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Belizean Beat : Immigrants Bring Vibrant Music and Art to South-Central

July 21, 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.

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 the Crenshaw District and South-Central Los Angeles.

Though their numbers are small compared with other ethnic groups in the city, Belizeans have made their presence felt in their neighborhood, infusing it with 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," he said. "I guess that's what happened with we Belizeans."

More Belizeans live in Los Angeles--about 30,000--than anywhere outside Belize, a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico and Guatemala whose 229,000 citizens live in an area the size of New Hampshire. Many have settled in a 10-square-mile area 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 are more than 30 civic organizations, half a dozen musical bands, a radio show, three newspapers 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 restaurants of simple decor, each competing with an assortment of piquant Caribbean dishes.

Politics, patriotism and news from 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 Belizean 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, now in opposition.

But 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 the singsong accent of his homeland, a poor country relying on a largely agricultural economy, where sugar cane, citrus fruit and bananas make up 73% of 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.

Barrow moved to Los Angeles in 1967 at age 20 to catch a piece of the American Dream. Now the owner of a furniture refinishing business, he started a recording company and heads a Belizean band, the Babylon Warriors.

Despite the proliferation of black Belizeans here, Belize itself is a medley of ethnic groups: Creole, Carib, Garifuna, East Indian, Mestizo (a mixture of Mayan and Spanish) and Latino.

The groups don't always harmonize. For decades, there has been a rift between northern Belizeans, mainly Creoles, and Garifuna, an ethnic group whose members descend from Carib Indians and Africans who mainly live in the southern region of Belize. The Creoles looked down on the Garinagu (plural of Garifuna), whose language sounds distinctly African.

The schism between Garinagu and Creoles can be seen in Los Angeles. For the most part, the Garinagu have settled east of Western Avenue, while Creoles mainly live to the west.

The influx of Belizeans into Los Angeles has been so vast that many have rediscovered neighbors and childhood friends from their hometowns at parties, in musical circles and at local churches.

Belizean music and art are also channels to keep the culture and history of Belize fresh for second-generation Belizeans and younger immigrants, the immigrants say.

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