Reprinted with the permission of Howard A. Frankson
Howard Frankson provides a well written historical journey of the Chicle industry in colonial British Honduras (Belize); he introduces us to the people, the cultures, the lifestyles and how artificial gum extinguished the trade and the ethnology. He interconnects global warming, droughts and today’s refugee crisis at the US border and maybe a deeper prognostication for Belize.
Howard A. Frankson
My grandfather was not a fully-fledged Chiclero, but as a well-rounded farmer, hunter and bush ranger, he was immersed in their world and often represented them in their transactions with city folk and corporations. He would go with them to their camps in the forest, carrying ‘provision’ to maintain them through the season. In all this he was a quiet man, calm and unassuming, known to the world as “Boss Jim”. His wife, my grandmother, was the real power behind the scene, strong and assertive, she was the well-known matriarch “Miss Night”, and bore with combative composure, the weight of her large family on her small frame. At his farm in St. Paul’s Bank on the Belize Old River, or at his home on Cleghorn Street in downtown Belize City, where I lived as a child, while my father was completing his house in the suburbs, blocks of chicle stacked to the joists and attracted neighborhood kids by the dozen. The all-powerful company behind the industry is Wrigley, and their tasty products were called “Chiclets”. Chicle is the sap of the Sapodilla tree that was exported for the manufacture of chewing gum before the advent of artificial gum. Which supplanted tree sap gum and denied Belize a lucrative source of income. Processed in the forest, the sap was dehydrated by boiling, and formed into blocks of about forty pounds in weight. Appearing very much like the blocks of rock-salt that ranchers put out for their cattle, though more oblong or rectangular. Almost tasteless, we kids enjoyed slicing off chunks of chicle and chewing it for hours. My grandmother used to add sweetened condensed milk to the treat to make it more palatable. The sapodilla trees are long-lived giants of the forest, and to this day can be recognized by the patterns of crisscross scars carved into their trunks from repeated bleeding. The tree is a prime hardwood, which takes many years to mature, and so cultivating it was not an option. So the chicleros went into the forest, hunting out their locations and marking them for repeated visitation. Though the wood was of high value, their sap was worth much more, and the trees were never removed from the forest. The chiclero was a special breed of man who lived his life in the forest. Visiting towns and villages only as needed to refresh his stores, his ‘provision’, and collect his hard-earned pittance. As can be imagined, on such occasions groups chicleros gathered round tubs of rum to celebrate renewed acquaintance and exchange feats of daring, and exploits in the forest.
These men were not often large in stature, but wiry and strong, displaying scars of past misadventure in the forested interior of colonial British Honduras. They never dreamed, nor imagined the political intrigue that would one day transform their homeland into Belize from colonial British Honduras. And in the process, outgrow their wild and free nature. In the forest they would encounter jaguar, cayman, and snakes so large that they resembled the trunks of fallen trees in the undergrowth. They hunted tapir, known as mountain cow, deer, peccary, and wild birds beyond number. Beautiful creatures that today face extinction caused by excessive human intervention and increasing dislocation as their forest homes are cleared to make way for civilization. These men lived off the land and required little from the communities they avoided. A little sugar and salt, boots for their feet, working men’s clothes, a machete and scabbard. Shells for their shotguns, and rope to tie their bundles. They required a huge metal pot for concentrating their chicle, and wooden frames in which to mold it. All else they acquired from nature, and never took more than they needed. Strong men of honor, they lived by their wits and self-rule, and respected the law of the jungle, And woe be unto any man who would enter their forest and claim prizes for the sake of a trophy. The spoils of the forest were intended for man’s consumption, but only in as much as he needed.
