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Race in Costa Rica: A 68-Year-Old Book Is Fueling a Major Debate

Promotional banner for the orchestral adaptation of “Cocorí”. This new adaptation triggered a new wave of controversy about racism in Costa Rica. Photo taken from the Facebook profile for the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica.
Promotional banner for the orchestral adaptation of “Cocorí”. This new adaptation triggered a new wave of controversy about racism in Costa Rica. Photo taken from the Facebook profile for the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica.

By Shirley Campbell,  Translated by by Marianna Breytman
How is it that a short children's story written in the late 1940s is generating a hurricane of controversy today that is dividing little Costa Rica?

The story, a book called Cocorí, is a collection of the adventures of a black child in the (almost isolated) Caribbean community in Costa Rica. At the time, the book won several international prizes and is probably the most translated Costa Rican book in history. For many years, it was required reading for children in primary school. Nonetheless, a few years ago, in response to pressure from various social groups, the book ceased to be compulsory. Today, it is available only as elective reading.

In the book, Cocorí is a black boy living with his mother in a port. One day, after the arrival of a ship to the coast, he meets a blonde girl. At their first meeting, both children are surprised. Cocorí is surprised by the girl's blonde hair and the girl confuses Cocorí with a monkey. Following this confusion, she thinks that Cocorí's skin has been filled with soot, since she has never seen a black boy. After exchanging a few snails for a rose, Cocorí promises to bring the girl a little squirrel monkey. Cocorí manages to capture the monkey and returns to the ship, but it's gone. Cocorí's sadness grows when he finds his rose withered with all of its petals on the ground. From there, he decides to wander the lands in search of an answer to the question: Why do certain things live for many years while others live for so few?

The trigger for the current controversy came during a scene in a musical by the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ministry of Culture and Youth, performed for young students at the National Theater.

Online, many Internet users have spoken out against censoring the work of fiction, saying the unfiltered story is an important form of free expression:

No to CENSORING #Cocori. we have the right to listen to the musical

Regarding censoring #Cocori: “Politically correct art does not exist” -Carlos Rubio, writer and expert in children's literature

In the day of books and copyrights, we get the censorship (gagging) of #Cocorí

Beyond the musical adaptation and discussions of the book, a larger debate about racism has erupted in Costa Rica. On blogs like Diego Delfino, the conversation has focused on the country's own unique experience with racism:

Is Costa Rica racist or not? Definitely. How is it possible to understand that Costa Ricans are so uncomfortable with the mere suggestion that a book could be read differently through different eyes and would it perhaps be opportune to listen to those who appreciate it that way? They prefer to get angry, radicalize the discussion, and completely discredit those who have already been historically marginalized before understanding that in all that plurality of voices and opinions, there is an abundance of equally valuable and interesting points of view, which wouldn't hurt to at least take into account.

On Facebook, Harold Robinson Davis responded to those who accuse Cocorí's critics of censoring popular Costa Rican culture:

There are those who want to divert the focus of the discussion, citing illegitimate arguments in defense of “free speech” or fighting “censorship”. This falls falls under its own weight […] Whoever wants to educate their children with the “values” that this book conveys is free to do so in their own home. (I warn you though that this is a recipe for disaster: with each passing day in this globalized world, diversity and tolerance are essential values for success … or simply for coexistence)

Winston Washington shared his personal experience, also on Facebook:

At the age of 31, I understand and somewhat regretfully forgive those who made my life hell with the blessed Cocorí. We are not Cocorí, no black person in Costa Rica is Cocorí, we don't like Cocorí, he makes a bad impression on us, significantly bad, he does not represent us. The cartoon is unbearable, with his ignorant eyes and his red-colored lip, in the vaudeville style of the late 19th century and the start of the 20th, with the “whites” wearing blackface, parodying the customs of African descendants.
Controversies and attacks against public representatives

Controversies and attacks against public representatives

The Human Rights Commission of the Legislative Assembly has asked Minister of Culture Elizabeth Fonseca not to endorse these concerts, considering that the work contains racist connotations and spreads racist stereotypes against people of African descent. The Minister of Culture welcomed the initiative. Throughout this process, the debate has become more aggressive, focusing particularly on two public representatives: Epsy Campbell, the president of the Human Rights Commission of the Legislative Assembly, and Maureen Clarke, from the National Liberation Party—both of whom are of African descent.

In defense of the book, various groups have emerged on Facebook, criticizing the representatives who claim its protagonist is depicted in a racist way. Some of the criticism has become abusive, and Campbell had to close her social media accounts. Her supporters even launched a petition calling for state protection, after she received certain physical threats.

How this controversy will end remains a mystery, for now. The debate continues, extending beyond the book and the story, pitting those who see it as part of Costa Rican tradition and identity against others who feel this particular tradition dehumanizes people of African descent.

Many in and sympathetic to the Afro-Costa Rican community hope today's debate results in new legislation that criminalizes discrimination in all forms and brings the country closer to the image it has tried to project abroad: a society that respects and celebrates diversity.

Reprinted with permission from Global Voices.

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