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The Chameleon of Central America

Xunantunich, one of the many Mayan ruins.

Located on the Yucatán Peninsula is the tiny but mighty nation of Belize. Belize is one of the most unknown dynamic places in the world. It is known for its plush and thriving biodiversity in conjunction with clear pristine waters. To date, Belize has been known as the only country in Central America that is outrightly bilingual. With influences from both Guatemala and Mexico, Belize has become a place where visitors can feel comfortable. But more specifically, I wish to highlight the ways in which Mexico has impacted Belize’s culture through the words of my grandmother, Ann Whitaker. Born in Belize City, Belize, Ann is an accomplished cook and has earned her way into the hearts of many. To supplement Ann’s account, I will incorporate some of the material from our class and academic sources that will help to give a greater scope of what makes Belize the Chameleon of Central America.

Map of Belize

            There is one important factor that seals the bond between Mexico and Belize, and that is corn. Even though the countries ancient backgrounds are based in different empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Mayans in Belize, corn has managed to survive as a staple in both cultures. With that being said, looking back on my childhood I have realized that I have been eating it in all sorts of forms. And I have it’s become second nature. Because of my grandmother’s cooking I realization that she is my source of appreciation for corn. And in our interview, I could not help but ask her about the golden vegetable.

 When it comes to corn, what is your relationship with corn in Belize?

Well, corn –we got to eat a lot of corn tortillas. Or one because Mexico is there and for some reason Belize people pick up a lot of Spanish recipes like empanadas, garnaches, chimole, escabeche.  you know we love corn and there was always a corn mill in Belize where you can get the corn to buy by the pound – It was grinded so you can make your own fresh Tortillas.  sometimes we made corn porridge with it – corn porridge … and then if you wanted hot tortillas – the same place – were selling corn tortillas. You can buy a pound, a half a pound, whatever you wanted. you know? Corn you know, because of the Mexicans and then you got to remember the Mayans were there years and years ago to so… Belize has years and years old Spanish and stuff– and creole. 

During our conversation, Ann also revealed something that she has never mentioned before. 

Have you ever made corn tortillas, just as regular tortillas?

Yes, uh huh! It’s the same masa harina– because the little round circles that I use for the panadas before I put in the fish, that’s the same thing. I just heat up my cast iron gridle, and you flap it right there.

Grandma, you didn’t tell me that!

Oh, it’s because I don’t make a lot of it all the time […] I just mentioned it now, because sometimes it would be six [left over masa balls] and I would take the griddle and mash them up quick and put them on the griddle to cook. That’s nice and you put a little butter–the best way to eat that is with scrambled eggs, onion, and tomatoes.

Ann’s fish and bean pandas with salad.

Tucked within the thick forest of Belize’s landscape is the famous Xunantunich (Soo-nan-toon-itch) ruin, with a semi excavated frieze exterior and tourists snapping pictures of the ancient structure. They know that it dates back to the B.C. era, but what I see, is an edifice that was once the epitome of Mesoamerican civilization. A place where people prayed to gods like “Ah Mun [who] was the lord of maize (corn), the main staple of the Mayas” (Taylor 123).  Corn has been known to be in a symbiotic relationship with humans– it cannot be grown without them. And the people Belize has paid tribute to their Mayan ancestors, like my grandmother, by using corn in food whenever possible. On the other hand, the access to fresh corn in Belize is telling of its deep connection to Mexico. But what is more interesting, is that Mexico, due to NAFTA has been straying away from the fresh corn-based meals to processed foods, while Belize has continued with that tradition. When it comes to my grandmother’s revelation that she makes tortillas, I was thoroughly surprised. I am used hearing that masa harina is used to make foods other than corn tortillas, like panadas – so this astounded me. When it comes to tortilla making, a press and the comal, or griddle, are key. Specifically, the tortilla press that my grandmother uses is heavy-duty and it has helped make her dishes for as long as I can remember. When I would help her make panadas, she would always advise to mind my fingers, in case they get caught in the pressing process. Additionally, when she mentioned she (unknowingly) makes breakfast tacos, I am unsure if she knows how essential breakfast tacos are in the United States. In José R. Ralat’s American Tacos, he describes the plethora of ways breakfast tacos has impacted the southwest. Breakfast tacos, a staple in cities such as Austin and San Antonio, has become the hub for Mexican families to share their foods. “The breakfast taco has always been part of Texas foodways and its growing cultural significance shows no sign of slowing. Tacos are part of all Texans” (34). This statement leads me to believe that Texas and Belize have a similar relationship to Mexico. The immigrants or migrants from Mexico has influenced the food cultures of both regions so greatly that foods like breakfast tacos has become second nature. Texas adopted breakfast taco as their most popular go-to meal while, Belizeans like my grandmother, does this without even realizing the craze behind it– to it’s a natural thing to do. When life gives you masa harina, you make tortillas!

