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Costa Rican Hero Juan Santamaria

As with every country's heroes, facts, myths, legends and truth blend together and form themselves into a folklore. Did George Washington really chop down that Cherry tree? Did Caesar really say "Et Tu Brute?" Well, the same is true for Costa Rican national hero, Juan Santamaría. The story as it is taught to Tico school children, is as follows. Juan Santamaría, a seventeen year old drummer boy from Alajuela, single handedly turned back an invasion of Costa Rica by burning down a fort full of enemy solders and in the process lost his life. Now, what parts of this story are fact and which are fantasy is open to conjecture.

What do we really know for sure?
William Walker, an adventurer and all around scalawag, forcefully took over Nicaragua in June of 1855. His ultimate goal was the formation of a Central American territory patterned after the slave states of the southern United States. Then Costa Rican president, Juan Rafael Mora, organized a large group of citizen into a militia because the country had no standing army. Two battles occurred in February of 1856, one in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica and the other in the Nicaraguan town of Rivas. William Walker's troops were defeated and Costa Rica was saved from invasion.

What we are pretty sure that we know
Among those fighting at the time was a young boy from Alajuela named Juan Santamaría, who later died from injuries incurred during that last battle at Rivas. The fort (or barn, depending on who you talk to) where Walkers troops were holed up, was burned down, ending the conflict with the Costa Ricans victorious. William Walker himself was not at either of the battles and was at the time in Managua, recovering from malaria.

What we pretty much don't know

  • Who Was Juan Santamaría?
  • What did he look like? Since he was a poor young peasant, there are no pictures of him.
  • Was he really the one who set fire to the building in Rivas?
  • Was he really a drummer boy?
  • How old was he?
  • How many Costa Ricans made up the hastily put together defense force?
  • How many of William Walker's solders where in the building that burnt down?

The main reason for so much confusion is that at the time of the conflict other factors overshadowed it. In particular, a cholera epidemic, who's rapid spread in Costa Rica many blamed at the time on the returning army. This outbreak was a catastrophe to the country and region, claiming nearly 1/3 of it's total population. Also, Costa Rica's government was not totally stable yet, as is evidenced by Mora's deposition and execution a few years later. All in all, the people of the time preferred to put the whole incident behind them.

It was not until nearly fifty years later that Santamaría and the victory over Walker was truly embraced by the Costa Rican people. The last part of the 19th century saw a renaissance in Costa Rica. Increasing prosperity due to world demand for coffee, the increased wealth of land owners and political stability caused Costa Rica to search for a cultural identity. During one particular presidential campaign a candidate from Alajuela brought forth Santamaría's name in an effort to stir national pride. It worked and the call was taken up by the government to find out about their national hero. The only problem was, everybody who had fought in the actual battle was dead, there were no eyewitnesses. In the end it didn't matter because the story was already so ingrained into the culture as to be fait-accompli.

So, if you have noticed that of all the numerous statues of Santamaría in the country, no two are alike? Now you know. In the end, it does not matter if everything is true or not. What matters is that Juan Santamaría is an example of courage, fidelity, loyalty and devotion to ones country and people. And he never told a lie, either.

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