MANY Costa Ricans and other Latin Americans have not always considered black citizens as part of the culture and history of the region. Black people have often been overlooked, both within government institutions, such as schools and history books, and in the popular conception of Latin America. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken long strides during the past ten years toward greater worldwide recognition of black people, their cultures and histories.At the behest of Haiti and some African nations, UNESCO approved the implementation of a program called the Slave Route Project in 1993. “The idea of a ‘route’ expresses the dynamics of the movement of peoples, civilizations and cultures, while that of ‘slave’addresses not only the universal phenomenon of slavery, but also the slave trade in the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean,” UNESCO said in a recent statement. The program seeks to “break the silence” around the slave trade by integrating its study into school curricula and helping establish tolerance and more peaceful interactions between races. FIVE years ago, Quince Duncan, a Costa Rican born in Jamaica, came on board and began spearheading the movement here and throughout Central America and Mexico. He held a weeklong workshop in San José in August designed to teach the region’s black leaders about the opportunities they have to nurture broader understanding of the role black people have played in Central America. “Basically, the idea is to claim responsibility for the transatlantic slaves and theirwork and legacy the world over. A(regional) commission was set up to give an alternative view of history and culture,” Duncan told The Tico Times.In the five years since Duncan began leading the commission, his work has had the most success in Mexico, where he has worked with that country’s National Institute of Policy and History to help blacks claim their place in Mexico’s economy and history. However, his work is also unfolding in schoolrooms throughout the region.“AT the meeting we had in San José, we came up with the idea that African descendents are not aware of the value of the things they can promote or sell or get support to do. We helped them come up with projects they could present. We couldn’t finish it in a week, but at least they went away with ideas,” he said.“For example, we don’t have textbooks that deal with the black population. There’s a tendency in Latin America to whiten everyone,” he added.He encourages education among both black people and other races in the region on Afro-Caribbean traditions, natural medicines, and a general awareness of black culture.THE economic component of his workis the dissemination of how-to informationfor starting small businesses and exploitingthe talents and resources found amongblack communities. He teaches communityleaders how to solicit funds from privateagencies, such as non-governmental organizations,and governments.Duncan admitted progress has been slow here, but the programs are successful in other parts of the world, especially Europe and Africa, and the intensity of the work in this region has increased.“The international system – the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) – did not (always) acknowledge a black population in Latin America. Now we know we are 150 million in the region, and there has been recognition since (the year) 2000.“Brazil has the largest black population of any country outside of Africa, and that was never mentioned. (People acknowledged) you had mulattos in Brazil, but no black people. That is changing now,” he said.THROUGH his efforts, the Panamanian government set up a commission to study the issue, and Mexico has buckled down to address it as well, he said. “Nobody a few years ago even talked about a black population in Mexico, so I would say, yes, it’s been changing,” he said.More than 20 leaders from every Central American country and Mexico, except El Salvador and Belize, attended the conference. El Salvador was exempt because it lacks a sizeable black population and Belize because, as an English-speaking nation, there was a language barrier, he said.He hopes to see “alternative” textbooks in classrooms and other programs implemented by early next year, he said.