- "Cien porciento tico tico":Reggae, Belonging, and the Afro-Caribbean Ticos of Costa Rica
"Puerto Limón hands in the air!" The DJ shouted into the microphone in Spanish inflected with a West Indian accent. It was reggae night at Ebony, a San Jose nightclub, in January 2012, and the DJ was calling all limonenses to raise their hands and celebrate their hometown on the dance floor. This form of address had additional significance. In Costa Rica, the Caribbean coastal province Limón—whose capital is Puerto Limón—has historically been associated with the country's Afro-Caribbean population: the descendants of immigrant laborers mostly of Jamaican origin. Although today Limón is racially mixed, the historic formation of the province, widely referred to as el caribe (the Caribbean), is such that in the popular imagination to claim limonense is also to claim black racial identity and Afro-Caribbean culture. That night, the DJ was invoking both black and Caribbean identities in the multiracial, though predominantly white, space.
As excitement built, a black dancer (I will call him Anthony in keeping with the English names Afro-Caribbean people tend to have) entered an empty space in the middle of the crowd and began to display his skill in dancehall reggae-style dance. Inciting improvisational challenges is central to dancehall performance practices and gives competing dance collectives and individuals the opportunity to display their ingenuity and win the admiration of spectators. In keeping with this performance practice, [End Page 1] a white dancer, whom I will refer to as Miguel, confronted Anthony, who was already in the midst of captivating the crowd, and challenged him with improvised moves. I had observed this style of dance performed leisurely and competitively many times before in Costa Rica and among the West Indian diaspora in New York City. From what I saw that evening, Miguel was equally skilled in his execution of the most up-to-date and popular moves. Nevertheless, Miguel, who was white, was not winning the adoration of the crowd, which gave its most enthusiastic support to Anthony, who was black. To demonstrate his dissatisfaction with Miguel's competitive display, Anthony disapprovingly waved his hand and walked away without bravado or style, conveying that he was not being met by an adequate challenge. The attention of spectators on Miguel rapidly waned.
This encounter reflects the construction of Costa Rican dance floors, and reggae spaces more broadly, as Caribbean cultural places in which those claiming black racial identities are privileged embodied performers. This is the case despite white patrons (particularly outside of Puerto Limón) regularly constituting the majority within them. This is not to indicate that white partygoers are excluded from participating; rather, when black patrons are present, space is made uniquely available to them, and they are distinctly celebrated within it. The assertion of black authority also goes unchallenged, an unspoken "rule" that Miguel, the aforementioned dancer, violated. With blackness signifying Caribbean cultural origins, white bodies are not accepted as authentic purveyors of reggae expression in the same way that black bodies are, even in the eyes of the white majority. Black bodies are, in turn, imbued with certain symbolic capital within the realm of the popular.
When I discuss my interest in the Afro-Caribbean community and expressive culture in Costa Rica, many people who call this country home respond to me that black Costa Ricans are "not really ticos"—casting them outside the term Costa Ricans use to refer to their national identity. This attitude accords with the pervasive investment Costa Ricans exhibit in framing the national body as white. Conceptions of the country rooted in whiteness, and the attitudes that accompany them, contribute to the erasure of Afro-Caribbean people from the image of the national community.
When asked to define what Afro-Caribbean Costa Ricans are, if not tico, many of the majority assert flatly that the former are simply limonense or, even less generously, something different, but not tico, underscoring their dubious belonging. Afro-Caribbean people, on the other hand, far and wide consider themselves ticos, often modifying this term with the word caribeños, as in ticos caribeños...