Afro-Costa Ricans are Costa Ricans of African ancestry. They are currently numbering over 350,000 which is approximately 8% of the Costa Rican population and are also located along the eastern seaboard, as well as in the capital (San Jose) according to UNHCR report and CIA fact sheet. Costa Rica's population includes two distinct populations of African descent. The majority speak English, and in Costa Rica, they developed their own dialect, known as “Mek-a-tél-yu” (“Make I tell you,” or “Let me tell you”). 
                         Afro-Costa Rican musicians

The first to arrive in Costa Rica was a small group of cacao plantation slaves who moved from the Atlantic side to the Pacific. They eventually assimilated into the Costa Rican Hispanic identity and are largely indistinguishable from the European and mestizo Costa Ricans (they do not identify themselves, nor are they identified by others as Garifuna). The Garifuna population that exists today is descended from post-colonial immigrants from the West Indies, primarily Jamaica, who reside almost exclusively on the Caribbean coast in the Province of Limon (GROUPCON = 3). Some have immigrated to San Jose to seek employment in the tourist industry; others have migrated to urban areas as professionals, but most remain in Limon.

                                Kymmi Taylor,Afro-Costa Rican woman

Costa Rica is the only country in Central America that has long promoted itself as a “white nation”. This has been done mainly by the Costa Rican government and through its tourist office. The figure usually given is that between 96% to 98% of the total population is of European Spanish ancestry. Most North American almanacs and encyclopedias show one of these figures or a combined figure of  “97% white and mestizo”. The latter not giving the reader an indication as to what percentage of the population is  “white” and what percentage mestizo.
Afro-Costa Ricans
                              Afro-Costa Ricans

Along with Argentina and Uruguay Costa Rica must rank as one of the most  “European” of all countries in the Americas. The long standing political stability of Costa Rica, coupled with its strong promotion of  tourism and North American investment, has encouraged this myth of Costa Rican “whiteness” among the Costa Ricans themselves as well as among outsiders. Many Costa Ricans see their country as an “island of  whiteness” in the “ocean of color” that is Central America. The 200,000 Salvadorans and Nicaraguans that came to the country during the 1980’s have sadly faced both economic and racial discrimination from some persons who are often themselves in denial over their own racially mixed ancestry. A  kind of  “colonial mentality” that sees all that is “good” and “progressive” emanating from Europe and the United States remains a strong force in the minds of many Central Americans. Costa Rica is no exception to this.
Afro-Costa Rican Parade
               Afro-Costa Ricans wearing their traditional dress celebrating their African roots

Some researchers have stated that around 95% of the Costa Rican population has some native or African ancestry. Franklin Parker in his Central American Republics (1964) writes “In the highland basins about the capital a great majority of the persons are European in stock - wholly so in some instances, in others only preponderantly so with a trace of Indian or Negro also present”.  Although it is true that some do not have any native or African ancestry, to claim that the population of Costa Rica is “98% white” is a  misrepresentation of the facts.

   Epsy Campbell, Afro-Costa Rican Congresswoman and a presidential candidate in 2010 elections


In September 1502 Columbus, continuing his voyage south from Honduras and Nicaragua, arrived in what is today Puerto Limon. Four years latter the Spanish Crown sent colonists to Costa Rica in an attempt to search for gold. They proved to be unsuccessful in their efforts and most did not return home alive. Again, in 1540 another unsuccessful expedition was sent out to conquer the country and again the Spanish failed. Finally, in 1561 Juan de Cavallon lead a successful colonization effort.  Juan Vazquez de Coronado arrived the following year from Guatemala and established a permanent colony in the central highlands (meseta central). The town of Cartago was founded in 1563. It was not until 1736 that San Jose was founded,  becoming Costa Rica’s capital in 1821.  

Beautiful Afro-Costa Rican girl in traditional dress  at 2007 Black Heritage Parade in Costa Rica

Among Costa Rican mestizos it might only be a question of the degree of ones Afro-Amerindian ancestry. One figure I obtained stated that 49% of Costa Ricans were mestizo and 47% “white”. Perhaps the latter figure should more accurately have stated “near white” for few Costa Ricans descended from 16th and 17th century Spanish families are without some native or African lineage. The myth of  Costa Rica being a “white country” is just that. Native Americans living in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica at the time of the conquest were either worked to death, died of disease or in the case of many native and African women, became common law wives and concubines  of  the Spanish men in the colony.
Afro-Caribbean Culture on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
By Dan Tucker
Costa Rica is the most homogeneous nation in Central America, but its Afro-Caribbean minority — numbering about 40,000, concentrated in the Caribbean coastal province of Puerto Limón — brings calypso, reggae, spicy cuisine, and a kicking Carnaval into the mix of Tico culture.
The Banana’s Legacy
Small numbers of enslaved Africans were brought into the country in the 16th century by large estate owners to cultivate cacao; it wasn’t until the 19th century that freed Jamaican slaves were imported in significant numbers by Minor Keith to build the Atlantic Railroad, harvest coffee, and almost as an afterthought, grow bananas for what was to become the United Fruit Company. (Bananas were initially grown to feed the workers. The enormous surpluses became an exotic and luxurious hit when exported to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.)
Due to their geographical isolation in Puerto Limón, and the fact that they are generally Englishspeaking Protestants, Afro–Costa Ricans have retained their unique cultural identity to this day, adding a distinct reggae lilt to an otherwise Latin culture.
Cool Characters, Hot Food
If Costa Rican cuisine is fresh and tasty but relatively undistinguished, Afro–Costa Rican food is the remedy for those craving stronger flavors. Many dishes are composed of yam, cassava, plantain, sweet potatoes, cocoyam, coconut, lentils, rice, fish, meat, and other readily available ingredients.
Salted codfish and akee (a lychee-like fruit, only part of which is edible), jerk chicken, stewed goat, fried breadfruit, and rice and beans cooked in coconut milk or spiked with scotch bonnet or habanero peppers — a far cry from the usual gallo pinto — are West Indian specialties that are widely enjoyed in Puerto Limón. All are readily available on the streets of Limón during Carnaval
There is no better place to immerse yourself in Afro–Costa Rican music and culture than Limón during Carnaval, a fantastical, riotous, cacophony of parades, concerts, street food, and carnival rides. Celebrated annually for several days around the weekend closest to October 12, Limón’s Carnaval parades feature floats and comparsas, community-organized marching bands with teams of dancers in elaborate costumes. Performing precisely choreographed routines, the wildly costumed comparsas compete for prizes.
Carnival in Costa Rica, a 1947 musical confection starring Cesar Romero and Celeste Holm, offers a predictably cheesy and hilarious take on the festival.
Photo Caption: The delicious cuisine of the Soda Tamara restaurant in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Photo by Adrian Hepworth
                              Afro-Costa Rican Chef

