Earlier this week, a reader suggested that I devote a No Enclave to Belizean Los Angeles. I had come across some Belizean businesses here and there when traversing the Westside of South Los Angeles but had no idea just how big the Belizean community of Los Angeles is. In fact, not only is Metro Los Angeles home to the largest community of Belizeans outside of their home country (something I often point out is also the case with Armenians, Cambodians, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Iranians, Koreans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese), Los Angeles is also home more Belizeans than any town inside Belize, too.
As Central American countries go, Belize is both exceptional and yet frequently overlooked. For example, although Spanish is widely spoken, English, not Spanish, is the official language, making it the only Anglo-American country in Central America. Home to a population of just 383,071 people (in 2018), it is by far the least-populated and least-densely populated nation in Central America, a region in which every other country is home to no fewer than four million. Its capital, Belmopan, is home to just 16,451 people, making it the least populated capital in the continental Americas. At 22,966 km2, Belize’s land area is a bit smaller than the combined area of Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire. Its population is also the blackest in Central America, with 32% of the population identifying thus in 2010. Although there are mountains, Belize is the least mountainous country in Central America, with its highest point, Doyle’s Delight, reaching a height of just 1124 meters. Finally, Belize finally independence from the UK on 21 September 1981 — 78 years after Panama, the last of its Central American neighbors to do so. Belize remains, however, a Commonwealth realm, with Queen Elizabeth II serving as its official head of state.
BELIZEAN LOS ANGELES
Today, roughly one in three Belizeans lives outside of Belize. Estimates of how many Americans of Belizean ancestry live in the US vary widely, with most falling between 70,000 and 300,000. Estimates of Los Angeles’s Belizean population vary widely too, although less significantly, with most estimates citing a number between 30,000 and 60,000. Although Belize is a highly diverse society, most Belizean Angelenos are either Kriol or Garifuna.
HISTORY OF BELIZE
The first humans to arrive in what’s now Belize were likely the Maya, whose civilization spread into the countryside there as early as 1500 BCE. The Classic Maya Era lasted roughly from 250 CE – 900 CE. The Maya civilization continued to flourish, however, until roughly 1200 CE, when the population declined and the Maya largely abandoned their cities. In Belize today, indigenous peoples comprise about 11.3% of the population and the languages of Q’eqchi’, Mopan, and Yucatec are still widely spoken.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus led an expedition along the Gulf of Honduras, claiming everything he saw for Spain. There were few obvious resources of interest to the empire, though, and significant indigenous resistance to attempted incursions and so Spain established no presence there. In 1638 it was the English who began efforts to colonize the countryside although it wasn’t until 1716 that they established a permanent foothold. The British relied on a workforce of African slaves who were forced to harvest logwood, a plant used do manufacture a dye used by the wool industry, as well as mahogany. The British Empire named their colony the British Honduras, but their claim was contested by Spain until their defeat, in 1798, in the Battle of St. George’s Caye. Britain made the British Honduras a Crown colony in 1862, subordinate to Jamaica.
CULTURE OF BELIZE
Belize is often characterized, despite its geography, as part of the West Indies, due to its historic and cultural ties to those islands of the Caribbean that were also colonized by the British Empire. Caribbean Belize is the only Central American country that does not have a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The slaves who were brought to Belize, although primarily abducted from the Bight of Biafra, Congo and Angola, were mostly purchased in the slave markets of Bermuda and Jamaica.
The mixed race descendants of African slaves and their European slave owners, the Baymen, are known as Belizean creoles or Kriols and comprise 45.1% of Belize’s population. Kriol, the Brazilian creole dialect, although primarily derived from English, includes influences from Bantu languages of West Africa and the Miskito language of indigenous Hondorans and Nicaraguans.
Most of Belize’s Mestizos, who comprise 48.9% of Belize’s population, are descended from refugees of the long Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901), in which indigenous Maya rose up in a long rebellion against the white Mexican ruling class. Their arrival in Belize corresponded with the beginning of sugar cultivation in the latter.
The Garifuna are descended from Africans and the Arawak, an indigenous people of the islands of the Caribbean and South America. They comprise about 4.5% of Belize’s population and are believed to have escaped from a shipwreck. The British regarded them, essentially, as squatters but denied both them and the Maya from owning land and instead established reservations for both with the passage of the 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance.
Small but significant populations in Belize are descended from Indians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Chinese, and German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico.
RECENT HISTORY IF IMMIGRATION
Small numbers of Belizeans arrived in Los Angeles as early as the 1950s but the first wave of Belizean immigration followed the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hattie, which nearly leveled Belize’s towns when it made landfall in 1961. Most settled in South Los Angeles’s Westside, a region of the city then still opening up to black Angelenos after the widespread enforcement of Racially Restrictive Covenants was deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.
