Relating Costa Rica to South Hadley

How is blackness defined in Costa Rica? It’s complicated, says Latin American studies professor Lowell Gudmundson.

Interview by Robin Ferri 

Lowell Gudmundson, professor of Latin American studies and history at Mount Holyoke College, began his career teaching in Costa Rica’s public universities. Gudmundson is the author of several books, including “Blacks and Blackness in Central America.” 

In a recent article, Gudmundson explored the role and denial of blackness in Costa Rican tradition by examining the portrayal of two Afro-descendant Costa Rican women: the early 20th-century writer and activist Carmen Lyra, and Leda Artavia Rojas, who was featured in a 2014 documentary about Costa Rican attitudes toward blackness called “Si no es Dinga.” 

In his essay, published a recent issue of ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, Gudmundson explores why the blackness of these women has been overlooked or emphasized as part of from their identities, and the significance of this for Costa Rican culture. 

Gudmundson spoke recently about the social and cultural dimensions of blackness in Costa Rican society, and about his experience teaching about Afro-Latin America at Mount Holyoke. 

Let's start by clarifying terms. What does “blackness” mean in Costa Rican culture? 

It’s hugely complicated. People descended from colonial Afro-descendant people, slaves or not, define themselves as of mixed race, or mestizo. There’s really no need for a qualifier, because they believe “we’re all this way. We're just a little lighter, a little darker, one hair texture versus another, so be it.” So among the clear majority of the population, to ask a race question is to simply be impolite. 

To understand race in Costa Rica is that, in that country, the people who are considered to be truly black are more recent immigrants from Jamaica or some West Indian countries. And their descendants are often bilingual or trilingual, and they’re overwhelmingly upper-middle class, or at least middle class, benefiting from a myriad of learned skills.

However, that does not mean there is no racism in Costa Rica. It is just directed at different groups of people. 

How is racism manifested in Costa Rica that is different from what we know in the United States? 

In Costa Rica, poor dark-skinned mestizo folks are at a clear disadvantage, and you can see it in interactions. What most Costa Ricans would call black people are people they imagine to be foreigners or recent arrivals who aren’t yet real Costa Ricans — because if you’re a native Spanish speaker, it doesn’t matter how dark you are, you can’t be black, because blackness is a category of somebody else. Even though dark-skinned Costa Ricans are actually at an economic and social advantage. 

So the overtly discriminatory policies break down in Costa Rica — and much of Central America and much of Latin America — to the extent that the really black, more recent immigrants, who bear the mark of English native-language or bilingualism, are at an advantage when compared to dark-skinned native Spanish speakers. 

Moreover, indigenous people, both in the colonial period and today distinctly occupy the inferiorized, excluded position. So crude, racist jokes in the bar are going to almost always target indigeneity, not Afro-descent. And that's been the case for 400, 500 years. Certainly there’s a level of institutional racism going on. 

So racism in Costa Rica does not follow the same ethnic lines that we are familiar with in the United States, but you argue that the erasure of blackness is a part of the racialized structure. How so? 

People who want to be nice or polite will avoid mentioning darker skin tone or Afro-descent out of a misplaced sense of politeness and elevation, which in a weird way allows them to not challenge their own prejudice. And in the process feel that they’re doing the other person the favor.

Another unintended consequence of when we revere politeness more than anti-racism is the erasure of culture and history associated with difference. In Costa Rica, the colonial Afro-descendant people are mixed and are socialized not to challenge or perhaps even recognize racism toward themselves or indigenous people, not to recognize their roots. They don’t recognize the history of their food, they don’t recognize the history of their musical instruments, and so much more. 

What perspectives do Mount Holyoke students bring to your classes on similar topics? How have they informed your teaching? 

I’ve been teaching a course on Afro-Latin America for about 15 years, and it’s become my favorite course to teach. One of the things that makes it so interesting at Mount Holyoke is that you can always count on students coming into it from multiple viewpoints. I have students from all over the world. There are going to be Latinx students from the U.S., and Latin American students from Latin America. There are going to be African American students and students from Africa. There are going to be white domestic students. There is going to be an international population in the classroom.

And that’s what makes the teaching of this course so interesting to me as a professor. I can listen to my students learn by comparing what they’re hearing to their lives in their home countries. And each group of people is going to have a potentially very different understanding — or misunderstanding — of what they’re learning. The mixture of students that we have here come with very different strengths and understandings and it makes the classes exciting.

One of the big challenges is leveling the playing field in the classroom. I’ve experimented an awful lot with what to do in the first two weeks. I used to start with readings but now I mostly start with films, documentaries and others. With people from all these five or six different groups, they need different things to get up to speed, and both the narrative and the visual of films make that quicker and easier. 

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