Though famed Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey was Jamaican, his start with political organizing happened not only on his island home, but also in Costa Rica. In 1910 Garvey moved to Costa Rica to work as a timekeeper on a United Fruit Company banana plantation. Forty years earlier, in the 1870s, thousands of Jamaicans had come to work on Costa Rica’s railroad, and later stayed to work on banana plantations like the one where Garvey got a job. But Garvey quickly became frustrated with the unjust working conditions on the plantation and moved to Puerto Limón where he opened a newspaper advocating for the rights of people of African descent. At the time, Afro-Costa Ricans were not even granted citizenship, and until 1948, Costa Rica limited their movement within the country to Limón Province.
Though Costa Rica was certainly in need of someone like Garvey, unfortunately his stay was short-lived. Fearing the loss of what few rights they had, the Afro-Costa Rican community offered little response to Garvey’s ideas, so eventually he moved on to Panama.
Today Afro-Costa Ricans constitute about 8% of the population, and given the Jamaican ancestry of many, it’s not uncommon to hear English Creole as well as Spanish in Limón. We discovered this last September, while riding a public bus from Puerto Limón down to Manzanillo, a tiny fishing village that marks the end of the coastal road just north of Panama. On the bus, elders chatted away in Limónese Creole, and when we finally got off the bus after our five-hour journey from San Jose, a fellow passenger who was returning home to visit her mother asked me in perfect English if she could help us find our rental house. This was our first stop in Costa Rica, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t understand the full history of this region, so I naively asked the kind woman where she had learned to speak English. “Right here at home,” she said, pointing to her mom’s house.
Our first morning, while eating papaya and pancakes on the porch of our modest, stilted cabin, a young girl glided by on an adult male’s bicycle with her legs draped casually over the crossbar. Though her feet were far from the pedals, she magically seemed to maintain momentum. I couldn’t help but think of Mary Poppins. Later the same girl wandered up and down the road outside our house, singing to herself in Spanish and playing with a broken fishing net buoy. She kept a steady half eye on our boys who were drawing on our front porch, and they both had half an eyed trained on the girl. When I invited her to join us, she dashed right up onto the porch, introduced herself as Fiorella, and soon had our kids hanging upside down from the beams of the house like sloths, or “lazy bears,” as Fiorella explained their name in Spanish.
From there on, whenever we left the house we were joined by Fiorella. To our great fortune, the girl had time on her hands and seemed to appreciate our company, in spite of our then-crummy Spanish. Her dad was often out fishing and her mom had a part-time job cleaning hotels; school…well, school seemed to be cancelled more often than not. Fiorella accompanied us on our daily excursions into the free-entry Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, teaching us how to make bomb slingers out of palm fronds and baby coconuts and pointing out the plants that moved when she nudged them with her toe. She scaled trees, fed us an unrecognizable fruit she called “grapes,” squealed with delight when she finally understood what we were up to in the ocean while playing Marco Polo, and sang to us through our window screens whenever we retreated to our modest cabin for a nap. Tim and I were absolutely charmed. So were our boys.
Manzanillo did feel like it was at the end of the line. The cutthroat grocers charged us an arm and a leg for basic food provisions–even mac ‘n cheese in a box felt expensive–and we had to bus up to Puerto Viejo to find an ATM. But there was so much we appreciated: the beautiful beaches within the refuge, the mother sloth and her baby in the tree just up the road from our cabin, and most of all, spending days with Fiorella.