Literally, the expression “pura vida” means “pure life.” It describes a peaceful, tranquil and free-from-impurities existence. For the Costa Ricans, the phrase “pura vida” means much more: It has become the popular but unofficial national motto. This motto is associated with all Costa Ricans world-wide.
Where did the phrase “pura vida” come from?
Costa Ricans started using the expression “pura vida” after the premier of a Mexican movie called “Pura Vida” in 1956. This expression gained popularity in the ‘70s because the words conveyed the states of happiness, peace, and tranquility which were, and still are, symbols of the liberty brought on by the country’s political stability. Remember, Costa Rica abolished its army and navy in 1948, and the thought of war is just not a part of their mentality. So, if you were to hear the utterance “pura vida” anywhere in the world, you can bet it would be coming from a Costa Rican. It’s a dead give-away.
The popular expression is used by Costa Rica and by Costa Ricans around the world to remember their beloved native country. The expression is used informally, with various meanings, depending on how it is used. It could be a greeting, a way of saying goodbye, or a show of appreciation for a person, object, or situation. Sometimes it’s like saying “Everything’s all right,” or “No need to worry” or “It’s a beautiful day and life is good.”
Does “pura vida” mean “perfect?”
The lives of Costa Ricans are far from perfect. But, “pura vida,” if said often enough, becomes an affirmation which focuses the speaker on the positive. It’s just positive self-talk, all day long. I know it works because I say it often too. It’s an easy and great way to stay positive.
One reason they are “pura vida” are the social reforms that were passed in the early 1940s. The Caja, Costa Rica’s national healthcare system, began in 1940 and was available for both urban and rural workers. It brought health care to the people and insured that everyone had the beginnings of access to basic medical care. In addition, a labor code was passed which established a minimum wage for all workers, an 8-hour workday, a six-day work week, and the right to organize which protected them against arbitrary dismissals. It also made collective bargaining mandatory in labor/management disputes.
But, as I mentioned, a Tico’s life is far from perfect. They have problems too (similar to the U.S.):
- 40% out-of-wedlock birth rate
- 50% divorce rate
- High incidence of domestic violence
- 48% high-school drop-out rate
- 5% inflation
- Low paying jobs and high unemployment
- $750/month average salary
- General feeling of helplessness regarding government and politicians which they regard as self-serving and corrupt
They have personal problems, like all of us, but you would never know it. They are just too “pura vida” to allow the negatives to overwhelm them. It’s a peace-loving nation with honest elections and comparatively high quality of life. It even scored the highest of 151 countries in the latest Happy Planet Index. “The country has embraced sustainability in its national policies: it produces 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, has reversed deforestation in the country, and, in 2008, committed itself to becoming carbon neutral by 2021. Costa Rica has the second highest life expectancy in the Americas, higher than the USA’s; experienced well-being higher than many richer nations; and a per capita Ecological Footprint one third the size of the USA’s.” (HPI Report, p. 13)
Were Costa Ricans always “pura vida?”
So, why “pura vida”? Where does it come from? And why did they adopt this slogan now recognized world-wide? “Pura vida” is based on how the country developed over centuries. Costa Rica’s been “pura vida” for over 500 years…it just wasn’t called that.
In the book, The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica, the authors describe the early Spanish colony in Costa Rica and how it differed from other Spanish colonies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia:
“The colony was tranquil in part because it was poor. Mineral wealth – a bone of contention in other colonies – remained undiscovered. Although land was readily available by the eighteenth century most colonists had only family labor to work it. The tiny settlements were isolated from one another by heavy rains, broken terrain, and a lack of roads. Finally, Costa Rica was remote from other colonies, which were often the scene of raging disputes. In 1809 Governor Tomás de Acosta, like his predecessors since 1648, reported that everyone still lived near a subsistence level. Compared to most other Spanish colonies, Costa Rica was indeed poor. But historian Carlos Monge Alfaro saw in the humble colonial farmer, with his love of liberty and autonomy, the foundation of Costa Rica democracy. Each farm, he wrote in a text used in schools through many editions, was,
Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz, Richard Biesanz, and Karen Zubris Biesanz, The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica, (Boulder, Colorado) Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1999, pp. 18-19.
This is the reason they are pura vida. They grew up isolated. It was a small population of people with little outside contact. They didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered them. They developed independently. That’s why they are so different from Nicaragua and Panama today. Even the few rich coffee plantation owners, who lived in the San Jose area, had very little to do with the peasants who lived in the country. It was a tough life for the campesinos but, in many ways, an idyllic life.
Life in Costa Rica has never been perfect, but Ticos felt that the phrase, “pura vida” just fit them. They took it on to describe a life and a place where they are free to do their own thing, breathe fresh air, drink clean water, eat fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and share their lives with family and close friends. It’s a place where they don’t have to worry about going to war or losing everything they own to pay for health care. It’s a place where they have a voice in the democratic system of government. It’s a life that can be summed up in just two words…”pura vida.”