I was born in Brooklyn, New York several moons ago to a Costa Rican mom, newly immigrated, and a Panamanian dad who were sorting their way through the landscape that is the United States. One of my favorite childhood pastimes in our humble Brooklyn apartment was to look through the stiff photo albums (a pre-digital, non-cloud based form of storage) that my mother diligently continued to fill with old black-and-white and color photos of my babyhood. High on top of her wardrobe, the albums sat, filled with creased plastic pages holding too many pictures of people from “home.” My favorite was the scalloped white frame sepia print of my white-haired abuelito hoisting my tiny body in his arms while my abuelita is smiling away from the camera: she is focused on me, her first grandchild. I was the only one of four grandchildren to meet my grandfather before he passed away in 1972. It would be to my grandmother that all my first and lasting associations with Costa Rica were linked.
During random summer vacations, my family would make the occasional – and expensive, for working-class parents in New York City – journey to visit my mother’s family. My first encounters with Costa Rica were in the barrio of San Rafael Abajo, Desamparados, where lifelong friendships were crafted between Brooklyn English and Spanish. I loved my grandmother’s three-bedroom house, which felt opulent compared to our two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. I remember sitting in the doorway with “our” dog, Mitzy, staring at the mountains and eating mangoes, filling my head with girl-dreams with my sister, cousin and Tico neighbors; my grandmother’s escovitch fish fragrant in the background. We mixed the novelty of being from the U.S. with the coffee-rich caresses of family and community. It was only when my grandmother needed to go into San José that I began to expand my knowing of Costa Rica, and its knowing of me.
All dressed up and shifting colones in my palms, I followed my abuelita to the main post office in town. On this particular excursion, I remember crossing the street near Avenida Central and I heard a man’s voice rise from the car parked at the light. “Negrita, morena” he called, and it stopped me in my tracks. I did not know how to take this new naming of my brown body as I ran to catch up with my grandmother.
Fast-forward some 20 years. No longer a quinceñera, I sit today thinking about what that man had in his voice which caused me pause. What did it mean for him to call me those racial signifiers? Was it violence? Was it racism? Was it admiration? Would my grandmother be called such words? Whatever the intent, my memories drew me back to being called a “nigger” for the first time at the age of 5 on the streets of Florida during a summer vacation. That was my introduction to race and racism in the United States. The mantles I created to protect my brown girl-self moving through New York to attain education in mostly white spaces did not seem to fit properly in the context of Costa Rican labels.
As a teenager with brown skin, straightened hair and a lover of all things “Menudo,” I never fit into the spaces of claiming a Latina identity because I did not look like my Puerto Rican and Dominican sisters screaming for Ricky and Ray at the Madison Square Garden concerts. Though I longed for a place in this community of Latinas whose Spanish rolled off tongues with a fury, I could only pace through words with my mother at our kitchen table and endlessly sing Menudo songs, cramming the lyrics and their meanings into my head to create the language of my forefathers.
Experiences in college and graduate school placed me firmly back into an identity which marked me “black,” yet never fully African-American; though I bore that historical legacy daily, I could not claim it as my own. I was raised with a Caribbean sensibility. As I searched to get over my sense of homelessness, (not belonging), I kept coming back to the idea of being called a morena on the streets of Costa Rica. I rolled around the memories from visits to Costa Rica when I heard my aunts call each other morena or negrita with love and laughter. I think of La Negrita, the patron saint of Costa Rica, and realize it is all very complex.
As I became more entrenched in studying and thinking of the world of AfroLatin@s within the United States and its diaspora, I faced an identity crisis when teaching a class using the “AfroLatin@ Reader” by Juan Flores and Miriam Jimenez Romain. As I was laughing about the similarities of the narratives we read and my growing-up life, both in New York and during summers with my Costa Rican family, a student asked me if I was an Afro-Latina. I became tongue-tied; I did not have an honest answer. I turned that conversation into a teaching moment where I opened up about the vulnerability of never really fitting into the stereotypical ideals of being a Latina and so it became expedient for me to use the umbrella of “blackness.” Until that moment, I never considered the possibility of naming myself AfroLatina or an AfroCosta Rican (of U.S. descent).
Today, I tentatively claim a layering of names and titles including AfroLatina, black, woman, wife, sister, daughter, mother, scholar, writer, vegetarian, yoga enthusiast… and it feels safe. I don’t have answers to what these words mean in Costa Rican society, but my desire is to find out while challenging others to move outside of using racially defined markers, even when speaking endearingly. In the end, I want to find out if the broader cultural meanings of negra and morena signify Costa Rica’s attempts at embracing an Afro-Latinidad.