200,000
LANGUAGE: English; Spanish; local Creole
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (62 percent); various Protestant denominations (30 percent); evangelical groups such as Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists; Mennonites; Mormons; Baha'is
Mayan Indians built several major centers within what is now Belize. Probably at least four hundred thousand people lived in the Belize area around AD 900—twice as many as today. Mayan civilization had collapsed by the sixteenth century, when Spanish expeditions reached the area. Diseases like smallpox and yellow fever killed many.
The Spanish controlled the western part of present-day Belize. But English pirates used the eastern side, on the Caribbean Sea, as a base for their raids on ships. On land, they plundered logwood, a tree used to produce a dye used in the woolen industry. Mahogany later became the major export.
British settlers arrived in 1638 and brought in slaves from Africa to work the plantations. Slavery ended in 1838. The colony of British Honduras was established in 1862.
Other groups arrived and settled. Free Creoles were of mixed African and European descent. Garifuna, descendants of Africans and Carib Indians, also came to the colony. Mayan Indians began fleeing into the colony from a war in the Yucatán Peninsula and from forced labor in Guatemala. Even with all these additions to the population, British Honduras had only thirty-seven thousand inhabitants in 1901.
British Honduras became the independent Republic of Belize in 1981. But Mexico and Guatemala had held Spain's original claim to the land. Mexico had dropped its claim in 1893. Guatemala never officially gave up its claim, but it established full diplomatic relations with Belize in 1991.
Belize is a little larger than the 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 southern coast and mostly level in the north. The southern part has mountains reaching a high point of 3,861 feet (1,177 meters). Belize's climate is warm and humid. There are seventeen rivers. The longest barrier reef in the Americas (about 180 miles, or 290 kilometers) runs parallel to its coastline.
Belize is more thinly settled than any other part of Central America. It had a population of just over 200,000 in the mid-1990s. Creoles had been the largest group, but the 1991 census showed that they accounted for only 30 percent of the population. Mestizos, of Indian and European descent, made up 44 percent. Another 15 percent were Mayan Indians. The Garifuna, or Black Caribs, made up 7 percent. There were also East Indians (descended from immigrants from present-day India), Arabs and Chinese. About 6,000 Mennonites, members of a Protestant religious denomination who had come from Mexico and Canada, also lived in Belize at that time.
As many as 65,000 Belizeans were living in the United States in the late 1980s. Most of them were Creole or Garifuna.
English is the only official language in Belize and the only teaching language in the public schools. The 1991 census found that at least 80 percent of the population could speak some English or some Belizean Creole, a dialect of English difficult for outsiders to understand. Spanish was spoken by about 60 percent of the people. It was the first language of 33 to 50 percent of the population. Smaller numbers spoke Mayan languages or Garifuna as their first language. Many of the people speak more than one language.
Belizean folklore is a combination of European, African, and Mayan beliefs. Creoles speak of a phantom pirate ship seen at night, lit by flickering lanterns. It is believed to lure sailors to death on the dangerous coral reef.
Many supernatural beings are part of the folklore. "Greasy Man" lives in abandoned houses, and "Ashi de Pompi" in the ashes of burned houses. They come out at night to frighten people. Sisimito or Sisemite are giant, hairy creatures that kidnap women. They are impossible to track because they can reverse the position of their feet. This makes it seem that they are walking in the opposite direction.
The Mayans contributed the belief in four-fingered "little people" of the jungle, the duende. Any person meeting one must give 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 make a person suddenly able to play a musical instrument. 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. It is believed that if a person makes a doll from a black sock and then buries it under the victim's doorstep, great harm will come to that person. Shoes are frequently crossed at bedtime to keep evil spirits out of them during the night. A certain species of black butterfly is said to bring early death or at least bad luck to a person who sees it. To ward off the evil eye, the Garifuna paint an indigo cross on the forehead of an infant.
In 1993, 62 percent of the Belizean people were Roman Catholic, while 30 percent belonged to various Protestant denominations, including the Mennonites and Mormons. Other groups include the Baha'is.
St. George's Caye Day, on September 10, originally celebrated a British victory over Spain, but it now commemorates local heroes. It is marked by parades, patriotic speeches, and a pageant. Independence Day is September 21. Both of these days are occasions for street parades, floats, and block parties in Belize City. The birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, April 21, is also a national holiday, along with Commonwealth Day, May 24, and Columbus Day, October 12. Garifuna Settlement Day is November 19. It marks the day in 1832 on which a large number of Garifuna 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."
The town of San José Succotz has fiestas on March 19 and May 3. In the south there are other traditional fiestas, in San Antonio around January 17 and in San Pedro toward the end of June.
Mestizo and Mayan customs are similar to those of the same groups in Guatemala and in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.
Garifuna infants are baptized as soon as possible. They will have already been bathed in a ritual on their ninth day, in water steeped with herbs and leaves. Godfathers are more important than godmothers. Children are sometimes sent to live with another family, usually of a higher economic and social position, so that they can get an education. Sometimes the Catholic Church takes care of such children.
A death in the Creole community is observed with an evening wake in the family's home. 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 Mayans are similar to those of the same groups in Guatemala and the Yucatán.
Creoles carry European-style courtesy to the extreme of hesitating to say "no." So "maybe" or "possibly" usually means "no."
Young people often meet at public dances, but Creole or "Spanish" (Mestizo or Mayan) girls are rarely allowed to attend except on special occasions.
