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Belize Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Central American nation of Belize is extremely unique. In this lesson, we're going to talk about how Belize's history is reflected in its ethnic composition, and see what this means for the nation today.

Belize

Let's start this lesson on Belize by talking about Mexico. Mexico, in recent years, has had some diplomatic issues with a certain neighboring nation, a nation which recognizes English as its only official language despite Spanish being spoken prominently, and with which the issue of undocumented immigration has been controversial. Any guesses who I'm talking about? That's right- Belize! Belize, which only gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, is the only Latin American nation to have English as its sole official language. It's also had a unique history, starting under control of the Maya, then the Spanish, then the British. Today it is a Commonwealth realm under Britain, just like Canada or Australia. It also has the fastest-growing population in Latin America, as well as some of the highest rates of poverty. However, with tourism being one of the strongest sectors of the economy, it's probably a good idea to get to know the Belizeans a little better.

Belize

Ethnicity in Belize

Ethnicity in Belize is a fascinating subject. Thanks to the legacies of ethnic and cultural mixing across the centuries, very few people in Belize identify with only a single ethnic group. In fact, even most ethnic categories themselves are based around mixed heritage. Only a few minorities in Belizean society identify with a single ethnic identity. About 1% identify as white, 4% as ethnically from India, and another 4% identify as ethnically Mennonite (German). The largest non-mixed ethnic category, about 11% of the total population in fact, identify as ethnically Maya. The Maya are ancestrally indigenous to this part of Central America, and largely speak the Mayan language. Historically, the Maya were one of the world's greatest civilizations, as well as the only culture in the Western Hemisphere to develop a true system of writing, but this all came crashing down with the advent of Spanish imperialism. Today, most of Belize's Maya population live in rural villages across the nation.

Mestizos in Belize

Now, how about all of those mixed-ethnicity groups? The largest population in Belize are the Mestizos, who make up 53% of the total population. Mestizos are people of mixed Maya and Spanish heritage. According to legends, Mestizos can trace their ancestry back to a shipwrecked Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero who managed to impress the Maya and was brought into their society. According to many, he ended up marrying a Maya princess. The Spanish did formally invade Belize later, but never established a strong political presence due to Belize's lack of gold and other resources. Most Mestizos today are proud to have both Spanish and Maya ancestry, but culturally are almost entirely European. Spanish customs and European languages are much more widely practiced among this community than traditional Maya beliefs.

A statue of Gonzalo Guerrero
Guerrero

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