The perspective of a Tico, written by a foreigner.
Prior to this trip, all of my knowledge regarding Costa Rica came from a wildly colorful guidebook that condensed hundreds of years of history and culture into a book the size of my palm. This condensing of history naturally led to some false notions about the Tico population, and the country in general. After attending a lecture of local Professor Joaquin Lizano, I have a greater understanding of Costa Rica’s realities, and where the country’s reputation merges with its actual way of life. Costa Rica is known as the happiest country in the world. Costa rica is known for paving the way in sustainability. The people of Costa Rica are known for their friendliness and sense of Tico identity. Is this too good to be true? This answer, or as much of an answer as I can come up with, lies within the “why” of Costa Rican history.
The first paradox that I will explore is the notion of Costa Rican identity, specifically regarding race. In America (I say “America” referring to the United States, not the actual continents, which will come into play later), race is a controversial issue still today, due to our complex history with slavery and discrimination. However, in Costa Rica, as I have read in my guidebook, race is not an issue; social hierarchies are determined by socioeconomic class, not race. As I have learned today, this is not entirely true. Those with darker skin, especially nicaraguans, may be looked down upon and persecuted, as Ticos identify as ‘white’. This confused me, as I do not completely understand the connotation of the word “gringo” around here, despite the fact that it literally translates to “white”. During the lecture, I also noticed that when talking about Costa Rica, Professor Lizano said “in America”. I found this extremely interesting, because yes, Latin America is technically America, as is anywhere in South America. But the terms ‘America’ or ‘American’ have taken on the meaning of usually referring to the United States. As the Ticos see all twenty of us walking around with our backpacks and cameras out, they’d likely refer to us as gringos or Americans, yet they also consider themselves white, and in America. This is contradictory, and when I ask myself “why?”, I realize that I do not have a clear answer.
On a lighter note, I finally understand why there are no addresses in Costa Rica. Many seemingly illogical systems present in the country can be explained through looking into the Tico mindset. Lizano calls it “rural ideology”; I equate it to the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Costa Rica is small, so most people in the towns and provinces know where the basic landmarks are, or even used to be. So if you tell someone that you live in the green house, 200 meters past the closed down Burger King, they will know where you are talking about. And again in the rural areas, giving directions would be based around commonly known landmarks. The system works for Ticos; they know their way around, so why would they go through the hassle of assigning street names and addresses? If these addresses were assigned, it’s likely that Ticos would keep on using landmarks as reference points anyways.
Lastly, since I am touring two coffee plantations tomorrow, it is only fitting that I explore the significance of coffee in Costa Rica. Why is it that coffee, despite now only making up 2.5% of the country’s GDP, is such a momentous artifact of Costa Rican culture? The answer is rooted back the country’s early years of independence. Juan Mora Fernandez’s desire to expand the coffee industry created monumental social alterations, and brought the country an abundant source of wealth. The expansion of smaller coffee plantations led to a booming middle class, which served as the basis for the sense of egalitarianism that many feel is present in Costa Rica. The new middle class allowed for a revolution of education. With the new revenue from coffee, more families were able to send their children to school. With their new found wealth, the middle class also had power. Decisions regarding the fate of the country were no longer decided solely by the elite. Coffee gave the people a voice. So although coffee is not the economic savior that it once was, coffee signifies more than wealth. It is something that Ticos can all gather around. Coffee has heavily influenced Tico culture throughout the nation’s history.
Today’s lecture has been enlightening, as it provided the opportunity to understand some of the notions thrown around about Costa Rica, from the perspective of a Tico. It was eye opening to hear criticism of famous Tico figures, and the other side to some of Costa Rica’s most marketable features (think sustainability, equality, happiness, etc.). Ultimately, some questions about Costa Rican history do not have a clear answer, while others can be discovered by delving a little deeper into the history and context of this complex nation.