One of the most distinct communities in Belize is the Mennonites. With several different sub-groups, the history of how Mennonites came to live in Belize is a long and interesting one.
Most of today’s Mennonites are descended from an old order of the religion which settled in West Prussia in the last part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. At the time, the area was under the control of the Russian Empire and most of Belize’s Mennonites today are still referred to as “Russian Mennonites” even though their first language is Plautdietsch, related to German and Dutch.
In 1873, a group of these “Russian” Mennonites moved to Manitoba in Canada. After a split on theological grounds, one group of Mennonites emigrated to Mexico in 1922. Around 1958, a splinter group of the Mexican Mennonites relocated to the territory known as British Honduras, today’s Belize. They were later joined by new waves of emigration of Mennonites from North America. Today, approximately 12,000 people in Belize are classified as Mennonites.
Often confused for being Amish, the Mennonites are only partially integrated in modern society, often eschewing electricity and gasoline-powered vehicles and equipment for the reward of honest labor and simpler living. Visitors to Belize can instantly identify Mennonites due to their predominantly Anglo appearance and simple rustic dress that includes straw hats and overalls for men and long dresses and bonnets for the women.
Today, Belize’s Mennonite community is renowned for their high quality fresh produce, poultry, beef, dairy, and apiary products as well as handcrafted furniture. Most Mennonites live in exclusive communities but some members regularly trade their goods in town fairs or at the local markets in the western and northern part of the country. Mennonite communities in Belize include Shipyard (Orange Walk District), Upper and Lower Barton Creek (Cayo District), Spanish Lookout (Cayo District), Springfield (Cayo District), Indian Creek (Orange Walk District), Little Belize (Corozal District), Pine Hill (Toledo District), and Blue Creek (Orange Walk District).
A sect of Christianity, Mennonites began as an offshoot of Anabaptism in Friesland (modern-day Holland) based on the writings of Menno Simons in the 16th century. Initially persecuted by Catholics and other Protestant sects, Mennonites have a strong commitment to pacifism and so regularly relocated in order to continue to practice their faith.
History of the Mennonites in Belize
Given the laid-back attitudes, Caribbean vibe and fun in the sun atmosphere that pervades the nation of Belize, encountering groups of people dressed in conservative garb can be a head-turning experience. But for the nation’s citizens, spotting members of the nation’s Mennonite community is as unremarkable as meeting up with fellow citizens with Mayan, Spanish, Garifuna, English, East Indian and Chinese roots.
Historically, the Mennonite faith is part of a larger Anabaptist movement that took place in Europe when many Christians decided to break away from the Catholic Church. A Dutch priest credited with launching the Mennonite religion re-interpreted the Bible and influenced believers so dramatically even when the new faith broke into branches — Old Colony, Old Order and Kleine Gemeinde — the movement remained united.Facing persecution because of their beliefs, many escaped to North America from Russia and other European points beginning in the 1700s. Subsequent waves of Mennonites arrived in the western hemisphere between 1874 and by 1958, a well-established community that had settled in Mexico experienced conflict with that nation’s government, causing them to rethink their future. Fate interceded. A new homeland was located just across the border.
In 1957, a delegation of Mennonites arrived in what was then British Honduras from Mexico, met with the head of government and negotiated an arrangement in which this religious community would be given the chance to move to Belize in return for establishing a much-needed agricultural presence. In return for their freedom to practice their faith and a promise that their children would not have to join the nation’s military, a new homeland was established for these pacifistic believers that came to benefit the entire nation.
It didn’t take long for Belizeans to grow accustomed to their newest neighbors and accept the traditional ways of these peace-loving, conservative people who maintained their distance and continued to communicate in the language of their homelands. Plautdietsch, a Low German dialect, continues to be spoken when conversing with each other, but English became the language of business between Mennonites and Belizeans.
Perhaps the biggest influence Mennonites have made to the Belize economy was the establishment of farms specializing in produce, meat and dairy products. Their organic farming methods were the same as those their ancestors had practiced over time, and Belizean can thank this small but dynamic society for establishing businesses that have become the nation’s largest providers of milk, cheese and other dairy products, averaging 85-percent of these essentials. But not every thriving Mennonite effort is focused on agriculture: Old world crafts, carpentry and honey production add to this community’s successful enterprises.
Clinging to their old ways and tending to avoid interaction with neighbors, Mennonites are a kind and gentle people grateful for their ability to thrive and contribute to Belize’s economy, but like their ancestors, time has splintered these people into three distinct societies. While the most conservative members of the sect eschew electricity, technology and modernity, others smoke cigarettes and have found a middle ground.
The most progressive Mennonite communities have embraced everything from rubber-wheel tractors to computers, cell phones and modern dress. Given the diversity that has evolved since putting down roots in Belize in 1958, it should come as no surprise that there are currently 10 distinct Mennonite communities located in the Cayo, Corozal, Orange Walk and Toledo Districts. Each has developed a distinct personality.
When Mennonites belonging to all of these communities came together to celebrate having lived in Belize for 50 years in 2008, they remain dedicated to their twin desires: maintaining the integrity of their beliefs and commercially contributing to the nation that has given them not just a home, but a safe haven where practicing their most cherished beliefs is not just accepted but encouraged.
A video documentary of life in Spanish Lookout, Belize, from 1958 to 2008. Including Mennonite history.