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Feb. 23, 2024

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‘America does not deserve me.’ Why Black people are leaving the United States

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Jameelah Nuriddin, a native of Atlanta who has lived in Costa Rica for two years, poses for a photo at her shala, an outdoor yoga space, at her home on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023 in Cocles, Limon, Costa Rica.
Jameelah Nuriddin, a native of Atlanta who has lived in Costa Rica for two years, poses for a photo at her shala, an outdoor yoga space, at her home on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023 in Cocles, Limon, Costa Rica. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

PUERTO VIEJO, Costa Rica — Filmmaker Jameelah Nuriddin was locked down in Los Angeles during the pandemic, watching as the nation convulsed in protest over the murder of George Floyd, when she had an epiphany: “America does not deserve me.”

As a Black woman, Nuriddin always tried to work twice as hard as those around her, thinking: “If I’m smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough … then finally people will treat me as a human being.”

But as she grieved yet another unarmed Black man killed by police, she decided she was done trying to prove herself to a society that she felt would never really love her back.

So Nuriddin, 39, packed her bags and left.

She ended up in Costa Rica, in an idyllic beach town on the Caribbean coast that has become a hub for hundreds of Black expatriates fed up with life in the United States.

She now spends her days working for U.S. clients from chic cafes, leading healing ceremonies at a local waterfall and trying to figure out who she is, exactly, outside of an American context.

“It’s like leaving an abusive relationship,” she said of exiting the United States.

The expats forging new lives in Puerto Viejo are part of a wider exodus of Black Americans from the U.S. in recent years, with many leaving for reasons that are explicitly political.

Exhausted by anti-Black discrimination and violence back home, they are building communities in countries such as Portugal, Ghana, Colombia and Mexico.

Often referred to as “Blaxit,” which combines the words “Black” and “exit,” the movement has been boosted by social media, where influencers share inspirational posts about their odysseys abroad and challenge others to join them.

It is also aided by a new industry of businesses that provide relocation services specifically for African Americans, and by Facebook and WhatsApp groups such as “Black in Bali,” “Black in Tulum” and “Brothas & Sistas in Mexico City,” whose members share tips on everything from how to pay local bills to where to find good hairstylists.

There are no official statistics on how many have left the country. But academics say it may be one of the most significant emigrations of African Americans since the first half of last century, when many Black artists decamped to Europe.

The late writer James Baldwin, who was part of that earlier wave, said he moved to France in 1948 “with the theory that nothing worse would happen to me there than had already happened to me here.”

Seven decades later, the U.S. is still grappling with racism, with Black people twice as likely as white people to be killed by police and Black workers earning less on the dollar than their white counterparts. In Florida, a new law forces teachers to downplay the impact of slavery, and across the country, far-right activists are seeking bans on books touching on Black history.

Americans of all races have been leaving the U.S. thanks to the pandemic shift to remote work. But for Black Americans, many of whom were distraught over the political and racial divisions the pandemic years highlighted, the decision to move abroad is about more than just saving money or having an adventure.

“It gave people time to question,” said Chrishan Wright, who launched a podcast in 2020 that documented her move to Lisbon. She now works as a relocation consultant and is helping about a dozen families restart in Portugal. They are mostly Black professionals with children, she said, in search of “a better quality of life without the emotional and psychological strain.”

Many of those who are leaving are trying to escape their American-ness — yet are also having to confront the power of their dollars and what Wright calls “passport privilege.”

Wright, 49, a former marketing executive who spent most of her life in New York and New Jersey, left in part because she couldn’t bear the thought of living through another American presidential election.

During the 2020 contest, after which President Donald Trump’s supporters overran the U.S. Capitol to try to stop certification of Joe Biden’s win, she was racked by insomnia and lost her appetite.

“I was rattled to my core,” Wright said. Departing the country “meant being able to take a full breath for the first time.”

::

On a rainy late summer afternoon in Mexico City, Tiara Darnell raced around her packed restaurant, hugging friends hello as she delivered heaping plates of fried chicken to crowded tables of customers.

“I’m behind,” she panted as she weaved through a pack of people dancing to funk and soul hits.

Her soul food business, Blaxicocina, has become a meeting point for the growing community of Black American expats here.

