In January 2013, I was given a grant to conduct research in the Costa Rican National Archives on the vague topic of slavery in colonial Costa Rica. As an Africanist and someone who studies slavery and slave narratives, I have always struggled with finding a way to put Africans, slavery, colonial Costa Rica and contemporary Costa Rican identity together in a pot that works.
As I laboriously flipped through micro-film at the Archives, I found two treasures. The first was a list of slave purchases from the 1700s with Spaniard/colonial family names, slave names and the amount of pesos spent per transaction. My second find was a reference to Puebla de los Pardos and the 1635 apparition narrative of the La Negrita (the Black Madonna). In my 30-odd years of visiting Costa Rica, I never had a real discussion about slavery. For many, the Afro-presence began with Limón at the turn of the 20th century– at least for the Afro-Costa Ricans I knew.
In many ways, I wanted to prove that the Africans who had lived, loved and labored during colonial times had paved a way for the second and third waves of Afro-descendent immigrants who arrived on Costa Rica’s shores. I wanted to prove that the relationship colonial Costa Rica had with Africans (free and enslaved) and their subsequent generations (the first Afro-Costa Ricans directly affected the laws/policies that Afro-descended people in Limón would later encounter. But first, I had to find La Negrita.
My last task on that research trip in 2013 was to visit the Basilica in Cartago, home to La Negrita, the nickname for the tiny black stone statue of the “Virgin of the Angels,” Costa Rica’s patron saint. It was to be my first adult visit to the statue, which draws millions of pilgrims from around Costa Rica and beyond each year. As I made my way to the altar I was humbled by the many others crawling on their knees. Kneeling at the altar, I instantly felt “it”: a sense of arrival, of coming home. Raising my eyes to La Negrita, my throat tightened. I bowed my head and suddenly sensed a multitude of people on the altar. Within my mind’s eyes I could see a circle of Africans surrounding her. They were calm, present and insistent. I was being asked something – would I do the job of telling their stories – using my words to acknowledge individual lives? Would I make real the invisible people who cared for La Negrita? As I said yes in my head and heart, I opened my eyes and noticed the tears streaming down my face.
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A bit stunned but committed to the work that I had agreed to, I began over the next two years to read all that I could on La Negrita and Puebla de Los Pardos (the designated barrio for free blacks on the outskirts of colonial Cartago). I kept returning to Costa Rica’s national narrative, reiterated in popular culture, political discourse and in history textbooks, which states that there was never a real slave history in this country. For the most part, Costa Ricans are presented as a homogenous, Spanish-descended population, Christian and hard-working, family-oriented, middle–class – all these aspects define the Tico in the “Switzerland” of Central America. But my research and my gut told me something else.
Costa Rica’s colonial capital was Cartago, La Negrita’s home. Starting in the 16th century, Spaniards imported Africans, but not in large numbers. Costa Rica never had a cash crop plantation system except for a brief period of cacao production, and therefore its version of slavery does not align with the common forms of plantation slave systems that were abundant in the region during the 16th -18th centuries. Africans were present on the original voyages with Christopher Columbus in the 16th century; many of them from wealthy Afro-Hispano families from Spain who claimed Moorish lineage. These first explorers were not slaves, but in time, small conveys of enslaved Africans were brought from Panama and through other raids and trades along the coasts. Colonial Costa Rica’s slaves worked in three main areas: as domestics in Cartago, on the cattle ranches in Nicoya and on the cacao plantations of Matina.
Slavery was expensive and colonial Costa Rica was poor, underdeveloped and mostly ignored by the Spanish Crown, headquartered in Guatemala. Many Africans bought their freedom, married free indigenous women, or secured wealth while working the cacao plantations, since the cacao bean was at one point a form of currency. I say this not to minimize the institution of slavery and its attendant violence, but rather to highlight the unique form of slavery that Costa Rican maintained. What I have presented is a very simplified version of colonial history, and there are very well-documented texts by Quince Duncan and Russel Lohse, if folks are interested in reading more. But, back to La Negrita.
According to Catholic Church documents and popular lore, the icon of La Negrita, a 20-centimeter dark colored stone statue of mother and child representing the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, appeared to a woman of African descent – a parda/a or free black person – in 1635. The woman decided to go to the local Catholic priest, and the icon was placed in the church, but it kept reappearing to the woman in its original place. After the icon appeared to the woman three times in this way, the priest commissioned a church to be built for the icon on the spot where she was found. The Catholic Bishop later, in about 1637, established La Confradia, a lay organization of free Blacks charged with maintaining and venerating the icon.
For over 200 years, the Catholic Church felt that the devotion to this icon was something “only blacks were interested in.” There were highly ritualized African-based celebrations around the veneration of La Negrita. During their fight for Independence from Spain, the Church and colonial politicians took La Negrita out of the hands of the Blacks who had maintained and worshipped her and re-named her La Virgin de Los Angeles; the symbol of the hard-working Costa Ricans or Ticos in the face of colonial Spain. Independence was won in 1821 and slavery ended in 1824.
Who were those people of Afro-descent, mixed with Indigenous and Spanish blood, who honored La Negrita? What were their lives like in Puebla de Los Pardos in the 1700s? Who tells the stories of their lives, these people who contributed to the building of Cartago and its burgeoning economy? In thinking back to that moment at the Basilica, I guess in order to answer these questions, I must craft narratives that support a wider historical lens into this place I call home.
Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, a writer, professor and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats, moved to Heredia, Costa Rica with her family from New York in June 2014. She may be reached at email@example.com. “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” is published twice-monthly.