Cocorí | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. And I am here with our editor, Luis Fernando Vargas. Hello, Luis Fernando. How are you?
[Luis Fernando]: Very well. How are you?
[Daniel]: All good. Pura vida. Where are you located? Where are you greeting me from?
[Luis Fernando]: From San José, Costa Rica.
[Daniel]: Costa Rica. Very well, Luis Fernando. OK, then . . . Today you wanted to talk to me about a book, right?
[Luis Fernando]: Yes, about the first book I ever read. Or at least, the first book I read consciously. Meaning, one I read from start to finish. I understood it. Or at least, that’s what I thought. Or at least, I got a notion of what the book was about.
[Daniel]: How old were you?
[Luis Fernando]: I’m ashamed to say it, but I was about 10 years old [laughs]. I mean, before that, my dose of stories was Nintendo and Dragon Ball.
[Daniel Alarcón]: Very well, very good. Classics.
[Luis Fernando]: Exactly. I read it in school, the book. It was part of the curricular program, that is, I didn’t even read it for pleasure, but I was forced to read it. But I can say have a lot of affection for the book.
[Daniel]: Tell me a little about this book and what it’s about. What the title is, etc.
[Luis Fernando]: The book is called Cocorí. For most people who are listening to us, it won’t mean anything, but in Costa Rica it’s considered a classic. It was written by one of our leading, most important authors, whose name is Joaquín Gutiérrez Mangel. He wrote it in 1947. Basically—and I’ll explain a complexity in a minute—it’s the story of a boy named Cocorí, who lives on a beach that borders the jungle, in what is supposed to be like the Costa Rican Caribbean. It’s a very, very rustic town. And one day, a ship arrives in the morning, a large ship, with passengers. Cocorí goes along with his neighbors bringing fruit as a gift in a little boat. They board the ship and Cocorí meets a girl. To him, she is the prettiest girl he has ever seen. And the girl gives him a rose that the boy considers as beautiful as she is. But the next day, the rose dies and the girl leaves. And Cocorí, very sad, wonders why beautiful things last so little and why ugly and bad things, like the dangerous animals in the jungle and the carnivorous plants where he lives, last what seems like an eternity. He then goes on an adventure into the heart of the jungle to ask old and supposedly wise animals to try and figure this out, right? Why is the weather so inclement?
[Daniel]: Jajaja! OK, so . . . I’m laughing because it seems very dark to me, which doesn’t match the pura vida, the full-of-life Costa Rican culture I know about, brother. So, all of this seems very surprising to me, but I don’t know if that is the complexity you mentioned or if there is something else, but it still seems very strange. I don’t know if you want to explain it to me or maybe I just misunderstood all these good vibes you have been telling me about Costa Rica for so many years.
[Luis Fernando]: The complexity is that Cocorí is of African descent and the girl is White, and that begins to give everything meaning. In other words, the girl is the most beautiful thing Cocorí has ever seen; she looks like a rose. And Cocorí, on the other hand, on the first page of the book, is compared to a caimito, which is a tropical fruit with a dark skin that is not very popular, that is, it is not an apple, and this is the beginning of the idea that what is external, what is not from Cocorí’s home, is better, more beautiful.
[Daniel]: This fairly clear symbolism, let’s say, of the . . . the rose, the White girl and the Afro boy and the jungle, and the value system as seen from our point of view—or from my point of view—as you have explained, is quite racist. I imagine you overlooked that at the age of ten. I mean, you didn’t realize it.
[Luis Fernando]: It went over my head, obviously, and it was never explained to me in class that Cocorí had racist elements. Racism in Cocorí is never mentioned in schools, or at least when I was in school in the early 2000s. Now I see it, and it seems very problematic, and it creates a conflict for me because it’s the first book I ever read, and you know I like to read, and it’s hard for me not to love it.
[Daniel]: I guess that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
[Luis Fernando]: Yes, that’s what we are going to talk about today—about Costa Rica’s relationship with this book, and especially about people who argue that Cocorí does more harm than good and that there is no room in schools for this text.
[Daniel]: Very well, Luis Fernando. So let’s take a short break and we’ll be back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back, and now I leave you with Luis Fernando.
[Luis Fernando]: Let’s start with her.
[Lorein Powell Benard]: My name is Lorein Powell Benard, sociologist. I’m an English teacher.
[Luis Fernando]: In the early 1980s, she was also a young literature student at the National University of Costa Rica, in Heredia, a province near the capital, San José.
At that time, Lorein was looking for a topic for her undergraduate thesis. She is of African descent and, curious about her identity, she was interested in understanding how Black people were portrayed in the nation’s literature.
[Lorein]: So I reviewed a number of works. The first version of my thesis, I think, included ten works, something like that.
[Luis Fernando]: And just as she was starting the literature review, even before she had written anything, problems started coming up.
[Lorein]: The topic wasn’t well accepted. The topic of searching for racism in Costa Rican literary works was not well-liked. I remember one of my thesis readers wrote that my thesis was uncalled for.
[Luis Fernando]: Uncalled for. Because what business did she have—a young student, searching for uncomfortable things in the Costa Rican literary canon. It was like a lack of respect for our national history. Her team of readers asked her to review fewer books. Ten were too many, it would be an endless thesis, but she believes there was another reason behind this request.
[Lorein]: The hope was that by concentrating on a few works, the issue of racism would end up watered down.
[Luis Fernando]: That it would feel more like a coincidence than something systematic. Three works can be ignored, but ten . . . that’s more difficult.
[Lorein]: That may have been the first time there was any talk of . . . of racism in the literature, right? And it was an Afro-descended person who was talking about it, you know? Racism was talked about, but never in the literary context.
[Luis Fernando]: Lorein decided to keep two texts in which the stereotypes of Afro-descendants were more evident. She wanted there to be no doubt—as the readers of her thesis demanded—that there was racism in those works.
The first book she chose was Mamita Yunai, one of the most important novels in the national literature, written by Carlos Luis Fallas and published in 1941. That text portrays the social injustices experienced by workers at the banana plantation of the United Fruit Company in Limón, the Costa Rican Caribbean.
And the second one was Cocorí.
[Lorein]: It was shocking the way . . . the way Afro-descendants were described in the two works I kept . . .
[Luis Fernando]: The Afro-descendant was bad, lustful, primitive, and beastlike. Lorein also had problems with her thesis directors. She decided to move forward alone for a while and then turn to one person, the one who seemed most appropriate to deal with racism in Costa Rican literature…
[Quince Duncan]: My name is Quince Duncan. I am a writer. A human rights activist, especially for ethnic rights.
[Luis Fernando]: Of people of African descent . . .
[Lorein]: I did my work, and one day I went to Quince’s office, since he was the director of the Institute of Latin American Studies, and I brought him the ton of pages, and I said to him, “Quince, take a look at this. If you think it’s OK, if you agree with what I say, please, I want you to be my thesis supervisor.”
[Luis Fernando]: Quince was familiar with the work of Joaquín Gutiérrez, of course, as well as Cocorí. In 1975, Quince published a book titled The Negro in Costa Rican Literature, which covers the history of the integration of people of African descent in the country.
He devoted just one paragraph to Cocorí. It’s strange how he talks about the novel there. He doesn’t point out anything explicitly racist. He says the characters could just as well have been Chinese, but not much more. It is as if he had checked himself in what he was going to say. In fact, when I spoke with Quince, he told me that if there was one book he would like to reedit, it would be that one. Anyway, Quince agreed to read Lorein’s work.
[Quince]: That was how I became aware of the seriousness of the text, especially since the book was being used for children. So I said “No, that can’t be right…”
[Luis Fernando]: And he agreed to be her thesis director.
Carlos Luis Fallas had died in 1966, but Joaquín Gutiérrez, the author of Cocorí, was alive at the time. Lorein decided she wanted to talk to him, and ask him a few questions about the book. They were almost neighbors, and Lorein got his phone number. So she called him in February, 1983.
[Lorein]: He wasn’t very friendly [laughs]. He was a very grumpy man, well . . . well, I only met him that one time, and I asked him for an interview, and he asks me, “What are you trying to prove?” I tell him, “No, I just want you to answer some questions about . . . about Cocorí.” “Well, but what?” “Well, for example example . . .”
[Luis Fernando]: For example, at the beginning of the book in the early editions—and this will change later, I and I’ll tell you why later—, when Cocorí goes to the ship and meets the girl, she reacts to his presence by telling her mother, “Mom, look, a little monkey.”
[Lorein]: “For example, that sentence; I want you to explain it to me.” And he goes, “When you see a Black man for the first time, don’t you think of a monkey?” And I say, “No, I think of a person, it’s a person of the Black race,” and he hung up the phone.
[Luis Fernando]: Here I want to mention Lorein’s laughter, because I think it says a lot about what it must be like to deal with being of African descent in Costa Rica. It sounds like a defense mechanism, a protection against a society that, although it is not going to enslave you, by telling jokes it will treat you as a second-class citizen, as the object of mockery and ridicule. And it is a laugh designed to avoid conflicts, something very Costa Rican. A laugh that makes everything seem lighter, unimportant. Because being confrontational, especially about issues of racism, makes you . . . uncalled for.
So . . . Who was Joaquín Gutiérrez Mangel, that grumpy man whom Lorein described?
Here is some biographical information about him. He was born in 1918, in Puerto Limón, facing the sea, on the Costa Rican Caribbean. That is where the second largest Afro-descendant population group in the country is concentrated . . . More than 50 thousand people, according to the 2011 census.
Joaquín Gutierrez was not of African descent; he was mestizo, like most Costa Ricans, and he died in 2000. He published six novels, three collections of poems, four travel books, and one memoir. He translated four works of Shakespeare into Spanish. His books, in turn, have been translated into twelve languages. One of those books is Cocorí, which was so successful that it has been published in French, German, Russian, Polish, and Portuguese, among other languages.
He was a member of the Costa Rican Academy of the Spanish Language and winner of the National Culture Award; he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Costa Rica; and one of the most relevant newspapers in the country declared him a Person of the Century in national literature.
Joaquín Gutiérrez is also remembered as a man committed to leftist struggles. He was a member of the Costa Rican Communist Party. He traveled to Vietnam during the war to write chronicles, and worked in China as a translator of the works of the revolutionary Mao Zedong. He was a candidate for the vice presidency of the country twice in the 1980s, with the Pueblo Unido coalition. He did not win either time.
One of the main themes of Joaquín Gutierrez’s literature is life in the province of Limón, although he only lived there for the first 9 years of his life. He moved to San José and later to Chile, where he lived for more than two decades and wrote several of his books, including Cocorí. As a member of the Left, he left the country only after Pinochet’s coup.
But back to the book: the character Cocorí lives on a beach with no name, no location. But it can be inferred that it is Limón because of the author’s personal history and because all the inhabitants there are Afro-descendants. During the telephone interview in which the author hung up on Lorein, he told her that Cocorí was a love song to the Black child. It is an argument that will be heard more than once in this story.
A few months after the short conversation between Lorein and Joaquín Gutiérrez, in September 1983, she and Quince were invited, along with other people, to a television program to talk about racism in Costa Rica.
The topic of Cocorí came up during the discussion. Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain the recording of the program, but in the days that followed, Joaquín Gutiérrez published an article in the press responding to the accusations of racism made on television. After that, Lorein also replied in an opinion piece, and an exchange of several texts was put together that reconstructs the main arguments stated by Lorein and Quince on the problematic issues of the book.
Some of these elements are details, scenes. For example, the one at the beginning of the book: Cocorí is in front of a puddle of water in the middle of the jungle, crouches down and sees his reflection. And he is frightened. Say Lorein and Quince, as if he was surprised to be Black.
[Quince]: The only human beings he knows are all Black people, so he can’t be scared to see his face in the water.
[Luis Fernando]: But there are also structural things. Elements completely rooted in the story being told. The most relevant thing is the relationship that exists between Cocorí and the girl.
[Lorein]: The primitivism that the boy represents versus the civilization represented by the girl.
[Luis Fernando]: Cocorí, who lives in the jungle, among wild animals, versus the girl who comes on a ship, a symbol of civilization.
And then the symbolism of the rose—that rose the girl gives to Cocorí, and that the boy considers as beautiful as her.
[Quince]: The subtle scent of that pink cloud of enchantment that comes with the rose, symbolizing what is good and how civilization is useful to eradicate the useless evil that are the bad thoughts of the jungle, is a clear case of a European imperial imposition on our culture . . . And it is an incredible Eurocentrism.
[Luis Fernando]: And the flower even makes Cocorí good. The book explicitly says so. Although it is nowhere indicated that Cocorí was ever a bad boy, what is inferred to be bad is the jungle, full of dangerous animals and ugly plants.
[Quince]: There is a moral salvation: In this case, some members make them better and the rose raises the IQ of the locals. It makes them intelligent. Cocorí and his friends dance for joy, but it is also a spiritual salvation. They have found meaning in their lives.
[Luis Fernando]: In other words, to summarize: What is European—which is what is beautiful—came to save the Afro-descendants who live in the jungle.
In the exchange of articles between Lorein and Joaquín Gutiérrez, the author defends himself against accusations of racism. In a response to Lorein, he focuses on the meaning of Cocorí:
“Have you ever considered, miss philologist, what the theme of Cocorí is? I am going to tell you: It is his discovery that a rose—beauty, truth—has a precarious life in this world of ours, while arrogance, presumptuousness, and the abusive domination of evil forces thrive comfortably and lastingly.”
He then answers regarding the scene in which Cocorí gets scared when he sees his own reflection in the water . . .
“Didn’t it ever occur to you that anyone is amazed when they see themselves in a mirror for the first time?”
The exchange of articles ended with one from Lorein. A large part of this last text is about what she calls “social programming,” which is a bit abstract but can be boiled down to this:
[Lorein]: Writings are the product of an era. And whatever it is about, superheroes, or worms, or aliens, the worldview of that society is presented.
[Luis Fernando]: That is, of the society in which the work is produced. Lorein says that an author cannot escape the surrounding reality.
[Lorein]: I am going to reproduce my world, my view of the world, the worldview of the dominant society of my time.
[Lorein]: I don’t know how Martians think, and if I write about Martians I’m going to make them think like Lorein Powell . . .
[Luis Fernando]: Or like the society Lorein grew up in.
[Lorein]: I am not responsible for the training I received. But I am responsible for becoming aware of who am I and why am I this way.
[Luis Fernando]: Now, this social programming thing is a theory, a way of approaching literary analysis, and like any theory, it can be debated; it is not an absolute truth. But what is interesting here is that Lorein doesn’t really care if Joaquín Gutierrez was racist or not. It is not about demonizing the author. This goes further. What matters to her is that Cocorí was written in a society that, in her opinion, is racist, and this is reproduced in the text.
When someone says there is racism in Costa Rica, many Costa Ricans get annoyed or uncomfortable, or, as we say here, their hair stands on end. In part I understand it; it goes against that mythology that Costa Rica is exceptional. That this country, the Switzerland of Central America, is beyond the problems of the rest of the region, a land of peace, without an army. That we are full of life, as Daniel said at the beginning of the story. How can there be racism in the land that is full of life—that expression that denotes total enjoyment, good vibes to the maximum?
And that hurts. It’s our identity. It’s the way they raised us, thinking that we are all equal here.
But there is evidence that things are neither so simple nor so pretty.
Let’s talk about Limón, which, as we said, is the province with the second largest Afro-descendant population in the country. There, all human development indexes—which include categories such as life expectancy, schooling, electricity consumption and material well-being—are below the national average, although the difference is not abysmal.
Perhaps for the same reason, Limón includes the municipalities with the highest rates of insecurity and violence in the country.
But let’s go back to Lorein and Quince. After the last article was published, Fabián Dobles, a writer who is also famous and is recognized nationally and internationally, called both of them . . .
[Quince]: And we explained to Fabián what the matter was. Fabián said, “Well, I’m going to talk to Joaquín, because there are things there that really should be changed, eh?
[Luis Fernando]: Fabián spoke with Joaquín Gutiérrez. According to Quince, the author of Cocorí was very upset and decided that of everything they had pointed out in the book, he would change only one thing: When the girl sees Cocorí for the first time, instead of saying, “Mom, look, a little monkey,” she would say, “Mom, look how strange.”
[Quince]: So in later editions, after that date . . .
[Luis Fernando]: That is, from 1983 onwards . . .
[Quince]: You will see that the book says, “Woah, how strange,” but that doesn’t solve anything, because our children were not strange, either.
[Luis Fernando]: And that is the only change that has been made to Cocorí since 1947.
Lorein published her thesis in 1985 after a fair amount of wrestling with her readers. A two-volume document was the result. I saw the thesis. It is really huge . . . A total of 670 pages.
And there is another detail that seems crazy to me: A lot of people coming to hear the defense of a thesis.
[Lorein]: There wasn’t room for all the people. It was a tiny lounge, but people were listening from outside. Because there had been a lot of controversy before the defense, it caught the attention of a lot of people.
[Luis Fernando]: But the thesis was accepted. She graduated and the matter seemed over. Time passed; she moved to the United States to study at Michigan State University. She sent her little son to school there, in a very inclusive, very diverse environment . . .
[Lorein]: In the child’s mind, that was the United States, right? He didn’t know the other side . . .
[Luis Fernando]: The terrible history of slavery, which ended only with a war . . . But much more . . . A systemic social exclusion designed so that African-Americans could not exercise political power or accumulate capital, under constant threat of violent reprisals. The problem persists to this day: the part where you can die at the hands of the police just because of your skin color. They were in Michigan for 5 years and returned to Costa Rica. It was hard for him, who considered the United States his home.
[Lorein]: Here he suddenly found himself in a very racist society from the moment we arrived at the airport. The person who carries the suitcases said, “Black girl, shall I take the suitcases?” and he said, “Mom, why do you let them treat you like that? They must respect you.” Right? Why do you allow them to treat you like this?” And inside I thought, “Okay. We are back in our piece of land.” [laughs]
[Luis Fernando]: And in 1995, when Lorein’s son was 12 years old, Cocorí—that book that had been forgotten for a time—was once again very much present in the life of her family. That year, the Ministry of Public Education decided to include it as compulsory reading in schools, specifically in the sixth grade of primary school, the grade that Lorein’s son was in.
When Lorein’s son’s class read it, they quickly began to compare him to Cocorí. But at school, the teachers told her:
[Lorein]: “But everyone loves this little Back boy; they call him Cocorí out of love . . .”
