October 15th, 2008

Juan Santamaría May Not Be Who We Think He Is

Juan Santamaría is Costa Rica’s most important hero, although the reason for his fame is the subject of some debate. In the mid-1800s, Costa Rica nearly fell under the control of American forces led by William Walker. Because Costa Rica did not have an army, the country’s defense rested in the hands of farmers and other civilians, who fought off the Americans with various tools and farm implements. Juan Santamaría, a young boy from the province of Alajuela, joined Costa Rica’s makeshift defense team.

The Costa Rican contingent fought fiercely, according to legend, and William Walker’s gang took refuge in a large house in Guanacaste—La Casona. As the Costa Ricans lay siege to La Casona, it became apparent that the only way to defeat the Americans would be to burn down the building itself. The leader of the Costa Rican fighters asked his forces to line up facing him. Then, the leader asked for a volunteer to step forward and take up the torch that would burn down La Casona. Juan Santamaría bravely stepped forward and seized the flaming torch, asking only that his mother be taken care of, in the event of his death. Juan Santamaría then set fire to La Casona and defeated the American forces, collapsing to his death moments later, from a bullet wound.

All across Costa Rica, Juan Santamaría is celebrated. Several statues depict him with his flaming torch. One of the most well-known stands in front of the Asamblea Legislativa, Costa Rica’s congressional building, and the other is in Alajuela, Juan Santamaría’s home. Costa Rica’s main airport is named after Juan Santamaría, and April 11 is a national holiday commemorating the day of Juan Santamaría’s death.

However, there is another side to the Juan Santamaría story. Costa Ricans never take themselves—or their national heroes—too seriously. Every Costa Rican schoolchild learns, in the classroom, the story of Juan Santamaría’s heroism. Outside the classroom, those same children laugh about a less heroic Juan Santamaría. In this other account, Juan Santamaría was more foolish than brave. He joined the Costa Rican fighters without fully understanding the conflict. When the Costa Rican forces lined up to face their leader and one brave soul was asked to step forward, the foolish Juan Santamaría stayed standing where he was. His more wily fellows each took a step backward, leaving Juan Santamaría a step ahead of them. He became the unwitting volunteer who had to take up the torch. All across the country, this other Juan Santamaría is the subject of many jokes.

Juan Santamaría’s name is a source of joy for all Costa Ricans—joy for a national hero and joy for a national myth gleefully subverted.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 2nd, 2008

View from the Outside

Although Costa Rican authors, like Carlos Luis Fallas, provide the kind of inside look at Costa Rica that only a native can (see “Literary Lessons” in this blog), there is something to be said for the viewpoint of a complete outsider to the country. Expatriates in a foreign land or long-time visitors to another country often have a completely different sense of the social and political events around them, and their writing about the country reflects their outsider viewpoints. Interestingly, Costa Rica does not yet have a definitive outsider author who has described the country from this alternate point of view. Costa Rica has not yet found its Hemingway.

When Ernest Hemingway went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, he wrote about the country and its people from his own expatriate point of view. Hemingway’s identity as an American abroad colored his take on the politics of the country, its customs, and even his depiction of its language. Our collective view of Spain has forever been broadened by Hemingway’s experience there.

In much the same way, John Berendt forever changed Savannah, Georgia after the publication of his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Berendt’s heartfelt descriptions of Savannah’s charm and history lured thousands of tourists to the once-sleepy Southern city. His vivid description of the eccentricity and self-reliance of Savannah’s people made readers feel as though they had actually met the characters in his book.

Although literary fame can take its toll on a country, this kind of fame can also add an interesting facet to the country’s image. Costa Rica has yet to meet its expatriate author.

from an interview with Shelby McAdams

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2008

Sunny Dispositions

First-time visitors to Costa Rica often have the same impressions about the country. They agree that Costa Rica’s natural beauty is breathtaking. They say that the food is simple but very tasty. And they all comment on the friendliness of Costa Rica’s people.

