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It’s all good: Slightly more informed reflections on the use and possible meaning(s) of “pura vida”

I started this blog by reflecting on the meaning of the ubiquitous Costa Rican phrase “pura vida.”  While I haven’t exactly been conducting any linguistic anthropological studies, I have been paying special attention to the phrase and its use, so I thought I’d present what I learned after four months.

First of all, I was told a little about the history of “pura vida.”  It was originally a “Rasta” phrase—confined to quotes because I am not sure that Costa Ricans always mean “Rastafarian” when they say “Rasta.”  From what I can gather it refers more broadly to Afro-Caribbean culture.  Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean population is largely descended from the slaves imported from Africa or other slave colonies to work the banana plantations of the malaria-ridden lowlands.  Historically separated by geography (there was no viable land route to the Caribbean coast until the first railroad was completed in 1890), racism (blacks were long forbidden from entering the Central Valley), language (many of the Afro-Caribbeans spoke English or Creole), and religion (mostly Protestant, and later Rastafarian influence), it is one of the country’s most distinct cultures.

All of which is to say that the adoption of an Afro-Caribbean phrase as an unofficial national slogan has been a gradual one, taking place over the course of about a generation.  It first made its way towards the mainstream via lower-class men.  My host mom tells me that when she was growing up, it was considered vulgar for a woman to say “pura vida.”  Youth were the next to pick it up.  I would speculate that its origin was an attractive feature for them, because Central Valley youth seem to idolize elements of Afro-Caribbean culture the same way suburban white youth in the States idolize inner-city black culture.  The best example of this is reggaetón, a sort of club reggae culturally equivalent to hip-hop.  “Rasta” is also a form of address between male teens and young adults that carries the similar connotations to “dog.”

After becoming popular with the youth, “pura vida” eventually overflowed age, class, and gender boundaries to achieve its current ubiquity.

I hear it most often from my host father.  It is his stock response to questions regarding how he is or how something was.   80% of our conversations follow this script:

“¡Cámeron!”

“¡Don Carlos! ¿Cómo le va?”

“¡Pura vida!”

Carlos’ use is by far the most common one, for I think “all good” is an effective translation.  Depending on intonation, it can really mean “everything is good,” or otherwise “things may or may not be good but I’m being optimistic enough to conform with smalltalk norms and avoid further questioning about how I am.”  The next most common use is “thanks,” followed by “no problem” (in the sense of “you’re welcome” for a small thing the giver/actor doesn’t think deserves much credit).  It is also used as an informal greeting or parting, though usually not alone.

The best description of “pura vida” I’ve heard was from my Spanish professor, Mauren: “It means everything and nothing,” (translated and lightly paraphrased).  At first glance, the phrase “pure life” seems to be a powerful mantra for the pursuit of happiness, but the breadth and informality of its use makes it feel empty of any deeper meaning it may have once had.   That’s why I think “all good” is a better translation than “pure life”: from my observations, there is no reason to think “pura vida” means “pure life” any more than “all good” means “entirely of the force that opposes evil.”

There are, however, two exceptions to the near-meaninglessness of “pura vida.”  The first is the tour guide meaning.  I have noticed multiple people that work or live with tourists using “pura vida” with the meaning tourists normally assume it to have: a sort of exclamation celebrating exactly the carefree, seize-the-day attitude they want to adopt while on vacation.  While I have toned down my cynicism from my initial charge of corporate conspiracy, I do maintain the hypothesis that this use of the phrase originated in tourist misunderstanding and is perpetuated by guides who recognize its value to business.  And I have to admit, it was pretty fun when we raised our rafting paddles and followed our guide’s lead in screaming “¡Pura vida!” over the roar of the rapids, however linguistically imprecise it may have been.

The second exception to the everyday insignifance of “pura vida” is its patriotic significance.  Whether this happened before or after the proliferation of “pura vida” t-shirts, coffee mugs, and kitchen magnets is hard to tell, but Costa Ricans are undeniably proud of their catchphrase.  Like other “pachuco” words, they are proud of their dialect’s distinguishing traits.  It might even be the case that the phrase’s banality is part of what makes it so appreciated.  After all, the national bird is the yigüirro, or clay-colored robin.  With over 900 bird species to choose from, among them such gems as the resplendent quetzal, the keel-billed toucan, and the turqoise-browed motmot, Costa Rica decided to represent itself with the most unremarkable one of them all, because its cheery song used to keep farmers company as they worked alone in their fields.  There seems to be an appreciation for the fact that sometimes the simplest things are the most important.

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