Black Princess in Costa Rican Rainforest

As I and my classmates prepared for this trip to Costa Rica, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be a Black person/woman/American in a Latin American culture. I was interested to see what, if anything, passerby would call me as I had been told that comments such as “Gringo/a” & “blondie” were common. One of the speakers we had come in one of our pre-trip orientation sessions told me that it would not be surprising to hear “negra” as a reference to my skin color (negra = black in Spanish).

There are many cultural things that are unique to Black and African American culture. Often our hair is a topic of many conversations with people of other ethnicities. Currently, my natural hair is cut pretty short, and because I tend to sweat in my hair a lot, it doesn’t keep a style for very much when I’m dancing heavily. That being said, I decided to get flat braids done before I left for San Josè so that it would be easy to deal with & require less maintenance. I wasn’t surprised that one of my first experiences with my host family was about my hair style. My host dad, Carlos touched my hair and told me that it was “muy bonito.” He then asked me how long it took; my response of “about 2 hrs” astonished him. Internally I laughed, because I’ve had braids styles that have taken 8+ hours to do.

During my 1st year here at OSU, I have fallen in love with wearing head scarves. I have a couple that used to be my mom’s; they are over twenty years old which makes them near & dear to me. I brought them with me on this trip because I knew that I wanted to have some versatility and not always wear my hair out. I wore one for the majority of our weekend trip to the beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park.

There, everyone seemed to have this incredibly positive and intrigued response to my scarves. I’ve worn them before, but never to such critical acclaim. One of the highlights of the trip was when our sweet bus driver, Marvin, called me his “Jamaican niña.” In Costa Rica, my scarf seemed to connect me with a culture that I’ve always appreciated, but with which I have never personally identified. I will agree, combined with the lovely dark brown the Costa Rican sun turned my skin, I acquired a rather Caribbean look.

At Playa Manuel Antonio, I had a really Pura Vida experience with a cool Tico that struck up a conversation with me because my scarf reminded him of his mother. He was of mixed ethnicities: his mother was a black woman from the Caribbean side of the country, and his father was from the Pacific side. We ended up taking a photo together & becoming Facebook friends.

On Friday, several of my cohorts and I were dining at Cafe Kalu, a phenomenal cafe that I would recommend as a stop for anyone visiting San Jose. I was wearing my favorite purple scarf that day because I had actually taken my braids out because they had gotten wet at the beach. My table had just placed our order when the server came back to my table with a dessert. I was protesting that it wasn’t mine when she told me that “someone among us likes the way you wear your scarf and wanted to buy you dessert.” I was shocked. Later, the man came to my table and explained himself. He told me that he was happy to see me displaying such a bright and colorful symbol of my heritage and that he hoped that I carried it with pride and continue to do so. The encounter brought one of my Asian American friends to tears and quite literally made my day.

For me, the experience was the best moment of the trip. It gave me an increased awareness of how my personal appearance allows people to perceive me. It was ironic to me that my scarves brought me so much when the real reason that I wear them has very little to do with my heritage. Most of the time, I don’t like the way my hair looks and don’t want to share the mess with the world. Being in Costa Rica has brought an entirely new meaning to my head adornment. Previously, I felt more of a connection to African culture than Caribbean culture when I wore a scarf, but now I have an appreciation for the whole of black women everywhere that have been crowning themselves with beautiful cloths for centuries, from African queens and princesses to regular, everyday women like me today.

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