This last impression might seem an empty platitude, were it not for its truth. The people of Costa Rica are, in fact, remarkably friendly, cheerful and happy. They are quick to make jokes, plan parties, laugh at themselves, and they are especially friendly to foreign tourists. Costa Rican good cheer probably stems from various sources.

Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries that does not have an army. There are no soldiers standing on street corners with machine guns or keeping a watchful eye over people in public areas. Costa Ricans are proud to say that their tax money supports schools and education, and not a standing army. The country has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America, and Costa Ricans almost all share a lifelong love of learning. Costa Ricans like to say that their country is best represented by the happy march of uniformed schoolchildren to and from classes, rather than by the ominous march of a national army.

This lack of a military creates a sense of that is fully alive in the minds of most Costa Ricans. They like to think of their country as a union of gentle and peace-loving souls. Because Costa Ricans would rather get along peacefully than argue, the country has developed a reputation for good-natured joke- and story-telling. Costa Ricans enjoy making one another laugh and passing their time in good humor.

Family is of great importance to people of this country, and extended family members have traditionally lived close to one another and been very involved in each other’s lives. Everyone has cousins and aunts and uncles who are as close to them as friends. Because family gatherings tend to be large, almost every family occasion turns into a party. Costa Ricans love parties with their families, friends and fellow workers, and they throw parties at the least provocation. Everyone loves music and dancing, and social gatherings become boisterous and lively.

Fun and enjoyment are practically a tradition in Costa Rica, and visitors are right to note that the Costa Rican people are a cheerful bunch.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2008

Literary Lessons

Carlos Luis Fallas is one of Costa Rica’s best regarded authors. His life and his books touch upon some of the most important periods in Costa Rican history. His most famous books, Mamita Yunai and Marcos Ramírez, deal with the plight of Costa Rican agricultural workers and the lives of everyday Costa Ricans, respectively.

Born in the early part of the 1900s, Carlos Luis Fallas had little formal education. He spent much of his early life working in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company near Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He became involved in the labor struggles of the plantation workers and soon was an active member of the Communist party in Costa Rica. He later served as a Diputado, or Congressman, in Costa Rica’s national congress and took part in Costa Rica’s civil war of 1948.

Mamita Yunai describes the unfair labor treatment and grim conditions Carlos Luis Fallas witnessed firsthand on the plantations of the United Fruit Company. (“Yunai” is a latinized shortening of “United.”) This book was an early criticism of American involvement in Costa Rica’s economy and workforce.

In Marcos Ramírez, the eponymous hero is a young boy in 1920’s Costa Rica. More lighthearted and far less political than Mamita Yunai, Marcos Ramírez still makes an important literary and historical statement. The details of life and customs it describes are those of a pre-industrialized and pre-globalized Costa Rica that has now all but disappeared.

Before Fallas’ death in 1966, Marcos Ramírez won an award from the William Faulkner Foundation for the best Latin American novel, and Fallas won Costa Rica’s highly regarded Magón cultural award.

Costa Rica’s congress posthumously awarded Carlos Luis Fallas the country’s highest national honor, Benemérito de la Patria.

Click here for more information about Carlos Luis Fallas.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 24th, 2008

Artwork that Once Worked Hard

Before there were cars and buses, paved roads and traffic lights, Costa Rica’s most common mode of transportation was the oxcart, or “carreta.” Dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, winding through coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. Farmers loaded their goods onto wooden oxcarts to transport them to market.

Oxcarts all looked relatively similar, and their traditional shape has since become an iconic Costa Rican design. Oxcarts had one axle, to which were attached large, round wheels. These wheels were flat and had no spokes. Two oxen usually pulled the cart, a heavy wooden yoke over their necks. Someone often walked in front of the cart, guiding the plodding oxen to their destination.

