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Home Features The first Spanish families in Belize: the history they never taught in...

The first Spanish families in Belize: the history they never taught in B.H.

Mestizos, or “Spanish,” as they are known locally, have a long history in Belize. The first Spanish families came from neighboring Yucatan in Mexico, fleeing the Caste War between Yucatecans and Mayas that began in 1847. They ranged from rancheros and planters to landless laborers, from light-skinned Yucatecans to dark-skinned mestizos. Rancheros quickly established themselves in the north of the country, where they began to plant sugarcane.

Today, Spanish-speaking mestizos are the fastest growing segment of the population. While in 1980 they constituted only 33.4 percent of the population, Central American refugees swelled their ranks throughout the 1980s, and they now make up fully 43.6 percent.

Mayas, who in 1980 made up only about 9 percent of the population, now make up 11.1 percent. While not yet a threat to the dominant white class, mestizos dominate the sugar industry and are solidly established in the business sector. In the 1960s, an observer noted: “They accumulate capital more rapidly than any other of the groups, except perhaps the Near Eastern section” (Gregg 1968:126). The following decade saw a boom in sugar, with the result that in Orange Walk, “the rich are all mestizos, except for one European” (Brockmann 1977:256).

Unlike other ethnic groups, notably creoles and the initial Chinese and East Indian groups, the Spanish were not inserted into a subordinate category, culturally and politically, as a result of the labor requirements of the dominant class. Their possession of capital, no matter how limited, and their experience with agriculture positioned them to dominate commercial agriculture, which had become a necessity by the end of the century. Their success as a regional elite, however, intensified the dependence of the nascent creole middle class on the mediation of the British for their own economic and social advancement.

The economic and numerical importance of the Spanish forms a key part of the three-way mirror in which ethnic groups see and reflect each other’s identities.

19th Century Yucatan: Ladino, Mestizo, Maya

The 19th century Caste War lasted for almost 50 years. At its beginning, in 1847, Mexico had been independent of Spain for some 24 years. At independence, the remaining Spanish population was either “discredited or expelled” (Reed 1964: 20): thus Yucatecan society comprised ladinos – “all those of Spanish or half-Spanish descent who considered themselves ‘white’ and lived, dressed, and thought according to a European heritage”; mestizos, the half-castes; and indios, or Maya (ibid.:5). Bricker (1981:92) argues that while the colonial caste system was abolished in Mexico after 1821, it survived in this three-part form in the Yucatan for the rest of the 19th century.

While residents of the southern frontier were less obsessed with racial purity than those in the north, the three-part Yucatan hierarchy dictated that if occasionally a pretty mestiza could move into the ladino world, a mestizo virtually never could (Reed 1964:22). Some mestizos, fed up with this situation, became leaders of the Mayan rebels, while others sought their own haciendas on the frontier, or across the border in British Honduras, where distinctions were harder to maintain. As far as the British and creoles were concerned, refugees fell into two categories, Spanish and Indian. Ladinos and mestizos were thus lumped together as part of the non-Indian or Spanish community.

Olga Stavrakis (1979: 40-41), who worked in a Maya-mestizo village in Belize in 1975-76, observed that these two worlds persisted over time. As late as 1973, none of the Mayans owned land, while “on the other end of the continuum, the Spanish families, with such names as Castillo, Espejo, Escalante, with blue eyes, blond hair, and skin which burns in the sun” have continually owned land and engaged in commercial agriculture.

Throughout the colonial period Maya communities had remained more or less intact in the Yucatan peninsula, especially in the southeast. The Spanish, who occupied the cities, were content to rely on Indian production of cotton and cloth, as well as foodstuffs, demanding annual tribute in these goods. Their own commercial operations were primarily in cattle-raising, an occupation that required little Indian labor. But with Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the Yucatecan economy changed dramatically. Cattle-ranching, based in the north, became unprofitable with the loss of the primary export market in Cuba – which as a Spanish colony was now cut off. Also cut off were imports of Cuban sugar and rum, with the result that capital shifted from estancias in the north to sugar plantations in the east and south, where the land was better suited — areas formerly owned by Indian communities.

Unlike cattle ranching, sugar production demanded an integrated and controlled labor force (Bricker 1981). The Mayas, accustomed to moving around in order to avoid tribute or debt, began a steady exodus. Politically, the period 1839-45 was one or intense regionalism, and a series of conflicts in which Yucatecans enlisted Indian recruits. Indians, who joined on promise of end to “the tributes, the obventions, and the obligatory personal service” (Bricker 1981:92) due to church and landowners, and the right to continue to cultivate their own land, gained neither land nor liberty, but did acquire both arms and military experience (ibid.:90). While the Caste War led to a number of shifting allegiances over the years, and different groups of Maya took different positions, those who made peace with the Yucatecan authorities did so mostly in order to be left alone, a course in which they were more or less successful (Dumond 1977).

As estancias and sugar plantations moved into the southeast Yucatan, British trade out of Belize increased steadily. From the late 18th century, British commercial houses operating in Belize profited from the Spanish restrictions on both imports and exports from its colonies, and a lively entrepot trade developed with the countries of Central America and Mexico. This increased with Central American independence, as the newly formed federation allowed British importers to import duty free from Belize and sell on the local retail market in 1823. British merchants traded European goods for agricultural products, on which the settlement increasingly depended. From Mexico the largest imports were sugar and rum. In 1847 the Belize superintendent reported that sugar was “almost exclusively” imported from Bacalar, across the border in Yucatan.

While Bacalar flourished as a market for British goods, it also threatened to become something of a refuge for runaway British slaves; Central America quickly abolished slavery on independence in 1821. For British cutters operating more or less illegally on both sides of the Rio Hondo border with Mexico this was a particular problem as were the demands of Mayan rebels and Mexican authorities for payment for cutting on their territory. As a result managers of the major firms, such as Young Toledo & Co., and the British Honduras Co., as well as independent traders and landowners, including Henry Oswald, James Hume Blake, and John Carmichael, cultivated good relations with both Mayas and ladinos, cemented by their willingness to deal in arms and ammunition.

While official British policy condemned the arms trade, there was considerable sympathy for the rebel Mayas in Belize, which increased as Mexico made peace with the pacificos at Icaiche and encouraged their raids against the British (Clerhern 1961: 15-16). Lt. Governor Barlee maintained that most of those involved in the sale of arms to the Mayas were not in fact British but refugee Yucatecans.

(To be continued.)

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