When we take a close-up look at the so-called gang phenomenon in Belize, we find young men caught up in situations that are not entirely of their own making. Many are victims in a cycle of events they were born into. This does not excuse them from personal responsibility, but it forces us to look at the bigger picture of our social values and structures to see what circumstances created this phenomenon in the first place.
Crime is an act of personal choice and an effective criminal justice system holds individuals accountable for their criminal behavior. Nevertheless, those who wish to prevent crime before it occurs cannot ignore the fact that the majority of people filling our prisons come from impoverished backgrounds and lack a formal education…..
Young men in Belize are vulnerable to crime. They often live in poverty; they are exposed to influences and images that raise their aspirations and purchasing desires beyond their means; they want to be providers yet their education or skills do not afford them the jobs that pay well….. There are many young men in similar situations that have come together and formed groups. In a number of cases this leads to gang membership – a life of violence, crime, drug use and extreme risk-taking behavior follows. (NHDAC Study: From Boys to Men, 2000).
While the sector of youth involved in hard-core gang activity in Belize is still comparatively small, the culture that goes along with it is wide and far-reaching. The so-called gang symbols, of clothes, language, walk, etc. are all symbols of power that many youths will identify with, and act out in their daily lives, even if they don’t belong to a specific criminal gang. This is one of the reasons why the police in their zeal to round up suspected gang members, often harass innocent youths who, because of their style and mannerism appear to fit the profile of the ‘rude boy’.
Many children who grow up in single parent homes become healthy well-adjusted and successful adults. However, numerous studies in Belize and elsewhere have shown that there is a connection between lack of a father figure and problems such as delinquency and low academic achievement especially amongst male children (Boyden, 1993).
Abandonment by fathers of their responsibility as caregivers is one of the major causes for the distorted images of manhood displayed by many young black males in the streets of Belize City today. Men who father children then abandon their responsibility to provide for those children materially and especially by their active presence, are a menace to the Belizean family structure and nowhere is this seen more than with the many delinquent males without a positive father figure in their early life. Many go on to learn the rules of manhood from the streets, the prison, and the distorted images projected on TV and the music/video industry; images that equate manhood with sexual prowess, money to spend, and the illusions of power by any means necessary.
This absence of a positive father/male image also affects young females but young males are especially affected because as males they are expected to be “a man”, but without a close up, hands-on involvement of a man in his life, it is hard for that young male to be “a man.” In some cases the biological father may be present, but his image in the eyes of his son may be that of an ‘emasculated wimp’ in a system that a younger generation perceives as needing more of an ‘in your face’ aggressiveness to survive.
This particularly happens when the conversation between father and son breaks down. From birth until he begins to ‘smell himself’, a boy is under the influence of his father in an absolutely obedient position but when that boy’s transition begins in his adolescence years many fathers tend to remain at the ‘do as I say…’ level without adjusting to the new influences and information his son is coming in contact with as he matures.
While the boy is growing and transforming some fathers remain in the same old mindset failing to adjust their conversation to suit their maturing son. This breakdown in the conversation causes the boy to turn outside the home, usually to his peers, as his new source of Self Identity. This disconnect between father and son in values is seen in many areas of conflict in families where boys are more attracted to street values than those he was raised with. Some parents feel that they have lost their sons to the influence of the streets.
But how did we get to this point of rebellion with our boys? Collectively, as black men we have not offered these young black males strong images of character for them to follow, we have left their ‘hero formation’ to the streets. This is not to say that such distinguished heroes or characters of distinction did not exist in Belizean history, but we have not done enough to keep these positive images of accomplished black Belizean males in front of our youth in our conversation with them.
All civilized societies celebrate their heroes for the sake of posterity of values and ethos. We have had many such heroes in Belize, but as ‘Sefe’ Coleman used to say, “Don’t wait till the man dead to tell him he’s good”. The fact is we have had a problem with acknowledging each other’s good works and contributions. We have left the space for black male heroes empty and barren of Belize’s contribution to human development and civilization and examples of the endurance of the individual, despite challenges.
As black men, we have been so busy trying to make sure the other black man did not move out ahead of us and become a hero before we did, that we have developed the habit of tearing down and criticizing every little achievement that the next black man has made; in that process we have cancelled out all the possible black Belizean male heroes for our young boys to emulate. In a culture where every black man’s achievements become ‘lone rass’, there can be no heroes for our young black boys to emulate. We have not made noise about or applauded each other’s endeavors or achievements. Maybe we do so momentarily in sports and entertainment, but even that is not sustained for any length of time enough to reach “hero” status; other than that we do not publicly acknowledge each other’s accomplishments. Andy Palacio had to be acknowledged outside in the international world before we realized the genius we had in our midst; and what do you say of Dr. Arlie Petters or the maestro, Frances Reneau?
Just ask our boys who their heroes are and see whom they come up with! Then count how many of them are black Belizean men! More than likely they won’t know about a Clifford Betson, or a Chacho, Jaime Noguera, Telford Vernon, Charles Hyde, Horace Young, Godsman Ellis, Wilhelm Arnold, C.L.B. Rogers, Edmund Martinez, or even Sgt. Vernon who led the rebellion in 1919 and took over Belize town for forty-eight hours. Or Samuel Haynes, Antonio Soberanis, Philip Goldson, Leigh Richardson or Albert Staine, and so many others who were trail blazers at a time when things were far more challenging in Belize than they are today.
Even today they will not know of the many present day black men of distinction in our midst, like Sherman Zuniga, Adolf Lucas, Dr. Kenrick Leslie, Dr. Joseph Palacio, Ambassador David Gibson, Evan X Hyde, Ambassador Bert Tucker, Eamon Courtenay, Denzel Jenkins, Dickie Bradley, Rene Villanueva, and the list goes on of the many potential heroes, potential motivational forces we have at our disposal; but because of this inherited crab syndrome we have become iconoclastic, killing every hero in sight.
The achievements of these black Belizean men and so many others like them are underscored and buried by our gutter-sniping habit of denying others like ourselves the honor and respect they deserve; not so much in social ceremonies where we give artificial accolades, but more in our daily conversations where our children listen to us and observe how little respect we really show to the achievements of other black men.