October 12, 2011
Belize City blazes with color as traditionally-dressed locals parade down the street to the raucous tunes of Punta music. The scent of food from street vendors wafts through the air, teasing celebrants’ noses and making mouths water. The party rages on through the night – Belizeans love to drink, dance, sing, and compete with one another. This national holiday honors Belize’s history and culture – it’s not so much about remembering ol’ Chris Columbus. Belizeans have enough of their own to celebrate: gorgeous natural environments including coral reefs, rainforests, and mangrove swamps, a wealth of cultural influences, and the preservation of traditional lifeways alongside the growing tourism industry.
Of all holidays and special days, Columbus Day is perhaps one of the most widely-celebrated, with special events and activities occurring in nearly all of North, Central, and South America. Belize is no different, although what started as Columbus Day has morphed into Pan-American Day.
Columbus Day, a widely-criticized holiday, commemorates the arrival of the Italian explorer in the “New World.” Columbus awakened Europeans to a part of the world they were ignorant of, with mixed results. Unfortunately, his discovery led to many culture clashes and wars as the Europeans moved in to stake their claim, resulting in great migrations across the Americas. Belize chooses not to celebrate the achievements of Columbus, but rather the migrations of the Mestizos and indigenous groups from the Yucatan into Belize, creating the country we know today.
The Mestizos and Yucatec Maya came to Belize from a war-torn region, looking for a calm and peaceful land free from conflict where they could settle and live in harmony. They carved their communities in what we know today as the Orange Walk and Corozal districts of Belize. Once these northern areas of Belize settled, the communities expanded south, driven by the sugar industry, Roman Catholic influences, and the Spanish language. Eventually, Belize raised its sails through the thick of the rainforest and established independence.
Historically, Belizeans have celebrated this holiday and special day with cultural festivals and pageants. Families and friends gather throughout the country, hosting parties, sharing traditional dishes and playing native music. These celebrations and pageants persist today, and Orange Walk, Corozal, Cayo, and Belize City host the best-known festivals.
The big cities jam with people walking around town, trying different foods, listening to traditional Punta music, and dancing in the streets. Belize’s history and culture come alive in the pageants throughout the country – native Belizeans girls, often wearing traditional dress, compete for the honor of representing their country. Other non-traditional events have sprung up around Pan-American Day in Belize, including the Belikin Spectacular Billfishing Tournament in San Pedro, a two-day cross-country Hike and Bike for the Rainforest event in Cayo, regatta racing in Belize City, horse races, and a tourism week.
As you wander around town on Pan-American Day in Belize, make sure to take special note of the sights and sounds. The music, food, colors, and people form a unique cultural melting pot that has lasted hundreds of years. Bring your own native history and culture to Belize, too. It’s one of the best places in the world to be who you are, since they’ve been incorporating different cultures for hundreds of years!