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Reflections from the backwaters

In this blog I hope to reflect for myself and share with you some of what I have experienced and learned in all of these marvelous backwater homes of mine.

“Backwater,” “flyover state,” “middle of nowhere.” These are the words that have been used to describe all of the places that I have called home: South Dakota, NW Indiana, Costa Rica. There is a sense from our larger, capitalist economy and culture that these rural or rural-associated places are somehow “less-than,” or “not developed,” or “backwards.” In this blog I’d like to reflect on those ideas, to interrogate a bit the meaning and extent of the economy and culture that dominates our mainstream global life, and to compare and contrast learning and experiences I have had in these “backwater” places.

Costa Rica was considered a backwater at the time of the Spanish conquest of Latin America – it did not have the large, flat lands so coveted for plantation farming, nor did it have the same large indigenous population that was brutally enslaved in other places to work those plantations. The fact that it avoided early-colonial contentious conflict over resources was one factor in making Costa Rica a long-standing and respected democracy in Latin America, and has contributed to its ability to conserve much of its biodiverse beauty. I lived there for 9 years, and I am now married to a Costa Rican and we have two dual-national, bilingual children.

I spent my life until the age of 18 in South Dakota, a farming and tourism state, often known for Mount Rushmore or Dances with Wolves, or Little House on the Prairie. Often romanticized or belittled for its history and scenery; not often perceived as a place intelligent, powerful or successful people come from (though we do have many of those!), South Dakota is also home to natural beauty and an appreciation for home, family, and tradition.

Northwest Indiana, my home for college and now again our place of residence on my husband’s work assignment from Costa Rica, was the mosquito-infested wetland swamp next to Chicago that was “developed” last (see how I always put the word “developed” in quotes? Find more about that on the page of the same name - check the tabs, above). Today you can find much natural beauty, particularly in its unique dune and wetland topography on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and the “quieter” lifestyle than in the city attracts many families to raise children in “The Region.”

Despite being backwaters, these three places have been the sites of conflict and violence, and are also important homes to key elements of capitalist economy and culture. The coffee and bananas exported from Costa Rica starting at the beginning of the twentieth century were part of an export economy and political phenomenon known as “Banana Republics” that changed all parts of the American continent forever. South Dakota’s near extermination and current isolation of its American Indian tribes is a painful history and reality to this day, and its farming tradition provides a lens into national and global economics and politics. Northwest Indiana drained its Kankakee Marsh, once compared to the majesty of Yellowstone by Theodore Roosevelt, for farmland, and the development of the steel mills and oil refineries on the Lake led to a boom and bust economy and racial tensions that are far from healed.

The globalized financial economy has a home in each of these places, with call centers and free trade zones in Costa Rica, credit card companies and health care conglomerates in South Dakota, and industry and money laundering in NW Indiana. White supremacy exists (abounds?) in each place. Culture wars and political battlefields are evident.

In all of the pain and all of the beauty in these backwaters, I have found homes. I can both love and hate all of these places, as anyone who has truly loved will understand. In this blog I hope to reflect for myself and share with you some of what I have experienced and learned in all of these marvelous backwater homes of mine.

Part of what I would like to do with this blog is to share with you some of the things that I learned – about science, about justice and sustainability, about life – while working at the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) in Costa Rica for nearly eight years. I was the Assistant Director there, and I also taught in the Field Program (doing field research with college students in both the natural and social sciences) and in the Internship Program (accompanying students as they accompanied communities and organizations throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua).

I would also like to share some of the explorations my family and I are doing in NW Indiana, particularly as we navigate our options for family excursions during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Hiking in the Indiana Dunes National Park (formerly National Lakeshore) has given us much to appreciate and ponder about the history and natural splendor of this region, and our outings have reminded me so much of things I had the privilege of seeing and learning about in Costa Rica.

That’s it! Let’s do it!. Thanks for being here.


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1 Comment

Machi Chaves
Machi Chaves
Aug 31, 2020

Can't wait to keep on reading!!! I loved this first entry!!! Congratulations for making such a great decision on writing your reflections despite your very busy schedule... ¡Felicidades y adelante con este valioso proyecto!

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