The chiclero’s range was unlimited, he roamed wherever the sapodilla tree led him. Sleeping wherever night found him. Content in his role, a cog in a wheel he could never have recognized if it hit him. His produce traveled thousands of miles to satisfy the whims of a pampered metropolitan agglomeration. Which would eventually formulate its own rendition of the gum they chewed in distant contemplation of the little man who strove in fetid conditions, to make a life for his wife and his children. The chiclero was never anointed or remembered, but in his way, along with many other tradesmen around the world, built the foundation of an empire that spanned the globe. The British Empire was grounded in the sweat of small men who aspired only to fill the needs of each new day. To see their children grow and prosper, was all the incentive they needed to venture into the unforgiving jungle over and over, until the forest became so familiar, it represented home, and all they cared for. The chicleros were primarily descendants of the ancient Mayan Empire that occupied southern Mexico and northern Central America up to the year nine hundred AD when a great drought it is believed, subdued them. A people who mapped the stars and studied the solar system. Who created the long-count and three-hundred-and-sixty day calendars that foretold the passing of time with such impressive accuracy that they did not require a leap year to maintain their precision. The chiclero’s ancestry also included the descendants of African slaves who cohabited with the Maya in the seamless symmetry of life in the interior. In northern areas of the sub-continent, the assimilation has been so complete that not a visible trace remains of the Africans who once labored, side by side with the Maya, in service to European overlords.
In the years before the introduction of artificial gum, chicle was a primary commodity, and one of Belize’s chief exports. Belize, British Honduras, was an insignificant colonial outpost of the British Empire. The only English-speaking enclave in Central America, for years administered by Jamaica. Which was the most advanced of all the empire’s territories in the New World. Jamaica, and the city of Port Royal in particular, foreshadowed the development of North America, and was the launch site for expeditions to the various outposts of empire. While Belize, with a population under a hundred thousand, and in square miles more than twice the size of Jamaica, was an empty land whose great attraction was the incomparable figured mahogany extracted from her forests. Along with the mahogany came other hardwoods like pine, redwood, and zericote. It is believed that the indigenous Indians, while indentured to the service of the invaders, used to chew the sap of the sapodilla, and their oppressors appropriated the habit for their own distraction. Thereby introducing chewing gum to a receptive market, eager for dalliance in puny occupation. The Wrigley Corporation was once a big player in the administration of Belize. Along with the Belize Estate & Produce Company, BEC, they dominated the colony. BEC played a dominant role in every aspect of the colony’s daily ritual. The company exported the colony’s output and imported its consumer necessities. It held vast swaths of its territory through appropriation or lease and determined the course of its economic diversity. British colonial rule gave Belize security, and British Common Law ensured stability. In comparison, its Spanish colonial, republican neighbors live constantly in the throes of destabilizing revolution, and prided themselves in punitive machismo. Strutting bantams in a disheveled farmyard, dominated by an insecure plutocracy, from which its indigenous peasantry fled at the first opportunity.
In the years before artificial gum, when chicle had great value, the chicleros lived in or near the forest, and their lives were simple, rustic and ordered. Their children earned little education and so usually followed in the career steps of their elders. Their wives were the daughters of other chicleros, and their ambition, and that of their children, seldom excluded life the forest. When they were not bleeding sap from the sapodilla trees, they cultivated small plots or ‘milpa’. The ‘milpa’ were of corn, the staple crop of the Maya in the region, and they kept a few chickens and ducks. They had several dogs which accompanied them when hunting or visiting the sapodilla trees for bleeding chicle. A proficient chiclero usually had about a dozen trees in his region and complemented his production by venturing farther afield on occasion. These occasional ventures lasted several weeks, even months, and required much forethought and preparation. The heavy boiling pots were strategically positioned in convenient locations throughout the forest. Though a chiclero may have kept a small milpa, he was not a milpero by definition. A milpero’s corn fields were more extensive, he was domesticated in comparison to the chiclero, and slept with at least a thatched roof over his head, though adventures into the jungle were not uncommon. The milpero’s kids had educational opportunities, and many migrated to the cities. With the introduction of artificial gum, the chiclero’s lifestyle was extinguished, and with increasing commercialization of farming, the milpero’s too would soon follow.
