The strangest thing I remember about my visits to the old United States Consulate on Gabourel Lane/Hudson Street as an 18-year-old Belizean preparing to take up an American State Department university scholarship, was when a Consulate official, out of the blue, advised me that I would have to wait two years before I applied for U.S. citizenship. This was the summer of 1965.
For me, the comment was strange because it had never occurred to me to become an American citizen. Yes, I wanted to go to the United States very badly, but I was happy in Belize and considered it my home. Looking back, I can understand how the Consulate would have assumed I wanted to become an American: everybody else did, and does.
My love for Belize basically derived from the fact that my parents and my brothers and sisters lived in Belize, from the fact that I had status and self-esteem in Belize, and from the fact that my family was privileged to have access to a private caye about nine miles south southeast of Belize City – Spanish Caye.
As cayes go, Spanish Caye was not a natural wonder like Goff’s Caye, say, or the old Sergeant’s Caye. In fact, Spanish Caye was man-made to a certain extent. A lot of filling had been done over the years with rough-hewn material like old conch shells and broken coral. There was a definite low spot on the southern side of the caye.
Before I proceed, let me explain our family access. Spanish Caye, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, was divided into two. The southern side was owned by the Belisle family, and my mother is a Belisle. The northern side was sold by the Mayo family to the Hyde family (Mrs. Chrystel Hyde Straughan) in the late 1950s, I would say, and my father is a Hyde, Mrs. Straughan’s oldest brother. I thought that Spanish Caye would be mine forever, in the sense that I would always have access to it. If one of the two owner families even messed up, surely the two of them would not both do so.
Growing up, I would spend most Easter and summer vacations at Spanish Caye, in addition to many weekend trips from March, say, until September. We seldom went to caye, as a family, between October and February, when the weather became relatively chilly. But male family members would still make fishing trips in that October-February period.
The exceptional, incredible thing about Spanish Caye was the fishing all around it. The deep channel which ships use to go south runs right in front of Spanish Caye. Back then, if you paddled in a dory out a short distance west of the caye, maybe 100 or 125 yards, you would meet deep blue water and bountiful fishing.
Over the years I have said to you on several occasions that I always thought I could make a living as a fisherman if all else failed, but I’m not so sure of that any more. I was not a fisherman who spent a lot of time diving in the water the way most Belizean fishermen do nowadays. This was because huge sharks roamed in the blue in front of Spanish Caye, not to mention large barracudas off the caye’s southern end. For me, and the generations before me, Spanish Caye diving was limited to quick plunges in search of conch in water three or four fathoms deep.
Things began to change in the years just before I went away. This was when lobster began to take center stage. Fishermen like Lincoln Young, from Placencia, began to dive for lobster in the waters east and southeast of Spanish Caye, and my younger brothers, Nelson and Miguel, learned to become divers from Lincoln.
I remember that Nico Coye was the first of us youth to use fins and a mask to dive for conch off the edge of the blue. Nico was his mother’s only child, but she did not spend time at Spanish Caye. (She would have worried about Nicromano’s daring.) Nico was in the care of his aunt, Mrs. Enid Longsworth Vernon, and he got away with daredevil business. Having seen what I had seen of sharks in that same blue, I thought Nico was, yes, a daredevil.
Until Hurricane Hattie changed things somewhat in 1961, Spanish Caye was an absolute fishing paradise. Totally spectacular. Fish for daily food was a given: the exhilarating excitement lay in the possibilities of running into a crazy school of cubali (crevalle jack) or hooking a huge kingfish or rockfish on the troll. At the Spanish Caye beacon, there was a spot where large mutton snappers, as well as monster jewfish, roamed in the deep for drop fishermen to hook. Mackerels, barracudas, and amber jacks were plentiful. There were several species of fish we discarded with contempt, such as grunt, “paagy,” even yellowtail snappers.
Hattie damaged a section of the coral reef which ran from the Spanish Caye beacon, near Robinson’s Point, east northeast towards the Middle Rock beacon. The steamships, leaving Belize City to find the opening in the Barrier Reef between Goff’s Caye and English Caye, followed the channel marked by the Spanish Caye beacon, the Middle Rock beacon, and the Water Caye beacon before they reached the quebrado between Goff’s and English.
At Spanish Caye, we ate the finest and freshest of fish – morning, noon, and night, along with johnny cake, powder bun, Creole bread and bun which were baked on fire hearth. Throw in potato pound. Ain’t no cooking like fire hearth, Jack. Boil up, sere, conch’s soup, conch’s fritters, spicy fish balls, fish tea, geez …
Our swimming grounds could not compare with Placencia or Goff’s Caye, for sure, but the swimming in the deeper water was exquisite, and life was glorious.
I could tell you much more about the Spanish Caye I knew and loved, but the point of my story is this: as much as I wanted to see America for myself, Spanish Caye made it so that I did not automatically long to become a U.S. citizen. The Barrier Reef of Belize is the most spectacular in the Western Hemisphere. Growing up at Spanish Caye, I experienced some of the bounty and the wonders of God’s reef creation, and America had to prove to me that it was better than Spanish Caye. This proved an impossible assignment for America, because I am not a Gucci/Armani/Rolex man.
For those of you Belizeans who never knew the Barrier Reef and who fell in love with America, I have great admiration for what you have achieved.
The America I knew was the most competitive economy in the world, and those of you who made there it have made us home Belizeans proud, really proud.
I hope that we can work out the differences between home and diaspora I hear being discussed on radio/television and I understand are being debated on the social media. We here truly wish you never had to go, and that you didn’t stay so long, but, I always quote Robert Frost: home is where, when you have to go there they have to let you in. This here belongs to you. Come on home, and let’s be lovers again.
Power to the people.