When we told friends back home we’d be living in Costa Rica for a year, many envisioned the beach and surfing (and probably rightly wondered exactly how many tubes of SPF 60 sunscreen my pale-skinned family would need to ward off skin cancer). We did pack bathing suits—the ocean is never too far away in Costa Rica—but we also packed wool socks and, in my case, even a light down jacket.
You see, our home, Monteverde, is a tiny village on the Cordillera de Tilarán, part of the continental divide near the Arenal Volcano (yes, there are a lot of volcanoes in Central America). Monteverde gets an average of 118 inches of rain every year. Just to put that into perspective, Seattle gets about 38 inches over the course of twelve months. Along with the rain comes tempestuous wind—last night I lay in bed listening to battling currents ripping around the house, and this morning when I went for a run, two trees were down in the road. All of this wild weather makes for some amazing plant and animal life, which I’ll get to in a future post, but today I’m going to focus on Monteverde’s equally unique human history–a history that includes American political dissent.
Though the name Monteverde, meaning green mountain, is indeed Spanish, the village was actually named by a group of Americans who settled the area in the 1950s. They came from Alabama—50 Quakers, some of whom had recently completed a prison sentence for refusing to register for the draft. The judge who sentenced them famously said, “If you like this country you should obey the laws of this country, and if you don’t like it, you ought to move out.”
This group of Quakers had concerns beyond their refusal to register for military service. Their tenants of non-violence and simplicity did not match with the United States’ war economy and increasing materialism. The short version of the story is that the Quakers heeded the judge’s advice and left. They considered Canada as a new home, but they were fair-weather farmers, and so they looked at different Central American countries until they finally settled on Costa Rica. The tiny nation had recently disbanded its military, and had no death penalty. A dairy farmer and spokesman for the group, Hubert Mendenhall, was quoted in Time magazine: “Our economy has become so involved with military effort throughout the world that a person can hardly make a living without being a part of the system. Even the price of milk depends on it. …In Costa Rica we can only hope to make a modest living, but it will not be so directly tied in with the military economy.”
And so, you see, Monteverde has a history grounded in American political dissent and, ultimately, in emigration, which certainly resonates with some of the sentiments of our current political era.
The Quakers eventually purchased 3,000 acres up here in these wild mountains. Though Monteverde still feels remote, it was even more isolated at the time—just a few Tico families lived here, and the only way in was by horse, ox-cart, or on foot. The Quakers set up modest farms, some living for more than a year in tents, clearing pasture for their cows, and eventually building a cheese factory where the growing population of Tico and Quaker farmers would then deliver their milk by horseback every day. They also set aside a third of their land for watershed protection, which would later lead to the establishment of the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest and significant land conservation throughout the area.
Since the 1950s, some of those original Quakers have moved on, but many have married Ticos and integrated into Costa Rican society. Locally, the Quakers are known in Spanish as Los Amigos–The Friends–or Los Cuaqueros. Monteverde is now a fascinating bilingual community of conservationists, photographers, yogis, artists, volunteers, retirees, biologists, musicians, farmers, and even a luthier. It is also home to a vibrant Quaker bilingual school serving mostly local Tico children (as well as our kids, Liam and Reid), a beautiful post-and-beam Meetinghouse where the Quakers meet for silent worship—a sort of collective meditation—twice a week, the Cloud Forest Reserve, and a very small village. Perhaps more impressive are the many projects los Cuaqueros and their Tico neighbors have created over the years: two community libraries; CASEM, a women’s arts cooperative; Finca La Bella, a progressive farmers’ association in the neighboring San Luis valley; the Monteverde Institute, an international research and community development center; and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Costa Rica’s largest privately-managed reserve. The truth is that list is not even the half of what the Quakers have influenced in this region.
Living in this diverse, bilingual, heavily-visited place means our family isn’t getting the full-immersion Spanish experience we had envisioned for ourselves when we initially started scheming about our year abroad. But it has made for a very smooth transition into a unique and welcoming community with endless opportunities to explore art, wildlife, spirituality, music, environmentalism, language, soccer (this is Costa Rica, after all), and community development. Monteverde is also an interesting study in the good that can come from taking a stand in a time of political and ethical turmoil by stepping aside, even when that means leaving one’s country.