San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What do Ticos really think about foreigners in Costa Rica?

A recently released survey of Ticos’ perception of foreigners in Costa Rica, conducted by the National University’s Social Studies Institute, or IDESPO, found that many Costa Ricans view U.S. expats as “wealthy” and “powerful,” while they believe Nicaraguans “come to work” and “seek the well-being of their families.”

Unlike their perceptions of other foreigners in Costa Rica, the Ticos who were interviewed largely viewed U.S. citizens as “tourists who come with dollars and contribute to the country’s [development],” or “entrepreneurs who come to establish businesses.”

IDESPO interviewed 1,000 Costa Rican residents across the country via telephone in May 2012. Although the interviews took place more than two years ago, the survey’s conclusions were released this month. Despite the lag, the study’s authors believe the results still accurately describe ongoing general perceptions that have changed little.

Of those interviewed, 47.5 percent were men and 52.5 percent were women between the ages of 15 and 80.

Responses to the survey – titled “Construction of Public Opinion Toward Immigration in Costa Rica” – included phrases with some pretty harsh language directed at U.S. citizens, such as: “They think the world revolves around them”; “they treat us as inferiors”; “they think they’re superior to us”; and “they have inflated egos.”

But Ticos also voiced piropos, saying Gringos are “admirable people,” “very hard working,” “good people,” “people who come to work in the community,” “very friendly,” “sociable,” “tranquil,” “humble,” and “intelligent.”

The survey also sought to explore the daily interaction between Ticos and other foreigners, including Nicaraguans, Colombians, Dominicans, Haitians, indigenous Panamanians, Spaniards, Chinese (and other Asians) and “Africans.”

The nationalities of foreigners discussed in the survey were not selected by IDESPO, but rather by the respondents themselves, who were asked to name the nationalities with which they are familiar in Costa Rica.

Some mentioned indigenous Panamanians because up to 11,000 Ngabe and Buglé people from Panama enter Costa Rica each month to harvest coffee and bananas, according to the Immigration Administration. Most live in the border region between Panama and Costa Rica, and many enter Costa Rica in the early mornings and return to Panama after a long workday.

Respondents also listed “chinos,” which in Costa Rica is a rather politically incorrect term that can refer to Chinese people or any Asian in general.

Ticos also named “Africans,” ignoring the fact that more than a billion people live in the world’s second-largest continent, which isn’t a country.

Included in the survey were questions such as: “What do you think about immigrants, and where do you get the information [to form opinions]?”

More than half of respondents – 53 percent – said foreigners who come here to work seek opportunities and a better life. Some 16 percent said foreigners migrate here to take jobs that Costa Ricans don’t want, which they said helps boost the economy.

Foreign laborers – particularly Nicaraguans – mostly work in agriculture (sugarcane, pineapple, bananas, yucca and oranges), tourism, construction, private security and domestic labor. Fewer than 12 percent of respondents said, “Some come to work while others come to do harm.”

The survey asked respondents to openly express their opinions, ideas and notions about each immigrant group.

Regarding Nicaraguans, 40 percent of respondents said they are “hard-working,” while 25 percent had equally positive and negative reactions, such as, “there are good people and bad people,” or, “some come to work while others come to steal.”

Just over 14 percent said Nicaraguans come to Costa Rica to improve their living conditions, and 12 percent classified them as “criminals.” Barely 4 percent acknowledged that Nicaraguans are exploited or discriminated against.

Other Ticos said Nicaraguans are “people who are tired of living with limitations in their country,” and are “people who are marginalized and come to Costa Rica to seek the well-being of their families.”

Guillermo Acuña, director of IDESPO, said “perceptions change according to current events and historical context.” For example, this survey was conducted in the context of an ongoing border row between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over Isla Calero, a disputed wetland area near Costa Rica’s northeastern coast.

Regarding “chinos,” Ticos think they are “hard-working,” “geniuses,” “creative,” and people who “come to cook and open restaurants.” Negative opinions said they are “anti-social,” “stingy,” and “greedy.”

Respondents said Spaniards are “hard-working,” “educated,” “professional,” “high class,” and “from a superior country.” They also called Spaniards “stupid,” “spiteful,” and “arrogant.”

To try to explain the vast differences and sometimes contradictory opinions Ticos have about foreigners, Acuña said that in general, Costa Ricans do not view foreigners negatively unless they feel their jobs or lifestyle are threatened. Negative opinions also are often associated with perceived links to crime and public insecurity, or when foreigners “come to impose.”

The importance of measuring these perceptions, Acuña said, is their links to behavior.

“A negative perception can lead to rejection that is expressed through discourse, such as in discriminatory jokes or xenophobic commentary on social media networks. It also can lead to segregation, as when Costa Ricans isolate others who they feel are different,” Acuña said.

