Juan Santamaria of Costa Rica
was immortalized during the war between Costa Rica and the Southern Confederacy of America during the 1850s.
The Southern Confederacy was led by William Walker, a highly controversial figure who sought to take over and enslave parts of Central America to start an empire for the Confederacy. Juan Santamaria’s actions were essential in contributing to the Costa Rican militia’s victory against William Walker and, to this day, he remains the country’s icon with his heroic exploits retold again and again throughout Costa Rica.
Little is known in detail about Juan Santamaria’s early life except that he was born in the city of Alajuela, now Costa Rica’s second major city after San Jose, on August 29th, 1831. At the time, the vast majority of Costa Rica was made up of the peasantry who survived off the land. Juan Santamaria would probably have remained completely unknown were it not for his involvement with the Costa Rican militia against William Walker.
Throughout the mid-1800s, one of the most economically viable means of transporting goods from one side of America to the other was through Nicaragua. This made the Central American country’s thin strip of land extremely important for America’s business interests. When civil war broke out in Nicaragua in 1854, the American William Wallace led a group of some 300 mercenaries to support the Nicaraguan Democratic Party in their fight against the Legitimist Party. The reason was to capitalize on the country’s political instability.
Following high profile victories such as at the Batalla de Rivas or the First Battle of Rivas, in June 1855, Walker began to gain the upper hand and exercised a great deal of influence over the Democratic Party’s leaders. After the defeat of the Legitimists and a farcical election, Walker became the official leader of Nicaragua
. A controversial figure, William Walker is America’s most renowned filibuster, a term used at the time to describe those who led private armies into Latin America for their own personal gains.
Having watched Walker increase his power from across the border, Costa Rica’s President, Juan Rafael Mora, was concerned over the safety of his own country and therefore declared war on Walker and his forces. Mora called the Costa Ricans to arms
and formed a strong militia that was predominantly made up of peasants including the young Juan Santamaria.
After a series of early battles in which the Costa Rican militia made gains, fighting between the two forces came to a head at the Second Battle of Rivas in April 1956. The Costa Rican militia outnumbered Walker’s forces but a stalemate
was reached when Walker and his troops strategically locked themselves into the Méson de Guerra from which they held an advantageous firing position and could easily shoot anyone who tried to attack.
As the legend goes, General Mora asked his men if anyone would be brave enough to approach the building and set it on fire. It was at this point that Juan Santamaria, an unsuspecting drummer boy from rural Costa Rica
, volunteered himself on the condition that someone would look after his mother in the event of his death. Juan Santamaria was successful in setting the Méson de Guerra on fire
, which drove the filibusters out of their stronghold.
Unfortunately, he did not survive the injuries he sustained in the process. Santamaria fits the role of an archetypal heroic figure perfectly as a young man from a humble background who sacrificed his own life for the greater good of his country. His actions allowed the Costa Ricans to win the Second Battle of Rivas, which helped assure their overall victory against William Walker’s forces. The story of Santamaria the Hero was strongly promoted by the Costa Rican government in 1891
as a source of national identity and a figure to unite the Costa Rican people.
Since then, his legacy has remained strong and there are numerous statues around the country
in honor of Santamaria that depict him running with a torch. Juan Santamaria Day is a national holiday in Costa Rica celebrated on April 11th
, the same day as his death. More recently, Costa Rica’s biggest airport, in San Jose, was renamed the Juan Santamaria International Airport in honor of the national hero.