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Monday, December 11, 2023

Desamparados, 1984 and Prince: A Tribute

It has been just over a month since the sudden, shocking death of Prince Rogers Nelson, who I believe was one of the greatest musicians of all time. I have been surprised at how deeply grief has set in. Even now, it is hard to wrap my head around such a loss. I have been writing this piece in my mind for weeks, trying to find the words to honor a man who had such a profound impact on my life – though it was so subtle that I only realized it once he was gone.

Indulge me if you will: I want to tell a story of how Prince, Costa Rica and my coming-of-age merged together into a perfect mix of joy that forever bonded me to this place that I now call home.

The year was 1984. I was on the way to being 15 and in the middle of a Madonna crush. Deep inside all the pangs of teenage life, I was overjoyed to attend my cousin’s 8th grade graduation in Chicago in June of that year. Dressed in my plastic slip-on shoes, hot pink Lee Jeans, “Boy Toy” crop top, lace gloves and fluorescent bangles, I emerged on the scene, ready to strut my Brooklyn stuff amongst my cousin and her friends.

It was the first summer when my parents gave my sister and me a little room to explore outside of the confines of our New York City life. I was full of myself, happy and loud, and music was my everything. As a child of the 1970s, I could sing a Duran Duran song in the same breath as Menudo’s “Señora Mía.” My Limonese abuelita would say that I was “smelling myself.”

The best parts of that summer were the release of Prince’s “Purple Rain album and our trip to Costa Rica, the first for my sister, cousin and me without parents! My abuelita was brave. She attended my cousin’s graduation in Chicago and accompanied the three of us back to Costa Rica. What she did not know was that we had our mix tapes packed safely in our suitcases. The world felt like a grand place. We were the cool girls, ready to smile and flirt and sing our hearts out to all the tunes we knew by the first note on the radio.

My initiation as a Prince lover did not come from the south side of Chicago but from San Rafael Abajo, Desamparados, Costa Rica. There was something liberating about being almost 15 and in my abuelita’s house where we could whisper dreams and read the latest teen magazines (anyone remember Bop?) while listening to the sound of the oxcart in the morning, filled to the brim with fresh coffee outside the front door.

We quickly learned the names of the cute boys in the barrio. We were a little shocked by their devotion to Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osborne, but friendships were formed nonetheless. We spent hours sitting in the front doorway during the rains, playing with Mitzy, the family’s golden retriever, and eating mango con sal y limón.  Even today, the tartness in the first bite of a green mango brings me a rush of memories from that time in my abuelita’s house. It was my place of beginning: of testing the road towards adulthood within a wide, loving embrace.

I remember one day my abuelita needed to go to the pulpería. She did not have us accompany her that day, but she left behind her many warnings to stay inside the gate and to make sure the music was not loud. We took turns peeking out the front door to see when she turned the corner, and within seconds of her disappearance, we ran inside the house and cranked up “Purple Rain” so loud that the walls vibrated. And we sang, with all the feeling and depth of a teenager: aching with angst, passion and freedom.

That moment taught me the entire possibility of youth, lyric after lyric by Prince. I sang those words as I looked up to the mountains, tinged with mist, and I fell in love with Costa Rica. My heart was full with its beauty. I finally had space to spread my arms and twirl.

What was it that Prince understood that he could relate to my 14-year-old heart in Desamparados, miles away from my Brooklyn streets? He gave me the right to honor my true self: a brown girl mashed up with Brooklyn, Limón, Colón, Jamaica, Catholic school and Culture Club. Prince gave me permission to simply BE. His music, style and actions did not fit into a box, and this message came across loud and clear. I do not know which planets aligned on that day in my abuelita’s house, but my love affair with Costa Rica began and it has been calling me home ever since.

Of course, the story has an ending.  Since these were not the days of cellphones, my abuelita was not pre-warned by a neighbor that we were wreaking havoc with the barrio’s sound waves at lunchtime, so she must have been drawn home by thundering electric guitar as “Purple Rain” was on its fourth rotation in the tape deck. It was only when we looked up in the doorway, hips still sashaying, arms playing air guitar, that we saw her. Her horror at our brazen American-ness decorated her face.

Instantly, the tape deck was clicked off and we offered apologies, still breathless from whichever verse of Purple Rain lingered in the air. But abuelita was kind. We only got a stern warning which did not ruin the moment in our heads and hearts.

I am sure my sister and cousin have different versions of that day, or it may have even slipped away in their memories. For me, it was a moment of pause; a door, a beginning. I honor the life work of Prince Rogers Nelson for his ability to celebrate the essence of living in his music. He was a man who never compromised his art, and I am so grateful that I was able to experience him in my lifetime. May he rest in power and peace.

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 Her column “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” is published monthly.

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