Ethnicity and Ethnically "Mixed" Identity in Belize: A Study of Primary School-Age Children

by Sarah Woodbury Haug
Ethnicity and Ethnically "Mixed" Identity in Belize: A Study of Primary School-Age Children
Sarah Woodbury Haug
Anthropology & Education Quarterly
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Ethnicity and Ethnically "Mixed" Identity in Belize: A Study of Primary School-Age Children



Pennsylvania State University

This article focuses on the ehtnic identity of children in Belize. Belizean nation- alism, as taught in the primary schools, is both pan-ethnic and multiethnic. However, because the increasingly widespread practice of ethnic mixing is unacknowledged, there is a discrepancy between what is taught in school and the daily life of children. This has resulted in a paradox. Whereas the overt intent is to recognize and celebrate difference, the result has been to silence children's voices.

Teacher: "Everyone here belongs to an ethnic group. You will draw the clothing of your group."

Mixed Mestizo/Garifuna girl: "What if you are mixed?"

Teacher: "It doesn't matter if you are mixed . . . you draw the Creole outfit." [Teacher tells four other children of mixed ethnicity which clothing they will draw.]

Anthropologist to teacher: "What ethc group are you?"

Teacher: "I am mixed with Creole and Spanish but my husband is an East Indian." Anthropologist: "What ethnic group do your children belong to?" Teacher [laughs and waves her hand dismissivelyl: "They are just mixed."

Anthropologist: "Oh. What did you do with the mixed children in your class?" Teacher: "Well, I assigned them to a group." This article illuminates the subjective nature of ethnic identification in

a nation-state that promotes multiculturalism and ethnic diversity within its borders. The government of Belize supports the cultures of all its ethnic groups and teaches about them inschools as part of its program of nationalism. The scene above illustrates the combination of issues that are involved in locating children of mixed ethcity within the govern- ment's ethnic framework in Punta Gorda, a small town of 3,500 people on the southern coast. Because ethnic mixing is unacknowledged by the Belizean government and not discussed in schools, there is a great discrepancy between what is taught in the schools, and the daily life of such children. What schools teach and what chldren understand are not the same. The silence on the part of the government, however, speaks

Anthropology O Education Quarterly 29(1):44-67. Copyright O 1998, American Anthropological Association.


loudly to children as they attempt to place themselves within the ethruc framework of their community and country.

To many adults, not only Punta Gordans, children are reflections of the adult world. They are thought of as simple creatures who absorb all that is taught to them (Jenks 1996:2; Stephens 1996:12), or viewed as a means of measuring the values of society (Ndebele 1996:322). They are not, as Stephens writes, "social actors in their own right, engaged in making sense of and recreating the social worlds they inherit" (1996:23-24). However, my research shows that children clearly are active participants in the construction of their own identity, even if their constructions are not recognized by the adult community and even if children are labeled by adults according to adult needs and perceptions.

Research in Schools

The research for ths article took place over the course of two school years (1993-1995), primarily with children between ages 7 and 11. The focus on ethrucally mixed children developed as one part of a broader study of children's constructions of ethnicity and nationalism in Punta Gorda. Children in Punta Gorda are constantly exposed to differing viewpoints on their own ethnicity and must work hard to synthesize the different impressions of ethnic identity found in the people around them into an acceptable public identity. Barbara Rogoff writes, "Children are apprentices in thinking." They actively try to learn from observing and participating with peers and teachers to develop skills to "handle cultur- ally defined problems with available tools, and building from these givens to construct new solutions within the context of sociocultural activity" (1990:7). When children learn, their cognitive development is inseparable from their surroundings (1990:190).

That schools are actively teaching about ethnic groups makes learning about ethnicity a more structured process than it might otherwise be and leads directly, in the case of Punta Gorda, to a cognitive dissonance between what is taught to children and their conception of their own lives in practice. Corsaro notes that there are elements of childhood socialization that do not always make sense to children: "The child's exposure to social knowledge and communicative demands in everyday activities with adults ...raises problems, confusions and uncertainties" (1986:23&237) that children must then work out for themselves. One of the places children work these issues out daily is in schools.

There are three schools in Punta Gorda: Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Adventist. They are part of a church-state educational system in Belize in which the government provides the curriculum and school supplies, and churches provide buildings and hire teachers. The govern- ment pays teachers' salaries. During each school year I worked in five classrooms, and over the two school years I worked with seven different teachers.' In working in schools, I systematically collected data about children's ethnicity and conducted interviews with children and teachers.

Profile of Belizean Ethnic Groups

The ethnic diversity of Punta Gorda has developed over a period of time, but its story is a small part of the history of the ethnic diversity of Belize as a whole. Until 1981, Belize was a colony of Great Britain, which for 350 years had used Belize as a source of exports. West African slaves, ancestors of the Belizean Creoles, were brought to Belize in the late 1600s to cut first logwood and then mahogany. Creoles came to Punta Gorda when it was founded in the early 1800s as a logging center, and they continued to arrive in small numbers as civil servants after emancipa- tion.

In 1802, the first Garifuna (also called Garinagu) people arrived from Honduras. Garifuna are a people of mixed African and Carib descent who had been deported by the British from St. Vincent in the Caribbean to Honduras for refusing to give up their island for sugar cultivation (Gonzalez 1988:34). A larger group that settled in Dangriga in the Stann Creek District arrived in 1832, escaping persecution in Honduras (Wilk 1990:27). Other predominantly Garifuna settlements established shortly thereafter were in Hopkins, Punta Gorda, and Barranco. Garifuna in Punta Gorda state that it was a purely Garifuna settlement at this time.

