Central America

Identity and Privilege

By Aurelia VanderWilde, Agnes Scott College class of 2025
Posted May 3, 2022

Heading to Belize I was not sure what to expect, and due to the virtual nature of my educational experiences over the past few years, I came in with few expectations. This does not mean I did not care about the journey or was not looking forward to it. Far from it: expectations and comparisons are the thieves of joy, and I wanted to go to the country with an open mind. 

While we were only in country for a week, I still learned a lot about Belize and the world as a whole through this experience. It was like a match that sparked a new sense of curiosity about this region of the world. While there were many valuable takeaways from the trip, I reflected most on the legacies of colonialism and personal identity.

Going to Belize, I was aware of the wealth inequities resulting from colonialism, but going there highlighted the global inequities that continue to persist. As someone with family in Belize and Central America, I am aware of this inequity and the resulting poverty. But awareness and understanding are two different things. When our Learn From Travel guide Suyen Moncado told us that the water in Belize is not safe to drink and that toilet paper could not be flushed, I was shocked into a new reality. But as my local coordinator during my year in Indonesia always reminded me, these are “Not Good, Not Bad, Just different.”

Seeing these inequities reminded me of the privilege that comes with being an American. Avoiding a tourist mindset and keeping my privilege in mind was challenging to balance at times. As Jamaica Kincaid reminds us in A Small Place,  I was viewing things from a privileged perspective. So what I experienced as the  “very bad road,” to take one of her examples, should not be overly romanticized nor demonized, but accepted. Many of the differences in infrastructure between the United States and Belize are not a choice made by the Belizean people, but a result of being in a developing country–and one still recovering from the legacy of British colonialism. 

Beyond reflecting on global inequities, going to Belize also caused me to reflect on my own identity and connections with my ancestors. My grandfather on my dad’s side of the family was a Mayan guide in El Salvador prior to the war, something  I had not thought about until we toured Xunantunich in Belize. My grandfather died long before I was born (in the Salvadoran Civil War) and I do not know much about him. Going to the ruins though, reminded me of him and his work. His job required deep knowledge, cultural sensitivity, and linguistic skills. 

Global Journeys: Belize class At Xunantunich, March 11 2022

These are all things that I like doing and like to think that some of this comes from my family’s nature. We have discussed our own identities in class and in Belize, and this was one small step towards gaining a greater understanding of my own. I hope to explore this further by talking with family members and doing more research online as well. I think that our extended families, even if we do not know each other well, can have an impact on us. I do believe that ancestors can play a role in who we are and I hope to learn more about this as well.

Finally, reading back on the letter I wrote to myself 12 weeks ago or so, which at this point feels light years away, is quite valuable, and I am happy this is part of our class assignment. At that point, I hoped to “learn more about myself and Belizean culture.” I can confidently say that I did. 

In the past few months, I have learned about Belize and the various cultures  within the country. I know more about the Garifuna people and their history in Belize, including the fact that there are more Garifuna people living outside of Belize than within Belize (one of many examples of the African diaspora).  . . . I also hoped to learn more about the colonial legacy of the British occupation in Belize. Unfortunately, I learned that Belize is not as post-colonial as I had thought it to be, and is still very much a part of the British neocolonial sphere of influence (as well as the influence of the US and American investment). When we landed in Belize one of the first things I saw was American Air Force planes. And all across the country, there were symbols of American influence, such as the Coca-Cola and dispensers strewn about the country. 

Additionally, as a Latina, and member of the diaspora community myself, going to Belize has inspired me to learn more about my family’s heritage on both my mom’s and dad’s sides. The cultural pride and knowledge that I saw was very inspiring. I am happy to say that I achieved my goals, and still have questions about Belize and my identity that I will answer in the coming years.