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Navigating Identities in Costa Rica

For the Peace Corps, diversity is a collection of individual attributes that, when valued and leveraged, can help the agency collaboratively advance its mission more effectively and appropriately. These diverse social identities include: race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, and socioeconomic status, among others. Diversity also encompasses where people are from, where they have lived, and their differences of thought and lived experiences. Peace Corps’ global ICDEIA approach seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the U.S. and bring diverse perspectives and solutions to development issues in the countries it serves around the globe.

Volunteers are expected to show respect for the diversity of all people (including fellow Volunteers, Peace Corps staff, and host country partners), promote equitable practices, and champion inclusion. Throughout your service journey, you will be asked to intentionally develop ICDEIA competencies with the support of training that is designed to help you identify and adapt to the cultural and social identity-related complexities of your new host country and community. The ICDEIA competencies and tools you explore and develop have the potential to make your more effective and appropriate in your service.

During service, you will have the opportunity to reflect on aspects of your identity and cultural values on an ongoing basis. This reflection will in turn help you develop an understanding of how these elements of your identity may influence your own behavior and how you perceive the behavior of others. Self-awareness and other-awareness are critical practices for Volunteers, as they will help you to foster bridges of mutual understanding and respect in your work. To be effective and appropriate, you may need to adjust your own behavior and explore ways of engaging that can serve as a bridge between two or more perspectives.

You may also be called upon to respond to the stereotypes about ideas of the “typical American” that may exist in your host community and country. This may be particularly challenging for Volunteers from historically underrepresented groups. With the support of Peace Corps staff and ICDEIA training, you will have many opportunities to promote understanding about the diversity of Americans and within the Peace Corps. At the same time, you will be called to develop strategies and identify support mechanisms that will help you to remain authentic to your own identities, experiences, and values. This challenging and important work will require intentionality, self-awareness, perspective taking, suspension of judgment, and resilience.

Many Volunteers have been able to remain authentic to their own identities, experiences and values. In the case of challenging encounters across differences, Volunteers can seek support from staff, fellow Volunteers and other cultural mentors for advice and support on how to handle more difficult situations.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service in Costa Rica (building upon Peace Corps global social identity guidance) and what types of ICDEIA related support you can expect from Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps Costa Rica staff is committed to exploring creative and innovative ways to support Volunteers with disabilities to serve safely and effectively. Where possible, local resources will be identified to support an accessible and successful Peace Corps service.

Much of the infrastructure in Costa Rica has limited accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Volunteers’ primary mode of transportation is on foot and public transportation. Public buses in Costa Rica are generally not equipped to accommodate people with physical disabilities and getting on and off the bus requires being able to step up or down one to two feet.

Most communities do not have sidewalks, and very few have ramps. Rural communities generally have uneven, unpaved roads that are susceptible to flooding, potholes, and muddy conditions that may inhibit mobility, particularly during the rainy season.

Costa Ricans sometimes give nicknames to people based on their physical characteristics, including disabilities, and Volunteers with disabilities may experience prejudice or jokes about their disability.

Gender role considerations

Understanding the nuances of gender roles is an important part of understanding a local culture. Peace Corps Costa Rica provides many opportunities to reflect on an individual’s gender awareness with the hopes of better understanding gender roles and how they impact an individual, a host community, and Peace Corps programming.

Women have attained positions of great influence in Costa Rica — including the presidency — but it remains a culture with traditional gender roles. Traditional gender norms are most obvious in the rural areas of the country. Depending on the norms in one’s community, female Volunteers may feel less able to exercise the independence to which American women are accustomed, and male Volunteers may feel discomfort or pressure to conform to certain gender expectations for men.

As in many Latin American countries, Costa Rican society has elements of machismo that can make some Volunteers uncomfortable. Some men may hiss or make amorous and sexually suggestive comments to any woman (foreigner or local) who walks by. One way of dealing with this issue is to completely ignore the comments. Many women ignore the catcalls and sexual harassment; rather, they develop a degree of tolerance that helps them function effectively. This approach can be difficult and may not work for all. Seeking support and options from Peace Corps staff, other Volunteers, or trusted counterparts in the community may prove helpful.

In the workplace, it can be difficult to know whether a comment is culturally acceptable or not. Developing a network of trusted friendships with locals who will be able to guide, assist, and provide cultural mentorship on these issues is important. Peace Corps staff are also available to support.

Volunteers may also experience discomfort with seeing females assume primary responsibility for household chores (i.e., childcare, cleaning, and cooking).

Many impressions of American females come from foreign media and TV series that portray promiscuity. A female Volunteer may find it appropriate to invite a male platonic friend into her home, but some Costa Rican men may interpret this as an invitation for intimacy. Female Volunteers may find it difficult to maintain friendships with Costa Rican males because of the assumption that there is always a sexual element to any male-female relationship.

Male Volunteers also must deal with the machismo of Costa Rican society. They may be expected to make sexual comments about women and to not perform household chores and activities.

Many Costa Rican mothers consider a U.S. male to be a great partner for their daughter. Some male Volunteers may be bothered by these expectations, which may interfere with relationships and work in the community.

