I enjoyed my last full day in Costa Rica on a tour with other GSSW students in the Alajuela province, not far from the capital city of San José. On this tour, organized by CRLA, we visited Doka Estate’s Tres Generaciones coffee plantation, where 57% of its coffee production is sold to Starbucks, we walked to lookout points at Poás Volcano on a perfectly clear day to see the largest active crater in the world, and visited La Paz waterfalls. Overall, it was a tranquil and much-needed respite from our other jam-packed days learning about poverty, child abuse, accessibility to health care and the impacts of globalization and eco-tourism in Costa Rica.
However, even while enjoying our “day off”, I found myself engaging and reflecting on these issues and noting interactions of privilege and oppression. As social workers, with our education, personalities and experiences, it is only natural that the cognizance and conscientiousness of our work and discipline does not cease, even when we are on an official break. I have come to realize that social work is within each experience, interaction and perhaps most perceptibly, down to the language we use. Its ubiquitous nature is perhaps a blessing and a curse at the same time. However, when it comes right down to it, I could not imagine another path or framework of thinking that I would prefer for myself.
After two weeks spent in Costa Rica listening to and learning from several different Tico perspectives on the healthcare system, education, child welfare, culture and history, environment and eco-tourism, we are all aware of a certain phrase adapted to embody Costa Rica. This phrase, “pura vida“, has the same pervasive characterization as the field of social work in that, it is everywhere and can be used to express many things. It can be used as a blessing for the luck and good fortune we have when things are going well in life. I also saw it used when perhaps something strange happens or when a problem arises. For instance, the go-with-the flow attitudes of ticos allow many to shrug their shoulders, smile, and say, “pura vida”. To me it represents the overarching tranquility and patience I found within the country’s culture and people.
However, where I became frustrated with the attitudes that make up pura vida in Costa Rica was when trying to understand and identify the country’s social problems. The saying came to embody a level of indifference that I observed within comments associated with globalization, social stratification among economic classes and ethnicities or with issues such as child abuse or domestic violence. Pura vida in this context seems to say, “we have social problems here, but our hands are tied and there is not much we can do to change the status quo”. Therefore, at times it seemed as though our trip was marked by only looking at the beauty and ease of the country, rather than cozying up to its problems and identifying potential solutions to those complicated problems. This level of indifference and turning away is not unique to Costa Rica by any means. In the United States and all around the world, the problem not only exists but is deeply rooted into cultural and social norms.
Whatever the saying most closely associated with pura vida is in other parts of the world, I recommend as human beings, we add a new meaning to it, one that embodies a spirit of change, hope and progress, to be used as we face our community’s greatest challenges and social problems. To attempt to confront these challenges that hold us back allows us to be more successful in solving them and engaging those who are most closely impacted through empowerment and learning, and that really is la pura vida!