Myles Away: The Meaning of Santa Cruz and the Possibility of Ethnic Conflict. Written by Dr. Jerome Straughn


It has been almost two weeks since an incident in the village of Santa Cruz in the Toledo district when a black Creole Belizean by the name of Rupert Myles was unlawfully detained by Mayan villagers and the photos of him handcuffed and surrounded by villagers have sparked an at times heated discussion about his detention. Based on his account of what happened, his detention is seen as a clear case of racism and proof is in the photos.

But in the immediate aftermath of the incident Mayan community leaders backed by the Maya Leaders Alliance stated that they did not discriminate against Mr. Myles but were simply enforcing their communal land rights. The MLA later issued a statement regarding the attempted eviction and detention of Myles. Mayan leaders stressed that Myles was detained because he showed little respect for the Alcalde of the village and was belligerent. Worse, he threatened villagers telling them he had firearm in a vehicle.

Today there are some Belizeans who believe Mr. Myles story of experiencing racial discrimination in the Mayan village of Santa Cruz, some who don’t believe his story, and some who believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. One thing is as clear as the pictures that were taken,  is whether one believes his story or not has a lot to do with their view of racial and ethnic relation in Belize, their perception of the southern Maya and their traditional culture, their support for one of the two mass parties in Belize, and most important their support or opposition to Mayan communal land rights. Within a week of the incidents Belizean were separating into two camps, and polarized individuals in each camp considered themselves to be right.
Race and Racism in Belize
           “Racism or something else” was the bold caption on a photograph posted on the Facebook page of the reporter Patrick Jones. The photo showed hancuffeed black Belizean Rupert Myles (with a rope that had been tied to his foot attached to the handcuffs) surrounded by Mayan villages armed with machetes. Because of the instantaneous nature of social media, the photo was likely one of the first photos of the incident. A responsible reporter, Mr. Jones was intentionally trying to be a responsible journalist, but nevertheless he was accused of irresponsible journalism.

In the midst of Belizean discussing the incident in social media a video was posted of Mr. Jones giving an interview about what transpired in Santa Cruz, and stating that the Alcalde of the village and firebrand Mayan nationalist Cristina Coc of the Mayan Leaders Alliance made racist comments about him living in the village. The Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Mayan Leaders Alliance would later issue a release rejecting what Myles had said and gave a detailed account of Myles actions in the village that led to his detention.
Though there has always been racism in Belize, the issue of race is often a difficult thing for many Belizean to talk about because of their views of Belize as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country with a history that differs significantly from countries where there is deep racial divisions. But race and racism has been very much a part of Belizean history, before the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919 (often see as a race riot).

Nevertheless, Belizeans continue to believe that there is little or no racism in Belize and some Belizean who live in the United States continue to say that they never experienced racism until they came to the US. Often when the issue of race and racism is brought up there are many who feel that such discussion is divisive, and those who engage in it are often racist. But it is important to note that unlike a country like the United States, the sort of racial discrimination that exist in Belize tends to be subtle and not institutionalized. And so applying the word racism to what often occurs in the country is to use the word loosely.
The claim by Rupert Myles that he experienced racial discrimination in the Mayan village of Santa Cruz and him accusing the leaders of Santa Cruz village of violating his rights brought the issue of racial discrimination and Mayan communal land rights to the forefront. There were some who dismissed his claim and accused Myles of playing the race card. A people who have experienced discrimination and overall oppression that has resulted in them being marginalized and at the bottom stratum of countries in which they live, it has been hard for many Belizeans to believe that some Mayans such as the villagers are capable of anti-black racial discrimination.
But for some black Belizeans this was not difficult to believe, and days after the incident they recalled their experience living in a Mayan village and their experience with Mayan racism against blacks. Regardless, this claim of racism and the response to what happened was considered a distraction by supporters of the Mayan land rights struggle. In their steadfast support a discussion of Mayan racism was less than substantive or simply avoided – considered not worthy of being discussed.
What was worth talking about was what Myles did in the village. In his essay on the incident in Santa Cruz, Penados states that the incident brings to the fore number of important issues that can easily fall through the cracks. But none of those issues related to the discrimination Mr. Myles claimed he was subjected to. Nevertheless, Penados did address the issue and stated: “While in no way should we be insensitive to Mr. Myles’ claim of racism, we cannot ignore the question of Mr. Myles trespassing on Santa Cruz lands. The 2007 and subsequent rulings have affirmed that Santa Cruz residents own their lands. The village has a customary land tenure system.”

