Notes from a trip to Belize;
Six years ago a Mennonite girl in the Belizean town of Spanish Lookout fell in love with a poor Guatemalan boy. They eloped across the border.
It didn’t end happily ever after.
I heard the story from a guy I met in San Ignacio, a town in western Belize near the border with Guatemala. He had been a school teacher in Spanish Lookout.
As a setting for a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet, Belize is well suited. For a country with just 350,000 people there is a surprising amount of diversity and the different groups have strong cultural roots. In this case, the Mennonite land owners and the Guatemalans hired to help harvest their crops.
The story was compelling, as old as history, as timeless as the inevitable clashes caused by commerce and culture.
The Mennonites moved to Belize in 1958 from Mexico. They were part of a group that had emigrated from Russia in the 1920s.
The Mennonites, who are almost completely white, stand out. Though they account for only 3 percent of the population, they dominate the country’s agricultural business.
The country is surprisingly diverse. It’s easy to run across black, white, Maya, Amish, Mennonite and Chinese. English is the official language, but everyone speaks Creole, and a large number, particularly in the west, speak Spanish. Ten percent of the population is retired Americans.
Creole, which is not taught in school, is the glue that binds them together. Everyone, including the Mennonites, speak it. The language isn’t related to the French-derived creole in Haiti or Louisiana. In this case it’s based on broken English.
You see tradition everywhere. Many houses still gather rainwater from their roofs. They store it in large cisterns, as the ancient Mayans once did. It allows people to live off the grid. Californians could learn something from this.
And houses all over the country are built on stilts, a style of architecture adapted from the coast which, being at sea level, floods easy and often.
Belize is tiny. When you land at the only international airport you notice the Belikin brewery, the country’s only beer factory. On the way to San Ignacio you pass the only prison. The capital, Belmopan, has just 19,000.
Taiwanese immigrants dominate the supermarket business. They started arriving in the 1980s. Driving through villages of any size you notice stores named Long Lucky’s Super Store and Yuan Xin.
A group of several thousand Amish who arrived from Canada and the U.S. in the late 1960s are an exception to the immigrants who have adopted local customs. The Amish live largely apart in the settlement of Barton Creek.
The village of Barton Creek is well off the main highway on a dirt road. Unlike the Mennonites, who run large industrial farms, the Amish drive horse buggies and use animals to plow small plots.
We passed a lumber mill that relied on animals to produce the power to turn the saw. Nearby a farmer tipped his hat respectfully to say hello, but kept his distance.
Barton Creek is close to Spanish Lookout, but the communities are a world apart. The Mennonites have pick up trucks and on Saturday nights the kids drive into San Ignacio to go to night clubs.
The size and scale of the farms, which harvest coconuts and oranges and teak and mahogany trees, require cheap labor which is supplied from neighboring Guatamala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
While Belize is poor and unemployment is high, we were told locals didn’t want those jobs and would rather work at higher paying construction projects building condos for the influx of retired Americans.
But poor migrants have to live somewhere and when they do they meet locals.
It is evidently not uncommon for Mennonite boys to marry Hispanic girls. For girls it’s a different story.
In the case of the Mennonite girl from Spanish Lookout her parents weren’t so understanding. They followed her to Guatemala and brought her back.
To make sure it didn’t happen again, they packed her off to relatives in Canada where she was far from the oppressive heat of the Cayo district, with its frequent harvests and cycle of tropical storms.
**Published by Ted Merz Jun 13, 2016 **