At first, oxcarts were plain and unpainted, their wood slowly weathering to a natural grayish brown. But the simple lines and utilitarian beauty of the oxcarts soon lent themselves to decoration and embellishment. Oxcart decoration became something of a national art form. Wheel-painting was particularly popular, and artisans decorated cart wheels with brilliant geometric patterns that radiated from the center of the wheel. Yokes also became a popular design element, and painters covered them in flowers and curlicues.

Now that Costa Rica’s transportation systems are fully modernized, oxcarts are almost nonexistent as transportation. Some rural farmers still use them, but oxcarts have now become mostly decorative. Restaurants and museums across the country hang hand-painted yokes and oxcart wheels on their walls. “Carretas” are the subject of many nostalgic historical paintings, and entire oxcarts stand in the lobbies of theaters and art galleries nationwide. In 1988, during the first presidency of Oscar Arias Sánchez, the Costa Rican government officially declared the “carreta” a national symbol. And in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the “Oxherding and Oxcart Traditions in Costa Rica” a “Masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage.”

These beautiful, cultural symbols once put in generations of hard work.

Read about UNESCO and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 16th, 2008

San José Posible

San José is poised for a major transformation. Like many cities in the United States, San José witnessed a significant economic and population shift in the eighties and early nineties, as city residents and businesses left San José for the new surrounding suburbs. The city economy suffered, and urban crime rates increased.

City leaders and urban architects worried about this recent downturn and created various incentives to encourage both businesspeople and homeowners to return to the city. They also recommended several city beautification projects and urban improvements. The municipality of San José formed the Committee for the Regeneration and Repopulation of San José. Following the precepts of the Committee, the Institute of Tropical Architecture came up with a plan, San José Posible, to address the architectural, ecological and aesthetic issues facing the “new” San José.

As part of the San José Posible plan, the Institute of Tropical Architecture proposed closing off several of San José’s congested streets to form outdoor pedestrian areas. The city followed the Institute’s suggestion and closed traffic in areas that would then become city pedestrian zones. The first such zone met with great success; its communal outdoor space is free of traffic noise and vehicular congestion and is a pleasant place for pedestrians to stroll.

The Institute also hopes to promote and encourage the construction of multi-use buildings that incorporate commercial space, parking, residential units and plenty of outdoor garden space. San José Posible hearkens back to a time in San José’s history when the city streets were tree-lined and quiet, and businesses and residences coexisted in urban tranquility.

The Sleep Inn San José Downtown has been a leader among the businesses hoping to restore and reinvigorate San José. When the Sleep Inn was first built, there had been no new hotel in the central downtown area for fourteen years. The mayor of San José praised the Sleep Inn for its strong show of faith in the economic future of the city. Recently, the Sleep Inn has undertaken several projects to contribute to the beautification and improvement of the downtown area.

Click here for more information about the Instituto de Arquitectura Tropical.

Click here to read more about San José Posible.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

The Case for Cás

Some of the best items on Costa Rican restaurant menus are not actually food at all. They’re drinks–the frescos naturales, or natural fruit drinks, that most restaurants serve. Frescos are different from pure juice, or jugo, because they contain sugar. When you order a fresco at a restaurant, you will need to specify whether you want the fruit blended with water–en agua–or with milk–en leche. Both contain sugar.

Frescos are appealing, because restaurants rarely make them from pre-packaged concentrates or mixes of any kind. Instead, these drinks usually contain huge amounts of the freshest tropical fruit. Although almost any flavor of fresco is delicious–and a wonderful opportunity to try delicious fruits–one of the most unusual and tasty fresco flavors is cás.

A small, yellowish tropical fruit that grows on a tree, cás is very sour. Costa Ricans never eat it off the tree. Instead, they extract the pulp for a terrific juice.

Fresco de cás en agua is like a tropical lemonade. Cás drinks are cool and pleasantly tart with enough pulp to make them slightly frothy. They are the ideal accompaniment to a plate of rice and beans or a nice ceviche. Cás is refreshing on a hot day and is definitely the best of Costa Rica’s wide array of tropical drinks.

