“Lions and Leos…”

We were invited to the Belize Lion’s Club dinner by our landlady and her husband. We didn’t know, until we arrived there, that she is the president of the club. From 16 clubs in Belize they’re down to four: Belmopan, Belize City, San Pedro, San Esteban. There’s been a convention all day, some of the discussions contentious, evidently.

While I managed to avoid having a Guinness in Northern Ireland, I’m not so lucky here, but I’m also grateful when I can find a lighter beer. I try the local brew, Belikin, for the first time and like it. It’s a warm, friendly crowd, and we’re served a delicious dinner. And introduced to the local custom of greeting people with the phrase, “Good night.”

Which works in Spanish but not in English. Yet there are strict rules for polite greetings in Belize, and they are observed even among strangers on the street: Good morning until noon; good afternoon until 3 or 4 pm; good evening after than; good night when it is dark.

Some people fudge the times a bit.

Each Lion’s Club has a queen, and the queen from the host club becomes the District 59 queen, so Miss Belize City will become the new queen. The girls are beautiful, and decked out in gorgeous gowns. They have each created fancy pins with their photographs, and the custom is to pin them on as many guests as possible by the end of the evening. T. and I are impartial, and accept pins from everyone who offers one, so we end up festooned with three of the four available pins.

Our collection of pins from the dinner.
Our collection of pins from the dinner.

The talent show starts out predictably enough, with a dance performance. Next comes a speech about the border conflict between Belize and Guatemala, and the conflicts and borders we create among ourselves — which links the decine in Lions membership and activity to petty conflicts and the inability to the members to communicate with one another. It was bold, I thought, and inspiring, that this young woman would confront her elders so openly.

A poetic, lyrical performance by a truly leonine woman followed, stalking the stage as if she herself were a caged lion, professing her commitment to the values of service, to this community within her country in which she had been brought up. Yet all of these are far too small to contain her power.

She talked about her hair, starting out with the statement, “My mother told me to fix my hair. By which she meant to straighten it.” She started with these words. And dissected the levels of meaning inherent in them, what her hair represents of her heritage, of the mixture of races, African slaves and Maya and Caucasian.

But what does that even mean, that hair texture and skin color have come to “mean” something, when we know that race is constructed? It means that she is encouraged to date lighter, not darker, to purify her blood, and I am taken back to a day when I am perhaps 14, my own hair long and curly and wild from a day outside in the sun and the pool and the humidity of the southern Arizona monsoon season, dressed in cut-off Levi’s 501s, and one of my father’s t-shirts, deeply tanned, very thin, a woman’s body hiding a girl who was afraid of the attention afforded to that body. And my mother’s bitter words when I entered the house: “Go do something with that nigger hair.”

A decade later and 2,000 miles away I am living with and engaged to an African-American man, a relationship my family would not accept. And so I ended the relationship, as I had straightened my hair, to please them. To conform.

And ended up alone.

I have only half the hair I once did; cancer treatments took the rest. But I revel in the days when my hair still curls wildly, am grateful for the effects of salt water and ocean breezes.

The final speech of the evening was delivered in the first person, in the form of a letter written after her own death by a dancer at a Belize club to her lover. To let him know why she had never come home, why she had simply disappeared. Telling how the bus had been late that night, and she had made the decision to walk home, the decision that had delivered her to her death. Sensing the presence behind her. Turning to meet the man who would chain her to an iron table, duct tape over her mouth, and begin to vivisect her body. Sliding in and out of consciousness. Understanding, in the moment when she realized she no longer had legs, that her life was over.

The duct tape off her mouth, warned not to scream as he began again to work with his knife, starting the incision at the side of her face. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. She could no longer stand the pain. The knife came toward her head, not to slit her throat, as she assumed, but to cut out her tongue. Her last memory would be drowning. She would die by drowning in her own blood.

I was older than her, at least 25, before I knew about snuff films and understood the more extreme forms of sadism and sexual violence in our world. The woman who delivered this speech is 19, dressed in an elegant white dress and rhinestone tiara. She is poised and graceful.

I wished so much that she did not know, did not have to know, of this violence against women in this world; that she did not have to know that this is the fate that awaits so many women in this world, to have their lives ripped open, sliced apart, that literally or figuratively they will end up in chains, their bodies and their spirits dissected, until they drown in their own feeble protests.

By all that is sacred in this world I wish she did not have to know that.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

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