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National Identity

Latin American Nationalism, Juan Santamaria Uniting A Nation, and how Costa Rica shaped its own identity.


Latin American Nationalism

Nationalism has always been a paramount theme in Latin America and how the politicians have been able to control their populations. The basic definition of nationalism is a collective state of mind or consciousness in which people believe their primary duty and loyalty is to the nation-state in a way that implies superiority and glorifies various overemphasizes national virtues. Leaders use this love and pride for one's nation to promote their agendas. Nationalism is key in forming the bonds that hold modern nations together by creating a cohesiveness among the population.

In order to create nationalism among a population, it is first necessary for them to identify themselves as belonging to a nation. The people need to feel a sense of unity by sharing things in common. Because Latin America shares a common colonial history, they share a major religion, and common language. Other more subtle cultural elements include food, music, dance, and even soccer.

Juan Santamaria Uniting A Nation

Costa Rica stands out in Latin America for its emphasis on education, conservation and social welfare instead of war or revolution. After gaining peaceful independence from Spain, they briefly joined as part of Mexico until 1826. Then they became part of the Central American Federation. In 1848, Costa Rica finally became a completely independent state. A civil war divided the country temporarily over the annexation. Other than this, Costa Rica has been the most peaceful country in Central America.

A sense of nationalism evolved only after a national effort against American filibuster William Walker changed Costa Rica’s view of their own nationality and their relationship with the rest of the world. Walker was a racist, egocentric, destructive, warmonger, which did not mix well with the peacefulness of the Costa Ricans.

In 1855, Walker saw an opportunity in Nicaragua while the country was undergoing extreme internal political turmoil. He quickly legalized slavery and continued to build up his army. His intention was to conquer neighboring countries as his power grew. Walker’s American influence provided Nicaraguans with guns and ammunition in order to take the land in Costa Rica.

To defend against this new threat, President Juan Mora led three thousand of his men to the town of Santa Rosa for a surprise attack against Walker’s 240 troops.  Successful in their surprise, the Costa Ricans left Walker’s army in shambles and who turned to alcohol to drown their sorrows.

Then again on April 11, Costa Rican history was forever changed. The Costa Rican army fired on Walker and his men as they entered Rivas. During this battle, Walker and his men were holding out in a thatched roof building. In a heroic act of bravery, young Costa Rican drummer Juan Santamaria volunteered to torch the building. Santamaria ran into the open street with his torch, leaving himself totally exposed to Walker’s gunfire. Santamaria managed to make it to the building and threw the torch on it before he fell from the shower of bullets. Santamaria did not kill anyone, he just scared them. As a result of Santamaria's display of courage and bravery against all odds, Costa Ricans still honor his memory. Santamaria also is said to have single handedly defeated Walker and his men as they fled the city that same night.

For a country with little previous national identity, Juan Santamaria, or at least the idea of him, acted to bring pride to the Costa Rican people. Santamaria’s heroism gave them a  sense of belonging to a nation. In 1891 a statue of him was put up in Alajuela. Still today, April 11 is a national holiday known as Juan Santamaria Day. Also, in schools the children still learn about Santamaria and there is even a song about this legendary war hero from Costa Rica.

Costa Rican Identity and Ethnic Relations

Although Costa Ricans share traits in common with other Central and South American countries, they pride themselves on being very distinctive and even superior to others in the region. Costa Ricans have a very unique look, especially for Central America. They are a mix of different races. Most Costa Rican’s consider themselves to be white. Being white is very important to Costa Rican sense of national identity since being white is considered to be of higher status. Many of them look very Spanish or European in coloring, yet are shorter in stature like many indigenous people. Many people from the Central Valley and some of the surrounding areas have very fair-skin, light colored hair, and clear eyes.  In the outlying areas, more people are considered to be mestizos, a mixture of European and Indigenous people.  On the Caribbean coast you find strong links to Afro-Caribbean lineage. In some of the mountain ranges, you can still find many indigenous tribes that have a distinctive look. Many of the pure-blood native inhabitants are darker skinned, shorter in stature, and have small, almond shaped eyes. In the northern region, the Costa Ricans have darker complexions as they have adapted to the strong sun and their Nicaraguan heritage.

Costa Ricans also like to emphasize that they are different by pointing out their country's high levels of education and health, its renowned national parks, and its history of democracy and political stability.

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