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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Black Folks of Costa Rica


About 8% of Costa Rica’s population is of African descent. Most of them are English-speaking descendants of 19th century black Jamaican immigrant workers. However, the first blacks to arrive came with the Spanish conquistadors, originating from Africa’s Equatorial and Western regions. They were thought of as ideal slaves because they had a reputation for being more robust, affable, and hard-working than other Africans. However, by the time of the Independence of Costa Rica from Spain in 1821, slavery was a disintegrating institution. 

The two large Jamaican migrations occurred at the time of the railroad construction and in the next century, for the banana plantations owned by the United Standard Fruit Company. If it hadn't been for this influx of black population, Costa Rica would not have become the world's largest producer of bananas in 1911. By the 1920's, the black population had improved its economic status dramatically, through their own farms or through their jobs with the banana company. However, since they weren't even considered citizens of Costa Rica, they didn't possess legal rights to own land until black workers organized strikes and labor unions, and even participated with Figueres (revolutionary leader) in the 1948 Civil War, and won citizenship and full guarantees. 

The most important black community of Costa Rica is on the Caribbean coast, which today constitutes the majority of the black population. Costa Rica has the largest Jamaican diaspora after Cuba and Panama and its development as a nation is witness to this contribution. Many Jamaicans intended to return home, but most remained in the province of Limón on the Atlantic Coast. In 1890 the railways suffered a financial crisis, forcing many workers to sustain themselves by working in agriculture. This in turn saw the laborers establishing relationships and cultural exchanges with Indigenous populations of these areas. Today, Afro-Costa Ricans are spread in all the seven different Costa Rican provinces, and are part of different disciplines and fields.