‘And So We Left’: Why One Black Mom Moved Her Family to Costa Rica

Photo by Masauko Chipembere
"We were leaving the United States—four fully-able, intelligent, loving, strong Black bodies with potential—because we had had enough," writes Natasha Gordon-Chipembere.

I am convinced that every part of our journey has been guided by our ante pasados (ancestors).

A year ago, after I paid for eight overweight suitcases on Jetblue, we followed JFK’s 5am blinking lights onto planes and more planes. The cosmic tug of the ancestors fought for our passage. The threads of our New York life held like tether-hooks; affronted by our boldness. We were leaving the United States—four fully-able, intelligent, loving, strong Black bodies with potential—because we had had enough. Moving to my mother’s homeland of Costa Rica, by choice not by force, as Black people was not lost on me as I greeted the immigration officer when we landed, weary from the spiritual work of moving history. 

My husband (from Los Angeles via Malawi) and I decided that when a year’s research leave became available for me, we needed to make the life jump and leave as all signs pointed toward the encroaching violence on Black and brown bodies in New York and beyond. We sold our books, ended our lease, rented a storage unit, said sweet goodbyes, etched lifelines across the Internet with hopes that the new school for the kids was excellent and the home, which only had an address, would rest our heads.

Looking at our then-13-year-old Black son, we had the creeping sensation that our bodies, prayers and tenuous middle-classness could not protect him from what teenage life in a Black male body would assign. We anxiously watched our 9-year-old daughter with her bright eyes, singing happiness and forming curves. The Costa Rica we landed in had tree-lined streets where the kids were on bikes afterschool, playing with dogs, making lava lamps, sharing snacks and forging a language etched between the corners of Spanish, English and freedom.

As parents we live fully in reality of our blackness, yet we have had to consistently re-adjust our mantles of defensiveness in a Costa Rica which has absorbed our children as people who have the right to dream. Our kids, always told they needed tutors in their Brooklyn private school, morphed into butterflies before our eyes.  I joke with visiting friends that we were transported to a 1950s USA white suburb. The only Black children in our neighborhood and one of a handful at their school, our kids do not have this as a central issue in their days and so as parents, we have loosened our grip on the need to explain ourselves.

My husband and I met in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was just touching the lines of freedom in 1997. Our lives were Mandela-rich and fused into a global community of all those who came to bear witness for a new country. We entered a moment in history that we never thought would be replicated until we moved to Costa Rica in 2014. Both first generation children of immigrants who held deeply religious indebtedness to “America,” we traveled through Southern Africa and Los Angeles but once the kids were born, we settled in New York. We knew that visiting Costa Rica during vacations was nothing like living there on the daily. 

We arrived in San Jose to a caravan of cars filled with my relatives excited by our decision. We drove to our new home, pinching each other as we opened the gate to a garden filled with papaya, banana and avocados trees. As we stood at the double wooden doors of the house, the lush inner garden hitched our breaths. Slowly, we peeked into rooms, claiming, thanking for this gift; a home that was expansive and beautiful with an office for me to write; a first in all my years as a scholar. A space for my husband’s music studio, proper bedrooms for my children and bathrooms galore - this gift was for us?

As we crawled into bed on that first night, and my children fell into a peaceful sleep, never troubled that they were in new beds, we knew that this was what our ancestors wanted. We were meant to do the work that our hearts desired and we were being rewarded for taking the risk on sheer faith. 

I began writing my novel on 17th century slavery in Costa Rica while founding the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats, which have been a respite for many writers of color over the last year. Living here feels like 1997 Johannesburg all over again. Our skills as African-conscious people are most needed now in a Costa Rica that is mapping its skin towards accommodating an African national legacy. A new Ministry of Afro-Costa Rican Affairs has been established following the mandates of UN’s Decade of the Afro-descendant (2015-2024). So when my Tica (a nickname for Costa Ricans; ticos and ticas) mother still wonders what Costa Rica offers me, I say that we were called to re-invent the path, which inspires a move away from the US and into the deep, luscious pockets of a crafted life fragrant with possibility. As brown, loc’d, spiritual, artistic people who are vegetarians, write, play music and do yoga, we are an eclectic mix of an African Diasporic experience and we have been accepted as we are. 

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere is a professor, writer and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats.

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