Juan Santamaría and American imperialism

The day before our final exam, our teacher took us with him to tour the Museum of Juan Santamaría in Alajuela, Costa Rica. A couple blocks from the museum, we found a statue of Juan Santamaría. I had no idea who he was, or why he is a national hero in Costa Rica. I thought that he might be a famous general or president.

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Juan Santamaría

What I found at the museum in Alajuela was surprising—Juan Santamaría wasn’t a great leader, he was a young drummer boy in the Costa Rican army. I also had no idea that the history of Costa Rica in the 19th century is directly tied up with the United States. In fact, Santamaría’s iconic status came from his death at the Second Battle of Rivas in Nicaragua, 1856, while fighting against American forces headed by the filibuster William Walker.

The filibusters were a group of people from the United States during the 19th century who were believers in ‘manifest destiny’—that it was God’s will for the United States to conquer Central and South America, and change their backward ways. The filibusters invaded Central America, including Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in an attempt to set up colonies and ‘Americanize’ the land and people by force.

In Nicaragua, Walker and the filibusters intervened in a civil war, joining some Nicaraguan forces and defeating the opposing ‘Partido Legitimista’. Walker then attempted to invade Costa Rican land, but was stopped at the Battle of Santa Rosa. Costa Rica declared war against the filibusters and pushed into Nicaragua. The filibusters were defeated at the Second Battle of Rivas, in which Juan Santamaría died after setting fire to an important hostel for the filibusters during the battle.

Obviously, William Walker and the filibusters failed, but it is strange to think how different the outcome could have been. At one point, Walker tried to establish himself as president of Nicaragua, and Americanize the country through reinstating slavery and declaring English as the official language.

It was a little surprising to see what a blatantly negative force America was in this part of Costa Rican history, and this reminded me of the way a lot of the U.S. history I learned in grade school was selective and whitewashed to make us always appear as ‘the good guys’.

A painting of Juan Santamaría setting fire to the ‘Mesón de Guerra’ during the Second Battle of Rivas.
A painting of Juan Santamaría setting fire to the ‘Mesón de Guerra’ during the Second Battle of Rivas.