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

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For a few heady decades at the turn of the nineteenth century, Port Limón was a boom
town beyond compare. Bananas were first planted commercially in Costa Rica in the 1880s, on
lands granted to railway impresario Minor C. Keith as part of the contract for his construction of
the first rail line from the coffee-producing Central Valley to the Caribbean coast. Keith's
plantations would prove enormously profitable, and in 1899 he merged his Costa Rican holdings
with the Jamaica-based Boston Fruit Company to create the United Fruit Company. Vast tracts
of lowland rain forest were cleared and planted in the province of Limón in those years,
including tens of thousands of acres held directly by the UFCo and at least twice that in the
hands of private planters, among them the Lindo family of Jamaica, Costa Rican entrepreneurs,
and well-placed immigrants. In 1913 more stems were shipped from Port Limón than anywhere
else in the world.1
The earliest plantation workforce was made up largely of the same Jamaican laborers
who had formed the backbone of the railroad construction crews. In the following three decades,
over 20,000 Jamaicans would come to Limón, accompanied by smaller numbers of migrants
from elsewhere in the Caribbean: Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Guadaloupe, Martinique.
Banana production drew on the same circuits of Afro-Antillean labor migration—prompted by
the decapitalization of Caribbean sugar production in the wake of emancipation—that enabled
the construction of the Panama Canal in those same years. Indeed many West Indians came to
Limón by way of Colón, the canal's Caribbean terminus. Smaller numbers of workers were
drawn from Costa Rica's central valley, although there the still-expanding agricultural frontier,
and favorable international coffee prices, meant that most workers found opportunities for
independent or waged agricultural labor closer to home.2
Other migrants came to Limón from Colombia to the south, from Nicaragua and points
north, from Cuba and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Indentured workers from
the Indian subcontinent arrived by way of Jamaica; Syrian peddlers traded in dry-goods and
sundries; Chinese merchants set up pulperías and cantinas [corner stores and cheap bars].
Travelers invariably remarked upon the heterogeneity and mobility of the people they
encountered on the Caribbean coast in these years. In the late 1880s, A. Hyatt Verrill's fellow
passengers on a ferry from Colón to Bocas del Toro (a smaller banana port at the border of Costa
Rica and Panama) included "Men, women and children—black, brown and yellow; shouting,
cursing, chattering, laughing; chaffing in English, French, Chinese, Spanish and Jamaican patois-
cockney..."3 The streets of Port Limón, the local police chief wrote in 1912, looked as if
1The lyrics by Walter Gavitt Ferguson on the preceding page are cited in Victor Hugo Acuña Ortega, “Nación y
clase obrera en Centroamérica durante la época Liberal (1870-1930),” in Ivan Molina Jiménez and Steven Palmer,
eds., El Paso del Cometa: Estado, política social y culturas populares en Costa Rica (1800/1950) (San José, Costa
Rica: Editorial Porvenir/Plumsock Mesoamerican Studies, 1994), 145. A detailed description of the organization of
land and labor in the formation of the banana zone is provided by Aviva Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the
United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870-1940 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996), Ch.s 2-3. The labor
process and national significance of railroad construction is explored by Carmen Murillo Chaverri, Identidades de
Hierro y Humo: La construcción del Ferrocarril al Atlántico, 1870-1890 (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Porvenir,
1995). Bourgois provides an excellent sketch of the regional political dynamics of UFCo expansion: Phillipe
Bourgois, Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
UP, 1989), Ch. 2.
2Elizabeth Petras, Jamaican Labor Migration: White Capital and Black Labor, 1850-1930 (Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1988); Velma Newton, The Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850-1914 (Jamaica:
Institute for Social and Economic Research, 1984).
3Alphous Hyatt Verrill, Thirty Years in the Jungle (London: John Lane the Bodley Ltd., 1929) 91.