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Costa Rica is the most homogeneous of Central American nations in race as well as social class. The census classifies 94 percent of the population as “white” or “mestizo” and less than 3 percent as “black” or “Indian.” Exceptions are Guanacaste, where almost half the population is visibly mestizo, a legacy of the more pervasive unions between Spanish colonists and Chorotega Indians through several generations; and the population of the Atlantic coast province of Puerto Limón, which is one-third black, with a distinct culture that reflects its West Indian origins.
Costa Rica’s approximately 40,000 black people are the nation’s largest minority. For many years they were the target of racist laws that restricted them to the Caribbean coast (only as late as 1949, when the new constitution abrogated apartheid on the Atlantic Railroad, were black people allowed to travel beyond Siquirres and enter the highlands). Hence, they remained isolated from national culture. Most black Costa Ricans trace their ancestry back to the 10,000 or so Jamaicans hired by Minor Keith to build the Atlantic Railroad, and to later waves of immigrants who came to work the banana plantations in the late 19th century.
In the 1930s, when “white” highlanders began pouring into the lowlands, black people were quickly dispossessed of land and the best-paying jobs. Late that decade, when the banana blight forced the banana companies to abandon their Caribbean plantations and move to the Pacific, “white” Ticos successfully lobbied for laws forbidding the employment of gente de color in other provinces, one of several circumstances that kept blacks dependent on the United Fruit Company, whose labor policies were often abhorrent. Many converted their subsistence plots into commercial cacao farms and reaped large profits during the 1950s and 1960s from the rise of world cacao prices.
West Indian immigrants played a substantial role in the early years of labor organization, and their early strikes were often violently suppressed. Many black workers, too, joined hands with Figueres in the 1948 civil war. Their reward? Citizenship and full guarantees under the 1949 Constitution, which ended apartheid. Many black Costa Ricans are now found in leading professions throughout the nation. Race relations are relatively harmonious, and black people are more readily accepted as equals by Ticos than in years past. On the Caribbean coast, they have retained much of their traditional culture, including religious practices rooted in African belief about transcendence through spiritual possession (obeah), their cuisine (such as “rundown”), the rhythmic lilt of their slightly antiquated English, and the deeply syncopated funk of their music.
Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples have suffered abysmally in decades past and still remain a marginalized populace. Today, approximately 65,000 peoples from eight ethnic groups manage to eke out a living on 22 Indian reserves and adjacent territory. The Chorotega occupy northern Nicoya; the Malekú live on the northern slopes of the Cordillera Guanacaste and Cordillera de Tilarán, principally near San Rafael de Guatuso; the Huetar live in the Meseta Central, near Santiago de Puriscal; the Bribrí, Boruca, and Cabecar tribes live on the slopes of the Cordillera Talamanca; and the Guaymí live in the extreme southwest and Talamancas.
In December 1977 a law passed prohibiting non-Indians from buying, leasing, or renting land within the reserves. Although various agencies continue to work to promote education, health, and community development, the indigenous people’s standard of living is appallingly low, alcoholism is endemic, health and educational facilities are sparse, and the communities remain subject to exploitation. Banana and mining companies have gradually encroached, pushing campesinos onto marginal land. The National Commission for Indigenous Affairs (CONAI) has proved ineffective in enforcing protections.
The Borucas, who inhabit scattered villages in tight-knit patches of the Pacific southwest, have been most adept at conserving their own language and civilization, including matriarchy, communal land ownership, and traditional weaving. Virtually all groups have been converted to Christianity, often wed to traditional animistic religions, and Spanish is today the predominant tongue.
Fortunately, recent years have seen a resurgence of cultural pride, assisted by tourism efforts that are opening the reserves to respectful visitation and an interest in traditional crafts.
Other Ethnic Groups
Immigrants from many nations have been made welcome over the years (between 1870 and 1920, almost 25 percent of Costa Rica’s population growth was due to immigration). Jews are prominent in the liberal professions. A Quaker community of several hundred people centers on Monteverde. Germans settled a century ago as coffee farmers. Italians gathered in the town of San Vito. Many Chinese are descended from approximately 600 Asians who were brought in as contract laborers to work on the Atlantic Railroad; chinos are now conspicuously successful in the hotel, restaurant, and bar trade, and in Limón as middlemen controlling the trade in bananas and cacao.
More recently, Costa Rica has become a favorite home away from home for a new influx of North Americans, Europeans, and (notably in recent years) Israelis—including a large percentage of misfits and miscreants evading the law (Costa Rica has been called the “land of the wanted and the unwanted”). In addition, tens of thousands of Central American immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua provide cheap labor for the coffee fields. The largest group of recent immigrants are Nicas (Nicaraguans), with as many as 450,000—one seventh of the Costa Rican population—the majority of whom are considered “illegals” not protected by law.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition