American Actvists Abroad

Hi, my name is Tim and I am the newest addition to Innermost Parts. I plan on writing about issues related to Brandeis, Latin America, and how the arts can be a tool used to achieve social justice. I appreciate any and all feedback on posts. Enjoy!

While in San Jose, Costa Rica this summer doing an internship, I volunteered to run the sound board for a community theater group in San Jose. We’ll call them American Theater Group (ATG), in order to protect the guilty. My more important duty quickly became translating between the lighting technician who spoke only Spanish and the director who had attempted to learn only a few words of Spanish while living in Costa Rica for years. The experience made me aware of the large variety of Americans who come to Costa Rica and why they are here. It also made me wonder how Americans can affect Costa Rica in distinct ways without even realizing it.

Not only did the director of the ATG show not speak Spanish, neither did most of the cast, the majority of whom live in one of two wealthy suburbs outside of San Jose (Santa Ana and Escazu). This fact surprised me because it is the opposite of what Americans expect of immigrants to the U.S., and because I can’t imagine why someone would willfully immigrate to a country without attempting to absorb and educate themselves about the culture and traditions of the country. The thing that really confuses me about the Americans in ATG is that the reason the left the U.S. can be summed up in one word: Bush. So, really it’s not so much that they decided that they wanted to live in Costa Rica as much as it is that they gave up on the U.S. because of a stolen election. Not exactly model Americans if you ask me.

However, not all gringos here are fair-weather Americans. For example, the guy I’m doing an internship with, we’ll call him James just in case he doesn’t want to become famous, came here about 5 years ago with his wife and two kids, and they now live on a farm outside of San Jose (not in a wealthy suburb). Although they chose to start a homeschooling program rather than send their kids to public school, the entire family speaks fluent Spanish and they are dedicated to helping the local community. James has three part time jobs teaching sociology in universities here, but when he’s not tending to his farm he spends his free time helping poor, indigenous and imprisoned communities find ways to resolve their conflicts peacefully and through theater (which is why I’m here). His kids are involved in activities (dance, gymnastics) that Costa Ricans participate in, not just Americans. Although I’m sure that James is happy to no longer be under the rule of Bush II, his family is a good example of how Americans can contribute to the social capital of communities they move to in foreign countries. (Another good example are the Quakers who moved to Monteverde, Costa Rica in the 1950’s.)

As an activist and citizen of the richest and most powerful country in the world, I would be embarrassed if I didn’t do my best to improve any country that I decide to live in. (I’m not talking about studying abroad. Living somewhere for a semester barely allows you the opportunity to find your way around.) Okay, so maybe the people in ATG aren’t activists and don’t feel that kind of an obligation to Costa Rica. What about respecting the language and culture of the people? You have to go out of your way to not learn Spanish here. And that’s exactly what these people are doing. They’re basically thumbing their nose at the native Costa Ricans who have lived here all their lives: “Your language and culture don’t deserve my time and effort.”

As progressive activists, we have to do more than just avoid mimicking the behavior of ATG members. Alternatively, when living in a foreign country we have no choice but to maintain our progressive principles by committing ourselves to helping poor communities break the vicious cycle of poverty caused by American companies overseas.