COSTA RICA BLOG – I first came to Ticolandia in 1968. I came here after spending the summer studying anthropology in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was immediately struck by the difference in the look and attitude of the people. It is a difference that I have come to appreciate more and more.
I found the Ticos to be more kind, more open, less defensive, and more physical in their affection. I still do.
Ticos are Latin, sure, with some mañana time, some salsa, and a bit of romance, too. But, I find them more honest in everyday relations, more solid in their friendship and more stolid in work than most Latins. On the whole, they are a very hard working people, seldom complaining about their lot. A Tico worker gives a whole day’s work without excuses, often working longer than the contracted time.
Ticos are not impressed by shows of wealth. Fancy cars are few, even though the wealth may be there. Jewelry is modest; watches are ordinary, clothing is utilitarian. On the whole Ticos are not much for show, and they have little appreciation for those who display their wealth.
Better to have land, keep it in the family and raise horses, than buy a BMW. When I first saw the Costa Rican Legislature, I saw that it was surrounded by parked Toyota Land Cruisers and coffee trucks, not fancy cars. And those were driven by the congressmen, themselves. Even today, though Land Cruisers are more luxurious, and old red coffee trucks are almost collectible, those with money are more likely to drive a Toyota than a Benz. Almost no one has a driver.
Each time I came to Costa Rica I noticed one immediate difference. While many in Mexico hide their eyes behind dark glasses, in Ticolandia eyes are seldom hidden, especially when in conversation. To me, this is symptomatic of less defensiveness. The art of face to face conversation is still alive in Costa Rica. It plays an important part in daily life, and you do it without dark glasses.
But, if Ticos are more personally grounded, more solid and stolid, as well as more personable, how did they get this way? What shaped the national character to make them Latins of a different stripe?
For me, analyzing the history of the area tells the story. Of utmost importance in this history is what did NOT happen here, that happened in most other Latin American countries. The Spaniards, in search of gold, silver and land upon which they could raise money crops by enslaving the natives, found little to exploit and few natives. They found little gold and no mines. They found few large parcels of land with a climate suitable for haciendas.
Other parts of the Guatemala Territory were easier to settle. Here Spaniards found arable land, but it was cut up by countless arroyos, rivers and mountains, small and large. Transport was a nightmare, especially during the wet half of the year. The rivers of the center and south were untamable, while the north was too dry. The many insects and the diseases carried by them were daunting. Most annoying to those aspiring to be patronos of a hacienda, the natives by and large refused to work for those who now claimed the land.
Nor would they work for the few Padres who came here. No large mission communities were built by converted and subdued natives. Most of the natives were not interested in trading their way of life for the kind of slavery offered, and many fled into the hills. Some did go to work for the white men, and a few intermarried, but more often, they did not wish to adopt the strange new culture. In short, they were largely unavailable or unwilling to do the work which developed the hacienda way of life elsewhere in Latin America.
Thus, there was less denigration of natives by whites, and few wealthy land owners. Here the social scene was more level; one hard working farmer feeling almost as good as another; brown or white. They had to work together to survive. Today, a few Ticos pretend to be more Spanish than others, but not to the extent found in other Latin countries. There are fewer self identified “aristocrats”. Social pretense is seen as pretense. European and native genes show up in the most unlikely places.
The point is that the most rapacious Spaniards who came to this part of Central America in the early years found out that, in the words of those signs sprayed on Hwy 27 overpasses, this land was, “No Tan Rico”. Not as rich as they thought. The worst of them soon moved on to other places. There were no big battles to subdue the natives. No soldiers got land grants from the King. No large hacienda fortunes were made, (until the arrival of coffee) and social stratification was as rustic, as the life. And, in my opinion, that has made all the difference; that is what has made Ticos who they are.
A handful of Europeans from many countries settled here over the years. I see traces of Eastern European people in Tico faces. They found a country rich in soil, rain and pests, but they had to do the work themselves. And it was a hard life. A good life, perhaps, but with days full of hard work. Many married women of mixed ancestry, as more men than women came. If was wise to quickly raise a large family with many boys. Even so, the population did not grow rapidly. Disease took many. There were few crops suitable for export. Cash and government were in short supply. One man was as good as another, if he was a hard worker. For most, it was dawn to dusk plowing, planting, weeding, and tending the stock of pigs, chickens and cows. Fiestas were few, but when celebrated, were times for all to forget the hardship.
I see in the stocky bodies and attitudes of Ticos and Ticas today the heritage of these tough farmers. I see the values of their ancestors in the way they work and in their attitude toward work,. More important, I see how they value every ordinary man and woman of their communities, the cores of which are still made up of a few old names. All one side of the road to my quinta is Vargas land. They have been blacksmiths forever.
The diet then was limited to what was grown. Corn flour, Rice and beans. Chicken and pork on holidays. These are still the staples of soda meals.
Horses became the most important status symbol in the early days because they enabled travel on the bad roads. Those who didn’t have a horse didn’t travel far. Oxen carried heavy loads, but horses brought the news, the needles, cloth, and salt. Because they were so important in the early culture, and because the Spaniards left a good blood line of Arabians, fine horses and their training are still valued and celebrated in Ticolandia far beyond their current usefulness.
Summing up. In my view, the socially detrimental forces of human exploitation that went on far too long in other Latin American countries were mostly absent here. It was the peculiar way that Costa Rica was settled and farmed by individualistic sturdy working men and women of non-aristocratic European and mixed origin, who learned to live in large families, who had little reason to see others as better or worse than themselves; that gave Ticos their solid national character. They are a People who value family and friendships, local life, conversations, hard work and fair treatment of the worker. People who support a caring government; one with concern for the education and health of all its people. Ordinary people who are not beholden to the rich. Well off people who drive Toyotas and usually treat their workers well. All together, a national character greatly to my liking.
Of course, all of these are subjective generalizations, as all discussions of national character must be. But, it is what I observe.
And, of course the traditional culture is under attack by the current forces of cultural homogenization. TV, Malls, Cellphones and Facebook. But, the real Tico character survives in Topes, Mercados, Sodas, and the democratic election of surprise Presidents! This gringo likes the people who show this heritage, and it helps me to appreciate them to know how Ticos got so solid and stolid.