reggae emergency: a truth-to-power story

by: Tara Ruttenberg

with the urgency of 6:12pm on the Sunday before Christmas, i watched my phone ring.


i knew it was coming.


the voice on the line was frantic, if not playful.


“it’s a reggae emergency!” Marianne said, in a hurry.


i was still an hour’s drive up the mountain. Richie Spice and Israel Vibration were headlining in like twenty minutes.


desperate times called for desperate measures – i’m talking turquoise-fringed-belly-shirt-and-yellow-feather-earrings kinda desperate.


now you feel me.


my appropo hair grunge cut at least 30 minutes off my exit strategy; no time for showers or other routine pleasantries. i did what i had to, the necessary hygiene sacrifices. you would have done the same in my position. we all would have. this was more than just a read-through.


tight black leggings hugging my every curve: check.


cherry chapstick in my pocket: double check.


i was on the road in 9 minutes flat.




a cacao-maca-spirulina energy-blast smoothie shared among the three of us, we picked up our fourth partner in reggae crime. navigating our way through the infamous ‘hood of San Jose’s Desamparados district, we were tough-looking white chicks with ‘don’t fuck with me’ written on our foreheads. 


so what if we walked a little faster than usual past the cat-calls from the six shirtless overweight-dudes’ porch party, the pointy end of my car key clutched threateningly between fingers of fist clenched firmly?shit man, you would have done the same in my position. we all would have. it’s life or death out there. 


we walked past the street meat smoking on the makeshift grill, nearly tripping on empty beer cans and dodging cigarette butts on the shoddy asphalt. it stunk like skunk, in a good way. yeah, you get it.


we had finally made it, our reggae heaven just moments away. so close we could taste it, the sweet sounds of ghetto girl ready to be danced and romanced by four babes from the well-paved side of the block. as our pearly gates neared into view, their mustached keepers watched us stroll to the scene. it was 8:02.


but there would be no magic red carpet to irie-land. in fact, the gates of our dreams weren't even partway open. 


not even a little. 

not even at all. 


reality: check.


“um, can you let us in please?” Christine asked the shorter-squattier of the two security guards, their collared uniforms distinguishing officialdom on the other side of the iron bars. he was everywhere we wanted to be.   


“i’m afraid not,” he said, turning his head toward the twelve uniformed police offers and three cop cars behind him. “doors closed at 8. we can’t let anyone else in. should have gotten here earlier.”


it wasn’t our first time. we knew better than to show up early to an all-day reggae-fest just to wait around for hours until the bands actually decide to show up and play something, especially when the event website listed midnight as the ending time.


one by one and two by three, a crowd of twenty or so had formed along the gates around us, the neighborhood crazy making scary dragon noises as he came to check us out, too. his liquored stench was sure to follow.


the story we got was that the organizers didn’t get the permits from the municipality to stay past 8, so they would have to shut down the show. Richie Spice and Israel Vibration hadn’t even played yet. 


people came out, but nobody went in. 


the music, hidden from view yet audible in the distance, played on.


“so if they’re still playing, why can’t you just let us in until they shut it down?” someone asked, the logic of reason strongly on our side. “we’ll leave when everyone else does.” 


Security guard A shrugged his shoulders, hands tied. now and then he used his belly weight to keep a few brave souls from entering through the opening created temporarily as tired reggae-goers trickled out.


a long-haired kid with braces and glasses was one of the last to join us, holding his ticket in hand as he approached the gate. same story, doors closed, nobody gets in.

“shhhhhhhhhh,” he sighed loudly between his teeth, Costa Rican for “what the fuck, man?” he paced back and forth along the gate, passive-aggressive in his angst. “i bought this ticket a month ago, bro. i just got off work and had to take the bus two hours to get here. there are only 20 of us out here, man, can’t you just let us in?”

Security guard B, the lankier one, pointed to the cops again, averting his eyes. “i would if i could, my friend.” we didn't blame him. he did what he had to. you would have done the same in his position. we all would have. his job was on the line; his family, his life. because that’s how that story works.

silent in socio-cultural observation, i bore witness to the scene unfolding around me, contemplating expressions of power, resistance and consent, imagining scenarios where a different sort of solution might have prevailed, wishing i’d get to share a different story. token gringa in the ghetto jungle not about to make a peep. 

not then and there, anyway.

blame was passed around between the police for raining on the parade, the municipality officials for not making an exception just this once for justice-and-fairness' sake, the event organizers for poor planning and no reimbursement policy.

empty threats were made, iron bars gripped tight by desperate hands clenched in shaking fists, angry at the immovable injustice of hollow rules left unquestioned, followed blindly to spite reason, making a fool of solidarity in the simple-pleasure pursuit of melodic mayhem in the moonlight, pitting brother against sister in nonsensical relationships of power-over.

no easy pill to swallow when you’re out thirty bucks and you can hear Israel Vibration starting their set less than half a kilometer away.

