From Brooklyn to Costa Rica: ‘It was the best decision of my life’
The staff of The Tico Times first met Natasha Gordon-Chipembere in September 2015 on the (virtual) pages of Essence. The magazine published a piece she wrote entitled “‘And So We Left’: Why One Black Mom Moved Her Family to Costa Rica.”
The Brooklyn-born professor told of her decision, along with her husband’s, to relocate their family to her mother’s native country because of “the encroaching violence on Black and brown bodies in New York and beyond.” She wrote of the way in which they “have had to consistently re-adjust our mantles of defensiveness in a Costa Rica which has absorbed our children as people who have the right to dream… Our kids, always told they needed tutors in their Brooklyn private school, morphed into butterflies before our eyes.”
We knew we had to talk to her, and were thrilled when she launched her Tico Times column, “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican,” which over a little more than a year has taken us and our readers to historic Limón and the Pueblo de los Pardos, to an astonishing Cahuita shipwreck and Casa Presidencial, and to an unforgettable afternoon in Desamparados where Prince touched the soul of an Afro-Costa Rican teenager visiting her grandmother.
As we launch our new weekly series of Costa Rican immigration stories – interviews with foreign residents, or Costa Rican-born people with tales of immigration in their families – we knew where we wanted to start. Gordon-Chipembere, 46, a writer, teacher and mother of two, spoke to The Tico Times via Skype from her home in Cariari about her experience in Costa Rica so far and her current projects. Excerpts follow.
So I already know a bit about why you came to Costa Rica. But many months later, has it worked out the way you expected?
It was the best decision of my entire life, absolutely.
There were three things that really motivated me and my family. My husband and I really wanted another space to raise our children, particularly our son, who will be 16 in April – a young boy of color. Even though he was in a very ritzy private school, a Quaker school in Brooklyn, he was just at that age and height where the cops gave him a second look. It got to the point where I was thinking about quitting my job to be his body shadow. My mentor [advised me]: this is a good time to take your kid and run. Go give him a life.
We had no idea what Costa Rica would provide for us, but we knew there would be differences in safety. Absolutely, that has been the case… We are not considering colleges in the States. We are only looking at Canada [in terms of options] outside Costa Rica.
The second reason was that we have about 70 family members living in San José – four generations, really extensive. Every month we gather together for lunch. We rotate who cooks and it’s very well-established. It’s an incredibly tight-knit, well-supported family network. We wanted that for our kids as examples.
The third reason is that when we made the decision to come here, I had been doing four years of historical research on slavery in Costa Rica, and I knew I was writing a historical fiction that rewrites the narrative of La Negrita.
We’ve been happy in Costa Rica. This is where I will be; this is the rest of my life.
When that big family gets together, it must be intense.
It’s actually quite beautiful. There’s always a soccer game with all the cousins.
Of course, you were already part Costa Rican through your mother. What is your family’s coming-to-Costa-Rica story?
My great-grandmother was from Jamaica, my great-grandfather from New Orleans; he was hired by the Northern Company, Minor Cooper Keith’s company, to come to Costa Rica to work on the Northern Railroad at the turn of the 20th century… He went from New Orleans via Jamaica, where my met my great-grandmother, and they went to Limón, where they were hired to run the Northern Quarters, the guest lodges. They had seven children, one of whom was my grandmother.
My mother was also born in Costa Rica, but it wasn’t until 1948, after the Civil War, that they allowed people from Limón of Afro-Caribbean origins to become naturalized… so while my mother was born in Costa Rica in the 1930s, she was basically a non-citizen. So while my mother is second-generation Costa Rican, technically, she was naturalized, by the first Afro-Costa Rican lawyer in the country.
What has struck you about race or international relations in Costa Rica during your time here?
I still hear and see a disdain for those from Nicaragua, particularly because they maintain the domestic working space here… In terms of how I’m perceived, I’ve always noticed that once I open my mouth, people say “Oh, she’s a gringa,” so even though I’m a person of color, I will not get some of the same suspicions of someone who is from Limón.
Costa Rica has its racism problems, absolutely, and that’s because it doesn’t know its history. People will come in and ask me to give a talk on the history of slavery in Costa Rica, which lasted 200 years, but people don’t know about it… But one of the things I love about Costa Rica is that once you tell people something… they are willing to learn. I haven’t found that anyplace else. There’s no shutting down.
That’s so interesting. Why do you think that is?
The openness rests with the younger people. Younger Costa Ricans are completely willing to engage.
For readers interested in learning more about Afro-Costa Rican history, what are the most important books, thinkers, scholars?
Anything by Quince Duncan is important. He really is the center of a literary cultural movement… Also Ron Harpelle, Carmen Hutchinson, Ken Lohse, Rina Cáceres.
How’s your own book coming?
It’s coming! I finally figured out who’s gonna die. My husband talked me through it at 4:30 in the morning. It’s historical fiction, set in Cartago, 1634… I don’t think anyone has ever written about this time period in Costa Rica in any language.
And you’re also a teacher.
When I was in the States, I left a job as a tenured associate professor. In leaving that and the financial wealth that went along with that, I started over, so I’m juggling a bunch of different things that allow me to write.
I teach literature; I have always maintained a freelance editing business where I specifically work with people who are writing their dissertations; I run writers’ retreats; and I just started an online consulting service for families that want to move to Costa Rica. I have to say that Donald Trump has put me on the map a little bit.
It’s really interesting work. It’s actually quite nice to talk to people about life in Costa Rica and what moving is like: estimates on what to bring over, residencies, lawyers, applications. I’d never had any of that. We came in blind and we landed so nicely.
Would you like to share your or your family’s coming-to-Costa Rica story? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or share a post or video with the hashtag #SoyMigranteCR.
Read more stories of Costa Rican immigration here.
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