Citizenship, wealth, and whiteness in a Costa Rican High School.

Author:Stocker, Karen

Abstract: This article addresses the democratic rhetoric taught in a Costa Rican High School and the ways in which that rhetoric clashed with school practices that revealed hierarchies based on race, ethnicity, class, and religion. This contradiction was rendered visible through student elections, the Independence Day celebration, and civic acts. Through these acts, it became apparent that white, wealthy, Catholic students were upheld as most closely matching the image of ideal citizenship projected by the nation though participants in these events pontificated about the ideals of democracy and equality. A strict enforcement of uniform use seemingly intended to homogenize the student body, but was taken to extremes and, instead, served to exacerbate class differences. Throughout the article, I rely on racial formation theory and those theories proposed by specialists in anthropology and education to note how the school taught the value placed on whiteness implicit in the school's practices.


In Costa Rica, a prevailing "foundational fiction" (Sommer, 1990) holds that due to small numbers of indigenous inhabitants at the time of contact, the social hierarchy that developed in other areas of Latin America failed to develop in that country. Such hierarchies, elsewhere, that pitted native peoples against conquistadors initially, and, which resulted in deeply entrenched class differences in the modern era, are widely considered absent from Costa Rican history (Monge Alfaro, 1989, p. 12; Monge Alfaro, 1960, p. 130; Abdulio Cordero in Aguilar Bulgarelli, 1977, p. 5; Rodriguez Vega, 1953, pp. 16-19, 21). Consequently, nationalist rhetoric alludes to a relatively classless, harmonious society in the colonial era. While this national myth is erroneous for many reasons, it is still widely promoted through schools. In a secondary school located in Santa Rita, (1) attended by a minority of students from Nambue, the Chorotega reservation, and a majority of students from other towns not labeled as indigenous, the national myth taught was linked to Costa Rican pride in democracy, the goal (and assertion) of equality, and to the overall assumption that Costa Rica's citizens are predominantly white and European in ancestry. In school, in a variety of contradictory ways, whiteness was tied to nationalist identity and, thus, was valued both in the classroom and outside ofit. This article aims to demonstrate the homogenizing agenda of a high school that taught students nationalism, citizenship, and discipline in ways that upheld the white, wealthy, and those who practiced a dominant religion as ideal citizens, all the while espousing a rhetoric of democracy.

While lessons and civic acts upheld democracy and equality as realities of Costa Rican life, in practice, "democracy" as it was enacted in the high school was for those who could afford it, those whose religion permitted dominant national forms of observing it, and for those who matched the myth of white citizenry. In short, elections were for the white and wealthy, independence in this pacifist country was celebrated, obligatorily, through military-style marching and civic acts were geared toward those students who most closely mirrored the national rhetoric about the European, classless population. An excessive emphasis on uniform regulations seemed to mirror a focus on homogeneity. These events, often wrought with irony, were indicative of the ways in which Santa Rita High School taught students the value placed on whiteness under the guise of teaching democracy, and in which racial formation was actively taught and performed in the school setting. (2) Just as the projected image of sameness fails to describe the nation adequately, though, so, too, did the use of uniforms fail to erase differences with regard to race, class, and ethnicity. Through ethnographic illustrations, I intend to demonstrate the contradictions between rhetoric and practice with regard to equality and democracy in a high school context that seemingly aimed to mold all of its students in the image of the ideal Costa Rican citizen.

A few weeks prior to the end of the school year, I rode the Nambueseno students' school bus to school, as usual. As the bus approached the school, a girl seated near me read aloud the words that had been spray-painted in green capital letters on the cement wall surrounding the school: "ALCATRAS 20 MTS" [sic] approximately twenty meters from the guarded metal gates, which locked students into school. To clear up any doubt that the artist indeed was making a carceral comparison, the following segment of wall was labeled "The Rock," in English, likely inspired by the Hollywood film by this name. The girl on the bus commented, "It's true. It is like jail," thus demonstrating that students of this high school came to the same conclusions as Foucault regarding the similarities of prisons and schools. Other indicators also spelled out this comparison in the high school.

The doors to a select few classrooms were labeled, in white correction fluid, "Cell # 13." The metal gates to school, guarded by an individual, both kept people inside school (at times, locked in), and others outside. A few months into the school year, metal bars were placed across the serving window in the cafeteria, with a narrow opening below, with space enough to slide a plate through. Unlike the terms used in my own high school experience, what my own high school peers knew as "cutting" or "skipping" class was known as "escaping" in Santa Rita. What my classmates termed "prep periods"--school hours in which older students need not be enrolled in class but were expected to be on campus--were called "free" lessons. "Dropping out" was known as "desertion"--always in a terminology connoting a spectrum from liberty to militaristic control. Finally, select teachers at Santa Rita High School talked with fervor about their roles as disciplinarians and makers of citizens, thus displaying that uniformity, discipline, and the performance of a specific, "proper" citizenship were overt elements of the curriculum.

Michel Foucault recognizes the school (like military training camps) as "a mechanism for training," a site in which to mold docile bodies, and a homogenizing agent (Foucault, 1979, p. 172). Other anthropologists have also acknowledged the role of the school in the formation of national subjects and in the inculcation of hegemonic beliefs. Cohen, according to Banks (1996), recognizes that schools (as well as other "national channels such as the media") serve to promote nationalism (p. 154). Garcia Canclini (1990) views the school as a "key backdrop for the staging of patrimony" (p. 154; translation mine). Rivas (1993) asserts that schools reinforce notions of the superiority of dominant culture (p. 466). Anderson (1983) acknowledges the school's integral role in the creation of imagined communities through the dissemination of dominant history.

Specialists in the study of anthropology and education have arrived at the same conclusions. Foley (1990) notes that through schooling, students are molded "into hard-working, family-oriented, patriotic, mainstream citizens" (p. 110). Ogbu (1995), a leader in the study of anthropology and education, similarly found that schools are complicit in hegemonic projects (p. 279). In particular, national majorities "have used the public schools to define social reality" for national minorities (Ogbu, p. 279). In short, "classroom interactions are never innocent in relation to ... broader power relations" (Cummins, 1997, p. 425). Several scholars recognize the role of schooling in promoting dominant images of the nation state and in inculcating students as proper citizens (Levinson, 2001; Levinson, Foley, & Holland, 1996; Luykx, 1999; Skinner, 1996). Some sources in anthropology and education assert that a primary role of Latin American schools is citizen formation (Arnove, 1986; Levinson, 2001; Lopez, Assael & Neumann, 1984; Luykx, 1999). Schools are as infused with power as any other sector of society, though perhaps they have a more subtle, widespread influence.

Such imposition of "reality," as Ogbu (1995) puts it, or indoctrination into dominant attitudes, beliefs, and identity occurs through two factors that roughly parallel Bhabha's (1990) categories of the pedagogical and the performative (p. 297). One way in which the dominant view of reality is reproduced is as a result of the way in which schools constitute social microcosms, perpetuating the views of dominant society. This is not unlike Bhabha's view of the performative character of the nation. The other is through direct teaching via curricula and textbooks--the pedagogical writing of the nation. Humberto Perez, leading scholar on Costa Rican education, considers that the education system there "tries to form citizens who love their country, are conscientious about their duties and rights, with a profound sense of responsibility" (Perez in Biesanz, Biesanz & Biesanz, 1999, p. 215). All of these opinions reflect the general understanding that the educational system is, in many ways, responsible for the "instilling of nationalist ideology" (Anderson, 1983, p. 114).

Foucault's work is useful in demonstrating certain ways in which this inculcation is enacted. He asserts that similar processes can be observed in military training centers, schools, and prisons, alike, by which the subjects of these institutions "become something which can be made; out of a formless clay, and inapt body, the machine required can be constructed" (Foucault, 1979, p. 135). The means through which "docile bodies" are trained is discipline. Foucault explains, "at the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism. It enjoys a kind of judicial privilege with its own laws, its specific offenses, its particular forms of judgment" (pp. 177-178). Likewise, Ferguson (2000), details the ways in which an...

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