Hidden Faces of
Costa Rica



Gaëlle Sévenier



Costa Rica - Land of rain forests, of amazing wild life, and symbol of success in the third world. Behind the mask of a perfect honey moon destination, hides an entire community of indigenous people, ignored by the rest of the population. More than 63,000 Indians lack representation and suffer from discrimination in the land inhabited by their ancestors long before the Spaniards arrived.

When Christopher Columbus, during his fourth and last trip in 1502, landed on what is called today the islands of Uvita, on the Caribbean coast of Central America, more than 250,000 lived on this territory, which will become later Costa Rica, country most developed in Central America.

In this land rich of forest, volcanoes and white sand beaches, still live eight different ethnic groups, on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific. The government implemented 24 reserves, with communities very different from each other, culturally and linguistically. The indigenous people of Costa Rica are the descendants of the Mayans and the Indians from the Amazonian forests. In the reserves, Indians live as they have for centuries, in isolated little groups, hunting and working on their land, making handicrafts using gold, clay or jade. In 2000, National polls identified for the first time the count of 63.876 indigenous people living in Costa Rica, 1,7% of the country's population.

Due to their isolation in the Costa Rican jungle, quite hard to penetrate, most indigenous have kept their authenticity. In the region of Talamanca, on the caraebean coast next to the Panama border, some Bribri and Cabecars tribes still live far away from civilization, in the deep forest.

The indigenous Bribri tribes generally occupy the lower territories of the cordillera of Talamanca, on the Caribbean coast, whereas the Cabecars tribes prefer the isolated places of the mountains. Many researchers have considered the Bribri and the Cabecars to belong to the same ethnic group. The Cabecars, however, isolated in the jungle, are less influenced by progress than their Bribri allies, and maintain a complicated clan system.

These two tribes have the particularity to be among the rare indigenous in Central America to have kept intact their religious myths, transmitted from one generation to another through the elders' tales. The cultural and social changes which turned Costa Rica into the richest country of Central America didn't influence at all their belief in their supreme God and creator of the universe, Sibo.

Their Universe is located in Sibo's house. The roof is pierced by millions of little holes, through which the light goes and forms constellations. The traditional houses of the indigenous people of Talamanca are built on the image of Sibo's house, round and high. When dawn comes, the sun falls off the earth to turn around and come behind the roof, giving light to the stars. This mystical vision, elaborated long before Copernicus, is one of the rare evocating a system of planetary rotation.

The Diablito de Boruca's community (the Boruca's little devils) live further down south, on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. Those Indians are famous for their ancestral work on gold, which we can see in the Gold Museum of San Jose, Costa Rica's capital.

Today, Borucas are particularly known for their "Little Devil's game", a huge celebration that they organize every year from December 30th to January 1st. The men of the tribe build during the year wooden masks, on which are curved and painted indigenous faces including symbolic representations of nature on the front head. Women take care of the costumes and look for natural ingredients used for the paint. During the "Little devil's game", men wear their masks, and during three days and nights mime a death fight against the Spanish conquistador, symbolized by a bull's mask. The celebration ends with the cremation of the defeated bull, and the sharing of the victim's leftovers between the inhabitants of the Boruca tribe.

Despite their cultural and artistic heritage, the Indians of the rain forest live very poorly, isolated in their villages. The majority of their houses, which roofs are made out of hay, do not have electricity and running water. The indians sleep in hammocks, and cook rice and beans, their basic alimentation, on wooden stoves outside their home. The children do not have easy access to doctors, as they sometimes have to take a long boat ride to leave the jungle. Many suffer from the "papalomollo," otherwise known as the "mountain lepra." It is a skin infection due to some mosquito bites, eating the skin to a point where, if not treated by injections, holes appear, bigger and bigger every day.

Not only are the indigenous poor, but they are not recognized in their country. The tribes do not have any legislative representation in the country, and suffer from exclusion by the locals. "Many people think of the indigenous as retarded people, dressed up with feathers…" denounces George Gonzales, chief of the Boruca tribe. "We have to find a way to be recognized and respected in our traditions." Very few people come to visit the Boruca community and share their culture, only little groups of foreigners do, explains George's mother, Felicia, while the nationals ignore even the existence of the indigenous world.

In December 1977, the government of Costa Rica passed a law implementing the indigenous reserves in the country. This law gives the Indians the right of self determination as a community on their land, while the titles of the land remained in the hand of the government. Unfortunately, this law has never been put into practice. Even if they have their own local laws, such as the prohibition of drinking other alcohol in the reserves but the local Chicha, which is made out of corn, years have proved that they have never controlled the exploitation of their land. Enterprises of banana, iron, petrol, wood, did not stop growing in their territories, with the government's agreement.

"This land belongs to us, to our ancestors" accuses Timoteo Jackson Tita, representing the elders of the Bribri community. "They keep on cutting our trees. What will happen to our children? The rivers are drying due to deforestation. They are hurting us, and they don't realise the impact on future generations."

The Costa Rican government is planning on building a hydro electrical plant which will flood some indigenous reserves in the south of the country. Also included in the governmental project is a relocation of the tribes far away from their mother land. "It hurts our soul to know that we will lose part of our territories" says Felicia Gonzales, "where we have our roads, our graves, our treasures, everything will be under the water." The problem doesn't seem to be the hydro electrical project in itself, but the non application of the law on indigenous territories: "this project comes into the same domination process that we have always known," denounces Oscar Fernandez, representing the Cabecar's community; "They don't care if it will overflow cultural and archaeological heritage. If they build the (barrage) in the south of Costa Rica, it will make jurisprudence, and they will do the same in the Bribri and Cabecar's reserves."

The eight ethnic groups do not have any legislative representation in Costa Rica. In 1973, the government created CONAI, the National Commission for Indigenous Issues. The Indians seam unanimous about the miss representation of this state organization. "The staff members are not even indigenous" explains Oscar Fernandez, "they never come to our land to see reality, see what we really need. They have never done anything for us."

Many organizations have been created to help the Indians of Costa Rica, and, according to them, all they do is "step on each others' toes." Many donations sent to the poorest Indians never arrive to their destination. Timoteo, a 60 year old bribri, accuses the government of stopping them from receiving donations coming from foreign countries, the custom's duty being so high that they can not pay to access the material that has been sent for them.

The indigenous of Costa Rica do not have many contacts between themselves, which increases their isolation in the society. However, for the first time in the history of the country, three indigenous tribes, the Bribri, Cabécar and Boruca were invited to participate in the National Festival of Arts, organized last month in Limon. The organisation "Reencuentro con la Madre Tierra" (Meeting with Mother Earth) and the members of the festival, decided to extend the festival of Limon to the Educative Farm of Shiroles, a little village in the Bribri indigenous reserve of Talamanca, declared patrimony of the humanity by the UNESCO.

"Our preoccupation has been to have a representation of the diversity of the country," explains Sandra Trejos, regional producer of the festival. "Even if Limon is only one hour away, the indigenous people were not going to come down their mountains by bus to Limon. It was important for us to go to them, on their own territories."

In the Educative Farm, the three indigenous tribes got together to exchange their art, culture and traditions. After the Bribris and Cabecars danced the Sorbon, a tradition where men and women hold each other by their shoulders and sing along with traditional flutes and drums, the Borucas did a representation of their famous dance of the Little Devils.

The extension of the National Festival to the reserve and the intercultural exchange of the three tribes represent an exceptional event for the indigenous, some of whom came to Talamanca for the first time after 12 hours of travel by bus. "The festival and the intercultural meeting show our traditions to the country." Says the Boruca's chief, "however, it was a one time event. We have to keep on organizing events like these."

At the same time as the festival, another innovation in the indigenous world was being made: the first indigenous high school with Bribris and Cabecars staff members, the Academic High School of Sepecue, was being inaugurated. There, along with the basic classes, other courses specific to the region will be provided: the Bribri and Cabecar languages, classes about ecology, handicraft and indigenous music studies… classes all given by academically well trained indigenous teachers.

For many generations of Indians from Costa Rica, it was considered as a lack of education to speak their mother language. Teachers punished them if they did and the result was the growing feeling of shame to be indigenous. "In the Sepecue High School, if a child doesn't understand because he doesn't speak good Spanish, the teacher will attend to him in Bribri" explains the sub director of the school, Oscar Fernandez. "With this inauguration of our high school, we can be used as an example of the indigenous fight, this time with practice, no more theory."

Despite the recent steps forward of the integration of the indigenous communities in the country, the Indians of Costa Rica still have a long road ahead before being recognized and respected in their land, inhabited by their ancestors long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Timoteo Jackson Tita, during a representation of the theatre group "Metamorphosis," called for a unification of the Indian tribes in their fight: "It is time for us, indigenous, to put our hands on our hearts and show the society that we speak one language, the one which says: stop hurting the indigenous people. Stop hurting our forest and our land."



Autheur - Publications