Sixty years ago, Mennonites from Chihuahua, Mexico, crossed the Belize River and landed at a flat area now called the Mennonite Beach. What the settlers saw in 1958 was a dense rain forest on land they purchased to make into farms. Today, the drive to Mennonite Beach in Spanish Lookout passes fertile fields of beans and corn and cattle in pastureland.
This year is the 60th anniversary of the arrival of Mennonites in Belize and the settlement in Spanish Lookout. The first settlers cleared the land and built homes, churches and schools. Many of the original settlers still live there, and they describe the difficult years in the beginning when life was hard and families with more resources shared with those who had less.
Many of the Mennonites living in Belize today share a heritage with others whose ancestors went through the Russian Empire before emigrating to the Western Hemisphere.
Persecution in Holland and opportunities elsewhere drew them east, where Catherine the Great invited them and other German speakers to settle in Ukraine beginning in 1789. When political instability made life in Ukraine dangerous, they moved to Canada. Hoping for more control over their lives, they negotiated a move to Mexico. In 1957 leaders came to British Honduras (now Belize) to explore options there.
Spanish Lookout has become a thriving agricultural and business community. The Spanish Lookout online business directory lists 45 businesses. Caribbean Tire and Western Dairies are two examples of Mennonite-owned businesses thriving with branches around the country. Cattle, dairy, egg and poultry production thrive. Crops including corn and beans, and fruit and vegetables, grow on farms and in gardens.
Many people in the surrounding communities work on the farms and in businesses. Development of petroleum extraction in Spanish Lookout has resulted in money for infrastructure projects such as building roads. But not everyone is happy with oil wells’ impact on the environment or society.
Among the Mennonite colonies in Belize, Spanish Lookout has accommodated to modern life more than others. Motor vehicles, telephones, computers and internet for business and modern banking are accepted, but there is a culture of keeping traditions such as special attire and simple living.
Plautdietsch, or Low German, is used at home and work. High German is used for church and school. Schooling stops in the early teens, and young people are expected to work on farms or in businesses. Many people speak English and Spanish as well as Plautdietsch.
A 20-minute drive from Spanish Lookout is a different kind of Mennonite community. Upper Barton Creek and Lower Barton Creek are a unique Anabaptist community, where people have made choices to live simple and separate lives.
It is one of the few places where people from both the Holland-Poland-Ukraine and Swiss-German Mennonite lines have joined together. In Upper Barton Creek, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers from the United States and Plautdietsch speakers from Belize live without electricity, engines, motors or other modern technology, including photos of people.
Driving in a car in Lower Barton Creek seems out of place. The rest of the people are moving at a horse-drawn buggy pace. Gardens and fields cultivated by horse and plow are productive, with beautiful produce.
Critics say the people live by rules, without spirituality. Talking with several people gave the impression they are committed Christians following the Anabaptist way. Specific rules and restrictions are less important to them than being part of a group of people who accept the discipline of the community as a radical commitment to a simple, dedicated and shared lifestyle.
One of the original settlers in Lower Barton Creek, 73-year-old Walter Friesen, enthusiastically showed us his workshop, where he does wood and metal work without power tools. He made the workshop under a large thatch roof palapa he built. He saves work using the bench saw for the days his grandsons are around to turn the handle that makes the saw spin. As he moves around the shop, Friesen speaks English in a Belizean Creole accent, making humorous comments and quoting Bible passages that support his practices.
Spiritual life is a part of everyday life in Spanish Lookout. In the home of Tina and Menno Dueck, the children and grandchildren start the day with reading a chapter in German from the New Testament and singing an English song from the hymnal. They are singing through the hymnal, a song every day. Discussion is often about moral or religious issues and living the Christian life.
‘A world different’
The 2000 Belize census recorded roughly 12,000 Mennonites, including children and unbaptized adults. The 2015 Mennonite World Conference census counted 5,405 baptized members. Based on the 12,000 figure, Mennonites make up 3.7 percent of Belize’s population of 324,000, according to the 2010 census.
In addition to Plautdietsch speakers, there are churches of Spanish or Creole speakers that resulted from Mennonite mission efforts. Some Spanish-speaking Mennonites moved to Belize from Mexico, and a community of Mennonites from El Salvador settled in Belize to escape the civil war there, making Mennonite communities in Belize quite diverse.
People leave the communities for medical reasons, business or work. Even in seaside resorts, Mennonites are in evidence. Families and couples travel to enjoy the sea, and young men sometimes work outside their communities.
Belize has been good to the Mennonites, and the Mennonites are good for Belize. Mennonite farms supply most of the nation’s eggs, poultry and dairy products.
Though the Mennonite colonies are separate from the rest of the population, they provide many products the country needs and provide jobs.
They also add variety to the countryside. As the government tourism office and guidebooks advise: “Visit the Mennonite communities. They are a world different from the rest of Belize.”