Keeping Heads Above Water: Salvadorean Refugees in Costa Rica


159 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0977-1
DDC 325'.21'097284097286





Reviewed by Ronald N. Harpelle

Ronald N. Harpelle is an assistant professor of history at the
University of Manitoba.


This book offers insights into the adaptation process as experienced by
Salvadorean refugees in Costa Rica. The author begins by examining
neighboring countries and why Costa Rica was attractive to
asylum-seekers, and by providing an overview of the obstacles to
integration in a foreign environment. The second part of the book looks
at Costa Rican attempts to deal with the thousands of Salvadoreans who
turned up in the country, while the third and final section attempts to
explain the relative success of small urban enterprises established by
the Salvadoreans during their sojourn in Costa Rica.

The book is a useful introduction to the subject of refugee adaptation
to new circumstances. It illustrates the problems small countries like
Costa Rica encounter when thousands of people arrive at their doorstep.
The book’s greatest shortcoming is its lack of historical perspective.
For example, in a section on the differences between Salvadoreans and
Costa Ricans, the author fails to mention Costa Rica’s perception of
itself as a “white settler” society. This perception permeates all
discussion of race, class, and gender, and is the foundation of Costa
Rican nationalism. Salvadoreans not only look, speak, and act
differently, but are also considered inferior by many Costa Ricans.
Although the author blames most of the discrimination on the middle and
upper classes, bigotry is everywhere, and it is fuelled by the Costa
Rican identity. Nevertheless, Keeping Heads Above Water touches on
interesting aspects of refugee adaptation and makes a good contribution
to the literature.


Basok, Tanya., “Keeping Heads Above Water: Salvadorean Refugees in Costa Rica,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 13, 2024,