“La Negrita,” Queen of the Ticos: The Black Roots of Costa Rica’s Patron Saint

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Religion on 2013-04-02 16:54Z by Steven

“La Negrita,” Queen of the Ticos: The Black Roots of Costa Rica’s Patron Saint

The Americas
Volume 69, Number 3, January 2013
pages 323-355
DOI: 10.1353/tam.2013.0025

Russell Lohse, Assistant Professor of History
Pennsylvania State University

In sharp contrast to her mestizo and mulatto neighbors, Costa Rica is one of a handful of Latin American countries commonly regarded as “white.” For more than a century, national elites and foreign observers alike attributed Costa Rica’s relative political stability, high rate of literacy, and prosperity to the nation’s supposed racial homogeneity. The “Switzerland of Central America” was rarely regarded as part of the African Diaspora, yet people of African descent have been part of Costa Rican society since its colonial beginnings. In fact, the patron saint of Costa Rica has always been depicted as black. Known affectionately as La Negrita, the Virgen de los Angeles is believed to have appeared with a divine mandate of harmony at a remote time when Costa Rica was divided by racial tensions. In the legend of her apparition some have found the key to Costa Rica’s tradition of “rural democracy.”

Many writers have traced Costa Rica’s democratic tradition to the colonial period. In the mid-twentieth century, Carlos Monge Alfaro advanced the classic articulation of the myth of “rural democracy,” an enduring staple of conventional Costa Rican historiography. In his Historia de Costa Rica, read as a textbook by generations of Costa Rican students, Monge Alfaro argued that colonial Costa Rica developed as an egalitarian society of small landholders, unique in Latin America. According to this widely accepted version of national history, colonial Costa Rica remained for centuries an impoverished backwater, neglected by the Spanish Empire. Deep class divisions never emerged because all members of society toiled equally for their meager subsistence. The province’s isolation and chronic poverty forced all of its residents to work with their own hands, for each to make of the situation what he would.

Monge Alfaro and others further contended that colonial Costa Rica was a racially homogeneous society. The racial component of the myth is based on the notion that the few Indians living in Costa Rica at the time of the conquest were peacefully absorbed into Hispanic society, obviating the bloody racial conflicts that plagued other Central American regions. Similarly, the marginalizing character of the subsistence economy precluded the entrenchment of African slavery and the sistema de castas. Spanish peasant immigration accounted for the overwhelming preponderance of the country’s racial stock. Racially homogeneous, Costa Rica was therefore free of racial prejudice and discrimination. The lighter complexion of the population and the absence of racial tension made Costa Rica resemble a tranquil European country more than its Central American neighbors. Racial homogeneity predisposed the region to the harmonious coexistence (convivencia) accepted as a national characteristic. More overtly racist ideologues envisioned Costa Rica’s relative political stability, high literacy rate, economic prosperity, and “European” standards of civilization as results of the absence of indigenous and African populations.

But the popular legend of the apparition of the Virgen de los Angeles openly challenges key tenets of the myths of rural democracy and racial homogeneity. The central theme of the legend of the Virgin’s apparition demands recognition not only of Costa Rica’s racial diversity, but of the reality of racial prejudice and discrimination in the nation’s past.

Legend of the Apparition

As the legend has been recounted in the twentieth century, on August 2, 1635, a woman was gathering firewood near her home in Puebla de los Pardos, the segregated district where people of African descent lived on the outskirts of Cartago, the capital of the Spanish province of Costa Rica. On that day she was surprised to find a black stone image of the Virgin Mary and Child perched on a large rock. Elated, she put the small statue in a basket and carried it home. The next day, she returned to the woods for more firewood and there she found an identical image on the same rock. Thinking she had found a secaond statue, she returned home to find, to her surprise, that the image of the day before was gone….

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Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science on 2010-06-24 21:47Z by Steven

Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

Duke University Press
September 2010
400 pages
21 photographs, 14 tables, 4 maps
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4787-3
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8223-4803-0

Edited By:

Lowell Gudmundson, Professor of Latin American Studies and History
Mount Holyoke College

Justin Wolfe, William Arceneaux Associate Professor of Latin American History
Tulane University

Contributors: Paul Lokken, Russell Lohse, Karl H. Offen, Rina Cáceres Gómez, Catherine Komisaruk , Juliet Hooker, Lara Putnam, Ronald Harpelle, Mauricio Meléndez Obando

Many of the earliest Africans to arrive in the Americas came to Central America with Spanish colonists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and people of African descent constituted the majority of nonindigenous populations in the region long thereafter. Yet in the development of national identities and historical consciousness, Central American nations have often countenanced widespread practices of social, political, and regional exclusion of blacks. The postcolonial development of mestizo or mixed-race ideologies of national identity have systematically downplayed African roots and participation in favor of Spanish and Indian antecedents and contributions. In addition, a powerful sense of place and belonging has led many peoples of African descent in Central America to identify themselves as something other than African American, reinforcing the tendency of local and foreign scholars to see Central America as peripheral to the African diaspora in the Americas. The essays in this collection begin to recover the forgotten and downplayed histories of blacks in Central America, demonstrating the centrality of African Americans to the region’s history from the earliest colonial times to the present. They reveal how modern nationalist attempts to define mixed race majorities as “Indo-Hispanic,” or as anything but African American, clash with the historical record of a region considered by many to be one of the most successful cases of African American achievement, political participation, and power following independence from Spain in 1821.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Lowell Gudmundson and Justin Wolfe

Part I. Colonial Worlds of Slavery and Freedom

Part II. Nation Building and Reinscribing Race 

  • “The Cruel Whip”: Race and Place in Nineteenth-Century Nigaragua / Justin Wolfe
  • What Difference did Color Make? Blacks in the “White Towns” of Western Nicaragua in the 1880s / Lowell Gudmundson
  • Race and the Space of Citizenship: The Mosquito Coast and the Place of Blackness and Indigeneity in Nicaragua / Juliet Hooker
  • Eventually Alien: The Multigenerational Saga of British Western Indians in Central America, 1870-1940 / Lara Putnam
  • White Zones: American Enclave Communities of Central America / Ronald Harpelle
  • The Slow Ascent of the Marginalized: Afro-Descendents in Costa Rica and Nicaragua / Mauricio Meléndez Obando


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