July/Aug. 2000, pp. 48+

Copyright (c) 2000, BLACK DIASPORA. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

by Glenys P. Spence

"You Want to Know About Black Culture in Puerto Viejo, Let Me Tell You About Culture. It Is Dying." These Are the Words of Eva (Name Changed to Protect Identity), a Businesswoman from Trinidad and Tobago, Who Now Lives in the Charming Seaside Village of Puerto Viejo on the Atlantic Coast (Called the Talamanca Coast of Costa Rica). The Atlantic Coast Is Home to Thousands of Blacks from the African Diaspora.

     Eva is a self-proclaimed mother and grandmother of "all the children." She ascribes this death of Black culture to the influx of European and American tourists who flock to Puerto Viejo and its environs every year. She believes that these tourists prey on the poverty of the natives, particularly the children, to sustain the desire for drugs.


     In 1828, the first English-speaking African-Caribbean family migrated to the Talamanca Coast of Costa Rica. This was the family of William Smith (Palmer, 1977). Smith was a fisherman from Panama, who came to Costa Rica to hunt the turtles among the shallow reefs at Turtle Bogue (officially called Tortuguera). After several hunting trips, he decided to stay. The place where Smith and his family settled is named Cahuita. The latter half of the 19th Century saw a wave of Black immigrants to the coast. This first wave of immigrants was mostly fishermen who later became farmers. They settled along the coast naming each settlement according to its physical characteristics. A large influx of Blacks to the Coast occurred during Panama's War of Independence with Colombia. A multitude of Blacks fled Panama. But the largest Black migration to Costa Rica was the West Indian Blacks that were contracted by the railroad contractor, Minor Keith, to build the railroad that links San Jose to Puerto Limon. This wave of immigrants came from Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitts.

     I visited Costa Rica in June 1999 to work on a project with indigenous women in the town of Ciudad Colon, just outside the capital city, San Jose. Before my visit, I knew that there might be peoples of African descent in Costa Rica, but had no knowledge of the breadth of the African Diaspora that actually lived in Costa Rica. Living in a town like Ciudad Colon, one will be hard pressed to believe that blacks were part of the population. I was curious so I asked where I could find black people. I was told that all the 'Negros' lived in Limon.

     One weekend, some friends and I decided to visit the town of Limon on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica. The trip to Limon from San Jose is about six hours. It was difficult to find a cab driver to go there at night. But the lady, with whom I stayed in Ciudad Colon, persuaded her brother to take us. I spent one night in Limon, and then went on to Puerto Viejo for swimming on Saturday and Sunday. The town of Puerto Viejo is nestled in the Talamanca Valley of Costa Rica, providing a haven for the world-weary soul. We arrived in Puerto Viejo in the middle of the day and the setting was idyllic. For me, the town provided a welcome change because of the number of blacks who live in this town.

     Being from the Caribbean and living in Colorado, I was starving for some cultural connections. It was a pleasure to see the multitude of Rastafarian brothers and to hear people who spoke English with the same phonology and morphology as I. We checked in to a row of cabins owned by Eva.

     Eva is a vivacious woman who lives by the mantra of 'eat all you want, exercise and think thin'. A reputable artist of Caribbean cuisine, her cabins come highly recommended. But Eva's lively spirit is overshadowed by the specter of drugs that plagues Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast, especially Puerto Viejo. My first night in Puerto Viejo, I witnessed this spectacle firsthand, where young and middle-aged white tourists with tanned bodies bought marijuana from children, and smoked openly. It was a most disturbing experience.

     Eva asserts that 'these white people' are perpetuating the drug trade. What is more they have the children provide it to them as if it's natural. These White people that Eva talks about are mostly young college students from Europe and the U.S. who visit the resorts on weekends mainly to drink and inhale. And by virtue of their race, it appears to be largely ignored given the absence of members of law enforcement in the town. This laizzez-faire attitude of the government made Eva and me agree that if the drug clientele were black, things would be different. Amidst all its green foliage and pristine ecological environment, Costa Rica is a 'sinful paradise' that tolerates licentiousness, bigotry and contributes to the 'wages of whiteness'.

     But Costa Rica's history is rife with discrimination against its black population. Although they claim and boast of the absence of racial prejudice today, the blatant geographical division according to race is readily apparent. A visit to Costa Rica's Caribbean coast will reveal the disparity to which blacks have been subjected in this multi-ethnic country. Like the U.S. inner cities, many blacks in Costa Rica live in deplorable conditions and the drug trade appears to be their economic 'savior'.

     At the first mention of Limon, or the Caribbean Coast, White Ticos (Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos) are quick to yell: Peligroso! (Danger!) A sad reminder to us as African Americans who grow tired of the 'dark fear' and the criminal stereotype that are assigned automatically to black neighborhoods. A conversation with Olga (name changed to protect identity), a young black professor in Costa Rica attests to this allegation. Olga tearfully recounts several occasions when she was subjected to overt racism. As a teacher, Olga recalls parents pulling their children from her classroom because she is 'negra.' Any White Ticos who befriend her justify the association with her by claiming that she is not really black because of her small nose.

     This racist ideology that exists in Costa Rica is prevalent in most, if not all, of Latin America where these societies are plagued with acquired racist syndrome. In his book, "Banana Fallout," Dr. Trevor Purcell discusses this phenomenon in the context of a Hispanic cultural hegemony where light skinned Hispanics, who attribute their lineage and ethnicity to their Iberian colonizers, have inherited the racist ideology that is now unleashed on peoples with dark skin throughout Latin America.

     Indeed, in Costa Rica, I witnessed this treatment personally when three of us who were African American were constantly charged higher prices than our white counterparts. The history that informs these attitudes is the same one that informs the global racism against people of African descent since time immemorial. The Western philosophy that informs our socialization and education is rooted in the ideology of racism that continues to bedevil the socialization process and impede racial harmony.

