A column I wrote that appeared in last week's Nov. 5 edition of the Douglas Budget newspaper.
It’s a rainy day in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, and the heavy tropical rains beat on the tin roof of my friend’s home. It’s October, and the monsoon season weather is apparent in the mud streets and surging drainage ditches of La Carpio, one of San Jose’s poorest slum neighborhoods.
A raucous wind brings rain spray through the yawning sheet metal and wood doorway and I hold my mug of weak-brewed coffee tighter as chickens run across the dirt living room floor, paying little heed to the gringo visitor.
Marvin Garcia sits across from me, telling stories of his life, refilling my coffee and prefacing sentences with my nickname (Juancholo) for affect. I do my best to understand his Spanish — an ethnic baritone twang that has me clawing on each word.
Marvin, like 90 percent of La Carpio’s residents, is Nicaraguan. He is like the thousands of others in the barrio who immigrated across the border into Costa Rica in the 80s and 90s amid adverse national economic and political turmoil after the toppling of the dictatorial Somoza family rule.
My friend shows me scars of when he was a soldier, fighting for the socialist, militaristic Sandinistas that replaced Somoza’s national guard. The same Sandinistas the United States indirectly subverted by supporting opposing forces. Marvin was following orders, the same as many others.
Wanting a more stable life and amid Nicaraguan economic hardship that saw spectacular inflation rates (topping out at 33,000 percent annually in 1988), he came to Costa Rica with his family for opportunity. A chance at getting ahead while leaving behind imperialistic oppression. A sentiment that closely resounds with our own tradition.
So today as we are no doubt taking survey of yesterday’s election unfoldings, I come to the political table pensively, thinking of my friend Marvin and the thousands like him who I met in my three months of mission-aid work in Costa Rica last fall. People who, in fleeing abuse of power and mis-government came to a place of relative peace and prosperity in Costa Rica, but in which political and social freedoms continue to wane.
So my purpose is to point out that which we often talk about but for me personally, rarely reflected on meaningfully until last year. That being the ability to mark a ballot and deposit it inside a secure receptacle, cementing my voice among the masses as individual, important, free.
Certainly we should reflect on this privilege and, in my reckoning, pray for those who go without equal privileges in their lives.
Do we know who these people are? People like Marvin? Do we care? There are millions of them, speaking numerous tongues, hailing from multiple continents. We should know about them, and be contrastingly thankful and compassionate.And if not hint at means of greater freedom, hope that those in influence would seek a higher personal integrity and unified well being for their subjects.
But as all powerful as the ability to voice one’s political sentiments remains, my time in Costa Rica further taught me another lesson of civic duty that lies outside the political sphere entirely.
It was a lesson that joins neighbor with neighbor in philanthropic discourse and action for the betterment of a community.
The Nicaraguans have their own way of doing this: whether it’s coming together to pour concrete neighborhood streets in lieu of mud ones, watching their neighbor’s seven kids while they’re at the market, or inviting a lonely kid from Oklahoma into their homes to make humble food offerings with utmost hospitality. Certainly their culture is one of mutual support, as there is often little alternative.
So I hope the power of the ballot is powerfully impressed on us. Whether it’s in running for office at any number of levels or simply showing up and earning a nifty sticker on election day, these abilities are a big, cool deal.
But in light of this, I have a second point, in hoping we don’t lose sight of personal responsibility while placing our trust in higher authorities.
Whether your politial leanings sail under a standard of deep blue or crisp red, it does a community much good to look first horizontally for mutual assistance before looking up vertically to a higher power.
As a new member to what, in my mind, I’m discerning to be a wonderful community, I can certainly attest to the numerous personal invites, comments of concern, offers for home cooked food and undeserved hospitality lavished upon me during my short three months in this Jackalope City.
And for the most part it comes not from those in elected office, but neighbors, friends and even complete strangers. I’ve had needs arise and they have often been met. And this is the way it’s meant to be, I think.
So as the torch of camaraderie is lit in my hearth, so is it my privilege and for the betterment of the community to see how I can then use my time, resources, and knowledge to assist those in my workplace, around town and at my back fence. An anti social-consumerism and self-centeredness of sorts, that can be the bringer of much change.
The needs are present. The needs are numerous. What will we do about them?
What are our personal platforms and promises of civic duty to bring about change on a city, neighborhood, street level?
At our core that’s what we’re called to do, I believe, though we fight against an often unwilling frame.
But the call is there nonetheless. Perhaps it will take a trip to Costa Rica to convince you. If so, I can give you the names of some amazing Nicaraguans. But maybe you won’t need that much convincing.
And if you need ideas of where to start your philanthropy pursuits, feel free to contact me directly. I might know a guy from Oklahoma who would probably endure some home cooked meals.