In 1910, a 21-year-old with a fiery spirit arrived on the shores of Limon on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. He’d left his home in Jamaica unemployed, probably blacklisted, as an anti-colonial trade unionist who British authorities considered dangerous. Little did this young man, named Marcus Garvey, know that, three years later, he would return to his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica and establish the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
As the leader of the UNIA, Garvey would lead six million African members in more than forty countries around the world, all of whom would consider him the provisional president of Africa. But in 1910, Marcus Garvey was merely a timekeeper on a banana plantation for the United Fruit Company with barely any prestige or wealth to his name. He stayed with his maternal uncle, who’d found him the job. While he worked, he witnessed in horror the oppression that West-Indian immigrants—descendants of slaves like himself—faced when working in the banana plantations of some of the world’s first US-led transnational corporations.
Meanwhile, two years later, on May 12, 1912, as Garvey was working at United Fruit, a Black woman of Caribbean descent born in New Orleans as Leonie Turpeau boarded the S.S. Dictator, which was heading to Bluefields, Nicaragua. The ship manifest listed her nationality as Nicaraguan by marriage, wedded to a small-scale Creole Planter and newspaperman from Bluefields named Francis H. Mena. For all her life thereafter, she was known as an Afro-Latina, though this was due to a carefully curated rebirth in Central America, according to Courtney Desiree Morris, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Berkeley.
De Mena’s death certificate stated that her place of birth was Louisiana, but reputable newspapers claimed in their obituaries that Madame de Mena Aiken was born in “the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.” Unbeknownst to the woman who would refashion herself as Madame Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena, in a matter of years, she would become a follower of Marcus Garvey, a member of the upper echelons of the UNIA, its lead international organizer, giving speeches on behalf of the Black nationalist organization worldwide.
Like thousands of Afro-descendant laborers who became African nationalists, the stories of these Black radicals, Marcus Garvey and Madame de Mena Aiken, began in central America. In the pre-war period, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica became hotbeds of Black trade union activity. Like Harlem, a zone of excessive racist exploitation, the former central American republic became a meeting ground for the African diaspora who had migrated in search of work at plantations and on infrastructure projects.
In Guatemala, the Northern Railroads were under the control of American companies, according to Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history at Babson College. Most of the workers on the banana plantations were African-Americans from the US south. They escaped Jim Crow in the US only to live in separate “Jim Crow” enclaves, to remove their hats when speaking to whites in Guatemala.
In Panama, hundreds of thousands of workers from the British West Indies went to work on the US-led Panama Canal, where Americans developed a gold-silver distinction between workers. As Jeffrey W. Parker, a professor of history at Clackamas Community College demonstrates, most black and nonwhite workers were paid in silver; everybody else was paid in gold. Whereas gold employees received 87 dollars per month, silver employees were paid ten cents per hour. Gold and silver employees went to different hospitals and rode different labor trains; their children went to different schools; and they had to use different restrooms and water fountains.
When Marcus Garvey began his political militancy in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, in 1911, he wasn’t taken seriously by local West Indian elites. He started spreading his radical thought as an editor of a local newspaper called the Nation. “The reaction of the West Indian elite,” writes Ronald Harpelle, professor of Caribbean history at Lakehead University, “was to ridicule Garvey as a young upstart and then to isolate him as a threat to the well-being of the entire community.”
When the Nation’s headquarters was destroyed by racist local firemen, Garvey found no solidarity or support to bring the Nation back to life. He left discouraged but well aware of the struggles the African diaspora faced in Central America. When he came back, less than a decade later, thousands would greet him.
In 1919, United Fruit company men tried to have Marcus Garvey’s newspaper Negro World banned in Costa Rica. Garvey had come a long way: he now led millions. Officials were terrified of him. They called him a “typical noisy Jamaican” who could replicate “the French experience in Haiti” if they did not censor him. Wherever labor conditions were harsh, especially where “justified” in racism, the patriarchal and Black nationalist ideology of Marcus Garvey found an audience. Newspapers belonging to the UNIA, like the Negro World and the Workman, spread the message of African self-determination. The papers promoted the Black Star Line, a shipping company set up to repatriate Africans to Africa, and the Negro Factories Corporation, set up to provide the future independent workforce for the African nation.
Garvey had built himself a miniature republic, with nurses, laundry companies, a shipping line, and branches with “liberty halls” employing thousands of African descendants on almost every continent. The ideology of racial uplift and self-determination for Africans appealed not only to working men, but also to the women who worked as homemakers, domestic workers, laundresses, seamstresses, and street vendors. His message also appealed to striking workers.
In December 1919, Trinidadian workers from the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association worked with the UNIA to shut down commerce in the Port of Spain. Protests with a strong UNIA presence happened in Jamaica, Grenada, Panama, and Belize at the same time. In Belize, the UNIA led a protest against price hikes. When the authorities in Belize banned the UNIA paper Negro World, UNIA members in Mexico and Guatemala smuggled the paper in to ensure their message continued to spread.
But the ideology of the UNIA was also patriarchal. In demarcating separate domestic and public spheres, and granting mothers dominion over the former, and men power over the latter, Garveyism was quite conservative—often with the agreement of its own women members. Misogyny was rife and Black women, especially sex workers, were often blamed for being obstacles to the struggle for African self-determination. In one speech in the Panama Canal strike, activist Henry Duncan thanked men for not listening to their wives, “I know your wife has driven you from your house,” he exclaimed, while claiming they were better than “petticoat men” who abandoned the strikes due to their wives.
These ideas of Black manliness proliferated through the news articles and opinion pieces of the UNIA press. “Within the constraints of a male-dominated newspaper, black nationalist women could not directly challenge masculinist discourses in print,” writes Keisha Blain, professor of history at Pittsburgh University, “but they certainly challenged black patriarchal authority.”
In the pages of the Workman in Panama, for example, Ellen Joshua wrote in 1919 of how “we the girls of Isthmus, had a great responsibility in the great war… We gave our time in knitting, in singing in concerts, in dancing, to raise money for the war: but alas! What have we got? Nothing. So girls brace up!” Within the constraints of this patriarchal outlook, Black women found ways of fighting male chauvinism within the movement, even though they rarely challenged Black nationalist gender roles. Further, women like De Mena joined the leadership of the UNIA.
If we return to Costa Rica, we see again the conservative limitations of the movement. When news had come of a visit by women leaders in the Black nationalist movement—on the SS Frederick Douglass, the flagship of the Black Star Line—the United Fruit Company welcomed them. The warm welcome was a result of their communication with Marcus Garvey. They granted their workers a holiday, and were given reassurance that Garvey only wanted to sell shares for the Black Star Line. When Garvey himself returned to Costa Rica, company officials treated him with respect, even introducing him to the president of Costa Rica, Julio Acosta. Garvey in turn praised the company when giving speeches.
Secretly, company officials believed that their Black workers were “dupes” and “losers” for investing in the project. Marcus Garvey, meanwhile, thought collaboration was realpolitik. In 1922, Garvey—by then a target of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI)—was imprisoned on charges of mail fraud. Not long after, the Black Star Line ceased operations, though the UNIA survived for decades to come.