Having grown up in the Southside of Belize City, a constituency of largely lower- to middle-income Creole and Hispanic residents, Sr. Carlette lived through systemic colorism. It is a reality here – as in many cities – that your neighborhood determines your life outcomes. That considered, Sr. Carlette recalls fondly that her neighbors “had each other’s backs”, sharing what little resources they had. Life is difficult in the Southside for both the youth, who are often recruited for gangs at a young age; and for older adults, who have very few resources to support their basic needs.
In 2013, Sr. Carlette surveyed this area to assess the needs of older persons there. This assessment resulted in the formation of LIFE – Living Independently in Full Existence – a blossoming SCN Ministry supporting seniors in need of medical assistance, food, social support, transportation, and house renovations. Through this ministry, Sr. Carlette has learned about the intricacies and complexities of land ownership in Belize. Called British Honduras until 1981, Belize was a colony with a few powerful families – most often lighter-skinned, or descendants of British colonizers – who held the most influence then and continue to hold the most land now. Racial privilege continues to favor white or lighter-skinned Belizeans. For folks who society marginalizes, including those with darker skin, Hispanic immigrants, or indigenous communities – there are added challenges to acquiring land and resources. Many are forced to look for land outside the urban core in surrounding rural areas, which are primarily swampy. Many become squatters on the land, constructing homes with scrap metal and intending to live on the land for at least 10 years to receive ownership, per squatter rights in the country. These conditions make life difficult, especially for elderly family members who must make do in a poor environment. As Sr. Carlette learned, few services exist to support the elderly community in these situations, and extending care to them aligned perfectly with the SCN mission.
To Carlette, these are collectively issues of environmental injustice because people have a right to live in sanitary and safe conditions. Social and historical factors curtail this right for many in Belize. These examples of injustice-reduced quality of life in the South side of Belize City, and land inequity, also stem from colorism in the country, prejudice against people with darker skin tones, even if within the same ethnic or racial group. Many racial groups exist in Belize from years of exchange between indigenous peoples, African slaves, and white colonizers, and there is an undeniable social hierarchy underpinning them all. Even within these groups, however, privilege for lighter-skinned individuals continues, and also affects the lived experiences, and environments, of families throughout generations.
In the next five days we will reflect further on Sister Carlette’s story.