Welcome to Pura Vida
What happens to the family when the state is totally refigured around it? That is, can family and community values stay the same when larger social structures have been transformed? These are the questions that residents of Orosi, Costa Rica are starting to ask themselves, three years after the first provisions of DR-CAFTA, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect.
CAFTA continues what the first wave of structural adjustment began in the 1980s: opening up government monopolies to competition, divesting the state of social programs, and in essence, radically refiguring the ways in which Costa Ricans connect with and think about their state. It was not until this past year, however, that the full scale of those changes began to be appreciated in Orosi, a semi-rural town of about 6,000 inhabitants 40 kilometers southwest of San José. This realization has caused anxiety and a conflicted nostalgia for the past even as incomes and opportunities reach unprecedented levels.
Orosi seems well positioned to benefit from CAFTA: its many professionals are seeking the employment foreign investment has promised, and the town’s geography is such that it is possible to live in Orosi and commute to the new tech centers, even though the commute can take up to three hours each way. Why, then, do so many people tell me that everything was better before? “Before” can refer to any time between 1980 and today, and when it is uttered the speaker means that now they might have iPhones, SUVs, and professional jobs that pay a stable and predictable wage, but before they had something better. They had family and equality, even if it mean being equally poor, and that was priceless.
Given that CAFTA is three years old, why the sudden worry about these changes in a town that usually seems content to let things continue as usual? This laid-back, take-things-as-they-come lifestyle is referred to as pura vida, Costa Rica’s unofficial national slogan. The phrase is emblazoned on T-shirts and mugs, repackaged and sold to tourists hoping to bring a little pura vida home with them (I have a sticker or two). The term literally means “pure life,” but is used variously as a greeting, an indication of someone’s character (i.e., a good person), an inquiry into one’s health, or as an affirmation or agreement.
Pura vida encompasses all the good things that going with the flow entails, but it also demonstrates how hard it is to get Ticos (Costa Ricans) riled up about anything (except, perhaps, the continued futility of la sele, the national soccer team). Costa Rica is just not a place where change happens easily, and for many people, particularly in Orosi, the status quo has meant a pretty good life. The nostalgia for “before” implies that many are not happy with the rapid pace of technological change and that they might be upset enough to do something about it. In this series of posts I explore some of these changes and offer some initial suggestions – my own and that of the Orosians with whom I have been living on and off for the past four years – as to why and how this pura vida acceptance has been challenged by CAFTA, and what might be done about it.