mi dolor es silenciado & ignorado
Written and created by Chenoa Lewis, Staff Writer
In San Jose, Costa Rica, my friend Michelle and I were deeply intrigued by the cultural and racial identities with which people identified in a country where multiracial ethnicities are extremely prevalent. Being people of color – I am Black and white while Michelle is Taiwanese, which is viewed as an anomaly in Costa Rica – we were fascinated by the racial and cultural dynamic of the locals. Being from the United States, we are constantly confronted and identified by our racial identities. Living abroad, we experience less embodied racial stress.
In Costa Rica the atmosphere contrasts from the United States. Race didn’t feel like a constant shadow lingering behind us with every move we made, yet we were curious to explore the locals’ experience with their race. Thus transpired a cultural photography project where we traveled around the city of San Jose and conducted a series of interviews with the people we stumbled across. After interviewing a number of locals we wanted to dig deeper into this racial dynamic, which further influenced us to interview students studying abroad from the United States, and compare their experiences to that of the locals.
We began these interviews—held in Spanish and English—by asking a series of questions while photographing throughout the interview, highlighting each participant’s reactions. The first question we asked was, “What is the most memorable comment—good or bad—someone has made about your physical appearance?” There was a constant mixture of responses, which lead to the next question. “Well, what do you identify yourself as? What is your identity?” This question always gained a pause from our interviewees, but their responses were always reflective and meaningful.
Michelle and I would like to present to you our photo essay “Mi Dolor es Silencio y Ignorado.” Thank you to all of our willing participants, which altered our mindsets tremendously on how race is perceived in a country such as Costa Rica, and how people identify themselves inside and outside the boundaries of binary social structures.
Ricardo es un tico quien estudió en Limón, el lado caribeño de Costa Rica donde la influencia de los Afro-Costarricenses y de Jamaica es más fuerte. La gente piensa que él es gringo y no puede hablar español, pero su respuesta a estos comentarios nunca fueron negativos o agresivos. "Paz," nos dijo. Él fabrica y vende los jabones a mano en las calles de San José.
Ricardo is Costarricense and studied in Limon, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica where Afro-Costaricense and Jamaican influence is prevalent. People assumed he was “white” and didn’t speak Spanish, but his responses to these comments were never aggressive. “Paz,” he told us. He makes and sells handmade organic soap in the streets of San Jose.
Maggie is Afro-Cuban and Irish, and was adopted by Italian parents in Charleston, South Carolina. When she arrived to Costa Rica one of the first comments a student made to her was that she looked like she “fit in here.” While Maggie has had an Italian-American upbringing, she feels a lack of connection with her Afro-Cuban heritage and is still searching for her identity. She resonates with the word “anomaly.”
Brian, an Afro-Costarricense from San Jose, identifies as Rastafarian – an African centered religious and social movement based in Jamaica. He credits his positive racial identity to the syncretization of cultures in Costa Rica. Brian felt that African influences were valued in Costa Rica within the cuisine, music and dance. “We are good at sports, make delicious food, and are great dancers,” he said with much admiration and love for his cultural upbringing. His responses were uplifting and optimistic because, “We are sharing culture.”
Ignacio también se identifica como rastafari y tiene dreadlocks, que la gente siempre comenta. Nos dijo que la gente se magnetizaba ante sus ojos. Explicó: "Los ojos son las ventanas del alma". Él ve a los humanos como los animales del mundo y estamos conectados con lo que respira. Él trae esta energía positiva en su vida.
Ignacio also identifies himself as Rastafarian. He has long dreads down his back, which people comment on often. He said that people gravitate toward his eyes, where he explained, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” He views everyone as animals of the earth that are all interconnected with the living, and projects this positive energy into his daily life.
Jania is from New York and identifies as a Black-American woman. However, it is not her sole identity, as she’s still navigating through the world to discover it. Her experience in Costa Rica has been unique, for she is not constantly reminded that she is a Black woman. When her skin color is addressed, it’s always in a friendly fashion where some people have even called her “chocolita.”
Sebastian is a photography major at the Veritas University in San Jose. He is Costarricense but people assume he is not from Costa Rica. A friend of his made the above comment because of his eye color and fair features. He doesn't singularly label or define himself to one identity because, as he states, "I am me."
Joshua is an African-American studies major from Alabama. He’s grown up with his strong sense of identity and relates it to his race, religion, and gender. While being in Costa Rica he hasn’t been confronted much with his race except when he was volunteering at an elderly home. An elderly woman called him “negrito,” which is a common term used for people of color in Costa Rica. However, what struck Josh most about this comment was that it felt like a term of endearment. Albeit the word itself evokes a negative reaction related to a racial slur used in the United States, the Spanish adjective bears no relation. This elderly woman used the word “negrito” to exemplify Joshua’s beauty.
Celeste es una estudiante en San José. Ella reflexiona sobre un comentario memorable que alguien dijo acerca de ella. "Me llamaron Africana." Pero, ella es tica y responde, "Somos iguales." Explicó la discriminación y las "malas palabras" que ve y oye a la gente de Nicaragua que vive en Costa Rica.
Celeste is a high school student in San Jose. She reflected on a negative memorable comment someone made about her. “They called me African.” She is Costarricense and responded, “Somos iguales (we are all equal).” She explained to us the discrimination she sees toward Nicaraguans in Costa Rica every day. “Bad words.”
Israel is from Jimma, Ethiopia and moved to San Francisco, Calif. when he was 15. He’s studying photography and architecture in Costa Rica to expose the enigmatic wonders that lie deep in the Costa Rican culture, while he fluidly meshes into the lifestyle. He’s always had a strong sense of identity and finds it to be dynamic due to his upbringing.
Milan is from Baltimore and attends Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington D.C. She has received positive attention from locals whilst living in Costa Rica. Like Jania, she is relieved to live in Costa Rica without being reminded of her race every day. When addressed on the street, Milan hears terms like “chocolita” and “negrita,” which are used as an expression of admiration. She identifies as a free bird and has found freedom in her identity.
Special thanks to Professor Caro Goodfellow for allowing us to present our findings and enhance our understanding of race and identity in Costa Rica.