The next major ethnic group to arrive were the Mestizos, a people of mixed Spanish and Maya heritage seeking to escape the Caste War in Mexico in the mid-1800s. Mestizos settled primarily in the northern part of the country to farm, and were the first to cultivate sugarcane in Belize (Bolland 1977:137). They also settled in rural areas outside of Punta Gorda. Since the early 1980s, there has been a significant increase in the Mestizo population of Belize due to an influx of refugees from the neighboring Central American countries of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. It is possible that up to one-half of the Mestizos in Punta Gorda are recent immigrants to Belize. Another name for Mestizo in Belize is Spanish.

East Indians are another ethnic group that was forcibly brought to Belize, originally to cultivate sugar for some U.S. confederates. These confederates arrived after the end of the U.S. Civil War in an attempt to transplant their plantation economy to a more hospitable social environ- ment. They settled outside of Punta Gorda in the Toledo District in 1871, and brought East Indians from the West Indies as indentured servants to work for them (Staiano 1986:46). After the confederates returned to the United States, the East Indians remained, practicing subsistence farming. They still live in Punta Gorda and surrounding villages.

The last major ethnic group to reach Belize, the Maya, was also the first. The Europeans defeated the Maya in the 17th and 18th centuries and then deported those who remained to Guatemala. The Maya re- turned to the Northern districts in the 1850s, and to the Toledo District in the 1880s (Staiano 1986:3940). There are now three major Mayan groups in Belize: Kekch and Mopan in the south, and Yucatecan in the north.

In the 1991 census, the population of Belize was 189,392 (Central Statistical Office 1993:11), and the government reports that the present distribution of ethnic groups in Belize includes Creoles (30 percent), Mestizos (44 percent), Garifuna (seven percent), East Indians (3.5 per- cent), Mopan Maya (four percent), Kekchi Maya (four percent), Yucate- can Maya (one percent), and whites (one percent) (Central Statistical Office 1993:13).

The Government Program

Since the time Belize became independent from Great Britain in 1981, the Belizean government has made a great effort to promote a Belizean national identity through its schools. It has taken a dual approach to ths task. On one hand, it has put forth the existence of a pan-ethnic nation- alist identity, one to which all Belizeans can, ideally, subscribe. On the other hand, it works to celebrate the cultures of all its ethnic groups and teach about them in the primary schools, encouraging tolerance in the classroom. In practice, the government assumes that every Belizean belongs to an ethnic group and can be labeled. Thus to be Belizean is, by definition, to be ethnic. This dual policy has been overt and is the subject of continual discussion by intellectuals and government officials.

The source of this labeling may well derive from a colonial heritage in which ethnicity was extremely important-the ethnic group to which one belonged determined one's status in relation to the ruling British. For example, modern-day Creoles were slaves and then free but landless laborers in a colonial economy. East Indians were imported into the country as indentured laborers to work on sugar plantations for the length of their contracts. The right to vote derived from land ownerslup, a right not permitted nonwhite inhabitants of the colony (Bolland 1977). Labeling individuals with an ethnic group served to keep track of them, divide them, and keep them in their "proper" place. In Punta Gorda, everyone is adept at "labeling" others based upon ethnicity. When asking about another person whom the questioner does not know, the first question asked is always, "What 'race' is he or she?"2

Policy makers and intellectuals are preoccupied with the question of what makes Belize a nation. Emerson has defined a nation as a "terminal community-the largest community that when the chips are down, effectively commands men's loyalty, overriding the claims both of the lesser communities within it and those that cut across it or potentially enfold it within a still greater society . . . " (1960:95-96, quoted in Geertz 1973:257). With so many "lesser communities" in Belize, the Belizean government faces the challenge of engendering the necessary loyalty so that Creoles, Garifuna, Mayas, Mestizos, and East Indians will be Be- lizean when the chps are down. Given the example of Eastern Europe since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Belizean government knows that whether or not Belize is a nation is left "to the determination of some future, unspecified historical crisis" (Geertz 1973:258). As Richard Fox notes, ethcity, nationalism, and racial identifications are cultural pro- ductions of public identity: "Anational culture is always 'temporary' because, whether antique or recent, its character and puissance are matters of historical practice; they are plastic constructions, not cultural givens" (Fox 1990:4).

In 1993, the Belizean government appointed a "National Culture Policy Council" whose job was to determine what Belizean culture was and how to promote it among the general population. The concluding document that the council produced drew heavily from the work of Bolland and gave three choices for the direction the culture policy could take. It could follow (1) the "hegemonic mode," in whch one dominant segment claims its ethnic superiority, as during the colonization of Belize by Great Britain; (2)the "synthetic mode," in which all cultures are put together in an attempt to create a uniform whole or "melting pot"; or (3) the "pluralistic mode," in which the government commits itself to the principle that all groups must share and recognize an all-embracing national identity that is defined by citizenship, along with a compatible form of identity in one of the Belizean ethnic groups (National Culture Policy Council 1993:2). The National Culture Policy Council adamantly asserted its belief in the third choice, and this is the policy openly employed by the Belizean government in schools.

In practice, the result of the government's program is that during national holidays and other formal events (such as the visit of Queen Elizabeth I1 of England to Punta Gorda in 1994), there is an obligatory public display of the ethc cultures of the five official Belizean ethruc

group^.^ This usually includes costumes, music, and dancing. In schools, the nationalist program is observable throughout the curriculum. In particular, much of the social studies curriculum of each grade is specifi- cally taken up with preparation for national holidays, combined with lessons about the different cultural markers of the ethruc groups. A major drawback with this approach is that the markers themselves have be- come codified and for the most part not openly subject to interpretation by students and teachers.

Stephens comments,

As representatives of the contested future and subjects of cultural policies, children stand at the crossroads of divergent cultural projects. Their minds and bodies are at stake in debates about the transmission of fundamental cultural values in the schools. The very nature of their sense, language, social networks, worldviews, and material futures are at stake. . . .[1996:23]

The problem for the schools and the government is that there are many children of mixed ethnicity in Punta Gorda (and Belize), and by their presence, they are a continual example of the lack of fit between the state's neat categories and daily life in practice.

