Once you leave the cities of Costa Rica the land appears like a time when the earth was untouched; a colorful garden, filled with beautiful flora, fauna, flowing rivers and lakes. Not enough can be said about its picturesque landscapes; from the glistening beaches, to the cloud covered volcanoes and the famous rainforests in-between. Visitors quickly appreciate both the landscape and the people. However, often missed within the fabric of modern day Costa Rica are the indigenous peoples. One of the most interesting of these groups is the Boruca Indians. As a visitor you’ll notice Boruca’s beautiful art and crafts throughout the country.
Situated on the Pacific coast of Coats Rica, close to the Panama border is the small ‘Boruca Indian Reservation’, where the Boruca Indians live. The reservation is within the province of Puntarenas which is the largest province in Costa Rica. There are several historical references to this Pre-Columbian tribe being called both Boruca, as well as ‘Brunka’. Either name is correct.
Centuries ago, when the Catholic Spanish invaders came to capture and enslave them, they discovered that their masks helped protect them. So the native Indians began carving, painting and wearing masks. This was the Indians only defense, used at every opportunity, to intimidate the sword and musket-carrying Conquistadors, who would then beat a hasty retreat. These Spanish were terrified of demons. Today the same masks are symbolic of those victories. And they are recreated as decorative art pieces, provoking treasured memories of this country’s cultural heritage.
In 1956, the Baldios’ or ‘Common Lands’ were declared a protected Reservation, the Reserva Boruca-Terraba. The Boruca’s used their property titles as security for loans to provide agricultural supplies. This gave them access to seed, fertilizer and tools for crops. When sold the proceeds would be used to repay their loans. If the farmer’s crop failed, as frequently happened, the land was forfeited by lender. Provisions made under the new law grants the Borucas exclusive rights to this property. Further, the law makes null-and-void any transfers that was made prior its passing. The Reservations remain only 20% owned by the Borucas Indians.
Today the Boruca are peaceful people who support themselves on agriculture and their crafts. Their surviving population numbers a little over, 2,600 members and they speak the ‘Brunka’ language. Fewer than 40 members of the tribe can speak the language fluently. Many only understand Brunka when spoken but they rarely use it. Most of them speak a ‘patois’, a mixture of the Boruca language, other dialects with a dash of Spanish thrown in.
The Boruca’s are best known for their skills as craftsmen, using indigenous items to create beautiful artifacts. Using balsa and sometimes cedar wood, they carve masks, and make bows, arrows, drums, knives, jewelry and other objects. Attractive baskets are woven with natural fabrics, colored with dyes of their own formulation. Traditionally, the men did the carving. The women added the weaving and beautiful embellishments by painting and decorating the ware. Like many other things today, those roles are changing in this ancient culture. Genuine Boruca masks and their crafts are seen for sale in gift shops, markets and at the airports throughout Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s museums display valuable works of their art and craft, some of them centuries old. Hanging on walls everywhere are visual expressions of the people’s artistic talents. Their handiwork is not limited to images on canvases depicting memorable scenes; there are also colorful masks and shields. These characters depicted on the masks are sometimes frightening; seemingly jumping aggressively from where they hang out at the viewer. Their creators purposely create these terrifying images. These are Costa Rica’s native peoples, a relatively timid and small-bodied native Indian of Costa Rica.
There are two Festivals in which the masks are used today. The first is in an exhibition on their Reservation at Rey Curré, and the second is the traditional celebration at the end of the year. The entire Boruca tribe participates in the ceremonies nightly, for three to four, days moving from village to village.
Danza de los Diablitos Festival
Costa Rica’s ‘Danza de los Diablitos’, is an annual three day festival beginning December 31, put on by the Boruca people. The Boruca’s gather in their villages and the Mayor kicks-off the celebrations at midnight on Dec 30th, by sounding a series of blasts from his conch shell. Then the ‘Bull and the Diablitos go from village to village dancing along the way, pausing for a drink of Chicha as they go. On the final of the four nights the ‘Bull’ is ceremoniously killed.
Males of the tribe carry out a ritual dance re-enacting the Spanish conquest wearing elaborate costumes. Loosely translated, Juego de los Diablitos’ means ‘Dance of the Little Devils’. The Boruca’s masks are of special significance as it empowers them to fight and dispel the evil of the Spanish intruders. It recounts a time when the Boruca Indians resisted the Spanish conquistadors who tried to capture them for slavery. The Conquistadors, were devout Catholics, and terribly afraid of the demonic images portrayed by the Boruca’s masks. This aided the Indians in their efforts to resist capture; a small triumph in their battle for freedom. The Boruca resistance was one of intimidation, using primitive masks, bows and arrows versus the muskets and swords of the Spaniards. They cunningly provoked the Spaniards in what became known as ‘Juego de los Diablitos’. The Boruca’s were not ‘Devil Worshipers’, they worshiped a ‘creator of all things’ called Sibu; they merely took advantage of the Spaniard’s fear of evil signs. Today, during the re-enactments of those battles, the Spaniards are represented by someone dressed as the ‘Bull’ who is met by Diablitos, (or Boruca’s wearing masks), and use sticks as weapons to taunt the ‘Bull’. On the last day of the festival the ‘Bull’ is ceremoniously killed
Rey Curré Festival
The exhibition at Rey Curré is in its twenty-second year of staging (as of 2014). This festival celebrates the lives of the Borucas with an Annual Indigenous Cultural Festival that runs for three days. The event is co-sponsored by the Cultural Ministry in conjunction with the Boruca tribe and held in the rural community of Rey Curré. It is a combination exhibition and demonstration of their culture. Items are sold and the proceeds from those sales are used to support the Indians on the Reservation.
The festival is a wonderful opportunity to see the craftsmen applying their skills. They make excellent souvenirs’ and are easily brought overseas.
The atmosphere is festive with many scenes worthy of recording; you will not see them duplicated elsewhere in the world. Aside from the craft displays and the beautiful souvenirs on sale, it is an opportunity to see the preparation of traditional recipes, cures and home remedies. Visitors are invited to take an active part in, and learn, some of the traditions and ways of the Boruca tribe.
Like all other Costa Rican celebrations it would not be complete without music, food and beverages. Tamales are very popular item and three kinds, maize or corn, rice, and beans are available. Try them along with some Carne Humada, a slowly smoked pork dish. The pork is seasoned with freshly grown local spices and smoked for many hours to perfection. No meal here is complete without a drink of Chicha. It is made by combining ground corn, water, sugar and yeast, which is then set aside to ferment. Like any other alcoholic beverage, caution is advised when indulging in Chicha.
Be sure to look for arts and crafts created by the Boruca before you depart. It is a souvenir that will be a beautiful reminder of this wonderful country and why even the poor people are very rich in many ways.