Throwback Thursday: San José, Costa Rica

A year after my life changing trip to Spain, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with a group from the University of Minnesota. We were traveling to San José to support a student center for a cadre of university students who grew up in Puerto Limón on the Eastern Coast. These students of African descent grew up speaking English in Limón and were also completely fluent in Spanish.

Many people are surprised to hear that Costa Rica is a part of the African diaspora. About 8% of Costa Ricans have African heritage. In 1872, the British brought workers from Jamaica to toil on the Costa Rican railroad.

The Afro-Caribbeans laborers then worked on coffee and banana plantations on the coast. They were denied Costa Rican citizenship and the right to vote until 1949. Not only that, but their movement was restricted. Black Costa Ricans were forced by segregation laws to remain on the eastern coast in Puerto Limón.

3 Amigas en San José Photo: U of Mn Group Member

The organization I belonged to funded an English school for the younger students in Puerto Limón. The children graduated ready for college. Our group packed supplies in our suitcases for the University student center in the capital. The scholars were thankful to have a meeting place where they could study, or vent frustrations about daily experiences with racism.

One example: as my Afro-Costa Rican hosts and I got on a bus to go to their apartment, I saw the unfriendly looks that the passengers around us gave them. One of my hosts diffused the situation with humor. My friend on the right side of the photo said in a stage voice in Spanish, “Why are they all looking at us? It must be because we’re so beautiful.”

The three of us smiled; the rest of the passengers looked uncomfortable. It was bravado, when we got off the bus, my friend made a very frustrated noise. She was tired of the daily commute to the tune of hostile stares; tired of feeling rejected and singled out. What is her experience like today?

In the thirty years since my visit, life has improved for Afro-Costa Ricans. They now are employed in all fields, not exclusively agriculture or physical labor. They have a woman who is Vice President and Secretary of State who is of African Descent, Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr. She is considered to be the Afro-Latina Michelle Obama. Great to hear of another woman leader in the Americas.

I’ll save the sightseeing photos for another time. This story was the one my heart wanted to tell today.

Gracias for visiting Fake Flamenco! I appreciate your comments and haikus. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

Costa Rican Currency Photo: Rebecca Cuningham
Rebecca Cuningham

16 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: San José, Costa Rica

  1. I only had a brief day in Costa Rica while cruising through Central America, but I will say that it’s a unique country, as it’s the “chokehold” for immigration between North and South America (along with Panama). English is also widely-spoken there, as it’s a huge expat and tourist destination– all the while retaining its nature and culture. I found my visit to Costa Rica quite peaceful, and I’m glad to learn a bit more of its diverse background from you!

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  2. Beautiful article and information. I was in Central America back in the late 70’s but never entered Costa Rica. But one thing I’ve learned from visiting many countries in Central and South America is that they do not categorise their citizens and that allows for more coherence in their populations. It is lamentable that in North America (not Canada) people are segregated systematically and placed into hyphenated classes, e.g. African-American, Hispanic-America et cetera. Thank you Rebecca, greatly enjoyed your post as I do all of them.

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    1. Thanks for your participation in the discussion. Yes, it is sad that the Black population of Costa Rica was segregated and not allowed to vote until 1949, similar to the United States. From reading Ilia Calderón’s book, Colombian Afro-Latinos experience strong racism too. As for recognizing heritage, I wonder would you feel complete to say you were a Spaniard and never mention you were from Valencia? Would that neglect to represent part of who you are? I think that may be equivalent to the inclusion of heritage in the construct of identity. Thanks for the conversation! Rebecca

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      1. Thank you Rebecca, you post very interesting articles on the people and the countries of America and I have learned much about those places and their people. In Spain we are all Spaniards, within our families and communities we are Valencianos but we are not segregated according to colour or ethnic background, at least not legally or statistically. No one cares if a Spaniard is of Moroccan ancestry or of Irish. I think that is the difference between European countries and the US. In the US if you are from an American country south of their borders then you are something else other than what your nationality states. I have been to many Central and South American countries and their peoples are not homogeneous. Perhaps one day in the US racial and ethnic designations can be forgotten.
        All the best

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      2. Thanks for your reply, Francisco. I believe we have disagreed on this point before, yet we agree on the fundamental idea that everyone must be treated equally. From what I have read and heard from Black citizens and visitors of Spain, there are racial incidents although not on the violent scale of the US. You and I have in common that we come from two countries that encouraged the development of racial divisions in the Americas several centuries ago; Las Castas in Latin America and the one drop rule here in the US. I am glad you and I are dedicated to eliminating those erroneous perceptions and achieve equality for all. We can disagree on the means and agree on the goal to recognize people as human beings rather than races.

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      3. Yes, we certainly do concur Rebecca, there are so many “truths” in this world that are in fact lies, like the concept of race. One day everyone will reach a state of awareness and all of us will realise we’ve been lied to and manipulated to hate and distrust others because someone has placed them in an inferior or a superior race, which is rubbish. However, as Spaniards of this day and age, we do not apologize or retribute for what our ancestors may have done. Those days are gone and only what you do in tge present counts to condemn you or absolve you. We needn’t repair, we need to accept. Cheers Rebecca and all the best, lovely weekend to you. 🙂

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  3. Thanks for directing me to this post! It’s great to learn a bit more history about this little country, and that it has come so far since those days of afro-costa rican segregation. I hope your friend is having far better experiences in her daily commutes nowadays…

    Liked by 1 person

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