Meet Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr: Costa Rica's First Black Vice-President

Roberto Carlos Sánchez

The busiest woman in Costa Rica today (and possibly the hardest working) is the indelible, Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr, the country´s first Black Vice-President and Secretary of State — a first in all of the Americas.

Born in San Jose in 1963 to Shirley Barr Aird and Luis Campbell Patterson, Campbell Barr is the namesake of her paternal grandmother, Epsy, who migrated to the Caribbean province of Puerto Limon from Jamaica. The fourth of seven siblings, Campbell Barr was virtually born a social activist, ignited by her social observations of her siblings.  Aware of gender dynamics from early on and realizing that a “stereotypical” gendered domestic life was not her “cup of tea,” Campbell Barr was encouraged to participate in sports, study and play instruments by her parents.

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Consciously following in the tradition of her Caribbean grandparents—who held firm to their culture and spirituality—Campbell Barr used her early activism to address the social marginalization and racism that existed in Costa Rica against people of African-descent.

Among Afro-Latinas, Epsy Campbell Barr is our Michelle Obama; a Black woman who is gorgeous, articulate, and impeccable in the face of sexism and racism that has taken global proportions as she enters the hierarchical halls of power.  Her love for Afro-descended people is intrinsically part of her sensibility; she will not compromise in her fight for self-representation and equity for Black people in Costa Rica and the region. Costa Rica’s new president, 38 year-old Carlos Alvarado, was astute when he asked Campbell Barr to serve as Secretary of State, as her ability to stand her ground in global economic, social and political conversations (oftentimes grounded in patriarchy) confirms her place as a pioneer of our time.

Costa Rica had over 200 years of slavery in the colonial capital of Cartago. Without a cash crop, slavery did not fare in the same ways that other countries did and Costa Rica could not compete with the sugar, mining, tobacco and cotton empires of places like Brazil or Haiti. The labor of enslaved Africans was divided into three areas: cattle ranching in the west, cacao plantations on the Caribbean eastern coast and domestic servitude in the colonial capitol.  From 1563-1824, enslaved people existed amongst a small population of free Blacks (pardos), who made up the first wave of Afro-descended people in Costa Rica.  The second wave, which most Costa Ricans believe to be the origin of a Black presence, was with the building of the Northern Railway under Brooklyn-born Minor Cooper Keith (under the Soto-Keith Agreement) at the turn of the 19th century. Keith eventually formed the United Fruit Company (think Dole and Chiquita), at the completion of the railway in 1890.  Thousands of English-speaking, Anglican and Protestant people (including Marcus Garvey) from the Caribbean (especially Jamaica and Barbados), came to work in Limon.  The city faced the Atlantic world and was very cosmopolitan with its influx of sailors bringing culture and news from the U.S. and Europe.  Only after the civil war in 1948 and the installation of a new government did Costa Rica allow for Afro-Caribbean people living in Limon (and their generations born there) to “naturalize” as Costa Ricans; prior to this, they were stateless people already building the economy of a country which saw them as foreigners and temporary.

Campbell Barr is in the tradition of the second-wave of Afro-Caribbean people who forged a life in Costa Rica.  A beautifully elegant and poised Black woman, she has a political track record that is astounding for a 54 year-old.  An economist by training, Campbell Barr was the head of several organizations, including the Center for Women of African Descent, The Alliance of Leaders of African Descent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Black Parliament of the Americas.  She is also involved in the Washington D.C. think-tank, The Inter-American Dialogue. She is a co-founder of the National Party, PAC (Citizens’ Action Party) and she ran for President in 2010 and 2014. A long-time advocate for racial and gender equity, Campbell Barr has never shied away from public discourse on difficult subjects, including Cocori, the mandatory story book for elementary children in Costa Rica which portrayed a “Sambo-like” Black boy from Limon who speaks with monkeys and falls in love with a young blonde, blue-eyed girl.

Facing death threats and a patriarchy that wanted an end to her extraordinary political pedigree, Campbell Barr eventually won the fight to remove the offensive book from the national curriculum. Famous for her unwavering ability to speak truth to power, Campbell Barr´s more intimate life as a Black woman with tremendous global say, is less known. As the mother of two daughters, Tanisha and Narda and grandmother to Amara and Maalika, Campbell Barr is an engaging storyteller whose foundation lies with her Caribbean ancestors. I recently had the honor of sitting down with her in her new Vice Presidential suite at the Casa Presidential to get some perspective on the woman so many people want to know.

ESSENCE: Your political track record is well established and it is clear that you forged a pathway that has brought you to this point as both Vice President and Secretary of State – a first in many ways.  ESSENCE readers are also interested in you as a woman of Afro-descent. Discuss your family and growing up life in Costa Rica

EPSY CAMPBELL BAR: I grew up in a traditional family with my mom and dad. I am the fourth of seven siblings, five women and two men. We grew up in the capital city, San Jose, where we were always a minority. I was pretty much the only Black person in elementary school and high school. Because of my parents’ vision for us, I had the chance to combine my academic education with music and sports. I played saxophone and flute and was into running and playing volleyball and softball. Something that was impressive to me was the fact that my father combined work with his own education, he was getting his own high school diploma and higher education degree while raising his children.

Courtesy of Epsy Campbell Barr

Epsy Campbell Barr with Siblings

ESSENCE: What was your relationship with your elders? What were some favorite stories, songs, lessons from your grandparents?

Both of my grandmothers passed away before I was even born. However, my paternal grandmother was very important in my upbringing because I carry her name and I was always told by my father that she was very strong and determined; I always felt something of her spirit lived within me. My middle name is after my mother’s grandfather, I do not feel this is by chance. I feel that I was meant to carry on something greater that comes directly from my ancestors. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a musician and always had a lot of stories to tell, I do remember him as an important presence in my childhood.

ESSENCE: Describe your formal education path.

CAMPBELL BAR: I went to the French High School here in Costa Rica (Liceo Franco Costarricense) but graduated from an all-girls institution (Liceo de Senoritas). Right after, I started to study Architecture at the University of Costa Rica but ended up dropping out because I became pregnant with my first daughter very young (20 y/o). I ended up going back to college when my daughters were older and got my degree in Economics. I also have a Masters´ Degree from the University of Cadiz in Spain in Political Management.

ESSENCE: Share a defining moment in your life.

CAMPBELL BAR: Pregnancy and the birth of my first daughter was probably the moment that changed my life for good. I had many plans to travel, study and do a million things young people dream of but having her ended up changing my plans for good and ultimately brought me to where I am today.

ESSENCE: What was your first job/early career?

CAMPBELL BAR: My first job was as a sales person in a retail electronics store. I was also an elementary school teacher, a travel agent, and a manager in a couple of hotels when I was younger. Then, I began my career as an activist by entering the NGO world, where I started to work at an environmentalist organization.

ESSENCE: Describe the community that you feel you are most part of in Costa Rica. Which communities do you feel you have served and will serve?

CAMPBELL BAR: Culturally of course, the Black Costa Rican community. When I was a girl, I participated in activities with other black kids and all the parents knew each other.  When I was a teenager we moved to Moravia (in the northern part of the capital) and I developed a sense of belonging because I was older and more conscious. Eventually, when I moved back to San Jose, I lived there with my daughters and then we moved to Coronado (another city in the north part of the capital) where I bought my first house. My daughters and I lived there for 10 years.

In terms of communities served, my action is always focused on the people living under poverty because they are the forgotten ones. I also focus on women, especially girls, because there is still a big gap in the opportunities we are given as women, especially from when we are growing up.

ESSENCE: What personal story motivated your activism among Afro-descended populations?

CAMPBELL BAR: The Rosa Parks story was always most impressive to me; that defining moment in the bus meant she was able to vindicate herself and in that she vindicated all of us. Here is Latin America [and in Costa Rica in particular], the stories we heard about the liberation of Black peoples were always very centered on those of Black people from the United States. Movements like The Black Panther Party and characters like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were always important references for us.

ESSENCE: What is your favorite book, music?

CAMPBELL BAR: My favorite musical genres are salsa and reggae. I love Bob Marley’s music.

My favorite book that I have read in the last few years is probably Embers by Hungarian writer Sandor Marai. I am an avid reader and have read many books throughout my life so it is hard to pick one out.

ESSENCE: Where is your favorite place to travel?

CAMPBELL BAR: Anywhere the ocean is, especially the Southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

ESSENCE: Describe a typical day in your life in this new position.

CAMPBELL BAR: I leave home very early and have two roles to fulfill. First, I go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I serve as Secretary of State or “Canciller.” There, I have countless meetings about the country’s foreign policy and the work of our diplomatic force spread throughout the world. At some point in the afternoon I go to the Presidential House (our equivalent to the White House), where I take on the duties as First Vice President which include coordinating a variety of different topics and teams. I get home at 7pm approximately. Sometimes, I host additional work meetings at my house. I am a great cook and love hosting people (according to her sister Shirley, she is most known for her seafood soup and Caribbean style rice and beans)

ESSENCE: What are your global hopes and fears when you look out into the world?

CAMPBELL BAR: My hope is for a world without war, which I deem unacceptable in pretty much any context. I also hope for a world where everyone has the minimum conditions to build their own happiness, including water, housing, food and energy. I also wish for a world where girls feel equal to boys and men. My greatest fear is nuclear war or that we destroy the planet through our excessive materialism.

ESSENCE: Who is coming up in your tradition as a young Afro-Tica feminist and activist?

CAMPBELL BAR: Pamela Cunningham (who has worked with the Centro de Mujeres Afro and Proyecto Caribe. She currently runs the Facebook group, Costa Rica Afro), is a great example of a young woman who is very aware of intersectionality and different forms of discrimination.

ESSENCE: Do you have any plans of writing a memoir?

CAMPBELL BAR: I have always thought about it but do not have any concrete plans as of now. I would also love to write short stories about my life experiences.

ESSENCE: Can you provide a statement/reflection on Angela Davis´ lecture here at the University of Costa Rica this past March?

CAMPBELL BAR: The most important thing that I get from a woman like Angela Davis is the fact that she was able to articulate the dimensions of gender, race and class. As Afro-Latinas, we have gotten an opportunity to have academic, theoretical language behind our activism through her work.

ESSENCE: What are your thoughts of Cuba´s two new Afro-descended female VPs?

CAMPBELL BAR: The Cuban context is very different because the rise to power of these women was not through a popular election process. However, I do feel it speaks a lot about the representation of historically invisible populations in Cuba, especially Black Cubans and specifically Black Cuban women.

ESSENCE: What book(s) are you reading right now?

CAMPBELL BAR: Obama’s Method by Rupert L. Swan and Labyrinth of the Spirit by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

ESSENCE: Where do you find your personal inspiration?

CAMPBELL BAR: My main source of inspiration comes from my ancestors and from my grandmother Epsy who tried to do a lot and was unable to accomplish it because she died very young. Also, from my dad, who was able to do a lot with so little.

ESSENCE: Who are you heroines/heroes?

CAMPBELL BAR: My first hero is my dad. Harriet Tubman is my heroine because she had the strength to overcome her circumstances but while helping so many others.

ESSENCE: One sincere wish for your time in office?

CAMPBELL BAR: That my work and that of this government can serve to improve the lives of all Costa Ricans.

ESSENCE: Though I said no politics, please share your 10-year plan

CAMPBELL BAR: I plan to continue to strive to improve the living conditions of those that have less, as well as fight for the equality of people of African Descent throughout the world. I do not rule out the possibility of running for President again, in the future.

ESSENCE: This is your Michelle Obama moment – how are you adjusting to the “fame?”

CAMPBELL BAR: I am making sure that I remember this is temporary and try to keep my feet on the ground to avoid any of this from going to my head.

ESSENCE: If you could give some advice to young, Afro-descended women in the world, what would you say?

CAMPBELL BAR: The best advice is to feel capable to accomplish anything that you can imagine, and to walk out of the house everyday with that in mind.