This week’s English unit was entitled “Where are you from?” As I planned for the week I began to anticipate the potential problems that I may face with my students. Although Costa Rica is oftentimes thought of as a country that has been reached with the Gospel, a place that is not really in need, it has proved to be challenging mission field. This is a place where so many cultural norms have yet to be confronted with the truth of Jesus Christ and the Gospel that He represents.
Racism is a huge issue here in Costa Rica. I have had more than one encounter in which I have wanted to double over in both anger and sadness as I heard Christians blatantly demean others because of where they are from or what they look like. Although there is a general resistance to all foreigners, racism towards Nicaraguan immigrants is extremely present. Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan students at our Christian school have oftentimes been very poorly treated by their classmates, many to the point of choosing to leave the school.
So, all of this was on my mind as I prepared for the week. On Wednesday I planned an activity to practice asking people where they are from in which students had a sheet with all of the Latin American countries and the goal was to find someone from as many countries as you could. A few minutes into the exercise I began to hear “Nica” jokes. I stopped the class. I explained to them that jokes and mean comments about where people were from were not acceptable in my class and then asked them to finish the task. After everyone was finished we went down the list, asking who had found a person from the various countries. I got to Nicaragua. The stifled snickers and quiet comments started up.
Just last week, we read a story about Gwendolyn Brooks. She was an African American poet who had written about the injustices she faced in the United States. As we read her story, my students–the same students who were making hurtful jokes–had been outraged that white people could be so unfair and mean. “We are all the same on the inside,” they’d proclaimed. I was so proud.
I reminded them of that story. I explained to them that the way they were talking about Nicaraguans was the same thing. It was racism and it was sin. It broke God’s heart and it broke mine. I firmly told them that racism and racial comments would never ever be allowed in my class. My class is a place where everyone is welcome. I told them that I wanted to hear their questions or comments because I wanted so badly for them to clearly understand why I was so upset. A student raised his hand and said, “Teacher, it’s not racism because our skin is the same color. We just make fun of them because they talk funny and they’re poor.” I couldn’t breathe for a minute. Do I cry or yell? Something that has always been so clearly wrong to me was being defended by my eleven-year-old students. I took a minute, and then stated that it was racism. It was the same thing that we read about in the story. The same thing that had made him so mad the week before. I asked how he would feel if people made fun of him for the way he talked? But in the end I wondered if any of it got through. I, one person, one foreigner, was standing up against a years-long cultural norm and so much of what my students probably hear at home. It was lonely.
As I reflected on the class, though, God brought me some clarity. I am here to teach English, Literature, and Science–but more importantly than all of that I am here to challenge the norms of racism, the culture of superiority, a society in which the failures of friends are reasons for laughter and mocking, and a place where tolerance (rather than love and truth) is quickly becoming the highest good. May God fill me more and more with Himself as I humbly seek to fulfill my purpose here.
(In closing, I feel a strong need to say that there are many exceptions to this rule. We have met many Costa Ricans who do not feel this way and even some who are battling against this issue. As with any broad statement about a place or group of people, it is not true of everyone.)