Garifuna Drummer: If You Can't Join Them, Beat It
Belize, where my partner Mia MacDonald
and I just went on vacation, only has a population of 275,000 people: but what a mixed population it is! The largest minority (at seven percent) are the Garifuna
. These are the descendents of a group of African and Amerindian slaves who were apparently shipwrecked off the coast of Belize (then British Honduras) in the nineteenth century while they were being transported by the British to the island of St. Vincent. The Garifuna
are now present along the coasts of Honduras, Mexico, and Belize (indeed, Hopkins, the town near where we were staying, is considered the center of Garifuna culture). They have a distinctive language, culture, and music
that they've maintained for centuries. A group of traditional dancers and drummers came to our resort one night, and performed their percussive and extremely elegant and athletic dances.
Then there are those of Mayan
heritage, but how similar they are to the Mayans of the eighth and nine centuries (the height of the Mayan empire) is difficult to determine. That there are three distinct Mayan dialects spoken in Belize alone means that even were these Mayans to consider themselves one people, they can only communicate with each other in the language of their conquerors: Spanish. In recent years, there have been influxes of people from the neighboring countries (Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras), which has further complexified the Spanish-speaking culture. In an irony as delicious as the fruit, we learned that native Belizeans, who may be Guatemalan in origin or not, are no longer interested in picking the oranges, grapefruit, bananas, and other fruit that are grown in profusion all over the country. Guess who picks them? That's right: the Mexicans (as well as the Hondurans).
Another subgroup, and one that surprised us, were the Mennonites
. These settlers in Belize have become some of the most prosperous citizens in the nation. To our judgment, they seem to be the prime farmers of meat in the nation, and it doesn't look as though they are particularly concerned for animal welfare. We drove past cleared forest for Mittel European-looking pastures, and noted that one of their number, Cornelius Dueck
, is trying to become the country's leader on a platform of family values, anti-corruption, and development.
Another fascinating community is the "Coolies,"
the name (amazingly, no longer considered pejorative in Belize) given to the East and South Asians who were brought to Belize in the nineteenth century by former Confederate families who fled south after the American Civil War. Discovering (surprise, surprise) that the local Creole and Garifuna people didn't want to work for former slaveholders, the farmers brought in indentured laborers from China and India. While the Confederates eventually returned to the United States, some of the Asians stayed on. They, too, have been supplemented by more recent arrivals. Curiously, there is also a population of Lebanese and Turks who live in the country.
We asked our tour guides how everybody got along. Although we probed to try to make sure we weren't being told what we wanted to hear, the guides were adamant that the answer was "pretty well." Given that there is no obvious über-class or large racial majority, everyone is forced to deal with the presence and reality of everyone else. Furthermore, even though English is the official language of the country, the reality is that everyone has to speak someone else's tongue. Everyone speaks Creole: a wonderfully laid back, Carribean-inflected language.
And that might be the most telling thing of all. If everyone every day has to speak someone else's language, or use a polyglot language like Creole that is the bastard form of all sorts of other languages, it must be hard to claim superiority or purity of race, and likewise condemn anyone else as ignorant or beneath you. I'm sure the situation is more fraught and complex than we found out in only a few days in the country (it always is), but I like to think we got a glimpse of how race relations might look if we all learned to be in someone else's shoes for a change, rather than force them to wear our own.