Today we visited a wonderful organization called SIFAIS in a Costa Rican neighborhood called La Carpio. They serve a mostly immigrant community that is experiencing severe poverty by providing them with skills in the arts, among other things. The experience there was as I expected and similar to other organizations we have already visited. It was also at SIFAIS, however, that I experienced something I never imagined here. As a result, I was able to confirm first hand that discrimination and assumptions based on your skin color are very real and something that will most likely follow me no matter what country I travel to.
As our group was given the opportunity to connect with the kids in the Montessori at SIFAIS, another group member and I decided to join two children playing basketball right outside on the patio. It so happens that other group member and I am Latino and have a darker skin tone. We were soon told that we were not allowed to be there by a woman. The other group member and I promptly made our way back into the Montessori. Once at the door, the woman put her arm out and told us we were not allowed in there either. She seemed really angry and we were confused. It then occurred to us that she did not consider that we were a part of the group of mostly white students playing with the kids inside. Once we let her know that we were, she simply walked off. As with any instance such as this, I was left feeling confused, then angry, then simply sad.
Things like this have happened to me before. However, the fact that it happened in a Latin American country, by a person who likely experiences the same discrimination on a regular basis as an immigrant in this county, makes it that much more painful and confusing. I realize how internalized racism and colorism exist and are experienced by people of color in all parts of the world. The reason behind this is incredibly complicated. I personally feel Paolo Freire said it best when he said, “Self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalization of the opinion the oppressors hold of them.” In this case, a woman of color did not think two people who looked and spoke similar to her would be from this group of mostly white, educated individuals from the United States. Ironically, as I entered the Montessori again, I noticed one name painted on the wall, Xochilt. I wondered what experiences that little girl will have here and outside the parameters of La Carpia during her life.
This experience in Costa Rica has taught me that my experiences as a person of color in the United States are not unique to that country. Up until now I thought I was serving immigrants that were experiencing racism and colorism for the first time. I am wrong and feel humbled and, as awful as the experience was, grateful. It is through these experiences that I feel I connect more with the community I serve. We each have our own stories and our own reactions to oppression, but together we continue to fight it in solidarity with each other.