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   Information Center Costa Rica
Costa Rica General Information
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People, Language & Religion


Costa Rica is noted more for its natural beauty and friendly people than for its culture. The overwhelming European influence erased almost all indigenous culture, cultural activity has only begun to blossom in the last 100 years.

Costa Rica is situated where the Mesoamerican and South American native cultures met. In Precolumbian times, the north of the country was the southernmost point of Mayan influence and the central while southern portions of the country had Chibcha, South American influences. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, most of the settlements and cities were established in the southern-central part of the country that were less densely populated than the north, and where the European descendants became predominant. In what is today the province of Guanacaste the Spaniards stablished an indigenous corregimiento and the development of cattle production draw also a considerable amount of African forced labour to the region. Although the actual population of Costa Rica is generally of mixed "mestizo" origins, the different makeups of these two regions is still evident. The northern plains (Guatuso) and the southern mountains (Talamanca) were relatively untouched during colonial times and the largest remaining indigenous populations are still located in those areas.

In the 19th century, the caribbean region of Costa Rica received a considerable number of immigrants that came first as workers during the construction of the railroads to the eastern coast and later settled in the area. Most of them were blacks that came from the English-speaking caribbean, who gave a distinctive cultural and ethnic identity to the region. There was also an important number of Chinese immigrants, who came first to the port-towns of Limon and Puntarenas and later spread in small numbers to most cities in the country. Small number of immigrants from other areas, mainly Europe (Spain, Italy, Germany) and Lebanon, arrived during the early 20th century causing a small but significant impact, mainly on the country's political and economic elite. All of these influences have developed the extremely varied ethnicity of the country.


Spanish is the national language, but English is also spoken around Puerto Limon and among the middle class. Descendants of the Jamaican blacks speak an English dialect.


Costa Ricans are said to be "lukewarm" when it comes to religion. Although more than 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, at least in name, almost no one gets riled up about their faith. Sure, Holy Week (the week before Easter) is a national holiday, but it's simply an excuse for a secular binge. The passing of the parish priest inspires no reverential gestures. And most Costa Ricans respond to the bell, the public voice of the church, only on special occasions, generally when the bell peals for birth, marriage, and maybe for Easter Morning, when the mass of men mill by the door, unpiously half in and half out.

The country has always been remarkably secular, the link between Christianity and the state--between God and Caesar--always weak. The Costa Ricans' dislike for dictators has made them intolerant of priests. The feudal peasants of other Central American nations, miserably toiling on large estates (latifundias) or their own tiny plots, may have been poor and ignorant, but the Church offered them one great consolation. Theirs would be the kingdom of heaven. And in more recent times, when Catholic organisations attempted to address pressing social problems, they strengthened the Church's bond with the people. In Costa Rica, by contrast, the Church, from the earliest colonial times, had little success at controlling the morals and minds of the masses. While poor peasants can be convinced they'll become bourgeois in heaven, a rising class wants its comforts on earth. Costa Rica's modernity and "middle-class" achievements have made the Church superfluous.

Still, every village no matter how small has a church and its own saint's day, albeit celebrated with secular fervor. Every taxi, bus, government office, and home has its token religious icons. The Catholic marriage ceremony is the only church marriage granted state recognition. And Catholicism is the official state religion. The 1949 Constitution even provided for state contributions to the maintenance of the Church; and the salaries of bishops are paid by the state.

Catholicism, nonetheless, has only a tenuous hold; mass in some rural communities may be a once-a-year affair, and resignation to God's will is tinged with pagan fatalism. In a crisis Ticos will turn to a favourite saint, one who they believe has special powers or "pull" with God, to demand a miracle. And folkloric belief in witchcraft is still common (Escazú is renowned as a centre for brujos, witches who specialise in casting out spells and resolving love problems).

Protestantism has proved even less spellbinding. The Catholic clergy has fiercely protected its turf against Protestant missionaries (even Billy Graham's tour in 1958 was blackballed by the local media), and the Protestant evangelism so prevalent in other parts of Central America has yet to make a dent in Costa Rica. A great many sects, however, have found San José the ideal base for proselytizing forays elsewhere in the isthmus. The nation's black population constitutes about half of Costa Rica's 40,000 or so Protestants, though the archbishop of Canterbury would be horrified at the extent to which "his" religion has been married with African-inspired, voodoo-like obeah and pocomoia cult worship.





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