Most of the early settlers were farmers and ranchers from the northern areas of Spain (Galicia). Large plantations and haciendas did not develop here on the same scale as in the other provinces of Central America. When Juan Vasquez de Coronado arrived from Guatemala in 1562 he brought with him a small number of Spanish women. The fact that a few European women arrived in Costa Rica during the early years of the colony seems to have resulted in a larger percentage of the population being of  “unmixed” European descent than in the other Central American provinces.

During the early 18th century the population of Costa Rica began to spread out, settlements were made throughout the meseta central as well as in the western coastal areas of the country. In the northwestern part of the country (Guanacaste province) a majority of the population is heavily mestizo. An African influence is found among the mestizo population in this part of the country. Historically and culturally this region has ties with Nicaragua. African slaves were brought to the northwestern (Nicoya peninsula) and southwestern parts of the country during colonial times to work on cattle ranches and cacao plantations. After the abolishment of slavery in 1823 some  former slaves and their families moved from this region to the coastal Caribbean areas of the country. Their descendants live today among the native American and Afro-Antillean communities of  the Limon province.

                     Afro-Costa Ricans

The descendants of Africans who were brought to Costa Rica during the colonial era (1562-1821) are today wholly assimilated into the mestizo majority. They do not identify with being of African heritage, nor are they identified as such. These Afromestizos are much like those found in other similarly related communities throughout the isthmus, their identities being based upon the communities in which they live and the pride they take in the lands of their birth.
Today, many Costa Ricans are indeed a “lighter shade of brown” then is found among many mestizos in the neighboring republics. Proud of this fact, some Ticos tend to look down on their more racially mixed brothers and sisters in the other parts of Central America. The introduction of native American ancestry into the Costa Rican population continued throughout most of the  16th and 17th centuries. Along with  the introduction of small numbers of black slaves from Panama, the gene pool of the nation became decidedly mixed.

Afro-Costa Rican woman in carnival costume. Every year, the provincial capital of Guanacaste, in northwestern Costa Rica, celebrates with carnivals, dancing, parades, rodeos and other traditional Tico events. This year marks the 188th anniversary of Guanacaste’s annexation in 1824.

Afro-Antilleans (Garifuna):

During the colonial period the Spanish did not settle along the eastern or Caribbean coast of  Costa Rica. The meseta central or central highlands was the population center of the colony and today 60% of Costa  Rica’s population is still concentrated here.

                      Afro-Costa Rican lady

With an increase in coffee production towards the end of the 19th century (coffee had been introduced in 1797) a more direct way out for shipments of the product was needed. In 1871 the Costa Rican government contracted an American company to build a railroad from San Jose to the coastal town of Puerto Limon. Much of the coastal area was uninhabited at this time. The railroad contractors brought in Jamaican laborers to build the railroad. It took nine years to lay the first 70 miles of track, but by 1890 the line had been built up the valley of the Rio Reventazon to Turrialba, and the next year the line was completed. Many of the Jamaicans stayed on in the country and settled in Puerto Limon and in small towns that were located along the rail line. Towns such as Guapiles, Siquirres developed large Afro-Antillean populations as well as smaller villages such as Canada, London, Boston, Bristol, Stratford that show the influence of the Creole English speaking Jamaicans who settled primarily along the rail line between Puerto Limon and Siquirres. Some went directly from railroad jobs to work on American owned banana plantations, others returned to Jamaica after the completion of the railroad.

One of the Americans in charge of the railroad project was Minor C. Keith. He imported rootstalks of banana plants from Panama and had them planted along the route of the new rail line. By 1878 the first bananas were exported from Costa Rica to New Orleans. In 1899 Keith consolidated his banana holdings in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia with Boston Fruit Company to form the United Fruit Company. By 1909, Costa Rica had become the world’s leading banana producer. United Fruit hired thousands of black Jamaicans to work on its plantations.
Heather Hemmens Heather Hemmens wears a pair of ripped jeans in downtown Vancouver.
Beautiful Afro-Costa Rican/American Heather Hemmens. She is an actress, film director and producer. She's most known for her role as Alice Verdura in The CW's recently cancelled drama, Hellcats.

The Afro-Antillean population of Costa Rica is concentrated in the province of Limon (240,000). The city of Puerto Limon (50,000) is the capital and largest community in the province. It is the center of Afro-Costa Rican culture in the country. In 1927 just over 57% of the province of Limon was of African descent, but by 1950 the percentage had fallen to 33%. It has remained at that percentage to this day. An increase in the settlement of Spanish speaking mestizos in the region was largely responsible for the decrease in the overall percentage of blacks living in the Limon province. Other blacks had also returned to Jamaica when Costa Rica instituted an anti-black immigration policy during the 1930’s and 40’s.

