Karla Samuels, 20, has no shortage of examples of what it’s like to be an “invisible” visible minority.
A second-year student of sociology at the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José, the Afro-Costa Rican activist recounts how racist attitudes lurk even in the supposedly enlightened corridors of higher learning.
“I was absent one day for an elective class,” she remembers. “Later I went to see the professor, and saw a book on her desk that had in red ‘La negra (the black woman) was absent, Marcia (another classmate) was absent…’”
While Costa Ricans are known for their penchant for referring to people by any number of physical features, historical discrimination makes negra a politically charged insult for many.
Samuels’ voice rises with indignation as she tells the story – offense at the term “black” (she prefers Afro-Costa Rican), and the fact that, unlike her white classmate, she was stripped of her name and identified only by her race.
She did not let the incident pass. As part of the class, she prepared a presentation on famed Afro-American activist Marcus Garvey, including suggestions on how to refer to descendants of Africans.
“This way, I was able to help educate the class as well as (my teacher),” Samuels says.
This kind of impact-maximizing action fits well with the Afro-Costa Rican Women’s Center, an association that highlights issues of gender, race and political participation in the Afro-Costa Rican community. Samuels, who joined this year, is one of the youngest members.
Birth of the Center
A trio of activists midwifed the association into being in 1992 in the Caribbean port city of Limón. Its founders are headliners in Costa Rican politics: Epsy Campbell, former legislator and former vice-presidential candidate for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), and active party members Ann McKinley and Jeanneth Cooper.
As students, the women worked for the Pro Development and Ecology Association, an environmental development group focusing on issues such as garbage, schools and the environment.
“At the time, I had no idea what was going on,” Cooper says, referring to gender issues in the Afro-American community. “As we worked along with the agenda of the association, I became aware.”
They decided there was a need for a group with a focus on, and from the perspective of, Afro-Costa Rican women. Since 1995, the office has been based in San José, currently in a small apartment in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe.
Cooper cut her teeth in activism at 18, when she helped a group of people, including her mother, claim a parcel of land for their own. Along the way she learned how to navigate governmental processes.
She pauses when asked to describe the situation of Afro-Costa Rican women, repeatedly using somewhat generic terms such as marginalization, discrimination and cultural invisibility.
“Discrimination (in Costa Rica) is not that open,” she says, grasping to put into words the kind of exclusion that, almost by definition, cannot be explained through mainstream discourse. “It’s more like when you’re applying for a job and you have a secretary’s diploma, employers may ask for a bachelor’s degree, and if you have that, all of a sudden they require a master’s, and for some reason it’s the white person who meets all the requirements. It’s very hard to fight.”
Under-the-radar concepts such as cultural marginalization are hugely influential on a person’s identity, she notes, and can take many forms.
“Schoolbooks just have a short mention of (Afro-Costa Ricans), saying they came as slaves, they dance well and they make great food,” she says of the oversimplification of history, hastening to add that the slavery part is not entirely true. Most Afro-Costa Ricans came to the country from the West Indies to build the Atlantic Railway and to work at banana plantations.
Members of the center have played a key role in changing this, participating in the National Afro-Costa Rican Studies Commission sponsored by the Education Ministry, which is now in the process of incorporating more Afro-Costa Rican history into the curriculum.
For now, the association is still struggling to get a clear picture of the situation of Afro-Costa Rican women. A 2000 census (the most recent statistics available) reported that approximately 1.9% (72,784 people) of Costa Rica’s population consider themselves Afro-Costa Rican, of which some 74% live in the Caribbean province of Limón. The census also found that the population is generally urban and upwardly mobile. While various governmental studies and surveys show that Costa Rican women are more educated and lower paid than men, statistics broken down into both race and gender are all but nonexistent.
A Hard Road
Ingrid Lambert is a member of the Caribbean Project Committee, a strategic ally of the women’s center that promotes economic, social and cultural participation in the Afro-Costa Rican community. She says that while the socioeconomic situation of Afro-Costa Ricans has risen along with the rest of the country, great gaps still exist in political representation.
She describes the situation as somewhat sporadic and lacking cohesiveness; every few years an Afro-Costa Rican will rise to the position of president of some autonomous institution, and one or two are elected to the Legislative Assembly.
“They’re very individual achievements,” she says. “In other words, the political participation still does not represent the dreams and interests of the Afro-Costa Rican community.”
Cooper bristles at a question on how the association helps the less privileged, less educated women of the community, saying that in Costa Rica, discrimination is not so much about lack of resources and education, but rather cultural marginalization and the glass (read “white”) ceiling, which does not always ring strongly with everyone.
“You can go to Limón and see the dynamic,” she says. “If you talk to Afro-Costa Rican people, you’ll find that some won’t have anything to say about discrimination – they are not interested.”
And Samuels admits to struggling with her own identity.
“I was the only Afro-Costa Rican girl in high school. I was socialized as part of the majority group,” she says. “If I know nothing about my culture, I can’t know who I am or where I’m going.”
Most of the work carried out by the center itself takes place at high-level political forums and on the international stage, through partnerships with or grants from major nongovernmental organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the World Bank.
“Working at these levels brings us close to the people who actually make the decisions,” Cooper says.
The center hosted the second Meeting of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women in 1996, prepared the first Participatory Diagnostic of the Position of Afro-Costa Rican Women, and has participated in a number of international discussion and policy conferences. Last June, it sent Samuels to Panama for the UNESCO-sponsored First Intergenerational Meeting of Afro-descendant Women Leaders.
Taking on topics such as inclusive development and reproductive rights, one of the association’s key strategies – and strengths – is encouraging and preparing Afro-Costa Rican women to enter politics.
Women such as Laura Wilson represent a more grassroots side of the center’s work.
When she joined the association in 1996, Wilson had already done extensive outreach work with her church and the Community Development Association in the Caribbean town of Cahuita.
Wilson joined the latter organization as an 18-year-old mother of three.
“I had to be a mother and wife, and I was studying,” she says. “My husband asked me how I would be able to handle (working with the development association) without neglecting my duties. It was hard at first – I was breaking the rules – but in the end he supported me.”
Her attention turned to women as she saw youth drug and crime problems escalate in her community, fanned by the fact that mothers worked long hours for low pay and could not be around to monitor their children.
“Like a lot of things, it falls to the women to solve the problem,”Wilson says. Workshops were organized; of a core group of 13 women who attended sessions, several have gone back to school.
Participating in a leadership workshop held by the Afro-Costa Rican Women’s Center inspired Wilson to new political heights. She was first elected as a municipal council member in the Caribbean Talamanca region in 2002, and is now serving a second term.
Cooper recognizes that a lot of the center’s work is still in the discussion stage, and that much is to be done before applicable solutions can be fully fleshed out and implemented, but points out that day-to-day participation helps.
“I’m an Afro-Costa Rican woman, I’m here (in the PAC office) every day – I have a voice,” she notes.
For more information on the Afro-Costa Rican Women’s Center, call 253-9814.