The Block

Bright flowers embroidered over a sunny yellow, smocked background bring to mind the tropical climate of Belize. The inspiration came from Rose Marie Chiu’s fond memories of learning to smock in school and the hours spent creating many pieces of her own. The style known as English smocking reflects the British influence on Belize and involves controlling a series of tiny, parallel fabric pleats with intricate stitches on the pleats’ surfaces. The arrangement of the block was achieved with the help of Mona Kerr Street. The centre features a colourful, finely embroidered Keel Billed Toucan (the national bird of Belize noted for its great, canoe-shaped bill) perched on a tree branch.


Flickr - archer10 (Dennis) - Belize-1038
Mayan ruins of Caracol, Belize

Cultural Profile

Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a constitutional monarchy on the Caribbean coast of Central America. It encompasses one of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Mayan, and its name, officially adopted in 1973, comes from a Mayan word meaning ‘muddy waters.’ Belize is home to the world’s second largest barrier reef. Its coastline and islands, with secret harbours, coves, and bays, were once a haven to British privateers. Within the dense, tropical rainforest covering half the country are chicle trees, the sap of which is used in chewing gum, and giant ceiba trees, from which kapok (fluff surrounding the seeds) is taken for stuffing cushions and life preservers. Mayans consider themselves to be products of the ceiba tree, a symbol of life said to be in the centre of the universe, holding up the heavens.

The population of Belize includes Mestizos (descendants of Spaniards and Carib Indians), Creoles (people of African or African-European ancestry), Garifuna (descendants of Carib Indians and Africans), Mayan Indians, and a small percentage each of Caucasians and Asian Indians. The successful blending of ethnicities has earned Belize a widespread reputation for its friendly people, where it is a custom to greet people on the street. English is the official language and other languages spoken include Carib, Mayan, Spanish, and a Creole dialect of English.

Belize is known for rich biodiversity and Mayan ruins. Fortunately Mayan arts and crafts have survived to this day. For example, JipiJapa palms are boiled and their fibers extracted and used to weave baskets and hats decorated with various shapes made of darker fiber. The strong agave fibers are used to make hammocks or rope.

Embroidery embellishes everyday women’s clothes. Mayan women use the long cross-stitch to create strips of embroidery to decorate the necks and sleeves of their their blouses. Designs represent animals or flowers, and each village has its unique designs. Textiles are also woven with backstrap looms, a tool that has been in use for over 2000 years in the area. One end of the portable loom is attached to a wall or a tree while the other is strapped on the weaver’s back. The lightness of the loom means the weaver is able to work from just about anywhere to produce colourful bags, belts or the traditional colourful huipil worn by Mayan women.

Coral and tortoiseshell jewellery is produced in Belize. Woodworking, due to the abundance of exotic woods in the country, is also popular. In the past, the large mahogany trees growing in Belize were what drew the first European settlers to the area. Trees as tall as 200 feet were harvested and shipped to Europe. However, the supply of trees has dwindled since it can take many decades for a tree to mature.

Belize holds its carnival in September, with elaborate celebrations replete with parades, dancing and exuberant costumes. Punta, a Garifuna music and dance style, is very popular in Belize. Drums are the traditional instruments used to perform it. During the performance, a singer calls to the audience, which then responds. Though the music is often lively, the lyrics deal with misfortune and sadness. Modern versions now include electric instruments. Brukdown, an energetic percussion blending the tapping of assorted bottles, tables, cans, or other objects with the accordion, originated in the logging camps of the interior and is a traditional Belizean music style.

Immigration records indicate that Belizeans have been coming to Canada since 1974. Though small in numbers, their warmth and accepting spirit of others is a valuable contribution.


Sponsor: Heenan Blaikie LLP | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons