Atalia Shragai is a lecturer of history at the Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv, Israel. Shragai’s new book, Cold War Paradise (Nebraska, 2022), was published this month.
Her name was Louise (not exactly, but close enough).
In 2002 my husband and I rented a cabaña on her property at the very end of a dirt road leading from Puerto Viejo to Panama, on the south Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. It seemed like paradise—lush rain forest transitioning into a soft and dazzlingly white sandy beach with the crystal-clear turquoise ocean just beyond. The resident female green parrot had a taste for bald guys and fell in love with my spouse, which made strolling around the garden a bit scary.
Louise lived on the property with her husband, who was always rushing around maintaining the house; he was the polar opposite of Louise, who preferred not to rush at all and was eager to chat. We soon learned that she and her husband were originally from the United States, but had spent the nineteen seventies traveling the world (Greece was mentioned with nostalgia). Later they followed the Gringo Trail of Central America and ended up in this remote spot. They bought the property for pennies and settled down, ultimately raising their two daughters here. By the early 2000s the girls had both left home. One was running a hotel in the Costa Rican Osa Peninsula and the other lived in the United States. Louise and her husband were also ready to move on, but the market was slow and selling their property would not provide them with a decent life elsewhere, as they had no pension. In Costa Rica they could survive on the small income generated from tourists as well as some other minor investments and business interests.
Life seemed to exist in a sort of a limbo; there was a sense of waiting for something to happen, for an external power to break through the inertia. Louise spent her afternoons in endless games of Scrabble with a young German neighbor. Was he a stand-in for the son she never had or perhaps a (unrealized) potential lover? (Louise’s husband ignored him altogether). Most of those who lived along the road from Puerto Viejo to the Panamanian border were foreigners (rumor had it that ensconced behind a nearby gated property lived an ex-Baader Meinhof member). Since the nineteen seventies, a deluge of tourists and foreign investors overran Costa Rica, voraciously buying up any beachfront properties they could find. As early as 1974 journalist Miguel Salguero published a series of articles in La Nación, the largest Costa Rican newspaper, in which he warned against this “Pacific invasion of Gringos.” It was a sign of the times that Salguero quotes a Costa Rican farmer as saying: “Wherever I hear a tractor I smell a Gringo.” For their part, those Costa Ricans who sold their properties did so in order to make money; money that they then used to move to the Central Valley or to send their children to school. In retrospect, however, the sale rarely proved to be a good deal for them. Real estate prices kept sky-rocketing, and soon many locally-born Costa Ricans could no longer afford to live near the ocean or in other sought-after places. Now, when they did enter their former farms and domestic spaces it was as domestic servants and hired help.
Although I didn’t know it then, this visit served as the impetus for my book Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica 1945-1980. In the (many) years following our trip, I kept wondering about Louise. Had she eventually left, or was she still trapped in her gilded cage? How did she narrate her life story and construct her identity? “Oh, she and the other U.S. Americans over there used to be hippies and now they are taking advantage of the Costa Ricans,” is a common response I often receive from people when they hear about my research. There is no doubt that global geo-arbitrage (relocating from a place with a high cost of living to one with a lower cost of living) is the name of this game. But money isn’t the only factor, and many additional elements come into play. Examining U.S. American immigration to Costa Rica following WWII invites us to reconsider issues such as power relations in the Americas, immigration, and identity making from the bottom up, in hopes of learning something new about all these concepts.
The first thing I learned is that there is a scarcity of written sources on U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, as they seemed to remain under the radar of the authorities of both the United States and Costa Rica. This actually proved to be a blessing, as it forced me to be creative in identifying the rich pockets of source material available. Cold War Paradise is thus based on interviews carried out with dozens of U.S. Americans in Costa Rica and on their diverse writings: letters to in-laws in Iowa; recipe collections published by women’s clubs; un-published novels. Conducted several decades after they left the United States to settle in Costa Rica (almost none of the interviewees defined themselves as an immigrant; at best they are expats, but in most cases just “U.S. Americans living in Costa Rica”), the discussions in the book are revealing for the factual events they describe but even more so for the construction of memory they examine: Was it Nixon who caused them to leave the United States in protest, or was it their own father? Some fifty years later distinctions seem to have blurred. It also affords a glimpse into the identity work carried out by these baby boomers, retired employees of U.S. governmental agencies, dissident Quakers, former hippies, bourgeois members of women’s clubs, farmers, and ecologists—as they position themselves within the larger scheme of the U.S. presence in Cold War Central America and global immigration.