SIMPLY BELIZE: A Cultural Diary
EPISODE: # 1 - Yucatec Maya
DURATION: 30 minutes
DATE AIRED : 29/01/2002

Welcome to the first episode of SIMPLY BELIZE - A Cultural Diary! Hi! I'm your host, Curtis Gillett and today we will look at some of the customs and history of the Yucatec Mayas of the North or as they are called today, Maya Mestizos. But before we begin let me explain what Simply Belize is all about.

Belize is not a typical Caribbean country nor is it a typical Central American country. We live in a country of contrasts where Mestizos play the African marimba and Creoles eat corn on a regular basis. Are all Belizeans Black as their Central American neighbors expect? Or are they all Hispanic as their Caribbean counterparts suspect? Who are Belizeans and where did we come from? Simply Belize: A Cultural Diary will offer you 13 answers to these often-asked questions.


It's November 2nd. All Soul's Day in the northern village of Xiabe. The villagers have been up before the break of dawn preparing a special meal. Only this meal is not for the living, it is for their dead - their ancestors.

The chilmole is made fresh that morning with home-grown chickens and spicy black recado. This delicous black soup is accompanied by hand-made corn tortillas. To drink there is maja blanca, lots and lots of it. But Maja blanca is not your typical rice lab. This is the good stuff that requires much hard work.

Rice grains are ground in a hand mill and then ground again for a creamier texture, strained with water to get rice milk and then boiled in an outside kitchen over a fire hearth. After the milk has been cooked, sweetened condensed milk is added to taste. At the moment of serving, ground cinnamon is added on top as a special treat.

Meanwhile, a temporary altar is being set up in the village cemetery. At a pre-determined time, the villagers gather to say a rosary and offer prayers on behalf of their dead ancestors. The prayers are a plea to God to forgive the deceased for any sins they did not confess before their death. It is supposed that these sins may be keeping back the souls of their ancestors from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. After the rosary has been said, the food is shared out amongst the schoolchildren and villagers and eaten right there in the cemetery.

The end right? Wrong. You've just witnessed day 2 in a nine-day novena. Maya Mestizos believe that the spirit of a new dead roams the earth for nine days before it departs to either purgatory, Heaven or Hell. It is possible, though, that if the living offers prayers to God for the dead, unconfessed sins may be forgiven thus allowing the dead souls easier access into Heaven.

Day 3 is very crucial because up until then, the dead does not know that he or she is dead.

... cuando nosotros nos mueremos, no estamos muertos, solo estamos durmiendo. solo tenemos cerrado el ojo.

When we die we aren't dead. We're just sleeping. Our eyes are only closed.

Entonces cuando nos llaman a los tres dias. Cuando nos hacen el rosario y nos llaman a los tres dias. Nosotros cuando vamos a llorar. Vamos a pegar un llanto

So when they say the rosary and call our name on the third day, that's when we are going to start crying. We will bawl.

Nos vamos a sentar y vamos a llorar porque ya vamos a darnos cuenta que nos llamaron nos nombre. Que nosotros ya dejamos el mundo donde estamos con otras gentes

We're going to sit down and cry because we will realize that our name has been called. And that means we have left this world of the living.

A rosary is said every day for nine days. But making large quantities of food for the dead for nine days can become very expensive. So most families will say their rosary and make offerings in private until the last day. On this day, large groups gather together preparing to make special collado tamales by the hundreds.

Day 8 starts early. The men prepare the pib while the women work on the chickens. 60 live chickens are killed, plucked and cleaned. Then cooked in large cauldrons over an open fire. Plantain leaves to wrap the tamales have to be cut and cleaned. And there is plenty of corn to grind. There's corn everywhere.

Corn for the masa tamales are boiled with cal until soft then it is ground up to be used as masa. The corn used in the collado tamales, however, is very hard as it is not cooked beforehand. New corn mills have been bought for the occasion. It is the men mostly, who take on this difficult task of grinding the crude corn...twice.

It will be another four hours before this corn is ready to be strained and the resulting corn milk is boiled down in huge pots that sit on open fires all around the yard. It is from this milk, the pure essence of the corn, that the masa for collado tamales are made.

While the men take turns stirring the huge pots, the women use the rich red gravy from the chicken to make the filling for the tamales - the col. Shortly before midnight, the masa is declared ready and the wrapping of the tamales begins. No one knows for sure how much tamales will be made tonight. They only know it will be in the hundreds.

3 hours later, the fire in the pib is lit. Tiredness is creeping in. While the women continue wrapping tamales, the men break the hot stones so that the heat in the pib will be evenly distributed. Finally the tamales arrive.

Small ones for the children, large ones for families and enormous ones called SOLOS. Rather than throw away the chicken foot and entrails, these go into the tamales that are set-aside for the poor souls who have no-one to pray and make offerings for their release from purgatory. It is a curious spin on generosity, but a gesture nonetheless for the lonely forgotten souls.

All the tamales are on the pib now. They are covered first with wano leaves and then buried with earth. Then it's two more hours of waiting.

