Juan Santamaria- national hero or Costa Rican myth?
Costa Ricans celebrate their victory over the American filibuster, William Walker on the 11th April. This date commemorates the Battle of Rivas in 1856. Walker had already successfully taken control of Nicaragua in the previous year and planned to enslave the Costa Rican population for use as a labor force. The defeat of American invaders by the Costa Ricans, led by President Mora, was supposedly ensured by the actions of the brave drummer boy, Juan Santamaria. He gave his life to take the torch dropped by his slain comrade and run with it to set alight to the house in which Walker and his army was holed up. Walker and his men were forced to flee and so their ambitions for the country were defeated by a group of Ticos armed mainly with farm tools. This last fact is recalled in the Costa Rican national anthem where it is stated that should another invader reach the frontier, citizens will be prepared to use their farm tools as weapons once again.
Schools all over the country proudly re-enact this scene annually with students armed with wooden guns and the heroic efforts of the drummer boy with his paper-flamed torch. Children march through the streets, accompanied by bands as part of the celebration. For those of you who have been to Costa Rica before, you’ve probably passed Juan Santamaria’s statue as you left the airport that holds his name in Alajuela, his birthplace. But did he exist? The story stands that he was a dark-skinned young man, suggesting that he came from the north of the country, but the Alajuelans are claiming him as their own. It has been claimed that he was poor and illegitimate; evidence has indicated that a pension claim was made by his mother after his death. However, it is unclear when he died and it maybe that this story is simply a part of a more romantic legend than the battle itself actually justifies. Walker’s villain status adds further excitement to the tale. His ventures had official backing by the US President but this didn’t stop him losing his life in Honduras in 1860. Ironically, Costa Rica’s President Mora, famed for leading his countrymen into battle, was executed the same year after an attempted coup d’état.
For those interested in visiting historical sites, ‘La Casona’, the house which was the centre of the skirmish leading to the battle, is preserved in the Santa Rosa National Park in Northern Guanacaste on the Nicaraguan border. The park is also of interest for its fauna and flora and the surfer’s spot, Witch’s Rock. More accessible is the Museo Juan Santamaria in Alajuela, although its educational benefit is questionable!
Whatever the truth behind the legend, it is a reflection of the Ticos’ belief in a classless society, where an illegitimate, poor laborer can be remembered as being the savior of his people!