Beat on! Drum on! – E. R. Cayetano
Benque Viejo Del Carmen
February 7, 2017
On the occasion of Black History Month and the tribute to Evan X Hyde, I made it my purpose to beat the rains and the three-hour drive from Benque Viejo to Dangriga this past Sunday. I had intended to bring over some of my students of Belizean Studies class, yet was successful in coercing only but one. One is good enough, I surmised, thinking of the ripple effect as we cut into the rolling hills through the Hummingbird Highway which, I am sure, has seen better days.
The nice stretch close to Belmopan is suddenly interrupted by potholes and broken pavement which was difficult to notice in the heavy rains that poured down into the valley. Though the narrow one-lane bridges remain an attraction of a bygone era, the dilapidated state of the railings, as well as the absence of road markers, present a hazard to the driver. Past down the intersection to the Southern Highway, we made a stop to buy some boiled corn from three school-aged children who were soaked to the bone, yet seemed to care less. We made the business transaction in Spanish while they responded in Creole. As we savored our corn sprinkled with salt and lime, we pulled aside giving time for the rains to lessen.
We drove into Dangriga shortly after midday. The “drums of my father” at the entrance of town brought back memories at the MOE Planning Unit in Belmopan where I first met Roy Cayetano and got to know about his famous piece which portrays his love for the Garifuna culture.
The event at Pen Cayetano’s gallery would start at 3:00 p.m. sharp, enough time for us to visit an old time friend and Belizean stalwart. At the Puma gas station, I asked for directions to reach Bishop O. P. Martin’s residence, not realizing that we were a stone’s throw away. Our visit was short yet special. Despite the brevity in the exchange of words, we were able to reach out to one another. I also touched base with a long-time friend, Bernadette, whom I had not seen over twenty years, and who was also visiting with Bishop Martin.
After being told that it would be quite unlikely for us to find a place on a Sunday where we could buy seré or hudut, we regrettably went looking for a place to have lunch. Garifuna cuisine would be forthcoming at Pen Cayetano’s place.
A couple of turns from the main street brought us to the cemetery, past the Catholic Church and unto the river. I could not help noticing the concrete pavement, most likely part of the Petrocaribe bonanza, yet could not avoid noticing the deterioration of corollary streets that so much characterizes our municipalities. With the persistent rain, and in our intent to avoid potholes, we soon realized that we were contravening a one-way street. Were it not for a courteous youth, it would have taken us a while to figure out how to get out before crossing ways with a police patrol.
On our way to Pen Cayetano’s gallery, we ran across a Chinese restaurant where we stopped to have some fried food, next to a crowd of soft-spoken Hispanic men and a Maya family. As the local folks came in sporadically to order a late lunch at the counter, it made me wonder what it would take for us Belizeans to know that the “Chinee” has a name as well. A quite interesting scenario of cross-cultural dynamics nonetheless, which reminded me of the late Fr. Charles Hunter’s allusion of Belizean identity to the Garifuna seré in which all of its elements contribute to the mix yet each preserves its distinctiveness.
Garifuna hospitality is beyond comparison. We were fraternally received by Pen Cayetano, his wife, and friends at the centennial colonial house which functions as gallery. Pen shared that as a musician he had played in Benque at the old cancha for the fiesta, many times to the rhythm of the rain pattering on the corrugated zinc roofing. The cassava drink and the dip made us feel at home in Dangriga, as did Pen’s brother, who kept greeting us with “goubana!” alluding to the mahogany tree that builds up as it ages.
As we found shelter under the palm-roofed kitchen next to the Belikin tent left with standing room only, I reflected on what had driven me to beat the inclement weather and travel down south on a Sunday. I realized that I had come to connect with people walking the same life journey. It dawned on me that life can turn insipid if I fail to synchronize with those same persons who are engaged in the struggle for the place we call home. Each and every sacrifice, the rain, the potholes, the Sunday rest, would be worth it.
The ceremonies kicked off half an hour later than scheduled with a rather unusual anthem and a quite entertaining master of ceremonies. The event, Pen Cayetano said, was part of Black History Month. He relived the impact Evan X had had on him during the militant days of UBAD down south. Cynthia Ellis-Topsey opened the event with a very empowering address. Dr. Theodore Aranda spoke at length on the untold portion of Black African contribution to world history and civilizations, and expressed his commitment to continue expanding on the social and cultural consciousness sparked upon by UBAD. In accepting the tribute, Evan X brought to memory the struggles of UBAD and black consciousness in the 1970’s. In an outright and unpretentious manner, he brought me to terms with my own reality.
I am black as well. I am part of the story of this land written by those groups of people who, in a system that has perpetuated disenfranchisement, have resiliently undertaken the pathway of struggle and resistance. I am part of the web which knows not south nor north, a strand that connects me to the youth whose life is ended prematurely. This story keeps bringing us to the threshold where we either choose to remain as onlookers or choose to become makers of our own destiny amidst two powers, one that vies for our money and the other for our land, as Evan X put it. As participants, we are summoned to regain belonging and connection to what is in essence Belize.
As we drove back to Benque Viejo, Miss Cynthia and I spoke on a range of themes, from broken relationships and mentorship to that of the Garifuna dugu and the Church. I mentioned that I could not help noticing the absence of young people at the event earlier that day. This has been an issue that I have griped about with my students at the junior college, besides hammering them with the fact that, to find belonging, we need to know our country first.
I keep thinking about our common home. If we are caught in between the devil and the deep blue sea, as Senator Elena Smith aptly put it in the upper house, somewhere and somehow there must be a place and a moment to keep hoping against all hope. On Sunday last, I found that place upon that moment when I was able to connect with those Belizeans who have chosen to engage in ordinary things in extraordinary ways. May we all choose to do likewise.
(Signed) David N. Ruiz
Lecturer of Belizean Studies
John Paul II Junior College