LGBTQI+ considerations

Costa Rica’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the government effectively enforces these prohibitions. Although discrimination is illegal, in many parts of the country there is still prejudice toward the LGBTQI+ community.

Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Some gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers choose to be open about their sexual orientation during service. But just as many Volunteers do not share every aspect of their identity.

Same-sex marriage in Costa Rica has been legal since May 2020. Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to recognize and perform same-sex marriages. Although one of the more progressive Latin American countries, many of the areas where Peace Corps Volunteers serve will take a more restrictive view regarding sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities. Outside of the capital, there will be varying degrees of tolerance and acceptance.

Some LGBTQI+ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with mixed reactions. Some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community.

There are LGBTQI+ support groups in the capital of San Jose that offer a safe space for Volunteers to network and seek support.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

The range of responses to a Volunteer’s race or ethnicity may vary greatly in Costa Rica. BIPOC Volunteers at times are mistaken for a host country nationals and are questioned about their U.S. citizenship. Others may face behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national. All Volunteers should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. and other cultures and should act as allies to fellow Volunteers.

Volunteers of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Island (AA and NHPI) descent may not be viewed as American. It is common for all people of AA and NHPI descent to be referred to as Chinese and be called “China/Chino.” In some areas, micro-aggressions around martial arts abilities or language/accent may be common. A very small percentage of the Costa Rican population will trace their ancestry to Asian origins and most of them will have been in the country for generations and are fully assimilated.

The experience of Black/African American Volunteers varies from region to region. Some may find they blend in and are presumed to be from the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica where there is a predominant Afro-Caribbean population. In other regions of the country, there may be instances of stereotypes or micro-aggressions related to race. Local people may not believe that you are a U.S. citizen or may frequently ask where your family is from. Those presumed to be Costa Rican may receive less unwanted attention compared to other Volunteers.

Costa Ricans identify as Latino and therefore Latino/Hispanic Volunteers may find that they establish cultural connections and friendships more quickly. Like other racial and ethnic groups, these Volunteers may not be perceived as U.S. citizens. There also may be a greater expectation of Latino Volunteers to speak fluent Spanish and understand complex and deep-rooted cultural norms. Recent world events have led to an increase in refugees from other Latin American countries to Costa Rica, which has provoked resentment of certain groups.

White/European descended Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention because of this aspect of their identity. They may be more likely to experience privilege that may result in having their ideas or value as a Volunteer more readily accepted by host country partners than those of Volunteers of color. White Volunteers tend to receive fewer questions about their U.S. citizenship.

Age considerations

Like many traditional cultures, Costa Rican culture typically honors its older members with respect and reverence. Older Volunteers may find their age to be an asset during service and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers.

Pre-service training (PST) can be particularly stressful for older Trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used.

Some older Trainees find the intensity of the PST period to be tiring. Others may experience additional challenges in their Spanish language acquisition and learning and may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach.

A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group.

Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured workplace.

Religious considerations

Costa Rica is a predominantly Christian country with Roman Catholicism as the largest denomination, followed by evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Mormons. Judaism is practiced among a very small group in the capital and an even smaller group practice Islam.

Every town in Costa Rica is home to at least one Catholic church, and Sunday Mass is an important event for many, especially the older generation. Many family events revolve around religious traditions and celebrations. Nearly one-third of official holidays in Costa Rica are religious.

Although the Costa Rican constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion, it also assures religious freedom for all. While Catholicism is no doubt the prevalent religion, the country is considered one of the most secular in Latin America.

Volunteers may be asked what religion they practice. They may also be invited to participate in church events and activities which in some communities is the predominant social outlet and the best way to integrate into the community.

Evangelical churches in Costa Rica frequently engage in proselytization activities and Volunteers may encounter these activities.

Similarly, the Mormon church in Costa Rica is very active. While their numbers are few, most towns and neighborhoods receive monthly visits from Mormon missionaries from the U.S. and other countries.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

Costa Rica is known for being socially progressive, but the common belief is that couples are married and heterosexual. Unmarried couples may face questions about their relationship, and same sex couples may face unique challenges.

Some couples find the homestay experience challenging. To ensure a successful homestay experience for a Volunteer couple, special consideration should be given to adequate space and privacy.

Costa Rica is a family-oriented country, and couples may be asked sensitive questions about their relationship.

Traditional gender roles may be expected of Volunteer couples more than other Volunteers.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Costa Rica has a staff-led ICDEIA committee that is working to foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture. This committee collaborates with and seeks input from Volunteers on various ICDEIA efforts to make Peace Corps service more effective and appropriate. The committee’s initiatives are intended to strengthen inclusion and belonging for Volunteers, staff, and host country partners.

Peace Corps Costa Rica staff also support Volunteer-led affinity and ally groups. Previous groups included Black/African American Volunteers, Latinx Volunteers, Volunteers of Faith, 50+ Volunteers, LGBTQI+ Volunteers, Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers, etc. These groups generally communicate via WhatsApp and email lists.

Peace Corps staff maintain contact with host country human rights groups and local advocates to better understand the ICDEIA climate in country and to access local resources and representatives to meet with Volunteers during training and programming events.

Opportunities for in-person support and celebration of social identities and allyship also occur. An example is Peace Corps Costa Rica’s annual participation in the local Pride parade.