Puerto Limon’s big festival of the year is on Columbus Day (October 12th) when the whole town parties to the sounds of raggae, calypso and  salsa. Street parades, music, dancing and drinking go on for days and people come from all over the country to party with the Limonenses. Calypso music is also still popular, although since the 1970’s raggae has replaced calypso as Puerto Limon’s favorite kind of music. Such groups as New Revelation, Charro Limonense and Cahuita Calypso are still popular, singing in both Creole English and Spanish. A collection of their songs can be found on the excellent CD Calypso Costa Rica (1996).

 Afro-Costa Rican writer Quince Duncan.  He is regarded as Costa Rica's first Afro-Caribbean writer in the Spanish language. His works typically concern the Afro-caribbean population living on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, particularly around the city of Puerto Limón. His novels and short stories have been awarded Costa Rica's Premio Nacional de Literatura and Premio Editorial Costa Rica. He has also published a novel in English, A Message from Rosa.

 Most blacks in Limon speak both Creole English and Spanish. Many younger Limonenses speak only Spanish. Afro-Antilleans in Limon province number around 80,000, with 50,000 or so others living in other parts of the country, mostly in San Jose and in the larger cities of the meseta central. Creole English is spoken not only in Puerto Limon and in the areas where the Afro-Antilleans settled to work, but also in small communities scattered along the Caribbean coast south of Puerto Limon towards the Panamanian border. Small towns such as Cahuita continue to show off their Creole culture in music, dancing, cooking, language and the use of medicinal plants reflecting an African heritage. The village of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is inhabited by both Creoles and native Americans who live and work side by side.

Afro-Costa Rican poet Shirley Campbell Barr. She is figure of increasing importance in Central American literature. Her first collection of poetry, "Naciendo" (Being Born), was published in 1988, and her second, "Rotundamente Negra" (Unequivocally Black), in 1994.

During the building of the railroad and establishment United Fruit, Afro-Antilleans were favored by their American employers over Spanish speaking Costa Ricans. The English language helped  give blacks an advantage in employment opportunities and for many years the black community lived isolated from their Hispanic neighbors. Economically they were also better off then the mestizo minority in Limon. Over time resentments began to build between mestizos and Afro-Antilleans.

American employers paid better wages then Costa Rican employers and some Afro-Antilleans, mainly because they were better educated, English speaking and possessed better job skills, saw themselves as  somewhat  “culturally superior” to the mestizo. The fact that many were British subjects and thought of themselves as part of the British Empire also contributed to this kind of thinking. By the 1920’s, blacks were a solid majority in Limon and the two groups lived very separate lives from each other.

Beautiful Afro-Costa Rican Marva Wright Urena, Miss Costa Rica 2010

During these years mestizos were also starting to be hired by American companies and soon mestizo workers were demanding “equal pay for equal work” from their American employers. They resented making less money then their black counterparts for doing the same kinds of jobs. These resentments were supported by the Costa Rican government and the growing tensions between the two communities resulted in the Costa Rican government passing a series of regulations restricting entrance visas from being issued to blacks wanting  to work and live in Costa Rica. The government also regulated where blacks could work, in this case only in the Limon province. Citizenship and civil rights were denied to the black community. This openly racist policy on the part of the Costa Rican government is a low point in the post abolitionist history of Costa Rica.

   Afro-Costa Rican Carnival at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

The revolution of 1948/’49 resulted in the Afro-Antillean community of Costa Rica being given once again its full rights and citizenship. Since this time Afro-Antilleans have started a slow process of  integration and assimilation into Costa Rican society. For example, instead of sending their children to their own English language schools, after 1948 Afro-Antilleans began sending their children to Spanish language schools. This has had a great impact on the younger generations of Afro-Antilleans. The community has also started to take a more active role in the politics of the nation. Afro-Antilleans have served in the legislative assembly and in presidential cabinets. By the 1960’s and 70’s Spanish had become the first language of many of them. The numbers of professionals in the community has also increased, and because many are also English speaking they have become important in the booming tourist industry centered in and around the capital.

              Afro-Costa Rican Carnival at Limon

Afro-Antilleans are still however mainly engaged in work on banana plantations, on the docks of Puerto Limon, on the railway and at a local oil refinery in the area. Many are also unskilled laborers and small scale farmers. The Limon province continues to remain Costa Rica’s poorest province and there is still much to be done to raise the standard of living in the region.

             Afro-Costa Rican women having a good time at the beach

In 1977 a number of black professionals in the capital held a conference to promote a greater awareness of the culture and history of  Afro-Antilleans in Costa Rican society. Many feared the loss of  “West Indian” traditions and culture and were actively trying to preserve it. Most Afro-Antilleans speak Spanish in addition to English, but have not fully adopted Hispanic (mestizo) identities. The “economic elite” of the black community seems to be more concerned with the preservation of English and Antillean culture, they  tend to see any discrimination directed against them as being economic and not “racially motivated”. Poorer blacks on the other hand tend to be far more concerned with day to day economic survival, and often see the adoption of Hispanic culture as a means to greater social and economic advancement as well as greater acceptance for themselves and their families. Perhaps a compromise between these two viewpoints will ultimately be what is adopted by the black community of the next century.
Afro-Costa Rican Parade
Afro-Costa Rican woman wearing her kaba style at Costa Rican African Heritage celebrations

