On the Belizean flag, African and Latino men stand side by side under the shade of an indigenous mahogany tree. Recent immigration has changed the country’s demographics quite a bit, but Belize has a long history of successfully blending disparate ethnic groups into a unified culture.
In spite of the changes, Belizean culture still has a distinctly Caribbean feel. All along Belize’s long stretch of coast, families get together for extended barbecues over the weekends. African drums are pervasive in local folk music, and reggae has a large fan-base.
The country's diversity also means that Belize boasts a colorful assortment of holidays and festivals. Even the country's cuisine receives a celebratory nod in several food festivals.
Recent Demographic Shifts
As fertility rates decline, Belize’s elderly population is growing. Between 1970 and 2000, Belize’s populations nearly doubled, an amount mostly due to immigration. Today, around 15 percent of the population is made up of immigrants, mostly from other countries in South America. Religion reflects these changes the most clearly – Catholicism has become the most widely practiced religion in Belize.
16 percent of Belizeans live abroad, usually in the United States. These Belizeans are typically driven to the U.S. by better educational opportunities.
With the rise of tourism, more jobs have become available in the cities. A large number of jobs depend on the many cruise ships that stop outside of Belize City.
The Many Tongues of Belize
English is Belize’s official language. Historically, this makes sense – Belize was a British colony until 1981, and is still a member of the British Commonwealth. But only 3.9 percent of the Belizean population speaks English as their primary language. There is a growing Hispanic population, and 46 percent of the population speaks Spanish as its first language.
33 percent of the population speaks Belizean Creole, which natives usually spell “Kriol.” It sounds similar to other Caribbean creole languages, and you might be able to understand some of it with a few rudimentary phrases under your belt.
Mayan dialects are the third-most commonly spoken language.
Garífuna Population and Belizean Kriol
Belize’s southern coast exhibits the strongest Caribbean influence. This is also the heart of Afro-Caribbean culture, mostly concentrated around the seaside town of Dangriga and the Stann Creek District.
Belizeans of African descent are descended from the Garífuna. The Garífuna came from San Vicente, in the Lesser Antilles islands of the Caribbean. In the 1700s, St. Vincent served as a refuge for escaped African slaves who had been brought to the Caribbean by Europeans. According to popular lore, Nigerian slaves ended up in St. Vincent after the wreck of a Spanish slave ship.
The Garífuna continually fought off returning captors, but were eventually forced to flee St. Vincent. They became expert canoe builders, and came to the Yucatán peninsula by way of boat. These dugout canoes are called dorys, which are still used in some Garífuna ceremonies.
The language of the Garífuna is a mix of several different languages, including dialects from Africa, the Caribbean, and Native American tribes. Today, the Garífuna live mostly in the Toledo district of Belize.
African drums are still a prominent part of Garífuna culture. Punta is a distinct style of percussion-driven music that have made the Garífuna an important part of the Caribbean music scene.
Visit the Luba Garífuna museum in Belize City to see exhibits of Garífuna crafts and traditional clothing.
The Garífuna aren’t the only Belizean people with a history of servitude. In the late 1880s, Belize experienced a boom in sugar production. Immigrants from the U.S. had arrived in hopes of starting cotton plantations. Cotton did not grow well in Belizean soil, but sugar did. There weren’t enough locals to operate the plantations, so they imported indentured servants from India. To this day, there is a small population of Belizeans of East Indian descent.
Mennonites in Belize
There are around 5,000 Mennonites living in Belize. The Mennonites immigrated to Belize mostly during the 1950s. They live on large farms in the Orange Walk District, and speak a dialect of Old German.
Mennonites are a group of strict Protestants who have chosen to live without modern technology. During your travels, you may see a horse-drawn buggy or two, but the Mennonites of Belize prefer to keep to themselves, and do not encourage tourism to their communities. In spite of this, they contribute to the Belizean economy with their hand-crafted furniture and dairy production.
Mayan Populations in Belize
Belize’s traditional Mayan population mostly lives in villages around the Toledo District in southern Belize. A minority of those Mayans are descendants of native Belizeans. Most of Belize’s native Mayan culture was killed off by European diseases in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most Mayans in Belize belong to one of the following three groups: Q’eqchi, Mopán, and Yucatec. There are around 30,000 Maya living in Belize today.
Mopán Mayans came from the Petén area of Guatemala. They fled to Belize to escape the forced labor imposed by the Spanish.
Yucatec Mayans come from the town of Yucatán, Mexico. The Yucatec are the smallest sub-group, with only 2,000 members. They migrated in the 19th century, in an attempt to escape the violence of the Mexican-American War.
The Q’eqchi Indians moved from Verapaz, one of the central departments of Guatemala. Colonizing Spanish forces in Guatemala drove out the Q’eqchi, because they wanted to cultivate Q’eqchi land. Q’eqchi Indians established the San Pedro de Columbia settlement in Belize, while others settled in the Toledo district.
Altun Ha is the country’s most popular Mayan site to visit, and is easily accessible from Belize City. It was first built around 500 B.C., and shows signs of having been rebuilt many times. Archeologists believe it probably served as a trading center, although it may have also had some religious significance.
Recent Immigration – Lebanon and China
There are small groups of Chinese and Lebanese immigrants living in Belize City.
Recently, the Lebanese-Belizean community has faced stigma because of a connection between a small number of Lebanese-Belizeans and organized crime, including involvement in the Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Chinese immigrants now make up around 2 percent of the total Belize population. Their cuisine is becoming an increasingly popular option in restaurants in Belize City, Orange Walk, and Corozal.
Belize’s tourism industry is growing, along with opportunities for entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the influx of visitors. The future of Belize’s population is uncertain. If it continues to attract immigrants at a steady rate, Belizeans of Garífuna and Mayan descent may eventually be in the minority. Visitors looking to listen to Garífuna music and see Mayan ruins have encouraged locals to preserve their culture, and new schools and government programs have begun to help keep Belize’s older traditions intact.