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Take the journey back in time to the era of the Toledo District Maya's ancestors. First, to the 10th century, and next to the time of Spanish and British colonialization. Finally, we arrive at a description of 20th and 21st century Toledo District Maya. Each of these brief descriptions are provided to offer a sense of regional and cultural history.

Ancient Maya
More than 1000 years prior to the establishment of the first contemporary Mayan village in Belize, there were Maya living in the Toledo District. There are five known locations of Mayan cities in the Toledo District that thrived in the 10th century. These cities are: Pusilha, Uxbenka, Nim Li Punit, Xnaheb, and Lubaantun. Pusilha is the oldest of the cities, being built between 350 - 400 A.D.

The ongoing examination of Mayan city structures and hieroglyphic writings has helped us learn much about the early Maya. Scholars point to many lifestyle similarities between the contemporary Maya and their 10th century ancestors, including similar:

agricultural and hunting practices
cultural festivals
spiritual rituals

Such examinations have also considered the puzzling, controversial, and highly publicized question of how and why the Maya abandoned their great cities in the Toledo District, 850 - 1000. The next thousand years of Mayan culture contains its share of mystery and controversy as well.

The lives of the Maya between city abandonment and the 1500s can only be speculated, as no records have been located to date. However, in the 1500s the Spanish began recording their interactions with the Maya as they arrived in what is now the Toledo District.

1500s - 1800s

Sixteenth and 17th century Spanish records help us understand the challenges faced by the Maya. Spanish attempts to Christianize the indigenous population included forced relocations of Manche Chol and Mopan Mayans outside of the district. Some Q´eqchi´ Mayans fled the Spanish and moved to remote parts of the Toledo District and intermarried with Manche Chol who had successfully escaped the Spanish.

By the 1700s, the British controlled what would later become British Honduras (now Belize). Initially, the British had little interest in the southern territory beyond engaging in logging expeditions. It was not until 1827 that the British claimed the territory that includes the Toledo District.

The village of Pueblo Viejo (first called San Antonio Viejo) and then the village of San Antonio were founded between 1850 and 1883. The first British determined Mayan reservation in the Toledo District was established around 1905.

Census Data
The first available census data indicates that there were 1,692 Maya living in the Toledo District in 1921. Two sources indicate that by the early 1980s the population had risen to 8,500. The 2000 census includes an estimated Mayan population of 11,000 residing in the 38 Maya villages in existence today, however Maya also live in Punta Gorda, the administrative center of the Toledo District, and in other multiethnic villages of the Toledo District. These individuals are not represented in this figure.
Movement of the Maya
Movement between the Toledo District and areas in Guatemala is one clear theme in the recorded history of the Maya of this region. Some families were forced to leave the area, while under other circumstances families willfully migrated to it. Whether or not Maya were moving in or out of the district, evidence points to continuous residence in the Toledo District.

The issue of direct lineage between the Maya of the Classic Period and their contemporary brethren became a political issue in the 19th and 20th centuries. For more than 100 years the British claimed that when their journeymen arrived in southern Belize there were no Maya in the area. Hence, the long-term misunderstanding that the Maya are all immigrants from Guatemala. At a later date, the Belizean government used this claim to deny the Maya rights to their land. This denial of a connection between the contemporary Maya and their ancient forbears has deeply effected the Maya's ability to establish the primacy of their culture.

The question of lineage was recently addressed by the Belizean government in the Ten Points Agreement, a legal agreement made in 2000 between Maya leaders in the Toledo District and the government. One of the points recognizes that "the Maya People have rights to lands and resources in southern Belize based on their long standing use and occupancy." Mayan leaders hope that public statements made by Prime Minister Said Musa on the day of the signing of this agreement, along with the language contained therein, will begin to dispel a myth that began so long ago.

Ongoing Socioeconomic Challenges

The Maya of the Toledo District have endured a variety of socioeconomic hardships throughout their history. They were tortured and relocated by the Spaniards, taken as slaves by European pirates, denied land rights and placed on reservations by the British, and until recent years, their welfare has largely been ignored by the Belizean government.

Today's Maya leaders and villagers alike work hard to improve their quality of life. They work with indigenous organizations and on government projects, as well as with one another, to develop strategies for a more positive future. They do this with an eye toward balancing the socioeconomic needs with their desire to preserve traditions. But making progress is often a lengthy and challenging "uphill battle". For example, at the beginning of the 21st century the critical issue of Maya land rights is just beginning to be addressed. Other chronic problems that concern the Maya of the Toledo District include:

developing and maintaining a reliable economic base.
easily accessible, culturally sensitive, and affordable education.
existence and quality of village infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, and health care).

But the sounds, pictures, and words also signal a renewed optimism, increased expectations, and hope to the Maya themselves, that they are capable of uplifting themselves, of taking the lead in providing for themselves and their communities an improved quality of life. On the other hand, they cannot do it alone. The Ten Points of Agreement, for example, while a good beginning can only satisfy its promise if there were political will from Government to support the people's urgent call for a just share in the harvesting of the wealth of the forests they have called home for many centuries, and for the continued improvement of their human resources to make this development possible.

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