Afro-Costa Rican Parade
       Two Afro-Costa Rican ladies

  Epsy Campbell-Barr is author of ‘Including Afro-Descendant Women in Global Politics’  
Epsy Campbell-Barr is a Costa Rican politician and economist with a Masters Degree in Cooperation for Development. She founded the Women's Forum for Central American Integration and coordinated the organization during the period 1996-2001.
She was also Coordinator for The Network of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women from 1996 to 2001. She was President of the Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) in February 2005 to February 2009. National MP for the PAC in the period 2002-2006, and head of the party from 2003 to 2005. In the elections of 2006 she was a candidate for the vice-presidency and in 2009 was a presidential candidate.
Epsy currently serves as Executive Director of the Center for Women and Chairwoman of the Working Group on People of African Descent in the Americas and the Caribbean. Epsy has also participated as International speaker at universities and seminars organized by intergovernmental and multilateral organizations, public and electoral institutions as well as political parties all across America and the Caribbean.
She has published books and articles on democracy and inclusion, political and economic participation of women, people of African descent, sexism and racism among others. She is an expert in social development issues, political participation of women of African descent and equality.

International workshop in Rio de Janeiro 

Watch video footage of Epsy introducing her paper on 'including Afro-descent women in global politics' at our international workshop in Rio de Janeiro.  
The workshop brought together academics, activitists and policymakers from around the world and generated lively debates and new understanding on how to understand and overcome exclusion.


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Marva Wright was crowned Miss Costa Rica 2010 on April 16th.
  Marva Wright Urena, afro-costa rican

Heather Hemmens Heather Hemmens wears a pair of ripped jeans in downtown Vancouver.
           Afro-Costa Rican actress Heather Hemmens

  Beautiful Miss Costa Rica 2010, Marva Wright (An Afro-Costa Rican) in a National costume

The Afro-Costa Rican's Concept of Nationality
as Reflected in Selected Works of Quince Duncan

Charles Kargleder
Spring Hill College

"Eres costarricense?" Jamaican-born Jakel Duke asks his grandson Clif. This question, raised by one of his fictional characters, symbolizes Quince Duncan's exploration of the Afro-Costa Rican's sense of personal and national identity.

Since the publication of his collection of short stories, Una
canción en la madrugada, in 1970, Duncan has become "el más importante y representativo de los escritores del Caribe centroamericano." (Kimbo, n. pag.)

Abelardo Bonilla writes that "la cultura costarricense nació y se desarrolló en la altiplanicie de nuestra Meseta Central..."
(32). He points out that only in recent years have the Atlantic and Pacific coasts been discovered "para fines estéticos...en el paisaje y en el hombre...." (33)

This reality is quite evident in the case of Quince Duncan.
He is a solitary spokesman for a forgotten people who populated the Atlantic coast and contributed silently to the history of Costa Rica. Alfonso Chase calls him "el único narrador negro de nuestra literatura." (Narrativa I, 107-108)

Carlos Meléndez indicates that Blacks have been in Costa Rica since the Colonial period. Significant numbers of Blacks did not appear, however, until "el día 20 de diciembre de 1872 en que llegó el primer navío al puerto de Limón, procedente de Kingston." (Negro 71)

The Jamaica-Costa Rica connection was a long-standing link which brought Jamaican workers to Puerto Limón where they were to build the railroad from the Atlantic coast to San José in the Central Valley. When Minor Keith, the director of the project, saw an opportunity to increase the exportation of bananas on the international market, he employed Jamaican Blacks as the principal workers on the Company's plantations. Further expansion of the banana industry would continue under the management of the United Fruit Company.

During the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries the Black population remained confined largely to the Atlantic zone. Westward migration was discouraged and then forbidden beyond the town of Turrialba. In 1934, a law was promulgated which prohibited Black people from seeking work in the Pacific zone. (Negro 92)

This lamentable situation did not change until the Revolution of 1948. José Figueres, leader of the opposition to the government of Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, spoke out for the equal rights of Afro-Costa Ricans. Duncan writes:

Triunfan los insurrectos. José Figueres llega a Limón y recorre los pueblos hablando en inglés, besando a los niños negros, bailando con las negras. Nunca antes ningún presidente de Costa Rica había hecho tal cosa. El negro por primera vez se interesa por el país. (Negro 135)

It should be noted that the original Jamaican workers who came to Costa Rica had no interest in becoming Costa Rican citizens. Jamaicans considered themselves to be British subjects. They spoke English, dressed in their fashion, cooked and ate different foods, constructed and furnished their homes in the Jamaican style and were Protestant in their religious beliefs.

   Afro-Costa Rican poet Eulalia Bernard (r.) the winner of 2009 Limón Roots Award.

The following generation of Blacks was more divided in its self-perception, but few identified with the government of San José or the Meseta culture. Black parents resisted sending their children to state schools where they would learn Spanish and be exposed to the less hygienic white children. (Negro 221)

Costa Ricans from the Meseta Central showed little concern or understanding of the Black people of the Atlantic coast or their culture. They did not consider the Blacks to be "ticos," and usually referred to them as "chumecos," "morenos," or, at best, "limoneses." As Meléndez indicates: "a todos los negros se los medía con el mismo rasero, de manera que todos eran---sobre todo vistos desde el interior del país---negros bananeros" (91).
According to Bryce La Porte, more adaptation than acculturation took place among the Afro-Costa Ricans from 1870-1930. (Negro 251)

As the plantation economy declined, so did hope among the Blacks. Many emigrated to seek residence in Panama or the United States. The back-to-Africa movement of the Jamaican Marcus Garvey appealed to the unemployed and disenchanted.

