Surrounded by Latin America, Belize is… well… not Latin American. Well, maybe it is a little bit, now.
It’s “Latin American-ness” is starting to increase as the Creole majority of Belize (called Kriols) turns into a minority. And the mestizo (Mayan/Spanish mix) minority turns into the majority. Despite Belize’s efforts against joining Latin America, it seems demographics are making that happen anyway.
The Creoles – descendants of African slaves – used to make up around 75 percent of Belize. Over the years, emigration from Belize to (mainly) the US has lowered the Creole population to around 25 percent. During this time emigration to Belize from its neighbors has boosted the Latino population to more than 50 percent.
While English is still the official language of Belize, Spanish is the first language of the majority. Most Spanish speakers in Belize are also fluent in English, making Belize a bilingual country. And if you count the third, informal language (but still a real, accredited language) Belizean Kriol, it’s a trilingual country.
The other major ethnic group in Belize are the original Mayans who make up over 10 percent of the population. There are also the Garifuna, who account for six percent of all Belizeans. The Garifuna are descendants of shipwrecked Africans and native islanders from the Antilles. Over time the shipwrecked slaves and the native cultures intermingled and became one. The British deported the Garifuna from the Antilles to Central America in the 1730s. They have lived there ever since, in Belize and on the Caribbean coasts of Guatemala and Honduras.
Other ethnicities in Belize include large Indian and Chinese populations. There are also the German-speaking Mennonites, who now make up almost four percent of Belizeans.
Belize’s culture is a mixture of laid-back Caribbean style and British formalness.
For example, addressing people by their first name unless they’re a good friend is frowned upon. So too are impromptu house visits without prior warning. There is something very 1950’s Middle England about Belize in many aspects.
Yet Belizeans also shout greetings at one another and fist-bump instead of shaking hands. It’s both very formal and very relaxed at the same time. The changing demographics mean that a Latin, “touchy-feely” way is becoming more acceptable.
When it comes to music, the Caribbean is still king. Reggae and calypso rule. The Belizean brukdown (breakdown) form of calypso is still very popular. Most Belizeans have family in the USA, so American hip hop, rap, and rock music are also very popular. The current Belizean prime minister’s son is New York rapper Shyne. This fact shows how intertwined the people of Belize are with US urban culture.
As Belize becomes more Latin-influenced, soccer is becoming the main sport in a country once dominated by cricket. It’s fair to say that the older Creole generation still prefers cricket. But younger generations are into soccer and also, increasingly, basketball – another sign of the strong links with the US.
The people and culture of Belize are about as mixed a bag as you can get. There is a strong English feeling but with a Caribbean vibe and a Latin heart. And deep down inside lies the soul of the Maya.
Belizean food is as much of a mix ‘n’ match as the people who prepare and eat it.
The mestizos and the Maya prepare their food with a Latin American influence. Corn-based fare with shredded cheese and chicken with tomatoes, peppers, and avocado. It feels a little more Mexican in many ways than the blander Central American staples.
Creole cuisine has an Afro-Caribbean vibe to it. Lots of seafood cooked in coconut milk and rice with root vegetables like sweet potatoes, yams, and cassava. The closest thing to a national Belizean meal is called the bile up. Not as disgusting as it appears when you account for the fact that “bile up” means “boil up”. It’s a plate of boiled eggs, with fish or pigtail served with root vegetables in a tomato sauce. Most local eating spots in Belize will serve a variation of this dish.
The Garifuna also have their own cuisine. Famous Garifuna dishes include a cassava bread called ereba and various rice dishes.
Belize is the only country in Central America with zero US fast-food chains like McDonald’s or KFC. They don’t exist here. Of course one can buy a pizza or a burger, but it will be from local restaurants and barbecue stands. The touristed cayes and Belize City are the best places to find international food.