The legacy of Afro-Caribbean immigrants to Costa Rica in the 1930s –


Twice in the past year I have been asked for information about life in Puerto Limón in the 1930s and 1940s. Those who asked me were exhausted by the stereotypical notions that Limón spoke of “Cocorí” and rice and beans.

Although there is research on Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Northern Railway, and the United Fruit Company’s role in the banana industry, very little information has been preserved (or documented – beyond the work of Don Quince Duncan) to highlight some of the individuals who forged lives in this region at the turn of the 20th century.

My personal interest is slavery in Costa Rica, and it is always fascinating to have conversations with the Ticos who gladly add English speaking people from the Caribbean who immigrated to Limón in the “pot of slaves”.

I quickly respond that these immigrants were in fact never slaves, but rather educated people seeking economic opportunities for themselves and their families. They arrived in Costa Rica by choice, not by force.

Many Costa Ricans – and this is not an indictment against people, but against education systems – have no idea of ​​the legacy of slavery that built the colonial capital of Cartago and fostered precariousness. of the cocoa economy which helped establish the nation. Costa Rica has experienced several distinct immigration patterns of people of African descent, starting in the early 16th century.

However, the general explanation regarding the descendants of Africans in Costa Rica generally falls into one of two categories: the discourse “slavery never existed in Costa Rica / we are all Ticos”, or ” all people of African descent were slaves and they live in Limón ”.

Normally my answer is a story I tell to make human and individualize the Afro descendants who have contributed to the well-being of Costa Rica.

My great-grandparents, Ruth and William Gourzong, came to Costa Rica to work for the Northern Railway Company at the turn of the 20th century. Ruth, a black woman, was born in Jamaica. William, a black man, came from New Orleans.

He was hired by Northern Railway in the United States to come to manage the dormitory “Northern Quarters”; he went to Jamaica on his way to Limón, where he met and married Ruth. Together they had seven children: Charlie, Winifred, Beatrice, Leonora (my grandmother), William, Olivia and Victor – all born in Limón.

My great-grandparents were the sole owners of the northern quarters. The Quarters was a dormitory for upper-level railroad workers who stayed in Limón overnight on their way back to San José. Each bedroom had a double bed and was cleaned exclusively by a Caribbean woman named Mrs. Dora.

Meals were provided three times a day. There were shared bathrooms and showers. Each of the men paid for their stay with a signed voucher, and the amount was deducted from their wages at the end of the week. My great-aunt Beatrice ran the kitchens, with Ms. Moltan as a cook, during the 1950s and early 1960s until the neighborhood closed in 1963.

Although the neighborhoods were racially separated and served only Hispanic Costa Ricans and foreigners who worked for the company, after my great-grandfather William died in 1937, Ruth ran the hotel for over 20 years as a widow who spoke only English. Through her work as a hotel manager, Ruth was able to build a house on the outskirts of Jamaica city (now Barrio Roosevelt).

Because of her true wealth, Ruth financially assisted her children and played a central financial role in the upkeep of the Baptist Church, where she was a deacon and leader of the women’s group. She owned several properties in which she allowed her children and their families to live, and had wonderful house parties with a piano and a gramophone. It was one of the first houses in Limón to have indoor plumbing, with a huge tub and toilet.

Not trusting the state of Limón’s banks, which had already gone bankrupt several times during the 1930s, Ruth kept large amounts of money (dollars and colons) hidden throughout his house. In old age, she hired a black lawyer from Limón to draft her will in which she assigned property, property and money to her family.

It is not often that the accounts of successful West Indian women in Limón are documented, and yet, according to my tIas, there were many other successful black women and men who served as role models and formed a tight network in order to advance their Costa Rican born children in society.

What I’m trying to make is that these were ordinary people who lived, loved, worked, and had the same dreams as everyone else: to see their children thrive in a country that did not allow them to “naturalize”. Since 1948. Life was not easy in the Jamaican city of the 1930s.

However, Ruth understood that in order to survive she had to save and plan for her family. Being politically savvy, she encouraged her grandchildren to get as much education as possible in order to be a part of the changing national tide so that they too could enjoy their full civil rights.

In many ways, my family’s patterns reaffirm the general cultural patterns of the Caribbean immigrants who emigrated to Limón at the turn of the 20th century. They had little association with Hispanic Costa Ricans, they were politically minded, and by 1920 Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had established 23 branches along the Atlantic coast.

Ruth’s multiple positions as a mother, widow, worker, Church Elder, grandmother, landlord, and astute businesswoman are a reaffirmation of the complex challenges and successes of Afro-Costa Ricans as they grow. engaged in the world. Ruth’s sacrifices created a Costa Rican family that today boasts many doctors, lawyers, teachers, civil engineers, architects, dentists, linguists and social workers.

Ruth’s story is an example of the legacy of people of African descent in Costa Rica. I believe the nation will be richer as each life story becomes part of its history.

See also: Claiming my Afro-Latinidad

This article first appeared on December 7, 2015

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, 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 can be reached at [email protected]. “The musings of an Afro-Costa Rica” will be published twice a month.


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