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The Little Nation That Could

A birthday party for the youngest country in the neighborhood.



By Ted Kleine

Belize turned 18 last week. Back on September 21, 1981, the last colony in Central America got its independence from Britain and celebrated with a dinner at which Queen Elizabeth was served a gibnut, a large jungle rodent. This year, according to Belize City deputy mayor Merilyn Young, Belize is "an adult." The local Belizean community held its first-ever independence day celebration in the parking lot of James Park in Evanston, a sister city of Belize City, the only metropolis in the tiny country of 230,000 people.

As a grown-up country, "we want to go on a date now," joked Young, who was in town for the party. And last Saturday, they did. There was no Belikin beer at the celebration--Belize won't be 21 until 2002--but there were soca bands, Indian dancers, red snapper for dinner with coconut tarts for dessert, and a very short speech by John Briceño, Belize's deputy prime minister, who arrived wearing shades in an Evanston fire department car.

"When I see some of you with your short pants and sneakers and T-shirts, I wish I could be on the other side, more comfortable, among friends," he said. He offered some platitudes about Chicago, then: "No one wants to listen to long speeches. Ladies and gentlemen, let us have some fun. Let us have some rice and beans!"

Belizeans began settling in Chicago in the early 1960s, after Hurricane Hattie flattened Belize City. Hoping to earn money to rebuild their families' homes, thousands left their tropical homeland to find work in the U.S. Many of those who came here found work as domestics in North Shore mansions, which helps explain the large numbers of Belizeans in Rogers Park and Evanston. Today the community numbers almost 10,000, enough to support two restaurants, a travel agency, and a barbershop. Look in the window of any one and you're likely to see a poster for a dance at a local banquet hall featuring "the hottest band from Belize." Check out a car cruising Clark Street north of Devon and you may see a Belizean flag dangling from the rearview mirror.

"I came here in 1961," said Tony Young, a cousin of the deputy mayor. "Our house was wiped out. Mostly everybody was staying at the school, and the schools weren't operating. My mother came and worked as a domestic. They got a job to try to help people back home. Then they planted their roots and they brought their relatives."

The Youngs are one of the Belizean colony's pioneer families. When they arrived, "we had four Belizeans in Evanston," Tony said. "I was one of the first Belizeans at Evanston Township High School. I told them I was from Belize. Nobody knew where it was. They said, 'Fine, you're from Belize. You talk funny.'"

There's another connection between Belize and Chicago: Belizeans love the Cubs. When satellite TV came to that country in the 1980s, one of the first stations available was WGN. Cubs broadcasts became so popular that when Andre Dawson visited the country for a vacation, he was met at the airport by a crowd of autograph-seeking fans.

"Many years ago, the only time you could find a Belizean at home was when the Chicago Cubs were playing," Merilyn Young said. "WGN is the number-one station to watch in Belize."

At a table in the middle of the parking lot sat three elderly Creoles who had come of age when the country was called British Honduras and the Union Jack flew from every flagpole. In the midst of this independence celebration, they were trying to keep alive Belize's original patriotic holiday: Saint George's Caye Day, which commemorates a battle in 1798 between the Baymen--English buccaneers loyal to the British Empire--and troops from Spain, which wanted to add the colony to its Central American empire. Because the British won, they said, Belize kept the English language--an incalculable advantage to immigrants--and avoided the cycle of coups and revolutions that has plagued its neighbors Guatemala and Honduras.

On their table was a copy of a book, The Baymen of Belize. On the cover was a photograph of a Creole gentleman in full Highland regalia, from tam-o'-shanter to kilt.

"It so happened that Saint George's Caye Day is on the tenth of September," said Lionel "Bian" Pitts, a descendant of one of the Baymen. "In Belize, we generally celebrate both holidays until the 21st. It's a gala time. We have a lot of carnivals. We have a selection of Queen of the Bay. We have a parade with both the military and the fire brigade and Red Cross and Cub Scouts. College students, they march."

Another keeper of the Baymen's flame was Flora Anderson, who worried that Belizeans are losing interest in Saint George's Caye Day because it's unfashionable to honor the British, and anyway the bicentennial was last year. "After we had this 200th celebration, I'm not sure they want to do it," she said. "I have to get to the bottom of that."

Officially this party was just for Belizean Independence Day. But every once in a while, the soca music blasting from the loudspeakers was interrupted by a booming regimental march, the music of the old colonial masters. The variety of musical styles was appropriate for Belize, the country where Latin America meets the West Indies. Both jerk chicken and tamales were chalked on the menu at the food tent.

Guidebooks call Belize "mind-bogglingly diverse." It's a white supremacist's worst nightmare, a portrait of what America might look like someday. The country's prime minister is a Christian Arab named Said Musa. The Belizeans at the celebration mentioned ancestors from Spain, Africa, England, bloodlines that go back to the Mayan empire. Tony Young spoke of researching his Scottish ancestry. He seems not to consider this at all incompatible with his pride in his African ancestry. To Belizeans, "racial purity" is a ridiculous concept. Everybody comes from everywhere. A yearbook-style gallery of photos of the Belizean parliament shows every skin tone from English pink to equatorial coffee.

"That's what makes us so unique," boasted Deputy Prime Minister Briceño, who was in Chicago to attend the independence celebration and to visit his wife, who's studying at Northeastern Illinois University. "We have mestizos, Chinese, Creoles, Palestinians, East Indians. We even have Mennonites. You don't have any problems of the different ethnic groups. The ethnic population has been changing. Now the Spanish-speaking people are the largest group. But the official language is still English. Everyone learns it."

Flora Anderson, the woman at the patriotic table, was trying to sell laminated copies of a poem called "Be Proud of Your Beautiful Skin Color!" It's from a book she published herself called Quiet Moments Rejuvenate the Soul! Reflections of a Belizean Woman, and it goes like this: "Be proud of the variety of shades we portray: Mahogany! Almond! Cappuccino! Mocha! Tawny! Honey! Pecan! Chocolate!"

As Anderson sat waiting for customers, a local soca band, Stereo, played Caribbean pop and a girl in Mayan dress writhed in a "brukdown" dance. Seeing so many Belizeans in one place, Anderson decided she wouldn't let her concern for the fate of Saint George's Caye Day get in the way of enjoying the independence celebration. "Ya da fu we Belize," she said in the creole most Belizeans use with one another: This is a day for Belizeans.

"This is our day, all of us," she said. "No divisions."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

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