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(in)security complex (Christianity as prison break)

(in)security complex

The neighborhoods of San Joaquín de Flores are criss-crossed with simple streets lined with little tico houses.

But these neighborhoods with simple streets lined with little tico houses are different from what you’ll find in the United States.

For instance, if you wanted to mail me a letter, this is my actual address:

from the store called “Eden”, go 50 meters south, 25 meters east, 25 meters north
San Joaquín de Flores, Flores, Heredia, 40801

(don’t even get me started on that…they are just going south, east, then back north.  Isn’t it unnecessary to say south 50, then north 25 when they could just say south 25?)

Yes, things are a bit different than you’re likely to find in the United States.

Most of the students in my program come from some variation of idyllic suburbia, and most of us were very surprised by the amount of suh-curity in this country.

lock and key

Barbed wire, heavy gates, metal spikes, iron bars, electric fences, guard dogs, handguns, locks and steel and chains and bolts and keys down every street.  I don’t know any of my neighbors.  We trust no one.

Last week, one of my friends got robbed at machete-point on his way home from walking a friend home.  This happened in the middle of the street at like 8 pm.  Stuff like this is scary, but it’s rare enough that doesn’t worry me too much.  But isolated incidents of crime like this have led to this really toxic cultural idea that everybody is a danger, that our neighbors are not our friends, that we are safe only under lock and key.

Each and every house on the block – from the humblest to the most grandiose – is walled in by layers of concrete, cinderblock, or ironclad gates (often a combination of the three!).

I myself carry 3 keys: one for our front gate (though “gate” hardly does the monstrosity justice) which walls off the entire property, one for the iron door which connects to a fence which blocks off the rest of the house, and one for a deadbolt lock which secures the front door.

We spent a couple of hours analyzing this trend in class today, and our professor explained the phenomenon further:

It’s not always actual danger, but fear, she said, that drives Costa Rica’s extensive, perennially ramped-up security craze.

It’s not always actual danger, but fear that tells families they cannot leave their homes after the sun sets, fear that fuels the relatively high gun ownership rate here, fear that drives local churches to board up their beautiful stained-glass windows every night.


My abuela always gets on me for slamming the front gate when I leave in the morning (me vas a dejar sin portón!) saying that she has three times previously busted the lock on the outermost gate, leaving her, her daughter, her son-in-law, and her infant grandson trapped in the home for hours and hours.

My host hermanito and I were playing prisión last night, pretending we were criminals in the middle of a jailbreak.  So we put on bandanas and ran around the house to try and get outside, first to the front gate (locked), then to the back door (blocked off by rubble), then the side of the house (sealed by concrete), and finally back to the front side door (welded shut) until we realized we couldn’t really play anymore.

We listened to an interview today in class from this one documentary where a couple of policemen were telling a story about a rich couple who had been locked inside of their home (behind 3 gates and 2 fences and 1 crop of barbed wire).  What happened was that one night, a fire broke out in the kitchen and they both ended up dying horrifically, unable to get all of their locks open in time.

The kicker is that they didn’t even live in a terribly dangerous neighborhood – they just wanted the extra security.

Families here feel unsafe and so they construct these walls around themselves but nobody seems to realize that they’re actually building their own prisons.

más verjas

Even the front door of our quiet Instituto, though it’s glossed over with gorgeous botánica, boasts iron gates which we must get security-buzzed into every time we enter the premises.

I don’t mean to undermine the rate of crime here, and I could be in the wrong on this, but this amount of security doesn’t seem wholly necessary.  We actually live in a relatively safe neighborhood.  But the way things are ramped up, you’d think that each night, a race of super-strong vampires comes out that can only be stopped by like three layers of barbed wire.

There’s this popular myth (not the vampire one) that a lot of people – myself included – have bought into that says everything outside of what I know is dangerous, frivolous, and decidedly different in such a way that that thing must be rejected.  It’s a blasphemously self-centered claim to truth, a hostility driven by mistrust and fear, most directly correlated with xenophobia (though its roots can spill out into nationalism, sexism. homophobia, and racism – or jingoism, whatever).

