by Cida S. Chase
Slightly smaller than West Virginia, Costa Rica has an area of 19,652 square miles (51,032 square kilometers). Its terrain is rugged and divided from north to south by a central mountain range that separates the eastern and western coastal plains. Costa Rica is located in the southern end of Central America and bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the south by Panama. Its climate is tropical and subtropical, varying according to altitude and distance from the coasts.
Costa Rica has a population of 3,000,000 with an annual growth rate of 2.5 percent. Almost 30 percent (890,434) of its population lives in the capital city of San José. Ninety-six percent of the total population is from European stock, including some mestizos, while three percent is of black descent and one percent is indigenous; a small percentage of its inhabitants are Asian. Ninety-five percent of the Costa Rican population is Roman Catholic, although the Mormon, Christian, Baptist, and other Protestant churches are gaining significant numbers of members. In addition, Costa Rica is home to a small number of Jews. The country's official language is Spanish, although a Jamaican dialect of English is spoken in some areas of the Atlantic coast, especially Puerto Limón. The Costa Rican flag comprises two blue horizontal stripes (top and bottom), two white inner stripes, and a wide red central band with the national coat of arms in the center. The latter portrays the geography of the country; the central massif is signified by three mountain peaks in the center of two oceans, each featuring a Spanish ship. A rising sun to the left and a blue sky crowned by seven stars represent the seven provinces of the country: Alajuela, Cartágo, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, and San José.
Europeans first set foot in Costa Rica in 1502, when Christopher Columbus arrived during his fourth and last voyage to the New World. Formal settlement of the territory began in 1522, and for 300 years the Spanish administered its colony under a military governor as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
Costa Rica acquired its name when the Spanish, expecting to find an abundance of gold, named it "Rich Coast." However, as there was little gold and few other valuable minerals in the area, the new settlers turned to agriculture for survival. Moreover, as the indigenous population was rather small, the Spanish were unable to establish an extensive forced labor system. Consequently, Costa Rica developed differently from other Latin American nations. The small landowners' modest standard of living, the people's ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and the isolation from the large colonial centers of Mexico and South America produced a rather independent, individualist agrarian society.
Costa Rica obtained its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821, without bloodshed, after other Central American colonies had fought the Spanish to gain it. In fact, Costa Ricans learned about their independence months after it had been declared. Costa Rica joined the other Central American provinces in an 1821 joint declaration of independence from Spain. These newly created nations formed a confederation, which border disputes soon dissolved. Costa Rica acquired Guanacaste, its northernmost province, from Nicaragua after one of these border disputes. Since 1838, when it declared itself a sovereign nation, Costa Rica has enjoyed an independent existence, which it has zealously maintained. In 1856 the country was invaded by 240 filibusters commanded by William Walker, who had decided to conquer Central America on his own accord, and the Costa Ricans promptly took up arms to defend their territory. The Costa Rican national hero, Juan Santamaría, emerged when he burned down the filibusters' headquarters in Santa Rosa.
Costa Rica's egalitarian traditions have subsisted throughout its history. Even though the introduction of banana and coffee plantations in the nineteenth century gave rise to a small oligarchy, the nation has been able to maintain a strong middle class that sustains the nation's democratic ideals. The modern era of democracy in Costa Rica began after the elections of 1889, which are considered the first free elections in the country's history. This democratic tradition has experienced problems only twice: once in 1917 and 1918 when Federico Tinoco declared his government a dictatorship; and again in 1948 when a disputed election brought forth a civil war in which more than 2,000 people lost their lives. After the civil war, a junta drafted a new constitution, which guaranteed free elections with universal suffrage and the abolition of the army. José Figueres, who emerged as a hero during the Civil War, became the first president under the new constitution.
The most prominent Costa Rican of the modern era is probably Oscar Arias Sánchez, who was president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990, a significantly troublesome time in Central America, with disturbances in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama. Although Costa Rica enjoyed peace within its borders, it was not insulated from regional conflicts. The instability in the neighboring countries at this time discouraged investment and tourism. Moreover, the country experienced a flood of Nicaraguan and Salvadoran refugees, which drained the economy and burdened educational and health institutions.
