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Of Gritos and Guerras: Contrast between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

To learn more about Costa Rica, click here.
My travel alarm clock startled me early this morning, but it was a necessary reminder that I needed to stumble out of bed and get to class. I was starting my day with a Spanish lesson from Jairo; a Nicaraguan man who now lives with his wife and three children in San José, Costa Rica's capital and largest city. Jairo works at a hotel near where Shawn, Kevin and I are staying. He was excited to help me improve my Spanish.

Jairo was late to meet me because his bus was blocked by a large posse of student protestors! A scene of protest is a rare occurrence in Costa Rica, a country that has represented peace throughout the past fifty years of Central American turmoil. I could hardly believe the protest was as big as Jairo claimed, but when we were walking to the plaza to have our lesson, I saw it was true! Three huge groups totalling around 2400 students, ranging in age from around 12 to 17, marched past us. This was a photo opportunity if I've ever seen one! I ran back to the hotel to get the camera and found Kevin and Shawn already preparing to go out into the street and cover the story. You can read their dispatch about the protest in the next update on Wednesday. Have you ever been part of a big protest like the one in this picture? The students were all yelling and cheering when Shawn got up on the second floor of a building to take this photo. A lot of the girls seemed to have mini-crushes on him!

Jairo and I tried to continue our lesson, but we got a little sidetracked. He started teaching me the simple past tense of hablar, the Spanish verb meaning: to speak. "Hablé, hablaste, habló, hablamos, hablaron," I repeated several times. But we couldn't get our minds off the protestors. He explained that he had been a young protestor in Nicaragua during its civil war, and these Costa Rican students evoked many emotional memories. My lesson notes suddenly changed from tenses of hablar to pages and pages of Jairo's words about his experiences as a Nicaraguan youth during the civil war versus his experiences here in Costa Rica.

Costa Ricans take great pride in their peaceful country and its ability to avoid wars, unlike its neighboring Central American countries. Jairo explained to me that "Costa Ricans have always believed that they are peaceful. They've assimilated this information, especially into the schools, and it's easy for politicians to control them." The Costa Rican government and police don't have to worry about violent protest because the people would never think to use forceful tactics. This is very different from the way of life in Jairo's native Nicaragua. He was a protestor there nine years ago. "I didn't want to but I HAD to," he told me. He was a worker at a processing plant for goods that came in and out of the country. One day there was a demonstration at the plant. The police showed up and beat and tear-gassed many of the demonstrators. The police here in San José, Costa Rico were not worried about violence. They actually helped to stop traffic today so that the students could march!

Jairo believes there are three main differences between Costa Rica and his home country of Nicaragua: knowledge of human rights, experience of war, and cultural assimilation.

Jairo on Human Rights...
"In Nicaragua, Guatemala, or Mexico," he said, "you can find campesinos, people who live in the countryside, who don't know how to read or write, but who know their rights as citizens. One man I met spoke so eloquently that I thought he went to a university. But when I asked him, he said he hadn't. He just believed so much in his ideals that his words were so powerful."

"However," Jairo continued, "here in Costa Rica, you can sometimes find professionals like doctors and professors. When you ask them what their rights are, they don't know."

Jairo on Experience of War...
Jairo believes that Central American individuals' knowledge of human rights directly relates to each country's experience of war. "There are two things about war," he said to me very seriously. "One, that you can die. Two, that you can kill someone else." Jairo believes that young people in Nicaragua, like himself, had to grow up very quickly and become adults because they had long periods of civil unrest and fighting. They didn't have a chance to be youthful, whereas here in San José, youth really get a chance to enjoy life with lots of dancing, partying and learning.

Jairo on Cultural Assimilation...
Jairo feels very strongly that each culture should preserve its own traditions and not assimilate, or absorb, other cultures. "The indigenous culture of Central America is characterized by maize," he explained. See Abeja's dispatch on Men of Maize. In Guatemala, the people eat tortillas. In El Salvador, they eat pupusas, flat corn cakes filled with beans or cheese or some meat. In Nicaragua, they have pinol and chicha. "But in Costa Rica, there isn't really a typical food based on corn...there's coffee. Little by little, Costa Rica has changed to imitate other countries, but not Central American countries, more like European and North American countries."

Jairo has visited Guatemala and believes that indigenous Guatemalans have preserved their culture very well. He noticed that in Guatemala City native Quiche, Mam, and Kakchiquel women and men all wear their traditional clothing. "But," he says, "here in Costa Rica, there's only small groups of indigenous people. They've preserved their features, clothing, and food, but their point of view is slowly changing." Jairo thinks that the younger generation, including his own children, have assimilated different points of view and now there really isn't a sense of native, Costa Rican culture.

I explained to Jairo that the same thing has happened in the United States, too. Have you ever heard America called the "melting pot" of the world? This means that many different cultures have mixed in the United States, making it difficult to give an easy definition of American culture and tradition. Do you think this is a bad thing? "Each generation is a product of their government," Jairo said. "There can only be an exchange of information when people have a bigger vision and communicate that to others." He thinks that the people here, especially the students, are starting more and more to analyze politics, to hold public figures accountable, and to take an active part in maintaining their rights. He explains, "I think there's a change in the mentality of the people. Eyes are closed but some eyes are now opening." I encourage you, too, to take an active role in maintaining your rights and the rights of people around the world.


Team - I Need to Be WHERE?!? WHEN?!?
Kevin - La Cucaracha! La Cucaracha!
Kevin - La Cuacaracha, the KIDS' VERSION
Shawn - The Lion, the Witch and the Canoe!
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