by Jordan T. Walters, African and African Diaspora Studies/History Junior
One of the program’s guest lecturers, Dr. Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, discussed with us the history of Costa Rica, but more specifically the history of Afro-descendant Costa Ricans. She highlighted the 200-year-long institution of slavery that existed in Costa Rica that has been erased from many of the nation’s history books.
Dr. Chipembere started off by explaining the way European powers, like the Spanish, viewed Costa Rica. Christopher Columbus ignited the failed colonial project in Costa Rica and set in place the events that followed. Because Costa Rica was mostly inaccessible due to its terrain, intruders were met with hostility by indigenous communities, and there was no competitive cash crop, Costa Rica did not receive a large number of slaves.
After going over the development of Costa Rica during its inclusion within the Kingdom of Guatemala, the area’s Spanish administrative division, the lecturer talked about Costa Rica’s independence and present-day status, as well as Afro-descendant identity in Costa Rica.
Dr. Chipembere explained how the concept of tico/tica emerged as a means of creating a national identity, but she also mentioned that many Afro-descendant people do not feel necessarily connected to that colorblind term. We looked at where many Afro-descendant Costa Ricans lived, a place known as Limon, and how their isolation in that region of the nation birthed an almost completely separate identity from tico/tica.
Similar to how Black communities in the United States are labeled, the Afro-descendant community of Limon is considered by many in other parts of Costa Rica to be a poor community full of crime and disobedience. For that reason, many Costa Ricans residing in places like San Jose do not visit the Caribbean coast, but rather opt for the beaches along the Pacific coast.
Despite discussions on the rather dehumanizing treatment of Afro-descendant Costa Rican’s, Dr. Chipembere reminded us of how powerful, resilient, and influential the Afro-descendant community is. Two examples include the economic importance of Limon as a port through which a majority of the nation’s imports/exports go through and La Negrita, which is Costa Rica’s patron saint, who is a Black woman.
Beyond the amazing lecture that left our cohort feeling much more aware of the dynamics governing Costa Rican society, Dr. Gordon-Chipembere exemplifies an ethical and socially responsible leader that we can all aspire to. She uses her passion for history, in addition to her lineage, to disrupt false narratives and highlight the experiences of oppressed communities. This, in turn, holds those around her accountable for how they articulate the histories of Costa Rica. Instead of causing further harm to Afro-descendant communities, she responsibly tells and honors their stories.
As we continue to sharpen our skills as leaders while on this study abroad trip we will keep in mind the standards set by Dr. Natasha Gordon-Chipemebere.