Mission College students to
exhibit artwork in Belize

November 2003  

August 2003


Printable version


Growing up in the Central American nation of Belize
, Dismas Lizarraga and Griselda Ramirez recall the warnings of their elders.

Don’t go too deep into the forest or Tata Duende may play some mischief on you. Beware of Xtabai, the beautiful woman who seduces men and then lures them into tragedy.

"Our grandparents would sit down with us at night and they would tell us these stories," said Ramirez. Lizarraga added, "The older generation people know the tales. There’s not a set story for each character. Everybody has their own interpretation but most are scary in some way."

Now, the two Mission College students are bringing to life the creatures they once feared as children.

Early next year, Lizarraga and Ramirez – who refer to themselves professionally as Dismas and GrissyG – will lead an exhibition of their work through the six major regions of Belize. "The Legends of Belize" will focus on the myths of their homeland, as researched by the two young art students. Their work will also serve as required projects for their advanced art class with instructor Barbara Kerwin.

Dismas and GrissyG have long been interested in the myths as a motif for their artwork. During a visit to their native Belize last summer, they had an opportunity to propose the "Legends of Belize" series to the president of Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History.

The official was intrigued and agreed that the works would be exhibited throughout Belize.

The Xtabai

GrissyG and Dismas began researching the legends. They found some information in books. But most came from the tales told by relatives.

"The Xtabai is the most famous," said GrissyG. "She’s basically a female ghost who seduces drunken men and they’re either found or not found."

GrissyG said a family story holds that one of her great uncles was swept off a dance floor by a beautiful young woman. The two disappeared for hours until his friends found him dumbstruck and crying by the side of a road.

"He was convinced it was the Xtabai," she said. "His family had to stay by his side for two weeks because he was afraid she would come back for him."

Dismas said his grandparents would tell him stories about Tata Duende.

"He’s a spirit that lives in the jungles of Belize and can manipulate the jungle to protect it," he recalled. "Like if poachers are killing too many animals, he’ll send a porcupine to attack them. Or, he’ll attack them himself."

Lizarraga and Ramirez said that nearly every family they know can tell of at least one relative’s personal encounter with Xtabai or Tata Duende. Still, they’re skeptical. Both believe the legends – especially those most frightening to children – were created to protect children.

Tata Duende

"There are a lot of wild animals in Belize," said Dismas. "I think some of the legends were made up to keep children from wandering into the jungle and getting lost or bitten by a snake."

With Belize now rapidly developing, Dismas and GrissyG fear that the myths and legends may disappear as the country modernizes.

"That’s why we’ve really taken this project to heart," said GrissyG. "We want to preserve what’s already being lost."

The rush is on to have the exhibit ready by January. The featured works employ a wide range of materials, including metallic and acrylic paints, gel mediums, wire, and sculpey. Dismas and GrissyG are confident they will have the collection ready in time. They work well together, often finishing one another’s thoughts. Their partnership is both artistic and romantic. And although both were born and raised in the same town in Belize, they had to travel thousands of miles before they met. They did not meet until both came to the U.S., 10 years apart. After meeting, they discovered they have many mutual friends and relations in the homeland.

"Her aunt was my Mom’s best friend when they were younger. And my uncle – he’s a doctor in Belize – actually delivered Grissy as a baby," said Dismas.

The fact that they both emigrated to Los Angeles, wound up at the same community college, and, in fact, in the same art class (where they met) seems to suggest they were destined for one another.

Quite a story. It’s the stuff that legends are made of.

See Dismas/GrissyG Collection of Works

– BY EDUARDO PARDO  /  Photos: Lydia Chung