Our Belize Community - Cristina Coc

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 18, No. 2            January 10, 2008

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Cristina Coc is the Executive Director of the Julian Cho Society, whose goal is to promote social justice, human rights, and sustainable development. The Mayan communities that she works with see her as their leader, and as a voice who will speak on behalf of the voiceless.

To fight for something you strongly believe in is great. However, it takes a lot more courage to fight for other people’s strong beliefs. To fight for indigenous rights requires courage, stamina and a lot of love to keep the uphill battle going. These requirements are not only met but surpassed by an individual, who against all odds, has persisted in the betterment of her and her family’s future but that of her people and way of life as well. The San Pedro Sun proudly introduces Cristina Coc, founding member and executive director of the Julian Cho Society.

    Cristina was born on December 21st, 1981 to parents Mateo and Maria Baki Coc. The couple along with their four daughters, Maggie, Faustina, Martha and Monica welcomed the newest addition to their Ketchi family. Laguna was the name of the traditional Mayan village where Cristina grew up in, but as she got older, her parents made the decision to uproot their family and move to Punta Gorda Town. The Coc family was in search of a better education for their girls and would visit Laguna whenever possible, especially during summer vacations. Growing up in Punta Gorda Town was not much different than growing up in their tiny village. Even though, the town was comprised more of Garifuna people, the Coc family were happily embraced by their fellow Belizeans. Cristina grew up among this diversity and learned to appreciate it as well, learning to sing in the Garifuna dialect.

    Cristina attended St. Peter Claver School and excelled in her classes. During her final year in elementary school, she did exceptionally well and was granted a four year high school scholarship to the Toledo Community College. This scholarship was a major accomplishment for Cristina who might not have had the opportunity to further her education otherwise.

    Graduating in 1998, Cristina applied and was accepted to St. John’s College Junior College (SJCJC). Again, this was a grand accomplishment for her since very few students from the south receive the opportunity to further their education at the prestigious institution plus she was only one out of two Mayan women accepted that year. However, funding became a factor for Cristina. This was remedied when, through a student loan solicited by her brother-in-law Julian Cho, Cristina got the monies needed for her education.

    However, tragedy struck when well known Chairman of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, Julian Cho died in December of 1998. This turned Cristina’s world upside down; not only had she lost her brother-in-law but her education came to a halt because of it. She returned home and started paying back her student loan, as well as attempting to secure funding for her tuition. Cristina found work at the Toledo Christian Academy in rural Toledo in 1999.

    After securing some funds, at the end of 1999, Cristina returned to SJCJC and became actively involved with the student government. During her tenure at SJCJC, she commuted between Belize City and Orange Walk Town. When the bus companies between these two cities decided to monopolize bus runs and charge outrageous prices for bus tickets, Cristina helped organize a peaceful demonstration demanding fairer bus rates. This was merely the beginning of a life of activism for Cristina.

    After SJCJC, Cristina returned home to Punta Gorda where she worked as a high school English teacher at the Julian Cho Technical High School (JCTHS). Teaching at JCTHS she spoke up actively on behalf of Mayan students, ensuring that they receive equal treatment and respect from teachers, as well as other students. Cristina’s activism was not always welcomed by her colleagues; but nothing could deter her from promoting the ideas of justice and equality. She also held a part time position as a liaison for the JANUS Foundation, a project that funded eco tourism initiatives in the Toledo District. This experience gave Cristina first hand knowledge and understanding of working with Mayan communities and not only did she learn how to mobilize communities but was also able to gain their confidence and support. Securing support from Mayan communities, as a young Mayan woman, was and perhaps still is, a tremendous challenge; however, Cristina was able to triumph over that obstacle.

    In 2003, Cristina once again left her native home to complete a Bachelor of Science degree, with a concentration in biology, at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. During her time in Duluth she worked with many social justice organizations on campus and also became a mentor in the Upward Bound Program, a steadfast volunteer at the Women’s Resource and Action Center and a member and Peer advisor for the International Student Club.

    Cristina once again returned to her native Toledo, in 2005, where she founded an indigenous rights organization in honor of the Late Julian Cho. She, later, took on the role as Executive Director of the Julian Cho Society (JCS). JCS was created with the goal of promoting social justice, human rights, and sustainable development and Cristina was instrumental in helping to make the JCS a reality by being one of its founding members. Cristina, through JCS, has worked and continues to work closely with Mayan communities in advocating for land rights and social justice. She has helped Mayan communities define their traditional boundaries, clarify land tenure, and engage in far reaching discussions about future land management and her position has also caused her to encounter many social issues surrounding Mayan communities; issues such as human rights violations by the Government of Belize.

    Cristina’s work has brought her face to face with the government of Belize, and one of her biggest challenges has been trying to convince the government that it needs to recognize and respect the ancestral land rights of its indigenous peoples. In 2007, victory resounded in the courtroom when the Chief Justice ruled in favor of the Mayan communities. “The question before the court that was decided today was this: who owns the land in southern Belize. Is it the Mayan people of Belize or is the government of Belize? We’ve always felt, we’ve always believed, that the Mayans own the land that they use and they occupy. Today, however, we celebrate that the courts have affirmed and said that yes, indeed we own this land that we live on. We are all just human beings struggling on this earth to live with dignity, love, and justice. We, the Maya people have come to Belize City in this spirit and we reach out to everyone with dignity in our hearts, praying that our victory today will bring dignity among our brothers and sisters across Belize,” she said to local media the day of the ruling.

    Cristina is one of very few Mayan women to hold such an important position in her native Toledo, and perhaps in all of Belize. Her charisma, wealth of knowledge and her ability to negotiate complicated and contentious issues at the highest levels has enabled her to gain the respect and support of the Mayan communities that she works with. They see her as their leader and as a voice who will speak on behalf of the voiceless, and because of this, she is an invaluable asset to our people and “Our Belize Community.”

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