In numbers of dollars, the national income per person in Belize is one of the highest in Central America. However, the cost of living is also high because so many goods must be imported.
In the early 1990s, about 60 percent of all children under three years of age suffered some form of malnutrition. Poor sanitation in rural areas helped cause a high percentage of people, especially children, to have intestinal parasites. Malaria remained the leading health problem. Dengue fever, which, like malaria, is also carried by mosquitoes, began to appear again in the 1980s. There were fewer than a hundred physicians in Belize in the late 1980s.
The 1980 census found that 70 percent of Belizean houses were made of wood, 12 percent of concrete, and 7 percent of adobe. Creoles generally live in white-painted wooden bungalows. These houses are often built on stilts and have corrugated-iron roofs. Outside the towns, most Garifuna live in two-room oblong wooden houses. These houses have palm thatch or iron roofs and have floors of leveled mud. The kitchen is a separate building. Yucatán Maya mostly live in huts of plastered limestone or tree trunks with steep thatched roofs. Kekchí Maya have houses of rough planks topped with palm thatch. In Belize City, families of high social and economic status live in wealthy neighborhoods along the coast.
For many ethnic groups, and for the lower social and economic groups, a formal marriage ceremony is not necessary. However, family ties beyond the immediate family are strong, including close links to grandparents, aunts and uncles, and nephews and nieces.
Marriage between members of different groups has been very common. Many poorer households in Belize City are headed by single parents, usually women.
Business clothing for men is a short-sleeved cotton shirt and trousers of lightweight fabric. Ties are rarely worn. Women generally wear simple cotton dresses.
In Belize, the main meal is eaten at midday. For Mestizos and Mayans, the diet is much like that of Guatemala. Corn tortillas and beans are the staple foods. In the interior of the country, dishes of wild game like roast armadillo and roast paca have a Yucatán flavor. (The paca is a large rodent.)
Creoles call dinner "tea." Among Creoles, rice and red kidney beans are the staples, often with fried bananas or plantains. (The plantain is somewhat like a banana.)
The Creoles and Garifuna eat a great deal of fish. They usually boil or stew it in coconut milk or fry it in coconut oil. The Garifuna also make fiery-hot cassava fritters from a paste of cooked cassava in coconut milk. Another Garifuna dish is hudut, a stew composed of crushed plantains, fish, and coconut milk.
Nanche is a sweet alcoholic drink made from crabou fruit. Many Belizeans drink the local rum mixed with condensed milk.
By Central American standards, Belize has done a very good job of educating its citizens. More than 90 percent of all adults can read and write. Education is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. In 1992, 96 percent of all primary-school-age children were in school. However, only 36 percent of high school-age children were. A joint partnership of government and churches manages the school system. The University College of Belize was established in the 1980s. Other colleges are Belize Teachers' College, Belize School of Nursing, and Belize College of Agriculture.
Among Mestizos, marimba music is popular. A marimba group is made up of half a dozen musicians, two of them playing large, wooden marimbas, which resemble xylophones. Other musicians play a double bass and the drums. Belize's top marimba group in the early 1990s was Alma Belicena. Mexican-style mariachi music is also heard.
Brukdown is a kind of Creole music played on the guitar, banjo, accordion, and steel drums, with someone also playing the jawbone of a donkey. It is accompanied by words that often make fun of people or events. Calypso music is also sometimes heard but has mostly been replaced by reggae.
In the 1980s, Garifuna players made "punta rock" the most popular style of music in Belize. Its instruments include maracas, drums, and turtle shells. Salsa, punk, and rap music are also popular.
Among Belizean painters are Manuel Carrero and Manuel Villamer. Important sculptors include 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 shortage of workers, the unemployment rate was about 15 percent in the early 1990s. For school dropouts, the rate was over 40 percent. Many Creoles seek higher-paying work outside the country and send money home to their families. Garifuna men often go outside their communities for seasonal work, then return to their villages off season. The labor shortage has been lessened by large numbers of migrant workers from other parts of Central America.
In 1994 the minimum wage was $1.12 an hour, but only 87 cents an hour for domestic workers. By law, the normal work week was no more than six days or forty-five hours.
The unemployment rate for women is two and one half times that of men. Jobs available to women usually have low status and low wages. Few women are in top management jobs. The law requires equal pay for equal work, but women often are paid less for doing work similar to men's.
Soccer is the most popular sport, closely followed by basketball. Belizeans also play baseball and softball. There are a number of horse-racing meets around New Year's Day, and bicycle races are also held. Other sports include polo and boxing.
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 few movie theaters, which mainly show films from the United States. Dish antennas now receive more than fifty television channels via satellite signals. Belizeans can watch CNN News from Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago Cubs baseball games; and Spanish-language telenovelas (soap operas) from Venezuela.
Souvenirs such as 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" people from other countries in Central America to Belize has caused social tension. Until recently, Belize had been a mostly English-speaking Creole society. A "brain-drain" of educated Creoles to the United States has made things worse.
Petty crime is very common in Belize City, and youth gangs have gotten a foothold there. Imported powdered and crack cocaine are in use, as is marijuana.
About half the rural population is without pure water. The barrier reef and its animal and plant life are threatened by water pollution, the removal of coral, and spearfishing.
Setzekorn, William D. Formerly British Honduras: A Profile of the New Nation of Belize. Rev. ed. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1981.
Whatmore, Mark, and Peter Eltringham. Guatemala & Belize: The Rough Guide. 2nd ed. London: Rough Guides, 1993.