Costa Rican Identity
Costa Ricans pride themselves on being friendly, helpful and easygoing – the very embodiment of pura vida (pure life). Costa Ricans also believe that their nation is uniquely democratic, well educated, eco-friendly and, above all, peaceful.
Approximately 76% of Costa Ricans identify as Catholic, although not all are practicing. The remaining 24% are Evangelical Christians (13.7%), Jehovah's Witnesses (1.7%), Protestant (0.7%), other (4.8%), or have no religion (3.2%).
Religion, mainly Catholicism, is ever-present in daily life. Many towns, including the capital of San Jose are named after the saints. Major holidays – Holy Week, Christmas, and the Virgin of Los Angeles Day – revolve around Catholicism. Costa Ricans regularly invoke God's will – "si Dios quiere" (if God wishes it) is a daily utterance. Public schools teach Catholicism, and religion plays an important role in forming public policy. Gay marriage, abortion, and even in vitro fertilization are illegal as of 2011.
Local culture is rich with traditions that govern almost every nuance of daily life. Family is very important for Costa Ricans, and many still live as extended family units, with grandparents, parents, children and siblings all living under one roof.
Common knowledge and popular beliefs are very important to Costa Ricans. Ancestral wisdom dictates how to keep house properly; which herbs and plants will cure what ails you; and how new parents should care for their babies. These beliefs are deeply rooted in Costa Rican culture, and at times, science takes a backseat to traditional wisdom.
Food plays an important role in Costa Rican tradition. Christmas means leg of pork or roasted turkey; Holy Week promises chiverre squash in all its incarnations; and December always brings tamales. An afternoon coffee break is incomplete without pastries, and weekend mornings are usually punctuated by a trip to the local bakery for a loaf of fresh bread.
Due to comparatively small indigenous populations and few Africans, Costa Ricans are lighter skinned than many Latin Americans. In fact, 94% identify as white, while only 3% are black, 1% Amerindian, 1% Chinese, and 1% other. In reality, "white" Costa Rican skin tones range from pale to golden brown. Additionally, despite many claims to the contrary, anthropologists and sociologists agree that skin color in Costa Rica does carry with it certain assumptions – mainly, the whiter the skin, the more elite.
Although Costa Rican society is generally very homogenous, there are certain pockets of minority ethnicities. The most obvious is the Caribbean province of Limon, where many Afro-Costa Ricans observe the traditions of their Jamaican ancestors. Today, indigenous populations are small, but the Bribri and Cabecar, the country's two largest indigenous groups, are working to preserve their ancient cultures through continued emphasis on tradition, help from the Costa Rican government, and a growing relationship with rural tourism.
Much of Costa Rica's upper class descends from the Spanish conquistadors that settled in the region during colonial times. An indicator of class if often one's two last names: strongly Spanish surnames like Gonzalez and Fernandez indicate older families, and therefore higher social status.
However, the Costa Rican class system is not rigid, and the country is home to a large middle class. Most Ticos have a high quality of life, and today, material possessions are a primary indicator of social class. Costa Ricans dress very well, and often subscribe to brand merchandising – Lacoste polo shirts, Nike sneakers, and Docker khakis are popular, even though they may cost half a week's salary. More and more Costa Rican homes have flat-screen televisions, and residents proudly display their smartphones, iPods and other modern electronics. The more you have and the more you pay are important social indicators in 21st century Costa Rica.
No overview of Costa Rican cultural identity would be complete without mention of the national sport – soccer, known in Spanish as futbol. Every town has a central soccer field, and Costa Ricans are fanatical when it comes to their favorite teams. San Jose's Deportivo Saprissa and Liga Deportiva Alajuelense usually vie for the nation's top rank, and their rivalry is so great that it fuels at least four face-offs between the country's two most popular teams.
When Costa Rica's national team, La Seleccion, plays, the whole nation tunes in. Fireworks, honking horns, and rowdy cheers resound throughout the country when La Sele scores a goal. Even if you're not watching the game, you'll know how well La Sele is playing!