Ethnic Groups in Punta Gorda

The ethnic diversity of Punta Gorda itself has developed over the past 30 years. Cosminsky estimates that in 1965, withina population of 1,789, 70 percent of the community were Garifuna, 17.5 percent were Creole, and the remainder were small groups of Mestizos, East Indians, and Chinese (1977:227-228). There were no reliable census data about ethnic groups until the years of 1980 and 1991. Table 1 shows the percentages of ethnic groups in 1980,1991, and 1994, whena census for this fieldwork project was carried out."

There were 40 different combinations of the ethnic groups in Punta Gorda recorded in the "mixed" category of the 1994 census, 26 of which had 10 or fewer people in number. The 14 most common ethnic mixes are shown in Table 2. Mixed is a label that was chosen by a number of individuals in Punta Gorda who reported that their parents were of distant ethnic groups. It was also used by parents to refer to children who are the product of an interethnic union. It was not a category on any of the government censuses, as respondents to those censuses were required to place themselves within the preexisting, officially recognized categories. The category of Belizeanon the 1994 census derives from this same source. It was claimed by individuals who did not want to be placed into any of the official ethnic categories nor into the "mixed" group.

This shift in percentages of ethnic groups over time is a result of the movement of members of ethnic groups other than Garifuna into the community from surrounding villages. The reasons for ths movement are economic and educational. The shift to a more cash-focused economy has encouraged Maya, Mestizo, and East Indian farmers, who traditionally

Table 1. 
Percentage of ethnic groups in Punta Gorda, 1980-1994 

Ethnic Group 1980-% 1991-% 1994-70
Creole 24 13 7
Mestizo 9 16.5 13
Garifuna 48 44 37
East Indian 4 9 7
Mopan Maya 3 6 7
Kekchi Maya 1 8 8
White 1 1 1
Belizean - - 2
Mixed - - 16
Other 9.5 2 2
Total Population 2,396 3,391 3,511

Sources: Central Statistical Office (1993) and 1994 Census for Punta Gorda.

Table 2. Most common combinations of "mixed" ethnicity in Punta Gorda

Mixed Ethnicities Number

Creole/Mestizo 97 Creole/Garifuna 62 Garifuna/Mestizo 46 East Indian/Mestizo 14 East Indian/Garifuna 37 Mestizo/Mopan 35 Creole/East Indian 31 Mestizo/Kekchi 24 Kekchi/Mopan 21 Creole/East Indian/Mestizo 20 Garifuna/White 17 Creole/Mopan 14 East Indian/ White 12 Garifuna/Creole/East Indian 11

Source: Data from 1994 Census for Punta Gorda.

lived in villages outside of Punta Gorda, to supplement their income with wage labor found in Punta Gorda. In addition, in 1961 the first high school in the Toledo District opened in Punta Gorda. At ths time, families from the villages began moving into Punta Gorda so that their chldren could attend the hgh school. The schools, churches, and com- munity at large became more ethrucally diverse as a result, and the schools today reflect that ethnic diversity.

In the classrooms where I worked during the 1993-94 school year, (according to the teachers) there were nine Creole children, 11 East Indians, 30 Garifuna, 12 Kekchi Maya, eight Mestizos, 10 Mopan Maya, and three "Other" (recent immigrants from either Central America or India). An additional 39 chldren were ethnically mixed. In the five classes where I worked during the 1994-95 school year, there were 12 Creole chldren, seven East Indians, 32 Garifuna, 13 Kekch Maya, 10 Mestizos, 12 Mopan Maya, and two "Other." During this second year, there were 46 children of mixed ethnicity. There were 28 chldren who were part of the study in both school years, and there was a total of 230 different children over the course of the project. Of the seven teachers with whom I worked, there were four people of mixed ethcity, two Mestizos-one of whom had married outside her ethnic group-and one Garifuna.

As Punta Gorda has grown in population, ethnic groups have found different economic niches within the community. East Indians own a disproportionate percentage of the major shop businesses (22 percent, while constituting only 7 percent of the population). Mestizos, Creoles,

Table 3. 
Socioeconomic stratification of ethnic groups 

Rank Ethnic Group

1 Belizean, Other, White 
2 East Indian, Creole 
3 Garifuna, Mestizo, Mixed 
4 Kekchi Maya, Mopan Maya 

Source: Data from 1994 Census for Punta Gorda.

and Garifuna make up the civil service but also work in a wide range of fields, and Garifuna also predominate in education, the fishing industry, and much of the manual labor. The Maya make up the poorest echelon of the community, working as farmers and laborers and in small per- sonal enterprises such as tortilla-making. Table 3, based on data from the 1994 census, shows the socioeconomic ranking from highest to lowest of each ethnic group. Each level represents a statistically significant stratum."

In an attempt to clarify how Punta Gordans perceived power and status, I interviewed five people (one Creole, one East Indian, one Mestizo, and two Garifuna) to request that they rank ethnic groups in Punta Gorda by socioeconomic status. The second Garifuna gave me two lists, first the ethnic groups with more and less money, and then those ethnic groups with more and less power in the community. Their rank- ings are rendered in Table 4.