As for those who opposed Mayan communal land rights, the claim by Rupert Myles provided an opportunity to portray the Santa Cruz incident as a harbinger of things to come where Mayan communal lands rights is concerned in the aftermath of the CCJ consent order. The Amandala editorial titled “A Belizean Crisis in Toledo” suggested that in making a “big mistake” the Maya leadership “walked into a trap” when Myles was detained. But there is no indication that this was a trap. The incident simply reflected the rough road ahead in relations between Mayan and non-Maya in Toledo

   While many might not want to believe Mr. Myles story about racial discrimination in Santa Cruz, they must consider the extent to which race was a factor in the incident and address it. If there might have been an absence of deep-seated bigotry on the part of Mayan villagers, it is possible that because of his actions (seen as belligerent and allegedly threatening villagers) Myles was eventually racialized, his size helping to define him as a black man in a Mayan village. (As it relates to crime, black men in the town of San Pedro are very much racialized).In the heat of an exchange between himself and members of the community, there is a good possibility that his race became a factor in how he was perceived as a threat. He might not have experienced racial discrimination but there is a good possibility that there was the radicalization of Rupert Myles in the village of Santa Cruz.

Changing Views of the Southern Maya

If not for his accusation of racial discrimination and a rope being attached to a handcuff used to restrain him, the detention of Rupert Myles by a group Santa Cruz villagers would have not been so unusual for most Belizeans. They would have suspected that he had committed a serious crime in the village, and this was the kind of village justice they had seen before. Belizeans remembered that in the village of San Jose Succotz in 2011 there was the beating and hogtying of 62 year-old Roy Cumberbatch was accused of trying to rape a 14 year-old boy in the village. Cumberbatch was handed over to the police.
But Belizeans also remember that in 2010 Mayan villagers from San Marcos outside of Punta Gorda in the Toledo district burned down the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary of U.S. crocodile expert Vincent Rose. They did so after being told (supposedly by a local fortune teller) that two Mayan children were abducted by the couple who ran the sanctuary and were being held there. After conducting a search for Onelia and Benjamin Rash at the sanctuary and not finding the children, the ransacked sanctuary was burned down.
Lastly, fresh in the memory of many Belizeans was the 2014 illegal “communal detention” of the family of a suspected murderer in the quiet village of San Pedro Colombia, in their search for a suspect in the gruesome murder of 61 year old Agripina Coc. There was the concern that the villagers desperation for justice was taken too far.

In its editorial the Amandala newspaper tangentially suggested that Belize City Belizeans should ask themselves if they are not in need of some of the old-fashioned discipline the Maya felt pressured to resort to when they detained Rupert Myles. The editorial thought such village justice was much needed in high crime Belize City. Sympathetic to the Mayan land rights cause, but recognizing that they “did wrong,” the Amandala editorial was expressing a positive view of the Mayas, many aspects of their traditional culture, and their sense of community that many Belizean hold.

Like the Mennonites, Mayans in the villages are seen as living a virtuous life. Mayan villages that are still steeped in a traditional way of life, but confronting modernization, are what the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies calls the Gemeinschaft (communal society). In such a society there is greater social control and this is reflected in the role the Alcalde plays in the community and how members of the community who commit crimes and violate norms are dealt with. Focusing on the actions of Rupert Myles,
But many Belizeans no longer romanticize the Mayas and give the group an “ethnic pass.” They feel that in such a community a high level of social control can often create social problems. Belizeans also know that in seemingly tranquil Mayan communities there are crimes that remain hidden to outsiders. They are also critical of certain Mayan traditions and feel that Belizeans should not engage in cultural relativism where the some Mayans continuation of some traditional cultural practices are concerned. (Addressing the detention of Mr. Myles Penados had this to say: “The truth is that tying someone to detain and restrain him/her is not unusual in Maya communities as far as I understand.”). Lastly, with the land rights struggle the Mayas way of life (especially as it relates to communal land vs. title) has come under greater scrutiny.
It’s likely that over the course of the land rights struggle to the point where the Maya were triumphant at the Caribbean Court of Justice, the views and attitudes of the non-Maya resident of Toledo towards the southern Maya have changed. The same holds true for Belizeans in other parts of the country. And after the Rupert Myles incident, it’s likely that there is greater change in the views and attitudes of non-Maya Belizean towards the southern Maya.

