This is the story of a tribe which trespassed the unimaginable atrocities at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors and still managed to preserve their heritage and culture, albeit in smaller measures. This is the story of a tribe, bruised by the travesty of time yet triumphant in their perseverance. This is the story of Bruncas or Borucas and their indomitable spirit to survive while many lost their identity.
I recently got an opportunity to visit the tribal village of the Bruncas. We were looking for the indigenous tribe, their stories and their legends which could have given us the insight into their lives, culture, community and indigenous medicine. We stumbled upon such village which is at the forefront of preserving the tribesman’s culture and lives. Sadly, there are only 5100 Bruncas living in two villages. We met Harol, the son and his mother. Harol has learnt to speak English, to help the tribe connect with the many people who visit their villages to sneak a peek into their life.
The Boruca are an indigenous tribe of the South Pacific of Costa Rica, located between the Talamanca Mountains 20 km from the Republic of Panama. It is estimated that around 2,000 people live in the Boruca tribe in an area considered an indigenous reserve, where around 140Km² of land are protected for the benefit and use of them. According to the laws of Costa Rica, the tribes in the reserve, like the boruca, have the right to self-govern.
The native Boruca tribe (also called brunka or brunca) is known for its masks painted in vivid colors and carved in detail. But behind this mask there is a community, rich in customs, food, festivals, traditions and much more.
But the culture of the Boruca is more than a mask. The Boruca culture is based on the faith they have in the wisdom of the elders of the village and the Boruca legends that orally have managed to stay alive for centuries. The identity of the Boruca reflects a deep respect for the stories told, the nature that surrounds them and the community they share.
The legends of Cuarán: an important Boruca figure who fled in resistance to Spanish domination. To this day, many Borucas feel the presence of their spirit observing and caring for them. They also believe that he lives on a mountain from which the village is seen. Hernandez, like most Boruca, heard the story many times in his childhood.
Harol reported that the inhabitants of Boruca feel very proud of having survived the struggles that existed between the native tribes and the Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century, by making their village and sense of identity intact. While many indigenous tribes are considered defeated by the Spaniards, the Boruca have shown that a tribe cannot be defeated if its culture lives to this day. The Boruca culture is much more than just being alive.
Although the Boruca have maintained their identity intact, the Spanish colonization left an influence, mainly the presence of the Catholic Church and its traditions. In addition, Spanish is the main language in Boruca.
Anyway, many of the oldest Boruca traditions are still remembered and practiced today and can be appreciated through their crafts, legends and the pride of the Boruca identity in their identity and traditions.
From their efforts to resist Spanish colonization, the history of the Boruca has not been easy. Finally, agriculture alone was not enough to support the entire tribe and its people lived in conditions of extreme poverty. As a result, in the year 1970, a group of women led by Margarita Morales came together with the purpose of restoring the original crafts of the Boruca and the traditions that make this culture unique in its kind. The group was formed under the name "La Flor de Boruca."
In the following 30 years, the Boruca had a clear impact on their economy by increasing handicraft sales and by focusing on ecotourism and ethnotourism in Costa Rica. In 1985 they received help from the National Museum of Costa Rica to establish a museum in which they could tell the story of Boruca.
Inspired by the success of La Flor de Boruca, other organizations have been formed, focusing on the survival of Boruca traditions. Currently, it is estimated that 90% of the Boruca sell handmade crafts in their homes, local shops and also send them to other areas of Costa Rica.
Today, the Boruca are still struggling to preserve their identity. The historical conflict with the Spanish still maintains its influence against the efforts that are made today to maintain and preserve the Boruca identity, regardless of whether the culture is changing. Their ability to make masks, their dance of the devils and the unusual history of a group of organized women that changed the course of the economy, daily life in Boruca has changed to focus on preserving their culture.
The legends, which are passed down to generation, are a part of Boruca's spirituality. Each story honors the connection between humans and nature. The establishments in the area where the Boruca legends originated are considered sacred and receive a lot of respect from the inhabitants. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Boruca and the neighboring tribes believed in a god named Sibú, and the beliefs have not been completely lost. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Spaniards introduced the Catholicism and nowadays most of the inhabitant identify themselves as tale while respect and spirituality are held of old stories
Food and agriculture
The Boruca are a sustainable agricultural community. The fields are located above and below the hills of its mountainous landscape. Families grow rice, beans, coffee, cocoa, fruits, corn and tomatoes. They also breed cows, chickens and pigs. Most of the inhabitants cultivate only enough food to feed their families. Rice and beans are essential in any type of food. Corn tortillas and tomatoes are included almost as often, while bananas are a delicious addition to breakfast or as a dessert.
