The storytellers in El Mito Blanco, a film by Nicaraguan filmmaker Gabriel Serra, are Nicaraguan women who live with their children in La Carpio, San José, Costa Rica; Afro-Costa Rican residents of Limón of Jamaican descent; and members of the Ngäbe-Buglé people in Sabalito, Puntarenas. Through the stories of these three groups, El Mito Blanco delves into the experiences of Nicaraguans, Afro-Costa Ricans, and the indigenous Ngäbe community in Costa Rica.
Each group has its own history in Costa Rica, and together, they tell an important story of the migrant and indigenous experience in Costa Rica. El Mito Blanco explores what it’s like to live in the shadows of a country assumed as the whitest in Central America.
What happens when whole communities are not included in the historical record of a nation? What type of climate does this create for them? And what is lost for a nation overall? El Mito Blanco explores these questions, and points to the bonds, histories, and traditions that make up Costa Rica. The film takes us to scenes of these families’ daily lives.
Latina Republic interviewed Gabriel Serra about the meaning and making of El Mito Blanco, which makes its debut in Costa Rica this week.
Latina Republic: What is the white myth in Costa Rica?
The myth is a construction of the imaginary that can be traced back to late 1800s when groups of scientists and politicians affirmed the idea that Costa Ricans are whiter than the rest of Central Americans. This myth was born from a thought and an idea of building a racial identity, a political perception that has been transmitted through education and through the population. It is important to note that Costa Rica has a series of elements that characterizes it in a positive way. Its education, for example, is excellent.
Costa Rica does not have an army and has invested heavily in education. It has a very good health system. The quality of life and the level of violence compared to other countries is safer and there is a more democratic environment than exists elsewhere in the region.
So we have a country that has made progress in these areas, but at the same time, we have communities like, La Carpio, the Afro-descendant community and the indigenous community that don’t participate equally in that progress. The myth is the idea that Costa Rica is whiter than the rest of Central America, which neglects the experiences of these marginalized groups.
Latina Republic: What does the train symbolize in the film?
The train symbolizes a metaphor of abandonment. A metaphor for the journey. A metaphor of going from one place to another. The train represents each of the trips that migrants have made in their lives to reach this country. It is also a visual narrative resource that connects the stories and connects the areas of the country.
The train connects abandoned communities. These are old trains, noisy. Getting onboard the train allows the traveler to have a visual x-ray of the country, going through the industrial zones, the countryside, and the marginal zones, and also the Caribbean and the sea. It is a beautiful visual journey that travels through all types of Costa Rican communities.
Latina Republic: In the film, the Nicaraguan women who live in La Carpio speak nostalgically of Nicaragua. They miss home while at the same time expressing the lack of opportunity, the fires, the destruction. What do they miss and why do we miss places where we have suffered?
I believe that human beings have a sense of rootedness to 3 fundamental things. To food, to family and to idealized notions of our own place. We have a tendency to think that ours are the best landscapes with the best rivers, with the best nature, with the best life. I believe that the roots these women have to Nicaragua is very deep. At the same time, La Carpio is a paradise for some of them. They like living next to the river and the sound of children playing.
Despite what each of these women has been through, they love their country. And they have suffered many terrible things, and have been expelled from their own lands. This migration is a recent migration. A forced migration that has sent countless people into exile. There are around 80,000 applicants for political asylum in Costa Rica, statistically speaking by the migration institute. Other reports point to a diaspora of between 100,000 and 200,000 people exiled, who have experienced horrible things.
These women are deeply attached to their land, to their children, to their food. The rooting they feel to Nicaragua goes beyond a rational explanation; each individual feels it and moves according to it, in their own way.
Latina Republic: What brought Nicaraguans to La Carpio during this recent migration?
La Carpio has been in existence for 25 years and there are several foundations that work in this community. There is a majority Nicaraguan population. There are also, Colombians, Panamanians, and other groups. It is a strongly Nicaraguan neighborhood where you will find all the typical foods. La Carpio is a sort of an island. It is surrounded by two rivers with only one entrance which is also the only exit. You go out the way you came in.
It is interesting how this space has become the best known marginal space in the country, the most talked about, and yet there is one of the best public schools of the best that I have seen. This is also home for them. The meals, the customs and the comfort of speaking with a similar accent and language. It also has to do with other things. Housing is cheaper, and they may have an acquaintance who can give them lodging.
Latina Republic: El Mito Blanco makes some important political and economic comments. One of them is educational criticism. That children are not learning about their native cultures or about immigration. How do these curricular omissions hurt migrant children in Costa Rican classrooms? What would be a more inclusive educational model that Costa Rica could implement?
One of the protagonists in our film is a second generation immigrant. His parents were from Cuba and Jamaica. Afro-Caribbeans have been in Costa Rica since the 1500s with a larger influx arriving in the 1890s, as migrant workers from the Caribbean. They were initially involved in the construction of the railroad, and in cacao and banana plantations. Yet there is no discussion of how the Afro-Caribbean population arrived in Costa Rica, what their origins are, what their contributions have been. There is little public awareness of these histories.
Before the slave populations arrived in the Caribbean, the indigenous populations were already here. In the case of Nicaragua, there are 7 indigenous populations, the Chorotega, Cacaopera or Matagalpa, Ocanxiu or Sutiaba, and Nahoa or N.huatl peoples. The Caribbean is home of the M.skitu, Sumu-Mayangna, and Rama peoples.
