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

Author: 
Atalia Shragai
Reviewer: 
Carmen Coury

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 Carmen Coury (Southern Connecticut State University) Published on H-LatAm (February, 2023) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58210

Atalia Shragai’s historical ethnography examines the experiences of US immigrants who arrived in Costa Rica between the close of World War II and 1980. Cold War Paradise promises to contribute to a growing field of scholarship that considers the experiences of “privileged” or “lifestyle-oriented” migrants, through its focus on the way US Americans in Costa Rica constructed both individual and collective identities. Shragai relies heavily on articles from the English-language daily the Tico Times alongside the oral histories of sixty-five US Americans. She uses these sources to convincingly suggest that the US Americans who emigrated to Costa Rica in the Cold War era were far from a homogenous community. Indeed, they arrived with different educational and occupational histories, political positions, and ambitions, which led them to construct distinctive lives in Costa Rica. Yet within Costa Rica, because of their shared language, citizenship, and relative financial privilege, Shragai argues that US Americans forged a “sense of community,” though one, perhaps, best defined by its fissures and divisions.

Shragai’s book astutely locates a series of fascinating patterns in the way that US Americans both undertook and reflected upon their immigration to Costa Rica. For example, these migrants made little effort to secure legal residency, let alone citizenship in their adopted country, and in all cases rejected the title of “immigrant,” defining themselves instead as “expats” or “privileged guests” in their conversations with Shragai. The ability of thousands of US Americans to reside in Costa Rica without legal permission to do so, in some cases for decades, without fear of deportation or other consequences, underscores the neocolonial power inequities that have long defined US-Costa Rican relations. Shragai’s work highlights this privilege and power alongside US Americans’ frustrations with Costa Rica’s material culture. This idea was particularly evident in Shragai’s conversations with US American women who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s and found that washing machines were almost unheard of in Costa Rica, let alone available for purchase. These circumstances forced these women, who were accustomed to the aid of “electric servants,” to either take up washing their family’s clothing by hand or hire a domestic worker to complete the task. The latter, importantly, was an option that many of these US American women would not have been able to afford in the United States, reflecting the socioeconomic privilege they enjoyed in Costa Rica. Still, many interviewees expressed frustration in their conversations with Shragai about “needing” a domestic worker to help them accomplish tasks they had easily completed in the US without such help.

The book suggests a clear divide between the US Americans who arrived in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s and those who arrived later. US Americans who emigrated before 1970 largely celebrated US materialism and imagined themselves as agents of civilization and progress. Moreover, these earlier arrivals often defined their actions, whether it was hunting for food, clearing dense rainforests to establish a farm, desecrating Amerindian graves in search of treasure, or adopting US American recipes to available tropical ingredients, with references to the conquest and settlement of the US American West a century earlier. Shragai contends that this first wave of immigrants understood the destruction of the tropical landscape as a civilizing act and portrayed themselves as brave pioneers engaged in a battle against nature.

In contrast, the immigrants Shragai studied who arrived from the late 1960s to 1980 tended to be part of the counterculture and came to Costa Rica seeking to escape the military draft or the materialism of mainstream post-World War II US American society. Many immigrants in this second wave came to Costa Rica in search of a more communal way of life and had no desire to “conquer” the nation’s landscape. They were instead eager to enjoy the nation’s “pristine” rainforests, beaches, and other environs and to emulate elements of Costa Rican peasant culture, which they idealized as more in tune with nature. These immigrants accomplished this by building primitive homes in remote areas of the country, homes that in many cases replicated traditional Costa Rican peasant huts, or ranchos. An interesting trope Shragai picks out in her informants’ arrival stories is a tendency to present themselves as serendipitously arriving in Costa Rica and choosing to stay after being asked to help poor locals by purchasing their land. These narratives, according to Shragai, allowed counterculture immigrants to present themselves not as neocolonialists exploiting their economic position to enrich themselves at their poorer neighbors’ expense, but as “innocents” who were welcomed by fate to the country and brought benefits to the local community. While this second wave of immigrants seemed less eager to destroy the nation’s ecology than their predecessors, as Shragai shows, both sets of immigrants sought to capitalize on Costa Rica’s natural resources, and most arrived with the capital needed to do so, whether that meant founding a commune, establishing a cattle ranch, building a modern dairy, or pursuing other enterprises.

From the onset, Shragai asserts her focus is on US American identity formation in Costa Rica and makes no claim that her book is about Costa Ricans, and this work makes little effort to consider the perspectives of Costa Ricans who interacted with these immigrants. In fact, the book’s sole Costa Rican voice is that of journalist Miguel Salgüero, who in the 1970s published a series of articles in the local press that critiqued the impact US American investors were having on land prices. While Shragai makes good use of Salgüero’s journalism to contextualize changes in Costa Rican laws that impacted US American expats, the inclusion of more Costa Rican voices might have made for a more interesting analysis of the identity work that Shragai explores. For instance, several of Shragai’s oldest interviewees were women who had married Costa Rican men in the 1940s and 1950s, and these women detailed for Shragai the many challenges they faced acclimating to married life in Costa Rica. Their stories might have been complicated or enriched had Shragai considered them alongside the recollections of their Costa Rican spouses, in-laws, neighbors, or children. Moreover, had Shragai sought out Costa Rican informants, she might have spotted basic factual errors her US American informants shared with her that she presents to readers as facts. One of the more obvious examples concerns an interviewee’s claim that she had skinned a tiger to use its pelt for a rug. This informant provided Shragai with evidence of her dead “tiger” in the form of a photograph, which also graces the book’s cover. The problem is that Costa Rica has no native tiger species. (The feline that was skinned, based on its spots and size, was likely an ocelot.) While this detail does not take away from this immigrant’s narrative, which Shragai shares to highlight her frontierswoman skills, it underscores that sometimes what US Americans perceived was not what they in fact saw.

Although Cold War Paradise might have benefited from greater consideration of how US American actors were seen by their Costa Rican associates, readers will find much to praise in this thoughtful monograph. Indeed, Shragai deserves high praise for producing an accessible and smart ethnography of US American identity formation in Cold War-era Costa Rica.

Citation: Carmen Coury. Review of Shragai, Atalia, Cold War Paradise: Settlement, Culture, and Identity-Making among U.S. Americans in Costa Rica, 1945–1980. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58210

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.