Thoughts from a naturalized citizen

Tomorrow, September 15, this beautiful little country will celebrate its Independence Day, and oh will they celebrate!

Banners and red/white/blue tissue paper decorations are everywhere. All week long I’ve heard evening drumline practices. And as I write this, typical outfits are being bought, sewn, and cobbled together.

At 6:00 tonight, September 14, the festivities will be kicked off with the sound of the National Anthem being sung by citizens all over the country. Then, school children in every town will light their luminaries (faroles) and create glowing processions of lights (desfiles de faroles) in remembrance of Guatemalan María Dolores Bedoya de Molina, who with lantern in hand in her country, went from house to house gathering the citizens together to clamor for freedom and independence following the Mexican defeat of Spain. In the wee hours of the 15th, the Guatemalan leadership granted independence to all the nations of Central America.

It’s a lovely tradition and I have fond memories of walking with my own daughters in the desfile. It’s no longer usually a solemn event with charming hand-crafted paper lanterns, but it is still an example of the patriotism of each generation. And of course, it’s a reminder that Costa Ricans love to have a good excuse for a party!

I will be jolted out of bed at dawn in the morning by the bone rattling booms of cherry bombs launched in the air from the church square not far from where I live. I might even catch the sound of a cimarrona or two—small but noisy bands made up of drums and brass instruments whose main ambition in life is to awaken every possible soul who had pipe dreams of sleeping in on this holiday. They probably awaken the dead as well. The voices raised in unison at 5:00 am will be the mutterings of hundreds of ticos “juepu**ando” this custom that refuses to die. Yet their curses will be in vain.

The cimarronas playing from the backs of moving pick up trucks will pass but the explosions that cause visiting gringos to leap from their beds thinking the country is coming under mortar attack will continue sporadically for many more hours. And in between there will be parades, music, marimbas, and beer, and all the typical food you can imagine.

Yes, I do love this country, and this is the first year I will be celebrating it as a genuine, bona fide Tica. I’m half Costa Rican and I’ve spent most of my adult life living here, but dual citizenship was not an option for me until 1995, and that was about that time I left for the USA.

Quite honestly, after 20 years in Tennessee, I never thought I’d ever live in Costa Rica again, but life happens, and in 2014 I began to seriously consider the possibility of coming back. I arrived in San José in mid June of 2016, and by the end of July I had submitted my request for citizenship based on familial ties to the office of naturalization.

Six months later I was notified that my initial request had been approved. A month later came another level of approval. Finally, in March I was called in to receive my certification of naturalization, a most anticlimactic procedure, by the way. At least the young woman that handed it to me across the desk was kind and excited for me. At long last, I was officially Tica! And it was a bit emotional. My mother died almost exactly five years before that day, and I really missed her not being there at that moment.

So why did I decide to become a Costa Rican citizen instead of a permanent resident?

Part of my answer has to do with practicality. Because of my familial ties it was the fastest and easiest way for me to achieve legal status. Becoming a citizen meant dealing with this type of bureaucratic junkola only once. No renewing residency every few years, or having to prove how many days I am in the country, or if I can support myself. None of that. And I can work anywhere if I want to.

Having a Costa Rican passport gives me the freedom to come and go as I please, and additionally, in this day and age, gives me a bit of peace of mind. There are definitely places where it is safer to travel as a Tica than as an American. I mean who doesn’t like Costa Rica, right?!

Then we come to the heart and soul of it. I’ve always felt like a Costa Rican. And, yes, I’ve always felt like an American, too, but honestly I seemed to fit better here in some ways. Let me make it clear that I haven’t renounced my American citizenship—that’s not what this is about.

I didn’t end up living in Costa Rica to start with through my own volition. I was planted here by my parents. My Abuela nurtured the roots, and my heart and soul became embedded here. I was never happy being called the gringa here in Costa Rica, because I never felt any less tica than the rest of my Costa Rican family. Gringa does not define me. Tica does not define me either.  When I call myself a ticagringa, I mean exactly that! For the record, gringatica just doesn’t roll off the tongue very well.

I’d like to tell you about an experience I had when I first started working in Costa Rica back in 1979. I was hired as a teacher at Lincoln School, which at the time was in Moravia where Plaza Lincoln now stands.

Lunch time comes and I go into the teacher’s room to eat. No one would sit with me; they’d barely acknowledge my existence. It was like being shut out in 7th grade! It took me a week to figure it out. The ticas thought I was gringa and the gringas thought I was tica. I was stunned! I had never “not belonged” like this before!

I had never had to choose between these two cultures; I simply moved fluidly back and forth and let them overlap with no thought as to where one began and the other one ended. When I was in Costa Rica I was tica Marie Elena, and when I was in Tennessee I was American Marie.

Plus, in my mind gringas were those hippie girls who wore patchouli, hung out at the beaches, and spoke only English to the young tico guys who flocked to them. I had never, ever thought of myself as gringa.

Fast forward to 2016. I returned to Costa Rica because after an extended period of personal chaos, I needed to come back. This was my refuge; my safe place. Many of my best memories are attached to my grandmother’s house in particular, and Costa Rica in general. I always seemed just a little happier here. Maybe because I moved here to live at age 18, I really became an adult here. My Abuela (grandmother) was a strong influence on me. Whatever the reason, I felt drawn back by forces I cannot describe.

My mother gave up her Costa Rican citizenship to become a U.S. citizen when I was born. She never seemed to regret it, and she never looked back, but in the year before she unexpectedly died, we talked about the Costa Rica we both longed for. We talked about coming back for extended periods of time. We even talked about renting a place in the very building I now live in.

When I walked out of that Registry office in March with my naturalization certificate in hand, I felt that in some small symbolic fashion, I was giving my mother her nationality back to her. It was possibly the most bittersweet moment I have ever experienced. I was almost giddy with happiness, even as tears filled my eyes.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sung the Himno Nacional and the Himno Patriótico, both as a teacher and as a mother. This year, I sing them as a citizen, and the thought is putting a smile on my face.

Pura Vida everyone, y que Viva Costa Rica!!


Images above are of my mother carrying the Costa Rican flag for her high school in a long ago 15 de setiembre parade, me as a little girl in the typical dress my Abuela made for me, and the flag picture is from my parents’ house, where those two flags flew from the time I was about 12.