San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Minister of Culture Takes the Helm

The journey from childhood home to new post as Minister of Culture has been a physically short but circuitous one for María Elena Carballo.

The new minister, who took office May 8 with the incoming administration of President Oscar Arias, remains true to those childhood beginnings, roots that have profoundly influenced her view of the country.

“These are the foundations of Costa Rican democracy,” she remembers of the socially, ethnically and religiously mixed neighborhood on an unpaved street two blocks from Paseo Colón, on the west side of 1950s San José. Carballo, 54, remains close to her family’s immigrant roots, with paternal grandparents coming from Spain and maternal grandparents hailing from Italy.

Those memories of a vibrant, culturally diverse San José have fueled Carballo’s vision of what San José can be once again. She has championed the creation of a Centro Cívico, a civic center that would revitalize the capital and bring people downtown again.

But tied in with the Civic Center concept in many minds is a proposal to move the President’s offices to the National Culture Center (CENAC), the mid-19th-century complex that once housed the National Liquor Factory (FANAL) and is now home to the Ministry of Culture,Youth and Sports, the Contemporary Art and Design Museum and two theaters.

The idea has drawn protests from the arts community, but the new minister quickly points out that it is just that: an idea.

The new post represents a homecoming for Carballo, whose first job after university was as a researcher for the ministry’s publication department. She also performed similar duties during the first Arias administration (1986-1990).

Carballo received a Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Brandeis University in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, a feat she accomplished with two young children and a psychiatrist husband, who was studying public health at Harvard at the same time, in tow.

“Very generous daycare facilities at Brandeis,” she remembers. “Going to class was a break.”

When asked whom a literature major reads, “Toni Morrison” is the first name to pass Carballo’s lips.

“Hard, tough, extraordinary, beautiful,” the minister says of the Nobel Prize-winning U.S. author who has explored the experience of African-American women in her works. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood and Milan Kundera also occupy prominent spots on Carballo’s favorites list.

Carballo sat down with The Tico Times recently at her office in the ministry complex to discuss the state of Costa Rican arts and culture, the government’s role in its development and the controversial Civic Center concept. Excerpts follow:

TT: We frequently toss around the word “culture” without truly thinking about what it means. How would you define the term?

MEC: I define it as the identity of a community. It is character. It is thought. It is popular culture. It’s any demonstration that affects the concept of that community.

Some countries, the United States, for example, don’t have a government body equivalent to a Ministry of Culture.What is the government’s role in the culture of a country?

Costa Rica follows the French model that supposes the state has a role in promoting national culture. The French invented that concept. In Costa Rica’s case, culture relates to development. The famous saying of don Pepe (former President José María Figueres [1948-49, 1953-58, 1970-74]) – “What good are tractors without violins?” – is the classic expression of that. There is no development without cultural development.

Culture is creativity, self-image and innovation. The state should try to promote those things.

Is Costa Rican culture in any danger of disappearing, being confronted by outside influences?

I don’t take that position. I think all culture is enriched by diversity. The capacity to absorb outside influences is a strength, not a weakness. It’s like braiding or weaving a fabric.

We know who we are by our position in the world. We have defined ourselves as a peaceful, tolerant, negotiating country without a military, not just to the world but to ourselves. The country is enriched by what comes from the outside, and those who come here are enriched by Costa Rica.

How can you accomplish all that with, I presume, a very small budget?

Yes.We’re right down there with the Ministry of Science and Technology. I’m not sure who has fewer funds. Presently, we receive 0.4% of the national budget. I think the attitude of this government will be different. It has pledged to increase that figure to 1%. Above all, it can help us decentralize cultural offerings. They tend to concentrate in urban areas. But it’s always a question of funds, right?

What can be done to bring more cultural offerings to the provinces?

One way is to form an alliance with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT). The country needs to present a strong cultural offering to tourists rather than tourism based on gambling or prostitution. That will benefit us all and be much more sustainable.

What is the status of the possible move of Casa Presidencial?

This needs to be studied by a commission. Is the idea viable? Is it the least costly alternative? I would not serve on such a commission. It would be made up of representatives from other ministries, different political parties, architects and the arts. But it is not a done deal. It’s not even a plan. It was mentioned as a possibility during a press conference during the campaign. I prefer not to think of it in terms of Casa Presidencial and CENAC, but as the creation of a Civic Center.

Is it fair to say a Civic Center is a concept rather than a fixed complex of government buildings?

The sector from the Old Customs House to here (CENAC) and up through Barrio Amón can be revitalized as a beautiful area.

Costa Rica has an image of democracy, but we don’t have an urban area that reflects that. We’ve become like Wall Street: busy during the day, but abandoned after hours. I want to see the city occupied at night too.

There are schools of thought that say not to touch anything connected with our heritage. But think of the modern pyramid designed by (architect) I.M. Pei at the entrance to the Louvre (in Paris). It’s a wonderful new use of space. If the changes are structurally viable, you can intervene intelligently.


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