It was still dark. The air was dense, though it remained free from the tropical sun’s grasp and its sweltering heat. The night smelled dusty, woody, and sweet; crickets gave the whole scene that energy so emblematic of the lowlands of Costa Rica’s Pacific Northwest.
We chattered happily, yet the initial adrenaline rush was wearing off slightly, each of us trying our best to remain alert—the reggaeton sounding from someone’s small portable speaker coming to our aide. The slowly revolving, blinking lights of police vehicles and an ambulance illuminated the gathering of students from across Monteverde. All waiting.
Suddenly, people started shouting excitedly, pointing to the other side of the bridge to our right. The sound of sirens started growing louder and louder as lights appeared in the distance. Following our teachers’ orders, we assembled in little groups, and those of us who would meet the arriving delegation headed out to the Pan-American highway, preparing ourselves to briefly accompany the Antorcha de la Independencia making its way from Guatemala City to Cartago. In due course, we would light our own smaller torch with its flame, taking the fire back up the mountain to our hometown of Monteverde while it continued to its destination.
I could feel my heart pumping ferociously, my breath quickening, the nerves building in my body. I knew what I had to do: I was to receive the torch from another runner and, carrying it high above me, was to run at the forefront of the procession. Still, what if I couldn’t run fast enough? What if I dropped it?
The deafening sirens reverberated in my ears as we joined the oncoming rush of runners, trailed by a line of cars and surrounded by a swarm of motorcycles. We started to run with them. I felt my feet pound the asphalt as I focused all my energy on moving my body forward, on keeping up the pace.
And then, it was my turn. As I stretched out my right arm to take hold of the torch—running still—the first thing I noticed, before the other runner had even let go, was how heavy it was. The metal felt warm to the touch, given life by the previous hands that had held it.
Focusing on the weight and the warmth, I could no longer entertain earlier doubts. I lifted the torch as high as I could, and I ran. My steps started synchronizing with the regular wailing of the siren, my heart quickly following suit. Just as I began to feel the nerves wash away, replaced by elation, it was time to pass the torch on to the next person, to the next outstretched hand.
Since 1964, in September, the Antorcha de la Independencia journeys from Guatemala through Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to finish in Costa Rica. It is carried on foot by students over hundreds of kilometers, retracing the route the news of our independence from the Spanish Crown followed over two centuries ago. In Costa Rica, some 22,000 students participate in this civic act annually. Alongside parades and lanterns, it has become an emblem of our Independence Day celebrations.
Originally ideated to jointly celebrate this pivotal historical event in a shared origin story, the journey symbolizes unity and comradery between these five nations. The torch itself, and the flame it transports, also speak to ideals of peace and liberty, to the promise of—or hope for— a better tomorrow.
“May that light of the national fire invite us today and always to leave the negative behind to move towards the positive,” Costa Rican Minister of Education, Anna Katharina Müller Castro, declared upon accepting the torch from her Nicaraguan counterpart at the Peñas Blancas border this September 13th.
Yet as this torch travels, perhaps its greatest effect is on the carrier—on the young person tasked with fulfilling its fate, passing it on—still ablaze—to the next pair of hands that will do the same. Moving from hand to hand in this way, it is a testament to collaboration not just between nations but between citizens of the same one. Because the torch’s journey relies on a collective effort, a receiving and giving that ultimately enables its movement through Costa Rican territory, it serves as an exercise in cooperation.
Moreover, it invites young people to actively participate in upholding the values underpinning the fabric of this country. Each person through whose hands this fire passes is entrusted with the survival of this delicate flame and, therefore, simultaneously entrusted with the continuation of the Costa Rican story. Through carrying the torch, students feel the privilege of inheriting a peaceful and free country and are given the responsibility of continuing the construction of a better society.
It was this sense of privilege and responsibility that fueled each step I took as we ran the torch up the winding dirt road to Monteverde, the sun now oozing over the mountains and creeping into the surrounding valleys. We ran by houses where elderly folks sat on their porches awaiting the procession; they would smile and wave.
We ran past schools, where, each time, we passed the flame on to younger children after singing the Costa Rican National Anthem. And, when we finally arrived in Monteverde, we were greeted by honks and cheers, immersed in a sea of blue, white, and red.
I felt pride and joy emanating in waves from each fiber of my exhausted body. To me, it was as though I had contributed to something much larger than myself, as though I had done something for the country I loved so much, for the ideals I held so dear.
The torch run is merely a tradition—a ritual with little pragmatic power over policy. And yet, perhaps our democracies would benefit from more of such activities, more opportunities to engage with others in spaces that are not heated, polarized, or antagonistic, but rather ones that are celebratory and fun, an expression of gratitude and appreciation, a symbol of hope.
Our democracies must be more than a series of bureaucratic acts—more than politics and voting. Democracies require a dēmos, a people. A people made up of shared values. A people with a sense of collective responsibility for each other’s well-being. A people connected through a common understanding of history.
That is not to say that disagreement on these matters cannot or should not exist—indeed, such shared understandings must be forged through a widespread reckoning with both empirical facts and contrasting worldviews. Yet such disagreements necessitate members to at least agree on the rules of the game: it requires the willingness to engage in this difficult work with others, and it requires active participation.
It is vital, therefore, that members of democracies not only understand but truly feel their value as part of this political community. Each person shares responsibility for the preservation of present liberties and the improvement of the current state of affairs. Spaces for individuals to participate in democracy beyond the political can foster a sense of collective purpose and an understanding of the importance of both working with others and of one’s own engagement. Rituals such as the Antorcha de la Independencia could be a starting point for a deeper understanding of democracy as a lived experience.
Written for The Tico Times by Tara Hein, funded by Stanford University. All views are Tara’s own.