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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : Home Away From Home : Belizeans Bring Sights, Sounds, Smells of Their Native Country to South-Central

July 03, 1994|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is sweltering outside, and as they do on most Saturday afternoons, the Belizeans gather at the Caribbean Market with their chairs and stools, their lilting accents and their staunch opinions.

A knot of middle-aged men dressed in patterned silk and cotton shirts straddles the entrance to the small store, excitedly debating in their Creole dialect and native language of Garifuna the fall of O.J. Simpson.

An older gentleman with a thinning gray beard and an old camouflage baseball cap to shield his eyes from the sun sits placidly on one side of the entrance. His is lured by the pungent smell of a peppery homemade onion sauce that fellow Belizean Tina Lewis, a seamstress, keeps in a plastic container to top off the tuna-filled panades (fried meat patties) she sells every weekend.

Painted on the store's outside wall behind them is a fading Caribbean scene: palm trees, mountains and fishing boats in azure water.

More than 2,000 miles away from Belize, the Caribbean Market sits in the heart of a burgeoning Belizean community in South-Central. Though their numbers are small compared to other ethnic groups in the city, Belizeans have made their presence felt in their neighborhood, infusing it with a diverse culture of pulsating African-influenced music, vibrant art and distinctive West Indian and Latino foods such as conch, cassava, garanaches, fried plantains and johnnycake.

"There's no reason anyone can point to of why we ended up settling in this area. You follow somebody in your family and you usually stay in the community," said Paul Warren, Belize's first honorary consul in Los Angeles from 1984 to 1989.

"Pretty soon you have a whole group of people settled in one place. I guess that's what happened with we Belizeans."

More Belizeans live in Los Angeles--about 30,000--than anywhere outside Belize, a tiny Central American country the size of New Hampshire whose 229,000 citizens are squeezed between the Caribbean Sea, Mexico and Guatemala. Many have settled in a 10-square-mile area of South-Central bordered by Adams Boulevard to the north, Slauson Avenue to the south, Crenshaw Boulevard to the west and Avalon Avenue to the east.

Within this small community there are more than 30 civic organizations, half a dozen musical bands, a radio show and a string of more than 50 Belizean-owned and -operated restaurants and businesses, many of which maintain close ties to their native land.

*

Walk down Western Avenue from Adams to Vernon and it's as if you have stepped into a Little Belize. This short stretch has the city's largest concentration of Belizean eateries and businesses and reveals the greatest sense of the country.

It starts with the Belizean Fish Market near Adams with its assortment of conch, king and jack fish, and runs past the Plum Tree nightclub near 39th Street, blaring with Belizean punta rock music. In between is a string of Belizean-owned and -operated restaurants of simple decor, each competing with an assortment of piquant Caribbean dishes.

Politics and news from and patriotism for Belize pervade almost every store and restaurant, whether in casual conversation or on the bumper stickers (I Punta Gorda or Corazol or Orange Walk), posters or T-shirts that line the walls.

Nel and John's Belize-American restaurant near Exposition Boulevard is painted in the blue and white colors of the Belizean flag, and of owners Nel and John Wells' political party, the People's United Party, or PUP.

Diners at Mom's Caribbean Restaurant down the street are prompted by a sign to buy the latest edition of Amandla, one of Belize's three weekly newspapers that are flown in to Los Angeles every Friday night.

At a corner table, three diners huddle in front of a composite photograph of Belize's newly elected leaders of the United Democratic Party.

"Aye, this one is Castillo, there," a man says to no response. "How long he been in power? They need to keep on top themselves or else (PUP) can come back in power, man," he says.

Politics wasn't the impetus for the exodus from Belize to the United States. A 1961 hurricane that nearly leveled Belize City sent the first wave of Belizeans to Los Angeles, where they easily settled into African American neighborhoods here.

"It's when we open our mouths that you can tell there's a difference," Warren said with his singsong accent.

Belizeans continue to come to the United States with the same aspirations of most immigrants: to make money and have a better life.

Beyond its dazzling coral reefs, historical Mayan ruins and wildlife sanctuaries, Belize is a poor country relying on a largely agricultural economy. Sugar cane, citrus fruit and bananas make up 73% of its exports.

"We all grew up hearing that America is the land of milk and honey. So when you get the chance to come here, you take it and try to make the best," said Patrick Barrow, 47.

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