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HomeTopicsArts and CultureFrom a corner: Being Afro-Latina in Costa Rica

From a corner: Being Afro-Latina in Costa Rica

Recently, on a Skype call to my Tica mother in Brooklyn, New York, I was happily surprised to hear a new story about her childhood in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. I thought that by now I had mined all the possible narratives of a country that I have learned to love and now call home – but there was another precious gem she managed to pull out of her mental archive. This one was about choosing her career path.

After 31 years of teaching Spanish in New York, my mom, Norma, is now retired. With a hint of nostalgia, she told me that when she was 13, my abuelita allowed her to gather the local children in their Limón neighborhood and tutor them in math, since she was at the head of her class. She laughingly recounted how she used chalk on the white living room wall simply because her parents saw her potential: she was meant to be a teacher. A bit indignant, she also told me of the aptitude tests she had to take to decide her career before she entered university. All the signs highlighted her strengths in math and promised a career in economics or accounting, but she stood her ground and stated that teaching was her heart’s road.

As I ended our call, I looked over at my 10-year old daughter, an Honor Roll, straight-A student at her international school here in Costa Rica who also has a math brain. I smiled and thought that genetics certainly informs our generations, as I am a professor (by training, and a writer by heart), and my daughter has already expressed a desire to start math tutoring among struggling elementary students at her school.  However, this story is not meant to be a reflective walk through my family tree, but rather a narrative on Puerto Limón.

When I envision my mother growing up in the Limón of the 1950s, the birthplace of her mother and cousins – my abuelito, Stephen Robotham, was born in Jamaica – I see a space of community, migrations, shifting identities and converging nationalities. I am from a delicious stew of Limonense experiences that are infused in how I raise my children and continue to research and write about my formidable ancestors, mostly famous for running the Northern Quarters at the turn of the 20th century. The apellido Gourzong has quite a bit of traction in Black Costa Rican circles; I am constantly astounded by its legacy and impact.

The Limón I have associated with my family as our “place and space” when we entered the Costa Rican landscape with William and Ruth Gourzong is not the “dangerous” place that has been described to me in warnings every time I venture to Limón from San Jose. I know nothing of the criminal elements allegedly lurking in every dark corner of town. Concerned friends advise me to move quickly along the road to Puerto Viejo in order to experience the “real” Caribe of Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo, which I also love, is a tourist mecca filled with hyper-marketed resorts, yoga spas and exotic animals refuges all combined with a “hey mon-Rasta feel.”

As a Black woman born in New York to a Costa Rican mother and a Panamanian father, I have been raised with an Afro-Latin@ sensibility. It allows me to appreciate that my cousin, Roberto, an established lawyer in San José, travels to Limón twice a week to check on his restaurant, Yireth in the Caribeños Bus Terminal, because he chooses to support seven families in Limón through his business. My cousin David also has business in Moín that brings him to Limón weekly. Thinking of that treacherous drive through the neblina of the Zurquí, I salute their need to give back to their community. These are the types of “Limón people” I know and respect. However, my family members are not shining singular stars; their dedication to Limón comes from a long tradition of families who etched a formidable community that reaches far beyond the Limón province and into its Diaspora.

I have taken groups of writers from the United States and the Caribbean to visit Limón during the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats I host in La Alegría, Siquirres. I always have a few writers who come with pre-warnings about visiting Limón. Their concerns about safety leave me puzzled because our collective experiences 100% of the time have been welcoming. Many of the writers are women of color who know all too well the ways that stereotypical negatives, mainly imported from the racialized U.S. media, attach themselves to Black bodies. They begin to pause when absorbing ideas around fear and blackness. As we walk to eat at the historic Black Star Line restaurant on Calle 5 or snap pictures of sloths in Parque Vargas, the people of Limón have greeted us, giving tidbits of historical facts and granting us “family” status.

The faces that I see reflect my own; the beauty in the cadences of speech remind me of my tías. There is no perfect place, yet I will not inherit the wariness of folks in San José and in the Diaspora who hold onto antiquated, negative ideals of urban centers and bodies of color. In this act of resistance, I am acknowledging the human textures of Caribbean life in Costa Rica and all its dynamic elements. Limón is not just a port of entry for goods and a place to eat rice and beans. It is a space of legacy, of communities, of history, of people who at times make a lot out of a little. I want my words to stand as testimony to the multiple realities that make up Costa Rica: a country that continues to stretch its skin towards embracing all the people who call it 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 “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” will be published twice-monthly.

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