Since the Revolution of 1948, Afro-Costa Ricans have participated more completely and freely in the national life of their country. People moved to San José in search of better jobs and higher education. "No fue sino hasta la crisis del sistema de plantación y tras la revolución de 1948, que los negros en realidad empezaron a integrarse en la subestructura nacional más que a la regional." (Negro 251)

In spite of the important progress toward the Afro-Costa Rican's full integration into the mainstream of her/his society, problems such as prejudice, poverty, and linguistic differences endure today. Moreover, the young Black accepts little without question: "Ha asumido una posición crítica frente a su realidad histórica y cultural." (Negro 147)

The heart of Quince Duncan's fiction is found in his characters' constant search for their essential identity, whether it be racial or national. I will examine the Afro-Costa Rican's self-concept as it appears in Duncan's novels, Hombres curtidosLos cuatro espejos, and La paz del pueblo.

Hombres curtidos (1971) presents Duncan's seminal ideas on national identification. The protagonist, Clif Duke, returns to his home on the Atlantic coast after living in San José for fourteen years. He has come back to write his grandfather Jakel's biography, for he believes that his grandfather's wisdom and the Duke heritage must be passed on. It is his duty to "llevar a cabo las responsabilidades innominadas que nuestros abuelos nos confiaron, de perpetuar nombre y raza para los hijos y los hijos de los hijos...." (56)

By means of flashbacks and characters' memories Duncan pieces together the history of the Duke family from life in Jamaica to Clif's return to the Limón region.

When a young Jakel arrives in Puerto Limón he is met by his brother, Walter, who has preceeded him from Jamaica. Walter invites him to attend a friend's wedding. The interesting part of this episode is that, although the wedding is taking place in Costa Rica, everything---food, wine, even the bride---was imported from Jamaica. The British consul was also in attendance to add prestige to the occasion.

On his deathbed Jakel remembers the time that a flood destroyed the farmers' crops and nothing was left from which to live. Jakel asks his wife if she wants to leave Costa Rica and return to Jamaica as they had once planned to do. Gretel has changed in her attitude toward the land, however, for she refuses to consider Jakel's question: "Tal vez con todo el sacrificio y el esfuerzo que nos ha costado, hayamos ganado le [sic] derecho a la tierra para nuestros hijos." (90)

"La vid" is a key chapter in the novel. Jakel's daughter, Grace, discusses the Black people's identity with a suitor, Clovis, who wishes to marry her.

Clovis argues that Blacks should preserve their Jamaican heritage and the English language. They are like the Jews scattered throughout the world, but they should be united in their race, religion and customs. He points out that when Blacks lose their original culture they have problems.

Grace challenges Clovis' ideas. She accuses her people of being obstinate and stupid. As a result, they lack the necessary civic restiveness which will confront their problems. She says that Blacks must cast aside their basic culture because there is no possibilty of renewal: "Nuestra mediocridad ha creado el estancamiento en que estamos; ha creado los problemas económicos, comunales y sociales..." (69). Her words take on even a harsher tone when she attacks Jamaica itself: "Jamaica debe ser puesta en nuestro museo. En cuanto a nuestra nacionalidad se refiere, ha muerto." (72)

The core of Duncan's theme, however, is seen in Clif's recurring memory of his grandfather's question to him as a boy: " [[questiondown]]Eres costarricense?" The question was only a framework, however, for Jakel's lesson to Clif on the history of the Black people.

Basing himself on the Bible Jakel explains that Man was given dominion over the earth. The Black people were able to conquer the land in Costa Rica. The cholos from the Meseta could not because their culture was inferior. "Era necesaria la presencia de una raza curtida por el dolor, un cuerpo probado en fuego..." (111). Blacks lost their lives in the struggle, and their blood gave their children rights to the land.

Clif sees the Black people's deliberate separatism as being racist, but Jakel counters by saying that the first generation planned to return to Jamaica. Moreover, Clif is not Jamaican, he is Costa Rican. Jamaica was the land of his parents. His grandfather's statement causes Clif to examine his identity: "La tierra de mis padres, [[questiondown]]entonces soy costarricense?" (119)

Clif recalls asking his grandfather about Garvey and his back-to-Africa movement. Jakel rejects the idea immediately with the questions: Return to what country? Where in Africa would they go? They have different cultures now, and African Blacks would not allow them to impose their ideas on them. " ...Clif...dijo...esta hora marca el despertar de la raza: ha llegado la hora de liberarnos de la raza; ha llegado el momento de liberarnos del yugo milenario, en todo el mundo de pronto emergen los negros, y ya no podrán someternos." (135)

Jakel says that it is impossible to leave Costa Rica because they have come to love it. Clif reflects on the death of his grandmother and agrees. Her sacrifice should be respected: "Los huesos de muchos se levantarían para reclamarnos si nos fuésemos." (136)

Jakel's most important words to Clif sum up the history of the Black people: "Somos hombres curtidos Clif, eso es el asunto. Curtidos en el dolor y en el sufrimiento. Los pueblos curtidos son...son más hondos. Pero Clif antes que negro, eres hombre. Cuídate del odio." (107)

Jakel's counsel to his grandson is built on personal trials and humiliation. As he lies dying in the hospital Jakel remembers being refused the use of a toilet in San José. He is then submitted to the indignity of being arrested and fined when, in desperation, he used an abandoned lot.

Clif also recalls the prejudice and superstition that he encountered in San José. Blacks would avoid each other when they walked down the streets so they would not have to recognize the existence of one another. The lyrics of a cruel song that many sang during the popular fiestas of Plaza Víquez filter through Clif's first memories of the capital: "Ay ay ay que chiles tenemos, / como ustedes lo verán, / vienen con los negritos / con los monos de Bataan." (126)

During that period Clif reflected bitterly on the Black people's status in Costa Rica: "Chinos y blancos---pensé muchas veces---en mi propio país, chinos y blancos y ningún `ciudadano
de raza negra.'" (132)

At the end of the novel Clif understands his grandfather's question. His identity is a problem which he must resolve. Part of that resolution will come from his mission to ensure that Jakel's message is not lost to his descendents.