It’s the idea that my home and my family are safe and sheltered but the rest of the world is a scary, evil place.

It’s such an incomplete picture.  Because bad things happen in the home just as much as they do outside of it.

Domestic violence is huge here.  Drug addiction, corporal punishment, and familial sexual abuse are just about as much at home here as they are in the states.

Anyone who comes from a broken family can you that the thing about families and homes is that they can be just as scary and as evil as the worst favela, penitentiary, and ghetto – that the evil on the inside can easily exceed the evil on the outside.

these city walls

The point is, we put up these walls around ourselves and what’s ours to keep our families safe from the outsiders and the rest of the world but it turns out – in the end – all we’ve accomplished is having locked the monsters inside the gates with us.  All we’ve done is shut ourselves off from help from the outside.

All we’ve done is cut ourselves off from our neighbors.

And if you’ve ever known a halfway-decent Christian, you know that Jesus talked a lot about what he called loving thy neighbor.

I don’t have the market cornered on what that means, but I’ve got this sinking feeling it has something to do with not building up fences around ourselves, but instead tearing them down.  I think Jesus was talking about liberation, about not walling ourselves off from the experience of the other, but encountering the stranger, embracing them, breaking out of our prisons together.

There’s that line from the Eagles’ Hotel California:

“we are all just prisoners here, of our own device”

Maybe that’s how it is for all of us: that we’re as trapped, as unsafe, as walled-off as we choose to be.

That true freedom starts with a jailbreak.

A step from safety and shelter into the unknown, a journey from light into darknesss.

In forsaking the familiar for the stranger, perhaps we can finally encounter our neighbor as ourself.


photos in this post were graciously provided by fellow students (and photographers!) Ashley Berg Grabb and Sara Haines.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. My mama tica knows quite a few of her neighbors, and it’s nice. I haven’t done the research about why people in the United States don’t reach out to their neighbors.
    I subscribe to “Yes! Magazine”, a very positive and progressive magazine and one idea that was promoted was putting a picnic table in your front yard along with some sort of juice or fruit and trying to meet your neighbors. I thought it was pretty cool. I live in an apartment now and probably will for some time but when I move to my next place, I plan on introducing myself to a few neighbors or maybe putting a sign on my door describing myself to my neighbors.

    ANYWAY, I am interested in the cost of these gates. I know some neighborhoods in the United States that have bars on the windows. One friend told me you know a neighborhood is “dangerous” if you see bars on the windows.
    I think if more of us interacted with our neighbors and began to care about our fellow neighbors, we could see crime go down.
    Silver lining: violent crime in the U.S. is down. =)

    May 29, 2013
    • @ the Yes! Magazine update whoa that’s actually a really cool idea…I can totally see you doing that. I hope that one day I can do that with my family too, except maybe we’ll rent a moon bounce as well for the neighbors and their kids to come by (because who doesn’t love a moon bounce!?)

      I feel like – and I think you’d agree with me here – *hypothetically* if all of these families (or GASP, the government!) took the extra money they’d otherwise spend on other security concerns and invest it in infrastructure and community development…well, point is, some day we wouldn’t need all of these fences.

      PS – Did you know silver lining’s just another way to say “bright side” 🙂 I knew you were an optimist.

      May 29, 2013
  2. You are such a great writer Ryan. Interesting thoughts. PS, can I actually send you mail with that address. Cuz I will!

    May 29, 2013
    • aw shucks, thanks ash. well, I’m only going to be here for a little over a week, so I don’t think it’d get to me in time. I really appreciate the thought though 🙂

      June 1, 2013
  3. bryant kuramitsu #

    Wonderfully written again as usual…..and lol…I too will send a letter to that address…

    May 30, 2013
    • if you think it’ll come in time, for sure. but the mail system here is so (and I know this isn’t the right word, but) gelatinous that I don’t have much confidence it would get to me 😛

      June 1, 2013
  4. Adriana #

    Hola Ryan, leí un poco su artículo, creo que como es largo podemos hacer lo siguiente:tradúzcalo usted al español con su traductor favorito y a apartir de ahí lo reviso. ¿Está bien?

    June 2, 2013

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