It is the dead of winter in Chicago and my thoughts are drifting back to summer and the month I spent in Costa Rica. My sunny daydreams, however, have been interrupted by some no-so-sunny memories of my trip…

Having just arrived and begun working on a school building project in a tiny village in Costa Rica this past summer, I encountered a group of boys, who must’ve been only 9 or 10.  They talked to my friends and I, interested in who the Americans were. After a few minutes, they all stopped talking and began throwing ROCKS, not just sand or pebbles, but ROCKS at another boy riding his bike past them. They called out names that none of us gringos were savvy enough to understand, but its safe to assume this was not friendly teasing.

Taken aback and confused, we inquired about the other boy. They explained that he was Nicaraguan (as if his nationality would clarify the source of their distaste.) The young boys, each of them barely four feet tall, went on to tell us that it was okay for them to be mean to the other boy because they were all Costa Rican and that Costa Ricans were better than Nicaraguans.  This sounded very much like good old American racism to me.

So, it was hard enough to be a group of teenagers in a foreign country, trying to communicate with native-speakers, but on top of that, we now felt obligated to make some sort of butchered attempt at teaching young kids a lesson about respect and equality. Neither concept we could convey accurately.

After disagreeing with the kids, Edwin, the foreman of our worksite asked the kids to leave, telling them it wasn’t safe for them to hang out there. Edwin was Nicaraguan as well. They didn’t listen. When us Americans chimed in they left reluctantly, with no signs of regret for their behavior or their disrespectful treatment of Edwin.  I might have written this off as a few mischievous boys with bad manners.  But the fact that the Nicaraguans were darker than the majority population and most Costa Ricans, children and adults, had negative things to say about “the Nicaraguans,” made me realize that the problem was bigger than a few rowdy kids.

Costa Rica has been said to have the “happiest” people in the world (according to an op-ed in the NY times). But it quickly became apparent to me that an overwhelming number the “happiest” people were not so concerned with the happiness of the racial and ethnic minorities around them. Many Costa Ricans I met were otherwise were warm and friendly, which made their casual and disparaging comments about Nicaraguans, all the more surprising and disturbing.

Some Americans have begun to idealize this country as a nation that has eliminated racism and racial prejudice by electing its first Black president. . I know that is certainly not the case. Similarly, Costa Ricans are portrayed as a happy and harmonious people, but I think that the Nicaraguan 10-15% of the population would disagree.