[Luis Fernando]: But to Lorein, it didn’t make much sense to complain to the teachers because of what we were talking about a while back, about social programming:
[Lorein]: Their view—they couldn’t have a different perspective. To them, it was fine, and they patted him on the head, you know? And how nice, that shiny hair, how nice. And the child rejected all that, but they were not able to respect him.
[Luis Fernando]: I tried to talk to Lorein’s son, but he prefers not to remember that difficult stage in his life.
And I understand, because I saw those things happen in my own school a few years later. I come from a public school where most of the children were mestizos. There was only one Afro-descendant schoolmate. I remember when Cocorí arrived, the shouts began at recess: “Cocorí! Come here, Cocorí!” And I also remember that my schoolmate’s expression was different from the fun everyone else was having. A look that I couldn’t quite identify, but now I imagine it was anger, frustration. Although it seemed normal to all of us. I probably called him Cocorí once or more than once. And I was one of the shy kids.
And I point out what I saw because I was never given the tools to understand that the book hurts others. The book reproduces racist stereotypes, it presents a relationship of inequality and submission that has lasted for centuries. And if someone had told me, would I have understood? I don’t know, but it is something that creates contradictions in my mind. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem healthy to underestimate children and their power to empathize. But at the same time, it seems naive to think that a child like me at the age of ten would have clearly understood the weight of centuries of slavery and social exclusion.
It’s a question I asked everyone I interviewed for this story. About six people. And I discussed it with acquaintances and friends. Can a child deal with the historical burden of Cocorí at the age of 10? Some people said “yes,” the majority of them mestizos, but the same number said “no,” all of them Afro-descendants.
I think it is important to emphasize this. Because for a mestizo to say it is not the same as for an Afro-descendant to say it. The truth is that we mestizos can say, “yes, let’s teach Cocorí with a guide to critical reading of the text” from a comfortable position. Where no harm can be done. But for an Afro-descended child, this can mean a blow to their dignity. Being an object of study can never be pretty. And in a certain way, it would be to perpetuate the idea that we, the mestizos, are one kind, and Afro-descendants are another.
The truth is that Lorein felt she had to do something to fight back against the bullying her son experienced.
[Lorein]: So, I say, “Well, we’ll take the legal path” . . .
[Daniel]: Lorein and her son would take Cocorí to court.
We’ll be right back.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Before the break, we heard the first controversy that emerged around Cocorí and the claims of racism in the text. The discussion ended with the change of a single sentence in the book. But now another discussion would begin, and this one would involve state authorities.
Luis Fernando continues the story.
[Luis Fernando]: Lorein contacted her lawyer and explained her son’s situation: his classmates compared him to Cocorí, and the boy felt uncomfortable with this, hurt. He felt that the comparison with a character that was seen as strange, like a caimito, was a mockery. She proposed to file an appeal for protection with the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica. An appeal for protection is basically a legal action that anyone can take if they feel that their constitutional rights are being violated. The objective of Lorein and her lawyer was to have the book removed from schools, to demonstrate that its reading was a violation of the rights of Afro-descended children.
Specifically, they claimed the book violated the article of the Constitution which says that every person is equal before the law and that no discrimination contrary to human dignity may be practiced. Also, that reading the novel was against the law in the Convention on Children’s Rights, which deals with freedom of expression and free access to information, except when it damages the reputation or the rights of others. Finally, they claimed that it also violated the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination.
The protection appeal would be filed by Lorein’s son, who was only 12 years old. But he was joined by another girl of the same age.
[Tanisha Swaby Campbell]: My name is Tanisha Swaby Campbell. I was born in San José de Costa Rica in 1984.
[Luis Fernando]: Tanisha also read Cocorí in school. And she remembers a feeling.
[Tanisha]: That book, first of all, made me feel very ashamed, which was something that directly contradicted, let’s say, all the messages that I had received from my immediate family circle.
[Luis Fernando]: In her maternal family, blackness was always treated positively. An ethnic awareness, says Tanisha, which came from her grandparents.
[Tanisha]: And I always think it was as a way of responding to what my grandparents knew my mother and her brothers and sisters were going to have to face in a society where they would be constantly receiving negative or pejorative messages about blackness. So in the family, they presented it to us as a very important thing, as a source of pride, etc.
[Luis Fernando]: It was humiliating for Tanisha to read Cocorí and for her classmates to start making fun of her.
[Tanisha]: Because first, all the Black boys and girls became Cocorí; and second, the traits of that character, his attributes, were attributes that personally, even at ten years old, made me feel very ashamed.
[Luis Fernando]: The afro hair, the thick lips . . . and Tanisha attended a private school in Limón, but the children were mostly mestizos.
