In March my younger son and I flew from North Carolina to Costa Rica to visit my older son, who is finishing up a stint there as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Costa Rica is more developed than some of the places in which the Peace Corps operates, and, after my son got his assignment in 2010, some of my friends jokingly asked if he would be helping wealthy expats set up microbreweries.
A good jab, but my son’s site is actually well off the beaten path in a village called La Lucha de Sabalito, in Coto Brus in the far south of the country. This mountainous, coffee-growing area, just north of the border with Panama, is so remote that some guide books call it “Latin America’s last frontier.” To me, it seemed not so much a frontier as an out-of-the way community of small farmers, most of whom lived simply, but comfortably enough from the coffee they grew on their small holdings.
My son is a rural community-development specialist, and he’s had some successes in La Lucha, the most tangible of which was getting a playground built for the village’s elementary school. He’s also taught English in the colegio (high school), worked to raise environmental consciousness, improve public health and build a cadre of small-scale (female) entrepreneurs . He’s proud of these accomplishments but realistic about their limitations. Today’s Peace Corps is all about sustainability, and it’s difficult to predict what will happen to his projects once he leaves La Lucha this month.
On my last night in La Lucha, my older son took us to one of the village’s two bar/restaurants, a place called El Rancho La Amistad, owned by a man named Helbert. He was working that night, as was his brother Norberto, both of whom are good friends with my son. El Rancho was a nice place with cold beer, good food and even better (Spanish) conversation. I had a good time and came away from the evening with a better sense of how and why development comes about.
The brothers, both in their 30s, were friendly, professional and proud. They lived in tidy, little houses adjacent to El Rancho. They both grew up poor in La Lucha, but in their 20s left for the United States to try to make some money. They ended up in northern New Jersey, where they both worked in restaurants.
Each worked two full-time jobs at a time, as kitchen help at Chuck E. Cheese’s, Panera Bread and Macaroni Grill. They rode bikes to work and lived in densely packed apartments with kinsmen from Costa Rica. They saved most of the money they earned in the States – Norberto told me he came back to Costa Rica with $25,000 – and, upon their respective returns to La Lucha, were able to parlay their savings into property. Helbert bought his house and a small coffee farm, and Norberto had saved enough to purchase his house. A few years ago, Helbert, the older of the two brothers, opened El Rancho and last year was able to buy a second, larger farm of 11 hectares.
They both have started families, and have become leaders of the community. Helbert served for a time as president of the local development association (a key institution in rural Costa Rica), is a member of the Junta Educativa (akin to the PTA) and the Comisión de Fiestas. Norberto is a prominent member of the Pastoral Familiar, an important church organization.
Neither Helbert nor Norberto would have been in position to become a property holder, much less a community leader had he not migrated for a time and made the most of his stay in Los Estados Unidos. They both speak well of their time in New Jersey, saying they were treated OK because they always worked hard. Norberto told me that when he left, one of his bosses told him that if he ever wanted to return, he’d personally pick him up at Newark Liberty International.
I left El Rancho that night feeling both inspired and a bit ashamed. I was inspired by the success stories of the two brothers, but ashamed of myself for the poverty of my own imagination over the years.
How many Hispanic workers have I passed in the States – at construction sites, in restaurants and cutting lawns in my own neighborhood – without thinking about them as individuals, but only as hard-working, well nigh indispensable labor “inputs” in the American economy? You know, just another cheap immigrant worker outside Lowe’s or the Home Depot , faceless, nameless, anonymous. But my short time in La Lucha allowed me to think more deeply about the men and women who come here to do our dirty work and about the range of possibilities for at least some of them once they return home.
I’m not naïve enough to generalize from on the basis of two people. But if sustainable development ever takes hold in a place like La Lucha de Sabalito, it is more likely to be internally generated, and to come about, I suspect, because of people such as Helbert and Norberto, who seized an (international) opportunity when they saw one, rather than because of the efforts, however worthy, of Peace Corps volunteers such as my son – who, incidentally, agrees with me.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history, and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.