September 14th, 2009

Quince de Septiembre

September 15 is Costa Rican independence day, and the entire country will join in the celebrations. Costa Rica received its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Before becoming independent, Costa Rica was a Spanish colony, and Guatemala served as a regional government center. In September of 1821, Guatemala declared its independence from Spain, simultaneously declaring Costa Rica’s independence as well. The newly independent Guatemalans gathered together to give a cry of freedom on the evening of September 14, 1821.

Because the Guatemalans carried torches, or faroles, during their evening celebration, torch-carrying has become an integral part of independence day celebrations in Costa Rica. At 6:00 on the night of September 14, torch-lit parades make their way across many Costa Rican towns and in San José. Traditionally, the Costa Rican national anthem plays during the parade of the faroles, and several radio stations often broadcast the anthem simultaneously at 6:00.

Schoolchildren have long played an important role in Costa Rica’s independence day celebrations. The country prides itself on its educational system, and Costa Rican patriots have long argued that the country’s future freedom rests on the shoulders of its schoolchildren. Many of the participants in the farol parades are schoolchildren who have made and decorated their own torches. On September 15 itself, Costa Rican schoolchildren parade through the streets, waving flags and singing patriotic songs. Costa Ricans celebrate the fact that schoolchildren–and not members of the military–head their patriotic celebrations.

Interestingly, Costa Rica did not learn of its independence until October of 1821, as it took a month for the information to reach Costa Rica from Guatemala.

Learn more about faroles.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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August 31st, 2009

The New Tropics

Costa Rica is—and always has been—in the tropics, but the popular conception of the tropics has changed, altering the country itself in the process. The new idea of the tropics—essentially, a geographically unspecific blend of disparate tropical images—has transformed the image tourists and locals have of Costa Rica.

About thirty years ago, the Costa Rican image of the tropics was largely self-created. Few tourists came to Costa Rica, and most knew very little about what they would find once they reached the country. There were no websites about the country, few books about it that would reach an international audience and still fewer images of Costa Rica circulating outside its borders. Everything Costa Ricans and their visitors knew about the Costa Rican tropics came from what they learned within the country itself. Local and international scientists studied and wrote about the country’s own tropical attributes, although their publications only reached a limited readership. Costa Ricans enjoyed the country’s bountiful tropical fruits and vegetables and visited its parks and beaches. However, without the perspective of the foreign observer, Costa Rica’s early conception of the tropics was straightforward and relatively untainted.

Recently, this conception has become blurred by a more global and commercial sense of the tropics. Visitors to the country have seen movies about the tropics or visited theme parks about this part of the world. All have their own conception of the rain forest, beaches and life in this particular latitude, and many have superimposed their tropical notions on the country.

In the mid-1990s, American surfers “discovered” Costa Rican beaches and brought with them their own sense of the tropics. Surfboards, Hawaiian shirts and an Endless Summer-style sensibility crept into Costa Rican beaches where soccer balls and ceviche were once the only attributes. A commercial Caribbean influence soon emerged, bringing with it Rastafarian imagery, Bob Marley music and the other aspects of a sort of pan-Caribbean vision. Most recently, the spa set has imposed its sense of the tropics on Costa Rica, bringing with it hibiscus-infused therapeutic baths and seaside massages.

These new tropical conceptions, imposed from the outside, have little to do with one another and still less to do with the “true” Costa Rica, which has no past of surfing, steel drumming or therapeutic yoga. The image some newcomers have created is a sort of hodge-podge of the tropics, a blend of everyone’s idea of what the tropics ought to be. In some places, Costa Rica has become a receptacle for everyone else’s idea of tropical life.

However, some of Costa Rica’s “true” tropical sense still remains, and the intrepid visitor can still find it. On some quiet beach, there is still an open-air cinder-block restaurant, where the radio plays maudlin ballads in Spanish, nobody sells imported t-shirts, swimmers and seagulls share the afternoon ocean, and water condenses quietly on the outside of a glass of cás.

