Social Conditions

Tell them Costa Rica is different, everyone said, from truck drivers to government department heads. They are right. Where else can you see this from 20,000 feet? Fly over El Salvador and you'll see big fields with a cluster of small houses and one big house. Fly over Costa Rica and you'll see many small fields and villages with houses that look similar from that distance, especially in the Meseta Central. Plantations owned by the banana companies and some of the cattle fincas in Guanacaste are an exception, but not as prevalent as in other Latin American countries.

A walk through San Jose will show you that there are rich and poor here, but most people are middle class. Costa Rica has the largest proportion of middle class in Latin America. That, its high literacy rate, and free press are the foundations of its democracy. Elementary and secondary education are free, and elementary attendance is required. Ride a public bus at evening rush hour and you'll see everyone reading newspapers.

Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call themselves, are very clean and well dressed. Their families, usually large, are all-important in their lives. For many, the extended family is the source of all their social life. Children are loved extravagantly and with endless patience. You rarely see a crying child. They grow up to be cheerful, considerate people who will do anything to help you-as long you're polite. They aren't subservient. Cheerful self-respect you'll see everywhere, among the Spanish in the Meseta Central, the Indians and mestizos of Guanacaste, and the blacks of the Caribbean coast.

Costa Rica is not immune to the human problems of the 20th century or of the developing nations. The average salary is less than $200 per month, and many people with responsible jobs are paid only about $300. Earnings haven't kept up with the cost of rent, utilities, and basic foods for the usually large families. Unemployment is high in some areas. Costa Rica is a nation of hard-working people who from early colonial times have struggled to make as good a life as possible for themselves and their families. Compared with the TV generation in other places, their resourcefulness in having fun with little money is impressive. With their families at home or on outings, they find fun or make it.

Population growth and the conversion of field agriculture to cattle .range and bananas to palm nuts which take less labor have forced many into cities and towns looking for work. Everywhere there is a serious shortage of low-cost housing, though the government has built many thousands of units near San Jose.

In the outlying areas, and particularly among the people of the Caribbean coast, there is a distrust of what the government and population majority in the Meseta Central may do that affects their life and land. Many women, especially the younger ones, feel caught between the traditional Spanish stereotype of the submissive role and the opportunities that are (or they feel should be) open to them. More women are studying for the professions, especially law. San Jose area is more liberal than the conservative countryside in the choices open to women. You will find many in offices, occasionally even as "la directora."

As I noted earlier, Costa Rica is dedicated to solving these problems and has done much to make its citizens' lives better. Some solutions may wait until the growth of population and the bureaucracy is slowed.

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