I have a maternal uncle to whom I was close; he died a few years ago after being confined, or confining himself, to his Lizarraga Street home for some fifteen years or so. During the years he was confined, I would visit him, on the average, a couple times each week.
During those visits, I got to know him much better, and I would refer specifically to the fact that I began to see his flaws. From my childhood, he had been a hero of mine, and hero worship is something which blinds you to your idol’s feet of clay, as they say.
My uncle had been in Panama from 1941 until 1946. He travelled to Panama, as many Belizean workers did during that time, for work in the Panama Canal Zone. He was just 19 when he went to Panama. After he returned to British Honduras, he did the best he could until one of his friends hooked him up with the Public Works Department.
I would say that around 1954 or 1955, while he was at the Public Works Department, he was given an opportunity to study electrical matters in Puerto Rico.
Years later, while he was teaching electricity at Belize Technical College, an institution at which he rose as high as vice-principal, he got another break to study abroad, this time in Los Angeles, from where he returned to Belize in 1968.
The point I want to make now is that all his foreign experiences had been in lands where Americans were very influential – Panama, Puerto Rico, California (in the United States itself). The Americans do things differently from the British, and I think the most important difference is that the Americans do everything in a big way. That was my uncle’s impression, and he really had only the British to compare the Americans with. The British pinch pennies. They come from a small island, compared to the U.S of A., and they are careful and tight-fisted about everything they do. The Americans have swagger: the British do not.
A couple of years before he died, my uncle shocked me. Practically out of the blue one morning he said to me, “I no know why di British no come tek back dehn country.” The thing about my uncle, and it is a family characteristic of his people, was that you were always forced to read between the lines. You would lose favor with him if you asked questions he viewed as unnecessary, or trivial. Thus, I don’t remember pressing him to explain to me what he meant. I have thought many times about what he said to me that morning. I’ve looked at his comment from all kinds of perspectives. Remember, this was a man I had always viewed as pro-American, and very skeptical of things British.
I don’t think my uncle was losing his love of things American. I think he had lost faith in the Belizean dream, experiment, or whatever you want to call it. This was a serious opinion expressed by a very serious man. That’s all I can say.
For a man who spent five years as a young adult challenging white supremacy in every way I could and “by any means necessary,” to quote Malcolm’s famous words, and for a man who has many reasons historical to dislike being a “British subject,” that man being yours truly, my uncle’s words forced me to question the ability of my own people to govern ourselves.
When I have experienced fond memories of my childhood in British Honduras, I have always been critical about my own nostalgia. I have said to myself, son, you were a minority, a privileged minority. Your father was a public officer who became a head of department. You ate three meals a day. You experienced happiness beyond compare during Easter and summer holidays at Spanish Caye. All this was during the days of British rule. We were subjects.
Now you’re independent, and you run things yourself. It ain’t working that well. Belize is troubled. This was what my uncle was saying to me, not in so many words. As my uncle, as my hero, as my teacher, he had the right to challenge me on any issue, no matter how sensitive. And he had done it. He could be as provocative as he wished, and he was.
The problem in Belize is that you can’t talk about anything without party politics muddying the water. I would like for you readers to write letters to the newspaper telling me what, in your opinion, my uncle was saying to me. The good thing about our situation is that the present state of Belizean affairs cannot be blamed on any one of the major parties by the other. Since Independence in 1981, the PUP have governed us for 17 years, and the UDP have governed us for 14.
On a sensitive subject like the one I am requesting you to discuss, I will seek to have the letters published even if you prefer not to sign your name. In a sense, my uncle presented me with a puzzle, and I’m asking you to help me solve it. Who are we and where are we? Tell me.