"As Luck Would Have It": Privilege, Agency, and Happenstance in the Life Stories of US American Immigrants to Costa Rica, 1960-1980
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"As Luck Would Have It":
Privilege, Agency, and Happenstance in the Life Stories of US American Immigrants to Costa Rica, 1960-1980

This article examines the rhetorical strategies and discursive patterns in the life stories of US Americans who immigrated to Costa Rica, chiefly during the 1960s and 1970s. Based on dozens of oral histories with these immigrants, this study analyzes the significance of the life story as a tool of identity-making and self-representation. The common narrative of coincidental migration among these immigrants was constructed in response to the growing criticism of the US Americans' presence in Costa Rica. More significantly, it testifies to the predicament of these US expats, many of whom identified with the 1960s counterculture in the US, as they negotiated their privileged status as US immigrants in Costa Rica and their own agency in contributing to economic and cultural changes in their adopted county.


Costa Rica, counterculture, life story, migration, US empire

During one of the rainy seasons of the early 1980s, Linda Iverson and Theodore (Theo) Bart were walking from Iverson's farm on the southern Pacific shore of Costa Rica to the nearest village, Dominical. Bart, a former fashion designer who moved from California to Costa Rica with his fellow commune members in 1972, and Iverson, a former singer from Los Angeles who arrived there three years [End Page 278] later, crawled for hours under "big, gigantic rain."1 After crossing fourteen mud slides, they finally arrived at the beach of Dominical.

We just sat down on a rock and watched the ocean coming, and the sun was going down. I said, "Wow, Theo, we weren't kidding, were we? We made that our life. This is not a lark; this is our life." And he said, "Yes, this is not a lark; this is life." That was when I really really really realized. This was years later—maybe, like, ten years later. I said, "How did this happen? We took off in Hollywood Boulevard and here we are on the beach. Interesting."2

In this article I focus on discursive and rhetorical strategies employed by a specific segment of US American immigrants to Costa Rica who were part of, or who identified with, the US counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.3 In considering the ways these migrants constructed and gave meaning to their migration and lives in their adoptive country, I argue that the core of their stories was a narrative of coincidence and happenstance, which generated a sense of innocence and lack of agency. The discrepancy between a presumed status of privilege on the part of US Americans in Costa Rica, on the one hand, and their self-depiction as marginal and powerless on the other, calls attention to the significant role of life stories as a mechanism of identity-making and self-representation. Such discrepancy is, at least in part, a consequence of the narrators' backgrounds: the formative years for many of them were the 1960s, when some of them had identified with the civil rights and antiwar movements. Many had arrived in Costa Rica because of their opposition to US militarism and the materialist way of life. These ethics and practices, combined with the informants' attraction to and submersion in mysticism as part of the counterculture, are responsible for the formation of a narrative of coincidental, unintentional, even magical migration and settlement; they saw themselves embarked on a personal and spiritual quest in search of harmony. They did not see theirs as stories about migration and colonization that took place under specific global power relations.4 Many of these US American narrators were, in fact, privileged migrants [End Page 279] who influenced the economy and culture of Costa Rica and contributed to its enduring coloniality (the transhistorical, continuous expansion of various political, economic, and cultural forms of external domination in Latin America).5 But through the construction of their life stories as tales of coincidence and luck, they portrayed themselves as "accidental immigrants"; these US counterculture people in Costa Rica articulated and perpetuated imperialist narratives while nonetheless depicting themselves as people who had not intended to be colonists, had not been rejected...