The sun is now up but no-one has really slept. It is time to retrieve the tamales from the pib. The earth is cleared away, the wano leaves removed, and hundreds of delicious- smelling hot tamales are revealed. In no time, the collado tamales are bundled in front of a beautifully decorated altar in the front yard and the final rosary begins.

The gates are left open signaling to passersby that they too are welcome to offer their prayers and partake in the feast. No one can be turned away or refused food on this occasion. The mala noche has passed and the work of the villagers of Xaibe to save the souls of the dead this year is done.

Honoring the dead is a tradition that has always been practiced by indigenous peoples all over the world. The use of the rosary in this case shows the influence of the Roman Catholic faith brought to the New World by the Spaniards. Celebrating the Days of the Dead is a tradition brought to Xaibe by the Maya Mestizos who originally lived in Yucatan, Mexico. During the bloody and violent Caste War of Yucatan, many were forced to flee South - to Belize - for freedom - bringing with them individual tales of horror.


The Mayas were the first inhabitants of Belize. This is evident everytime you visit the ruins of one of their magnificent temples. Yet the British consistently promoted what Dr. Angel Cal calls the "Empty Land myth"

I've written about that because I think that some people are purposely distorting our history. Suggesting that we emptied the land and the British came and...and just took over the land. There wasn't anybody here.

Now...It's a wonderful idea if...if at that time you were a British person trying to advance your claims to this country. But the Yucatec Maya were here throughout.

Captain George Henderson served here with the fifth West India Regement in 1803. And in 1809 he wrote a ...a well, you can call it a history but it's more than history - of the British settlement at Balize, B-A-L-I-Z-E. (laughs).

Henderson's book does not mention the Mayas. But does this mean they were not here?

There was nobody here but the Creoles and the Europeans. The English and the British and the Creoles, nuh.

We have archaeological evidence of several Maya groups existing in Belize when the British came here particularly in the Yalbac area of Belize. Am, and um along the, the am the Macal River at Tipu and up in the Orange Walk district near the present day Lamanai.

THE CASTE WAR 1847 - 1901

The number of Mayas living in Belize at the time of British contact has been estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000. Another 15,000 immigrated to Belize during the half a century of bloodshed known as the Caste War that took place in neighboring Yucatan, Mexico.

More than a century ago, a pregnant woman attended mass one fateful day in a church in Chan Santa Cruz, present day Felipe Carillo Puerto. Her grand-daughter tells this story.

Estaban haciendo una misa y entraron unos "indios" andar de matchetazo alla adentro de la iglesia...

During Mass one day, some "Indians" entered and began chopping up the people inside the church.

Senoras con sus neneitos estaban en esa misa. Agarraban los neneitos y los tiraban ariba y que los recibian con uno cierro largo que tiene punta que le nombre bayoneta.

There were women with their babies at that Mass. They grabbed the babies and threw them up into the air, and caught them on the point of a large piece of iron that they called a bayonet.

Que con eso cuando tiraban los ninios arriba, con eso lo recibia. Y a la gente grande, machetiabalos asi.

They caught the children with this after they threw them into the air. As for the adults, they chopped them up like this.

Mi abuela salio pero estaba embarrazado de mi mama. Y Entonces ella lo sacaron por su papa. Solo papa porque su mama de mi abuela tambien mataron.

My grandmother managed to escape but she was pregnant with my mother. Her father helped to get her out. Only her father though because they had already killed her mother.

Como cinco dias que salieron alla, nacio mi mama pero su mama de ella murio

Five days after they left there, my mother was born, but my grandmother died in childbirth.

Benjamina's story raises an important question. If the Caste War was indeed a racial war between the Maya Indians and the Spanish, why did Maya Indians attack other Mayan Indians?

In Yucatan, they used mostly Mayan labor. So there were forms of labor control. In Yucatan they used debt as a mechanism to control and to practically enslave. So those Mayas that had been trapped in these labor contracts could not get out legally speaking because as they tried to get out and they needed more things for their normal livelihood, they had to borrow more. And borrow more and so they got deeper and deeper into debt.

And so when they died, this was transferred to their children, And so their children were trapped, and then their children's children were trapped. And so this was a form of labor control—that was accompanied by a whole culture of perception that saw the Maya as inferior. Many of the Mayans though, were not caught in that trap. Many of the Mayas, especially those who ran away - because you could run away into the forest.

When the war exploded it was because the sugar producing Spaniards were trying to move into the area where the quote, unquote "FREE MAYA" lived. And they were trying to entrap them into the same thing. And to, in a sense, practically enslave them. So this was a social war.

While the Mayas waged a bloody battle against the Mestizos in Mexico, the Mayas in Belize waged their own battle against the British whose search for wood had led them to encroach on the land used by the Mayas here.

The Rio Hondo has three branches. There is Booths River, there is Rio Bravo and there is Blue Creek. If you look at the Map of Belize in the early 1840s, the boundary was Booths River you know, because no one had defined where the Rio Hondo began. The documents merely said that it is between Rio Hondo, that's where our border is. So, initially it was Booths that was the border. And so the Maya living here (motions to the West of border) were OK.

But then around this same time, the British were pushing their way into the Western part of Belize. So the British said "NO, that is not our boundary. It is this one. It's Rio Bravo". Now when they did that they were moving into Mayan land, where the Mayan villages were located. And so the Maya retaliated.

And then the British said: "It's not the Bravo, it's the Blue Creek" further taking more land that the Maya occupied, nuh? And so that is the basis of the Caste War of Belize.

Maya retaliation was quick, violent and bloody...and a matter of great concern to both the Yucatec Authorities and the British.

So in 1853 a treaty was signed between the Mayas and the Yucatec Authorities and co-signed by the British Superintendent of Belize. It said that once the Mayas agreed to stop fighting the Yucatec Authorities, they could retain their lands and weapons.

While the Southern Maya in Belize agreed to these terms, the Central Mayas - the Cruzob Mayas of Chan Santa Cruz in Mexico - did not.

So the Southern Maya and the Central Maya got into a civil war and weakened themselves. That's the classic divide and conquer strategy that has defeated, many, many, of our indigenous peoples.

In other words, the Mexicans sold arms to the Southern Mayas in Belize to fight against the Central Mayas while the British sold arms to the Central Mayas in Mexico to fight the Southern Mayas.

The British did everything to promote this division between the Cruzob and the Southern Maya. And there was even the suggestion that in the 1850s, the Cruzob were so powerful that they wanted to ask the British to help them form a nation - ok? a Mayan nation in Yucatan. They wanted to have nothing to do with the Mexicans: Want a Maya nation with its capital at Chan Santa Cruz.

For a while the request of the Cruzob Maya to become a British protectorate was strongly entertained by the British, especially when attempts to move their wood-cutting operations into Western Belize met with organized Maya resistance.

There are many stories about the Icaiche General, Marcus Canul, and his defeat at the Battle of Orange Walk in the 1880s, but next to nothing in our history book about the Battle of San Pedro in Yalbac.

Twenty-first of December, 1866, the Battle of San Pedro -obviously we don't celebrate it nuh? The British were soundly defeated. They almost, almost evacuated Belize. They had the..the..the ships out on the port and..and..and they were sending out S O Ss saying "Please come in and help us, the Maya are gonna destroy us."

The Caste War dragged on for more than 50 years. Finally in 1901 the British and Mexicans joined forces and agreed to not sell any more weapons to any Maya. The odds were against them so the Mayas gave up. The War was now over but the face of Belize had changed forever.


From as early as 1850, many Maya Mestizos fleeing the Caste War established permanent settlements at the present day towns of Corozal, Orange Walk, San Ignacio and Benque Viejo del Carmen. And in villages such as Consejo, Xaibe, Patchakan, San Joaquin and Succotz. They brought with them, not only Spanish Christian customs, but agricultural know-how and skills in sugar production.

At the very beginning, the Maya Yucatecos concentrated on the small ranchos like Louisville, Saltillos, and in Orange Walk District—which at that time of course, there was only one district, the Northern District.

The success of the sugar producing ranchos in Northern Belize attracted the attention of these powerful British companies, who up until then were still exporting only wood.

There were about 10 or 11 English companies that actually had already taken over the whole lands of Belize, of British Honduras then. So they controlled all the lands. When they found out that the Maya Yucatecos could produce sugarcane here in the North, they took away, in other words, the lands that they were renting to the Yucatecos - to the Maya Yucatecos - were taken over by the English companies and then they began producing now at a far, large amounts of sugar ...which eventually about 1868 or so they exported. They exported sugar to England.

Although the Maya Yucatecos were forced to relinquish control of the sugar industry to the British, for Mateo Ayuso the development of the industry by the British has meant prosperity for the Mayas of the North who now have a chance to educate their children.

At that time for example, we didn't have any colleges around here so our people from the north, from Corozal as well as Orange Walk, or the districts, I should say, had to go to Belize City to study.

Now with this sugar industry now coming into the picture, into this arena, things changed. So on the sugar industry depends now the education of their children, their daily welfare and everything for example as what life calls for. The standard of living here in Corozal and likewise in Orange Walk has shot up...

Now we have for example, in the north, not only college students or fourth formers, sixth formers, but we have even people with degrees coming out from universities

But in Xaibe, there are some school teachers who feel it is still important for their pupils to remember where they came from. This is why the schoolchildren of Xaibe Roman Catholic school say rosaries in the village cemetery every year on Nov. 1st and 2nd on behalf of their dead.

We are teaching the children, one way or the other to still remember their families that are dead. And so they bring their candles, their flowers and they take it to the tomb where they know their families are buried.

The school curriculum speaks of teaching our children our culture. So the teachers of Xaibe hope, just as Benjamina Cache hopes, that the younger generations will appreciate the culture of their ancestors and continue in the traditions, just like the one we've shown you today.

I'm Curtis Gillett and you've been watching SIMPLY BELIZE: A Cultural Diary.

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