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Sex and Standing in the Streets of Port Limón, Costa Rica

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"practically the majority of the nations of the globe—Costa Ricans, Europeans, North and South
Americans, Antilleans, Africans and Asians—all seem to have arranged to meet here…"4
This essay is about the politics of public space in Port Limón; about how individual and
collective status was asserted, challenged, and defended; and about the contradictory roles that
state institutions and actors played in that process. We begin with two anecdotes. In 1899,
Louise Gordon sued Jane Parker for slander before the alcalde [mayor] of Limón, claiming that
the previous morning at nine, while she was chatting with Annie Cummings at her stall in the
market, Parker had yelled across to her "that I was a whore, a filthy pig… I asked, who are you
talking to? and she repeated herself, saying it was me she was insulting, since I was talking
about her."5 On a nearby street in 1902, as the Governor of Limón telegraphed to his superiors
in San José, "Due to personal disputes motivated by despicable articles published in one of the
so-called 'newspapers' of the capital, don Eduardo Beeche gave don Lucas Alvarado several
blows with his cane: there were no serious consequences."6 Beeche and Alvarado were both
wealthy and influential citizens, active in electoral politics; Alvarado was a former alcalde
himself. Their conflict seems far removed from that of the two Jamaican market women
(certainly Beeche and Alvarado would have insisted that it was). Yet in the following pages, we
hope to show both the parallels and the direct connections between battles for status in each of
these social worlds.
There are two rich bodies of scholarly literature which have illuminated the connections
between individual status, intimate relations, and social structure, and both should be particularly
relevant to the immigrant population of Limón. These are the literatures on honor and shame in
Latin America, and on reputation and respectability in the Caribbean. Differences in kinship
forms and associated values have been central to scholars' division of the world into cultural
regions. Latin America, and especially the Latin American past, has been characterized with
reference to the patriarchal family and the cultural complex of honor and shame. Drawing on the
literature on honor in Mediterranean societies, authors argue that the maintenance of family
honor, and thus social standing, relies on the control of female sexuality. Women must remain
chaste until their marriage to men sanctioned by the head of the family. Men's honor is enhanced
by their conquests of other men's women. Conversely men's honor is made vulnerable by the
sexual activity of their own wives, daughters, and female kin. The honor/shame complex serves
to reinforce social hierarchy because both wealth and political power are necessary to enact the
ideal gendered strategies of shame and honor: female seclusion, and male sexual access to
multiple women and dominion over multiple men. In turn, elite claims to embody a privileged
morality serve to legitimize their excercise of material power. Recent scholarship, much of it
dealing with the colonial period, has excelled in showing how honor not only shaped the social
order but was also reshaped by the actions of those who invoked it, or were confronted by it.7
4… and, he continued, "to where as well, as is natural, they have brought with them their varied customs and vices.
Thus the immense labor, the great effort to coordinate divergent elements and purify the population of its bad
components." Costa Rica, Memoria de Gobernación y Policía [MGP] 1912: 570.
5Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica [ANCR], Serie Jurídica, Limón Alcaldía Unica [LAU] 443 (1899). All
translations are ours unless otherwise noted, and all parties' names have been changed (pseudonyms reflect original
ethnicity). We have not replaced the names of public officials or well-known figures, such as Lucas Alvarado and
Eduardo Beeche below.
6ANCR, Serie Policía 449, telegram 21 June 1902.
7An excellent overview of this literature is provided in Steve J. Stern, The Secret History of Gender: Women, Men
and Power in Late Colonial Mexico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), Ch. 2. The accounts of
Seed and Gutierrez have been particularly influential, and Martinez Alier's early work remains a crucial
contribution. See Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice,
1574-1821 (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988); Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: