March 9th was originally called Baron Bliss Day, in honor of Baron Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss. The Englishman willed a large sum of money to Belize upon his death on March 9, 1926. In 2008, the Belizean Government opted to highlight several other people who have made an impact in the development of our little country, and so March 9th is now officially called National Heroes and Benefactors Day.
This public and bank holiday honors 11 heroes: Gwendolyn Lizarraga, Julian Armando Cho, Felipe Santiago Ricalde, Thomas Vincent Ramos, Nicholas Pollard Sr., Cleopatra White, Samuel Haynes, Phillip Stanley Wilberforce Goldson, George Cadle Price, Sir Isaiah Morter and Robert Sidney Turton.
With March 8th being International Women’s Day, we thought it would be fitting to highlight two of the women who marked Belize and left a legacy. We honor Gwen Lizarraga and Cleopatra White.
Born to Sidney Smith and Guadalupe Baeza on July 11, 1901 in Maskall Village, Gwendolyn Lizarraga was a successful business owner, outspoken politician, and women’s rights activist. Madam Liz – as she is known to Belizeans – was the first woman to serve as a government minister in Belize (then British Honduras). She operated a chicle and mahogany farm, eschewing convention by driving a land rover, wearing pants, carrying a gun and smoking cigarettes. Can you imagine what a sight that must have been? Talk about a trailblazer!
As an outspoken woman, she dealt with large companies like Wrigley’s, Castillo and Thurton without hesitation and with authority. In her dealings with employees however, her compassion was notable. She supported equal pay for equal work, particularly urging the protection of women workers.
The 1950s were the beginning of her work for women’s rights. In 1953, she was hired as a female parole officer, and the following year she began organizing women politically. By 1959, she had formed the United Women’s Group with 900 women throughout Belize, aiming to empower Belizean women culturally, economically and politically. She even co-founded the United Women’s Credit Union. She pushed for women to acquire property, surveying swamp lands and creating a map of parcels for women so they could become eligible to vote. Those parcels are now known as the Collet Constituency, between Curassow, Elston Kerr and Gibnut Streets, bounded by North Creek.
When Madam Liz noted that children couldn’t get an education because there were no schools in working-class neighborhoods, she and the women from the UWG got down to work, physically clearing mangrove swamps. Their efforts drew attention from the Publics Works Department, resulting in two new schools: Belize Junior Secondary Schools N° 1 and N° 2. Those schools are now known as Edward P. Yorke School and Gwen Lizarraga High School.
In April, 1961, the first year women were allowed to run in the country’s national elections, Gwendolyn Lizarraga became the first woman elected to the National Assembly of British Honduras. She won the Pickstock division with 69% of the votes, after which she was appointed as Minister of Education, Housing and Social Services, making her the first female Minister in the country.. She was reelected in 1965 and 1969, both times reappointed to her ministry. Her final run as Minister saw her spearheading a project to build low-cost housing in the neighborhoods of King’s Park, Lake Independence and Queen’s Square. (Fun fact: this writer lived on Lizarraga Avenue while studying at Junior College!). On June 9, 1975, after building an unimaginable legacy, Madam Liz passed away after battling illness.
By contrast, we have a hero in Nurse Cleopatra White, who was born in June 1898 in British Honduras. Following the death of her mother, she would be raised by her father until she entered school for nursing.
A dedicated community helper all her life, White became inspired by Nurse Vivian Seay’s work, and the two were instrumental in forming the Belizean branch of the Black Cross Nurses. White’s system for village councils in the management of hurricane preparations have been a model for villages across Belize. Her leadership and nursing skills, as well as her social work made her a leader in her country, and deserving of the honor of being a Belizean Hero.
For almost 20 years, Cleopatra White was a rural nurse, having worked alongside other nurses following a devastating hurricane in 1931. Their combined efforts established nursing and supply stations, and this experience pushed White toward social work. She went so far as to set up village council plans and organizing frontline emergency response in Gales Point (a true hidden gem of Belize). Her community development work nabbed her the Victoria Medal in 1953. During relief efforts after Hurricane Janet in 1955, the emergency plans she had worked on became a standard, and the model is still applied in Belize today. She was further awarded with the Member of the Order of the British Empire medal in 1958. In 1961, during Hurricane Hattie, she worked at the Hattieville Clinic, where she remained until she retired before the decade was over.
Retirement wasn’t about languishing, as White continued to train future nurses through the Black Cross Nurses. She was an art advocate, and a gifted songwriter and storyteller too. Despite all of her works to serve Belize, at the age of 89, Cleopatra White died poor in 1987, after several years in the Belize Old Folks Home. Following her death, The Cleopatra White Polyclinic in Belize City was opened in her honor.
So on March 9th, as you enjoy the holiday, I hope you can reflect on the impact made by these two amazing women. They, alongside nine distinguished gentlemen, are an invaluable part of the fabric of our Belizean society. May we honor them always.