Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Belize
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Belize, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Belize.
Outside of the bigger towns and tourist areas, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Belize are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Belize, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Belize
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
Overview of Diversity in Belize
The Peace Corps staff in Belize recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Women in Belize generally have traditional roles, though the situation is changing. For example, women in Maya and mestizo communities are primarily responsible for the maintenance of the household, and many are expected to be subservient and obedient. In larger towns, however, women’s roles are shifting. More mestizo women are attending university than ever before, and as the entire country moves from being less dependent on farming and fishing to being more dependent on tourism and business, women are gaining new opportunities.
Female Volunteers in Belize have to be careful in what they do or say. Behavior that you consider perfectly friendly and innocent, such as going out for a drink with, or accepting a ride home from, a man, may be interpreted as a sexual advance or invitation. American television shows such as Baywatch, Days of Our Lives, and Melrose Place, which Belizeans watch, depict loose American women, and Belizean men may have had past experiences with American tourists out to have a good time. You need to be diligent in maintaining strictly professional relationships with male coworkers. If you develop a bad reputation, it will stay with you for the duration of your service. One of the hardest things for female Volunteers to accept is that Belize is a society that has been, and is likely to continue to be, male dominated.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Age garners respect in Belize. Younger Volunteers often have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Older Volunteers sometimes feel isolated when there are no other Volunteers of the same age or suitable role models among the Peace Corps staff. It can also be challenging to get support from younger Volunteers. Senior Volunteers may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support. Some find this enjoyable, while others choose not to fill this role.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
It is wise to use discretion and caution in revealing your sexual orientation to Belizeans you do not know well in order to avoid jeopardizing your relationships with people in your community and at work. Although Belize may seem laid back and easygoing in regard to sexuality, this is not the case. People generally hold conservative attitudes toward homosexuality. With the availability of American cable television, many Belizeans are becoming more aware of homosexuality, but most see it as an import from the United States. Belize is primarily a Christian country, and many people feel that homosexuality is a sin and aberration. Since most Belizeans do not “come out” to their families or anyone else, the population at large has rarely met an “out” lesbian, gay, or bisexual person. Rumors and misinformation about homosexuality abound. As a result, homophobia is rampant and many Belizean lesbians, gays, and bisexuals move to the United States.
Although rarely prosecuted, male homosexual acts are against the law in Belize (lesbians are not included in the statute), and there are no laws protecting the rights of lesbians or gays in Belize. There are no openly gay bars or support groups, so the only place for people to meet is at private parties. If you become involved in an intimate relationship with a Belizean, it is advisable to avoid public displays of affection. If you encounter discrimination based on your sexual orientation from Peace Corps staff in Belize, bring it to the attention of your country director. If you have other concerns, the Peace Corps medical officer in Belize is available to provide support and information on this issue.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Volunteers in Belize are frequently asked about their religious affiliation and may be invited to attend a community church. Volunteers who do not attend church may be challenged to explain their reluctance, but it is usually possible to politely decline if the church or religious practice is not one of your selected choice. Most Volunteers find effective ways to cope with these situations and come to feel quite at home in Belize. Belize is cool.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Belize, you may face a special set of challenges. In Belize, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. And there is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Belize without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Belize staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively in Belize.
Possible Issues for Married Couples
Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and its challenges. It helps to have someone by your side with whom you can share your experience, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. It is important to remember that you are in a foreign country with new rules and need to be open-minded about cultural differences. A couple may have to take on some new roles. A married man may be encouraged by Belizeans to be the more dominant member in the relationship, be encouraged to make decisions independently of his spouse, or be ridiculed when he performs domestic tasks. A married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to or may be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. Other issues may also arise: One spouse may be more enthusiastic about Peace Corps service, better able to adapt to the new environment, or less homesick than the other. Competition may arise if one spouse learns the language or other skills faster than the other.
A couple who is assigned to different sectors or projects often will stay in different training sites during at least part of pre-service training. This enables each spouse to give undivided attention to acquiring the language and technical skills needed for the assignment and to spend more time in cross-cultural interactions with members of the host community. Couples who live at separate sites during training will have opportunities to see each other as the training schedule permits.