Costa Rica Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnicity means something different everywhere you go. In this lesson we'll look at the ethnic composition of Costa Rica, and see what diversity means to this nation.

Costa Rica

Sometimes, it's good to be the exception. The 20th century was rough for many nations of Central America, where corruption and violence reigned in the midst of struggling economies. But, not in Costa Rica!

Costa Rica has one of the strongest economies of Central America, as well as one of the most secure democracies. A thriving tourism industry, as well as a growing technology market largely supports its infrastructure, and the standard of living is fairly high.

Costa Rica actually has a history of being different; it was one of the hardest places for Spanish conquistadors to capture thanks to the mosquito-filled jungles. So, Costa Rica likes to be unique. Does this mean that everything is perfect?

Not quite. Costa Rica has its own struggles, just as everywhere does. Of course, it's no surprise that Costa Rica's struggles with ethnicity are a bit unique.

Costa Rica

Mestizo Ethnicity in Costa Rica

Ethnicity means something different everywhere you go, and Costa Rica is no exception. 84% of the nation identifies ethnically as mestizo, or of mixed European (Spanish) and Amerindian ancestry. That's pretty common throughout Latin America. Costa Rica also tends to elevate mestizos as the national standard, the official Costa Ricans, if you will. This too is common across the region.

What's unique in Costa Rica's case is that the concept of being mestizo is almost entirely focused on European ancestry. While most Latin American mestizos embrace at least the idea of Amerindian heritage in a serious way, for Costa Ricans this is really a symbolic mixture, representing the nation's history. There could be many reasons for this, possibly because Costa Rica was never home to one of the big three of the Latin American Amerindian civilizations: Aztec, Maya, or Inca.

The Amerindian people of Costa Rica's past had their own civilizations and customs, but not the settled urban societies that many Latin American nations later adopted as part of their national past. It's worth noting that Costa Rica is one of the only nations in all of Latin America that does not have separate census categories for 'mestizo' and 'white'. Whereas these are unique terms in other nations, they're basically interchangeable in Costa Rica.

Mestizo identity is very closely tied to European heritage

Black/Mulatto Ethnicities in Costa Rica

So, how about the rest of Costa Rica? About 8% of the nation identifies with African ancestry, but this too is unique. Only 1% of Costa Ricans identify simply as black. The rest identify as mulatto, or of mixed African/European ancestry. Considering how strongly white mestizo identity is elevated as the national standard, the choice of many people in Costa Rica to identify as mulatto, as having European heritage, is significant.

There's actually a historical reason for this as well. Costa Rica never had the flourishing slave trade of other areas, something the nation is very proud of today. The first Africans in Costa Rica were slaves, but they were rare. When slavery was abolished in 1824, these slaves were highly integrated into society. So, a mulatto identity is basically a way of affirming that one's ancestors were in Costa Rica back when it became an independent nation, making their heirs true Costa Ricans.

The second wave of African-descendants into Costa Rica came later, when various economic factors encouraged Afro-Caribbeans to move into Central America. This started around 1872 with a large railway project that opened up many jobs, and continued into the 1920s. A great number of these people came from Jamaica, as well as other nations where black identity was a source of pride and people rejected any European heritage. To this day, most Costa Ricans who identify as black, not mulatto, are descendants of Caribbean immigrants.

Amerindians in Costa Rica

The final group on the national census is the Amerindians, who make up about 2.5% of the total population. Costa Rica recognizes eight traditional Amerindian nations within its borders: the Bribri, Brunca/Boruca, Chorotega, Maleku/Guatuso, Ngöbe/Guaymí, and Teribe/Térraba. Most of these people live within the nation's reservation system.

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