Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Costa Rica

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Costa Rica, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Costa Rica.

Outside of Costa Rica’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Costa Rica are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Costa Rica, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Costa Rica[edit]

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Costa Rican society can be considered very macho. Some men hiss or make inappropriate comments to any woman (foreigner or local) who walks by, which can be frustrating.

Many women deal with this issue by completely ignoring the comments; others continue to be bothered by them for their entire two years. In the workplace, it can be difficult to know when a comment is culturally acceptable and when it constitutes harassment. It is safe to say that most women never accept the catcalls and sexual harassment; rather, they develop a degree of tolerance with which they can function effectively.

Other issues relate to the gender roles that exist in host families. Female Volunteers may experience discomfort at seeing females in the family having the primary responsibility for household chores (i.e., child care, cleaning, and cooking). In addition, many female Volunteers find it difficult to maintain friendships with Costa Rican males because of the assumption that there is always a sexual undertone in any male-female relationship. They may even have a hard time developing close friendships with Costa Rican women of their own age because many local women in their 20s are already married with children.

The Costa Rican culture generally does not allow women to exercise the freedoms to which North American women are accustomed. Female Volunteers may therefore find it frustrating to live in a country that on some levels is very egalitarian, yet on other levels is very limiting. While some Costa Rican women occupy top government positions, traditional roles for women prevail. Costa Rican men, in contrast, are expected to be strong and to smoke, drink, and pursue women regardless of their marital status. Volunteers, especially women, are often bothered by the machismo aspect of Costa Rican culture. There have been incidents in which female Volunteers have been touched or groped on the street or on buses. American women are obvious targets because they are so visible and have a reputation of being sexually liberal.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

The majority of the tourists who visit Costa Rica are white. Consequently, host country nationals tend to think that all North Americans are white, and they sometimes mistake non-Caucasian Volunteers for being something other than Americans. For instance, African Americans or Hispanic Americans may be thought to be from Costa Rica or other Latin American countries. Similarly, Volunteers of Asian decent are often considered Chinese regardless of their true origin.

Volunteers of color have different reactions to this situation, depending on their level of sensitivity and their geographical location in the country. For example, a light-skinned African American blended into Costa Rican culture without any problems and found this to be helpful when buying goods at the market. People assumed that she was a local, not an American, so she was not charged inflated prices. However, another Volunteer with much darker skin was frustrated by the prejudice against people with darker skin in some areas of the country.

African-American Volunteers may be assumed to be from the Caribbean area of the country and ascribed attributes of that subculture. They may be called negro (black), the local word commonly used to describe black people, whether used in a derogatory way or as a term of endearment. They may be evaluated as less professionally competent than white Volunteers. They may be one of the few minority members within the program and thus work and live with individuals who have no understanding of African-American cultures and cannot provide adequate support. Finally, they may have difficulty finding certain beauty products found in the United States.

Hispanic-American Volunteers may not be perceived as being North American. They may be expected to speak Spanish fluently because of a Hispanic surname. They may be considered Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans or Mexicans and ascribed stereotypical attributes of those cultures. Costa Ricans may assume that Hispanic Americans understand the culture and language and thus expect them to interact socially with more ease.

Asian-American Volunteers may be identified by their cultural heritage, not by their American citizenship. They may be assumed to be experts in kung fu. They may be perceived in a certain way based on Costa Rica’s current or historical involvement with Asian countries or the increased presence of Asian businessmen in the community as bar, restaurant, and shop owners.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

More than younger Volunteers, seniors may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and dealing with financial matters from afar. They may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone.

A senior may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Seniors may not be inclined to participate fully in certain activities to “give the young folks their turn.” They may be reluctant to share personal, sexual, or health concerns with Peace Corps staff or other Volunteers. Younger Volunteers may look to an older Volunteer for advice and support; some seniors find this to be an enjoyable experience, while others choose not to fill this role. Some seniors may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job.

Some senior trainees find the intensity of training quite tiring. Others experience a lack of attention to their particular language learning needs and may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Homosexuality is generally considered immoral in Costa Rican society, so few gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers choose to be open about their sexual orientation during service. Because of local views about homosexuality, it is wise to be discreet and to know your community well before disclosing your sexual orientation.

The presence of homosexuals and bisexuals is certainly recognized in Costa Rica, but hardly with the same level of acceptance as in the United States. Styles of hair and clothes, earrings on men, and certain mannerisms that are accepted in the United States may be viewed with disdain or suspicion in your community. It is likely that most Costa Rican homosexuals have migrated to larger cities. Relationships with local people can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they may not be easy. Civil liberties are sometimes ignored, and you may be hassled in bars or on the street. Lesbians have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo: talk of conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Costa Rica is a largely Roman Catholic country, and the church plays an important role in the political debate of the country and in the society’s moral beliefs. There is not the separation of church and state that exists in the United States. Some Costa Ricans you meet may not know much about or may have misconceptions about other religions. However, there are congregations of other religions in Costa Rica (e.g., Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

The infrastructure in Costa Rica does not make many accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Most communities do not even have sidewalks, and very few have ramps. In addition, Costa Ricans sometimes give nicknames to people based on their physical characteristics, including disabilities, and you may experience prejudice or jokes about your disability. Depending on your disability, there may be few local resources to turn to for support.

That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Costa Rica without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Costa Rica staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.