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
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:
and hunting practices
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.
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.
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
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
of the Maya
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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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