Britain granted British Honduras self government in 1964. The US passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, abolishing an earlier quota system based on national origin that favored European immigrants over all others. It was enacted in 1968 and opened to doors, for the first time in decades, to significant immigration from Asia, South America, and Central America.
In 1979, the Salvadoran Civil War erupted on the other side of the American Cordillera after a coup. The US responded to the ensuing chaos by arming, training, and funneling millions of dollars to right-wing death squads who terrorized El Salvador in their effort to establish a ruthless dictatorship. Whilst hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran refugees fled to the US, an estimated 25,000 fled to nearby Belize. The enterprising capitalist owners of Belize’s sprawling citrus plantations welcomed them with open arms, firing their unionized black workforce en masse and hiring the Salvadoran refugees at slave wages.
Black Belizeans from the countryside migrated in large numbers to Belize’s small cities in search of economic opportunity. Many more emigrated to Los Angeles in a second great wave of migration, with many settling, like those before them, in South Los Angeles’s Westside and by the mid-1980s, a stretch of South Western Avenue was known, colloquially, as Little Belize.
Finding little opportunity in the South Los Angeles of the 1980s, many young Belizeans turned, predictably, to local gangs, including, especially, the Black P Stones, 52 Hoover Gangsters, Fruit Town Brims, Rollin 20s Bloods, Rollin 30s Crips, Rollin 40s Crips, Trouble Gangster Crips, and Van Ness Gangsters. Predictably, when Belizean gang members were, in some cases, deported, they brought back to Belize Los Angeles’s homegrown gang culture and that, coupled with Americans’ insatiable taste for cocaine, helped transform Belize into a major player in global drug trafficking.
Although hardly high profile, the most celebrated Belizean contribution local culture is the fairly robust Belizean restaurant scene. Belizean cuisine is primarily derived from indigenous ingredients and cooking traditions combined with the influences of its multicultural population and resembles both the cuisines of Central American and the Anglo-Caribbean. There are also pronounced influences from Belize’s significant urban immigrant populations, including especially Indian and Chinese.
A typical Belizean breakfast might include bread, flour tortillas, or fry jacks eaten with a combination of beans, cheese, and eggs. Both coffee and tea are common. Tacos, served with either maize or flour tortillas, are also popular. Dinner is the midday meal, and as is the case with most cultures in which that’s so, it’s a hearty meal. Schools and some businesses close whilst Belizeans eat beans and rice with coconut milk, caldo, chirmole, cole slaw, conch fritters, escabeche, “fry” chicken, garnaches, meat pies, panades, salads, salbutes, and tamales. In Garifuna communities, ereba, fish, and vegetables are common. A popular Kriol dish is the “boil up,” made from a mix of cassava, eggs, fish, pig tail, plantains, sweet potatoes, and taro. The sickly sweet soda, Kola Champagne, is also popular, as is more agreeable ginger beer (or Belikin if you prefer actual beer).
The history of Belizean restaurants in Los Angeles likely begins with husband and wife Dean Gonzales and Marie Walton, who opened Belizean Fish Market in 1976, and which is a bit of hybrid market/lunch counter.
Nel and John Wells opened Nel and John’s Belizean in 1982. After John died, Nel continued to operate it with their daughter, Dorothy, until it closed around 2012.
Floyd and Daisy Tracey immigrated to Los Angeles in 1983 and opened Tracey’s Belizean Cuisine in 1984.
Kriol restaurant Joan & Sisters was opened in 1986 by Joan and her sister, Elenor, who still runs it with her husband, Samuel Bevans.
Laverne Smith owns Little Belize Restaurant in Inglewood, established in 2001 and which features live Belizean music.
Mar’s Caribbean Gardens Belizean Restaurant, opened by Marie Jimenez in 2009, is a Kriol restaurant with a lounge, live music, karaoke, and a full liquor license.
Zelda Pariente and her daughter Edna Guevara opened Flavors of Belize around 2011. In February 2012, it reopened as Belizean Paradise, with cook Yvonne Myvett at the helm.
The Pelican Belizean Cuisine opened around 2012.
Pepper’s Jamaican-Belizean Cuisine was opened by Yvonne Buller around 2014.
Winston Miranda began operated the Garifuna food truck, Saraba Garifuna Cuisine, in 2015.
Cristina’s Belizean & American Cuisine opened in 2019.
Dorla McKenzie opened a Belizean restaurant in an auto body shop in 1982 until a family emergency led her to sell her restaurant equipment to Joan of Joan & Sisters in 1983. Dorla and her daughter, Tina, began operating a food truck called No Reservation L.A. around 2019 and now a pop-up of the same name in Little Ethiopia on weekends.
