When you meet Erin Ryan, the wife of Belizean Ambassador Daniel Gutierez, you might assume she is an American. That’s partly true, but Ryan has international roots that overlap with her husband’s.
Her mother was from Syracuse, New York, and her father is Irish, from Birdhill in County Tipperary. But Ryan was born in South Korea, where her parents were Catholic missionaries. But she calls Belize her home.
“I attended my mother’s Montessori school for a few yeas in Mexico and lived in small Mayan village outside of Tizimín, Yucatán, for six years. I was 8 years old when we arrived in Belize on Sept. 29, 1981. Belize had just received its independence eight days earlier on Sept. 21,” Ryan told us. “My parents worked for the Catholic Church. In Belize, my mother taught English at a Catholic high school. In fact, she was Daniel’s teacher!”
Gutierez himself at one point worked in education as dean of the Sacred Heart Junior College in San Ignacio.
“We are a country of immigrants, except for the [indigenous] Maya,” said Gutierez, who is 30 percent Iberian and 70 percent Maya and who also serves as ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Despite its small size and a population of just over 360,000, Belize is rich in cultural and natural diversity. Home to several ancient Mayan city-states and even buccaneers during the Golden Age of Piracy, the country formally became the colony of British Honduras in 1862 until its independence in 1981.
Today, Gutierez proudly calls his homeland a multicultural country, with a mix of ethnicities, including Maya of with European descent (Mestizo); Creole; Maya; and Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remaining population includes European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and North American groups. In 1958, the Mennonites arrived from Europe; some of the Mennonites still drive their buggies.
“One of the hottest topics in America now is immigration. Like the U.S., we are also a country of immigrants,” Gutierez told us. “Belize is unique. It is the only English-speaking nation in the Caribbean and is one of the region’s most stable democracies…. It’s number-one trading partner is the United States,” he added. “You can be born to a poor family in Belize and make it in life.”
All of this has attracted some 30,000 Americans and Canadians to retire in Belize or buy second homes there. “You can purchase a luxurious home in Belize for one-third the price at home,” the ambassador said. “But we are more expensive than our neighbors, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Our money is stronger.”
In fact, director Francis Ford Coppola has resorts in Belize and actor Leonardo DiCaprio is opening a lavish eco-tourism resort there as well.
On that note, tourism is a major economic driver for Belize, which sits in between the jungles of Central America and the blue waters of the Caribbean. It also boasts unspoiled wildlife and a stunningly biodiverse barrier reef that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
“I love Belize — its natural resources and its human resources,” Ryan, a senior human resources manager, said. “It’s a beautiful, smaller country, which has tremendous potential. We can continue to develop more niche industries with the right corporate partners in agriculture, tourism and sustainable energy generation,” she added.
“For instance, Belize has improved its garbage collection and processing centers to a degree that it can now consolidate garbage for power production,” she explained. “At the moment, almost 100 percent of the electricity produced in Belize is renewable.”
As of April, all single-use plastic and Styrofoam will be banned. Belize also undertook the bold decision to indefinitely end all new oil exploration in Belize’s waters to protect its barrier reef, which is one of the largest in the world. The moratorium marks the first time any developing country has ceased oil exploration and extraction to protect its oceans.
When Ryan was attending Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1992, she was a member of her school’s crew team. “We came down for the Cherry Blossom Regatta on the Potomac. We didn’t have time to tour D.C., but I do remember the cherry blossoms and thinking how beautiful they looked,” she recalled. “At that time, I never considered that I might end up living here. The world of politics was the furthest thing from my mind. I was focused on graduating and going home to develop my country in whatever way I might best contribute.”
Meanwhile, Gutierez came to Washington when he was 14 years old for a 10-day leadership training conference with other Belizean youths. “I remember that we stayed at a hotel not far from the Russian Embassy. President George W. Bush was in office but the closest we got to the White House was the metal fence on the North Lawn. What impressed me most was the highly developed infrastructure in the United States. I knew then, as I know now, how important infrastructure is for development. [A]s a part of that trip I also went to Seattle. The sights and sounds of the Northwest remained with me more than anything else.”
The family also has taken many trips all over the United States. “Of course, we had to go to Disneyland,” said Gutierez. “But we’ve also been to New York, Philly, Utah and Aspen to see the snow. We went to Chicago to open the consulate there and to Niagara Falls over the Christmas-New Year’s break. I also had a conference in Oklahoma and one in Georgia. I loved it.”
Back in Belize, the couple enjoys living on a 100-acre family farm. “There are cattle and sheep but no horses,” said Ryan, whose father still lives there. “We were going out there three out of four Sundays and decided we’d love to live there instead.”
At the end of our interview, the ambassador only had more thing to add: “I am the luckiest man in the world to have this woman at my side.”
Ryan smiled, then laughed and shook her head. “Now you see why he is our PR man!”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.