[Tanisha]: That shame I experienced at that time, you know? And that depersonalization that Cocorí has generated for decades among the Black boys and girls of this country. I took it home.
[Luis Fernando]: And here we must explain who Tanisha’s mother is. Her name is Epsy Campbell Barr, a politician who has fought against racism and for the rights of people of African descent for decades. She has led several anti-racist organizations and has been a member of the National Congress for the Citizen Action Party. Since 2018, she has been vice president of the Republic of Costa Rica, the first Afro-descendant woman to hold a position of this stature in Latin America. So it’s no surprise that Epsy was interested in joining the appeal proposed by Lorein.
Of course, an appeal for protection is a concept that hardly any 12-year-old boy or girl understands. But Tanisha understood the basics: This was about defending her rights and removing from schools that book that caused her so much shame.
Now, there is an issue here. And it is whether removing Cocorí from schools is censorship or not.
[Tanisha]: In that context, there was never talk of removing Cocorí from all the libraries. Anyone who wanted to read Cocorí could always go and get it anywhere in this country.
[Quince:] The fight is not about censoring the book or stopping its publication, or if anyone wants to buy it. Just like so many other books out there . . .
[Luis Fernando]: Just like Mein Kampf, by Hitler, says Quince . . .
[Quince]: If you want to buy it, read it, and give it to your children, that’s up to you. But it cannot be that the State is promoting a text where poor Cocorí, in addition to other things, chews on thoughts darker than his skin. How can you teach that to a little fifth-grader?
[Luis Fernando]: The Constitutional Court issued its ruling the following year, in 1996.
[Tanisha]: If you see the magistrates’ ruling—it was a unanimous decision on the 1995 protection appeal. If you read that ruling with today’s eyes, it makes you want to cry.
[Luis Fernando]: Cry with sadness. The appeal was dismissed.
[Tanisha]: What the magistrates really did was an act of complete hubris and arrogance, saying that Cocorí was pretty much a favor to the Afro – Costa Rican people in this country, that it was a beautiful representation of what we were. Always from that perspective of “you don’t know what is happening to you” or “you don’t understand who you are.”
[Luis Fernando]: The magistrates said they found no discriminatory or racist elements in the book, and if there was any kind of reaction against Afro-descendant children, it could be avoided by educating the teachers of each school.
The ruling was a big blow to Lorein’s son.
[Lorein]: It was devastating for him. So he would say, “Let’s go back home. Hey, why did you bring me here? This is a horrible country. Let’s go home.” He couldn’t understand.
[Luis Fernando]: From then on, the controversy around Cocorí flares up again almost every 10 years. All is quiet for a while, and then a bomb drops and the same argument starts all over again. It seems like the story of a country that refuses to see its history.
In the year 2000, for example, the Ministry of Public Education eliminated the concept of compulsory texts and replaced it with book suggestions. In other words, recommended readings that can be done in the classroom. But this goes completely unnoticed in the media.
It was not until January 2003 that a statement signed by the Vice Minister of Education at the time, Wilfrido Blanco Mora, stressed that Cocorí was not required reading in schools.
The vice-minister said the statement was put out in response to questions asked by members of the Caribbean Project, an organization that considered Cocorí racist. One of its members was Quince Duncan.
[Quince]: By that time, we had made arrangements with the President of the Republic, who was Mr. Abel Pacheco, and his minister Astrid Fischel, to have the book removed from the school curriculum, alleging precisely that it was not an appropriate book for fifth-grade children.
[Luis Fernando]: In April of that same year, a Costa Rican writer named Rodolfo Arias Formoso published an article questioning whether Cocorí was racist.
[Quince]: The point is that Mr. Joaquín Gutiérrez wrote it. And since he is a leftist ally, etc., etc., it is not possible for him to have committed any sins.
[Luis Fernando]: He said that what the book did contain was racism against Whites, since it makes fun of how one of them seems to have burnt his hair because he is a redhead.
On April 26, 2003, six days after the article by Rodolfo Arias, then-President of the Republic Abel Pacheco published an article saying that for a large group of the Afrodescendant community, Cocorí contained unacceptable messages. Although he did not specify which messages.
A study by Dr. Marianela Muñoz-Muñoz, a professor at the University of Costa Rica School of Philology, Linguistics and Literature, says that in the four months that followed, there were at least 50 written or illustrated reactions to the Cocorí controversy. The majority favored the book.
Over time, things calmed down again. Until 2015, when they completely exploded.
[Tanisha]: The National Symphony Orchestra decided to stage a show about Cocorí. They were going to present it at the National Theater and there was a giant billboard about Cocorí.