Belize’s best-known musical export is punta, a type of Afro-Caribbean Garifuna music that shares some similarities with calypso, merengue, and reggae. Brukdown is a modern genre descended from Calypso and the call-and-response work songs. Dancehall, reggae, and soca are also popular, as are rock and rap.
Although it goes mostly unnoticed by the mainstream, Los Angeles has long supported a fairly thriving Belizean music scene. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were at least two major venues for Belizean music in South Los Angeles: Plum Tree (aka Cabelos Plum Tree) and Rolls Royce Hall (or the Rolls Royce Club) on Slauson. Plum Tree lasted until at least 1994. I’m not sure when Rolls Royce closed — probably some time in the 1980s.
One of the first successful Belizean Angeleno bands was Dell & the Sensations, a family band led by Dell Smart. They formed in the late 1970s after Dell Smart hitchhiked to Los Angeles to join his brothers there. The Smarts also operated Smart Records, on Arlington Avenue. Smart’s last band was Dell and Exit/In. He died in 2019.
Babylon Warriors were a locally popular Belizean reggae band founded by Patrick Barrow in 1978.
The Belizean Angeleno scene in the 1980s boasted David “Bro. David” Obi, Bamiki Bandula, DJ Sweeta Allen, Ital Roots, and Shehene — a reggaebilly” band led by Lebanese-Creole singer Shehene Bedran. Much of this era is seemingly documented, if not always with much information, on the website Belize Music World, created by Patrick Barrow in 2010.
Newer and contemporary Belizean Angeleno musicians include Houston (né Houston Edward Summers IV), Lisa Gabrielle Tucker, iLoveMakonnen (ne Makonnen Kamali Sheran), Lil June Afro Punta (né Junior Jose Alvarez), and O.T. Genasis (né Odis Oliver Flores).
As is the case throughout the world, sports are popular in Belize and, as is the case in most of the world, association football (soccer) is the most popular. Basketball, cricket, netball, rugby, softball, volleyball, and track and field are also popular. Los Angeles has produced and been home to several Belizean athletes over the years, including UFC fighter Albert Morales, baseball player Chito Martínez, track and field athlete Kenneth Medwood, track and field athlete Marion Lois Jones, mixed martial artist Marion Elizabeth Reneau-Perez, footballer Michael Salazar, basketball player Milton Sigmund Palacio, and basketball player Noel Felix.
OTHER PROMINENT BELIZEAN ANGELENOS
Other Belizean Angelenos with public profiles include scientist Avery August, artist Britney Winthrope, comedian Erik Griffin, entrepreneur Jenene McKay of Til the Last Bite!, stylist Juanita Carrillo, entrepreneur Juliet Sosa of wine company, Til the Last Sip, actor Kareem Ferguson, actress/artist Kayla “K DaCosta” DaCosta, reporter Kendis Gibson, entrepreneur Monnae Michaell of Jendayi’s Belizean Bangles, actor Nigel Miguel, entrepreneur Parris Gray of Shopparrisworld, and educator Tonya McGee of the EdSperience Child Development Center.
OBSERVATIONS AND FESTIVALS
About 40% of Belizeans identify as Roman Catholic. Another 32% identify as Protestant or Anglican. Not surprisingly, then, Christian religious observances like Easter and Christmas are major holidays for most Belizeans. Boxing Day and Carnival are also important. Local holidays include Baron Bliss Day (9 March), St. George’s Caye Day (10 September), Independence Day (21 September), and Garifuna Settlement Day (19 November). Past Los Angeles Belizean festivals have included Belize Caye Fest, Belize Independence Day in LA, and Belizean September Celebration.
BELIZEAN ANGELENO ORGANIZATIONS
Three years after Belize gain independence until 1989, Paul Warre served as Belize’s first honorary consul in Los Angeles. Nowadays there’s an official Belize Consulate in Los Angeles. The current Consul General is Leila Peyrefitte. Larry Waight and the late Peter Tonti founded Breaking Belize News in 2013. Jada Augustine founded the non-profit Jada’s Got Your Backpack in 2017 to provide school supplies for the children of Dangriga, Belize. Other Los Angeles-based Belizean organizations include the Belize Association of California, the Belize Cancer Society of California, Belizeans Wellness Foundation, and Garifuna-American Heritage Foundation United (GAHFU), Belizean media organizations and websites include Belize.net, BelizeHub.com, BelizeInAmerica.net, and Belizeans.com.
“The Breeze from Belize” by Lyn Hobart, 1986, LA Weekly
“Belizean immigrants in Los Angeles” by Jerome F. Straughan, 2004
“Belizean Independence reminds me of the complicated legacy of colonization” by Nicole D. Ramsey, 2020, Global Voices