“justice! justice! justice! justice!” our chants of protest grew louder, encouraging in unison, before dying down again, all out of strategies. 

in some ways it felt silly, getting all up-in-arms about not getting into a reggae show. but it also felt important, that whole truth-to-power thing, you know.

a big black man in a Jamaica jersey spat at a little white man in a uniform. that was as heavy as it got.

eventually, a young police man, maybe seventeen from the looks of him, neared the gate.

“they’re shutting down the concert now. no one else is getting in,” he said, robotic in repetition.

“but they’re still playing!” someone yelled. "they haven't shut it down yet! let us in! give us our ten minutes of joy!"

“i’m not the one who made the decision,” he responded, displacing his guilt, his grimey inaction. for a reason i understood later, an image of child soldiers came to mind.

“i’m just following orders,” he said.

those guys in Nuremberg followed a lot of orders, too, i remembered thinking.

he was the only cop willing to speak to us that night. the rest stayed back, about 100 meters from the gate, safe from our banter and leaving the dirty work to the security guards as they chit-chatted and paced around, trying to look, or even feel, necessary.

they weren’t though, really, because once the arrangement of power is internalized by the powerless through an unwritten agreement of consent to order, acquiescence to an unjust justice, they will obey in exercising that power against one another, no heavy force required. the existing power-story was strong. our presence, our resistance, our consent to their story was all the power they needed.   

Tanya, brave in warrior wisdom, approached the security guard once more before we left, opening space for possibility.

“what would you do if i was your daughter?” she asked.

he looked at her straight, listening.

“how would you feel if your daughter had saved up to buy this concert ticket, excited as anything to see her favorite reggae star, only to get locked out for showing up two minutes past 8 on account of a meaningless technicality no one even cares about?”   

he shook his head, taking a few steps back, still looking at her through the slits of space between the iron bars. we watched from afar, ready to feel his heart in our heart.

“that’s a good question,” he said finally, hands in his pockets, gaze at the ground. in his expression, i watched the story slip-up, ever so slightly.

it was 9:07. time for us to get going now.  

“they’ve got some good reggae at that porch-party…” i joked, locking the car doors behind us from the inside. we laughed a little bit. and kept the windows up.   

not-so-ghetto girls, after all.

not by the looks of us, anyway.


“does that dude stand there all day?” i asked a friend as we drove past the new police stand towering high over the center of town, fresh blue paint just in time for the tourist high season.

he must be dripping sweat, i thought; long pants, long sleeves, long summer days of double revolver holsters at his hips, ready and willing to keep us safe.    

Santa brought 300 cops to our surf-party town of Jaco this holiday season. stopping traffic, searching cars, giving tickets, taking bribes. their presence, our present, felt heavy to hold.  

shiny pick-up trucks and death-defying equipment their new gifts from China and Canada, the majority of their police training is now homegrown, Costa Rican citizens and business owners footing the bill for the new National Police Academy. with security force higher-ups now freshly educated at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Bennings, Georgia (formerly called the School of the Americas, an institution best known for training Latin America’s military leaders responsible for countless citizen massacres, hundreds of thousands of instances of extra-judicial killings, disappearances, torture and cover-ups throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and today), Costa Rican cops come equipped with a hand-me-down specialization in counterinsurgency, the fancy word for crushing internal resistance with force and suppressing civilian threats to the national and hemispheric security apparatus, by any means necessary.

following orders never felt better.  

no army since 1948. 

feels safe, don’t it?

just don’t forget your neon jacket in the jungle.   

pura vida police-state now in open season.


meanwhile, in mid-November, in our sleepy rural town of San Pablo de Turrubares, population 800, we learn that our friend Sara Sandi Gonzales - celebrating her 50th birthday last May, loving mother of Karla and Josue and grandmother of Jason, a woman with a laugh to light up an entire village - was found dead in the river, a slit at her throat, a bullet hole through her head.

her abusive ex-boyfriend she had done well to finally leave, however beaten and bruised he had left her, had left town just after the deed – a dead man walking, if her family had anything to say about it.

not a doubt in anyone’s mind, the police couldn’t find enough evidence to make his guilt stick, not even when they caught up to him at his cousin’s house, halfway to nowhere from here.

no guilt. no justice. not even a little bit. not even at all.

blood on his hands, unresolved grief in our hearts. his soul, safe for now, sleeps easy; faultless feet walk free.


in (un)related news...

on Christmas day, they found the note next to his bleeding head, dead. he would leave nothing to his wife, everything to his two children. after all, it was all her fault, he said.

the chief of police left an already-shaken town with 800 questions he’d never hear, 800 answers they’d go on living without. 

their beacon of hope for justice, order and security decided he’d rather be dead instead.


so that’s our story. law. justice. security. power. 

right and wrong just a matter of following orders, doing what we’re told.

and so it goes, they say. 

whether we like it 

or not.

we watch it unravel, this story of ours. the pages worn, the edges threadbare. reading it now, we’re thinking it might be time for a new plot twist, perhaps a fresh ending this read-through.

our story, we ask, 

do we like it?

or not?

will we re-write it?

or not?

right it?

or walk away?

the power is ours.

hey, hey, what do you say?