People of Belize
Belize is often described as a “melting pot” of cultures all intermingled to form a unique “Belizean identity“. Even with the many interracial unions, Belize boasts several distinct and identifiable ethnic groups. These include the Creole, Mestizo, Maya, Garifuna, East Indians, Chinese and Mennonites. These all blend to form a people with a wide diversity of cultures, traditions and beliefs all co-existing in harmony. The Belizean society exemplifies the preservation of individual identities and ethnic differences.
The Creoles make up one-third of the entire population (about 40%), being classified as one of the two largest ethnic groups in the country. The Creoles are descendants of the interracial unions of Africans (who were brought over as slaves) and early European settlers of the Colonial era. The Creoles mainly reside in Belize City, with small groups unevenly scattered throughout the other five districts. The ‘Creole’ dialect is the dominant language throughout Belize, even though English is declared the official language and is taught in all schools. The Creoles are known for their contribution of the famous “rice and beans” dish that dominate the lunchtime cuisine throughout the country.
The Mestizos account for 44% of the entire population. They are descendants from the early Mayan and Spanish settlers who immigrated to Belize during the Caste Wars of the Yucatan in the mid-nineteenth century. The Mestizos mainly reside in the districts of Corozal, Orange Walk and Cayo, as well as on the northern islands of Caye Caulker and San Pedro Ambergris Caye. Most of them speak Spanish in their homes and English/Creole outside in the community. Mestizo dishes like the escabeche, panades, tamales and garnaches are favorites among all cultures and tourists alike.
The Maya make up the third largest ethnic group in the country (about 11% of population) and are divided into three diverse groups. They are the Yucatecan, Mopan and Kekchi Maya. It is believed that most of the Yucatecan Maya immigrated to Belize, like the early Mestizos, to escape the Caste Wars. They now primarily occupy the districts of Orange Walk and Corozal. The Mopan Maya entered Belize in the 1880′s where they established several communities in the mountainous regions of the southern and western districts. The picturesque San Antonio Village in Toledo is home to the Mopan Maya. Around 1870, the Kekchi Maya entered the country from an area around Verapaz, Guatemala. They settled in the southern lowlands of the country, primarily near rivers and streams. Majority of the Mayan population reside in the southern districts of Stann Creek and Toledo. Their vibrant Mayan history and culture is respected and celebrated in Belize.
The Garifuna make up the fourth largest ethnic group (about 7% of the population). The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) came to Belize in the late eighteenth century. “Garinagu” technically refers to the people, and “Garifuna” to the culture and language. The Garinagu are descendants of African slaves who intermingled with Amerindian natives of the tiny Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In the 1800′s British settlers exiled them to the Gulf of Honduras. In 1832 the Garifuna made their way to the southern coast of Belize, where they established five major settlements. Garifuna Settlement Day is celebrated annually on the 19th day of November to honor the arrival of Garifuna to the southern shores. The Garifuna culture comprises of a very distinct combination of arts, crafts, music, dance and cuisine. The tasty “sere”, “hudut” and “cassava bread” are landmark dishes of the Garifuna communities.
EAST INDIANS, ARABS, CHINESE & MENNONITES
These ethnic groups make up the small remaining percent of the population. The East Indian population is the largest of this group. Most of them are descendants of indentured laborers who were brought from their native India to work on the sugar plantations of Corozal and Toledo. Most of them did not return to their country. Because of intermingling with the diverse ethnic groups in the country, a distinct East Indian culture has become blurred over the years. They primarily reside in the Toledo District.
The small Arab population is composed of a mixture of Turks, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. They immigrated to Belize in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They reside primarily in the Belize and Cayo Districts.
Most of the Chinese population living in Belize today immigrated in the early twentieth century. Majority of the population occupy Belize City, however, their presence is well established in every district. Most of the Chinese communities run grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries and are all in the lottery business. They are considered an industrious people. A few Taiwanese families have recently immigrated to the country and have also become hard-working entrepreneurs.
Belize’s first Mennonites, numbering about 5,000, migrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. They purchased large chunks of land, established settlements in Orange Walk, Cayo and Toledo, and commenced their distinct agricultural lifestyle. The Mennonites are members of a resilient religious sect, which originated in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century by a former Roman Catholic priest called Menno Simmons, as a reaction against the deepening relationship between church and state. Mennonites run their own church-based communities, and in keeping with their traditions, close themselves into reserved communities, maintaining the use of their archaic German dialect, and living simplistic lifestyles, as can be seen in their style of dress and their homes. Men traditionally wear long beards, straw hats, and dark trousers, while women wear long floral-print dresses and head scarves. Even though they observe complete sovereignty over their communities, they have slowly been incorporated into the life of every Belizean, particularly through their contribution to the agricultural industry. Mennonite farmers can easily be considered the most productive and successful in the entire country. They operate the best dairy industry in the country that regularly supplies the nation with eggs, poultry, fresh milk, cheese and vegetables. They are also famous for their furniture and home construction.