It wasn't the first time my neighbors had demonstrated the traditional Tico value of humility.

I had first heard of it when a former employee introduced me to a family that became, and remain, our good friends. "They are buena gente," "goodpeople" he said, "they have a lot of humildes." In this canton, “humildes (or humility) is still visible. But it isn't readily found in the cities and certainly not on the highways. A former President complained publicly, "We are a country of peace," he said on an electronic signboard, "but there is a war on our highways." So right, I thought, what is happening in this country?

    One of the things that is "happening," is the increased presence of North Americans and Europeans. Many of us, having heard how friendly are the Ticos, are surprised to learn that our coming is not seen as an unmitigated blessing. Like many countries, (part of the North American population is a good example), there is resistance to the "invasion" of foreigners just simply because they are foreign and very different.

   And it is certain that we do change things. Our mere presence inflates the economy and creates unfulfillable expectations, for a while anyway. "Yeah, but do you know much this repair would have cost in the States?" It is the common gloss for having paid three times what a local person might have paid. And many of us "foreigners" demonstrate a notable lack of humildes. That value isn't prominent in the hustle-bustle culture of the global economy.

    And what about that? Ticos are hardly immune from the pressure to take a full seat on the exchange of this calculated-co-dependence we call the global economy. There was a huge fight in this country over whether to accede to the pressure from the U.S., Europe and China to sign their free trade agreements. Here, those accords are called "TLC," and Costa Rica was, and I think remains, the only country in the world to hold a popular referendum on joining CAFTA (U.S.).  The "Yes," result was a squeaker and had the ballot not been pre-scheduled, the answer might have been, "No."

   But in spite of the fight, which was framed (as it is in the U.S.) by the ambitions of political parties, it was a satisfying exercise in democracy. The ultimate decision was probably not in doubt as remaining outside the, "TLC's" of the world is frankly a recipe for economic isolation and perpetual pressure. But joining comes with both upsides and downsides. 

   Full membership in the global economy is on the way, along with the benefits of a larger and more varied economy. It permeates the entire country, we can already see the changes in the types of work, and the commutes to the cites in our little part of the world. But there is a naïveté about these changes that reminds me of the changes in the U.S. of the 1950's. I remember (Life Magazine), social scientists and engineers asking, seriously,

"what are people going to do with all their spare time?" what with all the new time-saving appliances coming onto the market. It was a serious question but as you now know, utterly naive. Where did all that time go?  And it may be naive to believe that Tico traditional values will automatically survive the onslaught of globilazation.

    The changes that are coming to Costa Rica are foreshadowed in the current generation of adults aged 30 to 60. This group is a privileged class of participant-observers. Outside of the central part of the Meseta Central, they have seen within their own lifetimes, electrification of their homes, access to reasonable health care, the entry of global employers, both lawful and not, who owe no allegiance to any state.

   Electrification brought access to the media. In-home telephones, home radio and television appeared within this generation, followed quickly by cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. That's faster even than the U.S. and Europe and no doubt a little disorienting.

   People could see changes in the culture right before their eyes, but like elsewhere, they don't. Even with our plentiful supply of pundits, in the U.S and Europe these changes "snuck up" on us, as it were. Here the differences among generations is even more impressive. Moore's Law, which tells us that the power of computers doubles every 18 months, applies to Costa Rica in a more general sense. The influence of other cultures flowing through the increasingly massive “Cloud” seem irresistible. Do traditional values have a place in the life of future Ticos?

    It seems to me that la humildad, even if it exists primarily in the national mythology, is a value worth preserving. In the national myth, it is one of the things that defines a Tico from other nations of the world. Its existence may have been an operable part of the culture that accepted the abolition of the Army and that made Ticos world leaders in non-violent resolution of disputes.

   I know Ticos who say that la humildad is not part of the culture and never has been. Still, just claiming it operates with a strange chemistry to inform, and form, a people. It is a standard which tells people what a “Tico,” is and how he or she should act. It creates an expectation that we "stay out of other people's faces," as individuals and as a nation.

    We can be sure of one thing. If la humildad is preserved as a value it will be because Ticos deem it so. The culture won't get any help from global business practice. Students today, by all accounts are going to complete highschool; the chances that they will be happy in the ancient and rural profession of “peon,” is zero. Students will need to adopt the collected values we call “competiveness” to succeed in business. To my mind, that is just how it is, no point in wishing otherwise.

   But if Costa Rica were to choose to preserve la humildad as a national value, how might that "deeming" occur? Public relations and advertising? Possibly. I recall billboards in the U.S. that said things like, “Integrity: Pass it on.” Are they still there? Did they have an impact? Perhaps that is a form of public leadership that will support a cultural value many people already believe to be true. But it is pretty certain that if Ticos wait until the changes sneak up on them the way it has happened elsewhere, they are likely one day to wake up  to the question, "where did all that humildad go?"

And if Costa Rica conciously chooses to retain la humildad, maybe, just maybe, we could get a little more of it on the roads.


(Available in Spanish) All Stories copyrighted by author, 2013.