Dear readers, the update on the Corcovado hike is coming… meantime:
Friday, 11 April was Juan Santamaría day! I know that’s a whole month ago, but I wrote this post and then forgot about it… I guess a reason to revive it is that the family is now in Nicaragua. In the story below, the villain caused his mayhem in this country, not Costa Rica. In the end, he wound up burning the second oldest colonial city in the Americas (Granada, founded 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba) as he retreated. A multinational group made up the military force that ousted William Walker, and the Costa Ricans celebrate their contribution every April 11.
I suppose that this has me thinking of Americans’ role in Nicaraguan history. William Walker worked on his own, but 2014 also marks 30th anniversary of the end of US funding for the Contras. So, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the, uh, ripples of North American foreign policy through the other pieces of the Americas that we’re traveling through. Secession of Panamá from what became Colombia, and everything that followed up to and including ejecting our drug-dealing dictator. The United Fruit Company in Costa Rica. Using money from illicit weapon sales to Iran to fund Nicaraguan guerrillas.
As for Juan Santamaría day itself, this Costa Rican national holiday commemorates the self-sacrifice of the eponymous soldier. It’s a school holiday, too, but since I’m keeping it positive I should not mention that the local school usually requires no such a vaunted excuses for cancelling classes! Oops.
In the mid 19th Century a man named William Walker tried at various times and by various means to carve out his own private utopia in Latin America. Incidentally, he was born and bred in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee… remember the Alamo, anyone? And perhaps regretting the failure of Texas to manifest as a slave-owning paradise, Walker decided to create his own state (that is, nation). First he tried in Mexico, and failed both diplomatically and paramilitarily to establish a colony in Baja. He met with more success in Nicaragua. There, with some 300 mercenary and local fighters, and working under the auspices of the Nicaraguan government, he suppressed government opposition forces before turning himself into the de facto ruler of the country. Central Americans refer to him as a filibustero, from a dutch root for freebooter; pirate, basically. Etymology is always rewarding, and I get a little juice from thinking about the different paths that word has taken…
Anyway, a group of Central American governments sent troops to end Walker’s reign; the Costa Ricans, having no standing military, raised an army and marched north to Rivas to join the other forces. Walker’s men were cornered in a hotel. Juan Santamaría was a Costa Rican foot soldier. During the second battle of Rivas, in 1856, he volunteered to burn out Walkers’ troops from their strategic position. Though he successfully set fire to the building, he was fatally wounded. He lives on in the hearts and civic lives of Costa Ricans.
Oscar’s school had a small celebration on the Thursday preceding Juan Santamaría day. His teacher told us things have changed, and that back in her day schoolchildren would construct a little house in the school courtyard, then ceremonially burn it down to commemorate Santamaría’s contribution to the fight against this weird, persistent stepchild of Manifest Destiny. A festive schoolyard burning does strike me as pretty normal Latin American, where concern for personal safety is not always the highest priority. But I relish the thought of Costa Ricans literally keeping the fires of independence burning, and I wish that remained a part of the school’s cívica activa.
BTW: I’m not a historian, and this summary represents the limitations of my day and the frustration induced by my pueblo’s near-dial-up internet speeds. Thanks for your patience and, if I’ve upset you with any inaccuracies, I consider any provocation of thought to be a good thing… even if you’re thinking I’m an idiot.
It was fun thinking about this, though. When Joy told me William Walker was a Tennessean, my interest was piqued. Then the teacher in me ached to get students to think of all the story’s ramifying complexity. The parallels with the Alamo got me thinking on the politics of slavery that preceded the civil war. The irony of Mexico recruiting white immigrants from the United States to tame Texas’ wide expanses, only to have them secede and get embroiled in the politics of slavery roiling the U.S. in the 19th century… Of course, it was also really fascinating, though not surprising, to learn that Mexico abolished slavery well before the United States… but this could go on and on, so here endeth the ramble.