AUSTIN, Texas – There is always surprise when an immigrant in the United States says he or she is from Costa Rica. Sometimes the next question is, “So where in Mexico is Costa Rica?” or “Is Costa Rica an island?” But often, people would just say: “And what are you doing here if Costa Rica is such a beautiful country!”
Costa Ricans increasingly follow job opportunities and family ties in the U.S. but they still remain one of the smallest Latino immigrant groups in this country. According to the U.S. Census, roughly 80,000 Costa Ricans live in the U.S., compared to more than 11 million Mexicans, the largest immigrant group in this country. Other studies indicate the actual number of Ticos in the U.S. could be almost twice the U.S. Census number.
In Texas, where 60 percent of all immigrants come from Mexico, Costa Ricans blend with the Mexican culture while keeping their own traditions alive. Using social media and spreading the word through Spanish-language media in Texas, Costa Ricans organize social events to gather and preserve their cultural ties. They celebrate Mother’s Day on Aug. 15 instead of the U.S. tradition in May. They commemorate Costa Rica’s Independence Day with the traditional “Desfile de Faroles” (Lantern Parade) on Sept. 15, and they host viewing parties of soccer matches with traditional foods.
Costa Rican immigrant and Spanish-language radio host Mario Hurley remembers the year 2004 as “the toughest in my life” because he did not speak English when he moved to New Jersey, and his family faced economic hardships the first year. Nine years later, he is host of Mega 107.5 in Dallas and father of a 2year-old Texan. He no longer longs to move back to Costa Rica, except “maybe when I retire at age 60.”
To stay connected with his home country, Hurley manages the Facebook group Pura Vida Dallas, with 273 members. Group members often get together to watch Costa Rica’s soccer matches while enjoying traditional dishes including gallo pinto, arroz con pollo, and plátano maduro.
“I saw that people from other countries were organizing events and I wanted to do something similar because I missed the humor, music and food of my people,” he said. Hurley moved to the U.S. when his mother married a U.S. citizen, and from his experience most Ticos came to Texas because they married someone from the U.S.
In the Texas capital of Austin, more than 50 Costa Rican women belong to the Facebook group Ticas en Austin.
“We share tips to find yucca in Austin and when someone travels to Costa Rica, she gets requests to bring back staple foods like Salsa Lizano, the famous Costa Rican condiment, and tuna cans,” said Jackie Obando, who moved from San José to Texas in 2005.
Through social media, immigrants also post job opportunities or organize fundraising events for fellow Ticos in need.
In 2005, Luis Jiménez reached out Spanish-language media to offer housing to Costa Rican immigrants displaced by Hurricane Katrina in the coasts of East Texas and Louisiana. As a result of this campaign, 10 displaced families received temporary housing with fellow Ticos in Austin.
Jiménez and his family moved to Austin in 2000 after a long period of unemployment in Costa Rica. Finding a new job in Costa Rica was challenging for him because he was over 40, he said. The accountant had to learn the trade of a construction worker when he came to Texas, until he started his own business as a distributor of imported forged doors from Mexico.
After 13 years in the U.S., Jiménez not only learned to speak English, but also to speak as a Mexican. He now avoids words like “coger” (grab) because of its sexual meaning in Mexico, and he enjoys spicy Mexican food.
Esmit Pérez is an engineer who was relocated from HewlettPackard in Costa Rica to the company’s office in Austin in 2010. He says he still misses the warm people, the beaches and the exuberant vegetation of his native country. “But my plans to move back are postponed every year,” he said. “You start melting with society here and then you become a Texan.”
Jiménez and his family plan every year to move back to Costa Rica, but they always end up staying in Gringolandia.
Said Jiménez: “This country ends up stealing your heart.”