Costa Rica

Identity and ignorance: A personal message from an outgoing Immigration Writer

People who are born outside of the United States and have moved here to live come from a wide array of nations. The majority of immigrants, however, come from Latin American countries, and the predominant focus of US media attention about immigration discusses Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Less attention is paid to people from Costa Rica, a Central American nation with a much smaller percentage of migrants in the US. Lack of visibility doesn’t mean these folks ought to be dismissed, however; as of 2018, that number of immigrants from Costa Rica was estimated to be 154,784. Since this nation happens to play a part in my cultural heritage, today we will begin by exploring how my life fits into a national trend.

The statistics on children of immigrants

One out of 4 children living in the US has at least one immigrant parent. The majority of these children were born within the nations’ borders and therefore have citizenship status by birthright. This means these children are automatically able to vote, an ability that millions of undocumented people and hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients are not allowed to have. 

Another important consideration is that children with at least one parent born outside of the US are more likely to be bilingual than children with only US born parents.


Graph comparing children with at least one foreign born parent and children with only US born parents and English proficiency.
Urban Institute.


Bilingualism is harder to achieve than some make it seem. I personally grew up in a household that spoke mostly English and some Spanish. My lack of fluency in Spanish meant that at a young age, I grew frustrated with being unable to say anything of substance with my abuelos who Skyped in regularly. Except, of course, “I love you.” 

It meant taking a lot of classes to learn how to use the subjunctive and learn the rules about orthography, while simultaneously realizing that the Spanish taught in school doesn’t always match how it’s spoken in different Latin American countries. It meant trying translation work during your college career and finding out you can’t tell what sounds natural because Spanish isn’t your first language and feeling like a fraud. 

It can also be challenging to figure out your identity as someone with transnational ties. I’ve been called white, Hispanic, and mixed, and it’s strange no one seems to really get that nationality and race are not the same thing. It’s also important to recognize that being white-passing yields a vast amount of privilege. Yet that also means that when people feel comfortable telling me, for example, that “Hispanic men are arrogant,” I have to constantly exhaust my energy dispelling stereotypes.

Having to spend energy on educating others is nothing new. After I explained my background to a high school classmate, he exclaimed “Oh! I didn’t know you were Mexican,” as if he didn’t understand these are two distinct countries, and his only reference point for Latin America was Mexico. 

Additionally, people have confused Costa Rica with Puerto Rico throughout my whole life. This isn’t to vilify or look down on random folks who don’t understand the difference. It’s about bringing to light that there is a deeply embedded lack of global understanding in the US. 

In particular, it’s crucial to understand how ignorance is written into publications. For example, here are a few excerpts from the children’s book Vamos a Costa Rica (Let’s Go to Costa Rica) by Mary Virginia Fox, published by the Heinemann First Library. 


Text translation: “Spanish is the main language of Costa Rica. This is because Spain sent people to colonize the island. Many people also know English. Sometimes words from both languages are used.” Photo courtesy of Natalia Johnson.


Costa Rica is not an island, yet the book refers to it as an island where many people know English. This begs us to wonder if it’s being confused with Puerto Rico, the archipelago with one main island in the Caribbean which the US has considered its territory since the end of the Spanish-American war.


Costa Rica is nearly 1,300 miles away from Puerto Rico. Source: The Daily Mail.


Costa Rica is most definitely not an island; it is bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south. Oddly enough, the book actually shows this fact with a map of the country.


Text translation: “Costa Rica is located in Central America. It has coasts on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.” Photo courtesy of Natalia Johnson.


On this page, yet another issue arises because the capital city of San José is wildly misplaced. It doesn’t even appear to be in the correct province. This is the country’s biggest city, and it’s not even in the right spot. 


Map of the provinces of Costa Rica, including some major cities.The capital city of San José is located in the province of San José.

The National Museum of Costa Rica in San José is one of the historical centers I visited on my most recent trip. How was Mary Virgina Fox and the team at Heinemann First Library so comfortable casually transplanting a nation’s history, not to mention the people who live there, to a completely different area?


People outside the National Museum of Costa Rica in the capital city of San José. Photo courtesy of Natalia Johnson.


This kind of misrepresentation is not an isolated incident, and it goes even broader than the US. A vacationer from the United Kingdom, for example, was sent on a plane to Puerto Rico instead of Costa Rica in 2009. 

How to combat the confusion

Besides holding the organizations that perpetuate misinformation accountable, it is imperative to not take what you read at face value. Being open to learning information that is left out of the narrative is an idea that can be applied from children’s books to US history textbooks, which often exclude and whitewash the history of people of color.

Another way to better understand these dynamics is to listen to the people who have relevant lived experiences rather than dismissing them. It means that when I tell someone that people have told me to speak American, or that I live in their country, so I have to speak English, or when passersby at school stop their conversation to stare when I speak Spanish on the phone, that these experiences are real. 

And if I tell you that it is offensive to call people an anchor baby, then the best thing to do is listen. The learning goes for everyone, including myself. For example, I’ve committed to never calling any person who is undocumented an “Illegal” because I have listened to folks explain why that is problematic.

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and each of us deserves to feel as though we belong. But when so many in the US xenophobic or just don’t understand anything beyond the country’s borders and the people you love are thousands of thousands of miles away, it can be a challenge to figure out where you fit in.

This platform with Latina Republic has given me space to better understand where I belong. It has been a privilege to have my voice heard, and I can’t thank you enough for listening. I look forward to seeing the change you make next.

Featured Image, photo courtesy of Natalia Johnson.


Natalia Johnson | University of Minnesota
Natalia is a rising senior at the University of Minnesota, where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and sociology. Although she was born and raised in the US, Natalia is a bicultural woman who has had the privilege of traveling to Costa Rica to visit her mother’s side of the family. She has used her Spanish language abilities working as a translator for the Volunteer Lawyers Network and as a National Asylum Help Line Responder at the Advocates for Human Rights, experiences that instilled in her a passion for social justice and immigrant advocacy. Natalia is a firm believer in empathy and the power of communication. As an Immigration Writer, she hopes to bring immigrant experiences into the national narrative and will use her platform to spotlight organizations that provide hope during these extremely difficult times.