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Reviewed by:
  • The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics
  • Aviva Chomsky
The Costa Rica Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Steven Palmer and Iván Molina. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 383. Maps. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. $22.95 paper.

Editing a comprehensive reader like this one is a bit like teaching a survey course. You must create a coherent narrative emphasizing major themes, while acknowledging historical specificity and challenging stereotypes and preconceptions. On top of this, you need to incorporate enough drama, human interest, and anecdote to keep your audience engaged, without distracting them. Having co-edited one of Duke's Readers myself (The Cuba Reader [2004]), and taught far too many survey courses, I am all too aware of the challenges, and the satisfactions, of the endeavor.

Stereotypes and preconceptions abound regarding Costa Rica, even among Latin Americanists. Although the "myth of rural democracy" that characterized Costa Rica's historiography prior to recent decades has been challenged on multiple levels [End Page 124] by Costa Rican and other historians, the country still tends to enter survey texts and courses mainly through the question of why it did not share in the violence that gripped the rest of Central America in the 1980s. Palmer and Molina confront the issue of Costa Rican exceptionalism in their Introduction with a provocative proposal: "We resist the temptation to see the country as an exception, yet we do insist on the distinctiveness of its past and present. We understand Costa Rica as one recognizably Latin American outcome, its history a network of Latin American paths tracing a particular journey. . . . This book shows Costa Rica as a place of alternatives and possibilities that undermine stereotypes about the region's history and call into question the idea that current dilemmas facing Latin America are inevitable or insoluble" (p. 3). The Costa Rica Reader admirably and effectively fulfills this intellectual challenge, at the same time as it presents a lively and diverse selection of voices from Costa Rica's history.

The book is divided into eight sections, the first five following a fairly traditional chronological approach to Costa Rica's history, beginning with the colonial era, and continuing through the nineteenth century, with emphasis on the coffee economy and the emergence of the Liberal state, social challenges to this model in the early-twentieth century, political developments through the 1948 civil war, and the social democratic period of the 1950s through the 1970s. The last three sections offer three different thematic approaches to the period of the 1980s to the present: one looks at Costa Rica's geographic and demographic peripheries, the place and people outside of the better-known coffee-producing central highlands; the second engages with Costa Rica's oft-celebrated natural environment; and the final section focuses on the social and economic changes connected to globalization.

The editors take great pains to include the voices that tend to be left out of survey or textbook accounts. In each of the sections, the marginalized, the quirky, and the unusual receive ample attention, although Costa Rica's better-known historical and contemporary figures and thinkers also receive their due. Thus the reader sees pictures of a 1970 student protest against a mining concession and an 1841 example of "libelous pornography," testimonies and works of art, political tracts and travelers' accounts, scholars' interpretations and original documents. Almost all of the selections are by Costa Ricans, with a very few outside observers and scholars represented. Works of art, documents, and photographs also receive serious attention. It adds up to a rich and variegated introduction to the complexities of this small country.

Because Costa Rica is a small country, and because its history has been less horrific and dramatic than that of its Central American neighbors, it often receives short shrift in the classroom. This book makes an implicit and convincing argument that the details, the exceptions, and the complexities can be just as important as the generalizations and trends for understanding the whole, and that concerted attention to Costa Rica can deeply enrich our understanding of Latin America.

Aviva Chomsky
Salem State College
Salem, Massachusetts
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6247
Print ISSN
0003-1615
Pages
pp. 124-125
Launched on MUSE
2005-08-03
Open Access
No
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