San Antonio Village
San Antonio is one of the thirty-five Mayan villages in the Toledo district, and has the largest community of Mopan Mayas in the region. San Antonio, the second largest community in the district, can either be accessed through the road to Sylvester Village and San Pedro Columbia, near Lubaantun, or further south on the highway through the unpaved road going west at the junction to Punta Gorda Town.
The village is built on a small area of hills and valleys, where thatched huts, made with wooden walls are predominant. Some zinc roofs and cement houses also stand strong in the village. Nearby San Antonio falls is a popular swimming spot for residents and visitors. On a hot day, children can be found swimming and playing in the refreshing pool, under the waterfall.
Of particular interest is San Antonio Roman Catholic Church. Visitors can’t miss it, as it stands tall and strong atop one of the highest hills in the village. Made of stone, this church stands out. It is said to be the only church of its kind in the country, and was built by villagers who transported the stones themselves, after the church had been destroyed by fires three times. Masses are not held regularly, for there isn’t a resident pastor, but traveling priests say mass at least twice per month. A statue of the village’s patron saint, San Luis Rey, stands at the front of the church, surrounded by candles. The church’s stained glass windows were donated, after being salvaged from a church in St. Louis, Missouri, before it was demolished.
A novena is held annually in honor of the village’s patron Saint. The celebration lasts nine days, and begins on August 15.
Mayan men, women and children gather to listen to the preyostes (elders) play marimba, and perform the Deer Dance. The Deer Dance is a traditional dance performed by twelve preyostes, men only, and is danced only three different times for the year (for another patron saint in June, and during the Christmas season).
Each night, for nine consecutive nights, the gathering takes place at a different residence in the village. Late afternoon, three men begin to play the marimba in a dark thatched hut. For about half an hour, the marimba plays on. Then, the group prays the rosary in honor of the saint. After the rosary, the marimba strikes up again before the procession. The host then makes an offering to the saint, with a procession of candles, and marimba music from their home to the church. Two men walk holding the marimba, while three men play. Candles are also traditionally part of the procession.
It is evident that the culture is changing, because as the years go by, less people actually participate. Many small children are present at the celebration, along with elders and women, but not too many teenagers participate. The apparent fading enthusiasm in the younger generation is consistent with worldwide tendencies, as development and globalization take over; but the villagers insist on keeping the tradition alive. While the town is predominantly Catholic, there are many other religious denominations. The infiltration of other cultures and ways of life is inevitable, and some of the younger generation of Mopan Mayas in this remote village can be seen with baseball caps and fashionable jeans, listening to world music, still living among conventional Mayan families, who wash in the river, and live basic lifestyles.
By just driving through the village, visitors would never experience the more intimate moments of the Mayan lifestyle. Just stopping to sit and chat, will take you to another world.
The Mopan Maya of Belize are English speaking, as opposed to the Mayan inhabitants of nearby Guatemala and Mexico. In fact, some may not even speak Spanish, just their native language and the local dialect, Creole. The faces of the older women are imprinted with lines of age and wisdom. They walk about with their typical Maya dress, most with a white embroidered blouse, and wide colorful skirt. Many, along with their daughters, sell hand made crafts, particularly straw baskets. The children are curious, energetic and full of life. It’s impossible not to be taken by the smiles and liveliness in the children. They are all playful and friendly, and enjoy mingling with visitors.
San Antonio residents are very welcoming of visitors. They have been open to tourism development, and even offer stays in their own homes, where visitors can actively participate in everyday activities such as cooking and farming. For more privacy, basic accommodations are provided at the TEA guesthouses, where visitors can also enjoy Mayan cultural experiences.