Los cuatro espejos (1973), like Hombres curtidos, is the Black man's search for self-definition. Structurally Los cuatro espejos follows the example of its predecessor. Changes in narrative perspective occur; linear chronology is not observed, for Duncan again depends heavily on his characters' recollections and internal monologues to direct the course of the novel.
Charles McForbes, the protagonist, is a Black man who has achieved comfortable middle-class status in San José. He is educated and well-known in intellectual circles. Moreover, he has married a white woman, Ester, the daughter of a prominent doctor.

Charles' secure world is shattered one evening as he listens to the speaker of a conference that he helped organize address the audience on the exploitation of Blacks and Indians. Charles does not want to accept the thesis.

The next morning Charles is horrified when he is unable to see his image in the bathroom mirror. Charles dresses and flees the house in panic. Thus he begins an existential search for himself in the streets of San José. He goes first to an occulist, who assures him that he is not going blind. The occulist believes that Charles is overwrought and recommends that he consult a psychoanalyst.

As he walks through the streets Charles begins to be more aware of racial differences. Workers ask him for a light in
English. A bus driver expects a Black man from Limón to speak poor Spanish although the man speaks Spanish very well. While riding with Díaz, the psychoanalyst, the latter almost runs down a Black woman. When Diaz complains that people walk in the streets only in Limón, Charles remembers the lecturer's words: "Hay un trato distinto." (24)

Unimpressed with Diaz' tests of him Charles takes to the streets again. He stops to buy a mirror from a street vendor, but he breaks it and must buy another one. He is shocked to see the face of a Black man in it. " [[questiondown]]Tengo el rostro negro? Aquello se me había convertido en obsesion. Era la totalidad de mi mundo. Pensé que a lo mejor estaba sugestionado por el conferencista de la noche anterior. Porque no es posible cambiar el color de la piel. [[questiondown]]O acaso era posible?" (30) Charles runs away frightened by what he has seen. People stare at him, and he hears the word, "moreno."

Duncan's style consciously reflects Charles' mental confusion and his increasing awareness of his plight. In the role of narrator Charles apologizes to the reader:

Sé que estoy a ratos hablando como un cursi, y otro rato a lo relajo. Bueno, a lo relajo no, pero por lo menos no como habla la gente de mi nivel. Es lo que dice aquella poetisa africana: "aquí estoy, atrapada entre dos culturas." Pucha carajo, y no sé por ónde agarrar. (66-67)

Charles is haunted by stereotypes that are ascribed to Blacks: They are good dancers; it is in their blood. They are passionate and intelligent. "Como si se hubiese hecho a todos en el mismo molde, uno por uno parecidos física y moralmente, con idénticos atributos, con los mismos defectos." (119)

Charles' blackness stands out now. He is stopped in the street by the police and warned that he must be careful. "Aquí no estás en Limón" (120). More painful for Charles, however, is the realization that he feels like a stranger to his wife. His home is no longer his own. His identity has changed. "[[questiondown]]Cómo se le dice a una esposa que uno se volvió negro en la madrugada, un poco antes o después de hacerle el amor?" (113)

Charles decides to return to Estrada in the Atlantic zone where he was born. He knows that he can no longer escape or deny his origins. Duncan's prose takes on a lyrical tone as Charles meditates on his decision: "Ahora volvía a la tierra negra que perfora y penetra los poros. Tierra negra que se adhiere de pronto a las encías y limpia el barniz. Tierra sin tiempo, sin forma, que se nos mete en la lengua." (128)

Throughout the novel Duncan moves back and forward in time to present episodes from Charles' childhood and early adult years in Estrada. We learn gradually of his bi-racial ancestry, his friends such as Clif Duke, his first wife, Lorena, and her friend, Ruth Viales, the bitter rivalry between Charles and Christian Bowman for the affection of Lorena, Lorena's illness / possession and her slow decline and death.

Duncan reveals Charles' many sexual affairs which include relationships with Ruth and Victoria, who bears him a son. Duncan also describes Charles' struggle to earn a living from the land, his increasing disillusionment with Estrada and his abandonment of it to seek a better life in San José.

By means of his characters Duncan examines the attitudes many Jamaican and first-generation Blacks held about their lineage. Christian Bowman is annoyed that his family reproaches him because he did not vote for the political candidate that most Blacks supported. He complains that "un jamaiquino naturalizado viniera a decirle a un nativo por quién debería votar" (59). It is evident that Christian feels that his birth on Costa Rican soil has given him rights and privileges that separate him from his Jamaican-born relatives.

Charles' grandfather was proud of his Scottish blood. He advised his sons to marry an English or a bi-racial woman, not a Black. "Hay que ir blanqueando" (130). Charles' father, Pete, thought that it was admirable that his good friend, Jakel Duke, was so fiercely proud of his African heritage. Pete told Charles that his grandfather's idea on race was foolish. "Charles: usted es negro" (132). As Charles reflects on his own life, he wonders where, and at what point, he lost his identity.

Charles' wife, Ester, had been very prejudiced against Blacks until she met him. She tells her father that Charles is a strange person, "no es ni negro, ni blanco. Está mas allá de las definiciones" (111). She makes this observation, however, without knowing that Charles has rejected his grandfather's idea. In spite of the lightness of his own skin, he thinks: "Pero me crié entre un pueblo negro y, por lo mismo, mamé de una negra los primeros sabores de la vida." (128)

Charles returns to Limón in search of his roots, but he discovers that time has changed people's lives. Two of his loves, Ruth and Victoria, now live with other men. Victoria introduces Charles to their son as "Uncle Charles." Although the boy and the village are an integral part of his heritage, Charles no longer belongs to or in Estrada.

