Soland on Shragai, 'Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, 1945–1980'

Atalia Shragai
Pete Soland

Atalia Shragai. Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, 1945–1980. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022. xvii + 316 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-2030-1; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4962-3079-9

Reviewed by Pete Soland (Southeast Missouri State University) Published on H-Environment (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Atalia Shragai’s debut monograph Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, 1945–1980 displays a thoughtful and detailed portrait of US citizens who traveled to Costa Rica during the late 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s and, for a variety of reasons, decided to stay there. Her study, presented to readers as a thick description based on a combination of oral interviews and written texts, analyzes the identities that US migrants constructed while establishing and mentally processing their lives in Costa Rica. The distinct individual and community identities they formed distinguished them from common tourists and other foreign travelers, but also separated them from self-identified Costa Ricans. Shragai makes a compelling case that Cold War-era US citizens used the privileges of their status to carve out and inhabit special positions in national society. In so doing, they largely evaded the commitment of assimilating into their new host country.

Shragai’s ethnohistorical approach yields a nuanced view of lifestyle-oriented migration. Anchored in oral interviews with sixty-five US citizens who arrived in Costa Rica over the course of three decades, and a textual analysis of sources including memoirs, cookbooks, and the Tico Times, Costa Rica’s largest English-language newspaper and “the main arena in which collective identity talk took place,” her insights penetrate deeply personal territory to reveal the often-contradictory motivations, emotions, and perceptions of her subjects.

The labor of identity making is complex. The people most directly engaged in the practice typically do not understand their actions as such. Frequently, their investment in the identities they construct influences how they perceive the process. Shragai traces identity making along local, transnational, and international dimensions, skillfully parsing the nuances for her readers. An especially memorable example can be found in chapter 3. Shragai relates an anecdote (one of many in the book) wherein Elsie May Fiala, a migrant from the US state of Iowa, skins a “tiger” alongside a “local employee, crossing gender, ethnic, and class barriers alike” (p. 116). The episode demonstrates women’s active role in establishing life in the countryside and the challenges they faced when expected to oversee the household. It also illuminates how migrants asserted their domination over nature, which they understood in the terms of the frontier mythology they imported from their homeland, as evidence of their right to land. Here, Shragai empathizes with her subjects while remaining unflinchingly focused on the practices of US migrants settling in Costa Rica and the power imbalances that favored them. This ability is one of her greatest strengths throughout the book.

Shragai’s book unfolds against the historical backdrop of the Cold War. She establishes the context concisely in the introduction and more thoroughly in her first chapter, titled “Crossroads,” which examines the push-pull factors that influenced US migration to Costa Rica. After Shragai acknowledges the importance of events such as World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and scandals of the Nixon years, the Cold War remains in the background for much of the rest of the manuscript, and there isn’t extensive discussion of the conflict’s regional dimensions. Cold War scholars may feel somewhat disappointed about this, given the significance of its legacy in Latin America generally and Central America in particular. One is left to imagine how the suspicions that pervaded the period influenced how everyday people viewed US migrants. That said, the author does a commendable job showing how the cultural perspectives of the era influenced identity making among different sets of US migrants, from Quakers who left for Costa Rica in objection to the Korean War to counterculturalists who sought to build a utopian commune. This is enough to make her case, since her focus is set directly and consistently on the experiences of US migrants throughout the book. After accounting for their varied gendered, ethnic, class, and experiential backgrounds, she finds that, although economic and political concerns motivated most, diversity existed among US migrant groups, “who tended to define themselves note only in contrast to Costa Ricans but also to U.S. American immigrants to the country” (p. 58).

In chapter 2, “Places and Networks,” and 3, “From Cowboys to the Guardians of Eden,” Shragai emphasizes physical place, showing especially keen attention to the discourses of US migrants as they describe their environment. For those who settled in “the metropolis of San José and the larger Central Valley, rainforests, and beachfronts,” location was “neither random nor arbitrary but rather reflected their individual and collective self-perceptions and served as a means of identity work” (p. 60). Shragai does an exceptional job illuminating the complex social networks and cultural constructions that US settlers brought to the Costa Rican wilderness. She demonstrates similar skill while accounting for the racial and gendered assumptions they projected onto Costa Rica’s natural landscapes. By invoking the Garden of Eden and US frontier mythology or, on the other end of the spectrum, the jungle as an infernal place, migrants relied on preconceptions to make sense of their relocation as something simultaneously new and familiar. In the capital, clubs and other organizations proved crucial to as transnational spaces where they built community bonds and engaged with larger Costa Rican society on their own terms. This often meant casting themselves as social saviors and as representatives of US agendas abroad.

Chapter 4, “Becoming a U.S. Women in Costa Rica,” traces the gendered work and social roles of US women who migrated to Costa Rica. Migrants regularly wove motifs of freedom and rebirth into their descriptions of existence abroad. It is no surprise that women’s vision of their journey from the US to Costa Rica included hopes for liberation from patriarchal structures, although they encountered a more complicated reality. Focusing on the US American’s Women’s Club and the Tico Times, which was founded and edited by Elizabeth Dryer, as institutional sites of gendered identity work, the chapter draws attention to the negotiations that women made while taking part in transnational communities and contending with the gendered expectations present in multiple societies at once. It also delves into service and philanthropy work as important areas where US women crafted an identity based on their engagement—as outsiders—with the broader Costa Rican society and explored household work and paid domestic service. Her work produces important insights about how gender, ethnicity, and class intersected in spaces where US migrant women wielded significant social clout while also relying on the labor of native women.

The fifth chapter, “Material Culture on the Move,” showcases how physical objects possessed by US migrants projected their made identities. Thick description, poorly done, can result in a tedious slog through mundane detail. Shragai not only avoids this pitfall, but she also adds further vibrancy to an already brilliant portrait of the personal lives of US migrants in Costa Rica in her discussion of the clothes they wore, the music they listened to, the books they read, the menus they created, the food they ate, and the homes they made, decorated, and furnished.

In chapter 6, “Looking Back in Amazement,” Shragai dissects the stories and words of US migrants, arguing that “at the core of their stories lies a narrative of coincidence and happenstance, which in turn supports a sense of innocence and lack of agency on their part” (p. 200). The chapter also shifts the tone of the book toward a grand reflection on the identities created by US migrants. This self-reflection continues as part of the epilogue, which replaces a traditional conclusion.

Scholars, particularly historians, interested in culture, gender, the environment, migration and travel, and transnational identity making will find plenty to enrich their understanding of the United States and Costa Rica in Shragai’s monograph. Her book is also valuable as a framework for others interested in studying lifestyle migration in Latin America, or simply the communities of privileged foreigners who live or travel extensively in the region. Instructors will find that Shragai’s fluid writing style makes it accessible for upper-division undergraduate and graduate-level courses.

Atalia Shragai’s Cold War Paradise is a success. It makes apt insights about lifestyle migration, and the author packages measured observations with stories that resonate emotionally and convey a sense of profound intimacy with her subjects. It is a welcome contribution to the underdeveloped literature on privileged travelers in Latin America. It reminds us that the power imbalances affecting migration extend beyond the contexts of those who uproot their lives because of dire need or immediate threats. People benefiting from favored status and who are fortunate enough to exercise transnational mobility on their own terms often escape the cultural and social responsibilities typically demanded of travelers who lack similar wealth and position.

Citation: Pete Soland. Review of Shragai, Atalia, Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, 1945–1980. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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