Myles may have been simply dismissed by some as playing the race card when he was detained, but what cannot be dismissed is the views many Belizeans might now hold on the issue of Maya communal land rights (more negative). This should be of great concern to Maya leaders as the government of Belize moves forward in trying implement the consent order.
Communal Land Rights and Other Belizeans

In his essay Penados stated that there was a need to clarify what Maya land ownership and governance means for other Belizeans. I agree with him, but I thought he could have went further in noting how land rights is often the source of racial and ethnic conflict. Implicit in the writings of those who have addressed the incident at Santa Cruz is that after the long legal struggle that culminated with the CCJ consent order all it takes now is for the government to implement the [decree] in consultation with the Maya.
There is no mention of possible conflict in a multi-ethnic Belize of the type that occurred in Santa Cruz as a result of the communal land rights issue. All that is needed now in our “tranquil haven of democracy” is reconciliation and healing, not any attempt at critical examination of understanding why an incident described by some as a distraction had many Belizeans reacting in very emotional ways and Belizeans becoming more polarized over this issue. Myles is simply described as just a pawn in other people’s game and Joseph Estephan agent provocateur in chief.

Furthermore, some saw what occurred in Santa Cruz and the outrage expressed by many as fitting into the classic divide and conquer strategy that would benefit those interested in using and exploiting Maya land and resources. Overall, they accused the government of being part of a deliberate strategy to deny the Maya their communal rights. “We have seen what State inaction can produce in the case of Santa Cruz.” Penados states. Other went further in accusing he government of inciting non-Maya Belizean against the Maya..
In focusing on Myles on Estephan there is no acknowledgement of the genuine concerns, anxieties, and even fears of some Belizean about the issue of communal land rights for the Mayas. No provocateur was needed to stoke the fires of division. There is also no recognition of the fact that ethnoracial groups such as Creole, the Garifuna or East Indians often act in their own self-interest.

With the CCJ consent order, there is certainly a need for the government to move ahead in consulting with the Maya or their representatives, develop the legislative, administrative and/or other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism to identify and protect their property and other rights arising from Maya customary land tenure, in accordance with Maya customary laws and land tenure practices. But doing so will not be as easy as some may think.
Writing about the incident in Santa Cruz the Amandala newspaper Henry Gordon address the difficulties the government of Belize will have in implementing the consent order for what he calls special land rights. “Few seem to want to admit that is not as simple as that” he noted. ???. Globally, the issue of land rights is often a source of conflict between ethnic groups. In the case of a multi-ethnic Belize, trying to determine the possibility for such conflict rest on the country’s history and the views Belizeans hold of the country’s diversity. ???. The various ethnic groups of Toledo have coexisted for over a century, but the incident in Santa Cruz raise questions about a breakdown in ethnic coexistence over what Henry Gordon calls special land rights for the southern Maya.

Family Ties to Toledo and Learning about the Mayas
         Growing up in Belize City Toledo, and more specifically Punta Gorda was some far off place. My mother often lovingly called it the forgotten district. But my father’s family is from Toledo, Reflecting the diversity of the district and ethnic coexistence, my mother often spoke of my paternal Esther Adderly knowing some Garifuna and one of the Mayan languages.

As for the southern Maya themselves, I still remember as a child going to Friday market day at the Belize City Central Market and meeting a short Maya woman barefoot and dressed in traditional clothes. “Dah who dah woman?” I asked my mother as the woman sat beside the produce they were selling at Court House Wharf. “She is a Maya” my mother responded, “and she came from Toledo.” At that time the southern Maya were not much integrated into Belizean society and few had migrated to other parts of Belize.

