This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Countries, Our Heritage" where we are profiling a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
Like many of the “Ticos” living in the United States today, Luis R. Rodriguez was originally born in Costa Rica. But he lived in the U.S. for several years before spending much of his adolescence in his home country. He returned with his mother and four brothers to the U.S. just in time to finish high school.
“It was interesting. I attended grammar school and most of high school in Costa Rica after having lived in the U.S. and when I first got back there my accent was really thick and the other kids, they’d give you this ‘gringo’ attitude and treat you like a foreigner,” Rodriguez said. “Although I have to admit the girls tended to be attracted to you and there was more attention on you so I won’t deny that it was nice.”
Like many of his predecessors, Rodriguez’ family settled in New Jersey, which, along with New York City, Connecticut and Long Island, host the largest concentration of Costa Rican Americans in the country. Even so, Costa Ricans are one of the smaller Latino communities in the U.S.
Luckily, throughout his schooling he found others with whom to practice his English and it enabled him to easily transition once back in the New Jersey.
“It’s funny, in West New York and Union City, New Jersey there’s a huge Cuban community, there are lots of Colombians – a real Hispanic melting pot – but not too many Costa Ricans,” Rodriguez recalled. “There was at least one Costa Rican bar my family tended to go to to see some soccer games, but basically, I adapted to the Cuban and Colombian mannerisms and slang.”
Today, living in San Francisco and working as a developer for Linux, Rodriguez says he’s really out on his own. “I’ve now spent five years here and it took me four years to meet the only other Costa Rican in town. And though I’ve asked people, everyone tells me I’m the only Costa Rican here.”
Living as the odd-guy-out, heritage-wise led Rodriguez to not put a lot of emphasis on his connection to the small Central American country when out in the world, preferring to “connect to people as people” rather than rallying around a specific ethnic identity. But his family always found ways to maintain their national pride.
"I think the biggest thing I got from my Costa Rican heritage is being extremely humble and being aware of my own experiences and being appreciative for a lot of the things I didn’t have in Costa Rica," says Rodriguez, a developer for Linux.
“In retrospect a lot of it has to do with soccer games and family get-togethers where your heritage really comes out in culture and traditions,” Rodriguez said. “I would say one of the biggest things is the food and cooking, the Imperial Beer, gathering during soccer games, Christmas and Semana Santa where you have these big dinners where you cook fish and then pray the rosary while you just can’t wait to open gifts. It’s those times you pick up those little tidbits of cultural heritage.”
And he has exported some of his newly adopted California surfer, hiker, biker and outdoorsman habits to family back in Costa Rica, too.
“Pretty much San Francisco has changed me completely. I was not really active and my family, well, you’d be lucky to get the family to go out on a camping trip, much less run and bike, or do rock climbing and surfing,” Luis said. “But I got into surfing and it turns out that Costa Rica has great surfing so I ended up trying it with a few cousins and now I go to Costa Rica and coordinate surfing outings with my cousins.”
“I think the biggest thing I got from my Costa Rican heritage is being extremely humble and being aware of my own experiences and being appreciative for a lot of the things I didn’t have in Costa Rica. There were so many activities that were not available to me there,” said Rodriguez. “But though I experience appreciation for both, I think I see myself as an American because, ultimately, we are just a melting pot.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.