COSTA RICA: In symbolic opera theater, black artists finally take the stage

Patricia Cinta
Costa Rican poet Eulalia Bernard (r.) is the winnder of this year's Limón Roots Award.

LIMÓN, COSTA RICA It was only 60 years ago, following Costa Rica’s only civil war in the past century, that the government repealed a law that in effect barred blacks from moving freely within the country. Lured mostly from Jamaica to the city of Limón on the Atlantic coast to build the railroad in the late 1800s, most Costa Rican-born blacks didn’t even have full citizenship or the right to vote until 1949. Indeed, even after these rights were recognized, latent racism has remained perhaps the biggest stain on Costa Rica’s democratic record.

But things are changing, albeit slowly. For the third straight year, the Limón Roots Festival, which recognizes black achievers. was hosted in the Melico Salazar Theater. The theater was built in the 1920s and is a symbol of the white-dominated ruling elite. It was taken over by the Ministry of Culture in the 1980s after it was gutted by a fire.

Costa Rican blacks filled the grand and formal theater and clapped to reggae, Honduran-African rhythms, and soca, in sharp contrast to the classical music and opera that usually fill these halls.

Poet Eulalia Bernard, dressed in an impeccable white gown and showing a relentless smile, was this year’s honoree. “This undoubtedly symbolizes the real inclusion of Afro descendents in Costa Rica,” she said, referring to the venue for the award ceremony. “But a lot more work is necessary from future generations. Both sides have to give in and realize there is no difference between us.”

The event was broadcast on the Internet and national TV. And although no government officials or national press were present during the award ceremony, the Costa Rican blacks who were present – from hairdressers to lawyers – agreed it was a proud moment, a step closer to mainstream recognition of blacks’ contributions to Costa Rica.

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