Costa Rica’s central valley is surrounded by stoic cloud-capped mountains and teeming with life—70% of the country’s population to be exact—working, studying and raising families in the sprawling metropolis of San José and its surrounding areas. One of the best views of the buzzing valley is from La Carpio, an informal settlement perched atop the entrance to the country’s largest trash dump and enclosed on the sides by a water-treatment plant and a quarry. La Carpio’s favorable view is just one of many unexpected features of this fascinating community, home to over 20,000 people, about half of whom are immigrants from neighboring Nicaragua.
As a Fulbrighter in La Carpio, my research was focused on the spectrum of informal economic exchanges taking place there: from street vendors peddling their goods on corners to successful micro-entrepreneurs selling products and services from storefronts. I specifically focused on the participation of women in the informal economy of La Carpio and how their efforts have contributed to the economic development of a place that began as a squatter settlement in an abandoned coffee field.
My research objectives were two-fold: gain a better understanding of “urban informality” by identifying both success factors and limiting factors for informal workers, and uncover ways that small-business creation and entrepreneurialism could create a much needed bridge between the migrant women of La Carpio and the Costa Rican women of San José. To accomplish my second objective, I collaborated with a women’s microfinance organization in San José, to foster dialogue about the potential for services to be extended to migrant women living in marginalized areas like La Carpio.
Soon after starting my research, I realized that like many of the Costa Ricans I had met I, too, had my own set of ideas about La Carpio, specifically about the nature of urban informality and how businesses and workers operate in unregulated environments. Instead of an excluded, refugee sector, I found that within La Carpio there exists a complex ecosystem of economic activity with ties to both the capital city and international markets. I learned about true ingenuity and entrepreneurship as I witnessed gaps in services being filled in innovative ways. I also came to appreciate the social dynamics of La Carpio, where Costa Ricans and Nicaraguan immigrants have learned to work, live, and often fight together for the benefit of their community.
As I pieced together a different picture of a culturally diverse and economically heterogeneous place, I had to recognize and de-construct my idea of La Carpio as victim. Once I cleared out my pre-conceived notions of La Carpio, what I heard was the story of a community that does not exist as a solitary, isolated entity observing the buzz and flow of the busy capital from the sidelines, but rather a dynamic place in itself, where people buy and sell and climb to the top in a surprisingly lucrative business environment. As a tortilla vendor explained, when I asked her why she had moved to La Carpio: “Aqui está la vida” (the life is here).
My advice to future Fulbright grantees would be to remember to listen, and to constantly reflect on and analyze your ideas of the people and places that you are getting to know. This may seem obvious, but it is important to keep an open mind and be prepared to find something different than what you originally expected or planned. Research objectives should allow for flexibility and change. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are those that were not originally outlined in your research agenda.