     As Jean Stubbs and Pedro Perez-Sarduy assert in the article, "Race Relations in Latin America," colonial and post-colonial society partitioned off people, classifying and categorizing skin pigmentation with a bewildering array of legal codes and linguistic terms. In this context, bettering or whitening the race denoted upward social mobility, while blackening was equated with backwardness, poverty and underdevelopment. The exceptions to racial hostility and oppression are pitifully thin at the national level and testify to the stigma of a perverse colonial legacy...After independence and the abolition of slavery, a racist idea gained currency in Latin America, whereby the chaotic situation was explained in terms of, among other things, Blacks being the obstacle to the development of Latin American societies (Stubbs and Perez-Sarduy, 1999).

     In Costa Rican history, racism plays a major role. From the descendants of indigenous peoples to the immigrant blacks who were recruited to work on banana and coffee plantations, white Ticos have labeled them as inferior and employ an attitude towards them that is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. In the book, "What Happen," written by Paula Palmer, Black Costa Ricans recount incidents of state-sponsored racism, expropriation and general disparateness towards them. "What Happen" chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of Costa Rica's Blacks. Personal interviews reveal state imposed bans on the use of English and coerced conversion of Blacks to the Catholic faith.

     Today, things haven't changed much. In Limon, the major city on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast, this disparateness is readily apparent. Like all other communities that experience racialized phenomena, Limon's infrastructure is in a state of disrepair. Drugs and prostitution run amok. Our bus ride from Limon to Puerto Viejo was reminiscent of the Joads' trek from Oklahoma to California in author John Steinbeck's, "The Grapes of Wrath." A brief look at Limon's history will shed some light on its contemporary issues.

     The Costa Rican elite resisted Black immigration since the United Fruit Company (UFCO) began importing Black laborers to work on the banana and coffee plantations early in the 20th Century. These objections were based purely on racist and nationalist grounds (Chomsky, 1996). Black antipathy in Costa Rica was exacerbated and propelled by economic upheaval in the late 1920s and 1930s when the banana industry experienced a steep decline in exports. This decline was sharpened by the Depression. As the economic situation worsened, so did race relations.

     In 1926, a report from the Sociedad Economica de Amigos del Pais, Garcia Monge, president of the society wrote that "The UFCO was bringing in too many black workers and darkening the racial composition of the country...the black, who it is known, has a greater predisposition to sicknesses. Black immigration is not appetizing and it is illogical that it be tormented here. The Black is only good for the Company as a beast of burden and for the Junta de Caridad as a buyer of lottery tickets; but he is deadly for the social order: vicious, criminal in general. He mesticizes our race, which is already darkening, and all his savings are sent to Jamaica." (Chomsky, 1996)

     These racist and nationalist sentiments propelled a wave of white relocation to Limon that resulted in the displacement of many blacks. Yet many Blacks persisted and became successful businessmen and professionals in Limon. The "survivors" were forced to subjugate their African cultural heritage and assimitate into the dominant society. But for many the ravages of a history characterized by racist ideology are manifested in their destitute life ways today.

     In Costa Rica today, racism takes on a more covert veneer at the highest levels of the society, mostly through a refusal to acknowledge blacks. My "accidental" discovery of the black population in Costa Rica happened through my own curiosity. In Costa Rica, indeed in most of Latin America, the prevailing currents of the region's history, dominated by a sense of "Europeanness," have repeatedly undermined and denied awareness of the African heritage....(Stubbs and Perez-Sarduy, 1999).

     In contemporary scholarship of the country, historians continue the exclusion of the role played by black immigrants in Costa Rica's history. Instead, many focus on Costa Rica as a harmonious society, living at peace with each other and with nature. But my experience and personal conversations with blacks in Puerto Viejo and indigenous peoples in El Rodeo and the Quitirrisi Reserve say otherwise.

     Moreover, U.S. endorsement of Costa Rica as 'the most democratic and tranquil country in the hemisphere' helps to bolster this harmonious perception. As a result, white Americans flock to the country in droves. I believe that many white Americans will feel right at home in a country where they share an ideological sameness with dominant society. When my two Black friends and I criticized race relations in Costa Rica, our white American counterparts, who saw problems as mainly a class issue and not a race issue, even when presented with evidence, often dismissed us.

     As a Black person, visiting to discos in Puerto Viejo and Monteverde was met with overt surprise from white Ticos and tourists. My friend, Deana, an African-American woman was told by a Black local that it was the first time they had seen a Black American tourist. As Jean Stubbs and Pedro Perez-Sarduy posit, studies of Afro-Latin America continue to reflect the racist denigration of Blacks as primitive, backward, anti-intellectual beings (Stubbs and Sarduy, 1999).

     Despite the racism that still exists and the drug problem that continues to swallow up much of the younger generation of Blacks, I witnessed a resurgence of pride in the older inhabitants of Puerto Viejo. For example, the first thing I was told by a gentleman of Jamaican heritage was: "Don't speak no Spanish to me, man, I speak English." Needless to say, I was pleased to oblige, since my Spanish needed work. Even more pleasing was the abundance of authentic West Indian cooking that permeates the Atlantic Coast. The food and the love with which it was prepared and served was a great respite from the dim realities of Black life in Costa Rica.

     This resurgence of pride is also apparent in the growing community of Rastafarians on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast. Though some in the black and white communities may view this as a backward step, the root concept and praxis of the Rastafari ideology is based on the uplifting and renewal of self. Moreover, the narrative of black self-liberation is based upon this doctrine of self-empowerment. If this ideology is allowed to flourish in any society, the "death" of Black culture that Eva mourns will never materialize.

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