Blacks of Costa Rica

ETHNONYMS: none


Blacks constitute 3 percent of the population of Costa Rica, but nearly 24 percent of the population of the province of Limón, on the Atlantic coast. The ancestors of most Costa Rican Blacks did not arrive in Costa Rica to work as slaves on plantations, as in other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean; they came much later, as free people in search of employment. They came primarily from the British West Indies, and especially from Jamaica, in the late nineteenth century to build a railroad that was needed to transport coffee from the interior highlands to Puerto Limón. Once the railroad was completed, Blacks found work principally in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company. Costa Rican Blacks, even those born in the country, did not have citizenship at this time. By the 1930s, worsening economic conditions led to popular political pressure for employers to hire Costa Rican citizens preferentially, and in 1936 a congressional act to that effect was passed, leaving many Blacks unemployed. In the same year, president Leon Cortés forbade Blacks from entering the almost purely White highlands by prohibiting Blacks from traveling past the city of Turrialba in the direction of the highlands. This policy extended even to railroad employees who were Black; they had to disembark the train at Turrialba and be replaced by White workers when the train traveled away from the coast. The United Fruit Company pulled up stakes in eastern Costa Rica in the early 1940s to move its operations to western Costa Rica. Blacks, by virtue of the presidential order, could not follow the company, and many were left without employment. During the 1948 civil war, some Blacks supported José "Pepe" Figueres, the leader of the group that won. Figueres, in return for this support, offered Blacks Costa Rican citizenship and paid some heed to their needs in later elections. Blacks accepted this offer, even though citizenship carried with it a requirement that children attend Spanish-language schools and learn Spanish, something the English-speaking Blacks did not find attractive. English of the Jamaican dialect continues to be spoken, however, despite the Spanish-language requirement.

Prior to 1950, the Black community was almost completely endogamous. By 1978, however, 6.5 percent of marriages in a sample of 218 households were racially mixed, and 45 percent of Black people in those households viewed marriage to people of Spanish origin as desirable. There has long been a preference among many Costa Rican Blacks for light skin, which they believe brings social rewards such as status, wealth, and power, and this is one reason for increased intermarriage.

Most Costa Rican Blacks today still live in the province of Limón, an area that produces the majority of Costa Rica's bananas and cacao and that boasts the country's principal commerical port. The people there are mostly working-class poor, and the region is not densely populated. Nevertheless, in the 1980s and 1990s, many Blacks have moved away from the rural areas for better jobs in Costa Rican cities and in the United States.


Bibliography

Lefever, Harry G. (1992). Turtle Bogue: Afro-Caribbean Life and Culture in a Costa Rican Village. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press.


Melendez Chaverri, Carlos, and Quince Duncan (1981). El negro en Costa Rica. San José: Editorial Costa Rica.


Purcell, Trevor (1993). Banana Fallout: Class, Color, and Culture among West Indians in Costa Rica. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Afro-American Studies.

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