The Magnolia Restaurant in the Casino Club Colonial serves a delicious selection of frescos naturales.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

A Pretty Little Lesson

Costa Rica’s escudo, or coat of arms, appears on the “tails” side of every Costa Rican coin and decorates the central red stripe of the official Costa Rican flag. The escudo is aesthetically attractive, and its various elements reveal some important facts about Costa Rican civics and geography.

The three mountains in the center of the escudo represent the three mountain ranges, or cordilleras, that run through the country–the Cordillera Central, the Cordillera de Talamanca and the Cordillera de Guanacaste. Some say that the peaks represent volcanoes found along each of the mountain ranges, and the escudo recently has been altered so that smoke now emerges from the mountain peaks.

The green at the base of the mountains represents the fertile soil and rich vegetation of Costa Rica’s Central Valley.

The blue water in front of and behind the mountains alludes to Costa Rica’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, while the ships at sea indicate both Costa Rica’s nautical history and the fact that the country’s ports are free and open.

The seven stars in an arc above the mountains represent Costa Rica’s seven provinces—San José, Cartago, Alajuela, Heredia, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón.

The rising sun refers to the newness of the country when it first adopted the escudo and to hope for its prosperous future.

The golden border represents Costa Rican coffee—the golden bean, or grano de oro.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 5th, 2008

Black and White and Served All Over

Guests at the Sleep Inn San José Downtown receive a free continental breakfast in the hotel’s downstairs eating area. One of the best parts of this breakfast is gallo pinto, arguably Costa Rica’s most traditional dish. This tasty mixture of rice, beans, onions, cilantro and red peppers takes its name from its appearance. A gallo pinto is a colored rooster, whose speckled feathers look like the color-flecked rice and beans.

Although various Central American countries make their own similar rice-and-bean dishes, none contains the one ingredient that makes Costa Rican gallo pinto so special—Salsa Lizano. This liquid seasoning, produced and bottled in Costa Rica, contains vegetables and spices, cumin in particular. Restaurants all across the country provide bottles of Salsa Lizano at tableside, and Costa Rican cooks always add a healthy dash of Salsa Lizano to their gallo pinto. The Salsa Lizano provides a depth of flavor that no other spice can.

Costa Ricans eat gallo pinto at any meal, but it is most popular at breakfast time. Restaurants all across the country serve it in the morning. Gallo pinto is delicious with a side of tortillas and fried plantains—and sometimes with one additional drop of Salsa Lizano.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 4th, 2008

What’s in a Flag?

The flag of Costa Rica is attractive both in its graphic simplicity and in its wealth of symbolic meaning. Adopted in 1848, the flag has three colors, which allude to those of the French flag, a symbolic recognition of the ideals of the French Revolution.

A Costa Rican government decree of 1848 provides the first official description of the flag—a “tricolor” made up of five horizontal bands. The central red band is flanked by two white bands, which, in turn, are flanked by two blue ones. Each band takes up one sixth of the flag’s width, except for the red band, which is two-sixths of the width.

Each of the flag’s colors has its own meaning. The blue stripes represent the blue of the sky and, by extension, purity and tranquility. The white stripes represent peace, an ideal of particular importance to a country with no army. The red represents the blood shed by those who fought for Costa Rica’s independence, although it has also come to symbolize the blood pulsing through the veins of the people and the reddened faces of Costa Rica’s hard-working laborers.

The unadorned red-white-and-blue flag serves for unofficial purposes. For official state and maritime purposes, Costa Rica flies the Pabellón Nacional. This flag has the same five horizontal stripes but also includes the country’s coat of arms, or escudo. The escudo floats on a white elliptical background, whose dimensions are also specified in the 1848 governmental decree. The white ellipse sits on the flag’s broad red band.

Costa Rica’s flag, whether in its official or its unofficial purpose, is a great source of national pride for its people.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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