Learning to be a Tica: Discovering life as a minority in Costa Rica

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Learning to be a Tica: Discovering life as a minority in Costa Rica


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by Erin Wolosz

Over the past three months that I have been studying abroad in Costa Rica, one comment from friends and family has been consistent- “must be nice to live in paradise.” While it is certainly true that weekend trips to some of the best vacation spots in the world, along with a classroom building located directly across the street from the beach is my spot on definition of paradise, the biggest lesson I have learned cannot be seen on my Facebook.

Before coming to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, I had never been a minority. I was a white female, who had always ended up in predominately white schools and towns. I had read and heard about what “being part of a minority” is like, and I believed that I fully understood it. After all, it’s not like you are treated any differently, right? Wrong.
Throughout my time here, I have learned firsthand what it is like to be singled-out, objectified, followed and talked about simply because of my skin color.

The city of Puntarenas is a very small, gossip-filled, port city on the Pacific Ocean. It is the type of city where everyone knows everyone, and the poverty is apparent. There are currently about 40 white-skinned people in the entire city. They are all study abroad students from my program. I can spot my classmates from blocks away, and so can everyone else.

On a walk down the street in a typical outfit, on a typical day, I can expect to be cat-called more than once. These cat-calls range anywhere from the bizarre hissing noise that is popular here to marriage proposals. While much of this behavior can be attributed to the deep-rooted machismo culture in Latin America, it is apparent that the treatment of American and Costa Rican women is quite different. There seems to be no boundary when it comes to us. It is not uncommon for me to feel uncomfortable in a situation where I am in the presence of many Ticos – the traditional name for native Costa Ricans – simply because I know that I stick out like a sore thumb.

Much like the economic situations of minorities in the US are often prejudged, the people here decide my wealth based on my skin color. I am white, so I must be a tourist; therefore, I must have money. We are consistently followed around stores, hounded to buy things we do not want, and given higher prices on goods and services. It is the solid economic practice here, take advantage of the ones who cannot do anything about it. They can see the opportunity to make some cash walking down the street from miles away.

Another new concept I was introduced to was having a commonly used nickname to distinguish my race. While it is debated whether the word “gringo” is offensive or not, what is not debated is its common use in Latin America. I have never had a noun used to describe my race before, let alone have it replace my identity. What has surprised me even more is our willingness to adopt the name as a friendly greeting between my fellow students. We often refer to ourselves as “dumb gringos”, which tends to garner surprised stares from the Ticos around us. While this in no means compares to the level of racial language in American history, it does give me a small insight into why it might still be around.

But what has surprised me the most is not something that has been done or said, but rather a feeling. A feeling that, no matter how long I stay here, no matter how well I know the customs, no matter how fluent in Spanish I am, I will always be different. I can never feel like I truly belong to the culture here. As I get to know the community more, the cat-calls might stop and the local vendors might not take advantage of me as much. The language barrier may disappear, but no matter how hard I try, I will never be a Tico. I am physically incapable of ever blending in.
This lesson is in no way a poor reflection on the country. One look at my pictures can tell you that I have never once regretted coming to Costa Rica, nor would I pick any other country if I could study abroad all over again. What it does reflect on is how studying abroad cannot only affect how you look at the world, but also the problems in your own back yard.

Costa Rica has taught me what it is like to be different, to stand out, due to no fault of your own. For that I am truly in debt to this beautiful country.

Erin Wolosz is studying abroad with Universities Study Abroad Consortium in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. She is a junior Journalism major and International Relations certificate candidate who will graduate in 2015.

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