San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican

Learning English in Costa Rica, then and now

My two children, born in New York, are English speakers with a fair background in the basics of Spanish. They attend a private international school in Costa Rica where instruction is in English – except for Spanish class, of course, and the preparatory program for the Costa Rican high school exit exams. My 15-year-old son has emerged as a true Tico, as he can now roll off his tongue all the maes, esos and other soccer-field lingo that signifies “arrival.”

For my husband and daughter, the journey has been a bit more treacherous. As for me, I have never had formal Spanish instruction, but I can understand, speak (tongue-tied much of the time) and write it. Yet much of my daily life involves English. The neighborhood we live in is a mix of U.S. and European expats and professional Costa Ricans who love speaking English with me, though I attempt to reply in Spanish. Outside of this enclave, of course, the Costa Rican world remains mostly Spanish-speaking. At the feria on Saturday morning, I have my regular vendors who greet me with fresh kale as we discuss the weather and their crops.

I realize as I move between spaces that my worlds are language-driven. When I am with my Costa Rican family, conversation is generally in Spanish, with whispers when I need translation. I began to think about the significance of this since there are rumors that within 20 years, 60 percent of Costa Ricans will speak English.  I think that today, the majority of Costa Ricans who speak English fluently come primarily from two spaces: from an Afro/Caribbean-descended family, or from a private school education which was either bilingual or English-based. The latter indicates a class status. The former is based in a specific political and cultural tradition from the Caribbean coast which still has ramifications today.

I love the fact that I can simply make a phone call to my maternal aunts and get all the information I need on their experiences growing up in Puerto Limón in the 1940s and 1950s. My Aunt Marjorie is the family storyteller; in West Africa she would be called a griot. A griot is a respected holder of communal knowledge, usually shared through word-of-mouth as part of a community’s oral tradition. Well, Tía Marjorie has a suitcase of knowledge that I am grateful for! I have always heard my mother and her sisters laugh about Sister Jesse and English school, but only until I spoke with my tias did I get a good idea about how they acquired English in Costa Rica.

At the turn of the 20th century, the influx of Anglophone Caribbean immigrants into Puerto Limón and the surrounding area to work on the Northern Railway and the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company, created a “country” on the Caribbean coast that was fully autonomous from the central highlands of Costa Rica. These Caribbean immigrants – educated, religious and professional – established their churches, local newspapers, businesses, worker unions and social clubs, which were mostly church-based. These organizations helped the community articulate itself as it struggled with the identity politics of being of Caribbean origins and non-Costa Ricans (until 1948, when those of Caribbean lineage but born in Costa Rica could apply for naturalization). One of the great markers of this Caribbean identity was the creation and maintenance of private English schools by the local Black community.

My tía tells me that her father, Jamaican-born and married to a black woman from Limón, insisted that his four daughters learn to read and write English as part of their cultural heritage.  My grandfather never learned Spanish, and he did not need to in the Limón of his time. My grandmother learned Spanish well into her 50s, once she was living in San Jose. The world of Puerto Limón was an English-speaking center which was cosmopolitan in its outlook, as it engaged with sailors from around the world. Newspapers about global events were widely circulated. There were several private English schools that Black children could attend, including those run by the Baptist and Methodist Churches. Sister Jesse, Teacher Thomas and Mr. Davidson, all of Caribbean descent, were some of the English teachers who ran these schools which offered a program complementary to that of the Spanish schools that the Costa Rican government mandated all children to attend.

Enter the world of Sister Jesse! She was a member of the Methodist Church and my grandmother was her seamstress. Tall and imposing, she wore long skirts with full petticoats, frilly white blouses closed at the neck and laced-up black boots in the hot Limón sun! As an exchange for her sewing services, my grandmother was allowed to send her four daughters to Sister Jesse’s English school for free. It was located in a one-room building next to the Methodist Church, around the corner from Los Banos in Limón. So, in the early 1940s, my mother and her sisters went to the schoolhouse, mostly in the afternoons, from 1-3 pm after Spanish school.

Sister Jesse’s classroom was divided into Primary and Secondary; she had a younger woman teach the Kindergarten, First and Second Grades about 15 students. Sister Jesse took the older students in one large mix, up to 25 students at a time. She taught English, Geography/History (British of course!), Math and Religion.

Sister Jesse’s world was ordered and serious, and maintained the respectability politics of the immigrant Caribbean community of her time. My tia recounts that most of the teaching and assessment was done orally: the students would form a daily semicircle around Sister Jesse’s desk, with the head of the class going first. Everyone vied for that spot, because the last thing a student wanted was to be the tail. Class started with the times tables, then spelling and geography. My aunts admitted that they were naughty and chatted a lot in class, therefore rarely avoiding the punishment meted out at the end of the day by Sister Jesse.

It was this Limon community that established the foundations of English literacy for its children as an act of political and cultural consciousness which remain strong today among many Afro-Costa Ricans. One of the initiatives for the United Nations Decade of Afro-Descendants is the support of English-speaking Afro-Costa Rican communities through the sharing and celebration of language and cultural norms. Costa Rican scholars such as Dr. Marva Spence Sharpe study Limonese linguistic patterns in order to preserve all of their wonderful influences in Costa Rica’s history.

Read more of Natasha Gordon-Chipembere’s columns here.

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 is now accepting applications for Tengo Sed IV Writers and Yoga Retreat in Jan 2017. She may be reached at indisunflower@gmail.com. Her column “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” is published monthly.

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