The Saints of Progress: A History of Coffee, Migration, and Costa Rican National Identity chronicles the development of the Tarrazú Valley, a historically remote—although internationally celebrated—coffee-growing region. Carmen Kordick’s work traces the development of this region from the early nineteenth century to the first decades of the twenty-first century to consider the nation-building process from the margins, while also questioning traditional scholarly works that have reproduced, rather than deconstructed, Costa Rica’s exceptionalist national mythology, which hail Costa Rica as Central America’s “white,” democratic, nonviolent, and egalitarian republic.
In this compelling political, economic, and lived history, Kordick suggests that Costa Rica’s exceptionalist and egalitarian mythology emerged during the Cold War, as revolution, civil war, military dictatorship, and state violence plagued much of Central America. From the vantage point of Costa Rica’s premier coffee-producing region, she examines local, national, and transnational processes. This deeply textured narrative details the inauguration of coffee capitalism, which heightened existing class divisions; a successful armed revolt against the national government, which forged the current political regime; and the onset of massive out-migration to the United States.
Kordick’s research incorporates more than one hundred oral histories and thousands of archival sources gathered in both Costa Rica and the United States to produce a human history of Costa Rica’s past. Her work on the recent past profiles the experiences of migrants in the United States, mostly in New Jersey, where many undocumented Costa Ricans find low-paid work in the restaurant and landscaping sectors. The result is a fine-grained examination of Tarrazú’s development from the 1820s to the present that reshapes traditional understandings of Costa Rica and its national past.
List of Illustrations
Introduction. Tarrazú: A Place, a Coffee, and a People
Chapter 1. Tarrazú’s Founding and Settlement
Chapter 2. Coffee, Downward Mobility, and Political Power in Tarrazú
Chapter 3. Maintaining the Order: Gender, Class, State Authority, and Violence
Chapter 4. Revolt in Tarrazú
Chapter 5. The Civil War and Its Consequences
Chapter 6. Migration and Shifting Class, Racial, and National Identities
Chapter 7. National Belonging and Exclusion beyond Costa Rica’s Borders
Conclusion. Costa Rica’s Cold War Exceptionalism
"Kordick uses the history of the community of Tarrazú, a canton in San José province known for its coffee production, to break open Costa Rica’s national myth of yeoman farmers building a peaceful, white democracy. Drawing on archival and oral sources, each chapter merits a book of its own. Kordick moves from business history to gendered analysis of politics to war to questions of migration and race. In the early chapters she reinforces the argument made by other scholars—i.e., that even where coffee cultivation remained small scale, class disparities arose around processing at the top and labor at the bottom. These disparities endure to the present, albeit with new forms of labor input. Kordick’s major contribution comes in illuminating the connections between the Costa Rican population in the US—she focuses on New Jersey—and the continued strength of coffee smallholding in Terrazú. The coffee smallholdings celebrated by Costa Rican elite and popular classes alike are now cultivated and harvested by migrants from Panama and financed by family members working in New Jersey and struggling to earn money and send it back to Terrazú. The durability of a myth that arose during the Cold War, as Kordick points out, is increasingly challenged by the inequity that undergirds it. Highly recommended."
“Kordick makes a substantial contribution to the literature on Costa Rica and joins an ongoing discussion (especially among Costa Rican scholars) of the prevalent Costa Rican national myths by debunking the idea of the nation as a timelessly peaceful land of primarily white yeoman farmers.”
—Julie A. Charlip, author of Cultivating Coffee: The Farmers of Carazo, Nicaragua, 1880–1930 and coauthor of Latin America: An Interpretive History
“Kordick has provided us with an intriguing, multifaceted transnational and current analysis of a small place and its impact on the wider neighboring and transcontinental world.”
“Carmen Kordick has written an insightful account of state formation and national identity in Costa Rica. She challenges the myth of Costa Rica’s exceptionalism by questioning the perception of Costa Rica as a peaceful, prosperous, predominantly European nation that has long enjoyed stable, democratic governments. Instead, she argues that prior to the 1948 civil war, Costa Rica shared historical characteristics with many neighboring nations in Central America, including intense poverty and violent political struggles. By combining a social and economic history of the Tarrazú Valley, her book shows how economic inequality, gender roles, and ethnic identity intersected in the coffee industry, resulting in a strongly hierarchical society.”