Before getting too deep into this topic. I just preface this by saying that I lived in Alajuela, Costa Rica for about 2 months for school. A large part of my time in the province was spent tearing down the wall of the language barrier between my neighborhood community and instructors. Costa Rica isn’t a bad place. In certain areas of the country like Puerto Viejo and Limon, there are many more diverse Caribbean people. This post is simply to offer a more well-rounded view of my experience for those people of color, African Americans in particular, who may be interested in spending some time there. Most of my experiences were extremely positive. I believe the people I’ve met there will be a part of my life as I grow older. I have and will continue to recommend those I know to visit. Unfortunately, the entire world has suffered and continue to suffer from the effects of European colonialism. Our perceptions of others are a direct result of years of discrimination, prejudice, colorism, etc. that were conjured during a very hurtful period in our global history. I actually opened up about my experience with colorism in my post “This Black History Month(BHM), Can We Talk About the Effects of Colorism?”. Be sure to check it out to learn more about the experience of darker people of color.
My travel abroad adviser did mention that people who looked more like myself tend to live near the Caribbean side of the country months before I’d arrived in San Jose. While I didn’t mention it in earlier posts, I began to notice the cultural differences between the various ethnic and age groups in Alajuela little by little. For instance, I was told by one of the older women in my neighborhood that young women like myself (18 y.o.a at the time) would casually establish sugar-daddy relationships with the older men out of desperation. As they cat-called, there were some women that would permit these “viejos verdes” to make advances towards them for whatever gain they were after. Also, most of the people had a “criollo” or indigenous characteristics in the province. Generally, those with more African influence lived toward the Caribbean parts of Costa Rica, (e.g. Puerto Viejo). While traveling throughout Alajuela, I noticed that the African-Caribbean women, that looked more so like me, were all prostitutes near my particular neighborhood. These women were noticeably darker in complexion and also wore traditional hairstyles(various braided styles) of African descendants. In hindsight, I believed I was targeted by these neighborhood boys (mentioned below) because of the presumption that I was one of them because of my dark skin and braids, not that either of us deserved to be assaulted. Fortunately, this was the only incident that I could recall where I felt truly un-welcomed, to say the least.
On May 28th, 2014 (Yes, I remember the date), I walked home from my bus stop after yet another long day of classes. I was completely alone and decided to walk as to save money on all my previous taxi rides. As I made my way toward the last quarter mile or so of my walk uphill, some preteens/ teen boys that I had never seen before began to shout at me and throw fruit around me, as to scare me. They tried to hit me by throwing things around my head from above a hill overlooking the roadway. While the hard foreign fruit didn’t hit me, I was terrified. I tried to scurry uphill away, but there was absolutely nowhere to quickly take cover on a mountainous roadway. Behind me was literally a HUGE mountainous slope. The worst part was that I didn’t know exactly why it had happened. I had been kind and helpful to the children and elders within this neighborhood. I didn’t know if they didn’t like Americans (or even knew if I was American) or they were trying to get my attention for the sole purpose of scaring/ pranking me. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a valid one.
When I finally made it uphill to my host family’s home, I told my host mother what had happened. She seemed very disappointed that I went through that. While I don’t think she knew the cause of the incident, she just assumed they were random “chicos malos”, and we moved on. Keep in mind this area does not have Police like we do in the States. Incidents are handled within the community. For instance, I’ve seen a public brawl on a street in my neighborhood. Lots of community members had come out to separate the culprits and restore peace.
In light of the #MeToo campaign to bring attention on sexual harassment and assault, I was also reminded of my own experience with sexual harassment in Alajuela. Of course, women know the difference between harmless flirting and aggressive sexual misconduct. I mean, a lot of us have experienced it since girlhood. To me, not even a language barrier can disguise that slimy, desecrating tone of ill-intentioned men. While I wished I never felt uncomfortable while studying abroad, I would be doing a disservice to my readers who are genuinely interested in learning about the total scope of my experience.
On particularly days, I can remember being alone or with other female students, waiting at the bus stop or walking by a taxi station either headed home or school, when older men would yell all kinds of suggestive things with slang, make cat-calls, etc. The worst part of being without family or friends was my language skills were still not up-to-par to say much of anything. I was still learning Spanish at the time, and I was learning Costa Rican slang, in particular, very slowly. But, as I stated before, you always know how it feels to be treated without respect as a woman.
Outside of these occurrences, my overall study-abroad experience was positive. I would, of course, encourage others to visit and explore the beauty of Costa Rica. I would say, however, to always be alert and aware of your environment, especially if you’re a female. You absolutely should not continue to stay anywhere where you don’t feel welcomed, respected, or comfortable merely by existing.