Darnell was living in Buffalo and working for Spotify when a friend already based in Mexico convinced her to move down. Rents were cheap, he promised, and the people were kind.

Darnell also felt dread about where the U.S. was headed, and had decided that it was time for her to stop trying to fix a system “that wasn’t created for me.”

“Life is short, life is precious,” she said. “I don’t want to spend my time and my energy fighting.”

She was inspired by Mexico City — by the care put into cooking, by the abundance of fresh fruit and by other Black expats, who were creating pop-ups and dance parties that were transforming the city’s cultural scene.

Darnell’s new home is one point on a map of emerging Black émigrée hubs: Mexico City or Bangkok for those who want a faster pace; Cartagena, Colombia, or Tulum, Mexico, for lovers of the beach; Accra, Ghana, for those hoping to connect with their African roots.

Some countries have made an explicit push to draw African Americans. “You do not have to stay where you are not wanted forever,” Ghana’s tourism minister said at a ceremony there marking Floyd’s death in 2020. “You have a choice, and Africa is waiting for you.”

When Darnell started hosting soul food dinners in her apartment, dozens of strangers would show up, hungry for a taste of home. She was able to open a restaurant with the money she had saved in moving to Mexico and paying cheaper rent.

It’s a risk she never could have taken back home. “My family doesn’t have money,” she said. “We don’t have generational wealth.”

Her restaurant now hosts English-language comedy nights and karaoke parties heavy on 1990s R&B.

“It really is like Cheers,” said Shardé Davis, a 34-year-old San Diego native. “If you’re feeling lonely, if you’re feeling a little homesick, you can come here and tap in.”

As the rain came down in sheets outside, Davis sipped cocktails with a few friends and talked about what it means to be Black in Mexico City. Mexico never had formal segregation, and it has a smaller Black population than the United States. But discrimination based on skin color is rampant here, with darker-skinned Mexicans earning 52% less than their lighter compatriots, according to a study by Vanderbilt University.

“Coming here it was rough for me,” said Davis. “I get more stares here than I did in Thailand.” Still, she said the looks feel different than in the U.S. — less judgmental or suspicious, and more curious. “People are just like, ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’” she said.

“Anti-Blackness is a global thing, it’s not just in the United States,” said Christa Shelton, a 47-year-old personal trainer who leads online workouts for clients back in the U.S. “I have not had that in my experience here. That’s not to say that colorism doesn’t exist. I’m sure it does.”

She and the others said they feel safer in Mexico City, where crime has fallen appreciably in recent years, than they do back home.

“Name one place that has more school shootings than the United States,” said Tiara Parker, a 40-year-old marketing director from North Carolina who moved to Mexico in the summer and who also plans to spend time in Colombia and Panama.

“It’s a hot mess,” said Davis.

When family members inquire about the risks in Mexico, Parker said she tells them: “You should probably be more afraid of the white man at your local Target.”

Davis, a professor at the University of Connecticut, has been on the road for months studying the Blaxit movement, visiting Cambodia, Spain, Turkey and nearly two dozen other countries.

She is particularly interested in the fact that the movement is largely female-led, and the ways that early trailblazers have paved pathways for more people to come abroad.

“There are underground railroads that people have created,” she said. “I’ve discovered a whole bunch of Harriet Tubmans.”

::

Davia Shannon, 49, a mother of three who grew up in Los Angeles, has become a full-time Blaxit evangelist since moving to Puerto Viejo.

From a young age, Shannon’s father told her and her seven siblings that there was freedom abroad.

“When you turn 18, get your passport and leave,” he said. A lineman who worked for Pacific Bell and belonged to the Nation of Islam, her father believed that he had been paid less than his colleagues because of his race, and he didn’t want his children to suffer the same fate.

Shannon traveled widely, and by her 30s was ready to move away for good. She considered Ecuador, but didn’t think there were enough Black people there. In 2013, she arrived on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, an area with a large population of Afro-descended people and an influence from Jamaica that can be heard in the reggae booming on the beach and tasted in the beef patties sold on the street.

She felt an unspoken connection to the Black locals that she attributed to their shared ancestry and said to herself: “I can build a community here.”

Shannon began boosting Puerto Viejo to her 40,000 Instagram followers. She launched an annual music festival, and is in the process of raising money to create a retreat center where “any melanated person who has gone through the same traumatic experiences that most of us have gone through can come and just be for six months to a year.”