[Read more about cás.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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August 12th, 2009

La Negrita and the Basilica of Cartago

In the long Catholic tradition of miraculous apparitions that change the course of Church history, statues of the Virgin often appear and show the faithful where to build a new church. True to that tradition, the Basilica of Cartago—the Basílica de Los Angeles—now stands on the spot where an image of the Virgin first appeared. In the 1600s, before the church existed, a Cartago woman wandering through the woods found a dark stone image of the Virgin Mary. The woman immediately took the statue home with her. In the morning, the statue had disappeared from the woman’s house and reappeared in the woods where she had first appeared. After trying futilely, several times, to keep the statue in her home, the woman finally resigned herself to the fact that the Virgin wanted a church erected on the site where he had found her. The Basilica of Cartago was built in the honor of this Virgin, la Virgen de los Angeles. The statue of the dark-skinned Virgin—known as “La Negrita”—stands on the church’s altar. In 1824, Costa Rica declared La Negrita the Patron Saint of Costa Rica.

Soon after the erection of the church, La Negrita’s faithful began to associate her with miraculous healings. The sick who prayed to the Virgin experienced dramatic recoveries, and the Basilica of Cartago became a significant pilgrimage site, with August 2 recognized as the official day of pilgrimage. For over 200 years, the Catholic faithful have made an annual trek to the church. Sick people travel to Cartago to pray to the Virgin for relief from their suffering. Those who have recovered go to the church to express their gratitude to the Virgin who healed them; the newly cured pilgrims have often made an earlier promise to the Virgin that they will visit her church if she grants them a recovery.

La Negrita’s devoted followers often acquire small metallic representations of their ailments—tiny golden legs, little silver eyes or ears, or small metal hearts. As reminders of their promises to make pilgrimages to Cartago in the event of a cure, La Negrita’s followers often wear these body parts on gold chains around their necks. Many of the healed leave these metallic reminders on La Negrita’s altar, which is now resplendent with the gold and silver representations of ailments cured.

La Negrita’s most faithful come to Cartago in cars and on buses from all across the country. Most walk the last fourteen miles from San José to the church. The most devoted make their way up the church steps and to La Negrita’s altar on their knees.

Read more about the healing powers of La Negrita.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 13th, 2009

The Lyrics of Costa Rica’s National Anthem

Costa Rica’s national anthem opens with a mention of the country’s flag, whose symbolism is so important to Costa Rican civic life. Alluding to the red, white and blue of the flag, the anthem praises the reddened faces of the country’s laborers, the white of peace and the blue skies above. A paean to tranquility and hard work, Costa Rica’s national anthem embodies the ideals of this peace-loving country.

In translation, the anthem’s lyrics read as follows:

Noble homeland, your beautiful flag
Expresses your life to us:
Beneath the limpid blue of your sky,
Peace reposes, white and pure.

In the tenacious struggle of fruitful toil,
That reddens a mans face,
Your sons, simple laborers, achieved
Eternal renown, esteem and honor.

Hail, gentle land!
Hail, honorable mother!
When someone tries to stain your glory,
You will witness your people, strong and valiant,
Exchange their rough tools for weapons.

Hail, homeland! Your generous soil
Gives us sweet sustenance and shelter.
Beneath the limpid blue of your sky,
Long live labor and peace!

In the original Spanish, the anthem’s lyrics read as follows:

Noble patria tu hermosa bandera
Expresión de tu vida nos da:
Bajo el límpido azul de tu cielo
Blanca y pura descansa la paz.

En la lucha tenaz de fecunda labor
Que enrojece del hombre la faz,
Conquistaron tus hijos, labriegos sencillos,
eterno prestigio, estima y honor,
eterno prestigio, estima y honor.

¡Salve oh tierra gentil!
¡Salve oh madre de amor!
Cuando alguno pretenda tu gloria manchar,
Verás a tu pueblo, valiente y viril
La tosca herramienta en arma trocar.

¡Noble patria! tu pródigo suelo
Dulce abrigo y sustento nos da;
Bajo el límpido azul de tu cielo
¡Vivan siempre el trabajo y la paz!

Click here to read about the Costa Rican flag.
Click here to read about the Costa Rican coat of arms.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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April 6th, 2009

Bananas: A Mini History

During the middle-to-late 19th century, coffee accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s export revenue. The success of the coffee trade prompted business-minded entrepreneurs to seek other lucrative agricultural markets. Thus, the late 1800s witnessed the growth and development of the banana production and export business.

