Juan Santamaria is a household name in Costa Rica. He is considered a national hero and his legacy still stands strong well over a century after his death. A statue, famous paintings, literature, and even an airport bear his name and likeness. If that’s not enough, there’s a whole national holiday which honors him and his actions during the 1855 civil war of Costa Rica.
But who actually was the man behind the legend? Why is this seemingly humble drummer so fondly remembered as a hero to this day?
Where Was Juan Santamaria From?
Juan Santamaria, like many of our favorite heroes, came from humble origins. His early years are a mystery, as nobody paid enough attention to a random kid with little-to-no prospects.
We do know that he was born in the province of Alajuela, a rural agricultural part of Costa Rica, on August 29, 1831. Even today, Alajuela has a strong farming community. His birth and baptismal certificates name his mother as Maria Manuela Santamaria, and his lists his father’s name as “unknown”.
While he is often portrayed as white, it’s believed that Juan was mixed race. His mother, Maria, raised him alone, and Juan only had an elementary school education before starting work. Juan likely worked on a coffee plantation, as many children born and raised in this area did.
When the Costa Rican president called upon the common people to take up arms and defend their lands, Juan enlisted in the Costa Rican army as a drummer boy.
Why Was Juan Santamaria a Hero?
In order to figure out who Juan Santamaria was and why he had such an impact on Costa Rican history, we should probably look into the Filibuster War, where he fought and died.
The Filibuster War occurred when William Walker, an American mercenary and filibuster, took control of Nicaragua. Walker wanted to control and integrate Latin American nations into the United States and establish slave hold colonies, which would supply the Southern states of America with slaves.
Understandably, the Costa Rican President, Juan Rafael Mora Porras was concerned about Walker’s presence and what it could mean. So, the president declared war, telling the people of Costa Rica to “take your weapons” and fight this new threat.
Juan Santamaria took this declaration to heart, joining the Costa Rican army as a drummer boy. Little is known about his early actions in the war, but we all know about Santamaria’s actions that cemented his identity as a national hero.
After the president declared war, Walker marched on Costa Rica. The Costa Rican forces pushed back, managing to take Rivas, a city in Nicaragua. This was where the Second Battle of Rivas took place. Only four days after the Costa Rican army took Rivas, Walker attempted to take it back.
Walker made it to a building called El Mesón de Guerra, a large hostel which provided his forces a secure and decidedly advantageous position. This brought the battle to a stalemate, as Walker’s forces couldn’t be shifted from their vantage point, allowing them to whittle down the Costa Rican army with impunity.
The only options that the Costa Rican army had were to destroy that building, or to give up the fight. On April 11, 1856, the general suggested that one of the soldiers approach the hotel and set it ablaze. Several soldiers tried and fell to a hail of bullets, until our humble drummer boy stepped forward.
Juan was a good son and a brave soldier. Knowing that this task was almost certain death, he volunteered on one condition. His mother had to be taken care of. Then, flaming torch in hand, Juan made the run to the building. Where others had failed, Juan succeeded.
The building was set alight and soon burnt down. While it was a seemingly small act at the time, Juan’s success secured the Costa Rican victory at Rivas. The Filibuster war continued, eventually ending with Walker’s surrender and removal from Central America. Thousands were killed in the fighting and far more succumbed to cholera outbreaks that ripped through the Costa Rican army.
Juan Santamaria was largely forgotten for almost three decades after the war, until an article was written about his sacrifice to inspire the Costa Rican populace to fight against yet another threat.
Once the public were made aware of Juan Santamaria’s heroism, he captured their imaginations. After all, Juan Santamaria was the ultimate everyman. He didn’t have money or power, but he still made a difference. His story resonated with many people, cementing him as a national hero and ensuring that he wouldn’t be forgotten again.
Six years after that fateful article, a statue of Juan Santamaria was erected in Alajuela. This statue didn’t just commemorate the man, but it also commemorated the Filibuster war, which had become linked with Costa Rican independence. He was remembered in other ways as well. For example, the coat of arms of Alajuela still depicts a hand holding a burning torch.
Over the years, Juan Santamaria became more than just a man, but he also became an integral part of Costa Rican history and cultural identity. He’s depicted as a brave soldier and a martyr alike, but always as a hero.
How Did Juan Santamaria Die?
As Juan Santamaria charged towards the hostel to burn it down, he was shot at by Walker’s forces. Like the soldiers who fell before him, Juan was mortally wounded during this charge. However, he made it to the building at set it alight before dying.
As had been promised, his mother was paid a state pension upon his death. Juan Santamaria was only 25 years old when he died, but his actions paved the way for a legacy that has lasted decades.
How is Juan Santamaria Day Celebrated in Costa Rica?
Every year on April 11th, the anniversary of his death, the people of Costa Rica celebrate Juan Santamaria day. This is a major national holiday, so most businesses close for the day. However, the celebrations tend to last for the entire week leading up to it, especially in the city of Alajuela.
These celebrations involve parades, concerts, and dances. Usually, the president gives a speech to commemorate Juan Santamaria and to celebrate his achievements.