Escabeche with plantains and potato.

…Oh yeah, we talked about the Chilmole with the black seasoning. Chilmole is the same thing. Chilmole is made with a black seasoning and I know that definitely came from Mexico. In a little square block and you put it in water in a pot and it gets off and you wait till two very soft and you mix it with your hands or with a spoon or whatever. You clean your chicken properly, and after you clean the chicken you didn’t have to put any salt or anything on the chicken oh, you just pour that black water all over. you put a little oil in your pot you cook it, can you keep adding the black water to it; you put enough black water until it’s finished. You put enough water so that it’s covered, and you can add fresh jalapeño peppers to it. You could boil eggs and cut it up in it – and you can leave some of the eggs whole; when you serve it you can come cut some of them in half and put it on the dish. it makes it look pretty and presentable. and that’s served with hot corn tortillas of course. 

What does that taste like?

The taste is… I can only explain the taste to a certain extent because the tamale because from what I gathered is made from burnt corn tortillas.  and is spiced up with different spices to make it hot- spicy.  some of them were mild but some people have made them very hot very hot.  but it depends on which one [the type of seasoning] I guess.  it’s hot and spicy and it’s very delicious. I think if you showed it to anybody they will say “nope not me.”  but because we’re used to seeing it that’s why I still make it up till today.  I love eating chilmole, escabeche, what else we talked about the candies…

For a while I had thought chilmole was the same as mole. Mole poblano, which originates in Puebla Mexico, is made a variety of chilies, spices and chocolate. But my grandmother confirmed that it is in fact something different, but just as tasty. Chilmole is actually the Belizean name for the Mexican dish relleno negro. They are the same thing! Relleno negroor chilmole, is unique to the Yucatán region. In Lauren Wayne’s Food and the Pursuit of Balance in Rural Yucatán, she follows the lives of people living in Juubche, Mexico. This Mayan village is so remote, that it cannot be found on a map, but Wayne’s observations give the world a glimpse into not only the way they live, but also into how certain foodways have continued to exist due to their isolation. Specifically, Wayne gives special attention to the women responsible for making particular dishes for their families:

On occasion, women prepare the favorite for weddings and fiestas, relleno negro, turkey or, more commonly, chicken with pork in a sauce of blackened chiles, toasted onion and garlic, and achiote and other spices, served with tortillas. If men are successful in hunting, their families might enjoy píibil kej, pit-roasted venison, often served in a broth with cilantro, habanero chile, and tortillas; or a salpicón of ubak’el jaaleb, pit-roasted agouti meat shredded and mixed with cilantro, diced radish and habanero chile, and salt, and marinated with sour orange juice, served with tortillas (54). 

According to my grandmother, chilmole can be made for any occasion. My grandmother uses the package chimole seasoning also known as recado negro which is a blend of grilled chilis and various spices. Additionally, she adds regular recado rojo, into her recipe when cooking chimole. The only difference with my grandmother’s recipe is that she prefers chicken instead of turkey, which is completely acceptable. After researching how chimole is made, I learned that another variation of the dish includes adding baseball-sized meatballs to the stew– packed with diced onions, tomatoes, and a boiled egg yolk in the center. 

Recado Rojo, a prized seasoning in Belizean cuisine.

            Looking closer at Belize’s relationship with Mexico, there is definitely a large number of foodways that are shared between the countries. Even though my family ranges in a mix between Mayans and creoles, and do not resemble a Mexicans’ appearance or speak Spanish, we have many of the same foods that remain in tradition. And because Belize is so diverse, it has allowed many people who do not fit the typical Hispanic heritage criteria to indulge, celebrate, and own deeply rooted Central American food. 

Didn’t you say something wait. There was something else –this soup…

Conch Soup?

Yeah, how is that made?

The conch is boiled In plain water and with a little salt. Use that same stuff again and – the cassava and some flour– you brown that to make a brown gravy for the conch soup. So, you brown some flour separately. You can add water to that, and it becomes brown and it looks like a paste. You can add water until it’s done. When that is thin enough, you add it to the water with the conch, green bananas, and cassava. You can add coconut milk to that also and you season it up with thyme and black pepper and salt for taste. You could also put fresh okra on it also, and you let it simmer and cook. And that is served with white rice.

Me interviewing my grandmother.

