The Mopan Maya originally inhabited parts of central Belize and the Peten in Guatemala. In the 1600's some were converted to catholicism by the Spanish while others resisted. Many were struck by white man diseases such as small pox and all were driven out of Belize by the British in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1886, the modern Mopan began migrating back to Southern Belize from the village of San Luis in the southern Peten, Guatemala escaping forced labor and taxation and searching for a place with fertile soils and clean rivers. These Mopan first settled near present day Pueblo Viejo, and eventually founded the modern village of San Antonio in the Toledo District, which continues to be the largest Mopan settlement in Southern Belize.
The Kekchi Maya are originally from the Verapaz region of Guatemala. They migrated to Belize in the late 1800's after losing their land and freedom to German coffee growers.
The Kekchi settled in the lowland areas along rivers and streams, forming small isolated villages throughout Toledo. Because of their isolation, the Kekchi have become the most self reliant ethnic group in Belize. They are also peaceful people known for their cooperative practices in farming and cultural development.
While over 30 distinctly Kekchi communities exist in Toledo, over the years the Kekchi Maya have mixed with the Mopan communities. The largest village of Kekchi Maya is San Pedro Columbia.
The ancient words spoken by the Kekchi and Mopan Maya were probably a dialect of Cholan, the language of the Classic Maya heartland. This ancient way of speaking has developed into several distinct languages. Linguistically, the Mopan are separate from the Kekchi. The two groups even have different words for such common entities as "sun" and "tortilla". Because of the language differences, and the mixing of the two cultures, most Maya in Toledo are tri-lingual in Kekchi, Mopan, and English. Many Maya also understand Spanish.
Today, men generally wear Euro-American style pants and shirts. Women display a range from modern to traditional in their clothes. Many women wear plain color, full-length dresses sewn from a variety of bright color material, with lace trimmings around the collar and sleeves. Other women use calf length skirts of machine or hand woven cloth. Blouses are made of white or colored cotton cloth and decorated with embroidery or lace trimmings.
The Maya maintain a strong link to the past through rituals, folklore and family. Fiestas, dancing and traditional music remain important as several festivals and celebrations occur throughout the year. On these special occasions, masks and elaborate costumes are worn by dancers, singers, and musicians. One tradition occurs on the 1st and 2nd of November-All Saint's Day and All Souls Day. On this day, huge feasts are prepared for ancestors. Late evening, these meals are set on tables along with candles in the houses of those who have lost their loved ones. If the food is gone in the morning, the people believe that their ancestors came for the food.
The Feast of San Luis is celebrated during Easter. Traditional dances such as the Cortes Dance and the Deer Dance are held. The Cortes Dance uses drums, flutes, and rattles to dramatize the combined forces of the church and army during the European conquest. The Deer Dance is accompanied by the marimbas and symbolizes the important relationship between humanity and nature.
Knowledge of the medicinal value of many plants in the region has been passed down through generations. Many Mayas still collect these plants and herbs to cure illnesses and maintain good health. In addition, most villages have a health center with a health worker available 24 hours a day.
The community is governed by the "Alcalde" system. Every 3 years an Alcalde is elected in November. All villagers are invited to an assembly, and a majority vote decides on a leader. The Alcalde is very important to the community as he has complete authority and a mandate to govern. His role is to ensure peace and harmony in the village through judging disputes and levying small fines. A relatively new village council system is in place in some villages which has begun to limit the traditional powers of the Alcalde.
Each village has a primary school. Children start school at age 5 and graduate at age 14. Upon completion, they go to P.G. to take their Belize National Selection Exam. Children who pass have the opportunity to go to high school in Punta Gorda if their parents can afford it. Children who score highest on the exam receive scholarships. If successful, some obtain scholarships to highschool in Punta Gorda. Many of students return to the village when they finish school to help their family and community.
The mainstay of the Kekchi and Mopan diet is corn and beans. A wide range of fruits (bananas, citrus and mangoes) and vegetables are grown in the family milpas. Wild game such as guan, wild pig, deer and gibnut supplement meat from a number of domestic animals such as chickens, turkeys, and pigs.
Morning and evening meals usually consist of corn or flour tortillas, and eggs or beans with coffee. Preparation of corn known as "poch" is made by leaving the massa(corn mush) to ferment. The massa is then placed in a large waha leaf(a large, flat leaf), boiled like a tamale and eaten with a soup made from chicken or pork.
A traditional midday meal,"Caldo", is made of local chicken and broth with fresh tortillas. Cacao are dried, roasted, ground and used to prepared hot or cold, sweet or unsweetened, drink resembling a richly chocolate-flavored coffee.
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