Marva Wright Urena (1986- )

“Image Ownership: Public Domain”

In 2010 Marva Wright Urena became the first Costa Rican of African ancestry to be selected as Miss Costa Rica. She represented her country in the Miss Universe pageant held in Las Vegas, Nevada of that year.  Wright joined Scharlette Allen Moses of Nicaragua who was also of African ancestry and represented her nation in the Miss Universe pageant.

Marva Wright Urena grew up in a working class section of San Isidro de Perez Zeledon in southern Costa Rica with her mother and two brothers. Her father lives in New York. She was an athlete in high school playing both basketball and volleyball. At the time of her crowning, the achievement she was most proud of was that she graduated from high school which is still rare in her area of Costa Rica. Urena completed high school while working to help support her family. When she entered college, she continued to work to pay for tuition and other college-related expenses.  In 2010 Urena was enrolled at Santa Paula University studying physiotherapy with plans to become a physical therapist with her own clinic one day.

Costa Rica, along with Argentina and Uruguay, has long claimed to be one of the most European of all Latin American countries. In Central America, Costa Rica has the most homogenously white population. In 2011, there were approximately 350,000 people of black heritage in the country representing 8% of the population. While slaves were brought into Costa Rica during the colonial era, most largely assimilated into Hispanic culture and their descendants do not identify themselves as black. In the postcolonial era, people from the West Indies migrated to Costa Rica.  They and the Garifuna are the largest black population today. There are also smaller populations of people of black heritage who call themselves Miskitos as well as descendants of immigrants from Jamaica brought in the late 19th century by a U.S. company building railroads.

Miskitos were originally a pre-contact indigenous group of Central America. Largely unconquered by the Spanish, they intermarried with slaves and are now a largely mixed race group. They had strong relations with the British and became proficient in the English language due to their close ties with British firms in Central America and in Jamaica. When U.S. firms such as the United Fruit Company entered Costa Rica in the late 19th century to build railroads, harvest coffee, or bananas, their managers gave significant preferences (such as higher pay) to black workers over mestizos and indigenous groups due to their language abilities. Eventually this led to anti-black immigrant state laws in Costa Rica in the 1930s and 1940s.

In recent times, Afro-Costa Ricans have challenged this discrimination in Costa Rica by making themselves more visible and celebrating their rich culture. Marva Wright Urena’s crowning as Miss Costa Rica reflects this trend and the state’s acknowledgment of Afro-Costa Ricans.