In 1987 President Sánchez designed a regional peace plan—the Esquipulas Process, which became the basis for the peace agreement signed by the presidents of most of the other Central American nations. This peace plan brought about free and open elections in Nicaragua and the subsequent end of the civil war in that country. Arias' peace accomplishments in the region earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. The Nobel prize money was used to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which maintains three centers of funding: the Center for Human Progress, funding programs for the advancement of women; the Center for Peace and Reconciliation, working for Central American conflict resolution and prevention programs; and the Center for Philanthropy, promoting the participation of non-profit organizations in the building of just and peaceful societies.
Costa Ricans who have emigrated and settled in the United States do not exhibit the same characteristics as many other Hispanic groups. They have not had to flee their country as refugees from political oppression or from extreme economic circumstances. Consequently, there have never been waves of Costa Rican emigrants. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records show that very few Costa Ricans have tried to enter the country illegally.
Costa Ricans who have decided to immigrate to the United States include the following general categories: they have married Americans and raised their families in the United States; they have been hired to work in the United States after completing a degree in an American university; they have come seeking research opportunities which are not so readily available in their country; or they have come to various jobs and trades in the United States.
Only 57,661 Costa Ricans have immigrated to the United States since 1931. Hence, the number of Costa Rican emigrants has been increasing at an extremely slow rate, which is significantly different from the pattern of emigration from most other Central American countries. The other two countries in this region that show a continuously slow rate of emigration are Belize and Panama.
As Costa Ricans immigrate to the United States, they tend to establish their residences in the states of California, Florida, Texas, and the New York City/New Jersey area. The geographical preferences of Costa Ricans, evident in the statistics from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, are consistent with the findings of the 1990 census. The latter reports the largest concentration of Costa Rican Americans in Los Angeles and its surrounding areas (23,625). The next largest group is located in the New York City area, including parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island (12,985). The third largest group is in Miami and surrounding areas, in the Hialeah district, and in Fort Lauderdale (9,987). The concentration of Costa Rican Americans in the Houston and Galveston area of Texas (2,534) is also evident in the 1990 census. There is also a significant Costa Rican American population in the Chicago, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana, areas (1,845).
Since there are relatively fewer Costa Rican Americans than other Hispanic groups in the United States, they normally do not form communities or barrios, as is usually the case with Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and other Central American Hispanic groups, such as Salvadoran Americans and Guatemalan Americans. Costa Ricans tend to disappear in the English-speaking multitudes or form working and friendly relationships with other Hispanics, celebrating with them when the occasion arises.
Although Costa Rican Americans tend to maintain their heritage, they also tend to integrate and adjust to their environment quickly, especially if they want to join a church or if they have children in the public school system. If both parents speak Spanish, chances are that the children will be raised bilingually. However, if only one parent speaks Spanish, the children will usually grow up speaking only English.
Since Costa Ricans did not suffer ethnic persecution during the colonial period, nor did they have a violent war of independence, they are not as self-conscious about their ethnicity as other Hispanic groups. Therefore, they usually acculturate and assimilate rather rapidly.
Costa Rica has a number of traditions that have survived. Every year in the month of December, the Costa Rican people enjoy their fiestas cívicas, which are similar to the state fairs in the United States. In addition to the varied types of food available and the usual midway entertainment, there are simulated bullfights, in which youths try their luck "fighting" balloon decorated toros guacos (mean bulls), by pulling their tails and touching their rumps.
Many of the Costa Rican traditions are religious. The small towns hold Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions, during which people contemplate Jesus in his suffering. The most impressive procession takes place on Good Friday, for it is the day on which people are able to see Jesus in his Santo Sepulcro (Holy Sepulcher). Every year on August 2, Costa Rican people celebrate the romería de la Virgen de los Angeles (the pilgrimage of the Holy Mother of the Angels) by making a 20-kilometer trip on foot from San José to Cartágo, where the sanctuary of the patron saint of the country is located.