In Costa Rica, there are 8 indigenous peoples, Huetar, Maleku, Bribri, Cabécar, Brunka, Ngäbe, Bröran and Chorotega. There is no general knowledge about these groups or educational curriculum about them in schools. In other words, there are no stories where these populations are recognized, including Jamaicans, Cubans, and that is something serious because we are talking about the fact that there are traditions and beautiful stories that are passed from voice to voice or people to people between families that are being lost, that could be transmitted in schools.
Then there is the issue of our shared histories between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. These two countries have been connected through a lifetime. There have been presidents, migrations, mutual aid between the two countries for generations. We have been family. We are talking about many binational Costa Rican households where there is a Nicaraguan grandfather or father or great-grandfather … It makes me very sad that knowledge of all these great cultures, of our common histories have not been transmitted in the culture or in educational texts.
Latina Republic: So these are precisely the omissions that have contributed to the white myth. But the good news is that this does not have to continue as is. These omissions are reversible.
Exactly. That is why I made this film. So we can change this and at least, start talking about it.
Latina Republic: How did the making of El Mito Blanco change you and your film crew?
It has been a very intense experience. Choosing the topic of only portraying marginalized communities was a very important political choice. For me, as a Central American, it is important that we see ourselves. Beyond people seeing us from the outside, this is a film meant for local consumption, so that people can reflect on the contexts, so we can talk about what is happening to us.
We can influence and change what is happening to us. In this sense, the investigation has been a very valuable experience. I have been accompanied by an incredible work team and together we have lived an intense experience. I have tried to connect with people, connect with communities in a way that goes beyond recording.
I spent two years of research, 4 intense months visiting the communities, and spending one week in each community at a time. It was important to me to be able to meet them and to be able to establish a relationship with them, so that the camera would become almost a ghost, or as the saying goes, as a fly on the wall, where it was not perceptible. I wanted to capture moments in the most honest way, without harming them, and conscious of portraying them in a way that would not affect their life or their image.
Latina Republic: How did you earn the trust of each of these communities?
I studied in Mexico at a film training center with the most incredible teachers. I like the documentary form because one can express oneself in a political way; from the intimate space that it creates we can share our political thinking and our political actions. I was interested in being able to have a degree of intimacy with these communities, and this would not have occurred if I had not earned their trust. For me, that trust and intimacy comes from knowing each other. Earning the trust of each of these communities happened in different ways.
My working methods have to do with sharing, talking and eating together. I really like how we ate together and shared meals. Sometimes I would bring the ingredients for a meal and they wanted to prepare it for us. Other times, we prepared meals for them. We exchanged these gastronomic differences, which for me has to do with culture, migration and how the experience of food roots us together.
I shared these moments of both conversation and eating. We also connected through play. We loved playing soccer with them. The children from La Carpio looked for treasures, we hid for them as a fun game. The children of the Caribbean too, played football with us. We explored together; we went to the river. I was immersed in that game, in that play, in that sharing. We also worked with local producers who connected well to those communities.
Latina Republic: Who is this film for? And what is the most important message?
I hope that in watching this film, people will gain an understanding of the conflicts affecting these communities, what happens to them, what they love the most, what they enjoy the most and what prevents them from being free.
I would like people to not only come out with one sensation but with five or six sensations. Among them, to reflect, to say, wow, what beautiful stories. I had never seen Costa Rica this way. I had never heard that these populations existed and that they lived that way.
On the other hand, I hope they will experience tenderness. I hope they are moved by the children. When we talk about children we are talking about the future. I hope that viewers can feel that love between children and the family. I would love for a high school senior all the way to an older adult to see it and be able to identify with some aspect of these stories. I hope they will say, I want to change the way I relate to these communities, or perhaps they will feel empowered to seek access to rights and more opportunities. My final hope is that we will learn more about the Costa Rican experience from different geographical points and different community experiences in Costa Rica.
Gabriel Serra was born in Managua, Nicaragua on July 5th, 1984. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2015, for his documentary short film, La Parka (The Reaper). La Parka is a documentary that portrays the relationship between human life and the death of the animals we consume. It is also an exploration of the link between Mexicans and the ingestion of beef. Multi-award winning Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) told Indiewire that this short film was one of his references to his renowned film, Okja. Serra’s film lost the contest, while leaving audiences expectant of the next project by the talented Nicaraguan. El Mito Blanco, a joint production between Costa Rica (Betta Films), Nicaragua (Cinema Regional) and Mexico (Ojo de Vaca), is that long-awaited film.
El Mito Blanco premiers on October 22nd and shows through October 28 in the Cine Magaly, in Costa Rica.
Follow the film
Soledad is the founder of Latina Republic and is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soledad lived the immigrant experience in the US, which shaped her as an advocate for immigrant rights. Her passion for the immigrant experience in the U.S. led her to pursue a PhD in US immigration history. She enjoyed over a decade of her professional career in academia, but was pulled in a new direction when she learned about Friends of OC Detainees through a student. She was immediately inspired to volunteer and visit women held in detention in Orange County. By learning about their struggles and the motives for leaving their home countries in Central and South America, Soledad saw a need to understand and communicate the regional causes that pushed migrants outside their homes. By staying in touch with women who were deported to Central America, Soledad gained insight into local problems and encountered leaders and organizations in Central America that were dedicated to making their communities stronger, safer, and self-reliant. What started as a forum for storytelling in an effort to destroy stereotypes that depict migrants in an inaccurate light, turned into a nonprofit formed to help support courageous leaders and organizations that work hard every day to improve their countries. The study of migrants fleeing to the US, led Soledad to develop an equal passion for advancing the rights of Latinx families in Southern California where the stigma of public charge and a pattern of immigrant single-headed households necessitates action steps, information and local partnership. Soledad is an oral historian with a passion for human rights.