Before she passed away, two Maya women from the south help take care of my mother doing domestic chores around the house. The younger women whom I often spoke to on the phone and the older woman whom I met highlighted Maya migration to different areas of Belize in search of employment and other opportunities. Before my mother passed away, I often spoke with Mrs. Balam about Mayan culture and life in the village.
Tensions in the future and the potential for Conflict

     In his essay Penados described the process in which an outsider becomes a member of a Mayan community, and how such membership is restricted. Where communal ownership of the land is concerned, he further described how one could enter Mayan village but not have permission to settle there. The Mayas struggle for communal land rights and consequently a sense of rootedness to some extent stands in contrast to the movement of the Mayas out of the villages and out of Toledo.
Where such movement and the communal land rights issue is concerned, some Belizeans in the heat of the discussion over the detention of Mr. Myles suggested that if what the Mayas are ultimately seeking is a homeland as discussed by O. Nigel Bolland, then how should other Belizeans think about them living freely in others parts of Belize. (Some also continue to question the indigenous status of the southern Maya, namely the Kekchi) Of course such suggestion of sort of an internal passport for the southern Maya highlight how divisive the land rights issue has become or can become
For over two decades the Mayas have been moving to Punta Gorda from Maya villages, and I was told by a long term resident of Toledo that this migration in the 1990s from the villages resulted in a sort of resentment by people of the town, especially Creoles and Garifuna, who noted that while the Mayas could freely move to the town, they could not freely move to a Mayan village.
In the aftermath of the Santa Cruz incident a video was circulated of a January 2015 exchange between Joseph Estephan and Cristina Coc of the MLA. In the video Estephan argued that he had a right to enter any Mayan village and while he might ask permission, which was just an act of courtesy. In response, and with a sense of power, Coc said that if he went into the village unannounced, he could be arrested for trespass. Non-Maya Estephan might be a provocateur, but this exchange highlight why there is likely to be continued tensions in Toledo and highlight one of the challenges the government will face as it tries to implement the CCJ consent order.

I like Filberto Penados believe that there will be other incidents like the one that happened in Santa Cruz. But we very much differ on why those incidents will occur. He believes these incidents will occur because the Government of Belize failed to address the situation as mandated to by the various court rulings and because agents provocateurs are busily at work trying to undermine the peace.

I also disagree with Jeremy Enriquez, who in an Amandala column titled “Fanning Racial Divisions Will Distract Belizeanssuggested that it is the gross lack of understanding about indigenous rights that is causing a rift in the nation. In some ways he is right that many Belizeans lack and understanding about indigenous rights. Indeed many paid little attention to the various court decisions. But whatever understanding they do have about indigenous rights, especially as it relates to the recent incident at Santa Cruz, there is every indication that many do not have a favorable view.

After Santa Cruz

A lot has happened since the incident at Santa Cruz where the unlawful detention  of  Rupert Myles is concerned, race and racism in Belize,  and the wider issue of Mayan customary land rights. First, the  discussion  continues – at times becoming heated – in social media and on various call-in talk shows in Belize.
On Facebook, some  have expressed their concern and disappointment about some of the comments made (mostly against Mayan land rights and the Maya) and few have stopped commenting on threads discussing the issues. As stated, the incident brought put certain emotions in Belizeans and it clarified or reinforced their views on the land rights issue. For the most part it has been a meaningful  discussion of the issue.
While  I have not been listening to the call-in talk shows,  I am sure the  comments have been interesting, but have also made  some Belizean  concerned about  the direction  in which this is heading in terms of the possibility of  ethnic conflict .
Lastly, a number of  newspaper editorials, newspaper columns , essays and blogs  have been written about the incident. There are many insightful things that have been said in some, but quite frankly, cloaked in the language of academia and intellectual discourse,  there have also been a lot of nonsensical or meaningless things said in some. What is being said is quite divorced  from the concerns of many Belizean in terms of what  Mayan communal land right will mean for Belize, especially in terms ethnic relations.
A few days after the incident of Santa Cruz,  the police before dawn raided the villages of  Santa Cruz and arrested 12 villagers. The MLA spokesperson Cristina Coc was also arrested. The villagers were taken to the Punta Gorda police station and charged with the unlawful detention of Rupert Myles (two were charged with unlawful assault) and Coc was charged for conspiracy to commit unlawful imprisonment.
The pre-dawn raid was condemned for the way in which it was conducted and the way in which the men and Coc were taken to court and were arraigned. Several of the men were shoeless and shirtless on their way to court and this image was just as shocking for many as the detention of Myles. It gave an impression of the Mayas being reigned in by the government and reporting on their arraignment Isani Cayetano, stated that “the striking image of  Mayan men disrobing outside of the Punta Gorda Police Station was as poignant an impression as the parading of Rupert Myles through Santa Cruz a few days earlier.”
But the way in which walked to court with with a red rag covering the lower half of her face and wearing a tee shirt depicting a woman with a rag over her face, in the style of the revolutionary Zapatistas the Mayan resistance movement from southern Mexico reinforced her image as a Mayan nationalist. The burly black police woman escorting her to court briefly removed the rag from her face and in doing so was perhaps asserting her authority and power. But Coc defiantly put the rag back on her face.
The Mayas were triumphant in their legal struggle and this in many ways had empower them. And after the detention of Rupert Myles, Coc supposedly had commented that what was done was “beautiful” and “empowering.” But her arrest and that of  the Mayan villagers  was a remainder of the power of the state and how it can be used.
Within a week after the 13 Mayas were arrested and arraigned, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights  of the Organization of American States wrote to the government of Belize seeking information on the arrests of the 13 Mayas on the grounds that the life and personal integrity of the Maya leaders was at risk for defending their land.
This inquiry served as a reminder  that  the Mayas had internationalized their cause through the OAS and other international organizations and had received tremendous legal and financial support from abroad. It can be argued that such  support was greater than the support that they received from other Belizeans. Nevertheless, such support from abroad continue to be a source of power
       Lastly, while the unlawful detention of Myles highlighted the likelihood of ethnic conflict between the Mayas and non-Belizeans as a result of the land rights issue, the heated exchange between the Senate exchange between People’s United Party Senator Lisa Shoman and United Democratic Party Senator Lisel Alamilla highlighted the upcoming conflict between the Mayas (and their supporters and the Government of Belize.  During a meeting of the Senate, Shoman accused the government of having been determined legally to deny the rights of Maya Belizeans, and went on to say that nothing had been done to implement the CCJ.
But Alamilla who was appointed head of the commission to deal with the issue of communal lands emotionally accused Shoman of pretending that the Mayan leadership wanted to find a solution to the issue. “They are undermining the CCJ Consent Order” she continued to say about Mayan leaders, and described the ways in which they had done so in several villages. .
Shoman also suggested that if the government had been implementing the consent order what occurred at Santa Cruz would have never happened. This view is quiet questionable as there is a likelihood that an incident such as the one that occurred in Santa Cruz is likely to occur again, whether the government  implement the consent order with great haste or do so slowly. This is because what the term communal land really means for the Mayas (and the right and responsibilities of owning the land communally) seems to mean something different for some Mayan leaders, and this is reflected in  Senator Alamilla’s response to Senator Shoman. 
Then of course there is the issue of what the term means for non-Maya Belizeans, and what will be their response to what some Belizeans see as the Southern Maya having special rights. This is a right that doesn’t necessarily “scare the powerful” as Cristina Coc suggest at the meeting of Mayan leaders in the village of Golden Stream but it certainly is of great concern for many Belizeans.

3 thoughts on “Myles Away: The Meaning of Santa Cruz and the Possibility of Ethnic Conflict. Written by Dr. Jerome Straughn

  1. People of Southern Belize have seen Incidents of racial bias perpetrated by the Mayans on those of other ethnic groups all too frequent for ecample the desimination of Mr Charles Forman grave in San Antonio village his body was dug up and head placed on a stick with all his dread lock and all to remind all that their ground is too sacred for those of other races (pic available on pgtv) and after the Myles (whose common law wife is of Santa Cruz) is the case a Chinese man with his Mayan wife was evicted from the vilage because of his race the list goes on on the other had im interested in hearing actual incidents of bias crimes against the Mayas of Southern Belize.

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