Limon, Costa Rica and Colon, Panama are two cities with much in common. These cities used to be prosperous as the archeticture shows but are now suffering from lack of development and too much poverty. Race is a major issue as well.
With its colonial grandeur crumbling and its neighborhoods marginalized, Colón is the city that Panama forgot, in spite of vigorous development meant to court Caribbean cruise ships. Prior to 1869, the railroad connecting Panama City and Colón was the only rapid transit across the continental Western Hemisphere. A last whiff of prosperity was seen during the construction of the Panama Canal.
On the city’s edge, the Zona Libre (Free Zone) was created in 1948. Generating some US$5 billion in annual commerce, little benefit seems to trickle down to locals. From close up, it’s an island of materialism floating in a sea of unemployment and poverty.
The MIT, now one of Latin America’s largest ports, handles 20 times more freight than it did in 2000.
“It’s amazing,” says Urriola, “that a small country of 3.5 million people has so much influence in what happens to world commerce.”
Many Haven’t Seen The Benefits
Yet it’s just as astonishing that so few of those 3.5 million seem to feel the benefits — especially Panama’s youth. More than half the country’s children are poor, and almost a fifth suffer malnutrition.
Colón’s population in 1900 was 3,001. It grew significantly with the building of the Panama Canal, becoming 31,203 by 1920. In 2000, the population was around 204,000.
With the city’s economic decline, many of its upper and middle-class residents left, reducing its ethnic diversity. European and American expatriate communities, as well as Panamanians of Greek, Italian, Jewish, Chinese and South Asian heritage, started moving to Panama City, to former Canal Zone towns, and overseas.
Today, sizable South Asian and Arab communities live in the remaining prosperous areas of the city, as well as in gated communities outside it. The majority of the city’s population is of West Indian or mixed mestizo–hispanic ancestry.
Colón was home to some of the best-educated and most well-heeled Panamanians families of West Indian heritage, such as the Drews, the Fords, the Moodys, the Robinsons, the Beebys, the Archibolds, the Edwards, the Crowns, the Hoys, the Warehams, the Abrahams, and the Mckintoshs. From these families sprang the teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, and politicians that contributed to the city’s prosperity. Most of them eventually left the city for the United States or the United Kingdom. Their influence may still be seen, however, in their descendants that remain in the province.
Colón was also home to Las Amigas de la Caridad (“Women of Charity”), a charitable organization of women of Caribbean descent. The organization met largely in the home of Gladys Booth Ford and her stepdaughter Ruby Ford Drew at Calle 7 and Avenida Sta. Isabel. Ruby Drew was a long-standing member of Christ Church by the Sea.
The first African people who arrived in Costa Rica came with the Spanish conquistadors. Slave trade was common in all the countries conquered by Spain, and in Costa Rica the first Africans seem to have come from specific sources in Africa- Equatorial and Western regions. The people from these areas were thought of as ideal slaves because they had a reputation for being more robust, affable and hard-working than other Africans. The enslaved were from what is now the Gambia (Mandingas), Guinea (specifically Wolofe), Ghanaian (Ashanti), Benin (specifically Ije / Ararás) and Sudan (Puras). Many of the enslaved were also Minas (i.e. communities from parts of the region extending from Ivory Coast to the Slave Coast), Popo (be imported tribes as Ana and Baribas), Yorubas and Congas (perhaps from Kongasso, Ivory Coast). Eslaved Africans also came from other places, such as neighboring Panama. Throughout the centuries, but especially after the emancipation of the slaves in 1824, the black population mixed with other ethnic groups, notably the Indians, and became part of the mainstream culture and ethnicity.
The early black population of Matina and Suerre in Limón is not the same population that arrived in the second half of the XIXth Century. This latter population did not arrive as slaves but as hired workers from Jamaica, and smaller groups from Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. This is the reason why the majority of the current black population of Costa Rica has English surnames and speak English with a Jamaican accent.
In 1910, Marcus Mosiah Garvey travelled to Puerto Limón, where he worked as a time-keeper for the United Fruit Company for some months, observing that the population of African descent suffered poor conditions.
The descendant of Africans in Costa Rica have endured discrimination including a delay in voting rights and a restriction on their movements