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Costa Rica Living Profile - The Susan Lutz interview with the accomplished author of 'The Ticos'

Susan Lutz

The word Tico embodies the people of Costa Rica. "Tico" is more than a name. The term personifies the society and the norms and traditions that have governed their history down to the nuances that thread together their day.

Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz is recognized as an accomplished writer and has written books, sociological studies, and publications including three books on the "Ticos".

Many of her writings have been collaborations with her late husband and her children. For someone studying about Central America, the Biesanz books are a must read. For someone wanting to move to Costa Rica, reading "The Ticos" should be on the list of things-to-do.

Northeastern Minnesota is a long way from Costa Rica. Mavis, also named Helmi, grew up in a small Finnish farm community in Minnesota in the 1920´s. Before World War II, immigrant communities in the United States struggled with dual identities. Ties were strong to the homeland, yet there was a drive to be staunchly American. Mavis has written that the "split-level-name" and history may have directed her life´s journey.

Maviz Biesanz Died In 2008.

You can see more of her biography here.

Mavis´s first words were "ei kun paljo" which means "no, but a lot" in Finnish. As a newlywed at the age of 22, she set out with her husband and a new wish list - "ei kun paljo". She touched Costa Rica soil for the first time in 1942 and would return to live permanently in 1971. A small Finnish farm town may have been a perfect setting for a life in a small Central American country.

Mavis and her husband settled in Costa Rica after John retired from teaching. However, before and during that time, they had traveled all over the world. In the US, they traveled from Minnesota to Iowa and touched down in places such as Pittsburgh and finally Wayne University in Detroit.

They also traveled to much of Central America including Guatemala and Mexico and had lived in Germany - with three children - while John was on a Fullbright Scholarship.

Her book, "The Ticos" was written in 1999 and has been called "A very sensitive portrayal of Tico culture and society" by Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries.

Mavis is relaxed, delightful, and at home in Costa Rica. Her Finnish background comes through in her ivory skin - her short hair lays against her face much like in her childhood photos.

Fluent in yet another language, she switches between English and Spanish as if she was a native speaker. Mavis told me that growing up in a rural Finnish home and speaking two languages had given her open outlook on life. She told me she understood early on that there are always two ways to say something.

Can you explain why you decided to come to Costa Rica?

My husband had traveled in his teens, in the middle of his college career, all around the world. He traveled cheaply - as economically as he could. In China he was influenced by a book by a sociologist and decided this was to be his field. So, when he came back to the US, he switched from the University of Wisconsin to Chicago to study for his B.A. and then on to Iowa for a P.H.D.

He had gotten the travel bug so badly that even before he was offered a job at Winona Teacher´s College (in Minnesota) and before we were married, he said he wanted to go to Mexico, Central America or South America and find a person to exchange jobs with for a year.

He found one in Costa Rica. We were newlyweds when we left. I was 22. It was an adventure, but I wasn´t happy about some of the rougher parts. There weren´t any good roads at the time to speak of - not like today. We lived in Heredia, and he taught at the Normal School in Heredia.

He just had a good imagination for possibilities, and he chased those ideas. The first thing I started to do was write a book on Costa Rica. The first book, and I´ve written three on Costa Rica, was the one I wrote with my husband. I´ve also written two with my son and his wife. These books were written years apart. The last one was in 1999.

You said there were some rougher parts of traveling down here. What was it like in 1942 traveling to Costa Rica?

There was no Pan American Highway, it was just a dream that World War II pushed along. As I say, we hitchhiked and that was rough for me. We stayed in very cheap places, and one turned out to be a kind of place where girls would pop out if the right "man" came along and let him into her room. But we hadn´t known that (when checking in).

We were lucky in some ways too though. When we arrived at the Mexican border, we thought we´d have to take a bus but hitched a ride with an American. They let us ride with them very cheaply. We had good luck like that.

We took the train through Mexico also, and buses, and boats...and finally I took my first commercial plane ride from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to Costa Rica. The airport was still in the Sabana (which is now a major park). There were no trees on the Sabana, just cows.

Did you know Spanish?

No. We had started to study it by ourselves, and we didn´t know very much of it. After John found a professor to exchange positions with him for a year - the school year began in February in Costa Rica, so we had to study quite hard.

When the year was up, we took a Costa Rican student back with us who wanted to study in the States. We´d have him come over to our house and just talk with us for an hour. He´d say, "What should I talk about?" We´d tell him, "Oh, anything!" and we´d talk about this or that.

That was a good way to learn. Plus we had Spanish books, plus there is nothing like actually being in the country. I picked it up very fast. John taught in Spanish, so he practiced every lecture with a fellow that helped him. We got along o.k.

Why did you decide to dive into writing a book about Costa Rica life?

Because John had a picture of us in his mind as somebody like Sydney and Beatrice Web or that couple who wrote Middletown* - a couple working together. He wanted us to write books.

(*Middletown: A Study in Modern America Culture" by Robert & Helen Lynd Measure Muncie, Indiana 1924)

What was the biggest challenge of writing the book?

It didn´t seem like a huge challenge. We just took notes all the time and talked to people all the time. The people of Heredia were extremely nice. We made friends, and they invited us everywhere. We would walk around and interview people - especially John would do that. And, we´d have people come to the house. If a woman came selling eggs, we´d get what tory we could out of her.

A man would ride horseback while carrying milk in two huge cans, and he´d have to stop and water his horse on the way, so we´d talk to him. It was one of the nicest periods of our lives.

You further explored the people and places of Central America by writing "The People of Panama". Why did you choose Panama to write about?

Well once you write a book, you are in demand to write if there is a demand for your topic. The day John got home from Europe from World War II, his mother told him that Washington had been calling him and the State Department wanted him to take a professorship at the University of Panama.

We had to wait a year because he had accepted a job at Pittsburgh. We went to Panama for one year. We had one child by then. We had already written one book on Central America, so they knew we could write. Columbia University asked us to write the book on Panama.

That book took years because I was teaching, and schools need English teachers badly. So, the book took about nine years and several visits back and forth to the country. We also followed the papers which came in bundles every week.

Why did you choose to write another book on the Costa Ricans?

Because things had changed so much, and we were very fond of the country and felt that we knew it well and had observed the changes.

And your latest book, "The Ticos" was written 40 years after?

No, 50!

"The Ticos" is described as a first hand perspective of social and cultural history and the dynamics that make up Costa Rica - the society and the norms.

Fifty years later, what do you think changed in writing this book about the Ticos?

Well, of course we knew a lot more by then and the country had changed, but some basic things about the Costa Ricans don´t seem to change. They are closest to family. They are very polite which is sometimes superficial, but not always. Of course education had changed a great deal - some for the better, some for the worse. They used to take it much more seriously than many do now.

The family has always been strong and still is. A friend told me that she had taken her child to a birthday party and there were 81 people there and that her and her child were the only ones there that were not relations.

What do you think was different this time about writing "The Ticos" than writing the first two books about Costa Rica?

Costa Ricans, as we all, have become more sophisticated. The world has changed. There are many more problems. People are not so close to their home and family because their jobs are not as close to the village. Many of them are international. Woman have jobs now.

In fact, women out number men at the University. That does not mean women out number men out working because this is still a macho country - "machista" country in many ways.

Though, as you´ve probably noticed, women have many important jobs in politics and government and education and medicine. You name it. This country has done fairly well by women and women have done very well by it.

Mavis Biesanz has lived in Costa Rica since 1971. She hitchhiked, boated, bussed, and took a plane to first arrive in 1942 with her husband who was on a teaching assignment. As soon as the couple arrived, they began writing about the people and the life of Costa Rica.

"The Ticos" is "...a delightful book. Like the original version, it brims with the kind of insider´s everyday information and insights that are essential for generalists and specialists alike but are so hard to come by; and its style remains refreshingly unpretnetious, accessible and frank." - Lynne Rienner, Publishers.

Mavis not only wrote about the country, but her and her family have devoted resources to preserving land and environmental resources. The "Reserva Ecologica Biesanz" is on the Pacific coast and occupies 94% of the Punta Quepos peninsula. It is home to many varities of monkeys, sloths, reptiles, plants and of course insects. Mavis and her husband John first prohibited hunting on the land in 1971. This time has allowed the area to develop it´s biodiversity. The family welcomes biologists and scientists to study within their "ecological wonderland".

Her son Barry Biesanz is a renowned wood worker producing fine quality furniture and collectibles from his workshop in a suburb of San José.

So, you´ve spent a great deal of your life in Costa Rica, how has living in this society changed your outlook on what´s happening out "there" in the world?

I am awfully glad to be here when I see what is happening in the rest of the world because it is a much more peaceful place regardless of the rise in crime. And, you can keep up as much as you need to and want to with what goes on in the world. I am just awfully glad to be here. I would hate to be in the States. Apparently, people in the States are afraid to say and do a lot more things than they used to be.

On that issue, Central America has received a lot of press, a lot of titles describe it as one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

What are your thoughts about the issue of crime and personal safety as related to living in Central America?

Central America takes in very different countries. Costa Rica is very different from Nicaragua. Nicaragua is much more violent, El Salvador is much more violent. They have a history of violence. They have armies. Costa Rica banished the army in 1947. There is more crime than there used to be, but there is all over the world. That is too bad, but a lot of it is the kind of crime that goes on all over the world - family crime.

If you were making the decision all over again - in this day and age to move to Costa Rica, say you were newly retired of with a young family - would you explain why or why not you would move here.

It was easy to decide in those days. I don´t know how I would decide these days, but I think I would move here for the very reasons I have said. It is more peaceful, and it is very beautiful. the people are very friendly. I can´t say that living is terribly cheap like it used to be, but still there are things you don´t have to add to your budget like heating and so on. And of course I think this time I might move farther out to the country on my arrival.

I am moving farther to the country, above San Antonio de Escazú, as soon as our house is finished this month. I don´t like the traffic. I think the traffic laws do not work,and they´ve let in too many cars for the country. They have neglected public transportation and the air is polluted. So, it may not be so good to live in the Central Valley or near a big city.

You have children here, and you have grandchildren who visit often. How do you see their experience in Costa Rica?

Barry and his wife are extremely happy here, and they have many good friends more or less the same age who have also moved here - each of whom has found a niche. My son, as I always say, is the best wood worker in the country - and I think most experts or those who have purchased his work would agree.

Barry and his wife have friends all of whom seem to be interested in promoting the natural beauty and conservation of that beauty in this country in very practical ways.

We own land on the Pacific, and he´s designed ways to make it possible for animals to stay safer within their environments and stay on the peninsula.

Do you think Costa Rica has a deep rooted love of peace and that if it does it greatly affects its politics and interpersonal relationships?

Yes, indeed it does have a deep rooted love of peace. You are shocked if you here people quarreling on the street. My jaw dropped when I saw a couple of young fellows with a girl coming to fist fight in broad daylight, and I´d never seen that before. Of course there is crime which is certainly not peace.

I think a lot of that comes with poverty. I think there is increasing poverty, so there may be increasing crime. It isn´t handled terribly well by the police and government.

What is your biggest hope for this country?

My biggest hope is that they learn to manage better because things are not done promptly or well very often. But, that has been the case forever. There is an old saying, "mañana" which means "yes, I´ll have it done by Tuesday - but it won´t be done till the next Tuesday".
But, I think the discipline of schools and factories and so on has changed that attitude somewhat - the discipline as far as keeping hours anyway and being on time and being on the right date. However, this is a minor point.

Thank you so much for speaking with me. Is there a final comment you would like to end with?

I would like to add that the Ticos on the whole are very pleasant, loving people. It is wonderful to see them with their children so much. As I said they are very family oriented, which I think we are losing some of in the States. And, the Ticos are affectionate.

I have a lot of friends, who are professors and so on, and they are very intelligent and very devoted to this country. More often these people are getting into politics because so many realize that you can´t leave politics to the politicians.

More and more I find that people elsewhere are aware of Costa Rica and they say, "Oh, I here it is so beautiful there and it is such a democracy." It hurts somewhat when I see the beauty damaged or the democracy failing in one way or another. I hope it is a temporary phase.

I have been living here since 1971, and I am very happy I have wound up here. We had that period in the States when my husband was teaching, but he retired as fast as he could so we could move here permanently. He died in 1995, so it is a very comfortable country to be a widow in I find.

"The Ticos" book by Mavis Biesanz can be ordered at Information on Barry Biesanz´s wood products can be found at

Susan Lutz - Living in Costa Rica.

Written by Susan Lutz who is a film maker and writer living in Costa Rica. Her documentary film, The Coffee Dance available for sale an, follows a group of women in the depths of poverty as they strive for empowerment. She teaches film and lectures in Costa Rica.

She's produced radio documentaries and is currently finishing her first travel book on Costa Rica. She writes an internationally recognized blog on life in Costa Rica, and is the editor of the Organic Living Page on

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