Cosa Rica’s National Hero Juan Santamaría: What’s the Big Deal?
On National Heroes Day, Costa Rica celebrates a man named Juan Santamaría.
Every April 11, Costa Ricans commemorate the death of the brave man who they consider a national hero.
Did you know that once there was an American businessman who tried to take over all of Latin America?
Juan Santamaría stopped him.
When was the last time you heard of a 25-year-old running between enemy fire, torch-in-hand, to burn down the invader’s hideout?
Probably never. Until now.
Forget about Pancho Villa, Juan Santamaría is the real deal!
Poets reciting poetry, colorful balloons flying around, marching bands playing across the country—that’s how people in Costa Rica pay tribute to their national hero.
Keep reading to find out more about the pride of Alajuela, Juan Santamaría, and how people in Costa Rica remember and honor him even today!
Table of Contents:
- Juan Santamaría: The Drummer Turned War Hero
- Grounds for War in Costa Rica
- A Legend Is Born
- Remembering Juan Santamaría
- Learn Spanish Before Your Next Trip to Costa Rica
Juan Santamaría: The Drummer Turned War Hero
Born on August 29, 1831, in Alajuela, Juan Santamaría Rodríguez was the son of María Manuela Santamaría; the identity of his father is unknown.
In his youth, Juan worked as a candy vendor, builder’s assistant, drover, coffee picker, sacristan, and drummer for Alajuela’s military band. Still, as a young boy, he later joined Costa Rica’s National Army.
Not much else is known about Juan’s early life. Historians agree that Juan had dark skin and argue that he was mestizo. At the time, most people in Juan’s hometown survived off the land. It’s easy to assume that he and his family were peasants.
Young Juan became a legend for his involvement and death at the Second Battle of Rivas, during the so-called Guerra contra los filibusteros (Filibuster War) in 1856 and 1857.
See also: El Top: Costa Rica’s Famous Horse Parade
Grounds for War in Costa Rica
In the 1800s, way before the Panama Canal existed, the best way to move goods from one side of the Americas to the other was through Nicaragua.
William Walker, an American mercenary, wanted to take advantage of this. So on March 1, 1856, two years after a civil war broke out in Nicaragua, he led an army to take over the country. And take over, he did.
Walker’s dream was to annex all of Central America and for the Confederate States to take over all of Latin America.
After his siege of Nicaragua, Walker planned his next move: to conquer neighboring Costa Rica. In response, the president of Costa Rica called for his army and all Costa Ricans to get ready for an invasion.
On a hot, sticky day in April 1856, Walker’s army clashed with Costa Rica’s army.
At first glance, it appeared the locals had the upper hand. But during the now legendary Second Battle of Rivas, Walker and his army locked themselves inside a wooden fort called the Mesón de Guerra (The War Inn), where they held the higher ground and could quickly shoot the opposition.
At the time, Juan Santamaría was just a drummer for the army, as drumming led the troops to march in unison and functioned as a tool to signal instructions.
On April 11, 1856, however, Juan took on an additional role.
Like true war stories?
A Legend Is Born
Walker’s army and the army of Costa Rica battled for hours, and general José María Cañas realized that they wouldn’t be able to defeat Walker that easily. So he gave the order to burn down the fort.
Surprisingly, several soldiers tried and failed.
Then 25-year-old Juan Santamaría volunteered under one condition: if he were to die, someone would have to look after his mother. The young drummer rushed out to the streets with a rag-wrapped stick doused in turpentine and headed towards the Mesón de Guerra.
Walker’s men unleashed a barrage of bullets and struck him several times. He collapsed on the side of Walker’s hideout. But as luck would have it, he managed to set it on fire, forcing the American filibuster and his army to come out of their hiding.
And thus, the legend of Juan Santamaría was born.
Historians argue that Juan’s sacrifice helped weaken William Walker’s army and prevent the filibuster’s mobilization. Walker surrendered a year later, faced a trial, and was executed by a firing squad in Honduras in 1860.
Walker wasn’t even the worst. Who was?
Remembering Juan Santamaría
Every year on April 11, Costa Ricans celebrate the life and commemorate the death of national hero Juan Santamaría.
Juan’s hometown organizes a parade led by military bands and drummers. In addition, people visit his statue in Alajuela’s Central Park—a towering, proud statue made of bronze, showing him running towards the Mesón de Guerra with a torch in his hand.
Juan Santamaría Anthem
People also sing the Juan Santamaría Anthem on April 11th. Here’s its first stanza:
Cantemos ufanos la egregia memoria
de aquel de la patria soldado inmortal,
a quien hoy unidas la fama y la
historia entonan gozosas un himno triunfal.
Let’s proudly sing the egregious memory
of who’s our homeland’s immortal soldier,
of whom today, both fame and history
joyfully sing a triumphal hymn.
Costa Rica’s Biggest Airport Takes His Name
Additionally, Costa Rica’s biggest and most important airport, Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría (Juan Santamaría International Airport), is in the country’s capital, San José.
The airport was inaugurated in 1958 and then was called Aeropuerto Internacional El Coco, but was renamed after Costa Rica’s national hero in 1970, 114 years after Juan’s brave sacrifice. It’s Central America’s second busiest airport, after Panama’s Tocumen International Airport.
There’s more to Costa Rica than meets the eye.
A Museum Named After Costa Rica’s National Hero
Do you want to learn more about Juan? In that case, visit the Museo Histórico Cultural Juan Santamaría (Juan Santamaría Historical and Cultural Museum) in Juan’s hometown of Alajuela. Entrance is free.
It features a permanent exhibition about the Filibuster War called Caminos de Libertad (Freedom Roads) i. The museum is located in an old military barracks and has a lecture space and a stage for plays, concerts, and other artistic activities.
There are plenty more museums to explore in Costa Rica!
See also: 10 Most Beautiful Museums in Costa Rica.
Learn Spanish Before Your Next Trip to Costa Rica
There’s no better way to learn about the history and culture of a country than by first learning its official language. Imagine learning about national holidays, delicious dishes, great music, fantastic literature, and, yes, national heroes like Juan Santamaría.
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