Costa Rica’s Colorful History: The Case of the Filibusters

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The resplendent quetzal bird is the rock star of rain forest birds. Throughout history these majestic creatures have taken on substantial meaning for the inhabitants of Central America – for Montezuma, of Aztec lore, quetzal feathers were symbolically used in his regal headdresses. The word quetzal, after all, has it’s roots in the Aztec word quetzalli (beautiful). Part of the allure of this beautiful bird stems from its magnificent color and tail feathers that can measure up to three feet long and most interestingly, because the bird is unable to live in captivity.

The National Ethos of Costa Rica

For many Costa Ricans this bird and its need to remain free are an integral part to the national identity. Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, are proud of their nation remaining free, peaceful, stable and prosperous in a region wracked by turmoil.  It’s almost as if the Quetzal is a Costa Rican version of the American Bald Eagle.

This stability, however, has not always been the case for Ticos -just before the American Civil War, one of the strangest series of events in both American and Costa Rican history were unfolding and the newly independent nation (1847) would need to fight to remain free.  It’s a story widely known in Costa Rica – even by young schoolchildren – and not at all known by the American visitors that descend on Costa Rica each day.

The Twisted Ambition of the Filibusters

The cause of this strife was an American, William Walker. Walker was an adventurer and a so-called “filibuster” – these filibusters were not of the legislative stripe known for long wind speeches that blocked legislative action but instead for their desire to aggrandize territory (in Spanish, filibustero = PIRATE…).

In Walker’s case, this meant expanding the territories where slavery was legal. The border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was a particularly appealing place for Walker’s twisted ambition. The dividing line between these two countries was the San Juan River. The river was an early precursor to the Panama Canal and in Walker’s time an important global trade route. Heading west from the Caribbean coast, ships would sail up the river into the Lake Nicaragua and goods would be hauled a short distance overland via Rivas, Nicaragua to waiting ships on the Pacific side. Controlling this area would give Walker’s considerable power and influence.

Juan Santamaria: An Authentic Tico Hero

Walker, after forming a private army, was able to exploit political turmoil in Nicaragua and take over the country. Eying Costa Rica nervously as well, he launched a preemptive strike into the neighboring country. Walker’s forces battled the Costa Ricans on several occasions both within Nicaragua, and along the Sarapiqui river in Costa Rica. In one action, Walker’s forces were held up in a crossroads garrison, impending the advance of the Costa Rican army. One Costa Rican solider, Juan Santamaria agreed to the perilous mission of advancing alone to try and set the building afire on one condition – if he were to be mortally wounded, he asked that his fellow soldiers would take of his mother. He was successful in his mission but was mortally wounded in the process dying April 11, 1856. In 1857, his mother was awarded a state pension for the rest of her life.

Today, Santamaria is am important figure in the national identity and is regarded as a leading hero of the country. His name adorns the airport in San Jose and April 11 is a national holiday.

Ultimately, Walker’s forces were defeated and ejected from Nicaragua and Costa Rica only after Walker had succeeded in winning a rigged election to become President of Nicaragua. Several years later, Walker tried to invade again but was captured by the British and executed in Honduras. Costa Rica has been non-violent ever since – a fact that many Ticos proudly attribute to a culture that values peace and negotiation over violence and repression.