San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Memphis, Tennessee, Gets a Taste of Pura Vida

The home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll is about to get a Tico twist. The U.S. city of Memphis, Tennessee, known for producing none other than the immortal Elvis Presley, will celebrate all things Costa Rican this May as part of its Memphis in May celebrations.

The Memphis in May International Festival, May 8-13, has chosen Costa Rica as its highlighted country this year, following a globe-trotting tradition of introducing a different country and culture every year to the people of Memphis and tourists from around the world.

The festival, which also features a street music festival, the three-day World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and a symphony performance, could receive up to 250,000 visitors this year, and its international segment is the biggest international festival in North America, program director Randy Blevins told The Tico Times.

According to a statement from festival organizers, Costa Rica was chosen for its history of peace and democracy, its natural beauty, conservation efforts and its proud and friendly people.

“We are pleased to honor a country with such a rich heritage. The foundation of Costa Rica is democracy, peace and personal liberty,” said the festival’s executive president Jim Holt in the statement.

Visitors will get to absorb Costa Rican culture through samples of the country’s music, food, plants, animals, art, history and politics.

“If you can see it, smell it or touch it, we made an attempt to bring it up here,” Blevins said. “We can’t bring the rain forest, but we can bring pictures of the rain forest.”

More than just pictures, however, will evoke Costa Rica’s famed forests at the Memphis festival. In a performance entitled “Costa Rica: Rain Forest and Rhythms,” Manuel Obregón, one of the country’s best known pianists, will give a performance with the visual backdrop of high-quality video from the rain forests of Costa Rica.

In addition, pending approval from the United States Department of Agriculture, Costa Rica’s INBioparque, managed by the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) in Heredia, north of San José, plans to set up a biodiversity exhibit with local plants, orchids and 25-30 species of native Costa Rican butterflies.

“I think that’s about as clo se as you’re going to get to bringing the rain forest from Costa Rica up here,” Blevins said.

For INBio butterfly curator José Montero, the exhibit would not only expose visitors to Costa Rica’s biological beauty, but also promote the butterfly export industry.

“For 25 years, Costa Rica has exported butterflies,” Montero told The Tico Times.

“Approximately 200 people live off this activity, and this emphasis could bring a lot of investment.”

A Costa Rican exhibit sharing a bit of Tico history is that of the Oscar Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which includes a replica of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to President-elect Oscar Arias (President of Costa Rica 1986-90, and reelected Feb. 5) in 1987 for leading the Central American peace talks of the 1980s.

Other exhibits that will show off different facets of Costa Rica’s culture include a photography display by Marco Saborío, an exhibit of fabric weavings by Paulina Ortiz, paintings by a group of campesinas from northern Costa Rica entitled “Corazones Valientes” (“Brave Hearts”), and a display of art by Juan Manuel Sánchez, on loan from the Costa Rican Art Museum, tracing the importance and history of the marimba in Costa Rica.

Mingling with the sounds of this cradle of rock and roll will be Costa Rican melodies performed by Malpaís and Luis Ángel Castro, and Tico rhythms will be brought to life in Memphis by the traditional dance troupe Ballét Folclórico Barbac.

Student exchange programs and a school curriculum focused on Costa Rica and distributed through area schools will help strengthen educational ties between Memphis and Costa Rica, while area business seminars and a mission to Costa Rica by Memphis business leaders looks to create inroads for new business opportunities.

According to Blevins, the process for choosing a country for the festival begins several years in advance and involves a lengthy selection process and in-country research into local traditions and culture.

Each year the festival rotates its focus to a different quadrant of the globe – last year it was Ireland, and, before that, South Africa.

The last Latin American country to be selected was Argentina in 2001.

“We realized several years ago that we had never honored a Central American country, so we slated that region for this year,” said Holt in an e-mail to The Tico Times. “Other criteria we look at include current diplomatic relations, local ethnic affiliations, the depth of the country’s culture, and so forth. Costa Rica emerged as the top choice. It’s a spectacular country with very warm and friendly people.”

For more information on the festival, visit


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