SAN JOSE, Costa Rica— Colin Kaepernick’s Star-Spangled Banner boycott has sparked a growing movement in the United States where 2 minutes of silence speaks louder than words.
But in Costa Rica, 2 minutes of singing has caused a national anthem scandal of a different sort.
The kerfuffle started last week when an unfortunately worded communiqué from the Ministry of Education was circulated to public schools inviting classrooms with large populations of Nicaraguan immigrants to celebrate the end of Central American Independence month by allowing students to sing the Nicaraguan national anthem in class.
It was meant to be an inclusive gesture in a country with nearly 1 million Nicaraguan immigrants, including 25,000 elementary school students. But instead it provoked a xenophobic flare-up on Costa Rican social media, and even led to anonymous death threats against the minister of education.
Some of controversy was perhaps due to a misinterpretation of the ministry’s communiqué, which some Ticos read as a directive ordering all schools to sing the Nicaraguan national anthem. The education minister clarified that it was meant to be a suggestion, not a mandate, but the issue struck an ugly patriotic nerve that surprised even the president.
“I am really surprised. I am a historian and I have not seen this type of reaction in decades,” Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís told me during an interview at his house this morning. “The whole issue was blown out of proportion.”
“You have vociferous individuals who have the nerve to threaten the minister’s life? Even if she had ordered the national anthem of Nicaragua to be sung, which she didn’t, to threaten the life of a minister because she suggests that we become more inclusive? It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Solís said. “I just don’t understand it.”
The president said there have always been tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but nothing to justify the type of vitriol that flooded social media in response to the idea of letting schoolchildren sing.
“I am really concerned about what kind of education we are providing when these kinds of things happen,” he said.
Solís says when he was a school kid in the 1960s, Costa Rican students learned to sing the anthems of all the Central American countries, five of which gained independence at the same time. In fact, Solís still has his old book of Central American anthems and patriotic songs, and treated me to a special presidential concert of him singing the hymns of Guatemala and Panama.
The president says he hopes the recent scandal can be attributed to an angry minority whose “stupidities” get amplified and blown out of proportion by social media.
While the scandal was fanned by Costa Ricans’ latent xenophobia towards Nicaraguans, it also seemed to hit on Ticos’ collective insecurities about being a country without a strong national identity. A lot of the memes mocked Costa Ricans for “playing patriot” over the national anthem issue, when every day Ticos “speak like Mexicans” and “dress like gringos.”
But ultimately the social media passions came to nothing. On Sept. 30, several Costa Rican schools with large numbers of Nicaraguan students sang the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan national anthems at the beginning of the day.
The kids who knew the words sang along, and those who didn’t faked it. There were no incidents. Everyone was respectful. It was just little kids singing. No big deal. Costa Rican independence survived intact.
And in the end, it was the kids who showed the adults how to behave in public.