Community, Region, Santa Cruz, Lifestyle, Economy

Teodoro Rodríguez, the displaced heir of Tamarindo Beach

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Translator: Jana Saldana

“When I opened my eyes, the farm was already there,” says Mr. Teodoro Rodríguez, a charming phrase that could easily become a famous short story.

Teodoro talks about when he was born, 85 years ago in Refundores, a community near Villarreal in Santa Cruz. The farm he refers to is the one owned by Timoteo Rodríguez, his ‘dad,’ which was practically a third of the center of Tamarindo, he estimates.

That land was part of a much larger estate that Teodoro ‘s grandfather had inherited, which was passed down to Timoteo and his two brothers, Pedro and Victoriano. It extended from the Tamarindo estuary to the San Francisco estuary, beyond the current center of Tamarindo.

In that estate where only his father’s and uncle Pedro’s houses existed, they grew corn, beans, and raised cattle. When Teodoro wasn’t working, he played and fished with his cousins and siblings on a completely untouched Tamarindo Beach. Only other relatives visited during holidays, arriving by carts, horses, or on foot—no congested roads or charter flight airports back then.

The history of the Tamarindo we know today began to be written when Mr. Timoteo decided to sell the estate to foreigners. This set a precedent for it becoming a destination for mass sun and beach tourism, synonymous with real estate development, and an epicenter of electronic music.

Never did they think it would develop as it did. They believed it would always be with cattle, with cows, with oxen, and with horses,” confesses Teodoro, recalling family conversations.

He and his family now live at the crossroads of Villarreal, in a small house made of cement and wood in front of the street.

They prefer not to visit the Tamarindo that was once theirs anymore.

“They wouldn’t have sold so cheaply”

Teodoro’s soft and measured tone is interrupted by the endless cacophony of street noises: a truck with the phrase “Excavaciones Alber,” followed by tankers, motorcycles, and cars entering and leaving Tamarindo non-stop.

Although the hustle and bustle often interrupts him, in moments of relative silence, he can unfold his memory, which is generous and readily delivers memories of distant events.

“There was never a damn person interested in buying; it was those Italians who came to conquer my grandfather into selling. They wouldn’t have sold it so cheaply. They sold it for next to nothing,” says Teodoro with some indignation.

With the money from the sale, Mr. Timoteo bought land in El Llano de Portegolpe, where the cattle didn’t last even eight days because they were stolen, says Teodoro. He also bought another piece of land in Pinilla that nobody wanted to go and take care of or work on because it was too far away.

a man in a pink shirt

“Some people don’t believe that I lived there,” says Mr. Teodoro Rodríguez, referring to the estate his father had in Tamarindo Beach.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

With the pass of time Mr. Timoteo decided to sell those lots as well. 

“My grandfather, ultimately, nobody knew what he did with that money when he sold the rest. He had it saved or in the bank, I don’t know where he had it but it ran out,” explains Teodoro, who also doesn’t know how much he sold them for, nor the exact size of the farms.

Teodoro worked in the fields, then became a tailor, and later became a policeman until he retired.

Although one might think that selling a property in tourist spots like Tamarindo and Pinilla would make Timoteo and his family millionaires, the story didn’t turn out that way.

When Timoteo sold his land, he couldn’t have imagined that gradually stories like his would become so common that they would turn into a social phenomenon with its own name: gentrification. In short, it involves the displacement of original communities by others who arrive with more resources.

This doesn’t just happen in Costa Rica. It also occurs in other tourist destinations like Mexico City or the Canary Islands, where people have already taken to the streets en masse to protest against gentrification.

The sociologist from the University of Costa Rica, Wendy Molina, who has studied the phenomenon, explains that when original residents of a community are displaced due to gentrification, it creates an income gap.

“It’s that great overestimated profit that the developer makes compared to the profit the local family selling the land receives. The land is never paid for its full increase in value by the buyers. In contexts with advanced gentrification, that income gap becomes enormous because it plays on speculation,” asserts Wendy.

It’s also not surprising that Timoteo used the money from the sale of Tamarindo to buy other lands and continue working them in the same way. After all, it was all he knew how to do.