Although these traditions have not been transported to the United States, Costa Rican Americans try to maintain several other traditions. Such is the case of the tradition of the Rosario del Niño, wherein families prepare a special nativity scene for Christmas that does not display the Christ Child figure in the manger until December 25. The nativity scene remains in its place until January 6, the Epiphany (the twelfth night after Christmas). After that date, families celebrate the rosary with a group of friends who bring over their small children. After the recitation of the rosary, the families have a party that includes ice cream and cake and, if possible, Costa Rican foods.
Costa Ricans believe in calling upon Jesus and the saints for assistance when they are in need or in danger. Each saint is thought to have a special mission or to be able to satisfy a particular need. Costa Ricans pray to Saint Anthony, for example, if something has been lost or misplaced.
Not all the Costa Rican popular beliefs are religious in nature, however. Costa Rican people are believers in herbal medicine. Many of them know that gargling with a solution of boiled rue (a strong-scented plant of the genus Ruta ) leaves will cure a sore throat. Liquefied and strained raw eggplant is thought to lower the cholesterol level and purify the blood. A popular cure for stomach discomfort is to drink liquid in which rhubarb or camomile has been boiled. Costa Ricans also prepare a variety of herbal teas to soothe the nerves. Teas prepared with linden, orange, and lemon blossoms are supposed to relax a person and allow him or her to fall asleep at night.
Conservative Costa Ricans bring many of these customs and beliefs with them to the United States and continue to practice them as long as they can. However, as they assimilate into American society, many of their original popular cultural beliefs become less important. Consequently, second- and third-generation Costa Rican Americans may have minimal knowledge about them.
If the opportunity arises, Costa Ricans share with others their native costume, which for women consists of a white peasant blouse decorated with embroidery or ribbon work and a colorful ankle-length full skirt. Men wear white peasant shirts and long white pants. In addition, they frequently wear a colorful handkerchief around the neck and a straw hat. Both men and women wear sandals and women braid colorful ribbons into their hair. Costa Rican Americans also celebrate all the American holidays, adopting typical American customs and holiday food.
Numerous Costa Rican proverbs come from the Spanish culture and hence they exist in many other Hispanic countries. However, there are some colorful sayings that seem to be typically Costa Rican or appear to be favorite phrases of the people's language: "At night all cats are grey" (People can get away with things that they would not normally do in the daytime); "Between husband and wife not even a pin's head should intervene;" "When times become difficult put on a happy face;" "An egg-eating dog will not break his habit even if one burns his mouth;" "Tuesday is not a good day to make serious decisions or to adventure away from home;" "Skinny dogs get fleas;" "A full tummy gives you a happy heart;" and "A guilty party is afraid of being caught."
Costa Rican expressions are often used to imply definite ideas about something or someone. For example: "To become smoke" means to disappear as when someone goes out of sight; "To be as if travelling between Bagaces and Liberia" (two cities from the northern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste) means to be idle—another expression for this same idea is "To be combing the snake's hair;" "To find someone with his hands in the dough" means to find someone in the act of doing something wrong; "To be walking with lead feet" is to be acting very cautiously about something. In addition, people refer to a lady who has never married as someone who has "missed the train" by saying la dejó el tren or, "The train left her." Many other picturesque proverbs and sayings enrich Costa Rican Americans' Spanish.
Costa Rican cuisine is mild, free of hot and spicy sauces, and usually seasoned with herbs. Black pepper is used sparingly, but fresh cilantro, thyme, oregano, onion, garlic, pimento, and tomato are fundamental ingredients in the preparation of meats, soups, and vegetable hashes. A variety of beef cuts, including tongue and kidneys, are baked or simmered for long periods of time in herbal sauces until they are tender and flavorful. Chicken and pork are prepared in similar ways.
