The young nation of Belize has a history of ancient splendour, transculturation, economic instability, and social unrest. Mayan settlements once prospered along its riverbanks. Spanish expeditions brought religion and diseases. British colonizers introduced trade and slavery. Pirates roamed the surrounding seas. Distinct groups such as the Garinagu or Black Caribs and the religious Mennonites found home in a tolerant land already populated with creoles, mestizos, and other mixed races.
Under the British rule, Belize’s log export increased and declined, and racial inequality intensified, resulting to pro-independence uprisings. The country obtained its sovereignty in 1981, and is now under a democratic parliamentary system. While English is the official language, it is Creole, or Kriol, that locals commonly speak. Spanish is also widely spoken.
With its varied traditions and ideals, Belize struggles to establish a national identity. Cultural unification is impossible, as different communities assert its own mark and influence. Mayan descendants have temple ruins to speak of past glory; the Garifuna culture offers its unique cuisine and music; the Mennonites farm, make furniture, reject modern technology, and speak Low German. Religious practices range from Christianity to witchcraft. Social divisions based on ethnicity, gender, and skin colour exist. The poor rely on subsistence fishing and farming. Those who are able follow American trends. Capitalists demand more land development and less reserve areas. Expatriates expect more privacy.
Yet these contradictions make living in Belize, from an outsider’s viewpoint, seem more enticing, if one can stand the heat or the rains. While most of its colonial architecture is lost to hurricanes, Belize has the remnants of Mesoamerican civilization, the charm of stilt houses lining coasts, and the eco-conscious designs of modern constructions. As a diving destination, rainforest conservation site, and a place for retirement, Belize continues to define itself and shape its own consciousness.