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Costa Rica Living Profile - Susan Interviews Accomplished Author of 'The Ticos'

Susan Carmichael
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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 indentities. 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.

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.


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