Complete daily meals may include a meat dish, a vegetable hash, white rice, black or red beans, a lettuce and tomato salad, corn tortillas or crusty white bread, and a fresh fruit drink. If the meal includes dessert, it is probably fruit; cakes, pastries, caramel flan, and ice cream are reserved for special occasions, holidays, or the afternoon tea. The traditional salad dressing is made of oil and vinegar, but mayonnaise is a favorite dressing for heart of palm and fresh pea salad. Vegetable hashes, which include a small amount of beef, are made of cubed potatoes, chayote squash with fresh corn, and green plantains. Beef or vegetable soups are also popular in Costa Rica. Black bean soup served with fresh herbs, and a boiled egg with white rice is a favorite side dish.
Holiday meals include meat tamales—meat-flavored cornmeal and mashed potatoes stuffed with meat, saffron rice, olives, a few garbanzo beans, green peas, pimentos, a wedge of boiled egg, and prunes or raisins. These tamales usually come in four-by-six-inch rectangles wrapped in banana leaves; each one is a meal in itself. Holiday meals also include a main dish of chicken and rice prepared with added vegetables and raisins. Ensalada rusa, Russian salad, is also a must at a holiday meal. It consists of diced potatoes, fresh beets, and green peas all cooked separately and brought together with a mayonnaise sauce, which sometimes includes diced canned heart of palm. This salad, which is very similar to what the Russians call "vinaigrette," must have come to Costa Rica via some of the early European settlers. During Holy Week, Costa Rican cuisine includes a variety of vegetarian dishes, including small sweet tamales and a dessert called dulce de chiverre prepared with a variety of spaghetti squash.
Like many Costa Rican folk dances, the Costa Rican national dance, the punto guanacasteco, comes from the province of Guanacaste. Couples wear traditional costumes and follow a melody played with a marimba (a type of wooden xylophone) and several guitars. This dance, like other popular dances, portrays the courting traditions of the past. The male dancer always follows his female partner and the latter, while smiling, pretends to get away from him. The male dancer periodically stops the music by shouting " ¡Bomba !" so that he may recite humorous praises, called bombas, to his lady. A traditional bomba goes as follows: " Dicen que no me quieres / porque no tengo bigote / mañana me lo pondré / con plumas de zopilote. " (They say that you don't love me / because I don't have a mustache / tomorrow I shall put one on / made out of buzzard feathers.)
Costa Rican folk songs are nostalgic, featuring ballad-like melodies. The lyrics praise the beauty of the country's women and the landscape as they tell of the sorrows of love. Costa Rican Americans enjoy sharing their songs and dances during community or school Hispanic festivities.
Costa Rica's government-sponsored health-care system deserves much of the credit for the good health of Costa Ricans. Medical attention in that country is not only superior to that of most of Latin America, but surpasses the health services available in many communities in the United States. According to Tom Barry in his book Costa Rica: A Country Guide, infant deaths are fewer than 18 per 1,000 compared with 79 per 1,000 in Guatemala. Moreover, life expectancy is 74 years for males and 76 for females—the highest in Central America.
During the 1980s, Costa Ricans were able to arrest the spread of illnesses brought into the country by the flood of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugees thanks to their health facilities and their effective methods of disseminating information regarding health issues. Malaria and tuberculosis, which had been eradicated from the country years before, began to appear with the arrival of refugees, but the immediate medical attention given to this issue brought an end to the problem.
Since Costa Rican emigrants customarily follow the rules established by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, they have formal documentation on their good state of health upon entering the country. In addition, they acquire medical insurance, looking after their health and the health of their children. There is no evidence of physical or mental health problems unique to Costa Rican Americans.
