Meet the Browns, a Puerto Viejan family with traceable roots in the area that extend back to the mid-1800s, and possibly even further.
The Browns, who live in this small enclave of Costa Rica, are a unique Corleone/Kardashian-hybrid-like family with a seemingly endless brood of relatives (200+ and counting) who look out for each other, and who come in a great variety of skin hues - even within the same family unit.
One of the family matriarchs is Irma.
Irma with the sweet smile and the quiet voice and the complicated history that stretches to Jamaica (her grandfather came from Jamaica to Costa Rica to work on the railroad) and on her ex-husband’s side to West Africa.
The family stewards are brothers Kevin, Andy and Esteban, 19, 21 and 22, and cousin Pete, 18. Four young men who are connecting the family’s present to its past through their search for slave ships reported to have wrecked in the nearby Cahuita harbor.
You see, stories passed down over the years, whispered in the dark and over campfires, say that the first Brown ancestor in these parts was on one of those ships.
How do they know for sure that slave ships made their way to Costa Rican shores?
Historians, researchers, divers and most recently, archaeologists have been able to gather evidence that suggests that artifacts in an archaeological site near Cahuita Point might belong to two Danish slave ships. These ships set sail from Denmark in the early 17th century, heading to the Danish colony of St. Thomas after raiding and enslaving Africans in West Africa. But the ships, traveling closely together, were blown off course by bad weather and eventually, might have landed in the Punta Cahuita harbor of Costa Rica instead. The documented archives show that the crews on both ships mutinied and wrecked the ships after taking the Africans to shore.
The trail goes lukewarm afterward, a disappearing line of breadcrumbs that fade into the hills, now reconstituted with a few faded images and tales that family elders pass down orally to their descendants.
Sonia, one of Irma’s daughters and Pete’s aunt and guardian, shares one tale: “My uncle showed me an old picture of a man with a long, white beard. He said this is your great grandpa. His father came to Jamaica in a slave ship. And he, in turn, came to Costa Rica to work the railroad, but he ran away to work in the highlands of Talamanca and eventually, he reached the indigenous territory.”
She looks up, incredulous, “I said, ‘What? I never knew this!’”
Kevin continues, “We heard he ran to the mountains and met the BriBri [the largest indigenous community in Costa Rica], where he was welcomed and could make a new life start.”
Records indicate that Kevin's great-great-grandfather married a Bribri woman and that there are likely others of mixed heritage in the Bribri highlands whose ancestors came directly from the slave ships wrecked on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. The family thinks a member of Irma's ex-husband's family stood on one of those ships. And they wonder if their Jamaican ancestors, who originally came from West Africa, too, may have found commonality and mixed easily with the descendants of the escaped Africans.
It’s a tangled web that will take much more time to uncover.
But the artifacts on the seafloor - bricks, cannons, anchors, fragments of bottles and pipes - clues that Centro Comunitário de Buceo Embajadores y Embajadoras del Mar are being trained by archaeologists and researchers to verify, just may provide more concrete missing links. Plus, fishermen in Cahuita reported that scuba divers searched the remains and found smoking-gun items like shackles. Centro is in talks with a family that has some of these items and is encouraging them to release them for further study.
Pete, Kevin and Esteban, all Sea Hunters, all members of Centro, all with the exact same thick and perfectly arched eyebrows, believe wholeheartedly in this work. They are clear that by understanding and embracing these ties to the past they will more powerfully shape their own journeys to manhood.
Esteban, who is bold and rather dashing, is also super handy. He can fix and jerry-rig almost anything. For Centro, he created a way to help its divers use nature (the mountains and the shoreline) to “trilaterate” the distance between points in order to mark artifacts under the water. He is also certified as a PADI-rescue diver, has completed two levels of the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS) and serves as an assistant in the PADI-intro course to help get youth rethinking and strengthening their connection to the ocean.
Pete is smaller in stature than his cousins. He used to be very shy, according to his family. But over the years he has gained confidence. Now, he is a partner with two other young divers in a social venture supported by Centro called the Puerto Viejo Old Town Tour. He and his partners guide visitors around town and in the water for short scuba or snorkel dives, providing them lessons about the town’s historical and underwater archaeological sites.
And Kevin, soft-spoken and laid-back, but clearly a leader in Centro as the others gravitate and defer to him, comes alive in the ocean. He swoops and laughs and plays when we dive. The joy on his face is infectious. He also has his PADI and NAS first level certifications and helps train new divers in the PADI intro course.
All three of them train children in Centro’s Children’s Snorkeling Camps.
Whether this family finds incontrovertible evidence about their ancestral connection to slave ships or not, the search process has already changed them for the better, giving them access to opportunities previously unimaginable and igniting passions that now burn deep.
“Since I was five years old, I was going fishing with my cousins and my friends,” says Pete. “We were fishing on the seashore. We fished all day. But to know you can breathe underwater … and you can learn about sunken ships … the first time I dived, I felt like I was coming out of my heart.”
“We have to be proud to be Afro-Costa Rican,” he adds, referring to the often suppressed acknowledgment that many Costa Ricans have African ancestry, a fact that rarely makes it into the history books. “I want more people here to support this project because this is the root of many of us - this work is part of us all.”
“We live along the coast of Puerto Viejo,” says Irma. “We love the ocean. And my grandchildren love this project. What they are finding is so interesting. Wow. Part of my blood may have been coming in those ships.”
She sighs, “I am so proud of all of them.”
(Pics below: Irma, Esteban, Kevin and Pete.)
*Andy is not pictured - he was not in Puerto Viejo when I visited.