Ryan Schuessler
Ryan Schuessler

Costa Rica’s Quakers dodged US draft, now face perils of changing world

After leaving Alabama in 1951, small group of American pacifists maintains community in Central American highlands

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Marvin Rockwell is a man full of stories.

Originally from Fairhope, Alabama, Rockwell, 92, gives presentations about his life almost every day of the week to students, tourists or anyone else who might be interested in Monteverde, a hamlet in the cloud forests of Costa Rica's northwestern highlands. He takes his plastic sandwich bag of photos almost everywhere he goes. He knows the story behind each one.

He is the patriarch of a small diaspora of Americans who, more than six decades ago, left their country when they felt their religious values were in jeopardy. Their impact on this traditionally agricultural region was deep, and they are still a visible part of the community here.

But times are changing in Monteverde. A tourism boom that transformed the economy, changing climate, conservation efforts and modernization continue to mold the community into something many of the earliest Quakers wouldn’t recognize.

Yet the community has witnessed it all alongside their Costa Rican neighbors, and the institutions they created — such as a school — continue to be the some of the pillars in the region. Despite all the shifts and worries over the future, it still seems that you can’t tell the story of Monteverde without also recounting that of the Quakers from Fairhope.

Rockwell went to Monteverde 64 years ago. The year was 1951. He was 28 at the time and had just finished serving one-third of an 18-month prison sentence with three other members of his community. The men had refused to register for the draft. They were Quakers, a religious sect with a strong emphasis on nonviolence and equality that traces its roots to 17th century Protestant dissenters in England.

Taking another human life is against Quakers’ faith, but failing to register for compulsory military service in the United States was against the law.

“We and others in the meeting got to talking about it and thought, ‘Well, we ought to move out of the States,’” Rockwell said. A meeting is a congregation of Quakers. The denomination’s official name is the Religious Society of Friends.

Marvin Rockwell, 92.
Ryan Schuessler

The Quakers of Fairhope began looking for a new place to live. Canada was too cold. Australia and New Zealand were too far. The group started looking at countries in Latin America. One couple went to visit several countries in the region to scout out a new home for the community. They decided on Costa Rica, “which had abolished its own army in 1948,” Rockwell said with a grin.

A mere eight days after his sentence was finished, Rockwell joined 44 Quakers from 11 families in Fairhope as part of an exodus to Costa Rica. Some flew; Rockwell and his family drove, including his 72-year-old father and 65-year-old mother. The journey from Fairhope to San José, Costa Rica’s capital, took three months. It took one month alone to get to the first town across the border from Nicaragua — a distance of 12 miles. It was before the Pan-American Highway was completed. The Quakers from Alabama made roads when they found none.

It is an intricate story that sounds more like fiction. Picking up Spanish as they went, the Quakers slowly made their way south through Latin America. Rockwell recalled one story. Several members of their caravan were swimming in a river after crossing into Costa Rica from Nicaragua. They noticed that some locals were frantically shouting at them in Spanish. That’s when they learned the Spanish word for “shark.”

“Sure enough, we saw a gray fin come out of the water,” Rockwell said, holding his hand up to look like the dorsal fin of a shark. Bull sharks are known to dwell occasionally in the rivers of Costa Rica.

The community settled in a highland agricultural region that came to be known as Monteverde. When they arrived here, the Quakers improved the roads, introduced hydroelectricity and built a bilingual school. The community established the region’s first corporation, a cheese factory that serendipitously used Quaker Oats canisters as molds. Rockwell, who received basic medical training during World War II, saw the region through a hepatitis epidemic. The community created the region’s first forest reserve, around the headwaters of a stream they used for water.

“The Quaker community had a very profound impact on the community because of their philosophy of peace,” said longtime resident Patricia Jiminez Castillo.

The Quakers intermarried with the locals. Rockwell and his wife had three children and adopted two more.

‘We and others in the meeting got to talking about it and thought, ‘Well, we ought to move out of the States.’’

Marvin Rockwell

92-year-old Quaker in Monteverde

“It is a different situation to be in,” said Benito Guindon, a Quaker whose newlywed parents were part of the first group to arrive from Alabama. “I definitely inherited ways of thinking and living from my parents, who came from the United States.”

Guindon, who sported a bushy white beard and red beret, was born in Monteverde in 1958. He doesn't identify as an American, even though he has U.S. citizenship and a passport. “At the times I lived in the United States, I felt like a foreigner,” he said. “Here, I feel right at home.”

Many of the Quakers in Monteverde have returned to the United States for short periods at various times, but most return, and the community has continued to grow. Quakers from the United States have come and gone over the years, and today the meeting has approximately 90 members, Rockwell said. More than 100 students are enrolled in the bilingual school, mostly non-Quaker children.

“The last couple years, there’s been at least two families that moved from the United States to Monteverde to send their kids to our school,” Rockwell said.

The Smiths are one of those families. In 2004, Ran Smith and Nicolette Smith moved to Monteverde from Austin, Texas, with their 3-year-old daughter.

“The motivation was just to have the opportunity to move abroad and try a different lifestyle,” Nicolette Smith said. Her daughter and son, who was born in Monteverde, both attend the Quaker school.

But unlike most people who have moved to Monteverde, Ran Smith and Nicolette Smith became Quakers only recently, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. In their 40s, they are two of the youngest adults in the meeting.

Of the approximately 90 members of the Monteverde meeting, only about 17 are “able-bodied” and active, Nicolette Smith said. Their religion is one that does not proselytize, so new members join only on their own initiative, and there haven’t been many in recent years.

“If we continue to [get] new members at the rate that we have, we’ll have to have more children,” she said.

“If [more people don’t join], it’ll die,” Ran Smith said. “We have more attendees than members, and that goes for a lot of meetings. It’s systemic in the society as a whole.”

Rockwell’s photos document the Quaker community of Monteverde through the decades.
Ryan Schuessler

According to the Earlham School of Religion, there are approximately 360,000 Quakers worldwide, about 86,000 of whom live in the United States. American men still must register for the draft when they turn 18. It is against the law for women to register, even voluntarily. Failing to register is punishable with up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000, though nobody has been charged since 1987.

Rockwell is the oldest of the six original migrants from Fairhope who are still still alive. He has witnessed decades of change that have transformed this region. The cheese factory the community set up once produced 350 pounds of cheese per week; today it produces 8,000 pounds in one day. And the plant was bought by a Mexican corporation two years ago. When the community arrived in Monteverde in 1950, there were just 500 Costa Ricans in the region. Today there are approximately 7,000 people there. It has become world renowned for its biodiversity and eco- and adventure tourism.

Those are the biggest changes the Quakers have seen in this region: the number of outsiders pouring in and the shift from an agriculture-based economy to one based on tourism. The number of tourists in the 1970s and 1980s was barely a couple of thousand annually, according to the Monteverde Institute. Last year there were nearly 200,000.

“That certainly was not contemplated when they first moved here,” Guindon said of his parents and the others from Fairhope.

The American Quaker and Costa Rican Roman Catholic cultures “have certainly become integrated,” he added. The two communities are in the process of collaborating on fundraisers to build a new Catholic church as well as a new Quaker meeting house. The communities collaborate to combat the presence of drugs and petty crime that arrived with the influx of tourists.

Guindon said that local Costa Ricans mistake him for a tourist, or gringo, more often than not these days, given the sheer number passing through the region’s forests each year.

Regardless of these changes, Rockwell said, “I expect us to be around for many years after I’m gone.”

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