The sociologist adds that many farmers like Timoteo do not have another economic activity or formal education that would help them insert themselves into other types of work.

“The investment to put a farm to work is very large, so imagine, buying all the machinery is a million-dollar investment. Maybe what they were paid doesn’t cover that. So, they surely use that money for subsistence until it runs out,” she points out.

Tamarindo Beach belongs to Santa Cruz, the canton in the province with the highest number of square meters processed by the CFIA in 2023.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

A new exodus 

A lizard collapses on the roof falling from the huge mango tree in the yard and scurries away, scratching the zinc of the house.

In the dimly lit living room, there are dozens of old photos slowly losing the battle against time, with some faces yellowed and no longer distinguishable in the faded images. Many of them feature Mr. Timoteo and his wife, Mrs. Severa.

Outside, the house is surrounded by commerce. Across the street, there’s a Pollolandia, next to it Choripanes Messi 10, and a bit further down, Sabor Pinolero, a Nicaraguan food restaurant.

And inside, Teodoro utters a phrase. “My mouth gets me muddled,” apologizing for not being able to express himself more clearly due to his Parkinson’s.

I’m one of those who doesn’t like to sell. You have money, but money runs out, especially if you become a bit of a spendthrift, throwing money away drinking ‘guaro’ (alcohol),” Teodoro jokes.

Although she doesn’t like the idea, it’s likely that at some point they will also have to leave here. At least that’s what Teodoro’s daughter Zalyris says resignedly, listening to her father’s story from the other side of the garage.

Until now this house and its photographs have withstood the onslaught of development along the Santa Cruz coast, but it has become unmanageable.

“The municipality issues permits around the clock in the area left and right just to get money from taxes. But they don’t think about the local people. All the natives of Tamarindo no longer exist. They dissolved,” says Zalyris, who has a wide smile that disappears when she remembers how development has put them on the ropes.

For this reason, for sociologist Wendy Molina, the famous phrase “if the gringo buys, it’s because the Costa Rican sells” simplifies a much more complex issue. Often, local people are displaced even when they don’t desire it.

Population displacement occurs both directly and indirectly, asserts the sociologist. Direct displacement happens when developers pressure or offer to buy properties from families, claiming they have little value left.

“But there’s also an indirect expulsion: the entire standard of living in my area is out of my reach. I end up leaving, and maybe they didn’t even make me a good offer. So, I gain nothing, I lose services, lose infrastructure, lose transportation, and I lose quality of life by moving to an area where conditions are much worse,” says Molina.

The disorder in planning that Zalyris complains about, which has them on the verge of moving again, is partly due to the lack of regulatory plans in the province. Out of the eleven cantons, only five have regulatory plans in place.

“With a regulatory plan, you can plan the development of the territory, stating where growth should occur, where it shouldn’t, what should be protected, what can be urbanized, and this already puts a significant brake on speculation,” believes the sociologist. However, she doesn’t see any indication of this being restrained by the authorities.

“There’s so much demand in the area that it won’t stop. Everyone wants to invest there, everyone wants to have their hotel, restaurant, bar, as long as there’s land available. It won’t stop until it’s saturated, until there’s not a square meter left to buy,” she opines.

Tamarindo Beach belongs to Santa Cruz, the canton in the province with the highest number of square meters processed by the CFIA in 2023.Photo: César Arroyo Castro

Indeed, she’s correct. Guanacaste was the province with the highest construction intent last year, according to building permits processed by the College of Engineers and Architects (Spanish acronym: CFIA). The construction intent in Santa Cruz was 947,558 square meters, equivalent to the amount of meters processed in 40 cantons nationwide.

Zalyris is very clear about that. That’s why she knows that even if they move from this place, there’s no guarantee that tourist, commercial, and real estate pressure won’t catch up with them again in the future.

“At least I’ve said, if what I get from selling here is enough, I’ll buy a little plot in La Garita. Until then, who knows, maybe Tamarindo Diriá will put a golf course there,” she says with a laugh tinged with what appears to be resignation.