Although the presence of people of African descent in Yucatan was rooted in slavery, Yucatan was not a slave society; Afro-Yucatecans primarily played interstitial roles in the colony, filling a middle position between Spaniards and Mayas, thereby impacting colonial society, from Spanish city to Maya village, in profound ways that have hitherto been unrecognized.
– pg. xi, THE BLACK MIDDLE: AFRICANS, MAYAS, AND SPANIARDS IN COLONIAL YUCATAN, by Matthew Restall, Stanford University Press, 2009
Furthermore, Maya demographic recovery took place partially through increased miscegenation, to some extent with Spaniards but more with Afro-Yucatecans; as we shall see in subsequent chapters, late colonial Maya villages were, in demographic and biological terms, Afro-Maya communities. So while census records indicate that 13% of the colony’s population was Afro-Yucatecan in the eighteenth century, there were actually many more inhabitants with some African ancestry. I suspect that by 1821, most people in Yucatan had an African ancestor.
– pg. 27, ibid.
A terrible situation has developed in the Toledo District which may have become a national crisis for Belize. An attempt last Saturday morning by the Maya village of Santa Cruz to discipline a newcomer who is black, one Rupert Myles, was videotaped, and the images went viral. At the same time that the video of Myles, handcuffed, his hands tied with a rope, and being paraded in Santa Cruz by Maya villagers, evoked traumatic images of slavery for black Belizeans, Myles himself told the media that he was a victim of racism. He quoted racist remarks he claimed were made by the Santa Cruz village chairman.
If we are to judge by the inflammatory comments of Prime Minister Dean Barrow on Monday afternoon in Dangriga and the nature of the WAVE Radio morning shows between Monday and Wednesday, we would have to say that the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) has encouraged an ethnic backlash to the Rupert Myles incident which is truly a slippery slope in this young, multi-ethnic nation-state.
For most of this twenty first century, the accepted leader of the Toledo Maya in their struggle for customary land rights in various villages in Toledo and their protective custody of the Sarstoon/Temash national park, was Greg Ch’oc. Last year it became clear that Ch’oc had been superseded in authority by a small group which was heavily influenced by evangelical religion. Greg Ch’oc, a secular leader by contrast to the new evangelical group, decided to begin the study of law at the University of the West Indies in Barbados. So that, when a monumental court victory for the Maya in the matter of customary land rights was announced earlier this year, it was this small religious group which led the celebrations.
The new religious leadership of the Maya was not as experienced as Greg Ch’oc, and their zeal, perhaps inflamed by religious organizations which are financed by the same oil companies which are the deadly enemies of Indigenous and environmental groups worldwide, led them into a trap last Saturday which has become a public relations disaster. There is a UDP provocateur in Toledo by the name of Estephan who has been baiting the new Maya leadership, and this Estephan gentleman, who has been writing in the UDP newspaper and calling the UDP radio station for months and years, may well take credit for the Myles incident which has backfired so dangerously for the Toledo Maya.
At this newspaper, we have said to you that our enemies are European and neo-European imperialism, white supremacy, and rapacious capitalism. Historically, both the Africans and the Maya in this region have been the victims of European imperialism and white supremacy, the Africans at the hands of the British and the Maya at the hands of the Spanish. If you read the published research of Professor Matthew Restall of Penn State University, you will know that African men who entered the Yucatan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and many of them were slaves escaping from the Baymen in Belize, often began relationships with Mayan women. The children of their marriages and relationships became accepted Mexican citizens. There is a long history of solidarity in the Yucatan, then, between African and Maya people.
In Belize today, as we fight to consolidate our nationhood and sovereignty, the worst thing that could happen to us is now happening to us: division between African and Maya Belizeans. At this newspaper, we do not believe that such a crisis as the present one is accidental: we believe that this has been carefully and cleverly orchestrated. The question you have to ask yourself is who stands to benefit from this. We would say, from our standpoint, the Guatemalan oligarchy which claims Belize and the oil companies interested in Toledo stand to benefit from the estrangement between African and Maya Belizeans.
From the time of the Puerto Rico Conference in 1962, we Belizeans have been fighting to maintain the territorial integrity of our home. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, right up until Belize achieved independence in 1981, the British first, and then the Americans, have from time to time urged, sometimes pressured, Belize to yield Toledo, or a portion of it, to the Guatemalans. Belize always resisted, even though there were a couple prominent Belizeans who agreed with land cession. Today, there is absolutely no doubt that the Toledo District is the most wealthy area in the nation-state of Belize. If we ever lost Toledo, we Belizeans would regret that loss for the remainder of our generations. Toledo is totally essential to the future growth and prosperity of Belize. Toledo to Belize in 2015, is like Katanga was to the Congo in 1960. You have to read the history, people of Belize.
On Saturday last, the Santa Cruz Maya overreacted because they believed that Rupert Myles had violated and was violating a sacred Maya site. Here is a paragraph from a relevant article by Adele Ramos in the Wednesday, June 24, 2015 issue of Amandala. “Dr. Keith Profer, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, who has been doing work at the Uxbenka Maya Site, claimed in a letter of May 2015 to the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) that Myles had bulldozed a driveway at the site where he had set up his residence. In the letter, Profer said that in December 2014, the villagers had voted overwhelmingly not to let Myles live in the village, and he could not build at the sacred site.”
The fact of the matter is that there have been ethnic tensions in Toledo for some time. Those tensions involve Maya, Creole, Garifuna, and East Indian Belizeans. Sub-surface ethnic tensions have now risen to the media and social media surface, with the apparent encouragement of the ruling political party. It should have been the responsibility of the ruling party to examine these tensions and work to reduce them. It appears to us that the Maya of Toledo may be the most environment-friendly group in Toledo, thus they have drawn the ire of rapacious petroleum, timber, and real estate capitalists who have lusted for the riches of Toledo.
In the aftermath of the Rupert Myles incident at Santa Cruz, the matter of development philosophy must once again be given attention. There are many Belizeans who are interested in the quick buck. Influenced by the American colossus a few hundred miles north of us, we are obsessed with fast money. This is not the Maya way, although there are some Maya who have been seduced by the oil companies. We support the Maya way. “Slow fire cook di best beans.” We have supported the Toledo Maya struggle for customary land rights.
But, the present Maya leadership made a big mistake on Saturday in Santa Cruz. They walked into a trap. They need to, as it is said, go back to the drawing board. We are all Belizeans, and we can and must work this out.
In conclusion and tangentially, we suggest that Belize City Belizeans ask themselves if we ourselves in the population center are not in need of some of the discipline the Maya felt pressured to resort to last Saturday. There are criminals in the old capital who are in urgent need of some old-fashioned discipline. Someone will have to bell the cat.
Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie.