A Review of The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960

by | Dec 28, 2003

The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960 By Lara Putnam The University of North Carolina Press, 2002

For nearly a century, Central America and the Caribbean were the mis-en-scène of the bananero culture that thrived for nearly a century (1870-1960). The culture itself is famous for its unique mix of violence, chaos, and immorality—social conditions which created a culture exclusive to the zona bananera. However, Lara Putnam’s The Company They Kept is an exploration of the culture at the micro level, using primary sources and personal accounts to explore the intricate mores that directed the behavior of the people.

Putnam’s title is particularly clever because of the double meaning carried by the word “company.” First, as is it becomes clear in her study, the economy of Central American and the Caribbean—but particularly that of Costa Rica—was one that was highly dependent on the United Fruit Company (UFC). This foreign company has oft been depicted as a detrimental force in Latin America not only due to its exploitation of cheap labor, but also because of the deep economic harm that resulted throughout the region with its downfall in the latter half of the 20th century. Second, “company” refers to relationships and interactions themselves, forged amongst the people living in the zona bananera. Indeed, her study is, in essence, one which investigates how a specific economic environment affects the evolution of social mores.

Despite the rough and violent exterior of the bananero culture, Putnam’s careful research depicts a society in which status and power, as well as economic wealth are criteria which dictate behavioral patterns. More importantly, the actual culture across the bananero region and particularly Costa Rica, is one which is more ordered by established behavioral patterns than it appears to be at first glance. That is, while the economy was one in which the people constantly migrated to find paying work, the culture itself was consistent, as the people clearly understood the accepted and expected behaviors.

Due to the economic expansiveness of the UFC and its control of the region, the years between 1870 and 1960 are characterized by extensive migration of the people from country to country in search of well-paying work (though the actual existence of such is debatable). Migratory patterns not only increased within Costa Rica itself, but also between Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean islands. This migratory culture had two results: due to the extensive mixing of race and cultural heritage, the people were particularly loyal to their identity, clinging to it so as to differentiate themselves from the other sectors of society. Furthermore, the need to travel in search of work not only created a population which felt little or no affinity to the land they worked, but also profoundly affected family structures.

The family in the zona bananera is entirely unique to the area and the era, as the economy had affected both family structure and the people themselves. Putnam’s study shows there were few ties holding the men and women of a household together, as cohabitation, divorce, and abandonment were common occurrences. This, however, is a direct result of the need to migrate across large distances with great frequency to whereever the UFC was thriving, and to where there was a demand for secondary services (cooking, laundry, liquor sale, and prostitution). However, despite this apparently weak family structure, Putnam is careful to emphasize the strong ties of kinship which motivated people to help family members, ties that remained strong regardless of the passage of time or the distances between members.

Another effect of the vast migration of workers across Costa Rica and Central America was the creation of vast gender imbalances, which fluctuated with the area and the time frame. Gender imbalances often profoundly affected the economic and social status of women. According to her study, Putnam finds that among working class women, the vast majority worked in different jobs throughout their life. Possible employment for women (again, depending on the area and the timeframe) varied from working their own fields, with or without their domestic partners, to cooking for UFC workers, to working for the UFC, and in many cases, prostitution.

Interestingly enough, it is in her study of prostitution that Putnam finds the strongest correlation between a particular population and its concern with reputation and honor. Paradoxically, it is among prostitutes, or mujeres de la vida allegrethat honor was of the utmost concern. While most of society believed these women to live lives so tainted with sin as to be beyond reproach, the women themselves adhered to traditional concepts of sexual purity, even amongst themselves, to create a social hierarchy and regulate their interactions with one another.

Likewise, the men in the bananero culture also ascribed to strict codes of honor and reputation, following well-known scripts and accepted violent behaviors to assert themselves and protect their honor. In addition to the violence among men, Putnam also studies the other end of the behavioral spectrum—the phenomenon of the compañero, or the trusted relationships between the men who worked and lived together, traveling across Latin America in search of work. For many men, the compañero was a crucial and inherent aspect of life in Costa Rica and Central America. Companions served not only for companionship (as many men did not often see their families), but also for mutual protection, and for networking reasons (using connections to obtain work).

In the end, Putnam describes a world that while chaotic because of economic hardships, was clearly regulated in the social arena. The zona bananera, though violent and brutal, was not human culture reduced to its primal state, but rather a culture in which social interactions were as complex, if not more so, than the cultures in other areas of Latin America. Ultimately, because the people had little to offer themselves or others economically, honor and social status became the all-important currency in which human interactions were exchanged.

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

Rebecca Cantu is a junior concentrating in Government who is also working towards a Citation in Latin American Studies. Besides working on ReVista, she is also a member of the Harvard Varsity Fencing team, and of Harvard’s Ballet Folklorico de Aztlan.

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