All four non-Mestizo informants believed that there were very few Mestizos in Punta Gorda and that this was the reason they fell so low on each list. The variable status of the Maya groups on each list is a reflection of the differing perceptions about them. The Garifuna who placed Maya at the top of the "money" list justified ths by saying, "Anytime you need $100, you go ask a Maya. They just have bills in their pockets." She felt that the reason why the Maya have so much money was because they

Table 4. 
Ranking of ethnic groups by residents of Punta Gorda 

Rank Creole East Indian Mestizo Garifuna Garifuna Garifuna resident resident resident resident (1) resident (2) resident (2) (money) (power)

1 Creole Creole Mestizo Garifuna Maya Garifuna 2 Maya Garifuna Creole Creole East Indian Mestizo 3 East Indian East Indian Garifuna East Indian Garifuna Creole 4Garifuna Mestizo Maya Mestizo Creole East Indian 5 Mestizo Mava East Indian Mava Mestizo Mava

live so simply and do not want all the amenities that other ethnic groups de~ire.~

At the same time, power and status in Punta Gorda as a whole is diffuse and in many cases further diversified by the presence of inter- ethnic unions among members of the elite class. The principal of the high school until 1995 was Maya. The Town Board, the governing body of Punta Gorda, had every ethnic group but Maya represented on it. The mayor until 1994 was a Garifuna man, married to a Creole woman. The next mayor was Creole. Of the two government ministers representing Toledo, one was a Garifuna man and one was a Creole man, married to a Kekchi Maya woman. Other members of this lugher-status group included the postmaster (Creole) and lus wife (East Indian), a local field worker of an international nongovernmental organization (NGO). They were close friends with the owner (wlute Belizean) of the only two gasoline stations in the Toledo district and his wife (Creole). The district education officer, a Creole woman, was married to a Garifuna man. The education officer's sister (also Creole), a school teacher, was married to a Garifuna man who became the principal of the local high school in 1995. The head of the Social Security Office (Garifuna) lived with an East Indian woman who was a teller at the bank (one of the more prestigious jobs in Punta Gorda). Another teller was a Mestizo woman, married to the East Indian manager of a dolomite mine north of town. The bank manager was a Creole man, married to a Mestizo woman.

Interethnic Unions in Punta Gorda

In recent years, more and more Punta Gordans have chosen to form interethc unions and produce children of mixed ethcity. Although it had been reported before the 1960s that "ethnic diversity is a striking characteristic of the coastal town of Punta Gorda in southern Belize. . . little interethnic friction exists and [that] intermarriage among the vari- ous peoples is common" (Cosminsky 1977:226), Cosminsky found that these statements were not accurate. From her research among the Gari- funa in the 1960s, she states that endogamy was the ideal and common practice for all ethnic groups. Frequently her informants reasoned that one should not "mix blood," and that the way of life of the Garifuna was too difficult for members of other ethnic groups to follow (Cosminsky 1977:237).

Cosminsky reports knowledge of the existence of only nine interethnic marriages in 1965, all of wluch involved a partner who was not native to Punta Gorda. There were an additional six unmarried interethnic unions, all members of which were long-term residents of the commu- nity. Cosminsky concludes with the assertion that "Endogamy is . . . the general practice and is supported by strong family pressures" (1977:237). In contrast, Staiano found there were a great number of interethnic unions in Punta Gorda in her research, 14 years after Cosminsky's, although the discourse about it had changed little from Cosminsky's

Children whose parents gave them the "mixed" label on the 1994 census rarely gave themselves this label. One of the reasons for this discrepancy may be the changing perspective toward ethnic mixing and ethrucally mixed individuals in different segments of the population of Punta Gorda. There is a significant difference in attitude toward ethnic mixing among Punta Gordans older than 40, those between 30 and 40, and those younger than 30.

Individuals over 40, regardless of ethnic group, generally felt very strongly that the forming of interethnic unions was wrong. I encountered no individuals who did not express in very forceful terms their dislike of the practice. In some cases, they put this distaste into action by refusing, for example, to come to their own child's wedding ifthe person their child was marrying was from another ethruc group. One informant complained that young people "only care about 'love,' and don't listen to their parents anymore." There were instances where grandparents were raising grandchildren who were products of an interethnic union the grandparent had originally opposed. Ifgrandparents, who often have a role in raising grandchldren, pass on these feelings to their grandchildren, this may be a source of a child's reluctance to say that they are ethnically mixed.

Individuals between 30 and 40, although they often expressed a strong ethnic sentiment, tended to be less judgmental of ethruc mixing and were more likely to have friends who had formed an interethnic union, if they themselves were not part of one. They were not as openly accepting of it, however, as Punta Gordans younger than 30. I never heard anybody under 30 make a disparaging remark about ethnic mixing, and in some cases, they took it to be so natural as to be unquestioned. The ease of acceptance of ethnic mixing increased the younger the individual was, such that among teenagers, it was more common to see interethnic dating than intraethnic dating. Ethnically mixed individuals, repre- senting 16 percent of the population between 16 and 20, constituted the second largest grouping in that age category.

Ethnic Identity in Children in Schools

Gaskins et alia argue that the information adults attempt to instill in children can be accompanied by values that make the messages some- thing children may not be willing to accept (1992:ll). In response, chldren choose to accept, reject, resist, or transform what is presented to them (1992:14). Chldren of mixed ethnicity are placed in the position Gaskins and her colleagues describe because there is no "mixed" cate- gory within the existing curriculum. This is not to say that all children of mixed ethrucity would want to claim that identity if they were given the opportunity; some clearly would not. Other children of mixed eth- nicity do not find it difficult to say they are "mixed" in schools, even without teacher support. What is clear is that the school curriculum does not give children the space to construct their own identity and to claim it freely.

One reason for this is the way ethnic groups are discussed in classes. Until the last term of my stay in Punta Gorda, when Anne, a 33-year-old Garifuna with 13 years of teaching experience, decided to talk about ethnic mixing to her students, no teacher in this study ever admitted in the classroom the many similarities among the ethc groups as they existed in Punta G~rda.~

To a great extent, Punta Gordans eat the same foods, choosing foods from all ethnic groups; wear the same clothing; listen to the same music; and speak the same language. In the curriculum guides, however, completely separate cultural characteristics are attrib- uted to each ethnic group. The teachers discussed these characteristics as if they were exclusive to one ethnic group only. The children in their classrooms often attempted to assert a different opinion, but they were never acknowledged.

