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BLACK DIASPORA July/Aug. 2000, pp. 48+ Copyright (c) 2000, BLACK DIASPORA. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permissi on. THE WAGES OF WHITENESS IN A SINFUL PARADISE: BLACKS IN COSTA RICA by Glenys P. Spence "You Want to Know About Black Culture in Puerto Viejo, Let Me Tell You About Cul ture. 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 Seasi de 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 tour ists who flock to Puerto Viejo and its environs every year. She believes that th ese tourists prey on the poverty of the natives, particularly the children, to s ustain the desire for drugs. BACKGROUND OF BLACKS IN COSTA RICA In 1828, the first English-speaking African-Caribbean family migrated to th e Talamanca Coast of Costa Rica. This was the family of William Smith (Palmer, 1 977). Smith was a fisherman from Panama, who came to Costa Rica to hunt the turt les among the shallow reefs at Turtle Bogue (officially called Tortuguera). Afte r several hunting trips, he decided to stay. The place where Smith and his famil y settled is named Cahuita. The latter half of the 19th Century saw a wave of Bl ack immigrants to the coast. This first wave of immigrants was mostly fishermen who later became farmers. They settled along the coast naming each settlement ac cording to its physical characteristics. A large influx of Blacks to the Coast o ccurred 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 th e railroad that links San Jose to Puerto Limon. This wave of immigrants came fro m Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitts. I visited Costa Rica in June 1999 to work on a project with indigenous wome n in the town of Ciudad Colon, just outside the capital city, San Jose. Before m y visit, I knew that there might be peoples of African descent in Costa Rica, bu t 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 bel ieve that blacks were part of the population. I was curious so I asked where I c ould 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 A tlantic 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 nig ht in Limon, and then went on to Puerto Viejo for swimming on Saturday and Sunda y. The town of Puerto Viejo is nestled in the Talamanca Valley of Costa Rica, pr oviding a haven for the world-weary soul. We arrived in Puerto Viejo in the midd le of the day and the setting was idyllic. For me, the town provided a welcome c hange because of the number of blacks who live in this town. Being from the Caribbean and living in Colorado, I was starving for some cu ltural connections. It was a pleasure to see the multitude of Rastafarian brothe rs and to hear people who spoke English with the same phonology and morphology a

s 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, exer cise and think thin'. A reputable artist of Caribbean cuisine, her cabins come h ighly recommended. But Eva's lively spirit is overshadowed by the specter of dru gs that plagues Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast, especially Puerto Viejo. My first n ight in Puerto Viejo, I witnessed this spectacle firsthand, where young and midd le-aged white tourists with tanned bodies bought marijuana from children, and sm oked 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 Whi te 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 v irtue of their race, it appears to be largely ignored given the absence of membe rs 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 di fferent. Amidst all its green foliage and pristine ecological environment, Costa Rica is a 'sinful paradise' that tolerates licentiousness, bigotry and contribu tes to the 'wages of whiteness'. But Costa Rica's history is rife with discrimination against its black popu lation. 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 bl acks in Costa Rica live in deplorable conditions and the drug trade appears to b e their economic 'savior'. At the first mention of Limon, or the Caribbean Coast, White Ticos (Costa R icans call themselves Ticos) are quick to yell: Peligroso! (Danger!) A sad remin der to us as African Americans who grow tired of the 'dark fear' and the crimina l stereotype that are assigned automatically to black neighborhoods. A conversat ion with Olga (name changed to protect identity), a young black professor in Cos ta Rica attests to this allegation. Olga tearfully recounts several occasions wh en 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 b efriend 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 sy ndrome. In his book, "Banana Fallout," Dr. Trevor Purcell discusses this phenome non in the context of a Hispanic cultural hegemony where light skinned Hispanics , who attribute their lineage and ethnicity to their Iberian colonizers, have in herited the racist ideology that is now unleashed on peoples with dark skin thro ughout 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 whit e counterparts. The history that informs these attitudes is the same one that in forms the global racism against people of African descent since time immemorial. The Western philosophy that informs our socialization and education is rooted i n 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 Relation s 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 de

noted upward social mobility, while blackening was equated with backwardness, po verty and underdevelopment. The exceptions to racial hostility and oppression ar e pitifully thin at the national level and testify to the stigma of a perverse c olonial 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 L atin 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 o f state-sponsored racism, expropriation and general disparateness towards them. "What Happen" chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of Costa Rica's Blacks. Pers onal interviews reveal state imposed bans on the use of English and coerced conv ersion 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 communi ties 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 sh ed some light on its contemporary issues. The Costa Rican elite resisted Black immigration since the United Fruit Com pany (UFCO) began importing Black laborers to work on the banana and coffee plan tations early in the 20th Century. These objections were based purely on racist and nationalist grounds (Chomsky, 1996). Black antipathy in Costa Rica was exace rbated and propelled by economic upheaval in the late 1920s and 1930s when the b anana industry experienced a steep decline in exports. This decline was sharpene d 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 Mo nge, president of the society wrote that "The UFCO was bringing in too many blac k workers and darkening the racial composition of the country...the black, who i t 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 goo d for the Company as a beast of burden and for the Junta de Caridad as a buyer o f lottery tickets; but he is deadly for the social order: vicious, criminal in g eneral. 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 relocatio n to Limon that resulted in the displacement of many blacks. Yet many Blacks per sisted and became successful businessmen and professionals in Limon. The "surviv ors" were forced to subjugate their African cultural heritage and assimitate int o the dominant society. But for many the ravages of a history characterized by r acist ideology are manifested in their destitute life ways today. In Costa Rica today, racism takes on a more covert veneer at the highest le vels of the society, mostly through a refusal to acknowledge blacks. My "acciden tal" discovery of the black population in Costa Rica happened through my own cur iosity. 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-Sa rduy, 1999). In contemporary scholarship of the country, historians continue the exclusi

on 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 an d with nature. But my experience and personal conversations with blacks in Puert o Viejo and indigenous peoples in El Rodeo and the Quitirrisi Reserve say otherw ise. Moreover, U.S. endorsement of Costa Rica as 'the most democratic and tranqu il 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 whit e 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 m ainly a class issue and not a race issue, even when presented with evidence, oft en dismissed us. As a Black person, visiting to discos in Puerto Viejo and Monteverde was me t with overt surprise from white Ticos and tourists. My friend, Deana, an Africa n-American woman was told by a Black local that it was the first time they had s een a Black American tourist. As Jean Stubbs and Pedro Perez-Sarduy posit, studi es 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 o f 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 Span ish needed work. Even more pleasing was the abundance of authentic West Indian c ooking that permeates the Atlantic Coast. The food and the love with which it wa s prepared and served was a great respite from the dim realities of Black life i n Costa Rica. This resurgence of pride is also apparent in the growing community of Rasta farians on Costa Rica's Atlantic coast. Though some in the black and white commu nities may view this as a backward step, the root concept and praxis of the Rast afari ideology is based on the uplifting and renewal of self. Moreover, the narr ative 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 cul ture that Eva mourns will never materialize. Accessed on 04/24/2004 from SIRS Researcher via SIRS Knowledge Source <http://ww w.sirs.com> Copyright 2004 ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.