At the end of the novel Charles goes back to San José. He protects Ester from possible harm at the hands of a gang leader who had been threatening her cousin. In doing so Charles also saves their marriage. Ester tells Charles that she does not want a divorce. Charles warns her that by chaining him she is chaining herself too. She replies: "Todos estamos encadenados. Son cadenas de Dios." (162)

Charles and Ester have looked in the mirror and have seen themselves. Finally they can accept what they are and what the other is. Charles will face the future as a Black man, but his world will not be limited to the Black world of Estrada and Limón. At the side of a white woman he will participate in a society that is predominantly white but which belongs to him as well. Charles' deeds and those of his Black brothers and sisters have left their stamp on Costa Rica. Charles is not only a "limonense," he is an Afro-Costa Rican.

Donald K. Gordon writes: "Desde las primeras obras de Duncan están delineadas las luchas de los que quieren cambiar una mala situación y los que quieren proteger sus privilegios" (61). This is the fundamental theme of La paz de pueblo (1978).

The Jamaican Pedro Dull comes to Limón to work on the banana plantations. The economic injustices of the Banana Company cause him to participate in the strike of 1934. Later he seeks employment on the farm of B. Brown, who represents the interests of the Company.

Both Pedro and Brown are Blacks. Brown, however, has gained wealth and position because he has identified with the political and economic power bases of the area. He has no use for the government of San José, however. He believes that the President, Ricardo Jiménez, is a Communist and tolerated too many excesses during the strike of 1934. Brown sees himself as a British subject and, as such, superior to Costa Rican citizens. He does not believe that Great Britain would have permitted the situation to get out of hand.

For the Costa Rican Black life at this smoment is extremely difficult. The banana economy on the Atlantic coast is collapsing. The government of León Cortés, however, passed a law forbidding Blacks to go to the Pacific coast to work the plantations there. Many Blacks are leaving Costa Rica to look for better opportunities in Panama. When a Black gravedigger tells his co-worker that he wants to go to San José, the latter warns him that he cannot do that under the present government. "Tenés sólo dos caminos: Panamá o quedarte aquí." (75)

Local Blacks find little solace in Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement. The minister of their church supports strongly the status-quo and the actions of Brown in the community. The minister attacks Garvey's supporters as "locos que pretenden que volvamos al Africa, a la barbarie, al paganismo" (149). The lack of enthusiasm among the members of the congregation indicates their sense of hopelessness in being able to change the present circumstances in Estrada.

When Brown allows López, a worker on his farm, to be dismissed without medical assistance because he suffers from tuberculosis the other workers threaten to strike. Pedro is regarded as an instigator of the unrest.

Pedro had already become a controversial figure in Estrada. He had carried on a love affair with the beautiful Sitaira, who was coveted by most of the men, especially Brown's son, Cató. After Sitaira's mysterious murder, rumors, supported by Brown, place the blame on Pedro. Most of the evidence points clearly, however, toward the unbalanced Cató who already had the nickname, "el loco." Sitaira's mother, Mariot, urges Pedro to flee to Panama, but he goes instead with a companion to Brown's farm, where he is arrested.

Pedro's fundamental spirit is African, not Jamaican or Costa Rican. He protests against the mistreatment and exploitation of his fellow workers out of a sense of human justice. In spite of his mother's disapproval, he is drawn to Garvey's ideas and the history of Black people. When he was younger, against his mother's wishes, he attended the African religious ceremonies of Mamá Bull. There he felt the spirit of Cuminá, god of the Yoruba people.

Now, confronted with accusations of murder and inciting labor unrest, Pedro decides not to leave Costa Rica. He attends another ceremony by Mamá Bull which helps him reach the decision that he will rebel against the unjust system by serving as an example to his people. "[[questiondown]]No habia danzado Cuminá en su cuerpo?" (179)

The false charges brought against Pedro raise the ugly head of racism in the bar of the Chinaman. One customer lashes out angrily at Blacks and Chinese. When the Chinese owner scolds him for insulting a Black woman, who is present, he explodes in an ethnic rage: "---Vos te callas también chino hediondo. Yo no sé por qué hay tantos extranjeros aquí. Y vienen a meter ideas en la cabeza de la gente pacifica" (171). Perez, the Spanish friend of Mariot, defends the other races in the same tone, for, as he says, "no quiero que tengan la impresión de que todos los ticos somos así." (171)

Although the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy white Jamaican woman and her Black coachman, Mariot identifies deeply with African beliefs, most of all Samamfo, the place where the spirits of the ancestors dwell. Mariot fears that no one remains in her family to carry on its glory since a tragic accident had robbed her husband of his eyesight and his strength.

When Pedro comes to Estrada, Mariot sees in him the future of the family, for she hopes that he will marry Sitaira. After Sitaira's death Mariot laments her loss: "El hombre sin descendencia es una calabaza hueca" (77). Before Pedro leaves her home for the last time she has relations with him: "---Ya una está vieja, pero talvez...talvez...." (169)

Pedro's surrender appears to signal a victory for the established power structure. Brown gives a party to which all the important people of the village are invited. Oddly both the minister and Mamá Bull attend, and they get along very well. People watch from a nearby house for they have heard that the governor has arrived to take Pedro to Limón for trial.

