Cultural Connections: From the Costa Rican rainforest to Hyattsville

By JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Mirieth Valenciano hails from San Carlos, Costa Rica, a region renowned for dairy farms: “It’s only 100 km (62 miles) from San José, but because the roads are so bad, it takes about two hours to get there.” Valenciano’s childhood was steeped in family — she is one of  seven siblings and has many relatives — and filled with outdoor adventures. She would often visit her grandparents’ farm where she says she “would climb a tree, find a good branch and study from it. My friend and I would find a mud pit on our bikes and get dirty. I remember getting bitten by a goose.”

Because of the relaxed nature of the culture, Ticos (a colloquial term for Costa Ricans) “are super friendly and welcoming, even more with foreigners. Any chance they have, they will go to the beach and find an excuse to be with friends. In Costa Rica, people will just show up; they never make an appointment. They’ll stop whatever they’re doing to feed you, give you coffee.”

Costa Rica’s motto “pura vida” (meaning “pure life”) is reflected in the country’s infrastructure, which places a strong emphasis on education and environmental conservation: “When the army was eliminated in the 1940s, one of the main objectives was to invest money in education. Everyone gets a free education. There is also a strong focus on protecting nature. My family is nuts about recycling everything. If something breaks, you fix it and use it until it doesn’t work any more. It’s very different in the U.S., where if something breaks you get rid of it and buy a new one. There is not as much focus on consumerism [in Costa Rica]. People are satisfied with what they have. The focus is to relax with friends and not overwork.”

Mirieth Valenciano, a Costa Rica native, lives in Hyattsville with her American husband.

While studying law at university in San José, Valenciano met her future husband, William, an American who was spending the summer there: “We were on a camping trip knee-deep in mud in the rainforest. For me, it was love at first sight.” For the next four years they maintained a long-distance relationship, eventually marrying in Costa Rica and then moving to Baltimore, where William was working on his doctorate. 

Valenciano’s first culture shock concerned the racial tension she felt in the U.S., something she never experienced in Costa Rica. She doesn’t “recall any racial tensions [there], even though we are pretty mixed. You never hear about skin color classification. There is a class system based on money, but it is not super strong. People intermingle across classes.”

She also encountered challenges making American friends: “I am very open, and I tried to adapt and be flexible. Americans are open in the sense that they are free about saying things without judgments. But it’s easy to misinterpret their intentions that they want to be friends because they share personal things. People would make comments about getting together and then wouldn’t follow up, and I thought there was something wrong with me. People are much more individualistic and more competitive. They think more about their advancement, and other people are not necessarily taken into account.”

American food choices presented difficulties, as well: “I also found the food so unhealthy and processed. It’s difficult to find healthy food that is affordable. In Costa Rica it’s the opposite. Even today, if the food is not made from scratch I try not to eat it.”

After spending five years in William’s hometown in Florida, the couple returned to the Mid-Atlantic, as William got a job in Washington, D.C. After a couple of years, they heard about the EYA development in Hyattsville from one of her husband’s co-workers. “We didn’t know about the community. We drove around and thought it was nice.” Three and a half years later, they are settled in. “I like that there are a lot of families with kids, and now that I have a son, there is the possibility for him to grow up with friends. I also like the diversity and the sense of community. I’ve seen it at the moms’ group. People can ask people for things at any time, and they are willing to help.”

Although Valenciano misses her family and the relaxed lifestyle in Costa Rica, she is unsure if she wants to return: “I feel that it’s safer here. You have to have bars on your windows [in Costa Rica]. You can’t leave anything outside because someone will steal it. You have to live in a cage so people can’t get into your house. I’m comfortable here and feel like I’ve found my place. This is where I belong now.”

“Cultural Connections” is devoted to highlighting the rich cultural diversity in Hyattsville by bringing forth the voices of immigrants and other foreign residents.

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