“Hola Negrita.” His tone was kind but his words confused me. He is a mere child and his intentions were as warm as his smile. This was the third time of many more that I was called a name that referenced my skin tone. I have also been called “morena” meaning dark in Spanish, usually referring to hair color, like “brunette” in English. However, in Costa Rica it can also refer to skin color. Like every city, state, and country that has its own slang, each word doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. In fact, the patron saint in Costa Rica is “Virgen de Los Angeles,” affectionately termed “ La Negrita.” Although it is believed to be a black statue of the Virgin Mary, who is commonly misrepresented as being purely European, the statue and the miracle surrounding it is celebrated in a monumental way. It incorporates pilgrimage, festivities, and a mass. The Spanish word for black is “Negro,” and like other Central and South American countries, Costa Rica was colonized by the Spaniards shortly after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1502.
I have pondered many times how I should respond to a name that possesses a dark and painful history, but it has been said in such a nonchalant way from people that have been very kind to me. In the US, even the slightest hint of prejudice, intolerance, hatred, or blatant disrespect is followed by an intense debate– or at the very least a reckoning of that person’s ignorance. But here I am, a stranger being welcomed. I haven’t experienced any prejudice directed at me simply for possessing a darker hue or by being from the United States (except an occasional taxi driver thinking my nationality means a quick extra hundred colones for his pocket). If I am asked whether I am comfortable with the referenced names, my answer would be no. If I am asked whether I am comfortable with the people here, my answer would be “casi” (almost). I do, however, acknowledge my ignorance of a true Tico lifestyle, culture, and history, but the mere three weeks here have taught me so much. I cannot wait to see what the next two months will teach me. I am proud to be a darker shade of beautiful and eager to learn what that truly means in this culture and in others worldwide.