Citizenship, Wealth, and Whiteness in a Costa Rican High School

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article addresses the democratic rhetoric taught in a Costa Rican High School and the ways in which that rhetoric clashed with school practices that revealed hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, class, and religion. This contradiction was rendered visible through student elections, the Independence Day celebration, and civic acts. Through these acts, it became apparent that white, wealthy, Catholic students were upheld as most closely matching the image of ideal citizenship projected by the nation though participants in these events pontificated about the ideals of democracy and equality. A strict enforcement of uniform use seemingly intended to homogenize the student body, but was taken to extremes and, instead, served to exacerbate class differences. Throughout the article, I rely on racial formation theory and those theories proposed by specialists in anthropology and education to note how the school taught the value placed on whiteness implicit in the school's practices.


In Costa Rica, a prevailing "foundational fiction" (Sommer, 1990) holds that due to small numbers of indigenous inhabitants at the time of contact, the social hierarchy that developed in other areas of Latin America failed to develop in that country. Such hierarchies, elsewhere, that pitted native peoples against conquistadors initially, and, which resulted in deeply entrenched class differences in the modern era, are widely considered absent from Costa Rican history (Monge Alfaro, 1989, p. 12; Monge Alfaro, 1960, p. 130; Abdulio Cordero in Aguilar Bulgarelli, 1977, p. 5; Rodriguez Vega, 1953, pp. 16-19, 21). Consequently, nationalist rhetoric alludes to a relatively classless, harmonious society in the colonial era. While this national myth is erroneous for many reasons, it is still widely promoted through schools. In a secondary school located in Santa Rita, (1) attended by a minority of students from Nambue, the Chorotega reservation, and a majority of students from other towns not labeled as indigenous, the national myth taught was linked to Costa Rican pride in democracy, the goal (and assertion) of equality, and to the overall assumption that Costa Rica's citizens are predominantly white and European in ancestry. In school, in a variety of contradictory ways, whiteness was tied to nationalist identity and, thus, was valued both in the classroom and outside ofit. This article aims to demonstrate the homogenizing agenda of a high school that taught students nationalism, citizenship, and discipline in ways that upheld the white, wealthy, and those who practiced a dominant religion as ideal citizens, all the while espousing a rhetoric of democracy.

While lessons and civic acts upheld democracy and equality as realities of Costa Rican life, in practice, "democracy" as it was enacted in the high school was for those who could afford it, those whose religion permitted dominant national forms of observing it, and for those who matched the myth of white citizenry. In short, elections were for the white and wealthy, independence in this pacifist country was celebrated, obligatorily, through military-style marching and civic acts were geared toward those students who most closely mirrored the national rhetoric about the European, classless population. An excessive emphasis on uniform regulations seemed to mirror a focus on homogeneity. These events, often wrought with irony, were indicative of the ways in which Santa Rita High School taught students the value placed on whiteness under the guise of teaching democracy, and in which racial formation was actively taught and performed in the school setting. (2) Just as the projected image of sameness fails to describe the nation adequately, though, so, too, did the use of uniforms fail to erase differences with regard to race, class, and ethnicity. Through ethnographic illustrations, I intend to demonstrate the contradictions between rhetoric and practice with regard to equality and democracy in a high school context that seemingly aimed to mold all of its students in the image of the ideal Costa Rican citizen. …


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