February 27, 2013
During the days leading up to the recent elections in The Jewel, there was a grand uproar about the nationalization of immigrants by the ruling United Democratic Party. While there were some valid concerns raised; much of the criticism was politically motivated, and to some degree hypocritical, since in reality, the mad rush to secure votes is an established, albeit corrupt practice by both political parties. Politics and demographics aside, however, I feel compelled to express my thoughts on a subject that comes close to home.
While going through the motions of applying for US residency status recently, I faced a uniquely American predicament during the finger-printing process. When asked why I hadn’t marked off the Hispanic box as my race, I explained to the officer that it’s because I am not a Hispanic, but a Mestizo. He didn’t seem amused so I opted for “Race Unknown.” Had he been any nicer, I would’ve pulled out my Destination Belize magazine and given him a lesson in geography.
Truth be told, of all the labels and categories that are flying around these days, the only one I embrace whole-heartedly is “Belizean.” The question is…what does it mean to be a Belizean? And is there such a thing as a true Belizean? Who among us can say with certainty that he/she is a real Belizean? There are some who would argue that our country is a melting pot, somehow suggesting that everyone and everything has merged with one unique result…one unique Belizean face as it were.
I tend to disagree with this concept simply because one only has to look around in Belize to see that we are in fact many different people, many different cultures. I do agree that as Belizeans, we share many common traits and customs regardless of what region we come from, but by and large we remain a country where different types of people with varied influences co-exist peacefully.
While recently this peaceful co-existence has been shattered by inner city crime brought on by widespread organized drug activity and urban gang conflict, Belize still remains a relatively safe “haven of democracy.” And those that disagree are urged to “check out the real situation” in our neighboring Central American countries.
An author named Regina Brett once wrote, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and we saw everyone else’s problems…we’d gladly grab ours back.” Having said that…it is this very situation in our neighboring countries which adds another dimension to our otherwise “peaceful Belizean co-existence.”
Immigration, whether legal or illegal, has existed since the beginning of time and forms part of the fabric of any society. Some countries build fences; some countries stiffen laws, while others simply patrol their borders with guns in an effort to keep people out. Judging by the fact that there are over 12,000,000 “illegal aliens” in the US, it is safe to say that there’s not much that can stop the flow of people across the land.
If the historians are to be believed, I am the result of one such mass emigration of refugees of Mayan and Mestizo descent that occurred during the 19th century Caste War. The town I was born in is in fact the site of an important battle that occurred during this very war when an Icaiche Mayan leader named Marcus Canul invaded what was then British Honduras.
So what does that make me…a Mayan…a Mestizo…a refugee…an immigrant…an alien…Spanish…a “Paisa”…or perhaps a “Panya”?
Please…I AM BELIZE!
I am a Belizean, born and bred. I may look like a Mestizo…I may have a Spanish name…I may eat a Mayan dish made of corn wrapped in a plantain leaf but I am as Belizean as the logwood cutter on the Sub Umbra Floreo. I am as Belizean as George Cadle Price. I am as Belizean as Andy Palacio…or Julian Cho…or Philip Goldson.
My grandfather on my dad’s side told us stories of his days working on the railroad system in Gallon Jug. He also worked on the tugboats pulling logs down the New River. As children we went to bed listening to him telling “Bra Ananci” and “Bra Tiger” stories. My grandfather on my mom’s side helped build what is now the BSI factory from the ground up when it was called Tate & Lyle. He told us stories of his days as a free-wheeling marimba player in Benque Viejo del Carmen. He also had many stories to tell about his days spent in the jungle as a chicle cutter.
I also have roots out West, so my Belizean experience runs the gamut of everything Belizean. My mother was born in San Ignacio, Cayo and grew up in Middlesex down in the deep South while my grandfather toiled on the orange groves and yes…Mom can bubble up some serious “Sere” and Creole bread on our backyard “Fya Haat” using nothing but a cut-off drum and a pair of “Kiss-Kiss.” So can I safely claim my Belizean birthright? You better bet your plate of rice ‘n beans that I can…
There’s no one group of people that can claim to be more Belizean than another group of people. It’s all a matter of historical demographics. The Europeans didn’t discover this New World. They stumbled on a land inhabited by intelligent people living in harmony with the land. These would be the native people…my ancestors. These so-called Conquistadores destroyed the land and its people, then went to Africa for more manpower.
Need I remind everyone what happened next? We are all descendants in some shape or form of those people that suffered at the hands of the European oppressors. The Kriol language we speak is basically the language of the slaves as they tried to emulate the masters. Ironically, that language has become the single most recognizable characteristic of any Belizean. It is something we should embrace and celebrate…it is what makes us unique and different from any other group of people in the entire world.
So don’t question my Belizean-ness, please… “I am a Jewelizean to da bone.” “Me nuh business who vex.”