[Luis Fernando]: That was Tanisha. The Cocorí billboard showed him the way most Costa Ricans my age know him: with a big head, round eyes, thick lips, an open shirt, and shorts. Without shoes. Walking through the jungle with a titi monkey on top of his head, and with a scared look on their faces.
[Tanisha]: This—let’s call it—pictorial racism shows the image of a stereotypical Black person, with excessively large lips, very much in the style of the racist caricatures of Memín and all that, where Afro-descended people are always drawn in close proximity to primates and that kind of thing, right?
[Luis Fernando]: The image was created by Hugo Díaz, who has since passed away, and is part of a series of illustrations that have accompanied the story since 1984.
The musical was to be financed by the Ministry of Culture and Youth. This event raised a flag for Epsy Campbell and Maureen Clark, who were members of the National Legislature at the time. This is Campbell on the floor of the Legislative Assembly on April 14, 2015:
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Epsy Campbell]: The children of many people in this country cannot feel identified with a character who today is on the facade of the National Theater dressed in rags, with a little monkey on his head, and calling him a little hero.
[Luis Fernando]: Then she says the following:
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Epsy Campbell]: There are no White children in this country, there are no mestizo children, there are no indigenous children who want to be Cocorí.
[Luis Fernando]: The financing of the musical caused the Legislative Assembly to summon the Minister of Culture, among others, to a hearing before the Special Permanent Commission on Human Rights, of which Epsy Campbell was a member.
Pressure from the Human Rights Commission ended in the minister’s withdrawing funding for the Cocorí musical. And this, in turn, triggered another public debate about Cocorí‘s belonging in schools and whether the book is racist or not.
It must be said that what you heard on most of the media was this.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Person 1]: This means that the work of Costa Ricans is silenced. It is unheard of; it is reprehensible, and it tells us that we need to mature as a country.
[Person 2]: I have children and they have all read it. And I don’t think it is racist at all. I think the Legislator may not have read it well, or she didn’t enjoy it.
[Person 3]: Removing something that is historical, that works, and that belongs to us. There is no reason to remove it.
[Luis Fernando]: During April, May, and June 2015, 29 notes and 31 opinion articles on the subject were published by six national media outlets. At first, the vast majority defended the book, according to the study by Marianela Muñoz-Muñoz. These were some of the headlines in the press:
[Headline 1]: Cocorí is not to blame for being black
[Headline 2]: Cocorí: the price of denying history
[Headline 3]: Cocorí, victim of complexes
[Headline 4]: The silencing of Cocorí
Then came the violence on social media, an element that was not present in the previous controversies. This is Tanisha again:
[Tanisha]: I have had to put up with a lot of violence aimed directly against me and violence directly against my family. Many times, in the figure of my mother, who has taken on the Cocorí lawsuits, because Costa Rica is a very violent country on a symbolic level, let’s say, and on an interpersonal level.
[Luis Fernando]: They would say things like, if she didn’t like Costa Rica, she should go to Africa, or more subtle things, like how pretty she looked with straight hair. This is something Tanisha has thought about a lot.
[Tanisha]: The issue is that you are Costa Rican, but not as much as they are. Being an Afro-descendant means you are really always in what is called a citizenship deficit, and what we can call the elite, or the majorities—the mestizo-White majorities—are always in that constant denial of citizenship.
[Luis Fernando]: She experiences it, even in things that seem harmless.
[Tanisha]: Six times out of ten, when I enter the country, some person, or someone in the line, or one of the officers tells me I’m in the wrong line when I am in the line for citizens.
[Luis Fernando]: And as Tanisha told me, these comments, which seem minor, are things that go through your body. They are more than abstract notions. You feel them.
Reporting on this story, over and over I have come across an idea that is linked to this denial of citizenship: To be of African descent in Costa Rica is to live in a borrowed world. But if your land is not your land, where are you from? And that goes straight to the heart of the conflict with Cocorí: How can you have some kind of respect for a book that, while being part of the country’s history, is not written for you, and treats you like a foreigner?
The harassment of Epsy Campbell, Tanisha’s mother, became too overwhelming. She had to shut down her social media, and the Ministry of Security even offered her protection because of the threats she received.
In parallel with the insults, several protection appeals were filed. One of them came from Legislator Epsy Campbell and other members of the Acción Ciudadana party. The demand was for Cocorí to be removed from recommended reading lists in schools. There was another with the same purpose, presented by the Ombudsman. And one was also presented, but this one was against the Minister of Culture, Elizabeth Fonseca, for limiting freedom of expression and applying censorship by cancelling the financing of the musical.
[Yashín Castrillo]: This forced way of educating is exactly the opposite of what education should be, which is to stimulate critical thinking on the part of students.
[Luis Fernando]: This is Yashín Castrillo, a constitutional lawyer and one of the two people who filed the appeal against cancellation of the financing of the musical. To Yashín, cancelling it was to impose a certain understanding of what it is to be Costa Rican. Something authoritarian. And to him, it is counterproductive.
[Yashín]: Eliminating a book from the curriculum because it contains some expressions that we consider racist today does not eliminate racism.
[Luis Fernando]: In other words, according to Yashín, it would be like covering the sun with a finger. To him, the book should be a tool to teach that reality is complex.
[Yashín]: To teach students what really exists so that, if that reality is deformed, they can build a better reality with the guidance of their teachers, not denying the existence of reality, but improving it.
[Luis Fernando]: Yashín won the protection appeal. And the State had to indemnify the musical’s producers.
Things calmed down over the months. During that time, Tanisha and the Center for Afro-Costa Rican Women collected all the insults that Epsy Campbell and Maureen Clark, the other Legislator involved, had received during the discussion.
[Tanisha]: And we take them to the Commission for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination, the CERD.
[Luis Fernando]: Of the United Nations. It is a group of experts that watch over the implementation in all signatory countries of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The collection of insults was to support the entire case that Cocorí was racist and harmed the Afro-descendant population.
[Tanisha]: And that’s when the CERD issued a series of recommendations in which it specifically recommends that the State of Costa Rica remove this book from the school curriculum.
[Luis Fernando]: The recommendation was made at the end of August 2015. But the Ministry of Education did not comply. What they did do, almost two years later, in 2017, was to transfer Cocorí from the list of suggested readings for the second basic education cycle to the third. This means that the age at which children can read Cocorí went from 10 or 11 years old to between 13 and 15 approximately. This is because the institution considered that the book should be analyzed by a more mature student population.
That left only one loose end: the appeals for protection filed by Epsy Campbell and the Ombudsman. In April 2017, a hearing was held to analyze the case once again. Tanisha was invited to give her testimony in front of the magistrates. She talked about how Cocorí affected her self-esteem and her identity formation when she was a child, and why she filed the protection appeal.
[Tanisha]: When I was in the room that day, it was really shocking for me to think how time had passed and how people of African descent in this country would not be able to win a battle against a fictional character. That seemed very sad to me.
[Luis Fernando]: The thing is that this issue had been an important part of Tanisha’s life for 22 years by then.
[Tanisha]: We are talking, in this country, according to the last census, about 8 percent of the population—we know it must be a bit more than that—whose voice doesn’t count any more than a character in a book.
[Luis Fernando]: Some 400,000 people whose voices don’t count any more than Cocorí, according to Tanisha.
[Tanisha]: That is precisely what I told the magistrates, that I could not believe that 22 years later, I was fighting for the same thing and that now it was not for me, but for my son.
[Luis Fernando]: He was two years old at the time. So that he would not have to live the way thousands of Afro-descended children have lived for decades in Costa Rica.
A month after that testimony, in May 2017, the Constitutional Court issued its ruling. The appeal was declared to be without merit. Cocorí would continue in the Costa Rican education system. One of the arguments was that it is not proper for a constitutional court to censor or prohibit a literary work. Also, that there is no technical study, a survey for example, showing that the book negatively affects the Afro-Costa Rican population.
But there was a small victory for Tanisha: the votes of two magistrates who said that it fuels racial bullying and that it affects the self-esteem of children. And that due to the structural racism present in Costa Rica, it is necessary to establish a form of education to combat it—although they did not say what that might be. There are 7 magistrates in all, and rulings are decided by the majority, so the votes in favor of the book being eliminated from the school curriculum did not change anything. But for Tanisha, they did show some progress in the fight. More awareness. More empathy.
During the last few months, I have asked myself several times what Cocorí means to Costa Rica. The answer cannot be reduced to any one thing.
It is the legacy of a beloved and admired author, the legacy of a good man who fought for social justice. It is also an easy narrative for a large part of Costa Rica’s mestizos, one where Afro-descendants are different from them, more alien, more primitive.
I’ve also thought about it this way: What would I be if I hadn’t read Cocorí? It is not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, because after that reading, I did not stop reading, and without books there is no doubt I would be a different person. I don’t know if better or worse, but different. Now, is this worth more than the damage that book caused to my classmate, who was bullied by us? Well, no. I don’t think so.
It is difficult for us to hear that something we love hurts others. Because we, the mestizos, never want to admit that we can be the bad guys in the story. Aren’t we the heroes? And what are we without our myths?
[Daniel]: Luis Fernando Vargas is an editor at Radio Ambulante. He lives in San José, Costa Rica.
Thanks to Roberth Pereira, Silvia Chavarría, Bernardo Montes de Oca, Estefanía Fresno and Gustavo Quirós for lending their voices for this episode.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and David Trujillo.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.