THE THIRD ROOT
African Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
THE THIRD ROOT
African Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
In September 1502 Columbus, continuing his voyage south from Honduras and Nicaragua, arrived in what is today Puerto Limon. Four years latter the Spanish Crown sent colonists to Costa Rica in an attempt to search for gold. They proved to be unsuccessful in their efforts and most did not return home alive. Again, in 1540 another unsuccessful expedition was sent out to conquer the country and again the Spanish failed. Finally, in 1561 Juan de Cavallon lead a successful colonization effort. Juan Vazquez de Coronado arrived the following year from Guatemala and established a permanent colony in the central highlands (meseta central). The town of Cartago was founded in 1563. It was not until 1736 that San Jose was founded, becoming Costa Rica’s capital in 1821.
The native American population of Costa Rica is less than 1% of the total population. It is concentrated in the eastern coastal areas country. Costa Ricans of identifiable black ancestry make up 3% (130,000) of the population and are also located along the eastern seaboard, as well as in the capital (San Jose). Other minorities in the country include Chinese, Jews and persons of Spanish, German and Italian ancestry. There is also a growing community of retired persons from the United States and Canada living in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is the only country in Central America that has long promoted itself as a “white nation”. This has been done mainly by the Costa Rican government and through its tourist office. The figure usually given is that between 96% to 98% of the total population is of European Spanish ancestry. Most North American almanacs and encyclopedias show one of these figures or a combined figure of “97% whiteand mestizo”. The latter not giving the reader an indication as to what percentage of the population is “white” and what percentage mestizo.
Along with Argentina and Uruguay Costa Rica must rank as one of the most “European” of all countries in the Americas. The long standing political stability of Costa Rica, coupled with its strong promotion of tourism and North American investment, has encouraged this myth of Costa Rican “whiteness” among the Costa Ricans themselves as well as among outsiders. Many Costa Ricans see their country as an “island of whiteness” in the “ocean of color” that is Central America. The 200,000 Salvadorans and Nicaraguans that came to the country during the 1980’s have sadly faced both economic and racial discrimination from some persons who are often themselves in denial over their own racially mixed ancestry. A kind of “colonial mentality” that sees all that is “good” and “progressive” emanating from Europe and the United States remains a strong force in the minds of many Central Americans. Costa Rica is no exception to this.
Some researchers have stated that around 95% of the Costa Rican population has some native or African ancestry. Franklin Parker in his Central American Republics (1964) writes “In the highland basins about the capital a great majority of the persons are European in stock - wholly so in some instances, in others only preponderantly so with a trace of Indian or Negro also present”. Although it is true that some do not have any native or African ancestry, to claim that the population of Costa Rica is “98% white” is a misrepresentation of the facts.
Among Costa Rican mestizos it might only be a question of the degree of ones Afro-Amerindian ancestry. One figure I obtained stated that 49% of Costa Ricans were mestizo and 47% “white”. Perhaps the latter figure should more accurately have stated “near white” for few Costa Ricans descended from 16th and 17th century Spanish families are without some native or African lineage. The myth of Costa Rica being a “white country” is just that. Native Americans living in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica at the time of the conquest were either worked to death, died of disease or in the case of many native and African women, became common law wives and concubines of the Spanish men in the colony.
Most of the early settlers were farmers and ranchers from the northern areas of Spain (Galicia). Large plantations and haciendas did not develop here on the same scale as in the other provinces of Central America. When Juan Vasquez de Coronado arrived from Guatemala in 1562 he brought with him a small number of Spanish women. The fact that a few European women arrived in Costa Rica during the early years of the colony seems to have resulted in a larger percentage of the population being of “unmixed” European descent than in the other Central American provinces.
Today, many Costa Ricans are indeed a “lighter shade of brown” then is found among many mestizos in the neighboring republics. Proud of this fact, some Ticos tend to look down on their more racially mixed brothers and sisters in the other parts of Central America. The introduction of native American ancestry into the Costa Rican population continued throughout most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Along with the introduction of small numbers of black slaves from Panama, the gene pool of the nation became decidedly mixed.
During the early 18th century the population of Costa Rica began to spread out, settlements were made throughout the meseta central as well as in the western coastal areas of the country. In the northwestern part of the country (Guanacaste province) a majority of the population is heavily mestizo. An African influence is found among the mestizo population in this part of the country. Historically and culturally this region has ties with Nicaragua. African slaves were brought to the northwestern (Nicoya peninsula) and southwestern parts of the country during colonial times to work on cattle ranches and cacao plantations. After the abolishment of slavery in 1823 some former slaves and their families moved from this region to the coastal Caribbean areas of the country. Their descendants live today among the native American and Afro-Antillean communities of the Limon province.
The descendants of Africans who were brought to Costa Rica during the colonial era (1562-1821) are today wholly assimilated into the mestizo majority. They do not identify with being of African heritage, nor are they identified as such. These Afromestizos are much like those found in other similarly related communities throughout the isthmus, their identities being based upon the communities in which they live and the pride they take in the lands of their birth.
During the colonial period the Spanish did not settle along the eastern or Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The meseta central or central highlands was the population center of the colony and today 60% of Costa Rica’s population is still concentrated here.
With an increase in coffee production towards the end of the 19th century (coffee had been introduced in 1797) a more direct way out for shipments of the product was needed. In 1871 the Costa Rican government contracted an American company to build a railroad from San Jose to the coastal town of Puerto Limon. Much of the coastal area was uninhabited at this time. The railroad contractors brought in Jamaican laborers to build the railroad. It took nine years to lay the first 70 miles of track, but by 1890 the line had been built up the valley of the Rio Reventazon to Turrialba, and the next year the line was completed. Many of the Jamaicans stayed on in the country and settled in Puerto Limon and in small towns that were located along the rail line. Towns such as Guapiles, Siquirres developed large Afro-Antillean populations as well as smaller villages such as Canada, London, Boston, Bristol, Stratford that show the influence of the Creole English speaking Jamaicans who settled primarily along the rail line between Puerto Limon and Siquirres. Some went directly from railroad jobs to work on American owned banana plantations, others returned to Jamaica after the completion of the railroad.