When I addressed this with teachers, they discussed the ethnic mixing in their own background, or in that of their own children, in a positive way, but this acceptance did not translate to the school lessons. Teachers often feel inadequately educated about many topics they teach, ethnic groups being just one, and prefer not to deviate from the set curriculum. Also, only one (Anne) of the seven teachers with whom I worked expressed significant ethnic sentiment herself, although a mixed Creole- Garifuna teacher stated that much of the time he thought of himself as "black." Neither Mestizo teacher felt much connection to being Mestizo (one claimed she cooked Garifuna food most of the time in her home, and that spicy Mestizo food made her ill; the second was married to an East Indian man and told me she was content that her daughter would be "more East Indian than Mestizo"). Thus, the lessons seemed at times as abstract to the teachers as to the students they taught.

For example, when a teacher began a discussion about Mestizos in Belize, she listed clothing, foods, dance, music, language, and ritual activities as being relevant to the ethruc group. A Mestizo girl, then, would wear a wlte blouse and long skirt, eat tamales and tortillas, dance El Zapatero (a Mestizo dance), speak Spanish, and practice Roman Catholicism with certain Catholic rituals that are specific to being Mes- tizo. A Punta Gorda Mestizo girl, however, wears T-shirts and shorts or cotton dresses, eats rice and beans (a Creole dish), or buys dahlrotis (an East Indian dish) in the market. She speaks Creole (the lingua franca of Belize, a African-English creole) as a first language and rarely speaks Spanish fluently, and she is Roman Catholic. The Catholic rituals the Punta Gorda church practices, however, are exclusively Garifuna, be- cause the community has been historically Garifuna. A Mestizo child, then, in listening to the lessons on Mestizos the teacher presents, feels very little connection to the culture that is being taught and has trouble making the connection between a particular ethnic group and a particu- lar cultural marker.

Support for my description of a real Mestizo girl comes from observa- tions and interviews with children and from the tests and assignments collected from them. On the final exam of a sixth-grade class in 1994, the teacher asked children to match the ethnic groups with their ethruc food. Twelve of the 25 children who took the test got the answers "wrong," writing, for example, that Mestizos eat dahlroti, or that East Indians eat caldo, a Maya dish, and that the Maya eat rice and beans, a Creole dish. These "errors" also occurred during the lengthy class discussions, when the children did not appear to have the "official" distinctions between ethnic groups clearly fixed in their minds.

This question was also on the final exam in a second-grade class the same year. The answers for these children were "wrong" in the same way they were wrong in the sixth-grade class, and more than half the class missed the question. Because the social studies curriculum is uni- form throughout the grades, children are exposed to the same material year after year, but they consistently have difficulty gving the "right" answers on the tests (and to me in interviews). The "right" answers do not relate to their experience, and this makes it difficult for children to puzzle them out if they do not have them memorized.

In a lesson about ethnic groups in a fourth-grade class, the teacher, Sandra, instructed the children in her class to stand in lines grouped by ethruc identification. The first child in each line held a sign with the name of the ethnic group written on it. As lined up, there were seven Creole chldren, six East Indians, five Garifuna, two Mopan Maya, six Kekchi Maya, two Mestizos, and one "Other," a boy whose family had recently immigrated to Belize from India. As she was lining them up, children called to her (in Creole), "I de mix!" but Sandra ignored them. At one point, a girl whom Sandra had referred to as mixed Creole/Garifuna earlier was placed in the Garifuna line. There were four other classrooms in which children called out in similar exercises that either they or their peers were ethrucally mixed, and in all cases, the teachers did not accept "mixed" as an identity.

In 1993, Anne talked about the ethnically mixed background of the children in her fourth-grade class. She mentioned a girl who had a Mestizo mother and Garifuna father and chose to call herself Mestizo. Anne, as a Garifuna, expressed her displeasure with this and had tried to convince the girl to identify as Garifuna. The following year, the girl's teacher placed her in the Creole ethnic category, without ever discover- ing to whch ethnic group she believed she belonged. This girl was the "Mixed Mestizo/Garifuna girl" quoted in the excerpt at the beginning of this article.

A second-grade teacher stated when asked about the ethnic identities of her students that there were no children of mixed ethcity in her class. When I probed her assertion, she said that there was perhaps one mixed East Indian/Garifuna child, but she had put the other ethrucally mixed chldren in her class into one or another category based upon whether "they were more to one side or another." As she was East Indian and married to a Creole man, I asked her what the ethnic group of her daughter was. She paused, said she did not know, and concluded that her daughter would have to be "mixed."

During the first term of 1994-95, Anne taught her sixth-grade class about ethnic groups as she and every teacher in the school did every year. In part because of discussions about my fieldwork, this time she decided that each chld would report the ethnic group of both their mother and father. After each child had done this, Anne concluded: "One thing I want to tell you . . . not to be afraid of who you are . . . you need to be proud of who you are. . . We all belong to a country called Belize."

The lessons that followed covered the major ethnic groups in Belize. They had been discussed in the children's classes since they entered school but were approached differently by Anne, because she included ethc mixing. Anne prefaced the discussion of the Mestizos with com- ments that no teacher had ever made in my presence before:

We all know what ethnic group you belong to? . . . If you are mixed, it is okay. . . you don't have to be ashamed. . .. Sometimes a Garifuna falls in love with a Creole. . . .Sometimes you fall in love with an Indian boy or an Indian girl. It is all okay to do that.

Throughout the term, Anne repeatedly emphasized the existence of ethc mixing, and children revealed their knowledge that ethnic boundaries in Punta Gorda are blurred. A longer-term study would be needed, however, to determine if the lessons had made children more likely to claim an ethnically mixed identity. In a quiz, two of five children of mixed ethcity in Anne's class labeled themselves "mixed," while the other three chose one ethnic group. One of these three stated that he preferred to be Garifuna (he said that one of his parents was Creole, the other Garifuna). It is possible (as occurred in another class) that no children would have identified themselves as being of mixed ethnicity if Anne had not given everyone the option to do so.

