On the last day of 2012 we boarded yet another bus in our long list of ill-fitting buses and headed to Boruca, the main settlement within the Boruca Indigenous Reserve. Do not be mislead by the use of ill-fitting, for, despite their leisurely pace, the quality of the buses is more than sufficient. The problem at hand is that the seats are designed bearing in mind the average height of Costa Ricans, which, for men, is nearly 20 cm less than the stature of yours truly. As you can imagine, negotiating bumpy roads with barely a few inches of meager legroom and a vacuum behind your head which lets your neck wobble like a boxing ball is not a pleasant experience.
After a two hour journey during which we constantly had to ask our neighbors where we had to get off, the driver informed us that we had reached the entrance to Boruca. Unbeknownst to us, we were twelve kilometers of devastatingly steep, arid dirt away from the actual town.
In hindsight, we regarded the sheer path ahead of us and the gleaming noon sun with too much disdain. We nearly paid for our foolishness and disrespect when, after half an hour, unable to find a shade to rest, we began questioning if we had made the right decision. Luckily, a kind family coerced us into riding in the back of their pick-up truck and turned what would have been a painstaking five hour hike into a 30 minute rollercoaster ride through the jarring unpaved hills.
Once in the town, we installed our camping tent and proceeded to discover what the town had to offer, including a majestic waterfall and an ancient blend of dancing and bull-fighting.
Submerged in the Talamanca Mountains and encircled by the scenic valley of the Rio Grande de Terraba, this secluded site was once part of a vast territory. Before the arrival of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, the Coto, Turruca, Borucac, Quepos and the Abubaes feuded over the region of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, from present day Quepos to the frontier with Panama. Today, the Boruca are a composite group of nearly 2500 people, formed by the descendants of the dispersed tribes, who are said to have survived the invasion thanks to the aid of natural spirits.
Despite crowning a captivating mountain range and proudly boasting a phenomenally picturesque cultural tradition, Boruca is dreadfully indistinct from any ordinary Costa Rican town. Granted, this characteristic has positive and negative aspects.
The first indigenous reserve to receive government aide, Boruca has been endowed with electricity, well equipped schools and a centralized structure for a quarter century. The view, otherwise rural and organic; adorned with banana-leaf-roofed ranchos, is abhorrently obstructed with cables, a massive cross, satellite dishes and a devastating amount of garbage.
Tourists, often deceived into visiting insipid cultural sites, may consider the town fairly unexceptional if they visit during any other time of the year. But, peculiarly coinciding with the end of the Christian year, from the evening of December 30th until the twilight of January 2nd, the Borucas celebrate the Fiesta de los Diablitos (Festival of the Little Devils) in commemoration of their survival against the forces of Spanish conquistadors. This ritual with a side of party and a pinch of brawl is anything but dull. The festivity is a flaming showcase of their culture and spirit.
Minutes before midnight on December 30th, the town’s elder summons all the diablitos – basically any male over 15 years old – to his house.
Once there, the diablitos commence parading the town stopping at every house to drink chicha (fermented corn liquor) and eat tamales. The diablitos wear intricate hand-carved and painted balsa wood masks and burlap sacks covered with jute and banana leaves. The procession is marked by the relentless collisions against a bull – a few of the men take turns carrying a heavy costume and bashing the diablitos– which represents the Spaniards.
The name ‘diablitos’, the horned masks, and the fighting symbolize the shrewdness, guile, courage and ardor that served them so well in resisting invading forces, while the sharing of drinks and food is indicative of their undeniable hospitality, not only among themselves, but with the few tourists who venture into the town to witness this astonishing display.
The masks are the main attraction and source of income throughout the year, when the diablitos drop their costumes and work in the fields, in San Jose or manufacturing masks and totems. However, during the festivity, it’s the evolving interaction with the bull that draws the most attention, as the diablitos, increasingly inebriated and aggressive, rampantly quarrel with the 40kg structure of the bull.
Adding to the uniquely vibrant imagery of Boruca during these dates, each diablito proudly and carefully carves and paints his own mask with colorful feathers, dramatic images of trees, flowers, animals and of course, hostile, menacing horns. Each mask is exclusively ornate, especially during the pinnacle of the feast, on January 2nd, when approximately 100 locals dress up and taunt the bull until it eventually gains ground and takes down all the diablitos.
Then, the bull runs away, but the diablitos, inspired by the animal spirits that aided them centuries ago, rise from the dead, hunt down the bull and toss it into a blistering fire as they soar around the flames celebrating the victory. The revelry that ensues is even more exhilarating than in the previous nights, as the citizens of Boruca put on their best outfits and party well into the night.
So far we’ve had the chance to meet members of three different indigenous groups, while visiting two reserves. Despite being branded with the name ‘indigenous’, each of these groups is very different from the others, not only regarding cultural characteristics such as language, art and organization of society, but also with respect to progress and development – where they find themselves at this moment in history.
Their openness to the world outside their barriers, their knowledge of world events, acceptance of tourism and external influences, as well as other aspects beyond their endemic culture are shaping their societies in ways undeterminably good or bad. Time will be the judge.
These groups continue to be called indigenous but the meaning and usage of this word has loosely dissipated in modern times. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines indigenous as “having originated in and being produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment”.
As for ‘indigenous peoples’, there is no universally accepted definition, but according to Wikipedia, there are three elements used to describe the term: the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness, an experience of subjugation, marginalization and dispossession, and self-identification. However, according to these two definitions, most of the world’s population is indigenous. Surely, there must be something more to the essence of the word.
Colloquially, ‘indigenous’ is used to describe a close relationship with nature, respect for all things living, separation from the modern urban society, and the upholding of ancient traditions as core community values. Through the experiences of the last few months we have come to the realization that perhaps ‘indigenous’ is no longer a term to define a place of origin, but rather a way of living, a philosophy and a sentiment.
The indigenous people of Boruca, as well as many others throughout the world are in danger of extinction. ‘Being indigenous’ is not passed on genetically. It requires education, reason, sacrifice and determination.
Thus, the inhabitants of Boruca will continue to be called indigenous because they live in the land that their ancestors fought and cared for, and have the physical traits of their parents; but must of them won’t be indigenous in regards to the colloquial understanding of the word – unless they consciously choose so.
‘Being indigenous’ is not about being different, about suffering from marginalization and racism, but about preserving the unique and valuable elements of their ancestry. We’ve met many ‘indigenous people’ who do not enjoy a traditional way of living, or who do not respect nature, just as there are many ‘non-indigenous people’ throughout the world who share the indigenous philosophy.
Progress will come not through imposing or opening the doors to the modern world, but by building a bridge through which education, information and respect can travel both ways.