Costa Ricans are sometimes called ticos because of their insistence on using the diminutive forms of Spanish words, which often end in "ico," such as chiquitico, coming from chico meaning "small." When used with the "ico" suffix, the meaning becomes "tiny, very tiny." The Costa Rican word chirrisco or chirrisca means "very small," but many people, dissatisfied with conveying the idea of just "very small" add the suffix "ico" or "ica," making the word chirrisquitico or chirrisquitica —meaning "extremely small." Moreover, Costa Rican oral Spanish exhibits the regional characteristic called el voseo, also found in the southern parts of South America. El voseo is the use of " vos " instead of " tú " as the second person singular familiar of the language. Speakers make the verbs agree with the form " vos " as in " Vos vivís en los Estados Unidos " (You live in the United States), instead of saying " Tú vives en los Estados Unidos, " as one says in most of the Hispanic world. Although this form is more prominent in the spoken language, increasingly more Costa Rican writers are using it. Costa Rican Americans are likely to lose the use of el voseo as they relate to Hispanics of other origins, who do not use it in their speech. Also, Spanish courses in the United States usually do not study this regional form.
Costa Rican Spanish is also marked by a softly pronounced double "r," which means that the prominently trilled initial "r" or "rr" of the Spanish language is missing in the language of most Costa Ricans. However, Costa Ricans generally are careful speakers of Spanish. They pronounce distinctly all the letters in the words, and sound out the final "s," which is not always the case in the speech of other regions of Latin America and Southern Spain.
As has happened in many lands of Latin America, indigenous languages have enriched Costa Rican Spanish with a number of vocabulary items. There are words ending in "ate," "te," and "tle," such as zacate (grass), mecate (rope), chayote (a type of squash), quelite (tender ends of the chayote vine), and tepeizcuinte or tepeizcuitle (paca or spotted cavy, a rodent larger than a rabbit), which are part of the everyday speech of the people. Although this type of vocabulary is not as abundant in Costa Rica as it is in other Central American countries and Mexico, its presence in Costa Rica stands as a trace of the country's ancient indigenous past.
Costa Ricans have generally conservative family values and relationships. A family, to many of them, must have a father, a mother, and children. Like many other Hispanic groups, the Costa Rican families tend to be patriarchal in nature, and extended family members have authority roles. The father is the undisputed head of the household, and the elderly members of the extended family are both respected and obeyed.
A traditional Costa Rican home usually has the presence of an elderly grandmother, grandfather, aunt, or uncle, who assists in the rearing of the children when their health allows them to do so. However, as modern life has become more complicated for women, and it is sometimes not possible to keep an elderly relative in the home, residential homes and condominiums for the elderly and the retired are becoming fashionable in Costa Rica. Costa Ricans are a gregarious people. They get together with their relatives and friends as often as possible.
The weekend and holiday afternoon tea is an institution in Costa Rica. Extended family members and friends invite each other for five o'clock tea in order to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. This afternoon tea, which constitutes almost a complete meal, including a main dish and a dessert, is also a favorite activity for wedding showers and class reunions. The afternoon tea has become a substitute for supper in modern Costa Rica and occasionally; instead of taking place in the home, as it was in the past, people may gather in a restaurant.
As young Costa Ricans immigrate to the United States, however, they tend to lose their cultural heritage. Once they have a family of their own, however, they often reclaim their ancestral customs. They form close-knit family ties and may experience disappointment when their children grow up and seek early independence, following the example of their peers of other ethnic backgrounds. In addition, Costa Ricans, as many other Hispanics, frequently receive in their homes visiting relatives from Costa Rica, who come for the holidays to see their American children and grandchildren. They also provide a temporary home for relatives' children, whose parents send them to spend the summer in the United States.
Babies are baptized in the church shortly after they are born, receiving a first and a middle name, one of which is normally a saint's name. The baby's parents select the godparents from among their relatives or their closest friends. The godparents will take responsibility for raising the child within the guidelines of the church if for some reason the baby's parents lose their lives. Godparents are also obliged to look after the child if he or she should be in need.
Holding a wake for someone who has died is an important Costa Rican custom. People believe that the deceased must not be left alone while lying in state, and relatives and friends pray devoutly for his or her soul during the wake and thereafter. The deceased's family offers refreshments to the visitors who call throughout the night of the wake. After a relative's funeral, families and their friends pray the rosary for nine evenings, offering refreshments after each night's prayers. Masses are said for the deceased's soul at the ninth day and also after the first month has passed. Relatives and friends also attend subsequent anniversary masses for the deceased.
Costa Ricans gather with friends for civic celebrations. It is customary to celebrate Independence Day in Costa Rica (September 15) with parades and school assemblies. Costa Rican Americans welcome the opportunity of celebrating with friends whether they are countrymen or people from other ethnic backgrounds. They also join other Hispanics in their celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo (May 5) and September 16, which are Mexican American holidays.
Roman Catholicism is the official, traditional, and dominant religion in Costa Rica. After the government, the Catholic church is the most powerful institution in the country. Monsignor Sanabria, the Archbishop of San José in the 1940s, organized and strengthened the modern church, guiding it toward social activism. His work promoted the foundation of church-oriented social organizations such as the Catholic Action, Young Catholic Workers, and a labor union called the Rerum Novarum. This religious social orientation was weakened somewhat during the 1950s when the Partido Liberación Nacional, characterized by its conservatism, dominated the political arena and frowned on liberal social organizations.
Although they have great respect for the church, most Costa Ricans, especially those belonging to the middle class, maintain an independent, personal view of church policies in regard to sensitive issues such as birth control and abortion. Barry describes Costa Ricans' personal attitude: "Catholics in Costa Rica are eclectic believers, whose most fervent expressions of faith are evoked during Holy Week and at the baptism, marriage, or death of family members. Over 80 percent of Costa Rican Catholics do not attend mass regularly." Although people have deep religious beliefs, they follow the dictates of their own conscience in church matters.
Members of other denominations, such as the Mormon, Baptist and other evangelical churches, are also numerous in Costa Rica. Churches whose membership has been rising are the Assemblies of God, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostal Holiness Church, Church of the Nazarene, Association of Bible Churches of Costa Rica, and the Association of Christian Churches.
Costa Rican immigrants to the United States maintain the religious practices of their childhood. They look for a church in which they feel welcome. If the church offers services in Spanish, they are happy to worship with members of the Hispanic community.
Rima de Vallbona, born March 15, 1931 in San José, Costa Rica, has taught Latin American Literature and Civilization at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, since 1964; her novels and short stories depict feminine characters trying to understand the world: Mujeres y agonías ( Women and Grief, 1982), Mundo, demonio y mujer ( World, Demon and Woman, 1991) Los infiernos de la mujer y algo más ( Women's Inferno and Something Else, 1992) are three of her most acclaimed works. Victoria Urbano, born June 4, 1926, taught Spanish literature at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, from 1966 until her death on October 8, 1984; in addition to founding the Asociación de literatura femenina hispánica (Association of Hispanic Feminine Literature) in the United States, Urbano published numerous short stories and poems; her Los nueve círculos ( The Nine Circles 1970) and Exodos incontables ( Innumerable Exodus 1982), published in Spain and Uruguay, are frequently studied in Spanish American centers.
Franklin Chang-Díaz, born in San José, Costa Rica, April 5, 1950, is a physical scientist; after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1973 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he obtained a doctorate in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977; at the University of Connecticut he helped design and construct high-energy atomic collision experiments; as a graduate student he worked in the United States' controlled fusion program, doing intensive research in the design and operation of fusion reactors; after obtaining his doctorate, he joined the technical staff of the Draper Laboratory, working on the design and integration of control systems for fusion reactor concepts and experimental devices; in 1979, he developed a concept to guide and target fuel pellets in an inertial fusion reactor chamber; since then he has been working on the implementation of a new concept in rocket propulsion based on magnetically confined high-temperature plasmas. Chang-Díaz became an astronaut in August 1981 and continues to do research work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
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Biesanz, Richard, Karen Zubris Biesanz, and Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz. The Costa Ricans. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Costa Rica in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1987.
Costa Rica and Uruguay, edited by Simon Rottenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.