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History of the Kekchi and Mopan Maya of Belize

Did you know that most of the Mayan people in Belize today are immigrants?

Although Belize is in the heartland of what used to be the Mayan Empire, the current Mayan descendents that live there now mostly came from Mexico and Guatemala. Most of the original Mayan inhabitants were the victims of plagues or armed conflict. Today, three groups are represented, the Yucatec Maya who came from Yucatan Mexico, the Mopan who came from the Peten area of Guatemala, and the Kekchi who migrated from the Verapaz region of Guatemala.

We spent the most time in the southern Toledo district of Belize, where the Kekchi and Mopan dwell. They together comprise the largest percentage of Mayan descendents in Belize today and have remained the most traditional and culturally distinct. Thus we chose to focus on them and their history.


Mopan Maya

Of the three, the Mopan are the only group who can claim indigenous heritage in Belize. Originally they were a lowland group living in the west-central region of Belize and the Peten region of Guatemala. When the British took control of the area from the Spanish and founded British Honduras they moved quickly into the interior. Their logging operations brought them to the west and consequently most of the Mopan were kicked out or died of disease.

The modern Mopan arrived in southern Belize in 1886. Fleeing enslavement and unfair taxation in Peten a large group made it to what is now the Toledo district in the south and established the town of San Antonio. Although there are small villages in the west and others around the Toledo district, the town of San Antonio continues to be the largest settlement of Mopan in Belize today.

Mopan society today is little changed in over a hundred years. Missionaries have successfully instituted Christianity into most communities and the church plays an important role. However the foundation of the society is still based mostly on subsistence agriculture, family units, communal assistance, and self-government. They subsist on staple crops of beans, corn, rice, tubers, cacao and sugar cane. Increasingly they are becoming involved in cash crops of citrus and rice and are experimenting with mechanized farming. Lack of economic means however, keep them from fully modernizing.


Kekchi Indians

In the modern era, the Kekchi have had perhaps the most tragic history of any Mayan group. Traditionally they are from the Verapaz region of Guatemala and were a culturally distinct group. Their language has no similarities to the Mopan and they have been Christian Converts for much longer.

Their history in Belize dates from the 1870's and 1880's when large numbers escaped from Guatemala. At the time an infamous despot by the name of Barrios was rallying Ladino (White European Spanish) and Mestizo populations (mixed Spanish and Indian) against the indigenous Indian populations in order to take over Indian lands and institute severe economic reforms. The Kekchi, among others, were the victims. They were forced to give up their land to European coffee farmers invited by the Barrios regime and work as slave laborers.

After emigrating to southern Belize they established the community of San Pedro de Colombia and branched out into the rest of the Toledo district. Over the years they have mixed with some Mopan communities. They as well practice subsistence slash and burn agriculture and have a self-governing "alcalde" system. They are recognized as the poorest and most disenfranchised of the ethnic groups in Belize. Despite this they are renowned for their cooperative practices in farming and town development. Rich in terms of cultural traditions and autonomous pride they have keyed the current trend of Mayan cultural revivalism in Belize today.

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