Finding Community Among Black Expats in Costa Rica

One sunny December morning on the main drag of Costa Rica’s Playas del Coco, my friend Raychelle and I were on our way to grab a typical breakfast of eggs, cheese, platanos, and gallo pinto (rice and black beans). I’d recently landed from New Orleans, but Ray, as I call her, another Black American, had been living here since last March. She filled me in on how the COVID-19 pandemic has made this usually booming beach town relatively quiet. We chatted about what fruits were in season and where to change my SIM card until I froze, as something jarring caught my attention. My eyes widened, my nose scrunched, and my lips pursed. A small but stark Confederate flag was blowing in the wind, attached to a parked motorcycle. I looked around incredulously and noticed an older white man sitting at a table full of Ticos (how Costan Ricans proudly refer to themselves), watching me completely unbothered. I wanted to rip the flag off, throw it on the ground, and stomp on it as he watched. Instead, I shouted—mostly to Ray—a lot of curse words about keeping that garbage in the United States. My heart sank with another reminder that travel or living abroad does not provide a magical escape from experiencing racism.

For me and many of my friends, travel has been a reprieve from the unyielding assault on the mental and physical health of communities of color and queer folks. I am not naive enough to think that white nationalism is merely an American problem, but traveling to countries where people of color are the majority allows me to relax in ways that I cannot in the United States. While seeing a confederate flag in Costa Rica was incredibly triggering and infuriating, I have since found solace in a community of Black and Brown women from the United States living in Guanacaste, a tourist region on the Pacific Coast with stunning beaches and vast national parks. These conflicting feelings have been present throughout my stay, popping up in various ways.

I joined Ray, who I first met in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, after months of following her Instagram posts of hikes through lush forests and road trips with other Black women expats. Another friend, Jai, came from New York soon after, and we got to know Ray’s Costa Rica–based community of women of color via impromptu beach sunset hangouts, outdoor cocktail nights, and national park excursions. Four of us live in the same building, where we joke about bringing the Black sister-friend antics of ’80s sitcom 227 to our building full of retirees. Hearing why others chose to retire here full-time, raise children, and buy property has helped me imagine the possibilities and challenges of living outside of the United States. 

While Black women’s experiences differ depending on our skin tone or level of Spanish proficiency, we have been a community of care for each other, whether it’s drunk dancing to Beyoncé on a Friday night or commiserating after the Capitol insurrection back in the States. As a light-skinned biracial Black woman I notice when some expats and locals stare with curiosity at my darker-skinned sisters or question who they are, their income level, or where they are from. In Costa Rica, Ray gets a lot of genuine, non-fetishized appreciation of her locs, and locals are pretty unfazed by Black women travelers. Meanwhile, we are a spectacle to the white North American or European retirees, who stare when we enter establishments as a group or call building management to complain about our Sunday afternoon pool party with Ticos. Being fluent in Spanish, or at least attempting to communicate in the local language, makes it easier to connect with people in your neighborhood, patronize local businesses, and get tips on where to go outside of tourist traps. Yet at the same time, some businesses will prioritize English speakers because they are likely to have desirable American or Canadian dollars or Euros.

Feeling safe while traveling is particularly important right now in a world where racists feel empowered to boldly display their symbols of hatred, and where, as a solo Black woman traveler minding her own business, people often assume you’re a sex worker, a maid, or a criminal. In Costa Rica, we contend with being seen as “gringas” because, by definition it means people from the United States, but as women of color we see ourselves differently than the white Americans around us. It can be painful to watch how privilege shows up when white Americans are on vacation in countries where Black and Brown people live and work, and to be associated with that behavior. It hurts even more to see travelers of color from the United States reenact those same entitled behaviors abroad. I’m grateful to be with folks who do not wield their identity and wealth privilege in a town that depends heavily on tourism money. Even as systemic racism and discrimination at home impedes our quality of life as Black women and women of color, we still acknowledge that being from the United States gives us certain access in a global tourism economy.

We’ve built relationships with locals to get out of our North American bubble. Our favorite tour guide, Claudio of Clamatours, has not only taken us to places outside of the guidebooks but explained local history by providing important context about where we live. We’ve talked about the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry, what it’s like to raise teenagers, and tourists who want to discuss their love of Trump. I love having bilingual conversations over coffee or beer with the staff and patrons at Cafe Corazon about local animals, ’90s hip hop, and the struggles of managing curly hair. Learning about our beloved Zarpe bartender’s personal journey from biochemist in Nicaragua to mixologist in Costa Rica is what travel is about: breaking down barriers, acknowledging and decolonizing our entitlement, and appreciating each other’s humanity.

My time in Guanacaste is coming to a close. I’m going to deeply miss the camaraderie and sisterhood here, but I’m headed next to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica for my next three-month adventure. Because it’s where the majority of Afro-Costa Rican and Indigenous people live, along with many Black North American expats, I’m hoping I’m less likely to be attacked by white nationalist imagery. I have no expectations of any utopia but now know that I can find the sense of support and safety that I need in those around me. Finding community in Guanacaste was an unexpected gift—and it reminded me, in three short months, that no matter where I am on the planet, Black women are home.

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