After glossing over the syllabus for my Modern Latin American History class during our first lecture, I couldn’t help but notice one glaring exemption – Costa Rica was not mentioned anywhere; not in the quiz schedule, not in the lecture material, not in any of the readings or the study guides. When I asked the Professor why this was he shrugged and explained that when studying history we tend to focus our attention on the countries with turbulent pasts; countries with wars, revolutions, class struggles, and events we can analyze. This was understandable, especially in a class that covered such a large area over such a large period of time. Compared to Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, Costa Rica had it easy. They had been a stable functioning democracy since the short-lived “revolution” in 1948, and even before then they were a fairly established, independent, self-governing society. I asked about its tourism industry, knowing the professor specialized in the history of tourism and that Costa Rica was renowned for its beautiful black and white sand beaches, good surfing, and laid back Rastafarian atmosphere. He shrugged again. As far as tourism went, Costa Rica was doing it right. They weren’t compromising their majestic cloud or rainforests, polluting their waters, or isolating their land into privately owned resorts, but rather preserving them through ecologically friendly efforts. Their culture, being heavily influenced by the United States and typical Western culture, was already friendly and accessible to American and European tourists alike.
While we were having this conversation, I was overly aware of my wrist where my favorite souvenirs from my time in the land of “Pura Vida” were tied: two simple bracelets – one bought from a street side artisan vendor in the city of San Jose and another given to me by the Nicaraguan refugee children I taught in the slum of Carpio, just east of the capital. While I couldn’t help but agreeing with a lot of what he was saying, I also knew from the six weeks I had just spent in that country that Costa Rica had its own demons it was still fighting.
The largest of these was the Latin idea of machismo. Prevalent in many Latin American countries, Costa Rica was no exception. For the most part, women are expected to stay in the home and raise the children, especially in the more rural areas away from San Jose. In that way, staying at home as a woman became a social symbol. If you had a husband with a good enough job that allowed you to stay home, you would. During our six week stay, we lived with a Tico family of four in the suburb of San Pedro. The mother, Duerin, stayed at home while the father, Oscar, worked two jobs to support the family. He was gone before we left the house at 7 each morning and returned well after we had retired to our bedrooms around 9 that evening. She did all of the cooking, cleaning, and chores around the house – except on the weekend. On the weekends the social order seemed to be turned on its head. Oscar seemed to get home from work early and would not only take those two days to play and take of their two children, Pamela and Samuel, but after every meal he would do the dishes and help clean up after the meals. A few houses down the road, where my friend Stanley was staying with Oscar’s parents, every weekend signaled the Papa Tico that it was his turn to wake up early and make breakfast to give his wife a break from cooking every morning. According to Stanley, his gallo pinto (a traditional breakfast dish made from rice, onion, black beans and other spices) was even better than his wife’s.
However, in the urban center it was not unusual to see women – especially younger women – walking to and from the banks where they were tellers, or from the many hospitals downtown where they were performing their residencies to become nurses. Teaching seemed to be an occupation dominated by women. In the school where I volunteered, there were only four males on the staff of 50– one of which was the principal. Very rarely were these women married, meaning a majority of the women I interacted with had either never been married or had been divorced. Take for instance, Ruth, one of the English teachers we volunteered with. When I was there, she was putting herself through school at the local university and teaching during the day, while raising three children as a single mother because her husband had an affair and left her a few years before. This kind of family dynamic is becoming the norm. With single-mother- headed households on the rise in Costa Rica, it is hard to see where women – who are traditionally kept out of the work force because of familial obligation – will fit into the economic system. Because of this 24% of mother-only families are below the poverty line, especially those in the rural area, outside of San Jose. They tend to take jobs at maids, cleaners and other forms of work with subservient pay and unstable job retention. And, due to its legal practice in the country, some women become prostitutes.