We had a lunch of chicken, curtido and rice. This was followed by the home brewed maize chicha, slightly alcoholic, slightly sweet and acidic at the same time. This was the tribe’s way of getting drunk. The woman who made the best chicha was regarded very highly in the society.
Although the town has a small medical center, some inhabitants still practice the traditional methods of Boruca medicine. Some of the totally natural and plant-based remedies are taken from the surrounding hills and streams. These ancient practices are well known in the region, especially for women's health.
Harol mentioned about the potion the healer prepares for the tribe. No one else is allowed to partake of the medicine, at least that’s what we learnt as our polite enquiry for the potion did not find favor.
Art and craft
Dance Festival of the Devils
Costa Rica Dance of the Diablitos', It is an annual festival of three days that begins on December 31, organized by the people of Boruca. The meeting of Boruca in their villages and the mayor begin the celebrations at midnight on December 30, blowing a series of powerful sounds from their conch shells. Then, the 'Bull and the Devils go from town to town dancing on the road, pausing for a drink of Chicha on the fly. At the end of the four nights, the 'Bull' is ceremoniously killed.
The males of the tribe perform a ritual dance recreating the Spanish conquest with elaborate costumes.
The masks of Boruca are of special importance since it gives them the power to fight and dispel the evil of Spanish intruders. It recalls a time when the Boruca Indians resisted the Spanish conquistadors who tried to capture them for slavery. The conquerors were devout Catholics and feared terribly the demonic images portrayed by the Boruca masks. This helped the Indians in their efforts to resist the capture; A small triumph in his battle for freedom. Boruca's resistance was one of intimidation, using primitive masks, bows and arrows against the muskets and swords of the Spaniards. They cleverly provoked the Spaniards in what became known as the 'Game of the Devils'. The Boruca were not 'worshipers of the devil', they worshiped a 'creator of all things' called Sibu; The fear of Spanish to the signs of evil was simply ascertained. Today, during the reconstructions of those battles, the Spaniards are represented by someone dressed as the 'Bull
Masks: Centuries ago, when the Spanish Catholic invaders came to capture and enslave them, they discovered that their masks helped protect them. Then the native Indians began to carve, paint and wear masks. This was the only defense of the Indians, used at every opportunity, to intimidate the conquistadores who carried muskets and muskets, which would then be broken into a hasty retreat. These Spaniards were terrified of the demons. Today the same masks are symbolic of those victories. And they are recreated as pieces of decorative art, provoking precious memories of the cultural heritage of their tribe.
Drums: Nowadays, the drums are made of hollow cedar or balsa trunks with cowhide stretched over both ends. A rope is used to hold the skins in place. At first, instead of cowhide, the skin of boar was used with strips of the same leather.
Textiles: Boruca women are traditionally taught how to weave, although nowadays they are taught to men as well. Boruca have a long tradition of dyeing colored threads by hand from natural sources such as the leaves of the sangrilla tree, the bark of the saithe tree, clay, indigo plants and, occasionally, the ink of a mollusk. After spinning locally grown cotton yarn, they use a loom to weave the yarn into bags, tapestries, purses and much more.
The language: Although only a handful of elders speak the Boruca language, their preservation is an important part of the Boruca's efforts to maintain their identity. Over time, Spanish became the dominant language and the number of inhabitants fluent in the native Less than 40 members of the tribe can speak the language fluently. Many of them only understand Brunka when someone speaks, but rarely speak it. Most of them speak a 'patois', a mixture of the Boruca language, other dialects with a hint of thrown Spanish.
I wish enough effort is made in coming years to save the tribe from extinction. The sporadic conflict with the civilians and the use of violence and hatred against then does not help. When you come to Costa Rica, please do find time to visit their native land, your visit goes a long way in helping them to live with dignity and peace.