Sex and Standing in the Streets of Port Limón, Costa Rica
These similarities were in turn accentuated by the self-selection of migrants to the zone. The
uncertain prospects of the banana boom did not draw all potential workers evenly: it took a
certain degree of "facetyness" simply to arrive, whether from Kingston, Colón, or Cartago. In
addition the built environment of the city—particularly the architecture of the casas de
vecindad—favored certain social developments for migrants of both groups. Specifically, it
enhanced the importance of female social networks and the informal economy associated with
them; and thrust intimate relationships into the public domain.
In one sense even the judicially-sanctioned version of female honor was not so distant
from those espoused by Martha Darling and the Cabrera sisters. Honor for women meant sexual
propriety. It was simply the definition of sexual propriety which varied. In the letter of law,
sexual propriety meant fidelity to a lawfully wedded husband; in the gender ideology embodied
in a Central American proverb, it meant that "the decent woman leaves her house only to be
baptized, to be married, and to be buried"; on the streets of Limón, it meant not sleeping with
chinos for cash (or not cohabiting with three men at once in the kitchen, or not having sex in the
bananales…).51 Both Afro-Caribbean and Latin American popular cultures drew on European
traditions as developed in colonial caste societies, in which elite male privilege included sexual
freedom, and poor women's vulnerabilities included sexual vulnerability. Thus when the
working-class women who participated in public verbal duels laid claim to personal status, they
did so by asserting their sexual autonomy. They claimed sexual virtue not as virgins, but as
subjects who acted on their own moral discriminations.
In contrast for upper class women, and indeed women of any group who sought to
emulate the vision of sexual propriety expressed in the proverb above, merely to appear on the
streets except under certain ritualized circumstances was to relinquish claims to sexual propriety.
This version of female honor was captured in a lawyer's reference to a wealthy Costa Rica
woman in Limón, inadvertent witness to a conflict between two workers outside her door: "As
the señora Ana de González is of good character [buenas costumbres ] and does not frequent
public offices, I beg you to go and receive her declaration in her own home."52 There is evidence
that some working-class and middle-class families in highland Costa Rica, and in the Caribbean
as well, sought to ensure family honor through a similar strategy of female seclusion. But by and
large the women of such families were not the ones who ended up in Limón—and when they did,
it was because they had already renounced that particular approach to female prestige.53
In this context it is worth noting that while Costa Rican women have only a small
presence in our arbitrary sample of slander cases, there were in fact a significant number of
slander accusations placed by Costa Rican women in the cities of the central valley, and some in
Limón as well. Many times the plaintiffs, like the Cabrera sisters above, were "mujeres
públicas." Such "public women"—like peddlers and market women in Limón, like men
everywhere—claimed the right to occupy public space. They did so loudly and aggressively, in
battles against each other as well as against the policemen and hygiene officers who tried to
regulate their lives. (A classic example of prostitutes' rowdy street culture was a brawl involving
a dozen women in San José one evening in 1892. The conflict originated in a verbal battle
between two madams over whose establishment an ambulatory player-piano would play outside
of next, and ended with several knife wounds and multiple arrests.)54
51Whisnant reports the same proverb for Nicaragua. David E. Whisnant, Rascally Signs in Sacred Places: The
Politics of Culture in Nicaragua (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), Ch. 10.
52ANCR, LAU 3406 (1906).
53Such trajectories are evidenct in the life stories of various women from the central valley who became prostitutes
in the banana zone. See our essay, "Women of the Life," op cit.
54ANCR, Serie Jurídica, San José Juzgado del Crimen [SJJCrim] 1621 (1892).