Thursday, August 15, 2013


In the early days, as in the early nineteenth century, the people who were living in Costa Rica would hire painters to come all the way from Europe to paint their portraits. At that time, having your portrait done (and done well), was more or less a status symbol, and pretty much anyone who was anybody (or wanted to be somebody) had one done. These artists came and pretty much just never left Costa Rica. And these artists who stayed ended up teaching the local residents their art, whether it be painting, sketching, or sculpting. Generation after generation, the Costa Ricans (or Ticos, as they’re known by their nickname), took these European techniques and combined it with their own national identity and style and what’s called Pura Vida to create their own styles.

This phrase Pura Vida keeps coming up in all of my research. While it literally means “pure life,” it’s used to mean something more like “full of life,” “this is the living!” or “everything’s going great.” It’s somewhat used in a variety of situations, but from what I’m gathering, is that it’s used as an answer to the question “How are you?” when things are great, in the meaning that you’re grateful for life itself. But I’m also sensing it’s much closer to the feeling/way of life that I first encountered in Brazil of “life may not be the best, but it can be much worse than it is right now, but why worry about it, let’s enjoy the company and food and drink and where we are right now, it is what it is, whatever happens will happen.” And it’s this feeling that Costa Rican artists try to convey in their works.

Some of the more famous artists are Gonzalo Morales Suaréz (mostly famous for his paintings, mostly paints in a style resembling realism), and Ibo Bonilla (mathematics and architecture professor, famous for many buildings and public sculptures).

Costa Rican literature really didn’t come together as a genre until just before the beginning of the 20th century.  So, it’s fairly young as far as literature goes. Their literary history is more of less divided up into generations.

The first generation was called the Olympus generation (about 1890-1920). Generally, they are the establishment and were the beginnings of setting the sense of their nationality. Writers from this era were Manuel Argüello Mora (who was raised by his uncle who was the President of Costa Rica in the mid 1800s whose great-great-great-niece is actress Madeleine Stowe), Carlos Gagini (author, linguist, and Esperanto-speaker), and Manuel González Zeledón (journalist as well as Ambassador to the US).

Next came the repertory generation (about 1920-1940). Literature at this time took a slight turn. The language itself and styles changed, utilizing different forms, less classical, less formal, using and utilizing parody, satire and off-color, grotesque or dark humor. Writers who emerged during this time were Joaquín García Monge (considered one of Costa Rica’s most famous writers), and Carmen Lyra (educator, journalist, she started the first Montessori school in Latin America, her face is on the 20,000 colones bill [starting in 2010]).

The 40s generation actually lasted until the early 1960s. During this time, social reform, land reform, and the introduction of multi- and trans-national corporations began to be on the forefront of topics discussed.  Literature became the catalyst and forum for voicing opinions on these subjects during these times. The civil war took place halfway through this generation as well.  Major writers include Fabián Dobles (a writer of many mediums, became known for his work on and with the plights of the poor and social unrest) and Carlos Luis Fallas (author, political activist, won a prize for his work Marcos Ramírez). 

The urban generation came next and lasted until the 1980s. Literature in this era generally reflected the urban growth taking place, where the city was a common setting, and it also highlighted the industrial movements and corporate modernizations that were taking place in Costa Rica. Major authors include Carmen Naranjo (also served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel as minister of culture), and Jorge Debravo (poet, grew up in a poor family, was first published when he was in the 9th grade, killed at the age of 29 by a drunk driver, the National Day of Poetry is held on his birthday, January 31).

Today, literature is a combination and culmination of influences of all of the preceding generations. It keeps emerging and changing and is constantly influence by everything around it.  One writer, Oscar Núñez Oliva is one of the most famous writers to come out of Costa Rica.  His first novel, El Teatro Circular won a national prize in Costa Rica in 1998, a year after it was published.  He’s since then published two other novels. 

Up next: music and dance

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