Children often take on the ethnic labels that their teachers ascribe to them, while behaving in a manner that belies the traditional separatist nature of that identity. The lessonsI observed indicate that children are aware of the blurring of ethc categories. They know that East Indians eat rice and beans, a traditional Creole dish, and that everyone loves panades, a Mestizo food. Everyone knows how to dance punta, a tradi- tional Garifuna dance. In a lesson on the Garifuna at the Adventist school, members of the class agreed that Jose, who was Mestizo, was the person to ask about Garifuna traditions because he had been to Barranco, a Garifuna village south of Punta Gorda. At the children's Garifuna Settlement Day celebration, the best "Garifuna" dancer was a Mestizo girl.

Except in some instances where prejudice is displayed in school, primarily against Mayas, clldren do not take ethnic categories into account when choosing friends. For example, it is very common to see a Maya girl, an East Indian girl, and a Garifuna girl walking down the street holding hands. Peer groups are not divided along ethnic lines, particularly at school. Outside of school, it is possible to see groups of boys who are predominantly Garifuna or perhaps East Indian, but they are rarely exclusive and frequently include chldren of mixed ethnicity.

Working with children in Punta Gorda reveals the dilemma within the schools. Teachers, in following the guidelines of the government's cur- riculum, are unaware of their own subjectivity and override the subjec- tivities of the children they teach. It is a paradox that whereas the overt intent is to recognize and celebrate difference, encourage children to feel proud of their ethnic heritage, and build from children's lived experi- ence, the result is to silence children's voices.

Children's Voices

There are many occasions when children refuse to be summarized, correlated, and placed into categories of adults' choosing. This is true in the case of an anthropologist's attempts to find correlations and order in her data, as well as in teachers' attempts to place children within a certain ethnic group. Each child is different, and the circumstances that motivate a chld to claim a certain identity are as varied as the children themselves. In this section, I provide a number of examples of the unpredictable and individual nature of self-identification of children in Punta Gorda.

When I asked teachers to describe the ethnic background of the children in their classrooms, they reported that 68 out of the 230 children with whom I worked were of mixed ethnicity (30 percent). However, as I state previously, in the day-to-day circumstances of school, teachers did not label children by more than one ethnic group, and this was also true of the majority of children of mixed ethnicity. I interviewed 58 of the 68 ethnically mixed children and of these, only 10 identified them- selves with two ethc groups (e.g., "I am a mixed Garifuna and Creole boy"). Another five said they were "mixed" without specifying with which ethc groups. Thirty-nine children of mixed ethnicity chose a single ethnic label themselves with one ethnic group, although four gave a different answer the following school year. The remaining four chil- dren responded with "I don't know."

Macklin, who did her research among the Garifuna of Belize, makes the point that

identity is fundamentally processual. .. . Identity is not something fixed and "out there" in the world. Instead, it is continually constructed as people interact with each other and categorize one another. Through this negotiating process, real people in real situations actually generate the constitutive con- tent, form, behavior, emblems and markers of their social identities.


The difficulty with understanding ethnic identity in Punta Gorda is that different individuals emphasize different aspects of identity, and it is not possible from observation to know which aspect a given individual will favor. For example, although ethnic groups in Punta Gorda are sometimes referred to as "races," biological heritage may have little or nothing to do with the ethnic group to which a child feels he or she belongs. In one instance, a mixed Mestizo/East Indian girl felt she had the most in common with what she perceived to be the Creole culture, but believed that, because of her appearance, she would not be allowed to claim a "Creole" ethnic identity on her passport. Throughout her schooling, teachers had labeled her as East Indian. Sandra also chose a "Creole" identity for herself for this reason, although none of the other teachers in her school accepted it. The disjunction between genotype, phenotype, and self-identification is most extreme in cases like these, or when children are raised by members of an ethruc group other than their biological one.

I believe the best way to present the data of how children talk about their ethruc identity is to discuss the children individually. Despite the great number of interviews conducted, no clear pattern emerges that will predict what ethruc identity a child of mixed ethnicity will choose. Historically, the tradition of labeling individuals in Punta Gorda with just one ethnic group purportedly has not been a problem. Cosminsky reports that in the Punta Gorda of the 1960s, there were very few children of mixed ethnicity. Of those that did live in the town, many seemed to identify with their mother's ethnic group (1977:237). A decade later, Staiano reports that individuals did not have a problem identifying with a single ethruc group even though they were of mixed parentage: "That is, ethnic self-reference and referral to an ethnic category by others generally coincide" (1986:49-50).

By contrast, there was no discernible trend among the ethnically mixed chldren in Punta Gorda with whom I worked to follow the ethnic identity of their mother or to have a self-chosen identity that was consistent with "referral to an ethnic category by others." Whether a chld in Punta Gorda chose the ethruc group of their father or mother depended upon a variety of factors, including whether or not both parents lived at home and the relative status of the ethnic groups with which they were mixed, as perceived by the child. In addition, a signifi- cant number of children are fostered with grandparents, aunts, or neigh- bors for indefinite periods of time while their parents search for work in other towns in Belize or the United States. This further complicates ethruc identity for children because the foster family may or may not belong to the ethmc group or groups of their birth parents. Table 5 depicts the gender of the child, biological identity of parents (as reported by the chld), ethnic group of the child (chosen by the child), and the parent whom the child reported that ethnic identity was associated with, for nine ethmcally mixed children from a sixth-grade class. Not only is there

Table 5. 
Self-identification of ethnically mixed children-sixth-grade class 

Gender Mother's Father's   Parent-Self
  identity identity Self-identity identity matches
BOY Garifuna Creole Creole Father
Boy Creole Garifuna Garifuna Father
BOY Creole English Creole Mother
Boy Kekchi Creole Creole/Kekchi Both
BOY Garifuna East Indian Garifuna Mother
Girl Garifuna East Indian East Indian Father
Girl Creole East Indian Mestizo Neither
Girl East Indian Creole Creole Father
Girl Garifuna Creole Garifuna Mother

no pattern of choosing one parent's identity over the other, but the children reported in Table 5 also do not seem to be influenced by the relative status of their parents' identities.

