A reflection of my first impressions of San Jose, Costa Rica
It was a normal Costa Rica morning, warm and sunny with a promise of afternoon rain. I left my hostel in San Jose, like usual, to head for my daily spanish class in San Pedro. I was feeling unusually giddy, and strolled casually across the street unaware of the fact that cars, not pedestrians, have the right away. As I arrive halfway across the vast calle, a car speeds up behind me. I dart to the other side and turn to find the driver of the car with his head half out the window, yelling a phrase that ends in Negrita.
This scene disheveled my whole day. My spanish is not the best, so I didn’t catch the rest of what this man was saying to me, but I knew for certain that Negro meant black. I quickly drew from my life experiences in the U.S. and concluded that the man was angry and had taken a jab at my racial background. I was appalled, how could my Pura Vida sanctuary be filled with racism! The scene kept disgusting me.
Even though my mind jumped to conclusions, my heart told me to google the word and make sure I positively knew what it meant. I was surprised by what I found. Negrita is an endearing term meaning “little cute black girl.” It took me weeks, but one day I got the courage to ask my spanish teacher, who is a black woman from Limon. She confirmed what I said saying that the guys who said it were flirting with me. Here its okay to use race when describing someone she told me. I immediately though about arguments people had in the states about saying someones race, and knew for the U.S. that was a thin line to tread. Still shocked by the whole ordeal, I thought back to why I would assume that these people I never met would be expressing hatred toward me. Then it dawned on me, it’s my Gringo culture.
It’s sad but its true. As a black American I have been preconditioned to be race conscious. When traveling I learn the demographics of a place I am going and what race is populated where. I want to be prepared so I don’t stumble upon place where I may not be accepted. When moving to San Jose, I felt anxious, not because of crime or violence, but because I wasn’t sure how I was going to be perceived.
Now, three weeks later, I walk the streets with a switch in my hip and a pride in my glide. Those who walk with me rarely look like me- the Costa Rican indigenous population was pretty much washed out with the intermingling of Europeans before it became an independent country and most of the Afro-Carribbean population lives in the providence of Limon. However, they are looking at me. I’m told randomly that my skin is beautiful and I receive stares from men of all ages. I feel exotic in my paradise and I am accepting the way I look in a way I never would have in the states.
I won’t pretend that race relations in Costa Rica is perfect. Often times the Nicaraguans and Colombians who immigrate here are looked down upon, forced to work in low paying field jobs and blamed for all the crime that goes on in the city. And as for the blacks, they are in a poor part of the country where kids sale drugs and officials look the other way. Yet, even though I know this, I don’t feel any opposition personally. And that in itself is empowering.
They say that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. I am equally amazed everyday about how much insight I earn and how much about myself I learn everyday. I’m am calling this journey Simply Negrita.