Epsy Campbell Barr: Latin America’s First Black Woman Vice President is of Jamaican Heritage

Epsy Campbell Barr
Photo: Crnoticiascr/Wikimedia

Since Jamaican American Kamala Harris was selected to be President Joe Biden’s second-in-command, special attention has been paid to the impact of Jamaicans on international politics. But long before Harris became Madam Vice President, Jamaicans and people of Jamaican heritage had been breaking racial and gender barriers in politics.

In 2018, Epsy Campbell Barr made history when she became the first Black woman to serve as vice president in the entire Latin America region. Campbell Barr was, at the time, appointed as the vice president in Costa Rico.

Campbell Barr was born in San José in 1963 to parents Shirley Barr Aird and Luis Campbell Patterson. She is the fourth child of a family of five daughters and two sons. She was named after her Jamaican paternal grandmother, Epsy, who migrated to the Caribbean province of Puerto Limon from Jamaica with her husband. Although Campbell Barr never met her grandmother, she was told of her strong will and determination—traits that she believes her grandmother passed on to her. While attending elementary and high school, her parents pushed her to not only excel in academics but also in sports and music. Campbell Barr said that she was pretty much the only Black person that attended her schools.

Epsy Campbell began her university studies at the University of Costa Rica. At age 20, she became pregnant with her first daughter and decided to drop out of school. After giving birth to her two daughters, Tanisha and Narda, and getting married, Campbell Barr went back to school and graduated with a degree in economics in 1998. Ten years later, she earned a master’s degree in development cooperation from the Foundation for Cultural and Social Sciences of Spain. 

Campbell Barr worked several jobs before entering politics—elementary school teacher, travel agent, and hotel manager. She began community work by entering the non-profit world, where she started to work at an environmentalist organization in Costa Rico. During that time, she also advocated for the rights of women and people of African descent. Campbell Barr later entered politics, saying that it was her avenue to becoming a social activist.

In 2002, she joined the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) and served as a deputy in the national legislature for four years. She was also head of its parliamentary faction from 2003 to 2005 and president of the party from February 2005 to February 2009. 

After running for vice president in 2006, Campbell decided to seek the nomination of the leader of the PAC in 2013. Although she was one of the most popular candidates, she bowed out of the race to Luis Guillermo Solís, who became Costa Rica’s president-elect in 2014. That same year, she was elected to serve as a member of parliament in San Jose. 

Prior to the next presidential election in 2018, Campbell Barr announced her intention to run in the PAC presidential election but later withdrew from the race. She was subsequently selected by presidential nominee Carlos Alvarado Quesada as one of his running mates. Alvarado Quesada won the election and Campbell Barr became the first Afro-Costa Rican vice president of the country.

Campbell Barr has been active in Afro-Caribbean affairs since entering politics. In 1996, she founded the Women’s Forum for Central American Integration, which she coordinated until 2001. Concurrently, she also coordinated the Network of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women. 

She has authored books on sexism and racism, the political and economic participation of women and people of African descent. Campbell Barr also serves as the leader of the Center for Women of African Descent, the Alliance of Leaders of African descent in Latin America as well as the Caribbean and the Black Parliament of the Americas.

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