She connects new arrivals with doctors, dentists and real estate agents to help make the transition easier, charging $140 an hour for formal consultations. She says she’s helped some 70 people move here, many of whom have bought property, built homes and begun luring down friends of their own.

The few hundred African Americans living here call themselves “The Tribe.”

On a recent muggy morning, about a dozen of them were hanging out at Shannon’s house next to a pool overlooking a canopy of dense jungle.

Troy Adams, 33, said he loved waking up to the sounds of the forest.

“You start to hear the orchestra of nature,” said Adams, a musician and yoga instructor from Dallas who moved to Costa Rica to study permaculture and never left. “At 4 a.m. the howler monkeys go off.”

“Oh, I love the howler monkeys!” said Kwan Milner, 50, who sold her house in Phoenix and moved to Costa Rica after seeing Shannon’s YouTube videos. She now works for Shannon, helping manage her social media.

Nuriddin lives next door on a lushly planted property that features a sprawling outdoor pagoda where she performs Kundalini energy sessions. She said she has been unlearning many of her American traits: namely, materialism, and the impulse to constantly be achieving.

“I thought I was ambitious, but I was just always trying to prove myself,” said Nuriddin, who started working as an actor at age 12, and never let her grade-point average in school dip below 4.0.

She recalled a Costa Rican construction worker who took off early one afternoon to go to the beach, despite the fact that he hadn’t yet finished his work. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said. “I’m going fishing.”

At first she thought he was crazy. Then she reconsidered. “He’s right,” she thought. “It is a beautiful day. There are things more important than hitting a deadline.”

At times, the cultural differences — and the considerable economic advantage of the Americans — have caused tensions. Prices are rising, forcing some locals to move to nearby towns where rents are cheaper, a phenomenon that has played out in other places with large populations of American expats, from Portugal to Mexico.

Nuriddin, who has heard the grumblings about rising costs, said her time in Costa Rica has revealed to her the ways that her American salary and passport set her apart.

“This is the first place I’ve ever felt privileged in my life,” she said.

She’s been reflecting a lot on her American-ness: On the way, she says, she and her compatriots can come off as pretentious or transactional. “Americans in general, we just take up so much space wherever we go,” she said.

She’s also meditated on race, and what it means that even in a mostly Black community on the Caribbean Sea, she still feels looked down upon for being more dark-skinned.

“White supremacy definitely exists here, even if the racism in the States is different,” she said.

She acknowledges that she is lucky to have a job that allows her to work remotely, and that a lot of people, including many of those from her parents’ generation, don’t. She’s trying to convince her cousins to find work that will allow them to live outside of the country.

Like many Black expats here, she’s still learning Spanish. She communicates easily with the English-speaking descendants of Jamaicans, but talking to other Costa Ricans is hard. Still, she says she feels a mutual recognition when she locks eyes with Black locals. “There’s almost a little glimmer in the eye when you look at each other,” she said. “There’s like a little nod.”

::

Teresa Owens, a 54-year-old who spent her career as a station agent with Bay Area Rapid Transit, moved to Puerto Viejo last year with her 12-year-old son in part so that he wouldn’t have to live with what Baldwin once described as “a real social danger visible in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody” in the United States.

Owens is grateful that they haven’t had to have “the talk,” that difficult conversation between Black American parents and their children about the looming threat of police violence. “He doesn’t have to think about any of that,” she said.

Instead, she’s taught him and his other friends — several of whom are also from the Bay Area — about which snakes are poisonous and how to read the ocean to avoid rip tides. “He gets to be more of a kid here,” she said.

Owens starts most mornings with a sunrise walk on the beach. She’s learning to surf, and does yoga at a local cultural center named years ago after Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born political activist who first began dreaming of a pan-African nation a century ago while working on a banana plantation in the nearby town of Limón.

Owens thinks Garvey would be happy knowing that members of the African diaspora were healing themselves in a center with his name.

She thinks her ancestors, who were brought across the Atlantic as slaves, would be proud, too. When she decided to leave the U.S., “part of me felt like it was for them,” Owens said.

“I’m not captive anymore,” she said. “There are no chains holding me there other than the ones in my mind.”

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