The Maya of Belize: Two Historic Heritages are Now One
One branch of the Maya family tree, the Mopan Maya, sprawled across parts of Central Belize, spilling into Guatemala in the 1600s. Sadly, their way of life was interrupted by conquering Spaniards who brought with them a foreign religion, catastrophic diseases and lifestyles diametrically opposed to their indigenous ways.
The British came along in the 18th and 19th centuries creating a Maya diaspora that drove the Mopan people back to Southern Belize in search of safety—-congregating in the village of San Luis. They were not just fleeing from Europeans but from forced labor and taxation burdens. Ultimately, a community was established in the village of San Antonio.
Two Maya tree branches suffer the same indignations
The Mopan were far from the only Maya peoples in the region. The Kekchi Maya were also an established Central American society in Guatemala’s Vera Paz region. Speaking a distinct dialect and practicing unique rituals, lifestyles and folkways, these people were also driven from their homeland to Belize by German coffee growers in the 1800s.
Known as the most self-reliant of the Maya people, Kekchi communities flourished once out from under the control of these German oppressors, clustering in 30 communities in Toledo where intermarriage and assimilation created a melting pot of Maya lineages, especially in San Pedro Columbia.
Originally separated by distance, both societies developed distinct dialects. The Kekchi retained ancestral language patterns while the Mopan adopted Cholan, a Classic heartland tongue. For purists who enjoy linguistics, it can be an adventure to explore commonalities in both languages as well as words that are unique to each dialect.
Finding commonalities that make two communities one
What do both of these societies have in common? Food! You would be hard-pressed to differentiate the diets of the Mopan and Kekchi. Corn, beans, bananas, citrus and mangoes were agricultural mainstays while wild and domestic pigs, gibnut, guan, chickens and turkey were prepared and eaten. Corn or flour tortillas remain at the heart all meals, regardless of what’s stuffed inside.
Happily, each culture retained unique dress styles, rituals, folklore and traditions, seen on display at fiestas and celebrations held throughout Belize. Holidays showcase costumes, traditions, dancing, music and storytelling. Descendants of both lines understand Belize forest pharmacology, collecting herbs and plants for curative uses.
A bridge between old and new
Some Maya communities have retained a traditional “Alcalde” government, giving all authority to a single individual. Others have adopted a village counsel system. Regardless of governing choice, all villages take pride in their primary schools and celebrate academically precocious students who qualify for high school scholarships.
In the end, pride in the next generation brings people belonging to both branches together. Two distinct peoples have managed, over time, to contribute the best of their practices, traditions and histories. In what may be called an ironic twist, the Mopan and Kekchi peoples now live as one society, exactly as their ancestors did in the past.