Red, White, and Black: Communist Literature and Black Migrant Labor in Costa Rica

Article excerpt

In 1934, the still fledgling Communist Party of Costa Rica organized a massive general strike in the banana fields of Limon province on the Caribbean coast. For more than half a century the United Fruit Company (UFC), the first truly postcolonial multi-national corporation, had operated with complete autonomy in the once forgotten, sub-tropical plains of the Caribbean coast. Importing tens of thousands of black migrant laborers at the turn of the century from the British Commonwealth islands, the UFC successfully created an enclave society with its own language and its own laws.1 But by 1934, banana production had fallen precipitously, and many black migrants had become small producers. Most of the plantation laborers were white Costa Ricans fleeing the economic depression of the highlands and Nicaraguans fleeing the aftermath of Augusto Sandino's insurgency. Led by Carlos Luis Fallas, a young lieutenant in the three-year-old Communist Party, thousands of laborers walked off the plantations, protesting the lack of adequate healthcare and decreasing wages.

The strike was a qualified success. The UFC eventually agreed to most of the demands, but the Communist Party failed miserably in its attempt to organize support among black migrants. Retribution came swiftly in the form of a new contract with the UFC and its plans to shift its entire operation to the Pacific Coast. In a companion law to the new contract, known as Article 5, black migrants were expressly prohibited from moving with the company. Left to fend for themselves on the depleted and disease ravaged soil, black migrants were at the mercy of new Costa Rican bureaucrats sent to the province to re-educate non-native settlers.

By 1950, two prominent members of the Communist Party of Costa Rica had established themselves as best-selling authors with novels set in Limon in the 1930s. In 1941, Carlos Luis Fallas published his first novel, Mamita Yunai, a thinly veiled memoir of his experiences in Limón as both a laborer and an organizer. A decade later, in 1950, Joaquín Gutiérrez published, Puerto Limón, also a "fictional" memoir of his experience as the son of a wealthy landowner during the historic strike. Both works received critical acclaim, and most often because of their portrayal of black migrant laborers. According to Ian Smart, "Carlos Luis Fallas' Mamita Yunai (1941) and Joaquín Gutiérrez's Puerto Limón (1950) are indeed the pioneering works that put Costa Rican West Indians solidly on the literary map for the first time" (22). Lisa Davis describes Puerto Limón as "notable for its sympathetic portrait of the Blacks of Limón" (154). Even the noted black Costa Rican author Quince Duncan, though he would later retract his praise, wrote: "[Fallas] has produced some of the most beautiful pages about black people ever written by a Costa Rican," and "Gutiérrez [in Puerto Limón] has created his best black character. He has all the cultural features of the Afro-Caribbean" (14, 20).2

Indeed, blackness proved a powerful symbol of bourgeois capitalist oppression in the arsenal of communist propaganda, inextricably linking the histories of the Communist Party and black migrant labor.3 It was a symbol that the Communist International during this same period was counting on to pave its way into the Western Hemisphere. According to the Comintern, black Americans were the "Achilles heel of American Capitalism" (Caballero 23). As young intellectuals, Fallas and Gutiérrez employed this symbol to great effect. In the worlds of Mamita Yunai and Puerto Limón, the United Fruit Company was the embodiment of US imperialism, black laborers were the paradigmatic oppressed workers, and the underdeveloped, unfamiliar Caribbean province of Limón was the stage for dramatic conflict.

And yet, a close reading reveals a paradox in the theme of blackness, both in the history of communism in Costa Rica as well as the literature that was produced by its leaders. It seems that blackness, as a political and literary symbol, was a powerful image of oppressed labor, and yet its embodiment in the laborers themselves was an equally potent image of imperialism. …