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Monday, December 6, 2021
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From The Publisher

In Sri Lanka the majority group spoke Sinhalese and were part of Buddhist culture. The minority spoke one of the major Indian languages, Tamil, and were part of the Hindu culture shared by sixty million Tamils across the thirty-mile strait separating Sri Lanka from India.

The groups on the island, known as Ceylon when ruled as a British colony, had a history of harmony. But after the British departure in 1947, they were pushed into conflict by the competitive pressures of democracy. Politicians could not resist appealing to ethnic identity to win votes. As is often the case, ethnic differences manifested themselves in ways that could be exploited politically. One issue involved schooling. The minority Tamils tended to perform better in schools: to satisfy the Sinhalese, Tamil access to universities was limited by quotas.

– pg. 95, WAR, PEACE, AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, David W. Ziegler, Addison-Wesley, 2000

In our Easter issue editorial, there was a big mistake in a sentence which referred to the rise of Belize’s Mestizo/Maya as having taken place over the last “five, six centuries.” “Centuries” should, of course, have been “decades.”

Inside the old capital today, the relationship between Mestizo/Maya Belizeans and African Belizeans is a very interesting and perhaps delicate one. Economically, the Mestizos have surged upwards in the business sector, and there was a certain amount of resentment at their success felt by the black masses.

When my “Baby Boomer” generation was growing up in the then capital city and population center, almost all the grocery stores were being run by Mestizos. How dramatic has been the change! Almost all the grocery stores are now run by Chinese.

In the old capital, the sensational Mestizo business success story was that of Santiago Castillo, Sr., who had come out of the Louisiana area of Orange Walk in the 1920s and opened a plantain shop in the population center. At the time my generation was growing up in the 1950s, San Cas had grown to the point where he dominated the distribution of imported food products to the grocery shops across the colony, and he owned the only two movie theaters in the city. The theaters were big entertainment business, because there was no television back then. Apart from that, there was very little crime, the streets were safe, and Belizeans came out in numbers at night. After dark on the Southside, you went to Palace Theater on Albert Street, and on the Northside you went to Majestic on Queen Street.

In the latter part of the 1960s, a relative of Mr. Castillo’s, Ismael “Melin” Gomez, who actually used to work for San Cas, began to “flex” out of his main office on Mosul Street. His big agency was Nestle’s. The Gomez family had also come out of Orange Walk. Both the Castillo and Gomez families had been part of the refugee stream from the Yucatán in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

When I first started running the streets with Charles X “Justice” Eagan in 1969, I would often tag along when he visited Mr. Castillo’s main office at the corner of New Road and Hyde’s Lane, after which he would cross the Swing Bridge to interfere in Melin Gomez’s business office and warehouse on Mosul Street. Justice knew these men from their Orange Walk days, or let’s put it this way, before they got big. He was not impressed or awed by their success.

It is interesting that both San Cas and Melin Gomez were not considered supporters of the anti-colonial People’s United Party (PUP), which was taken over by Hon. George Price in 1956. Up until the formation of the Liberal Party in 1972, the masses of the Mestizo people in Belize were PUP supporters, because the Mestizo/Maya had been denied opportunities under twentieth century British colonialism here.

Apart from Mr. Price’s taking power in the PUP, perhaps the most important development in the socio-economic situation of Mestizos in the colony involved the visionary educational curricula introduced by Roman Catholic high schools in Belize. The vast majority of Mestizo Belizeans were Catholics, and they attended Catholic schools. They benefited from the opportunities to study business-related subjects like bookkeeping, accounting, typing, shorthand, and so on. When these subjects were being offered at Catherine’s Academy and Pallotti High School in the 1950s, business subjects were not available at the Anglican and Methodist high schools (St. Hilda’s College and Wesley College, respectively) which taught young ladies in the population center. St. Hilda’s and Wesley were sticking to the traditional academic subjects.

The thing is, in British Honduras in the 1950s there was not this impressive business sector you can now see in the old capital. There were only two banks, no high profile insurance companies, absolutely no telecommunications sector, no information technology/computer sector, no tourism industry, no small and medium-sized hotels, no water taxis, very few restaurants … You younger readers get the picture, I hope. In the 1950s in the capital city, the “economy” was dominated by the public sector (government offices and Public Works) and the two big mahogany contractors – BEC and Bob Turton. San Cas had arrived, but the business sector was relatively tiny.

The fact that the business sector was small back then, meant that the Catholic high schools were, in a sense, training their young ladies for jobs which didn’t yet exist. The SCA and Pallotti graduates of those days, however, did a lot of migration to the United States, and they performed well in the American economy. When the business sector of the Belizean economy began to expand for real, Catholic graduates were equipped for the new jobs.

The subject that I have chosen to treat in this week’s column is one which requires much research, careful analysis, and lengthy examination. I am only skimming over some very serious socio-economic matters. What I wanted to do was give you some background for something that happened between the two major ethnicities as Belize’s business sector began to expand. Mestizos could not understand the resentment felt by the black masses at their success in the second half of the twentieth century, because Mestizos had experienced so much institutional oppression and outright discrimination in the first half of that same century. Mestizo success was the product of hard work, family values, and the cutting edge curricula being taught in Roman Catholic schools.

One of my friends in the diaspora recently suggested to me that maybe the time has come for a Belize Summit conversation featuring African Belizeans and Mestizo/Maya Belizeans. In September of 2003, the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF) and Dr. Ted Aranda’s World Garifuna Organization (WGO) organized a Belize Black Summit, the first of its kind here and the only one so far. For me, the most poignant aspect of that summit took place at the end of the two days when an honest and emotional exchange occurred between an educated Garifuna professional and former sports star – Fred Garcia, Sr., and an educated Creole lady from a high ranking family background – Mrs. Muriel Laing Arthurs.

At first blush, a summit featuring the African and Mestizo/Maya ethnicities in Belize may seem a strange idea to you, but I believe that it is a great idea. The critical objective you would want to achieve, I think, is honest, public exchange between two groups of Belizeans who have fundamentally different histories and experiences over the last one hundred and fifty years in British Honduras/Belize.

In 2003, the Belize Black Summit was supported by the ruling PUP under Prime Minister Said Musa. I think the Opposition UDP felt they had to go along with the experimental project. In 2013, however, I don’t think either the ruling UDP or the Opposition PUP would support such a daring initiative as an African/Mestizo/Maya summit. The private sector and so-called civil society would have to step up to the plate.

I urge you to think about this idea. If we want to build a strong and unified nation, we have to talk to each other, and we have to do so publicly and honestly.

Power to the people.

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