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Home Features Our sociable, not so sociable, and reclusive tribes

Our sociable, not so sociable, and reclusive tribes

I have said that my tribe, the Kriol, is the glue to this nation because we are the tribe that is racially, culturally mixed up with all the other tribes in Belize. It is a Garifuna Belizean, Chico Ramos, who sang, A wahn marid to ahn, but that sounds like a Kriol anthem. I told you I don’t know everything. It isn’t gazetted, but Chico might be Garifuna/Kriol.

In this risky discussion I note, based on my day-to-day observations, how the different tribes in our country interact in this beloved nation we call Belize. Ah, I’ve been this way before, so call this my latest look.

I will begin by saying some bad things about the Kriols, so I don’t get accused of the horrible prejudice. It’s not that I can’t tek liks. If Mother England could take the bombing from the Nazis, I, a colonial product, shouldn’t wilt from a bogus charge.

Kriols dominate in politics and the law profession; those persons in those two trades have made it big for themselves, but the rank-and-file Kriols are getting hammered. They, the rank-and-file Kriols, are a marginalized group.

The Mestizos are two tribes — the roots Mestizos who settled in the northern districts during the Caste War in the 19th century, and the New Belizean Mestizos who, to escape turmoil in neighboring countries to our south and west, came here shortly after we gained independence. The New Belizean Mestizos and many roots Mestizos are marginalized, have little economic power too. Both Mestizos tend to marry within their tribe.

Now if you’re building a country, really building a country, you make sure that all your citizens are getting a fair share of the pie¯obviously you can’t accept marginalization of any of the member groups. You don’t concern yourself with the member tribes that are doing well, because the well-off can usually take care of themselves.

Roots East Indians, the children of those who came here as indentured workers in the 1800s, well, Zelma Jex, in the second edition of Readings in Belizean History, says they tried to hold on to many of their customs, and a few their racial purity, but they lost their native tongue.

My observation is that the roots East Indians of urban Yaabra have largely melded with other tribes; the rural roots East Indians in Corozal (Ranchito Village) are becoming more and more Mestizoized; and the roots East Indians of urban Punta Gorda and rural Eldridgeville, Toledo, haven’t assimilated so much.

The vibes of the land they came from are still strong in the culture of many roots East Indians, and you can tell that by tasting the pot seasoned with the essential yellow ginger and curry.

The new East Indians, the Chinese, and the Lebanese are powerful groups. The new East Indians, the ones who are big in the dry goods stores, generally keep to themselves in the midst of the people who patronize their businesses.

The new Chinese, the ones who now totally dominate the merchandizing of groceries, came here mostly as economic citizens. They are a reclusive lot, generally keeping to themselves in the midst of the people who patronize their businesses.

There are two roots Chinese Belizeans, the first being children of those who came here as indentured workers in the 1800s. Originally they were concentrated in the north, and those who didn’t meld into the Mestizo group that came to Belize seeking refuge from the Caste War, left Belize and settled down across the northern border.

The other roots Chinese came here around World War II. Benito Quan, in the second edition of Readings in Belizean History, says they were farmers when they came here, but the majority turned to the mercantile world, where “their business acumen is now legendary.” Quan says their children scarcely speak Chinese, but no one has to tell us that their pots must be stuffed with the culinary delights of the homeland. A few roots Chinese have melded, but the majority are reclusive and cling to their racial purity.

The Belizeans from the Middle East, mostly Lebanese who came after WW I and Palestinians who came after World War II, dominate the hardware sales and construction industries. These groups have intermarried mostly with the Mestizos, and so have become more mixed into the true Belizean fabric than the new East Indians and the new Chinese. This small, tight group, however, is separated by their wealth advantage.

The next three reclusive tribes — the Garinagu, the Maya, and the Mennonites, are similar only for their desire to maintain enclaves that are separated from all other tribes. The Mennonites are one of the most powerful tribes in Belize, while the Garinagu and the Maya are among the materially poorest Belizeans.

The Maya, the first tribe to inhabit Belize, were scattered when Columbus came from Spain, and they have never recovered from the encounter. There are three Maya in Belize — the Yucatec, who are found in the north and west, and the Mopan and Kekchi, who live in the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts. The Maya in the north, many of them have melded and become Mestizos. The Maya and Mestizos of the north own farms on land which they acquired during the land reform programs of the 1960s to the early 1980s.

The Maya of the south, especially those who live in Toledo, continue to live under the hammer. Several Maya have left their rural homes and gone to the urban areas to tap into the money economy, but the majority remain in their villages and survive off subsistence farming. They are the most cash- poor tribe in the country.

In the 1990’s our government gave out logging licenses for over half a million acres in Toledo, and this might have spurred the group to seek formal control of the lands around their villages. The Maya of the south recently won formal control of much or all of the land that they sought, but they and the government have yet to work things out on the ground.
The Maya who have gone to live in urban areas are not “picky” about who they marry, but those who aspired for tribal control of the land in rural Toledo want to maintain their culture, and that seems to include their racial purity. So it seems.

The Garinagu, like the Kriol, the Maya, the Mestizo, and the roots East Indians, are bottom feeders in Belize. When the Garinagu came, in the early 1800s, they were confined to Punta Gorda and Dangriga/Stann Creek Town, and a few villages they formed along the coast between the two. A number of Garinagu have made it through formal education, but for the most part the tribe is poor, marginalized, with their sons nearly as desperate as the sons of the Kriols in Belize City.

In the past the Garinagu fought tooth and nail to preserve the purity of their tribe. The tribe was but a remnant after being defeated by the British, and then exiled, first to Balliceaux, then to Roatan — an island off the coast of Honduras, and their ancestors ensured their survival by promoting marriage among relatives. They have grown strong in numbers since, so they no longer discourage marriage with our other tribes. Many have married Kriols. The Garinagu love a space where they can practice their culture as a united people.

The third of our reclusive tribes who want a special space free from the rest of us, the Mennonites, actually have a space away from us. While the Maya and the Garinagu were “allowed” reserves to live on, the Mennonites bought land and established closed communities, the most notable one at Spanish Lookout.

In 1957 the colonial government made a special agreement with the group that allowed them certain privileges in perpetuity as long as they kept their side of a bargain they made with the government. This agreement made with a colonial government allowed them to insulate their race, culture, religion from the rest of us, gave them a space so they didn’t meld too much into the Belizean fabric.

Ahem, essentially, what the Mennonites have the Garinagu and Maya want.

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