While the United States marks 234 years of independence this July 4, a U.S. tradition in Costa Rica will be celebrating a milestone of its own.
On Sunday, July 4, the American Colony Committee will host its 50th U.S. Independence Day picnic in Costa Rica. The big event is set to take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Cervecería Costa Rica grounds in Alajuela, northwest of San José. The typical fare of hot dogs and popcorn, carnival games and beer will be available along with traditions such as the flag-raising ceremony and parade. In addition, plans are under way to honor this year’s milestone.
American Colony Committee President Susan Tessem says the magnitude of this year’s picnic is something those involved can sense.
“I think everybody feels that way: ‘My God, 50 years, that’s a long time,’” Tessem says. In her home in the western San José suburb of Escazú, Tessem points to a black-and white photo showing the first ever American Colony Committee picnic. Children step in tune with a brass marching band.
Tessem plans to put together a brass quintet at this year’s children’s parade, one of several events that will hark back to the picnic’s early days.
“There are a lot of kids who are American here who never come home for the Fourth of July,” Tessem said. “So this is their only chance to do that. People can come from all over the country and see their old friends. And everybody can get together and have a good time.”
Another event returning to the picnic after almost two decades will be the horseshoe toss; the winner receives a bottle of scotch. A batting cage and a carousel will also be part of the celebration.
One sight that didn’t exist during the first American Colony Committee picnics are the large crowds. The committee is expecting 4,000 guests at this year’s event.
Richard Johnson, the oldest living member of the committee, recalls that the inaugural picnic back in the 1950s had about 40 to 50 people, and was the type of get-together where everybody knew everybody.
“Now there are so many people that I sometimes have to introduce myself because I don’t know someone,” said Johnson, 87. “That’s good, though. It’s nice to have a good crowd.”
Those first, small picnics were hosted by the U.S. Embassy at the ambassador’s residence in Escazú, with Uncle Sam picking up the tab. But during the late 1950s, the U.S. community here was growing so fast, and the Independence Day Picnic had become so popular, that embassy personnel could no longer handle the affair. It was then that the late Jack Fendell headed up a small group of old-timers to form the American Colony Committee, which came to the rescue of what by that time had become a favorite local tradition. The committee has been operating the annual bash ever since (TT, July 3, 2009).
Johnson said this 50th anniversary highlights the original committee members’ mission.
“They wanted this to be an American group,” he said. “Whether or not you might’ve lived here all your life and haven’t been much in the States, you still could be an American.”
Nowadays, Florida Bebidas, the national beer and beverage giant formerly known as Cervecería Costa Rica, hosts the annual event at its wide-open picnic grounds in Alajuela.
The area includes a beer garden, where visitors can find their favorite frosty Florida Bebidas beverages.
In the past, the Cervecería could not host the picnic on weekends; it was too costly for Florida Bebidas to close down the fairgrounds for setup Saturday and for the event Sunday, Tessem said. But Florida Bebidas made an exception this year for the 50th anniversary, a gift for which Tessem is extremely grateful.
Although only U.S. citizens and their immediate family are permitted to attend the event, 30 Costa Rican families from Florida Bebidas are invited to this year’s picnic.
A couple of other Tico-related organizations will be on hand. A concert band from the University of Costa Rica will play the U.S. and Costa Rican national anthems, and the English Access Microscholarship Program, started by the U.S. Embassy and designed to teach English to disadvantaged Costa Rican public school students, will be inviting children from the program. The U.S. State Department helps fund the program and coordinates it with the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center.
Karl Schmack, executive director of the cultural center, says, “One of the reasons we’re inviting them is, what’s more American than the Fourth of July?” Part of the program involves teaching students about U.S. culture, and the picnic presents an exciting opportunity for that, Schmack says.
The Costa Rican-American Chamber of Commerce, known as AMCHAM, will be the spotlighted organization at the 50th anniversary. Johnson was a founder of that group three decades ago.
Johnson will be on hand for this year’s picnic as well. With the passage of time, much has changed with the picnic he helped prosper. He’s watched it evolve and reach new people. Although Johnson has called Costa Rica home for six decades, he has carried on the tradition of showing others that his country of birth has much to be proud of.
“My wife has two sons that live here in Costa Rica from her first marriage,” Johnson said. “They have children that are now grown up pretty much. Every year we’ve taken those children with us to the Fourth of July celebration, and of course the children, they really have a great time. All the games and everything, the ice cream. It’s really great.”
The American Colony Committee’s 50th U.S. Independence Day picnic will take place Sunday, July 4, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (flag-raising at 10 a.m.), at the Cervecería Costa Rica grounds on the highway to the airport, west of San José. Large signs point the way and will show guests how to reach the parking area, from where shuttle buses transport picnic-goers to the grounds. Admission costs $5 or ¢2,500 per person; kids 5 and under enter free. For information, contact the American Colony Committee at 2288-4850 or visit www.americancolonycr.org.