Local Communities: Art & Culture of Costa Rica Indigenous People
Costa Rica Indigenous Arts and Crafts
When Columbus arrived, there were an estimated 20,000 natives in Costa Rica. Since the Spanish came, that number has dramatically declined. Indigenous people comprise an estimated 1.7% of the country’s total population. These groups—like the Bribri, Buruca, and Maleku, to name a few—constantly struggle to keep their culture and language alive as the modern world encroaches on their territory. They can pass their traditions to younger generations through arts and crafts and rituals.
Making local crafts is one of the few profitable economic activities Costa Rican indigenous tribes pursue. This ancestral heritage is more than just a manner to provide income. It’s a tradition passed on from generation to generation, teaching about symbolism and encouraging the tribes and other interested people how to preserve indigenous culture.
The art of creating masks in the town of Rey Curré, as Edison Mora—an indigenous artist—describes, begins when a tree is born in the forest. This tree whispers to the craftsman the inspiration on how to create the mask. The process continues by cutting down the tree, a step that must be carefully planned according to the lunar calendar and tides to dry the wood thoroughly. Then, the craftsman will cut a piece and measure this particular work’s height, length, and profile.
The artist gives life to the wood with special instruments and creates two mask types: traditional and ecological. The first one is used by indigenous men in ‘el Juego de Los Diablitos’ and features a colorful hand-painted surface with designs that include horns, tusks, and other animal parts. The ecological mask shows the animals that are significant in the lives of indigenous tribes: different bird species, farm animals, wild cats, and many more. They are compiled to demonstrate the environment in which indigenous men and animals coexist in harmony.
Costa Rica Weaving
Weaving is also a typical craft in this local town. Indigenous textiles are created by local women who first collect the cotton from the trees, dye it in different colors with natural inks and then turn it into thread by firmly rolling it in a unique wooden device. The next step starts creating a pattern thread by thread in a warping artifact before it is finally woven by hand into different styles, such as handbags and coin purses, among others. Although the process might seem long, indigenous women with experience might only take one hour to complete the three final steps.
Finally, in Rey Curré, you can see vessel-shaped crafts called ‘jícaras,’ made from hardened fruits later carved by the artisans to depict the daily activities of the village and local animals. ‘Jícaras’ were commonly used for artistic expression by Mesoamerican indigenous tribes, and they can be found all over the region. In Costa Rica,’ jicarás’ are currently used by indigenous people as kitchen utensils and, of course, as cups to drink ‘chicha,’ the well-known indigenous drink made from corn.
Indigenous Traditions – Bruncas’ ‘The Dance of the Devils’
The Bourke (Boruca) and Rey Curré towns are part of the few remaining Costa Rican indigenous tribes; both share the Brunka ethnic heritage and language and are located in the southeast of the country near Buenos Aires de Puntarenas.
Every year these communities celebrate the well-known Juego de Los Diablitos—which translates to ‘The Dance of the Devils’—a 500 years old tradition of performance with masks that tells the tale of the Spanish conquest over the indigenous tribes using symbolism. The Bourke celebrations run from December 30th to January 2nd every year, and Rey Curré’s are from January 28th to February 2nd.
While visiting the communities is not a luxury trip, it is indeed a place out of time, dense with mythology and symbolism. During four days of performances, the locals immerse themselves in the game; the men dress up as devils with their handmade masks and clothing. They engage in a fight against the bull—a symbolic representation of the Spanish invader—powerfully conveying a message of the ongoing battle against modernity and the loss of their culture.
The game is well developed and structured with ten different phases over the four days. The devils are born at midnight on the first day, where children, adults, and Los mayors—the name given to the senior indigenous leaders—will dance in joy and drink chicha, a drink of fermented corn, until sunrise.
The battle takes twists and turns on the second and third days, accentuated by the drums and flutes. The bull faces the devils, taking them through the village, visiting different houses, walking the unpaved roads, and running from side to side around the plantain trees, while everyone drinks chicha. The drink initially represents the first sweat of the bull, but by the end represents its blood.
The devils challenge the bull, push him around and confront him. Sometimes there can be twenty men against one bull—incarnated by the strongest men in the village. Men switch around to stay fresh and energized and keep the bull fierce so it can repeatedly push the devils to the ground. It is not uncommon to see indigenous men with bumps and bruises on their faces due to the contact between the bull and the wooden masks that protect their faces. This game is no joke. Neither women nor children participate due to the strength of the spectacle between the opponents.
By the fourth day, the bull has conquered the devils, and they die, as is foretold by modern history. Nevertheless, at sunset, the final part of the tradition takes place: the devils are re-born through magic and kill the bull. They burn him and drink his blood. The symbolic ending of the tale of the Brunkas depicts their culture, which has been re-born from the ashes and is still alive today. It’s a bold statement about the future as well. This ‘dance of the devils’ is performed yearly so the younger generations don’t lose the critical link to their history.
FAQs of Art and Culture of Costa Rica Indigenous People
What kind of art is Costa Rica known for?
An oxcart has been used to pull coffee beans, sugar cane, and other goods over the years. But oxcarts in Costa Rica are famous for the painting and the colors put on the cart, as not all ox cart decorations are alike. You will see a lot of decorated ox carts in parades and fiestas in Costa Rica.
What is a traditional craft in Costa Rica?
The oxcart is the most popular in Costa Rica. If you are genuinely interested in seeing some oxcarts, there is a town north of San Jose, Sarchi, that has a factory. But there are plenty of other crafts, such as paintings, wood crafts, furniture, pottery, and jewelry.
What do the Bribri people do?
The Bribri people are the most famous indigenous group in Costa Rica, as they live a sustainable life and depend on themselves. They will sell their arts and crafts to tourists and are separated from technology. The primary source of income comes from growing plantains and cacao.
Where do the Bribri people live?
The Bribri group lives in the province of Limon. Closer to the border of Panama, the people are scattered throughout the Talamanca Mountain range and the southern islands, isolated from others in Costa Rica. Some Bribri folks have gone out to explore Costa Rica, but the Bribri people are very close and stay within the tribe.
What does the name Bribri mean?
Translated into Spanish, Bribri means valiente. Valiente means brave and courageous in English. The indigenous people have withstood the test of time and focused on their culture, values, and traditions.