Origins of perception

In forming their beliefs about foreigners, the main source for Ticos’ thoughts on the subject is – according to respondents – “personal opinion” (28 percent). But one in five respondents said the mindset about foreigners is shaped by mass media, and 17 percent said their views are shaped by family members, work colleagues and friends. Only 15 percent said their opinions come from personal experience and having interacted with foreigners.

Asked about mass media, Ticos said news organizations have an agenda that focuses on negative stereotypes toward certain nationalities. For example, 30 percent of respondents said the news media tend to characterize immigrants as “violent people” who commit crimes and come to Costa Rica to cause harm.

Said Acuña: “Local news media insist on naming certain nationalities [in crime reports] even when Costa Ricans are involved [in the crimes]. But we tend not to pay attention to that.”

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Leon Scheyvens

There is no way to put all people of any country against the wall, there are always exceptions anywhere on this planet. A small percentage will always be under average.

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Carl Hancock

Don’t worry, I’m from the US and even I think a lot of people from the US are selfish, self-centered and obnoxious. I’m frequently embarrassed when traveling by people from my country who act terribly. Vamos la Sele!

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I think the survey is quite pointless. There’ll always be people that love and hate other people. It is unconscious human behavior that segregates people into different groups (nationalities) to make generalized statements about them. We are all just human with different cultural backgrounds and beliefs. But we’re still from Earth and we’re still human. Why reinforce this concept of separation by “nations” that never represent the people anyway? I see not ONE SINGLE GOVERNMENT in all the world that represents its people – except MAYBE the Tibetan government, but we all see what happened to them. So why do we, as humans, continue this behavior of segregation by ‘nation’ as if it matters?

People are people.

I like some, while I dislike others. Liking a Nicaraguan doesn’t mean I like their whole people – to think that way is absurd.

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Mark Van Patten

It would be helpful to see the actual report or the actual numbers.
Perhaps a followup story?

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Enoch Brenes

We hate you

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Jorge Eduardo Jiménez Ulate

Just being a Costarrican citizen I can say appreciations are different depending on which part of the Country you are. I can talk about my own town: San Ramón of Alajuela. Presence of foreigner has been part of our local History since 1840. The historical records shows Nicaraguan, Panamenian, Guatemalan, Hondurian, Ecuatorian, German, French, Prusian & Eastern Europe -and of course- American people coming down here trying to find a path to continue theirs lives. As an example our first hydroelectrical dam was Mr. Frederick Hopkins´s project, an American inmigrant that arrived here at the beginning of the 1900´s.
More recently I have been witness of tens of US american couples arriving here, trying to survive after the economical crisis they suffered up there in the States. Some of them just lost everything they had in their Heart land. Only God knows how they made Costa Rica. Some other retired people just came looking for cheaper medical attention since up there, well it was just impossible to pay. Even reasons like running away from food they called poison since chem & GMO´s agricultural practices. They just prefer a CR beef steak.
So, I belong to a generation that was educated under the USAID´s auspicious program. I remember still in 1966, every morning at school, we were driven to the main hall in our Library, to receive -guess what?- English vocabulary with slides´s aid. AFS´s exchange students were always part of the student population. Most of us, we grow up surrounded by Americans. I still remember my First Love, I was 5 years old only; and Kate Doll came to live the house just in front of my own, in the same neighborhood´s street.
Nowadays, once at year, you will see a group from University of New Orleans sharing time w/our local population meanwhile they receive Spanish.
Maybe me and my wife we have been in a kind of privileged position, since several of our clients are American and some other Nationalities and until know they are satisfied w/our performance.
Personally I experienced to be a coworker w/an American Lady from NY, over six years (crafting botanical insecticide). For me share time with Mrs. Riordan has been maybe the most enriched experience I have had in my life -consider I´m 53 now- and I hope to meet still to know a lot of Foreign People coming from out of CR. According to her I am a kind of misplaced Jewish.
Happy thoughts to all!

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Enoch Brenes

they just come here to die dont fool yourself

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Andy Snyder

As an American whose mother is retired in Costa Rica, I have visited quite a few times. I love both Costa Rica and Panama and their people. I absolutely don’t put on an attitude around Ticos or any other Latinos because many of them are smarter and more successful than I am. I certainly am not rich but some of my wealth, I do share and I think about others here in the USA and in Costa Rica too. Many Americans think they are the Bomb and the coolest people on the planet hence “the Ugly American” syndrome. I just like to think I was lucky to be born in a wealthy and free country but that doesn’t mean I treat others like dirt. Ticos are hardworking, proud and humble people that are very friendly and live in a beautiful country. I love their spirit and root for their Futbol team, La Sele almost as much as the U.S. team. I hope to retire to Costa Rica or Panama in just a few more years. Pura Vida, Costa Rica!

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Enoch Brenes

choose Panama

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