Melissa works on her journal at the Mangrove Inn, Bocas, Panama!
Looking back upon the days I spent in preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school, I am saddened with the realization of how little focus there was on further understanding different cultures and different regions of the world. Certainly the best way to experience these differences in culture and social structures is first hand experience and immersing yourself in a different people’s country and culture. However, not everyone has that possibility and details can be overlooked when solely relying on experience. Before I venture off to Costa Rica, I feel it is important to better understand the people who live there, especially focusing on their social structure so that I will better understand their culture when I am there. I am specifically interested in social structure, family, religion, and education.
Social values are considered to be Hispanic in root, emphasizing personalism, which stresses the uniqueness of each individual as well as the strong male personality. There is very little indigenous cultural influence due to the large Hispanic population(Rachowiecki, 34). The upper class, which makes up about 2% of the population and makes 20% of the national income, can be traced to some of the first colonists as well as nouveaux riches. The middle class is a result of the colonial era when independent farmers dominated the population and resulted in an upper middle class, with 5% of the populace and earning 10% of national income, as well as a lower middle class, with 15% of the people and 18% of national income. The working class makes up about 50% of the population and earns about 45% of the national income. Finally, the lower class, 25% of the populace, earns only 7% of the national income. These statistics reveal a very unequal distribution of wealth, with the top ten percent of the society earning roughly one-third of the national income and the bottom ten percent only earning five percent of total income(Booth, 83). This society admires hard workers, where “the favorite character is not the aristocratic conquistador, but the independent, middle-class peasant who works his own land, is servant to non, and master of himself”(Blustein 86).
Costa Rica is relatively Hispanic, after assimilation occurred with its original indigenous and black populations into the mestizo population. However, minorities do exist and discrimination is prevalent. The black people are mostly descendents of railroad and banana workers brought in during the nineteenth century. African people have suffered economically ever since the banana company relocated and did not allow them to follow. This type of discrimination is now outlawed, though racism still does exist(Booth 86). Indigenous people are another minority, making up about 1% of the national population(Rachowiecki, 34). These people are divided among several distinct languages and ethnic groups and suffer a great deal of disease and poverty. Although they own about 6% of the national territory, they only have an estimated use of 60% of that. Several issues have been raised that the government and private industries, such as logging, as well as a spreading mestizo population is resulting in encroachments in these indigenous reserves. Indian’s rights movements has been growing and in the early 1990’s they finally received full political rights by a constitutional amendment(Booth 87). Other minorities which have worked their way into the Costa Rican social structure include Italians, French, Germans, and Chinese.
In the past, a big part of Costa Rican’s social structure revolved around the family unit. More recently, however, there has been some movement away from this structure and one that is a little more relaxed and intergrated. Families are usually large, as contraceptive propaganda has had minimal effect, and marriage rates are highest among Latin American countries(Blutstein 85). Traditions are a little stronger in rural areas than urban areas today, but both places have relaxed traditions from those in the past. Large families are rooted in past tradition, where there is a belief that for each child brings with them a loaf of bread for the family. The ideal number of kids is around eight. Such a large number is helpful in rural areas, where kids can help on farms, though in urban areas large families are seen as more of an economic strain, though still desired. Kids grow up with a lot of freedom, especially if their family is pretty well off and most kids only attend school for a couple years, entering when they are seven, though some go on to complete high school and fewer still go to college. Men are usually viewed as the dominant head of the household, where the wife and children are to give him loyalty and obedience as long as he is able to supply the family with enough stability. On the other hand, if men provide for the family then it is socially acceptable for the husband to have relations outside of the marriage and do whatever else he pleases. Women have been economically dependent on the husband in the past, however, as women become better educated and get jobs there is less dependency on the husband and growing independence. Women are still expected to instill morals into the children and teach them the Catholic doctrine, as well as raise them while the husband is the disciplinarian. Divorce has been looked down upon in the past, but few are granted as acceptable, including abuse, and adultery on the part of the wife. In the past, family background was important in determining social class, however economic variables are becoming more and more important, blurring preexisting social class lines(Blutstein 86-94).
Religion may play a role in lack of contraceptives due to the old Catholic belief that contraception was evil and should not be used. Hence it is evident that religion also plays a big role in the social structure of Costa Rica with Catholicism as the most prevalent form of religion. The Roman Catholic faith is predominant in Costa Rica although many partisans see membership as an obligation and not a moral commitment. The church has very little political power, though the church and the government are on good terms and have in the past worked together, as Catholicism had been the official religion at one point. Women are viewed as more spiritual than men, and are encouraged to stay devoted to the Catholic Church while the men slowly drift from the doctrine and are not expected to keep up with the faith. Although Protestantism was not initially received with open arms, and quite oppositely met with violence, the country has accepted its existence and now priests and ministers have been known to work together on certain goals and issues. There is a rather strong sense of fatalism within the country, where people believe that there place in life was predetermined by God and that their life does not consist of any personally made choices, but that their life has already been laid out. This idea helps lower class people accept their fate, although there is also the belief that hard work pays off and that mobility within social classes is possible. Therefore, some people do manage to work their way up in the social realm, but this does not occur very often in Costa Rica(Blutstein).
Costa Rica has placed much emphasis on education, allowing for a free public school system for young adults and children to attend. The “effects of this love affair with education have been socialization of citizens, democratization, and social mobility”(Booth 94). However, during the fiscal crisis in the 80’s and 90’s education budgets were decreased significantly and bigger gaps between public and private education became more apparent. Without the money to support public education, the government encouraged private education until proper funds can once again be found for proper public school systems.
In conclusion, the Costa Rican social structure is based on family, religion, education, and the past influence of the Hispanic people who conquered Costa Rica so long ago. By better understanding the social structure of Costa Rica, as a visitor I will be able to understand the people and have a deeper appreciation for their culture and those traditions which I have no experience with. It is always interesting to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and this can not be accomplished if you have no sort of context to put them in to start with. There is no better way to start understanding an individual than to start with their society and culture to understand how they are affected and influenced by their environment. Now that I know that there are “no visions of dark, unofficial doings need trouble a traveler to the country,”(Glassman, 1) I’m ready to visit!
Booth, John A. Costa Rica: Quest for Democracy. United States: Westview Press, 1998.
Blutstein, Howard I. Area Handbook for Costa Rica. Washington D.C.:U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.
Glassman, Paul. Costa Rica. Passport Press: United States, 1984.
Rachowiecki, Rob. Costa Rica: a Travel Survival Kit. Lonely Planet Publications: China, 1994.
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