San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Race Casts Shadow On Limón’s Past, Future

Mr. J. Bennett sat on a short, orange stool outside of his tailor’s shop on the first floor of the Black Star Line building, one of downtown Limón’s oldest edifices.

Under the shade of the roof that hangs over the balcony of the wooden, sun-beaten turquoise structure, the 93-year-old Afro-Caribbean descendent, wearing a polo shirt and olive colored slacks, barely broke a sweat in the smothering afternoon Caribbean humidity.

Born and raised in Limón, he gazed across the street toward the local high school and recalled a time, nearly 50 years ago, when his daughters were teenagers.

Classes in Limón were taught in English then, the area’s most prominent language during the era, and school books and teachers for the city’s largely Afro-Caribbean population came from England and Jamaica.

The girls were always the best in the class, Mr. Bennett said, and deserved as much recognition as anyone.

In the early 1960s, officials from Costa Rica’s central government arrived in Limón and announced that they would grant a monthly stipend to the families of some of the country’s best performing students, Mr. Bennett remembers. To qualify, the kids had to pass one exam.

The test, though, was only issued in Spanish, a language that Mr. Bennett’s daughters, along with many local school children, never needed to master.

With three months to prepare, he bought an English-Spanish dictionary for the girls.

Neither passed the test.

“Costa Rica is number one in discrimination,” he said. “It wasn’t fair and we knew it wasn’t fair. We had never asked anything from the government, but we are from the black race and that has always made things difficult.”

According to Costa Rica’s 2000 census, 16 percent of the Limón province’s residents are Afro-Caribbean, while 75 percent claim, at least in part, Afro-Caribbean blood.

The Caribbean black identity has defined Limón’s unique culture. From their music and dance-style to their cooking to the sports they play and the language they speak, Limonenses have historically had a distinguishing vibe, setting them apart from the rest of Costa Rica.

But the dark color of the Limonenses’ skin has also held the area back.

Many of the city’s old timers harbor resentments toward Costa Rica for systematically eliminating their native English tongue. Schools in Limón are Spanish-speaking now.

As billboards soar up and commercials bombard television sets, promoting Guanacaste, and the Arenal Volcano and selling the Osa Peninsula and the central Pacific coast as national treasures, people in Limón feel neglected and wonder when advertisements for Caribbean comfort might see the light.

Some argue that this is a racially-inspired disregard and has restrained the city’s development potential.

“The real issue is not discrimination in Limón, but discrimination against Limón,” said Quince Duncan, a noted author and scholar who has studied and written about racism and discrimination in Costa Rica. “The Central Valley has a series of stereotypes and stigmas related to the province of Limón and toward black people and the Limonenses in general.”

A criminal reputation is among those typecasts.

According to a 2009 UNICEF survey, “The Perception of Costa Ricans about the Afro-descendent Population,” 27 percent believe that the descendents of Africans are violent and aggressive. Among that 27 percent, 38 percent believe that this supposed violent and aggressive nature is biological.

“It’s not the majority of the sample, but it does indicate racism, and as long as these thoughts exist, we can’t advance,” said Ana Sofía Solano, one of the commissioners of the UNICEF study.

While the survey considered Costa Rica as a whole, Duncan attributes part of this negative perception to the way in which crime statistics are kept for Limón.

In most provinces, crime figures are documented on a canton-by-canton basis.

For example, when a crime happens in Santo Domingo de Heredia, it is recorded as a crime in the canton of Santo Domingo, distinguished from the province of Heredia.

In Limón, such a distinction doesn’t exist. As a result, the city and the province, where  much of the country’s black population is centered, have earned a crime-ridden reputation. 

“It’s a very perverse use of statistics,” Duncan said. “If there is a crime in Talamanca, it occurred in Limón. If someone kills someone in Siquirres, it’s in Limón. If someone is robbed in Pococí, it’s in Limón. It gives the impression of a terrible, terrible situation in the province and the city.”

Mr. Bennett agrees.

“That’s what people see,” he said. “They think we are the worst-behaved people in all of Costa Rica and that’s why they don’t pay any attention to Limón.”

Kattia Bolaños, 24, is from the Central Valley. Her parents moved to Limón seven years ago to open a restaurant.

She remembers one of the first things that her folks told her when the family moved.

“Stay away from the blacks,” she said. “That was common advice and in many households, it still is. But it’s changing with younger generations. We’ve learned to mix, hang out with each other, and be a little more accepting.”

Young people from different races and ethnic backgrounds have begun to intermingle in Limón, going to school together and forming interracial relationships, and ethnic tensions seem less prevalent among the city’s youth.

And the country suggested it was getting beyond race when Epsy Campbell, an activist of Afro-Caribbean descent, became a leading contender in the presidential primaries of one of the largest opposition parties, the Citizen Action Party.

Even still, the 2009 UNICEF study found that 74 percent of Costa Ricans believe that previous governments have ignored the country’s black population.

In 2008, the Costa Rican government, with help from the United States and the World Bank, launched Limón Port City Project, an initiative to revive the city and region. Many locals, though, say they haven’t yet seen any benefits from the project.

The country also just launched a new anti-discrimination program and recently introduced a new bill in the Legislative Assembly that would help balance the scale between races and genders.

“I have to say that over the course of my life, things are better now than they were,” Duncan said. “But there are still many subtle forms of discrimination. We have improved, but we are still a ways from where we should be.”

Back at the Black Star Line, a man stopped by Mr. Bennett’s shop to pick up a pair of pants. Mr. Bennett stood up. The two greeted each other and exchanged small talk in English.

Since growing up, Mr. Bennett has learned Spanish and speaks the language fluently. But he continues to speak in his native English tongue with his Afro-Caribbean neighbors.

He admits that the grudges that he holds against Costa Rica for trying to wipe away the English of the Limonenses still trouble him. But, at a youthful-looking 93, he hopes that in the future the tense resentment won’t be so strong.

“Maybe, someday, they won’t see our skin color, and, someday Limón will be what it really should be,” he said. “But in my lifetime and in my daughters’ lifetime, we, the black people of Limón, have been forgotten.”

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