Way of Life
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- Best Surfing Beaches in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
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Most Costa Ricans—Los Costarricense, or Ticos—insist that their country is a “classless democracy.” There is considerable social mobility, and no race problem. A so-called middle-class mentality runs deep, including a belief in the Costa Rican equivalent of “the American Dream”—a conviction that through individual effort and sacrifice and a faith in schooling, every Costa Rican can climb the social ladder and better himself or herself. In 2009, the Happy Planet Index named Costa Ricans the “happiest” people in the world.
Despite its relative urban sophistication, Costa Rica remains a predominantly agrarian society. And despite the high value Ticos place on equality and democracy, their society contains all kinds of inequities. Urbanites, like city dwellers worldwide, condescendingly chuckle at rural “hicks.” And the upwardly mobile “elite,” who consider menial labor demeaning, prefer to indulge in conspicuous spending and, sometimes, in snobbish behavior.
Though comparatively wealthy compared to most Latin American countries, by developed-world standards most Costa Ricans are poor; the average income in the northern lowlands is barely one-seventh of that in San José. Many rural families still live in simple huts of adobe or wood; at least one-fifth of the population are marginados who live in poverty. More than half of rural homes lack clean drinking water, while almost one-third of urban homes lack clean water. Child labor exploitation is also a major issue, as is sexual crime against minors.
However, that all paints far too gloomy a picture. In a region where millions starve, the Costa Ricans are comparatively well-to-do. Most Costa Ricans keep their proud little bungalows tidy and bordered by flowers, and even the poorest are generally well groomed and neatly dressed.
Costa Rica is a class-conscious society. Nonetheless, overt class distinctions are kept within bounds by a delicate balance between “elitism” and egalitarianism unique in the isthmus: Aristocratic airs are frowned on and blatant pride in blue blood is ridiculed; even the president is inclined to mingle in public in casual clothing and is commonly addressed in general conversation by his first name or nickname.
The Tican Identity
Costa Ricans’ unique traits derive from a profoundly conscious self-image, which orients much of their behavior as both individuals and as a nation. The Ticos—the name is said to stem from the colonial saying “we are all hermaniticos” (little brothers)—feel distinct from their neighbors by their “whiteness” and relative lack of indigenous culture. Above all, the behavior and comments of most Ticos are dictated by quedar bien, a desire to leave a good impression. Like the English, they’re terribly frightened of embarrassing themselves and of appearing rude or vulgar. They often prefer to lie in lieu of telling you an unpleasant truth, which is considered rude and to be avoided.
Ticos are also hard to excite. They lack the volatility, ultranationalism, and deep-seated political divisions of their Latin American brethren. It is almost impossible to draw a Tico into a spirited debate or argument. They are loath to express or defend a position and simply walk away from arguments. Former president Figueres once accused Ticos of being as domesticated as sheep; they are not easily aroused to passionate defense of a position or cause. (As such, resentments fester and sneaky retributions—such as arson—are common.) The notion of democracy and the ideals of personal liberty are strongly cherished. Costa Ricans are intensely proud of their accomplishments in this arena and gloss over endemic theft, corruption, and fraud.
There is only a limited sense of personal responsibility among Ticos, who display an equally limited regard for the law. Their Bud Light culture has been called the “white bread” of Latin America. Many North American and European hoteliers and residents bemoan the general passivity that often translates into a lack of initiative. Nonetheless, they are savvy businessfolk with a bent for entrepreneurship.
The cornerstone of society is the family and the village community. Social life still centers on the home. Nepotism—using family ties and connections for gain—is the way things get done in business and government. But traditional values are severely challenged. Drunkenness among the working classes is common. Drug abuse has intruded (Costa Rica has become a major trading zone for cocaine traffic). And though many Ticos display a genuine concern for conservation, the ethic is still tentative among the population as a whole.
Machismo and the Status of Women
By the standards of many Latin American countries, the nation is progressive and successful in advancing the equal rights of women.
Women outnumber men in many occupations, notably in university faculties, and the nation has had several female vice presidents, including both vice presidents in the 1998–2001 Ángel Rodríguez administration.
