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Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

The Illusion of Openness:

Identity and Resistance in Boruca, Costa Rica

Marina is fifty-five years old. She has the kind of hair that might be grey or might be black but is definitely expansive, and her sitting body resembles that of a female Buddha perched on her holy stool. She is sorting beans with wrinkled fingers, but her main job is weaving the traditional bags and clothes that are native to her indigenous people, the Boruca. “We’ll tell you a lot,” she says in musical Spanish. “But not everything. Some things we keep to ourselves.” (Marina. Personal Interview. March 14, 2012.)

I asked her about a feeling I experienced during the time that I lived in Boruca, a small town of indigenous peoples nestled in the valleys of southern Costa Rica. On one hand, I was struck by the willingness of the Boruca people to share with me their heritage of oral history, their crafts, their outlook on life; but on the other hand, I had the nagging feeling that there was something I wasn’t being told. When I asked the question, Marina’s wrinkled digits paused in their work. There was no standard answer to my question.

But in that small moment in Marina’s dirt-floored home, I stumbled upon an experience intrinsic to indigenous peoples in Latin America: as ethnic tourism becomes an increasingly important part of indigenous life, as tribal secrets become commodities to be traded for money, keeping hold of traditional identities turns into a bigger challenge than ever before.

Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

The fight for indigenous identity has been fought since the first Europeans left their boot prints in the sand. At first, the Boruca fought with bows and arrows, with the strength of their arm and their cooperation as a unit. (Indeed, there is no mention of Boruca in any account of the Spanish conquest of Latin America precisely because the Boruca were the only people to defeat their conquerors. [Santos.

Personal Interview. March 9, 2012.]) Then they fought amongst each other, and for a time they lost what it meant to be Boruca. Now they fight with the written word.

They sign contracts, meet with government officials and use the Internet to get their message across.

But what are they fighting for? On first glance, even on second or third glance, the little town is barely different from any other rural Costa Rican settlement: they have pulperías, a soccer field, a school, dirt roads shared between horses, motorcycles and delivery trucks bearing familiar brand logos. The people of Boruca watch TV, make rice in rice cookers and have favorite American bands. They have Facebook accounts. They lament their homework load and paint their nails.

They wear clothes that are made in China and sport American designs. Only the very old grew up with the native tongue caressing their ears.

They have been fighting for so long: have they retained their identity at all?

Absolutely.

The first point to resistance in Boruca must be to dissuade the notion that if someone wears foreign clothes and eats foreign food he must have lost his culture: Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

the easily visible aspects of culture are the easiest to change but the least representative of cultural vibrancy. For example, the French and the Germans dress quite similarly, drive similar cars and live in similar houses, but their worldviews are dramatically different. (This example only goes so far, however, because there is little history of conquest or dominance between the two nations.) Ultimately, though, the fact that the people of Boruca have adopted some external factors from their conquerors does not in itself decide that the Boruca have lost the battle for cultural independence.

Secondly, despite the inevitable encroachment of Western products as globalization’s fingers prod into more and more places, the Boruca are focused and intent upon keeping their culture. (While it is good that they devote energy to maintaining their legacy, it is also important to note that a cultural legacy is no longer a right.) Most of the town’s economy is based on tourism; most of the men work carving the ornate traditional masks that commemorate their defeat of the Spanish; many of the women earn a living by making the traditional weavings.

Over the forty-year span of the cultural revival movement in Boruca, more than just the professions have changed. Where once it was considered a shame to be indigenous, (children who left the community to go to high school would lie about their origins, [Morales, Margarita. Personal Interview. March 7, 2012]), now the majority of residents of Boruca are proud of their indigenous heritage. There are lessons in the traditional language in schools, and they celebrate their festival juego de los diablitos every year and with gusto.

Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

Part of their cultural revival is the commercialization of everything they hold most dear. The masks are only partially viewed as symbolic of victory over the Spanish; they also represent money, pure and simple. The weavings are a source of income, not just a part of the culture. The juego de los diablitos is a big moneymaker, too. It would seem that in the process of regaining their culture, the Boruca turned their precious heritage into souvenirs for the ethnically inclined.

This is because there is a third aspect to Boruca’s miraculous maintenance of their culture, something that goes beyond turning crafts into money and teaching the language in school. While the visitor to Boruca feels that she is getting the complete experience, learning how to weave, hearing the traditional legends, taking part in the daily life of an indigenous community, in fact that visitor is only experiencing exactly what the village wants her to.

In the wood-and-bamboo rancho where they make the traditional masks, Santos and his father Don Melharmino talk about the traditional healing of the Boruca. “We will never share what herbs to use, or how to find them,” Santos says.

His father admits to knowing how to cure snakebites, the ultimate sign of prestige among practitioners of the old methods. Melharmino also knows the location of stones carved with the original alphabet and language of the Boruca before conquest (Melharmino. Personal Interview. March 9, 2012) According to what is known by outside scholars, no such alphabet exists.

So we can say that in Boruca, two currents of cultural survival struggling against one another. On one hand, the Boruca are doing pretty well for themselves.

Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

While they are poorer than non-indigenous Costa Ricans, and while they exist far from the dialogue of rights and equal access on the world stage, the three thousand residents of the small village have a culture and a history that ties them to their home. They have tourism to support them, cleverly turning their legacy into economy, and they have a sense of community that is not easily broken.

But on the other hand, the Boruca have not one the larger war for the guarantee of long-term survival; all the techniques mentioned above hinge on the outside world letting them persist as such. As soon as the national government or even the province’s government decides to break the fragile accord, all will be lost.

In order to secure their future of cultural autonomy, the Boruca will need to become their own advocates and their own scholars. The Boruca must present their reality as one worth preserving: it must be studied and analyzed not only by outsiders but also by the Boruca themselves.

The tribe has come a long way from defending their rights with bows and arrows, and there is still a long fight ahead. But not to be ignored is the strength of resistance that occurs every day in Boruca, as well as in all indigenous communities fighting for survival across the world. For Marina, the wispy-haired bean sorter and weaver of traditional clothing, every time she sits down the loom she is resisting homogenization. Every time she tells her daughter the old tales, every time she drinks the traditional chicha she is protecting her own worldview. These small acts take courage, and they are worth protecting.

Sydney Boles

Contemporary Indigenous Peoples in Latin America

Spring, 2012

Jacobo Schifter

Bibliography

Marina. Personal Interview. March 14, 2012

Santos. Personal Interview. March 9, 2012

Melharmino. Personal Interview. March 9, 2012

Rowe, John H. “The Incas Under Spanish Colonial Institutions.” University of California – Berkeley

Elphick, Michael. “Theological Resistance to the Conquest of Latin America.”

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