The Cultural Diversity of Belizean Society
The most salient characteristic of Belizean society in the late 1980s was ethnic diversity. Ethnicity in Belize was not reduced to race, but instead referred to the collective identities formed through a complex interplay of racial, linguistic, and religious factors, as well as a sense of shared history and custom.
The two largest ethnic groups together constituted almost three-quarters of the population. The 1980 census listed 39.7 percent of the population as Creole, a group usually defined as English speakers descended wholly or in part from African slaves imported to work in the colonial mahogany industry. The 1980 census combined the previously separate "black" and "coloured" segments of the population into a single group. Consequently, there was considerable physical diversity among people listed as Creole. A folk system of racial classification further hierarchically divided Creoles on the basis of such physical features as skin shade, facial features, and hair texture. Despite political independence, the colonial social bias toward "clear" or light skin and European features endured in contemporary Belizean society.
The second largest group, comprising one-third of the population, was identified as Mestizos, or persons of mixed Hispanic-Amerindian origin. In the local Creole vernacular, the Mestizos were known as "Spanish." The physical appearance of the Mestizos varied but not to the extent that it varied among Creoles. Most Belizean Mestizos were descended from refugees of the midnineteenth -century Caste War of Yucatán. The majority of them settled in the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk, where they initiated the cultivation of sugarcane in Belize.
Migration during the 1980s had a major impact on the demographic balance between the two largest ethnic groups. As of 1991, the government had not released figures on ethnic identity from the 1990 census, but census officials predicted that Mestizos would equal or outnumber Creoles.
The third largest ethnic population comprised three distinct groups: the Yucatecan, Mopán, and Kekchí Maya. In 1980 one in ten Belizeans belonged to one of the three groups. Belizeans commonly referred to the Yucatecan and Mopán peoples as Maya. Contrary to the statements of colonial historians, some of these Mayan peoples were indeed descendants of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Belize. Most Kekchí and Mopán, however, emigrated from Guatemala in the late nineteenth century.
The Garifuna, formerly known as the Black Carib, were Belize's fourth largest ethnic grouping, constituting 7 percent of the population in 1980. Descended from African slaves who intermarried with Amerindian inhabitants of the eastern Caribbean islands, the Garifuna were deported to the Gulf of Honduras by the British in the late eighteenth century. Some Garifuna migrated to the southern Belizean coast, where they established five major settlements. Initially fishermen and subsistence farmers, the Garifuna were gradually incorporated into wage labor in the mahogany industry as early as the 1820s, and later on in the banana and citrus plantations that developed in the Stann Creek Valley and elsewhere in the early twentieth century. Over the course of the twentieth century, an increasing number of Garifuna men became migrant workers, first along the Caribbean coast of Central America, and later in the United States.
Smaller ethnic groups--East Indians (whose forebears came from present-day India), Arabs, Chinese, and Euro-Americans, including a sizeable community of German-speaking Mennonites--made up the remaining 10 present of Belize's population. Of these groups, the East Indian population was the largest. They were largely descendants of nineteenth-century indentured laborers imported to work the sugar plantations of the Corozal and Toledo districts. By the late 1980s, they had intermarried extensively with other ethnic groups, and for the most part, they no longer possessed an identifiably East Indian culture. They lived in all of the country's six districts, but were concentrated in Toledo.
There was a second, and much smaller, East Indian community in Belize, composed of Hindi-speaking traders who immigrated to Belize from Bombay in the 1960s. Living primarily in Belize City and Orange Walk, they formed an aloof, close-knit community that, by the late 1980s, dominated Belize City retail trade and played a major role in currency exchange and speculation.
The smallest ethnic groups--Arabs and Chinese--were also exclusively urban, mercantile populations. Known variously as Turks, Syrians, and Lebanese, many Belizean Arabs were actually Palestinian. Immigrating to Belize in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they figured prominently as merchants in the Belize and Cayo districts.
A significant number of Chinese were imported as contract laborers in the nineteenth century, but virtually all Chinese people living in Belize today came to the country in the twentieth century. Most resided in Belize City, but at least a few Chinese families lived in every major town. Some were merchants but most worked in the restaurant and lottery industries. In the late 1980s, the Chinese population increased dramatically with immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Belize's small, German-speaking Mennonite population emigrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. Numbering more than 5,000, the Mennonites founded numerous settlements in the Orange Walk, Cayo, and Toledo districts. The government granted them complete autonomy over their communities. Nevertheless, they have been slowly integrated into the life of the nation, particularly into the economy. The more progressive Mennonites of Spanish Lookout (Cayo District) and Blue Creek (Orange Walk District) became important suppliers of poultry, eggs, dairy products, and furniture. Still, they remained exempt from military service and were not allowed to vote.
Aside from the Mennonites, the majority of Belize's small white population were British and United States expatriates. Unlike some other Caribbean societies, Belize never supported a large European settler community during the colonial period. Since independence, a large, transient population of United States and British volunteers and international aid personnel has augmented the local European population. In 1986 the United States Peace Corps alone had more than 200 volunteers, the corps's highest volunteer-to- population ratio in the world. By 1991, however, the number of Peace Corps volunteers had dropped to less than 100.
The distribution of officially recognized ethnic groups was highly skewed by region, and each district had its own characteristic cultural orientation. Creoles made up three-quarters of the population of Belize City and the surrounding area but no more than one-third of the population in the other five districts. Mestizos constituted two-thirds of the people in the northern sugar-producing districts of Orange Walk and Corozal, one-half the population of the predominantly agricultural Cayo district, but only about one-tenth of the population in Belize, Stann Creek, and Toledo. Garifuna lived mostly along the coasts of the two southernmost districts of Stann Creek and Toledo; they made up fewer than 3 percent of the population in any of the other four districts. The majority of the country's diverse Mayan population resided mainly in the interior of Toledo (where they constituted some 57 percent of the district's people) and the rural areas of Stann Creek, Orange Walk, and Corozal.
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