Celebrating Dover Rica

The Match: Netherlands v. Costa Rica

The Date: Saturday, July 5

The Venue: Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover, New Jersey

photo (56)
The unassuming exterior of Pancho Villa Rodeo restaurant belies the neon blue track lighting, disco ball and Costa Rican viewing party inside.

Dover, New Jersey provides a simple litmus test for uncovering someone’s prejudices in and around Morris County. People in the area will likely have one of two notions about the town.

Dover, it seems, is either A) a rich international community just a train ride away from New York City.

Or B) “Dover-Rico,” a town flooded with Hispanic immigrants.

Dover is a small town of about 20,000 people known for its large Hispanic population (about 70%). It’s the last stop on the NJ Transit Morris-Essex Line from New York’s Penn Station so it provides access to all points West. As you drive toward Dover, you plunge down hills into the downtown valley, a grid of walkable streets packed with eateries, shops and other businesses that cater to Latin Americans. Blackwell Street, the main drag, is lined with Colombian, Mexican, Honduran and other Central American spots, but that doesn’t matter to people who get uncomfortable when they hear brown men speaking Spanish. To casual racists, it’s B) “Dover-Rico.” That’s what people called it when I was growing up.

This broad labeling of diverse individuals is quite common. All Asians are Chinese or, in the past, Chinamen. Africans are Nigerians. Latin Americans are Mexicans, especially, it seems, if they’re doing manual labor. So the international flavor of Dover is reduced to Dover-Rico.¹

Choose A, however, and you open up a new, exciting world.

While researching Costa Rican spots to watch the Ticos’ match against the Netherlands, I learned that of the 25 towns where Costa Ricans make up the highest percentage of the population in the US, 19 are in New Jersey. It’s the best state to celebrate the Ticos’ unlikely run to the World Cup quarterfinals. I Googled Costa Rican restaurants and found a few right there in Dover.

On Saturday, my girlfriend Katie, my brother Mike, our friend Alex and I headed to a Costa Rican pizza place for the match. When we arrived, we discovered that the restaurant had changed ownership and was now Uruguayan. Also, it was closed.

Have no fear! I located another Costa Rican spot on Blackwell Street, about a half-mile away. The restaurant was decked out in the flags of every World Cup nation. A sign advertised authentic Costa Rican cuisine! There was a large, red, white and blue Costa Rican flag hanging on the wall! Unfortunately, the restaurant was dark, the door was locked and a handwritten note explained that the restaurant was closed until July 13.

I peer into a dark, empty Costa Rican restaurant. A letter on the door explained that the restaurant is closed until July 13.
I peer into a dark, empty Costa Rican restaurant. A letter on the door explained that the restaurant is closed until July 13.

We walked back to the car, resigned to stop at a Honduran restaurant, when I spotted a Costa Rican flag waving from an SUV across from Pancho Villa Rodeo Sports Bar and Family Restaurant. We approached the quiet, unassuming restaurant and discovered five guys in Costa Rican jerseys smoking cigarettes by their cars. We passed the friendly bouncer and walked up steps into a dark club illuminated by blue neon track lighting and a disco ball adorned with white sashes that stretched to the walls. A horde of Costa Rican fans sat in booths beneath the disco ball and around the perimeter of the party hall.

Two projector screens flanked a stage in the back of the room. A large projector screen hung over the stage and the Univision broadcast blared around the club.

It was half time so people moved back and forth to order buckets of beer from the bar, to chat with other fans and to smoke outside. A group of women in Costa Rican jerseys, tight jeans and chunky heels visited three men lounging in a booth. A guy in a Bryan Ruiz jersey draped a Costa Rican flag over the back of his seat. People eyed us as we stood sipping Coronas in the middle of the room.

Finally, a man named Marcos approached us. “Are you from Amsterdam?” he asked.

“No. Hoy somos Ticos!” I insisted. Marcos seemed skeptical so I continued speaking in Spanish and declaring our allegiance to Costa Rica. I think he was disappointed because he later confided that he was from Honduras and had bet money against Costa Rica. “Shhhh,” he cautioned. Marcos must have been looking for a kindred spirit because he couldn’t come clean to anybody else in the room full of Costa Rica supporters.

Just before the second half started, Adam, a squat young guy in a Costa Rica shirt, hopped out of a booth to introduce himself.

“You guys better run after the game!” he warned. I repeated that we were rooting for Costa Rica. This time, I basically yelled so more people could hear it. We have to support our fellow CONCACAF teams, I explained. I wish there was some sort of Ticos handshake I could have performed to prove my support.

A guy named Harrison in a red Costa Rica jersey pulled out a table and chairs for us and recommended we order buckets of beer. A waitress came by and brought us a bucket of Coronas and menus. The dim lighting prevented us from deciphering the blue-text on blue-field Spanish menu. It was like trying to read the newspaper in a movie theater. Alex spotted a plate of brown goodies and told the waitress to bring us the same. What looked like a tray of brownies turned out to be a plate of squishy meat, comida tipica colombiana.

The blue light sort-of illuminated our plate of fatty ribs, slippery plantains and viscous blood sausage, but I couldn’t really tell what I was eating until I choked on a hunk of fat. Why is this meat so squishy? I wondered. Oh, it’s a plantain. Thank God.

From our perch above the booths, I spotted a few Ruiz jerseys along with some strange names like Pame and Andrey.  One guy waved a Costa Rican flag intermittently. The crowd cursed the referee and shouted for a penalty kick after an alleged foul on Joel Campbell in the 60′.  With all five senses activated, I experienced the excitement mixed with a little nervousness I get when I’m in a unique, unfamiliar setting. I usually only feel it when I’m in a foreign country. Never when I’m a few miles from my hometown. During this match, we celebrated Dover Rica. But also Doverexico, Doverlombia, Doverduras and all the international cultures that make up a neat town.

My brother Mike (right) and our friend Alex inside the Costa Rican party at Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover
My brother Mike (right) and our friend Alex inside the Costa Rican party at Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover

The crowd (except Marcos) cheered when Costa Rica weathered the Dutch assault and earned a penalty kick shootout. I shook hands with the nervous men sitting in the booths around us. God, I hoped the Ticos would win. What could be better than stumbling upon a large gathering of Costa Rican fans the day their team took down the mighty Netherlands and advanced to the World Cup semifinals.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The Netherlands defeated Costa Rica 4-3 on PKs due to a few subpar shots and substitute keeper Tim Krul’s prescient dives. No one moved for a few moments after Krul saved Michael Umaña’s attempt. It was a discouraging finish to the Ticos’ remarkable run.

Eventually, the loss seemed to sink in and the crowd applauded Costa Rica’s incredible performance at the 2014 World Cup. Although the Ticos didn’t advance to the semifinals, they still won respect and support from around the world.

In fact, we were all winners. Especially Marcos. As we left Pancho Villa, I stopped by the bar and congratulated him.

Blue Light Special. The scene inside Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover during Costa Rica's match with the Netherlands.
Blue Light Special. The scene inside Pancho Villa Rodeo in Dover during Costa Rica’s match with the Netherlands.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 9.5/10 for a special, authentic, very unlikely experience at a Costa Rican viewing party. Would have been a solid 10 had Costa Rica won. 

¹As demographics in my hometown of Hackettstown shift and more Hispanic-owned businesses thrive on Main Street, casual racists disparage Hackettstown for becoming another “Dover-Rico.” As if it’s somehow bad to have diverse businesses thriving in your town’s downtown district. Those Hispanic-owned business thrived when the Recession shut down the rest of Main Street.

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