Story and photos by Bob Schulman
If you're planning a trip to Costa Rica around April 11, you should know that day is a major holiday honoring the country's national hero, Juan Santamaria.
His name shows up on roads, statues, billboards, storefronts and in songs. Even the country's international airport at its capital city of San Jose is named after him.
Who was he? Ask any “tico” (as Costa Ricans call themselves), and they'll tell you the story of how Santamaria – a drummer boy in the Costa Rican militia -- was drawn into a saga that helped shape the history of Central America. Chances are you'll hear different versions of the story, but they typically start by taking you back to the mid-1800s, when a gold rush in northern California was drawing fortune seekers from around the world.
Wannabe miners from the eastern U.S. and Europe gathered in New York, from which they sailed down the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts to Nicaragua, then crossed most of the country on waterways and the last stretch over land by stagecoach. After that, sailing ships took them up the Pacific coast to the Mexican port of Mazatlan for a little R&R, and then on to San Francisco.
Enter the billionaire
Here's where the plot thickens. The cross-Nicaraguan transit system was operated by Wall Street tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, and it made big bucks. What's more, Vanderbilt hoped to create an even bigger cash cow by getting the U.S. Congress to finance the construction of a canal (which Vanderbilt would build) across the country from coast to coast. But all this was threatened by a civil war raging in Nicaragua.
The plot got even thicker when soldier-of-fortune William Walker hopped on the stage. In 1855, he invaded Nicaragua with a mercenary army – reportedly financed by Vanderbilt – and seized control of the country, ending the civil war.
But Walker double-crossed Vanderbilt by handing the transit system over to the mogul's rivals. In retaliation, Vanderbilt prompted neighboring Costa Rica to declare war on Walker, then backed an incursion into Nicaragua by the Costa Rican militia. In the spring of 1856, they took on Walker's forces at Rivas, a key city on the Nicaraguan transit route just north of the Costa Rican border.
The Costa Ricans won, but their victory was short-lived. An outbreak of cholera decimated their ranks, and they went home.
A few months later, Walker won a rigged election and became president of Nicaragua. He ran the country for about a year – during which he re-legalized slavery (it had been banned in 1824) and changed the nation's official language to English – until a coalition of Central American forces backed by Vanderbilt forced his surrender and return to the U.S.
Walker's last hurrah was in 1860, when he tried to stir things up in Honduras and ended up facing a firing squad.
Enter the hero
Historians generally consider Walker's defeat at Rivas as the turning point in his career. It showed he wasn't invincible as some had feared at the time. The battle also showcased the courage of Santamaria, a 24-year-old laborer who'd joined the militia when Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora called on the country to take up arms against Walker. His moment of greatness came during the battle of Rivas on April 11, 1856, when his unit was ordered to take a strategically located building held by Walker's mercenaries.
Stepping out from behind cover, Santamaria ran down the street and threw a torch on the building's thatched roof, causing Walker's men to abandon it. Costa Rican forces then captured the town – but not before Santamaria was cut down by an enemy sniper.
Fast forward to modern times, and if you're in Costa Rica on April 11 you'll find yourself in a countrywide Fourth of July-like celebration of fiestas, parades and street dancing – all this to honor the patriotism of a lad who asked only one thing in case of his death: that the government look after his mother. It did.
And what about Vanderbilt's plans to build a canal across Nicaragua? The canal finally got built some 60 years later, but in Panama. And not by Vanderbilt's company.
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