Luckily, I only had one run-in with this practice in the six weeks I lived in the country. A group of friends and I were walking a few blocks north of the central avenue, in a more posh area of the city. There were European style hotels that obviously catered to a higher tourist clientele, and on the corner by a Swill style chateau there were two women clearly dressed to signal their profession. We were a little shocked, especially because a cop car was parked a few blocks away and our American sensibilities were telling us that the cop car should be arresting them, or at least telling them to scatter. It wasn’t until later when I did a little research that I realized where they were located was no accident. While Tico men frequent prostitutes, sex tourism is a large source of the industry. Men from other countries come to Costa Rica for the explicit purpose of having sex with a Tica (while women come from other countries as well, a significant majority of sexual tourists to Costa Rica are men). Unfortunately, it has also created an off-shoot of illegal child prostitution. Thankfully the Costa Rican government has cracked down on this practice in the last few years, but there were signs throughout the community that showed it was still an issue. Driving to my project everyday on the bus there was a billboard with a pair of sad, brown eyes looking out at you. Underneath it reads “I am not a tourist attraction.” If that wasn’t jarring enough, the first thing you see when you exit the ‘international arrivals’ gate at the San Jose airport is a cardboard cutout of a police officer holding a sign that says “having sex with a minor (under 18 years) is illegal.” However, this is made difficult by the legality of prostitution for those over the age of 18 as differentiated between the over 18 and under 18 line can be difficult. The United States had aided in attempting to halt their citizens from practicing child prostitution by making it a federal crime to have sex with a minor in another country, and hopefully the Costa Rican government will continue to reduce this occurrence of this practice.
American and other western influences are seen in other areas of society. Fashion and style trends are very similar to what is seen in the American media. Women are never seen out in public without full-make-up and heels. Whether going to the movie or to the market, women always wear heels. All clothes, including women’s medical scrubs are tailored to show of female curves. American media has also changed the perception of American women in the country. Without fail, unless I was walking with Stanley, and even sometimes when I was with Stanley, I would get shouted or whistled at by Tico men on the street. Female volunteers were repeatedly told never to go anywhere by ourselves or with another girl at night and were given a very strict dress code. While Tica’s consistently wore low-cut shirts, short skirts, and no sleeves, we were told to have our knees, shoulders, and chests covered at all times. Even with those guidelines, there were still some issues of intense sexual harassment.
That being said, there were some less obvious differences, some good and some not. While travelling in the tourist city of La Fortuna, we were waiting for the bus back to San Jose, and a woman sat there breast-feeding her baby in public with no cover. It happened again in downtown San Jose in thePlaza del Oro. The women didn’t receive any odd looks as if it were a completely normal occurrence. This was starkly different from the US where a women breast-feeding in public, even with a cover, is bound to get judgmental looks. However, in a less positive vein, the first time I saw a woman with obvious signs of having been physically abused, I was sad to realize I was the only one who seemed disturbed by the bruises on her arms, cheeks, and eyes. The second time I saw this I noticed the same thing – I was the only one on the bus obviously disturbed by this. Or course, it could mean several different things. It could be that there was a social stigma against openly staring at a woman who was abused. It could be that it happened so often that other people, including other women, did not notice it anymore. It could also mean that, as these women were Nicaraguan immigrants (once derogatorily described to me as ‘the Mexicans of Costa Rica’ by a native Tico) that ‘their’ abuses weren’t worth caring about because they were already draining money from the system. In any case, this indifference was incredibly disturbing and left me feeling unsettled for days afterwards.
At the WomanStats project we have a saying: “once a coder, always a coder.” You’re trained to see the world and its anecdotes as data points that display an overarching attitude of a country. By experiencing Costa Rica through this lens, I realized how important this project is to humanity across the globe. There are many, many good things about Costa Rica – in fact, the good outweigh the bad. The people are happy, have a stable government, and a strong sense of religious community and social and ecological responsibility. I could not begin to count the number of times I saw men and boys stand up on the bus so a woman with a small child or an elderly person could have their seat; likewise not a week would go by without me witnessing a total stranger reaching out to help take care of or comfort a child that was not their own. However, there are some things that need fixing as well. The goal for the country and its citizens now is to keep the good while purging itself of the bad.