Voices of Migrants offers lessons on cultural bias in academic investigation. Paul Kutsche attempts to capture the experiences of individuals who migrate from rural areas of Costa Rica to the capital city of San José. He presents a historical and cultural introduction to Costa Rica, recounts 14 life stories, and ends with an analysis of his findings. The focus of the study is clear and relevant, but the results are colored by the author’s methodology and preconceptions.
The first problem is Kutsche’s selection of informants. The author paid his participants for the information they provided, and he rejected only 2 of 16 interviews. The choice of individuals, moreover, seems to have been dictated by convenience. In almost every case, the informants came to the author’s home or office. They included the maids from his home and workplace, a chauffeur from nearby, and a department manager from a local supermarket. When the author did not stumble onto migrants in his neighborhood, their names were supplied by fellow foreigners or he advertised in the English-language Tico Times.
Another issue is the author’s lack of understanding of Costa Rican history and society. His shallow knowledge of Costa Rica is best illustrated in the interview with “El Negro.” Kutsche perpetuates the fallacy that people of African descent were not allowed into the highlands until after 1948. Consequently, he misses subtle points in analyzing El Negro’s contribution. El Negro, “whose facial features were more Latin than Negroid,” had married a “white” woman, chose to be interviewed in Spanish, and denied the existence of racism in Costa Rica except by “Negroes” toward “whites.” While the author recognizes El Negro’s biases, he fails to see his own. El Negro is probably not “black” by Costa Rican standards, and his identity is anything but Afro-Costa Rican.
The most glaring problem with the book is the author’s attitude toward the women he interviewed. Despite a recent study showing that Costa Rican women are more likely to migrate than their male counterparts, Kutsche found it “feasible” to include only four women in his study. Moreover, his choice of pseudonyms for the women and his descriptions of his subjects are revealing. After Kutsche “learned . . . that women were willing to be closeted with men for an hour or two without expecting sexual advances,” he interviewed “Primitiva,” his rustic stereotype; “Magdalena,” the tragic figure; “Victoria,” the happily married woman, and “Tía Bertha . . . a kind of man-woman.” Once again, the author’s sociocultural relationship to his subjects gets in the way of understanding the lives of the migrants.
Voices of Migrants is not a book to be recommended for the study of rural-urban migration in Costa Rica. Although the author is aware of the problems researchers encounter while studying in a foreign environment, he is unable to overcome the obstacles of his own cultural orientation.