There were instances in which ethrucally mixed children were clear in asserting their ethnic identity. One mixed Creole/Garifuna boy from ths class stated that he wanted to "follow" his father and be Creole. During the 1994census, a house was surveyed where a grl lived with her Creole grandfather. When asked the chld's ethnic group, the grandfather re- plied, "Well, she is part East Indian," but the girl rejoined, "I'm Creole!" When asked if she liked being East Indian, she said, "No! I'm Creole." Conversely, when asked what ethnic group she was, and given some examples, an eight-year-old girl in Sandra's class stated firmly that she was "mixed" and explained, "I'm mixed with Spanish, Creole, and Indian."

In most interviews with ethnically mixed children, however, they were hesitant in asserting their ethnic group, even when given a list of choices. A girl at the Adventist school, where many children are of mixed ethnicity, was unable to answer at all. She could not say what her parents were, and eventually settled upon "Garifuna" as her ethnic group, when I gave her a list of ethnic groups from which to choose. The teacher said later that the chld's father was mixed Mestizo and East Indian and her mother was Creole. In another case, when Anne asked what "mixed" meant on an exam, most children answered with the statement, "Parents are from different ethruc groups." One child, however, wrote, "Being mixed is not being shame [sic]." Ths may be a consequence of an earlier event, when a mixed Creole/white boy had burst into tears in Anne's class because he did not want to tell his peers that he was "mixed."

In a different classroom, six fifth-grade children of both mixed and non-mixed ethnicity who had been forthcoming about their ethnic iden- tities in the past, when asked what their ethnic group was by their teacher, all looked at each other, shgged, and said, "I don't know." A mixed Mestizo/East Indian/Creole girl in Sandra's class whom Sandra had placed into the Creole category stated that only her father was Creole. Her mother was East Indian. When asked in what ethruc group she placed herself, she replied, "Creole." When I asked her what that meant, she shrugged and grinned.

At one point, another girl in Sandra's class informed her mother (another teacher) that she was Garifuna. Her mother reacted angrily and created a poster that the girl brought to school. It had a picture of her daughter, under which the mother wrote, "I am a Creole girl" and "Afro-Belizean" and drew a picture of Creole clothing for women. A few days later, the child told me that she was mixed Creole and East Indian, which reflected her mother's and father's identities respectively. She also had no clear idea what the difference was between the groups, or why her mother had reacted so negatively to the notion that she was Garifuna, which was the ethnic group of some of her close friends.

As a final example, a mixed East Indian/Creole girl and a mixed Garifuna/East Indian girl labeled themselves by only one of their ethnic groups on a quiz. Both stated, independently, that they had only wanted to put down the one ethnic group that made them want to be a part of it. Earlier, they had asserted that they were ethnically mixed. Although they did not want to explain their reasons for changng their ethruc affiliation, their choice may have rested on a wish to conform to the teacher's expectations, or because there is usually only one right answer on any test children take.

Belizean and U.S. Issues of Multiethnicity

Over the past several years, more attention is being paid to the growing number of ethnically mixed (or "multiracial") individuals in the United States. Anumber of issues are appearing that indicate some similarities between the United States and Belize in the area of multieth- nicity. These include the psychological functioning of children, ethnic and racial categories on censuses and forms, and multicultural education in the classroom.

Motoyoshi notes that many children of mixed ethnicity in the United States exhibit "identity conflict" or "confusion" and demonstrate "very little complexity in their racial knowledge and attitudes" (1993:79). She reports that the reluctance of most people to accept ethnically mixed people as a member of both groups is very frustrating to such individu- als. They often resent pressure to align themselves with one or the other ethnic group, feeling they should not have to choose one classification because they are "dual by nature and nurture" (199392). In keeping with Motoyoshi's finding, one study conducted by the Office of Public Health, the Race and Ethnicity Project, reported that for "multiracial persons," questions about their "race" are very confusing, and they are likely to respond differently in different situations and on different forms, depending on the context. They report that "most multiracial women [the only group questioned]...prefer a provision for putting the specific racial combinations they identify with (Office of Research and Method- ology 1996:14).

Motoyoshi found that at certain periods, because they were ethnically mixed, many adult respondents in her research "had experienced low self-esteem, were acutely self-conscious or felt confused. Almost all experienced a sense of not belonging anywhere . .." (1993:84). Inform- ants pointed to the fact that they were of mixed ethnicity as the source of these feelings. She concludes, "For all, however, these states did not prevent normal and relatively satisfying social intercourse or psycho- logical functioning. Neither were they permanent traits but rather states experienced as a by-product of a stage through which the person was passing" (Motoyoshi 1993234).

Motoyoshi's comment is similar to ones heard in Punta Gorda from adults no longer troubled by their mixed ethnic heritage ("Oh . . . it doesn't bother me anymore"). At the same time, to accept this comment at face value is to make the error of dismissing children's concerns and their lives as only a stage to be successfully maneuvered through on the way to adulthood and fully functioning social abilities. In Punta Gorda, because there are now so many more children of mixed ethnicity than there were in the past, it may be possible for the government to allow an ethnic identity for them that does not force them to choose their mother's or their father's ethnic identification, and supports their ethnic status as "mi~ed."~

The same is true in the United States, and the U.S. Bureau of the Census is already conducting preliminary surveys to see what effect the "multiracial" ethc category would have on the reporting of popu- lations in the United States.Io

Results from research in places like Punta Gorda can also provide a mirror for educators in other countries to reflect on their own practices. This is particularly important because of the emphasis in recent years on multicultural education in U.S. classrooms, and because of widespread endeavors to teach chldren from a very young age about customs and cultures that are different from their own. What research in Punta Gorda reveals is that there is more to teaching about multiculturalism than devising a curriculum and implementing it, and that the consequences of any given curriculum can have effects that are dramatically different from what its originators intended (see Ulichny 1996; Wills 1996). The individual understandings of the children in the classroom and the circumstances of their daily lives need to be taken into account on every level. Children need to be given the opportunity to construct their own ideas about their own identity and the freedom to voice them.


