... Juan Santamaria (National Hero) ...
by Infocostarica Staff

He’s the stuff that heroes are made of. He was poor and born of an unknown father. He was a simple drummer boy in the small militia of Alajuela. He wasn’t honored at the time of his great deed, probably because of his marginality. He died young. He died for his country. He was Juan Santamaria, the poor young soldier, who was destined to become Costa Rica’s national hero, almost forty years after his great deed and after his untimely death.

Juan Santamaria (National Hero) - imagen 1

Juan Santamaria was born in Alajuela, although the date of his birth isn’t clear; details about his childhood and life in general are also unknown. Most of the information about his life comes from his participation in the Alajuela militia and in the Battle of Rivas in 1856. Costa Rica had been threatened by William Walker, a Southerner who planned to enslave whole Central American countries in the name of a Southern Confederacy. Walker had managed to take over the Nicaraguan government in 1855 and to name himself “President” of this nation. Next, he looked towards Costa Rica in order to add it to his growing “empire”. Costa Rica’s president at the time, Juan Rafael Mora, gathered a makeshift army of peasants and set off to fight the enemy. The filibusters invaded the Guanacaste province, but the Tico army expelled and followed them into Rivas, Nicaragua. Here, they sought protection in a wooden fort. This is where Juan Santamaria comes into play. He bravely volunteered to burn the fort, thus forcing Walker and his cronies outside. Walker was eventually caught in Honduras in 1860 and promptly shot, since he kept making attempts to take over the region over and over again. The legend tells that Juan Santamaria ran towards the fort carrying a torch, and although he was shot repeatedly, he managed to throw it and to burn the fort down.

In 1891, almost forty years after the heroic deed, Juan Santamaria’s memory was in a sense, dug out from an indifferent past and glorified to the point of becoming Costa Rica’s hero. A statue depicting a strong and handsome soldier carrying a torch was placed in Alajuela, thus immortalizing Santamaria. For this occasion, Ruben Dario, the great Nicaraguan writer, dedicated a poem to him. Today, this hero’s memory is transmitted in schools, where some children act as filibusters and a small Juan Santamaria “burns” the fort down.

Juan Santamaria (National Hero) - imagen 2

It’s interesting to consider why Juan Santamaria lay buried for almost four decades, before being remembered and named the nation’s hero. This fact has motivated heated arguments and several investigations that suggest reasons why this happened. According to Steven Palmer, a Canadian researcher that has studied many issues in Costa Rica dealing with history and national identity, Juan Santamaria was partly invented by the Liberalist government. Palmer’s fascinating study proposes that the government of the late nineteenth century needed to consolidate a national identity in order to gain support and to unify the disorganized country. Legends, heroes and battles are all necessary ingredients in the creation of a national identity, so the government set out to find people and events that would serve their purpose. Since Costa Rica has always lacked a history of warfare, the Liberalist government chose one of the few significant battles- the Battle of 1856 against William Walker. Choosing this battle was also necessary because the nation’s independence in 1821 didn’t have to be fought for, and most Costa Ricans ignored the importance of this event. The logical step after choosing the famous battle, was to select a hero that acted bravely during this fight. In this way, Palmer says, Juan Santamaria was “born” or reborn after being dead for many decades. Furthermore, Juan Santamaria was chosen because he was a member of the lower classes, and as such, he inspired them with a sense of belonging to a nation that was starting to emerge. Other researchers have found evidence that point to the fact of Santamarias death as a victim of cholera, and not of the bullets shot by the filibusters.

Even though the researcher’s accounts might seem a little cynical to most Costa Ricans who have been raised to believe in the heroic nature of Juan Santamaria, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of both stories. Either way, one can safely say that Juan Santamaria does exist today as Costa Rica’s national hero – just ask any Costa Rican, young or old and you’ll be convinced of his existence and of his immortality.