Juan Santamaría May Not Be Who We Think He Is

Juan Santamaría is Costa Rica’s most important hero, although the reason for his fame is the subject of some debate. In the mid-1800s, Costa Rica nearly fell under the control of American forces led by William Walker. Because Costa Rica did not have an army, the country’s defense rested in the hands of farmers and other civilians, who fought off the Americans with various tools and farm implements. Juan Santamaría, a young boy from the province of Alajuela, joined Costa Rica’s makeshift defense team.

The Costa Rican contingent fought fiercely, according to legend, and William Walker’s gang took refuge in a large house in Guanacaste—La Casona. As the Costa Ricans lay siege to La Casona, it became apparent that the only way to defeat the Americans would be to burn down the building itself. The leader of the Costa Rican fighters asked his forces to line up facing him. Then, the leader asked for a volunteer to step forward and take up the torch that would burn down La Casona. Juan Santamaría bravely stepped forward and seized the flaming torch, asking only that his mother be taken care of, in the event of his death. Juan Santamaría then set fire to La Casona and defeated the American forces, collapsing to his death moments later, from a bullet wound.

All across Costa Rica, Juan Santamaría is celebrated. Several statues depict him with his flaming torch. One of the most well-known stands in front of the Asamblea Legislativa, Costa Rica’s congressional building, and the other is in Alajuela, Juan Santamaría’s home. Costa Rica’s main airport is named after Juan Santamaría, and April 11 is a national holiday commemorating the day of Juan Santamaría’s death.

However, there is another side to the Juan Santamaría story. Costa Ricans never take themselves—or their national heroes—too seriously. Every Costa Rican schoolchild learns, in the classroom, the story of Juan Santamaría’s heroism. Outside the classroom, those same children laugh about a less heroic Juan Santamaría. In this other account, Juan Santamaría was more foolish than brave. He joined the Costa Rican fighters without fully understanding the conflict. When the Costa Rican forces lined up to face their leader and one brave soul was asked to step forward, the foolish Juan Santamaría stayed standing where he was. His more wily fellows each took a step backward, leaving Juan Santamaría a step ahead of them. He became the unwitting volunteer who had to take up the torch. All across the country, this other Juan Santamaría is the subject of many jokes.

Juan Santamaría’s name is a source of joy for all Costa Ricans—joy for a national hero and joy for a national myth gleefully subverted.