December 17th, 2008

Pura Vida

The expression “pura vida” is a favorite among authors of guide books to Costa Rica. These authors—often newcomers or visitors to Costa Rica—claim that the expression, literally translated as “pure life,” perfectly embodies the Costa Rican love of purity, nature and of life itself. Costa Ricans, these authors argue, have such an ingrained love of life that it trickles down into even their slang expressions. While Costa Ricans really do embrace life joyfully, this guide-book interpretation of “pura vida” is not entirely accurate. Just as widespread American use of the term “cool” does not mean an ingrained love of low temperatures, Costa Rican use of the term “pura vida” does not, in itself, encapsulate the whole Costa Rican philosophy of life.

Despite what the guide books say, “pura vida” is not an expression on the lips of every Costa Rican. Many Americans could go a whole lifetime without uttering expressions like “rock on” or “totally awesome,” and most Costa Ricans do not use “pura vida” as often as the guide books would have us believe. In fact, the term emerged about twenty-five years ago, mostly among young urban males, as part of a whole set of slick expressions they used to describe their activities. Before it was seized upon by the guide books, “pura vida” had as clear a demographic association as terms like “grody to the max” or “radical, dude.” It was a term reserved for only a specific young population.

Even when it first emerged, the expression probably did not indicate a deeply felt philosophical conviction. Its users were no more enamored of the purity of life than are most other twenty-somethings all across the world. Instead, the expression was just a colorful new way to comment positively, as “the bee’s knees” was long ago.

Interestingly, the guide books have probably breathed a life into the expression it never would have had otherwise. Like all slang, the expression probably would have all but disappeared as its users grew and adopted other expressions. Now, however, visitors to Costa Rica often buy “pura vida” merchandise, because the expression seems so life-affirming and positive. Vendors sell hundreds of t-shirts, hats and flags emblazoned with the expression, which now boasts an economically fueled existence. “Pura vida”’s current meaning is one it never had among its original users.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 11th, 2008

César Valverde, Costa Rica’s Muralist

As an art form, muralism functions in a very different way from paintings done on canvas. César Valverde, Costa Rica’s most prominent muralist, recognized the mural’s unique role in public life. He often spoke of the ways in which his large-scale works of art reached out to a broad spectrum of viewers. His murals hang in several of the country’s important government buildings and universities.

Born in the late 1920s, César Valverde studied art at the University of Costa Rica and later became a professor at that same university and a director of its art department. He also studied art in Italy and France and was very involved in European cultural and artistic movements. He served as Costa Rica’s Vice-Minister of Culture in the early 1980s and received several important awards for his art. Although he painted canvases and smaller works, César Valverde is now best known for his large-scale works in places like Costa Rica’s National Assembly building (Asamblea Legislativa), its Department of Comptrollership (Contraloría) and the Universidad Autónoma de Centro América.

In a 1990 interview on a local Costa Rican television station, Valverde described murals as true “art of the people.” Because they hang in public places, he said, murals should not make intellectual statements and should, instead, speak directly to their viewers. Valverde believed that mural viewers should feel a kind of collective ownership of the art. An ordinary person should look at a mural and think, “This is mine.” He pointed out, too, that successful murals engage in a dialogue with the architecture of the spaces in which they hang. He said that, in muralism, architecture and painting join together to form one single work of art.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of all of Valverde’s work is his use of color. Oscar Bakit, a Costa Rican artist, argues that Valverde’s vivid color palette is his own personal “invention”: a César Valverde work is unmistakable because of its brilliant oranges, yellows and turquoises.

Just as Valverde used several signature paint colors, several images frequently recur in his art. He often painted very similar women, figures some describe as female archetypes. These women often stand against backgrounds of small houses or among tropical fruits and vegetables.

César Valverde described his own work as “full of optimism, full of life,” and he thought of his art as a visual representation of Costa Rica’s most important values. The Costa Rican national post office commemorated his life and work with a limited-edition postage stamp of his art. César Valverde died in 1998.

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Click here to see an interesting video about César Valverde.
Click here for César Valverde’s website.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 9th, 2008

Standing Around Outside, Eating

Costa Rica’s near-perfect weather is one of the country’s greatest charms. Visitors marvel at its breezy sunshine and tropical mildness. Locals spend much of their time outside, where it rarely gets cold enough for even a light jacket. Schools often have large outdoor courtyards, and children spend their free moments in the fresh air. Government buildings, like the immigration office and the driver’s license renewal office, usually have outdoor waiting areas.

Costa Rica’s mild, pleasant climate is, of course, as ideal for vegetation as it is for outdoor activity. Plants thrive everywhere, without fertilization, watering or any kind of human attention. Fruit trees sprout on the spot where someone tossed a few seeds, and many of these trees have edible stems and seeds as well.

The combination of constant outdoor activity and edible vegetation creates an interesting phenomenon in Costa Rica—a sort of opportunistic outdoor snacking.

Schoolchildren all know the bounty to be found around their schoolyards. The older children teach the younger ones which fruits and leaves are edible and how to go about eating them. One particularly common schoolyard fruit is the manzana de agua. Loosely translated, this fruit is a “water apple,” and the name is fairly accurate. The pale red fruit looks like an oval apple, and its flesh is like a watery version of the same. The fruit has only one seed, and it make for good between-class snacking. Another prevalent schoolyard fruit is the jocote. Shaped roughly like an olive, the jocote is greenish as it ripens and yellowish when fully ripe. Its flesh is thick and dense, and it clings to the fruit’s one large seed. Jocotes vary in flavor from sour to sweet and are ideal eating during down time in a game of tag. When jocotes are out of season, their leaves make fine snacks as well. Chewy and very sour, one small branch of jocote leaves can last an entire recess. Clover, too, is slightly sour and particularly good during games that require crawling near that ground or under bushes, as clover grows close to the ground.

Adults in the out-of-doors often find as many snacks as schoolchildren do. Mango trees grow wild all across the country, and their fruit is good both ripe and unripe. People in line at various government agencies often eat mangos as they wait. Guayaba trees are also fairly common, and people at bus stops can often reach the pink, aromatic fruits as they stand on the sidewalk. A variety of citrus fruits, ranging from the sweet to the very tart, grow wild in the city and also make pleasant on-the-spot eating.

Although Costa Rica has become very modern during the last few years, it still retains vestiges of its old rural self. Like farm-dwellers of previous decades, Costa Ricans can—and do—harvest the fruits around them, gathering treats as they go about their daily activities.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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