One of the Americans in charge of the railroad project was Minor C. Keith. He imported rootstalks of banana plants from Panama and had them planted along the route of the new rail line. By 1878 the first bananas were exported from Costa Rica to New Orleans. In 1899 Keith consolidated his banana holdings in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia with Boston Fruit Company to form the United Fruit Company. By 1909, Costa Rica had become the world’s leading banana producer. United Fruit hired thousands of black Jamaicans to work on its plantations.
The Afro-Antillean population of Costa Rica is concentrated in the province of Limon (240,000). The city of Puerto Limon (50,000) is the capital and largest community in the province. It is the center of Afro-Costa Rican culture in the country. In 1927 just over 57% of the province of Limon was of African descent, but by 1950 the percentage had fallen to 33%. It has remained at that percentage to this day. An increase in the settlement of Spanish speaking mestizos in the region was largely responsible for the decrease in the overall percentage of blacks living in the Limon province. Other blacks had also returned to Jamaica when Costa Rica instituted an anti-black immigration policy during the 1930’s and 40’s.
Puerto Limon’s big festival of the year is on Columbus Day (October 12th) when the whole town parties to the sounds of raggae, calypso and salsa. Street parades, music, dancing and drinking go on for days and people come from all over the country to party with the Limonenses. Calypso music is also still popular, although since the 1970’s raggae has replaced calypso as Puerto Limon’s favorite kind of music. Such groups as New Revelation, Charro Limonense and Cahuita Calypso are still popular, singing in both Creole English and Spanish. A collection of their songs can be found on the excellent CD Calypso Costa Rica (1996).
Most blacks in Limon speak both Creole English and Spanish. Many younger Limonenses speak only Spanish. Afro-Antilleans in Limon province number around 80,000, with 50,000 or so others living in other parts of the country, mostly in San Jose and in the larger cities of the meseta central. Creole English is spoken not only in Puerto Limon and in the areas where the Afro-Antilleans settled to work, but also in small communities scattered along the Caribbean coast south of Puerto Limon towards the Panamanian border. Small towns such as Cahuita continue to show off their Creole culture in music, dancing, cooking, language and the use of medicinal plants reflecting an African heritage. The village of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is inhabited by both Creoles and native Americans who live and work side by side.
During the building of the railroad and establishment United Fruit, Afro-Antilleans were favored by their American employers over Spanish speaking Costa Ricans. The English language helped give blacks an advantage in employment opportunities and for many years the black community lived isolated from their Hispanic neighbors. Economically they were also better off then the mestizo minority in Limon. Over time resentments began to build between mestizos and Afro-Antilleans.
American employers paid better wages then Costa Rican employers and some Afro-Antilleans, mainly because they were better educated, English speaking and possessed better job skills, saw themselves as somewhat “culturally superior” to the mestizo. The fact that many were British subjects and thought of themselves as part of the British Empire also contributed to this kind of thinking. By the 1920’s, blacks were a solid majority in Limon and the two groups lived very separate lives from each other.
During these years mestizos were also starting to be hired by American companies and soon mestizo workers were demanding “equal pay for equal work” from their American employers. They resented making less money then their black counterparts for doing the same kinds of jobs. These resentments were supported by the Costa Rican government and the growing tensions between the two communities resulted in the Costa Rican government passing a series of regulations restricting entrance visas from being issued to blacks wanting to work and live in Costa Rica. The government also regulated where blacks could work, in this case only in the Limon province. Citizenship and civil rights were denied to the black community. This openly racist policy on the part of the Costa Rican government is a low point in the post abolitionist history of Costa Rica.
The revolution of 1948/’49 resulted in the Afro-Antillean community of Costa Rica being given once again its full rights and citizenship. Since this time Afro-Antilleans have started a slow process of integration and assimilation into Costa Rican society. For example, instead of sending their children to their own English language schools, after 1948 Afro-Antilleans began sending their children to Spanish language schools. This has had a great impact on the younger generations of Afro-Antilleans. The community has also started to take a more active role in the politics of the nation. Afro-Antilleans have served in the legislative assembly and in presidential cabinets. By the 1960’s and 70’s Spanish had become the first language of many of them. The numbers of professionals in the community has also increased, and because many are also English speaking they have become important in the booming tourist industry centered in and around the capital.
Afro-Antilleans are still however mainly engaged in work on banana plantations, on the docks of Puerto Limon, on the railway and at a local oil refinery in the area. Many are also unskilled laborers and small scale farmers. The Limon province continues to remain Costa Rica’s poorest province and there is still much to be done to raise the standard of living in the region.In 1977 a number of black professionals in the capital held a conference to promote a greater awareness of the culture and history of Afro-Antilleans in Costa Rican society. Many feared the loss of “West Indian” traditions and culture and were actively trying to preserve it. Most Afro-Antilleans speak Spanish in addition to English, but have not fully adopted Hispanic (mestizo) identities. The “economic elite” of the black community seems to be more concerned with the preservation of English and Antillean culture, they tend to see any discrimination directed against them as being economic and not “racially motivated”. Poorer blacks on the other hand tend to be far more concerned with day to day economic survival, and often see the adoption of Hispanic culture as a means to greater social and economic advancement as well as greater acceptance for themselves and their families. Perhaps a compromise between these two viewpoints will ultimately be what is adopted by the black community of the next century.