Community Icon Preaches Poetics of Identity
The walls of Eulalia Bernard’s home office are covered with diplomas and leadership awards, but her laugh is what fills up the room.
An exuberant, confident woman with a boisterous sense of humor and green, purple and blue strings braided into her hair, Bernard has been described by colleagues as an icon of Costa Rica’s black community.
An award-winning poet, an activist, and an educator for more than 40 years, she is old enough to not want her age printed in the newspaper. But she speaks about the importance of cultural identity – especially for Costa Rica’s black community – with energy that defies her years.
In her poetry and her public life, she talks about the importance of heritage and selfknowledge in the context of broad social issues. These topics dominate many of the poems in her 2001 collection “Ciénaga,” (“Marsh”), which was reissued this year.
The book’s title refers to the figurative marsh of oppression black people have had to rise out of in Costa Rica, where the Afro-Caribbean community faced official discrimination until the Constitution was amended to prohibit it in 1966.
In her book, Bernard uses small words in short verses to take on issues of race, place, identity, poverty, family and desire.
Many of the poems have musical rhythms, and Bernard, a trained linguist, dances through Spanish, English and the Creole dialects of the Caribbean.
In “Blanco Te Dices Tú” (“You Say You Are White”), she touches on ethnic solidarity and identity.
She writes: “Blanco te dices tú Manuel / Negro eres como yo / … El barco en que navegas tú, / es el mismo en que navego yo. / Si te hundes tú, / también me hundo yo.” (You say you are white,Manuel / You are black like me / … The boat you are sailing in / is the same one I am sailing in. / If you sink, / I sink, too.) In a section of “Humanization,” she shows a more universal side of her philosophy. “Am I human? / I speak / … I see myself and / I love myself. / I see another me and / I love them because / I love myself,” the poem reads.
Most of the poems in “Ciénaga” are written in the forms of tú y yo (you and me), but they are not autobiographical, Bernard said.
“My poems are a compilation of my life, but my life in plural terms,” she explained. “I think very few poems and maybe no poems are a reflection of me as an individual. (My poetry) is very socialistic in that way because that’s what I have been doing all my life, social work.”
Much of Bernard’s work revolves around language. The daughter of an English teacher, she has had a lifelong interest in the power of words and teaching.
She began teaching in 1956, and after leading classes in San José and Heredia, north of the capital, she went back to school to get an advanced degree in English education.
As the first black woman to graduate with an advanced degree in the subject at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), she faced numerous roadblocks, she said. But she persevered, graduated and went on to earn postgraduate degrees in linguistics and educational television in Wales and England.
Back in Costa Rica in 1974, she led the “Limón Educational Plan” for the Ministry of Public Education (MEP), which aimed to ease tensions between the Afro-Caribbean and Latino populations in the region through bilingual and bicultural education.
More recently, she started a course at the UCR called “Introduction to African-American Culture: Africa in America.” She taught the course from 1982 to 1993 to increase understanding of black history.
“You must talk in your universities to all your students about black history,” she said.
“If you talk only about European history and nothing about the history of other groups, then you are leaving your students hungry and they can’t understand who is in front of them.”
She also hoped to mold leaders, and she did. One of her students was former legislator and vice-presidential candidate Epsy Campbell.
Speaking to The Tico Times earlier this month, Bernard unearthed from her desk unpublished books of poetry (for posterity, she laughed) and programs from events she had recently attended. She said she is retired from public life, but hasn’t slowed down.
At the time of the interview in her home in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro, she had just returned from a Caribbean women writers’ conference in the U.S. state of Florida. She is also a member of the Afro-Costa Rican Studies Commission, which is working with MEP to get more black history into public school textbooks.
And – impatient for action – during the interview she was sketching out a new educational plan for the Caribbean province of Limón. Her fledgling plan would focus on Limón children who are not in school, harnessing their knowledge of Caribbean English to teach them a more universal form of the language. The idea is to help them increase their work options without making them abandon the dialect that is part of their cultural heritage.
“What we want is for them to be able to access a more standard English to be more competitive in the market,” she said.
At this point in her life, Bernard doesn’t hesitate to call herself a leader, and she is not the first to do so.
Among her awards are a 1991 distinguished citizenship award from the University for Peace, which hangs on her office wall, and a 1996 Griot award from the Pan-African Cultural Committee for contributing to the spiritual and cultural health of the community.
Bernard’s colleagues also praise her energy and relentless activism.
Ramiro Crawford, editor of Limón Roots magazine and a longtime activist in Costa Rica’s black community, had high praise for the poet.
“She has been an icon” of the community, he said.
“She has been a great promoter and defender of black culture,” echoed Hydée Jiménez, cultural promoter for the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports in Limón.