Costa Rica is known as the “Switzerland of Central America”. But its people are often accused of feeling closer to the people of Europe than to their neighbors on the continent.
And, certainly, in sectors such as health and education, their indicators are much closer to the so-called developed world than most Central American countries.
In 2003, for example, Costa Rica ranked 32nd globally according to the United Nations Human Development Index.
And although the country fell to 69 in 2016, it is still well ahead of El Salvador (117), Nicaragua (124), Guatemala (125) and Honduras (130).
This explains why the Costa Rican identity was largely constructed in opposition to the rest of the Central Americans, highlighting their difference.
“Indeed, it is an identity that is built against the mirror of the rest of Central America,” says Iván Molina, a historian at the University of Costa Rica.
“But it is not something purely imaginary,” insists the author of “Costarricense por dicha: identidad nacional y cambio cultural en Costa Rica durante los siglos XIX y XX”. (Costa Rican by saying: national identity and cultural change in Costa Rica during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.)
A different story
For Molina, this differentiation has “a series of fundamentals, both at the institutional level and at the level of economic and social processes” that, in fact, offer a model of civility and a positive investment of resources for the rest of the region.
Although the historian also acknowledges that the idea of Costa Rica as a different country “has served as a basis for certain prejudices of Costa Ricans in relation to the rest of Central Americans.”
One of these prejudices is racialism, which is still evident today in certain expressions of rejection of migrants arriving from Nicaragua.
And for a long time in the country also explained its difference precisely from the idea of a “white Costa Rica.”
“Costa Rica is, as we see it, the least populated of the five States, but it is on the contrary the best managed and the most tranquil”, emphasized for example, in 1842, the captain of the French corvette, Maussion de Candé.
“What is easily explained by its geographical position and the absence of mulattoes and the color of its almost exclusively white population,” continued Candé, quoted by Ronald Soto-Quirós in his text “Imagining a White Nation in Costa Rica: 1821-1914 “.
For the researcher at the University of Bordeaux, the weight of fashionable racial theories led the country’s intellectual class to realize a “white race” idea to accredit the Costa Rican population among civilized nations.
But according to Soto-Quirós, this idea did not correspond to the ethnic reality of Costa Rica at the time.
And recent genetic studies confirm that the Costa Rican is an eminently mestizo population.
The White Myth
“The problem is that here in Costa Rica, people, historians have been very chauvinistic, they have always tried to make the Tico very white,” says Dr. Ramiro Barrantes, a researcher at the Center for Cell Biology and Molecular of the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
“And we have a lot of white, but the Nicas also,” he explains.
In fact, to the surprise of the Ticos, some studies have found a smaller percentage of “white blood” among them than in the settlers of the neighboring Nicaragua.
In the article “Interethnic Genetic Mixture and Evolution of Latin American Populations” published in 2014 in the journal Genetics and Molecular Biology, Francisco Salzano and Mónica Sans report a measurement that assigns Nicaraguans a 69% European heritage, 11% Amerindian and 20% African.
In contrast, the Costa Ricans investigated by the Brazilian scientist and his Uruguayan colleague range from 67% to 58% of European, 29% and 38% of Amerindian and 4% of African.
Although Dr. Norberto Baldi, from the School of Anthropology of the UCR, notes that such results depend on the sample and genetic markers applied for the analysis.
“There are always variants, even within the same country, as the families are agglutinating, the ethnic groups are agglutinating,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“But what is clear is that Costa Ricans have always seen ourselves as whiter than the rest of Central America and that turned out to be a myth,” says the researcher.
Interestingly, Barrantes’s latest research seems to suggest that the main difference between Ticos and the rest of Central Americans could be the important Asian component in the genetic heritage of the average Costa Rican.
“No one had thought that it was something that had to be paid attention, but seeing the electoral roll I realized that there were at least 5% of Chinese surnames in Costa Rica,” says the scientist.
“History books have always presented the central plateau as a place of whites, Europeans, and appearances did not say that,” says Barrantes.
And according to their measurements, although there are differences by region, on average 14.6% of the Costa Rican genetic inheritance is black, 5.8% Asian, 33% indigenous and only 45% European.
According to the researcher, that makes the ethnic mestizo population not so different from the rest of Central America.
“Perhaps in Guatemala, the percentage of indigenous heritage is greater,” he says. And, in the same way, it is probable that in Honduras the black heritage is a little more noticeable.
But, as Baldi points out, that would also apply to specific territories of Costa Rica like Limón, its most important port in the Caribbean.
“We are all mixed, in different proportions,” says the UCR anthropologist.
And for Baldi, if Costa Ricans tend to believe that they are much whiter than Nicaraguans, it is because most Nicaraguan migrants come from certain geographical areas or economic classes, and are not necessarily representative of the entire population of that country.
But dynamics such as migration are precisely those that also make the genetic inheritance of a country constantly evolve over time, he warns.
“Costa Rica is the largest migrant recipient in the region,” he says. “And that’s why today’s typical Costa Rican is very different from typical Costa Rican 50 years ago,” he told the BBC.
For Molina, behind the reasons for that migration there is a story that can explain why Costa Rica is different.
And that is something that the Ticos are increasingly aware of.
“There was a stage in which to explain the differences resorted to alleged racial differences, that is, to the idea that ‘Costa Rica is different, because Costa Rica is white’,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“But with the development of the social sciences, in Costa Rica there has been progress towards a critique of this type of ‘explanations’ and in the proposal of new explanations,” he adds.
The historian points out that while all of Central America developed agro-exporting economies, while most implemented debt peonage systems or other forms of labor coercion, Costa Rica did so based on small and medium coffee producers.
“And while throughout Central America there is a prevalence of presidential regimes, Costa Rica is the only country that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is moving towards a functional democracy,” he added.
This probably explains why, according to Latinobarómetro, Costa Rica is the only country in the region where the majority of the population does not say they are willing to accept an undemocratic government if it solves problems.
For Molina, however, the clearest example of why Costa Rica is different is that the country invests almost five times more in the education of its inhabitants than its Central American neighbors.
“You can see here a very clear difference in how Costa Rica sees development compared to its neighbors on the isthmus,” he says.
And Dr. Barrantes insists on the same thing.
“With what is correlated the best situation in Costa Rica is with education: there is no doubt that the education system in Costa Rica got to first alphabetize all its people,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“It has nothing to do with race,” is his conclusion.
* This article is published in the context of Centroamérica Cuenta, a literature and thought festival that takes place in Managua, Nicaragua, between May 22 and 26, and in which BBC Mundo offers the workshop “Myths and Realities Of digital journalism “.
The article “¿Qué tan diferentes son en realidad los habitantes de Costa Rica a los del resto de los países centroamericanos?” by Arturo Wallace was originally published in Spanish on BBC Mundo and translated by the Q. Click here to read the original.