With a population of just over 300,000, Belize is the second smallest country in Central America. Despite its sparse population, Belizean society is truly multicultural with Creole, Mestizos, Garifuna, Maya and refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador all living peacefully together.
Belize was originally inhabited by Amerindians and later Mayan Indians from Mexico and Guatemala migrated to the area as well. The Mayan culture thrived in Belize through the Classic period which came to an end around the 10th century. Many Mayan ruins from this Classic period have been discovered within Belize and it’s widely believed that many archeologically significant sites within Belize remain undiscovered. Mayans currently compose approximately 8% of the population and speak various dialects including Yucatac, Mopan and Kekchi.
The majority of Belizeans are Creole people descended from African slaves and the original English and Scottish settlers. Many of the slaves were brought to Belize from Jamaica to harvest mahogany. The Creole speak their own language, known by locals as Kriol, which is similar to Jamaican patois. Fluency in Kriol is said to be the sign of a true Belizean.
The Garifuna make up approximately 20% of the Belize population and are descended from Caribbean Indians and black Africans. The Garifuna have their own language comprised of West Indian, Yoruba, Spanish, English and French words and grammar. Contemporary Garifuna musicians are among the region’s most innovative and continue to attract a wider audience through the world music market. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Garifuna music as one of the masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
The Mestizo are descendants of Spanish and Yucatan Mayans. Many originally entered the region from the Yucatan during the War of the Races in the mid-1800’s. The northern regions of Belize are home to large populations of Mestizo people who primarily speak Spanish and practice Catholicism. Belizean Mestizo communities maintain the social and cultural traditions of the Yucatan and Guatemala with lives centered around family and church.
Belize is also home to some four thousand Mennonites whose descendants were Northern European immigrants escaping religious persecution. The Mennonites speak an archaic dialect of German and Dutch and through an agreement with the Belizean government, they manage their own schools, banks and local government. The Mennonites of Belize are mainly poultry and dairy farmers and although their communities are quite segregated, their contributions to the economy and strong work ethic are admired by the population at large.