Christopher Jenks writes,

Any review of the multiplicity of perspectives that are emerging in relation to childhood . . . reveal . . . a continuous paradox. . . .The child is familiar to us and yet strange, he or she inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another, he or she is essentially of ourselves and yet appears to display a systematically different order of being. [1996:3]

The government of Belize's program of nationalism has produced a paradox. The emphasis on teaching about ethnic groups has resulted in a lack of identification with ethnic groups on the part of many children. Furthermore, the government does not acknowledge that ethnic mixing occurs, and it is not an acceptable category within the school curriculum in which to place oneself. For these reasons, children of both mixed and non-mixed ethrucity have found that what is taught in schools has little application to their lives. They know that the cultural markers that are reported to belong to only one ethnic group belong to many. They know they are supposed to have a firm ethnic identity, but it is not clear to many of them what that means. From observation in the classroom, what is clear is that in many cases they have little say over the ethnic group into which they are placed.

Ethnicity is inherently subjective. In Punta Gorda, ethrucity is sub- sumed into race and the self-identification of children is ignored by adults, who do not see their own subjectivities and are not looking to children's lives and children's voices for the source of their identity. When questioned about their ethnic identity, many children appear unsure or troubled by what it means to be ethnic or to be the product of an interethnic union. What is taught in schools addresses neither the blending of ethnic cultural practices in Punta Gorda nor ethnic mixing; it promotes differences that do not exist for children and have little relevance to children's lives. The recourse chosen by children is often to ignore ethnicity altogether in the practice of their daily lives. Whether or not this practice continues in the future will depend upon the continu- ance of the government's program of nationalism, whether or not the number of interethnic unions and ethnically mixed individuals contin- ues to grow, and if the government, teachers, and parents realize that the reality of children's lives is far more complicated than they have been willing to admit.

Sarah Woodbury Haug is an affiliated faculty member in the Anthropology Department at Pennsylvania State University.


Acknowledgments. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for AEQ and Kathryn Anderson-Levitt for their advice and comments. I wish also to thank the residents of Punta Gorda, Belize, particularly the students and teachers of St. Peter Claver, Punta Gorda Methodist, and Punta Gorda Adventist Schools. I am most grateful for their tolerance, patience, and trust.

1. Two teachers were 19 years old in 1993 and had no teaching experience or training. Four others were between 25 and 30, and had several years of teaching experience. Only one teacher had training beyond the high school level. She was 33 years old and had 13 years of teaching experience. The hiring of teachers in all schools tends to be based upon the personal knowledge of the individual by the principal, and the potential teacher's religious affiliation.

2.- ~th4c groups, as designated by the ~eiizean government, are referred to as races by many Punta Gordans, particularly of older generations. Race connotes biological descent and is viewed as permanent and fixed. As a category, it also ignores the "ethnic mixing" that occurred in the histories of the Creole, Mestizo, and Garifuna ethnic groups. That ethnic mixing is viewed as different from the ethnic mixing that is occurring in Punta Gorda today.

  1. It is not clear what the process was that made certaingroups "official." The five groups that are officially recognized at present have been part of the school curriculum for many years, at least since independence from Great Britain.


  2. The 1994 census was conducted by Daniel Haug during the months of April-June, 1994. It had a 95 percent response rate. The ethnic groups for the 1980 and 1991 censuses were predetermined by the Belizean government before the census began. The ethnic groups for the 1994 census were reported by individuals in Punta Gorda, who were allowed to respond in any way they wished (e.g., "black," "mixed," "Belizean").


  3. This is a chi-square test to 0.5 level of significance. The "socioeconomic ranking" was developed by a relative weighting of different attributes of each household (e.g., whether the household contained a television, radio, personal vehicle, toilet, etcetera) and was derived from a very similar set of criteria found on the 1991 census, in order to be comparable to the Belizean government's data.


  4. These rankings are clearly dependent upon the ethnic identification and personal opinions of the respondent, and are not reflected in the official school curriculum or in children's responses. Every ethnic group's cultural markers are taught in each class, but the ethnic identity of a given teacher influences the length of time devoted to each ethnic group and the complexity of the lessons about them. For example, in many classrooms, the Garifuna are celebrated because many teachers are Garifuna, and the principals of both the Methodist and Catholic Schools are Garifuna. See Ulichny 1996 for similarities with a U.S. school.


  5. What is not shown is the 0-2 age category that appears to be continuing the trend. For this age group, the population is 35 percent ethnically mixed.


8. Informants' names throughout this article are pseudonyms.

  1. As a result of the 1994 census and this research, the Central Statistical Office for the Government of Belize is considering putting "mixed" on the Year 2000 Census for Belize.


  2. One study found that in a survey of 60,000, only 1.6 percent of the population identified as "multiracial," and this "had little or no effect on blacks or Asian/Pacific Islanders, but resulted in a drop of about 20 percent in the American Indian population" (Office of Research and Methodology 1996:13). Recognition of a "mixed" ethnic category by the Belizean government should not have a similar effect on the percentage of Maya in Belize, or have much impact on their status relative to other Belizeans. Of the ethnic groups in Punta Gorda, there are fewer ethnically mixed individuals with a Maya parent than those with some part Creole, East Indian, Garifuna, or Mestizo heritage (data from the 1994 census--see Table 2).


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