Nonetheless, low-level occupations especially reflect wide discrepancies in wage levels for men and women. The greater percentage of lower-class women remains chained to the kitchen sink and the rearing of children. And gender relationships, particularly in rural villages, remain dominated to a greater or lesser degree by machismo and marianismo, its female equivalent. Women are supposed to be bastions of moral and spiritual integrity while accepting of men’s infidelities.
Legacies of the Spanish Catholic sense of “proper” gender roles are twined like tangled threads through the national fabric. The Latin male expresses his masculinity in amorous conquests, and the faithful husband and male celibate is suspect in the eyes of his friends. But it always takes two to tango. Hip urban Ticas have forsaken old-fashioned romanticism for a latter-day liberalism. Even in the most isolated rural towns, dating in the Western fashion has displaced the retreta—the circling of the central plaza by men and women on weekend evenings—and chaperones, once common, are now virtually unknown.
In fact, almost 10 percent of all Costa Rican adults live together in “free unions,” one-quarter of all children are hijos naturales (born out of wedlock), and one in five households is headed by a single mother. Compañeras, women in consensual relationships, enjoy the same legal rights as wives. Many rural households are so-called queen-bee (all-female) families headed by an elderly matriarch who looks after her grandchildren while the daughters work. Divorce is common and easily obtained under the Family Code of 1974, although desertion remains as it has for centuries “the poor man’s divorce.”
Perhaps the most impressive impact of Costa Rica’s modern welfare state has been the truly dramatic improvements in national health. Infant mortality has plummeted from 25.6 percent in 1920 to only 9.9 percent in 2010. And the average Costa Rican today can expect to live to a ripe 78.8 years—about as long as the average U.S.-born citizen.
One key to the nation’s success was the creation of the Program for Rural Health in 1970 to ensure that basic health care would reach the furthest backwaters. Costa Rica assigns about 10 percent of its GNP to health care, provided free of cost to all citizens. In fact, in some arenas (notably within the private field) the health-care system isn’t far behind that of the United States in terms of the latest medical technology, at least in San José, where transplant surgery is now performed. Many North Americans fly here for surgery, including dental work and cosmetic surgery.
Costa Ricans are a relatively highly educated people: The country boasts 96 percent literacy, the most literate populace in Central America (in 1869, the country became one of the first in the world to make education both obligatory and free).
Nonetheless, according to United Nations statistics, about 40 percent of Costa Rican teenagers drop out of school by the sixth grade or never gain access to secondary education (Panamá and El Salvador both outperform Costa Rica in secondary education). Almost 1,000 schools have only one teacher, often a partially trained aspirante (candidate teacher) lacking certification. And many rural schools are underfunded and lacking in basic facilities.
Costa Rica has four state-funded schools of higher learning, and opportunities abound for adults to earn the primary or secondary diplomas they failed to gain as children. The University of Costa Rica (UCR), the largest and oldest university, enrolls some 35,000 students, mostly on scholarships. The State Correspondence University is modeled after the United Kingdom’s Open University and has 32 regional centers offering 15 degree courses in health, education, business administration, and the liberal arts. In addition, there are also scores of private “universities,” though the term is applied to even the most marginal cubbyhole college.
More than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, the official state religion, but Protestant missionaries have begun to make a dent in Costa Rica, notably among the indigenous community. Nonetheless, the country has always been relatively secular, and the church has not attained undue political power. Every village has its own saint’s day, and every taxi, bus, government office, and home has its token religious icons. Holy Week (the week before Easter) is a national holiday, and communities throughout Costa Rica organize processions.
Resignation to the imagined will of God is tinged with fatalism. In a crisis Ticos will turn to a favorite saint to request a miracle. And folkloric belief in witchcraft is still common (Escazú is renowned as a center for brujas, or witches). Superstitions abound in all segments of society, such as the belief that if you climb a tree on Good Friday, you’ll grow a tail; and single men refuse to carry the Saint John icon during the procession of the Holy Burial due to the belief that they will never marry.
The Costa Ricans speak Spanish, and do so with a clear, concise dialect littered with phraseology unique to the nation. The most common Costa Rican phrase is ¡pura vida!, a popular saying literally meaning “pure life” but used in various contexts, including as a greeting and to express a positive attitude.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition