Indigenous Art and Culture
At the time Columbus arrived, there were an estimated 20,000 natives in Costa Rica. Since the Spanish came that number has greatly declined. Currently indigenous people make up an estimated 1.7% of the country’s total population. These groups—like the Bribri, Buruca, and Maleku, to name a few—are in constant struggle to keep their cultural and language alive as the modern world encroaches on their territory. Through arts and crafts and rituals they are able to pass down their traditions to younger generations.
Indigenous Art and Crafts
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 that is passed on from generation to generation, teaching about symbolism and encouraging the tribes themselves as well as other interested people how to preserve indigenous culture.
The art of creating masks in the town of Rey Curré, as Edixon 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, so that the wood will be fully dry. Then, the craftsman will cut a piece and measure the height, length and profile of this particular work.
With special instruments, the artist gives life to the wood 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 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.
Weaving is also a common 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 special 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 that are later carved by the artisans to depict the daily activities of the village and local animals. ‘Jícaras’ were commonly used for art 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 Boruka (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 conquer over the indigenous tribes using symbolism. The Boruka celebrations run from the 30th of December to the 2nd of January 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 you will see the locals immerse themselves in the game; the men dress up as devils, with their own handmade masks and clothing. They engage in a fight against the bull—a symbolic representation of the Spanish invader—strongly conveying a message of the ongoing fight against modernity and the loss of their culture.
The game is well developed and structured with ten different phases that play out over the four days. The devils are born at midnight of 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 the sunrise.
On the second and third days the battle takes its twists and turns, 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, whilst everyone continues drinking 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 in order to stay fresh, energized and keep the bull very 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 it 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 future as well. This ‘dance of the devils’ is performed every year so the younger generations don’t lose the important link to their history.