Until the end of the 1800s, Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast was all but inaccessible from the rest of the country. Its jungles and thick vegetation made trade with the area next to impossible, and politicians decided to finance the construction of a railroad that would link the Atlantic coast to the rest of the country. Construction of the railroad took longer than expected, and costs went significantly over budget.

In the end, an American contractor, Minor C. Keith, completed the railroad project, a fact which tied American interests to the Atlantic region for many unhappy years. As part of his contract for completing the railroad, Keith received large tracts of land in the Atlantic region. He used this land as a banana plantation and financed part of the railroad construction with banana exports. Keith exported many of his bananas to the United States and played an important role in forming the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company soon developed a monopoly over banana production in the Atlantic Region, expanding its agricultural holdings across the region. Before long, the United Fruit Company—or “Yunai,” as it was known among agricultural workers—came to symbolize the worst of American imperialism. Banana workers suffered in the harsh coastal conditions, and Costa Ricans protested their mistreatment and the fact that workers received almost none of the profit from the lucrative banana exports. The Costa Rican Communist party emerged as a significant force in the clash between the United Fruit Company and its Costa Rican workers.

Revenue from banana exports soon equaled that from coffee exports, and a new chapter in Costa Rican agricultural history had begun.

The United Fruit Company influenced Costa Rica’s literary history as well. For more information about the United Fruit Company in Costa Rican literature, click here.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 30th, 2009

Coffee: A Mini History

For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.

Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.

In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.

At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.

The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.

Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.

By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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February 15th, 2009

Spanish Lessons: Easy Questions

English speakers who learn Spanish often seem to have trouble with two particular types of questions—1. those that ask for some sort of permission (“Can I park here?”) and 2. those that ask about availability (“Do you serve rice?”) In English, these questions can involve relatively complicated constructions, because each requires conjugating verbs, and the first requires the use of a verb like “can” or “could.” English speakers often tend to assume that the Spanish equivalents of these questions are equally complicated, and they tangle themselves up in needless conjugations. For each of these two types of questions, there are relatively simple Spanish equivalents that use only the infinitive, in one case, and that are easy to apply in most situations.

The first type of question is the kind requesting permission: “Can I order now?”; “Can I see the green one?”; “Can we go there?” Many English speakers translate this type of question literally, beginning with the Spanish equivalent of “Is it possible…?” Thus, they begin, “¿Es posible…?” Although technically correct, this question is not a construction most Costa Ricans use, and it tends to make the speaker sound more like a foreigner than necessary. In addition, a question that begins with “¿Es posible…?” tends to be needlessly wordy and potentially convoluted. Instead, a good alternative is the use of the verb “poder,” which translates as “can” or “to be able to.” The speaker can, thus, begin with “¿Puedo…?” (“Can I…?”); “¿Puede…?” (“Can you…?”); or “¿Podemos…?” (“Can we…?”). Then, the next word is the infinitive of the verb in question: “¿Puedo ordenar…?” (“Can I order…?”); “¿Puedo ver…?” (“Can I see…?”); or “¿Podemos ir…?” (“Can we go…?”). Not only is this construction what a typical Costa Rican would say, but it is also far simpler to use. The speaker need only remember “Puedo,” “Puede” or “Podemos” and then add an infinitive. For fancier constructions, of course, the speaker can add other words to the sentence: “¿Puedo ordenar ahora?” (“Can I order now?”); “¿Puedo ver el verde?” (“Can I see the green one?”); “¿Podemos ir allá?” (“Can we go there?”).

The other type of question—the one about availability—is even easier to ask in Spanish. It involves the use of “Hay,” in which the “h” is silent, and then the noun in question. Thus, a question like “Do you serve rice?” can become “¿Hay arroz?”, which translates literally as, “Is there rice?” This question makes perfect sense when asked in a restaurant setting. It also works in a store, like when a customer is searching for something in particular: “¿Hay pastel?” (“Is there cake?”/ “Do you sell cake?”); “¿Hay otro?” (“Is there another?”/ “Do you have another?”). A question beginning with “Hay” works best in a particular context, where the existence of something is limited to a particular place (in a restaurant, at a store, standing in front of a vendor’s stall), but it is a good alternative to more cumbersome constructions that would involve conjugating verbs (“Do you sell…?”; “Do you serve…?”).

Visitors tend to ask these types of questions regularly, and it is reassuring to know that these questions need not be as complex as they seem at first.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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