The Ethnic Make Up and Character of Costa Rican People

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The  Ethnic Make Up and Character of Costa Rican People

By international standards Costa Rica is characterized as a third world country or a developing country.  However, on first impression it does not appear so.  You don’t see the cardboard shanty towns that dominate the landscape of other developing countries.  The people are well dressed. The homeless and street people are not as evident as in other Latin American third world countries.

Costa Ricans are essentially democratic, benevolent and peaceful, well mannered,  friendly and helpful.   They are basically shy  and non aggressive and will go to any length to avoid an argument.  They tend to agree with you when sometimes actually deep within they really don’t agree.  (This characteristic is one that is hard to get accustomed to)   And many times they will not answer your question with a direct answer, as we are accustomed to in our Anglo Saxon culture.

Small town life in Costa Rica:  In the small towns of Costa Rica there is a connectedness, a community  unity.   People care and help each other.  The most important thing to them is the family unit and families tend to grow up and live close to one another.  It is not unusual to see a family compound where the parents build their home and also a home for each of their children.  These are often completely enclosed by a tall concrete wall.  The Costa Rican is fundamentally a campesino  and feels more at home in an agrarian  rural setting.   However, in the larger cities such as San Jose and Alajuela  people seem to live more separately, very characteristic of life in a big city.   In the cities  everything  moves fast and stress becomes a part of daily life.

Costa Ricans welcome foreigners.  The government has set up tax incentives to start a new businesses or  work in an existing business,  or  retire here  and enjoy the beautiful natural environment.

The North American culture has had a great influence on Costa Rica.  Costa Rican kids watch movies and TV programs produced in Hollywood,  they know the names of actors, musicians, and politicians, and especially are in love with pop music from North America.  Fashions trends are fast to reach the youth of Costa Rica from the US.

Costa Rica has a complex ethnic  makeup. When Christopher Columbus reached the shores of Costa Rica in 1502,  on his third voyage to the new world,  he found indigenous tribes living here,  and they engaged in trade with Columbus and his followers .  As more and more people immigrated from Spain,  some of them mixed with these indigenous people  and produced a race of “mixed blood”  Although some of the Spaniards remained segregated and married only among their own.   In Costa Rica today you will see these white skin, blue eyed people.  And also you will see the “mixed blood” who have olive skin, dark hair and eyes.

As time passed the Spaniards tried to enslave the Indians, and they rebelled.  Many were killed or died from new diseases brought over by the Spaniards.  A small number of them survived and they  fled into the mountains to hide.

Certain areas of Costa Rica have  a distinct population:  for example on the Atlantic coast is a large population  from African descent who came to Costa Rica from the Caribbean Islands, mainly Jamaica and the West Indies.  They came to work on the  cacao (chocolate) plantations and the banana plantations.  They also helped to build the railroad from San Jose to Limon  (no longer in service).  They speak both English and Spanish.

The province of Guanacaste, Northern Costa Rica: this area was once part of Nicaragua so the people have darker skin, are short in statue,  and resemble their Nicaraguan neighbors in manner and accent.

There is also a small Chinese population in Costa Rica, which seems to be mostly in  the Limon areas and in San Jose.  These people came to Costa Rica to help build the railroad from the central valley to the Atlantic coast.  Many stayed, married Costa Ricans,  and started small family businesses.

Italians came to Costa Rica to work on the railroad, and  remained.  Many of them live in an area called San Vito in the southern part of Costa Rica.

Indigenous People of Costa Rica: When Columbus first arrived to Costa Rica there it is estimated that approximately 60,000 Indians lived in different regions of Costa Rica.   Columbus was looking for gold and the first Indians he encountered wore gold necklaces and told stories of gold along the coast on the southern Pacific of Costa Rica.   However,  Costa Rica was not to become  a “rich jewel in Spain’s crown”.  In fact it turned out to be one of the poorest of Spain’s  American colonies.   When new settlers came from Spain they found life  very oppressive.  They had to endure very hot weather, impenetrable forest, floods, raging rivers,  impassable mountains, swamps, and diseases.   By 1506 expeditions from Spain were landing throughout the Atlantic coast.  They captured Indians and shipped them to Hispanola (Dominican Republic) as slaves to the large land owners.  These exeditions brought small pox, influenza, and other plagues to the region and many of the Indians died from these infections.  Immigrants from Spain forced the Indians into labor without compensation and the Indians rebelled, many of them fleeing into the dense forest of the mountains of the Talamanca regions (today a small number of them still live, isolated from the outside world).  The Indian revolts, the shortage of food, and lack of gold imposed continuous hardships on the new settlers. And by 1560 the number of  new Spanish settlers decreased.  By this time few of the Indians remained.

This caused the settlers to have to do all of the work themselves. So they planted and gathered the crops with  their own hands,  and  endured  this desperate struggle to exist  in a wild wilderness land.  Historians point to this period of Costa Rica’s history to explain the character of today’s Costa Rican.  They cherish independence, love peace and liberty. Perhaps this was the beginning of their strong democratic tradition of the  independent yeoman farmer working his plot of land in the hills.  The rich vs. poor social classes did not arise and there were no groups of strong and powerful land owners.

During the second half of the 19th century immigrants began to arrive in large numbers.  They were attracted by the promise of prosperity generated from the developing coffee industry.  Also the Costa Rican government had as open door policy. There were German and English settlers who started businesses  in import-export.  Other businesses were started by Lebanese, Turkish, and Polish Jews, who became powerful merchants.

Starting around  the year 1840, when Costa Ricans discovered that they could grow coffee,  things changed, both economically and socially.  Coffee became a big business, creating on oligarchy of coffee barons who rose to positions of wealth and power.   A distinct social class emerged of rich  plantation owners.  They built large and grand  homes and sent their  children to Europe to become educated in  European manners and a gentile way of life.  Today, we see beautiful buildings designed by European architects, best example being the National Theatre in San Jose.  Built around the turn of the century it is a copy of the Paris Opera House.  It is host to  operas,  ballet, and other classical performances as well of pop concerts.  Also scattered around Costa Rica are beautiful churches reflecting European influence and designs.

Since the 1960s Costa Rica laws favoring North American and European retirees, have led to the establishment of a large number of Americans and Europeans in the central valley and surrounding smaller towns.  They come to enjoy the warm tropical climate and relaxed way of life.  Some start new businesses.  Others just retire and live a simple life,  eat natural vegetables and fruits, enjoy the unspoiled beaches, and even take some Spanish lessons.  Time for them is to be savored..one day at a time.

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