Across the border in Guatemala, the milpas of yesteryear are today being consumed by a severe drought brought about by global warming. And as a consequence of excessive deforestation, which reduces the evaporation necessary for cloud formation. A predictable cycle of declination in the most impoverished communities lacking the technology to adjust to the changing climatic dynamics that foretell devastation. As the milpas burn, the milperos and their families flee, largely north through Mexico to America. Where tradition holds that the wealthiest nation on earth will afford them succor. But that was before a new administration that considering them less than equal confined them to cages on the border. Even though they may have had relatives in the country willing to support them. These relatives were not informed of their plight, or of their arrival. Nor of where they were being kept like animals. Families were divided, with the children kept separately. Children as young as six months old, deprived of their mothers, and kept in cages in filthy conditions with poor sanitation. Deprived of a proper diet or health care facilities. A fat-cat republican congressman observed in all his opulent obesity, that they were lucky to be where they were, as where they had come from was even worse. Yet, a girl-child refugee apprehended at the border when asked why she fled said simply, “food doesn’t grow there anymore”. She had had no choice but to flee the burning milpas, only to be caught in a cage along with thousands of others. Desperate human beings denied their dignity and forced to grovel for scraps at the tables of the rich. All in a place that once beckoned them with false hope and promise: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free……” To whom did those words refer? And now, a picture of a father and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande has gone viral for all to see the desperation that drives these people to flee the climatic conditions in Central America that those in Washington fail to accept as pertinent reality.
In my early years in British Honduras, in the years of the chiclero and the milpero, Belize was a smaller place, warmer and more intimate. Everyone knew his neighbor, and every neighborhood was a community. Where children frolicked freely, and the adults gathered frequently to exchange pleasantries, favors and gossip. The complicity of independence was a distant ambition visited most frequently by politicians. in the interim, they argued for internal self-governance and the right to determine our own future. And even after independence, the simplicity of existence was interrupted only by the certainty of hurricanes, which hit the country frequently, and Belize City every thirty years without fail. After the ‘sixty-one hurricane, Hattie, the administrative capital was moved inland to Belmopan. While the commercial capital remained in Belize City with the seaport and harbor. While still in Belize City, my father was the most senior civil servant in government, and after he retired, and became Director of US Peace Corps, we acquired a large parcel of land in the country with the intention of propagating citrus. To assist in its early development, we hired neighboring residents and complimented their income by encouraging them to cultivate their milpas on our land not designated for citrus. These milperos proved industrious, strong men of great integrity, and it was easy to imagine their predecessors hunting for sapodilla trees in the forest and bleeding them of their gum. Gathering round a fire, just as we did on the farm, and spinning wild tales of misadventure.
One tale in particular, is of a wily chiclero who had done exceedingly well and bought himself a bicycle which he took into the forest. He propped it up on what he took to be a fallen tree on the forest floor and went in search of sapodilla trees to bleed for their chicle. But the log on which he propped his bike turned out to be a snake, locally known as ‘wowla’. A boa constrictor of great length and girth, the largest snake in Central America, and one of the heaviest in the world. Constrictors are slow and not venomous, but their mere size makes them intimidating. Chicleros are used to encountering such creatures in the wild, but what good would a tale be if it did not provide drama and suspense? And death by slow constriction must be raw, painful and horrifying; so the chiclero in the tale ran screaming from the forest, and lost his hard earned bicycle in a place where it served no purpose. The moral of the tale being that one should never take such modern devices into the primitive jungle. Such tales, repeated often, gain an air of truth in the retelling. But no one could realistically imagine a chiclero being scared in the forest. He was born into its dark places and knew every one of its creatures and their habits. Hi chiclero, your time has passed, but your glory days will remain in folklore, fact and fiction. Small men of great stature, who knew no fear and paid no tribute to lord or master. Bra Ananci, were he not a spider, could well have been a chiclero, riding Bra Tiger’s back into the jungle, where his feats, though implausible, are recounted as for historic remembrance.
Howard A. Frankson — Belize