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How Immigration Shaped Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the Latin American country with more foreign residents per capita, but the country's history with immigration has been stormy

The city of San José, capital of Costa Rica

In 1943, Costa Rica became the first Latin American country to pass a bill that called for the end of discrimination against certain nationalities. It was also because of the work of Costa Rican politicians that before that law, in the framework of an Inter-American Demographic Congress held in Mexico, the region’s governments were called to suppress any mention of the word “undesirable” when referring to a nationality.

These two landmark pieces of the history of immigration to Costa Rica put an end to more than a century of ups and downs regarding the regulation of foreigners in the country. Depending on who was the authority at that moment and the social trends around immigration in kindred countries, the Costa Rican State passed public policy informed by xenophobic and ignorant motivations, something common back then.

However, such dark moments in the country’s history are proof of the importance immigration has had in the development of Costa Rican society. This is obviously true for all of Latin America because of the Spanish colonization, which led to mixed societies of European and indigenous heritage. Nevertheless, in Costa Rica immigration also played a huge role immediately after independence from Spain, with some gaps throughout the years.

Before the first law against discrimination against migrants in Costa Rica, legislation on this subject was rarely progressive in the country and the rest of the region. The same ghosts of “purity” and “desirability” that haunted most of the world during the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century were present here, and politicians and citizens disregarded immigration because of unfounded fears of different cultures.

Let’s take a quick tour of the long tradition of migration in Costa Rica, and how it shaped (and continues to shape) the country.

Racism and cheap labor

The professor of cultural history at the University of Costa Rica, Quendy Bermúdez-Valverde, explained in an investigation on this subject that it was in 1821, after the independence of Central America from Spain, that interest arises in “changing the migratory system in a certain way, first in theory and then in practice.”

The worry was that without a greater population these countries’ economies could not thrive in the new world. “In Costa Rica, the fact of having a small population increased the desire for economic development that the insertion into the world market meant, through the coffee activity,” Bermúdez wrote. The lack of labor for agricultural activities was also an extensive worry for lawmakers.

This is why some legislation was passed during the first independent years to attract foreigners. However, these were strictly racist and directed mainly at Europeans. But they didn’t work: the population remained low during the next decades and Europeans were not coming in hordes. In 1848, then-President José María Castro Madriz decreed freedom of worship with the objective to stimulate the arrival of European settlers.

This and other efforts in the same line proved ineffective. Some of these laws, like one passed in 1862 that authorized the establishment of immigrants in vacant lands of the country, banned Chinese people and people of color since there were plenty of taboos about them at the time. Nothing seemed to work: maybe because of the climate or the geography, Europeans didn’t migrate en masse to Costa Rica during that time.

Ironically, because of the need for cheap labor during the second half of the 1800s, Chinese people became the first important immigrant group in the country after independence. The Atlantic Railroad, without which Costa Rica wouldn’t have become an important agricultural exporter, was built by many Chinese people and people of color, as well as some European immigrants. It was developed by Americans.

European settlers

In 1851, then-President Juan Rafael Mora Porras encouraged European settlement in the country and collaborated with German businessmen to bring Germans to the country. These Europeans worked on several colonization projects that rapidly failed, but many German settlers didn’t leave and rather settled in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. Similar situations would happen during the next century.

By 1864, there were 164 Germans residing in Costa Rica, according to an investigation on migration and cultural identity in Costa Rica published by researcher Daniel González Chaves in 2016. English immigrants were also common then. These foreigners had professions not found in the local population, and they helped shape the country’s economy and industry with their useful knowledge.

“Besides Germans and Anglo-Saxons, the migration of European settlers also came from countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain, all with their distinctive contributions to Costa Rican culture, society, and economy,” explained González. Spanish migrants were of particular importance — by 1886, there were 554 Spaniards living in the country; by 1892, there were 1.033; and by 1927, there were 2.527.

The first registered Italian immigration to Costa Rica was in 1887 when more than 1.400 people from the province of Mantua came to work in the construction of the railroad. They had better working conditions than Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Central American workers since they demanded their contracts to include the right to medical attention and to be repatriated if they wanted.

These Italian workers organized the first-ever recorded strike in the country, because of harsh working conditions. More than half of them were soon repatriated. Others stayed in Costa Rica and worked, for example, in the construction of the National Theater. In general terms, Spanish, Italian and Polish immigrants had humble beginnings in Costa Rica, while German, British and French had good economic conditions.

“The advantage that Spaniards and Italians would have is that, like wealthy European immigrants, they would not suffer from racism and even being poor they would be integrated into Costa Rican society, unlike the Poles, Chinese, Afro-Caribbeans and Gypsies who would raise ethnic suspicions”, wrote González. During the first half of the 19th century, antisemitism grew in Costa Rica, affecting Poles, for example.

According to the author, “European immigrants would contribute to the country not only with their drive to the economy from the different tasks they carried out, but also with their genetic heritage, their links with the old continent and their cultural wealth that had a decisive impact on the country.” This was especially true during and after the two World Wars, which brought much more European immigration to Costa Rica.

During this time, racism and xenophobia against people of color, Asians and other “non-whites” remained in place, and it was not until 1943 that laws were created to avoid this discrimination. “The communities of Polish, Chinese and Lebanese origin have become an integral part of Costa Rican society and prosperous and influential communities in the economy, politics and culture,” stated González in the conclusions of his research.

Immigration laws in Costa Rica have had ups and downs during the country's 200 years of independence

Immigration laws in Costa Rica have had ups and downs during the country’s 200 years of independence

Modern immigration to Costa Rica

In the decade of 1970, migrations of Latin Americans and North Americans became common in the country. These were mainly motivated for political reasons, more than economic reasons, since Costa Rica started being considered a place of peace and a refuge for people who were escaping war. Nicaraguans have been coming to the country since the 19th century, but their population here grew in the 20th century.

During the decades since, the racist and xenophobic discourse shifted from targeting Asians and people of color to targeting Nicaraguans. Around 71% of the immigrant population of Costa Rica comes from Nicaragua; 5% are from Colombia, and more than 3% are from El Salvador, according to data published by the United Nations in 2019. Costa Rica had almost 420.000 immigrants then, representing 8,23% of the population.

In 2014, Costa Rica was the Latin American country with more immigrants per capita. A particularity is that it is also one of the countries of the region that exports less migrants, meaning that nationals almost always choose to stay here rather than go to another country. The fight against discrimination because of nationality has been a political subject during the past decades, leading to more tolerance.

Apart from Nicaragua, the country of origin of more than two-thirds of Costa Rica’s legal residents, the other nationalities that are more present in this society are Colombian, Salvadorian, American, Panamanian, Cuban, Honduran and Peruvian.



Journalist with more than 10 years of experience in the media. In Costa Rica, Alessandro spent five years working in 'La Nación' newspaper. In Spain, he was a journalist for the digital newspaper 'Economía Digital' between 2017 and 2021. He also has experience in radio, advertising and production of live shows.

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