“I’d rather be a dead hero than a living coward”
— Antonio Soberanis Gomez famously stated
Forty three years after he was laid to rest, the man who is celebrated as the father of Belize’s labor movement – Antonio Soberanis Gomez – was posthumously honored with a memorial ceremony held in his former home village, Santana Village, located along the old northern highway in the Belize District.
The National Institute of Culture and History through the Institute for Social and Cultural Research (ISCR) hosted the event, marked by the beautification of the burial site. Survivors of the revolutionary leader, as well as educators and students joined NICH representatives on the rededication. According to NICH, the initiative is part of its efforts to identify and designate spaces of cultural and historical importance in Belize.
Who was Antonio Soberanis Gomez?
Born on 17 January 1897, Tony Soberanis emerged as one of the early 20th century leaders to fight the cause of marginalized workers who were either unemployed or underpaid. He led a mass movement of workers against colonial authorities, against paltry wages and depressed socio-economic conditions.
Soberanis became actively involved in the “Unemployed Brigade” in 1934. A short bio published by the National Library Service recounts that, “After this, he began to hold regular public meetings in Belize City demanding work for the unemployed, while attacking the rich merchants and the colonial officials.” The Battlefield Park in downtown Belize City, where a bust of the labor activist stands, was one of the usual venues at which they gathered to rally for their cause.
Soberanis, who was a follower of Marcus Garvey, formed the Labour and Unemployed Association in July 1934. He engineered the 1934 sawmill strike and mustered up a wave of pickets, demonstrations and boycotts, and as a result, he was jailed for 5 days. Censorship was so heavy in those days that the British colonial administration put laws in place to give more powers to the then rulers, shielding them from criticism. Soberanis was undeterred and he was again arrested and jailed for a month for sedition in 1935. His fine was $25.
After his release, he took the movement nationwide. Although the movement lost a bit of momentum due to political persecution, it did achieve its main aims: better wages and more jobs for workers.
O Nigel Bolland’s book, On the March: Labour Rebellions in the British Caribbean 1934-39, published in 1995 details that Soberanis, who had organized a petition calling for the Government to find work for the unemployed at $1.50 per day, had also led a march of 3,000 strong. Under his leadership, the movement won a pay increase for Stann Creek stevedores, whose wage was more than tripled from 8 cents to 25 cents an hour.
A barber by trade, the activist later settled into a more quiet life at his barbershop.
Mr. Soberanis passed on away on 15 February 1975 at the age of 78. He was buried next to his wife Violet Garbutt Soberanis.
At the February 15, 2018 re-dedication of his burial site, Soberanis’ son, Antonio Soberanis, Jr., described his father as “the first hero of this country” and a sincere man. He has also been called the father of Belizean nationalism.