Belize’s foodways has the perfect balance between food that is derived from the land and from the sea. Belize is also known for its marine wonders, like the Blue Hole, and its hundreds of islands, also known as cayes and atolls. More specifically, the barrier reef that surrounds the cayes are depended on for supplying the country’s seafood. The book, Belize in Focus, illuminates how the natural environment of the atoll and cayes provides for the habitat for fish and crustaceans. “Many of the cayes are made up almost entirely of mangrove swamp with little or no firm land. Mangroves also grow along the Belizean coast. They are a critical part of the eco-system, because their roots help stop erosion by trapping sediment and the shelter they give provides a good environment for fish to breed” (Peedle 18). Conservation efforts and strict fishing seasons have allowed Belize to preserve not only the healthiness of the reef but also has allowed them to maintain safe harvesting levels. Therefore, a major part of Belize’s economy depends on seafood– most notably their lobster and conch. These are considered delicacies in the United States but in Belize, they are readily available when in season. The dishes that have stemmed from lobster can range anywhere from grilled lobster, to lobster soup, and lobster with eggs, which is one most delicious breakfast items you can have. As for conch, it could be made into conch soup, fritters, and ceviche. Lobster has a familiar consistency that many people are used to, but conch is a little different. The queen conch meat comes from a shell, in which the texture is naturally rubbery, similar to the consistency of mussels and oysters. Yet, when flavored correctly, one could appreciate the opportunity to eat conch. Meals like conch soup are added to the list of dishes that my grandmother has mastered. In addition, conch fritters are made by grinding the conch meat into chucks and mixed with flour to create paste a to fry. In the end, they look like mini hash brown patties, and the taste has a fresh sea taste– which is a little salty which could resemble a cross between lobster and clams. As mentioned, the myriad of foodways available in Belize allows it to be the Chameleon of Central America.

Ann’s Conch Flitters

Belize has proved that it can mend well with its neighbors, Mexico and Guatemala, but what ultimately differentiates it, is its ability to sustain itself while being a member of the Caribbean Common Market and Community (CARICOM). CARICOM, has paved the way for Belize’s economic and trading stability, allowing them to maintain major financial gain from producing, beans, sugar, rice, citrus, seafood, and corn. Moreover, I wanted to delve deeper to find out more about how CARICOM, allowed Belize to maintain the “organic-ness” of their food.   In a conversation with my grand aunt who resides in Florida, I asked her, 

What did you usually drink with your meals when you were in Belize?

We drank Coke. Because they (Belize) had their own Cola-Coca factory, and they had all types of sodas, like, the different Fantas. Red [cherry, which is not available in the U.S] and Orange. But I don’t drink Coke, here because of the corn-syrup. The Cola-Coca factory used our own sugar. So, we only drink water here– water with lemon or with cumber. No sodas in my house. 

Coca-Cola truck delivering to a local business

When she said those words I was surprised, but it made sense. Throughout my personal travels to Caribbean islands like, my father’s home of Grenada and Barbados, each island has its own Coca-Cola factories that utilize their own sugar when making soda. Unlike NAFTA, CARICOM has allowed its members to use its resources for their individual needs, rather than mandating the use of a universal sweetener, like corn syrup. And that mandate is what the United States did to Mexico in the NAFTA agreement, but thankfully it hasn’t breached the Mexican coke. But unfortunately, whether or not it’s high fructose corn syrup or sugar that is used in production, Coca-Cola in Mexico imposes on the health of the people. In Alyshia Gálvez’s Eating NAFTA, she highlights the revolt against the American parasite. “…[A] four-meter tall inflatable Coco-Cola can labeled “diabetes” in the iconic font [was placed] in Mexico City’s Zócalo…to advocate for a stronger public health response to the rising dominance of processed food and sugar-sweetened beverages in Mexico” (118-119). Even though Belize also has sugar-based drinks, the situation in Mexico is worse due to the imposition of processed foods due to NAFTA. Major food chains like McDonald’s and KFC, cannot be found in Belize, but in Mexico, it is very well present. This has posed a major threat to Mexico’s public health situation because it forces the country to veer away from the ancient Aztec ways. Therefore, people have demonstrated publicly, like the inflated Coco-Cola can, that they know that NAFTA did more harm than good for the country’s well-being, especially with the evident rise of diabetes. 

            Through the words of my grandmother, Belize has positioned itself as a dynamic and   adaptable country. With the foods that Belize and Mexico share, I wanted to illuminate how the geographic borders have been proven to ultimately be invisible. And with invisibility comes amicability, where both cultures can appreciate each other. I believe food truly brings people together, especially when the shared foods are corn-based. 

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