Student talks meeting distant relatives for the first time during spring break


Waterford senior Autumn Gairaud poses in the Office of LGBTQ Services on Oct. 23 in the Bovee University Center.

Spring break for many looks like long beach days, exotic locations and a tourist mindset. Waterford senior Autumn Gairaud traveled to Costa Rica last spring break to enjoy the sights, but her trip had a deeper significance: it was the first time she met relatives that she only ever about in stories. 

Meeting family for the first time was overwhelming, but she quickly felt at home in the country where her grandmother once lived. 

Central Michigan Life spoke with Gairaud about her experiences during the trip and what it taught her about her family and her heritage.

Was that your first time visiting Costa Rica?

Yeah, it was.

So, you have family there — where is your grandma now?

My grandma is here (in the United States). She goes back and visits a lot, but I know for her it’s hard, because in the past 10 years Costa Rica has become more of a tourist place, so it’s changed a lot. A lot of people, specifically from the U.S., live there now, so I know that’s an interesting thing for her because she still really loves it but it’s hard to see somewhere like that change so much.

Why is it difficult for her?

When more people move there like that, it makes it a lot harder in those areas for the people who have always lived there to afford to live there, because it just changes the dynamic completely.

What kind of family do you have there?

I have a great grandpa, cousins and aunts, but it’s hard because I’ve never met them before. It’s kind of interesting. We’re family, but we’ve never met before.

What was that like?

Kind of overwhelming. I mean I have some aunts and uncles that live here that I’ve met, so I’ve heard stories about people there, but I’ve never met them. But it’s cool to talk to them. They are very much believe if you’re family, you’re welcome, which is cool but also kind of overwhelming.

They made you feel like family?

Yeah, which was different for me, compared to my mom. They’re from my dad’s side of the family and my mom and dad separated a long time ago and my mom’s very white. So, it’s a little different from her.

When you were there did you stay with your family?

They live in the capital (San Jose), which is one of the busier places. But we didn’t really stay with them, we stayed near them, so I got to just meet them. It was interesting because it’s so different from (the U.S.). The city is so different from the more rural areas. The lifestyle is completely different. 

Did you learn anything about the culture there?

The biggest cultural thing I noticed was the people native to Costa Rica are very patient with the people who don’t speak a lot of Spanish or who are trying to learn. They are very patient and want to help you learn, which I think is really different from here. 

(In the U.S.), when people don’t know English, or it’s their second language, we get really frustrated and don’t really want to help. We just want to move on and there they would constantly ask "oh, do you want to try in Spanish?" and that was really cool.

Do you know Spanish?

I started (at Central Michigan University) as a Spanish major, so I know quite a bit of Spanish, but it’s a lot different having to speak it there. 

Once, we called a cab and (the driver) didn’t know any English. My parents only really know English, so I had to give him directions back to where we were staying, which was scary, but also really cool, because I got him back to our apartment.

Were there any other experiences like that one that stuck out to you?

We did a lot. We spent a lot of time at the beach, but we also went zip-lining through the rainforest, which was cool. But I think the biggest thing was this surreal feeling of this is where I’m from, even if I’ve never had a direct connection to it. It very much felt like home in a lot of ways, especially because I can talk to family and stuff, even for a short time, which was cool.

Do you want to go back?

I would love to go back and spend more time because I only got to go for a week and a couple days. But I would love to go back and get to actually spend time not in the super touristy areas and just see what it’s like to live there day to day. That’d be awesome.