It is then, however, that the people recall the minister's sermons on the verses: "De entre mi pueblo levantaré a uno---dice el Señor---le quitaré el corazón de piedra y le daré uno de carne, y será la liberación de muchos y la gloria del pueblo." (184)

Mamá Bull had interpreted the passage to mean that Cuminá would become flesh in the village and would be the village itself and "los altares saldrían sobrando." (184)

The sermons and Mamá Bull's prophecy are now clear to the people. Their glory and their liberation had come in the presence of Pedro. Their African ancestry will bind them together and sustain them in their present tribulations. "Cuminá danzaba la paz del pueblo." (187)

Gordon writes that "el pueblo de herencia africana tiene que ser consciente de su pasado, de sus tradiciones, de sus dioses, de sus sedes" (115). Duncan illustrates this point in many ways in his works.

In Hombres curtidos, for example, Jakel Duke leaves Jamaica to go to Panama for the purpose of retrieving his dead father's belongings. Aboard ship he listens to Black sailors play African folk music in which they recount a battle between white invaders and Ashanti warriors. The song is, in reality, "esa historia escondida en la sangre que por suya, era la única verdad. Palpitante, necesariamente musical." (18)

The treacherous defeat of the Ashanti affects the listeners profoundly, for they understand that the song represents the plight of their people. "Los negros lloran. Sudan llanto. Lágrimas de la intimidad de una raza curtida en los siglos." (21)
Carnaval 1

Grace, Jakel's daughter, later recalls the important verses of the song: "Tierra Ashanti, [[questiondown]]rompió en la brisa el furor de mil cañones? [[questiondown]]Quién iba a olvidar las lanzas inútiles que tapizaban la arena, la sangre indígena derramada sobre la playa impotente?" (66)

In Los cuatro espejos Ruth Viales is the daughter of an obeahman. When Charles McForbes' wife, Lorena, is struck down by a mysterious illness, Ruth says that Lorena had been attacked by a dopi, the spirit of a dead person. In spite of the education he had received in San José, Charles believes that Christian Bowman put a hex on his land, so he requests a remedy from Lorena's father, who is an obeahman. Bowman himself sees an obeahman for his problems.

           Two Afro-Costa Rican girls in traditional dress

Pedro and Mariot are the characters who are attached closely to African beliefs (Cuminá, Samamfo) in La paz del pueblo. Nonetheless, Brown, the strong supporter of Western values, accuses Pedro of putting a spell on Mrs. Mantle's daughter by means of an obeahman.

Sitaira remembers her mother's stories about Hermana and Hermano Araña, popular figures in Limón folklore whose origins are West African Ashanti. They are "recuerdos que corren en la sangre, leyendas viejas, fábulas que el viento arrulla por las noches...." (101)

In conclusion Duncan shows that the Black people of Costa Rica have contended with the African, Caribbean, and Costa Rican elements which make up their identity.

"[[questiondown]]Eres costarricense?" Jakel's question to Clif is only the beginning of the young man's inner awareness. Duncan suggests that self-definition is difficult and not reached easily. Clif must resolve the question for himself. It is not a simple matter of rights. "Hay algo más." (135)

For Duncan's characters identity is an existential pursuit. Clif Duke, Charles McForbes and Pedro Dull seek an authentic self-concept which will allow them to find significance in their lives. It is a painful journey because they will confront many obstacles to self-realization in a country "que nunca decidió si quería o no a los negros." (Hombres 94)

Through his literary works Duncan is guiding the reader to a better understanding of the fact that the Afro-Costa Rican's need for identification and direction is common to all human beings.
In Gordon's words: "El interés personal de Duncan en la situación del negro es solamente un aspecto de su preocupación por toda la condición humana." (41)


1 Several Costa Rican authors have portrayed Black characters
in their fictional works. The most outstanding representations are given by Carlos Luis Fallas in Mamita Yunai (1941) and Gente y gentecillas (1947). Other important characterizations can be found in Manglar (1947), Puerto Limón (1950), and Cocorí (1947) by Joaquín Gutiérrez. For other works and further discussion see Alvaro Sánchez M., "El negro en la literatura costarricense," in El negro en Costa Rica, ed. Carlos Meléndez and Quince Duncan (1972; rpt. San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1989), pp. 173-189.

2 For further discussion see Carlos Meléndez, "El negro en Costa Rica durante la Colonia" (Negro 13-58).

3 Garvey came to Costa Rica in 1909, 1921, and 1928.

4 Duncan describes the obeahman as "un hombre con poderes sobrenaturales. Poderes que puede usar para bien y para mal." (Negro 121).

5 Duncan writes: "Uno de los personajes más interesantes de la tradición oral, es el Hermano Araña (Annancy). Su nombre viene de la palabra Ashanti corresponiente a araña. Los cuentos sobre el Hermano Araña, tienen su origen en el folklore africano de la Costa Occidental." (Negro 190). For further discussion on the influence of African folklore on Costa Rican writers see Melendez (Negro 54).

Works Cited

Bonilla, Abelardo. Historia de la literatura costarricense. San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1967.

Chase, Alfonso, ed. Narrativa contemporánea de Costa Rica. Vol. I. San José: Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deportes, 1975.

Duncan, Quince. Hombres curtidos. San José: Imprenta
Metropolitana, 1971.

______________. Kimbo. 2nd ed. San José: Editorial Costa Rica,

______________. La paz del pueblo. 2nd ed. San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1986.

______________. Los cuatro espejos. San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1973.

Gordon, Donald K. Lo Jamaicano y lo universal en la obra del
costarricense Quince Duncan. San José: Editorial Costa
Rica, 1989.

Meléndez, Carlos, and Quince Duncan, eds. El negro en Costa Rica.
1972; rpt. San José: Editorial Costa Rica, 1989.