Ticos, as Costa Ricans affectionately call themselves, are so named for their linguistic tendency to add the diminutive “tico” to the end of each word. This suffix may refer to smallness, but also implies fondness or affection.
Before Spanish colonization, it is estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 indigenous people lived in what is now Costa Rica – by 1900, just 400 years after Spanish arrival, the indigenous population had dwindled to a mere 2,000 individuals. Today, Costa Ricans are predominately mestizo, a mixture of European and indigenous peoples. Now, most Costa Ricans refer to themselves as “white,” and a surprising number of Ticos have blond hair and blue or green eyes.
Despite color or creed, Costa Ricans universally share a strong cultural identity. In fact, though Costa Ricans were once part of a centralized Central American government, they are deeply proud of their Tico heritage – a classic folksong trills, “I’m Latino inside, but Tico at heart.” It is not uncommon to describe an action as “muy tico” (very Tico), and many believe that decisions, even governmental ones, should be done “a la tica,” or in the Tico way. In other words, the pillars of Costa Rican society – democracy, peace, stability, education and the family – must always be upheld.
Indeed, Costa Rica is a unique nation, built from their recent history of tolerance and prosperity. After WWII, Costa Rica stood as an island of tranquility in the sea of civil warfare that raged around them. In 1948, Costa Ricans proved their confidence in the stability of their nation by abolishing their army. Instead of recruiting regiments of infantry, they recruited platoons of forest rangers and teachers.
Investing in their country has paid off – today, literacy rates soar to over 96 percent, infant mortality rates are the lowest in Latin America after Cuba and 26 percent of the country’s verdant landscape is protected by law. Nowhere will you find people more deeply committed to the preservation of their natural wonders – not only does the government strive to protect and maintain its primary and secondary rain forests, cloud forests and dry forests, but private citizens donate their own lands to preserving and protecting the native flora and fauna.
In addition to their ecological ideals, Ticos celebrate their peaceful heritage in every way – in 1987, President Oscar Arias Sanchez was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and today, the country serves as the seat for the United Nations’ University of Peace. In addition, Costa Rica has enjoyed peaceful, democratic elections since 1948. This heritage of peace has helped to earn Costa Rica the moniker “Switzerland of the Americas.”
Perhaps because of this modern legacy, Ticos tend to avoid even personal conflict. Visitors and new arrivals may notice that Ticos rarely raise their voices and that “no” is often considered a bad word. Instead of speaking with North American directness, Costa Ricans often beat around the bush, declaring things “mas o menos” (more or less), answering “puede ser” (it could be) or simply saying “yes” when they mean “no” or “I don’t know.” Understandably, this “yes but no” attitude can be frustrating, and a growing number of Ticos today fight against the tradition of being conciliatory at any cost.
Another Tico quirk, one that can frustrate visitors and new arrivals, is that of Tico time, or “la hora tica.” Despite physical realities, time seems to move more slowly in Costa Rica. Traditionally, arriving late, even to business meetings, was acceptable. Today, Ticos do more business with foreigners and generally arrive on time to corporate meetings. In personal matters, however, Tico time persists, and even national television stations experience regular difficulties with keeping to schedule.
Costa Rica may be the size of West Virginia, but Tico culture is rich and layered. The best way to get to know the Ticos is to enjoy a plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans), drink a delicious cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and listen to new friends talk about current events, their newest family member or anything else that comes to mind.