Here are a couple of stories about Belize City that aren’t in my book.
Chronologically, the country now known as Belize was “discovered” by Spanish explorers, settled by English pirates, loggers, and farmers. But none of them were the country’s first inhabitants. That honor goes to the indigenous people of Belize—the Maya, whose vast stone monuments dot the landscape like gold nuggets among the stones of a riverbed.
In the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, Great Britain recognized the United States of America as an independent nation. France, Spain, and the Netherlands were co-signers. As a consolation prize, Spain gave Britain the right to cut logwood in one its Central American holdings between the Hondo and Belize Rivers. People from all over Great Britain with nothing to lose immediately booked passage to this hot, humid paradise—and they stayed. Such was the demand for wood (pine, balsa, rosewood, and cedar) that the loggers kept pushing the boundaries of their “territory” farther and farther. When the English upper classes went crazy over dark, heavy, mahogany furniture, the loggers cheered. The bush was full of mahogany. But since cutting it was such hard work (the trees were bigger), the British began importing slaves, usually from other British colonies in the Caribbean, to do their dirty work.
By the time slavery was officially abolished in the colonies in 1833, the largest racial group was the Creoles, people of mixed European and African ancestry. In 1862 the country became the crown colony of British Honduras. But it took the Creoles over a century to develop the clout necessary to follow America’s example and free themselves of British rule, and they succeeded politically, not by fighting a war. When they gained independence in 1981, class differences—long an essential and inescapable aspect of British society—were already deeply entrenched. Entry to the upper class demanded light skin. Therefore, the people with the darkest skin—especially those who didn’t speak English—formed the lowest class. And who were they? The indigenous people of Belize, the Maya.
Luckily for the Maya, the Creoles, who now call themselves “Kriols,” had been too busy eking out a living and fighting for their political lives to bother killing off the Maya, unlike what happened in the United States. But the racism was still there.
In 1963 I arrived in Belize City—in what was still British Honduras—with my anthropologist husband. Outside of the American Consulate, the Peace Corps, and a few evangelicals, there were very few Americans in Belize, although there was a sizeable English-speaking population. My husband and I stayed at a small boarding house in the city that was run by two Canadian sisters. Their cook was Creole. In addition to the two of us, there was a quiet, mild-mannered American who formed one of the many subcultures in the colony—he worked for an American oil company. America had long maintained that there was oil to be found in the colony, and in those days, when you could get maps of all kinds in American gas stations, the country of British Honduras often did not exist. Depending on which oil company had produced the map, it was part of Guatemala—which periodically invaded BH, as we called it, trying to annex it by force. Apparently Guatemala was willing to sell its oil rights to the US. Great Britain was not.
While we hadn’t needed passports to enter BH, we did need them to travel from BH to Guatemala. The American Consulate was very friendly, very talkative. But his receptionist, a light-skinned Creole girl who obviously knew what was going on behind closed doors, was openly appalled that we didn’t plan to stay in Belize City. “Why you want it go see Toledo District?” she demanded. “Is nothing there—only jungle. And Indians,” she added.
When my husband explained we wanted to go see it because we planned to live there, in an Indian village, she didn’t say anything—simply shook her head as if the very idea of anybody doing that gave her a headache—and returned to her paperwork.
Sometime after Belize gained its independence, I was visiting my parents in Sarasota, Florida. My mother was a very gregarious person who would strike up conversations with complete strangers. It wasn’t at all unusual for me to meet that person later at dinner in my parents’ house—or, in this case, in the house of the former stranger, who, together with her daughter, had moved Stateside from Belize—both of them light-skinned Creoles. After dinner I was talking to the daughter, who was in her thirties (she had an American husband, who was talking to my father). She told me she had gone back to Belize right after independence, and had gone to a party afterwards, where there was dancing. She sounded very ambivalent about the visit, and about independence in general, until she started talking about dancing. “A boy came up to me and asked me to dance,” she said—by this time sounding disbelieving, strident, and contemptuous at the same time. “He said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Of course I remember you! How dare you ask me to dance—you carried water for my father’s horses!”
And the Maya—whose ancestors built all those magnificent ruins—are still considered the lowest of the low.