San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What’s In a Name? The Origins of Popular Place and Street Names around San José

PASEO de los Estudiantes. Cuesta de Moras. Paseo Colón. Paso de la Vaca. All are place names that stand out among the numbered streets and avenues of San José. How did they get their names? And what has Paso de la Vaca (Cow Crossing) to do with cows? Or Cuesta de Moras (Blackberry Hill) with blackberries?Numbered streets may seem unoriginal, but at least you know where you are when you arrive at Calle 6, Avenida 2. The number system came into being in San José in 1905 to eliminate confusion, and was adopted by other cities as well, though the preferred way to describe a location is still “100 meters east and 25 meters south” of some well-known landmark.BEFORE 1850, the avenues of midtown San José had names such as La Libertad (Liberty), Los Hermanos (The Brothers), La Gobernadora (The Governor) and Artillería Sabana (Sabana Artillery), which ran west to La Sabana where the army drilled.Other streets bore names such as President, Independence, Concord, Peace and Alameda, which is now Avenida 10. Later, new names were affixed according to what lay along the route. Streets were named Calle de la Fábrica (Factory Street), de la Universidad (University), del Seminario (Seminary), de Chapuí (Asylum) and de Catedral (Cathedral) in the downtown area.The 1890s was an era of prosperity, thanks to coffee exports and general economic improvement in Latin America. It was also a decade of French influence in the establishment of parks, plazas, fountains and statues. One result was a government decision to make all streets 20 meters wide, allowing for generous sidewalks, Parisian style, without realizing that every building in the city would have to be torn down to widen the streets. The law was rescinded in 1895, and street width was set at 14 meters, which may explain why the sidewalks are so narrow today.Here’s an explanation of several popular street names in San José:Paseo de las Damas. Avenida 3, in front of the National Library and the Atlantic Station. In 1890, the railroad to the Caribbean port city of Limón was completed, and this marked an important stage in the country’s development, especially in commerce and communications. This being the “glorious era” and still under French influence, the new station called for a walkway lined with trees between the station and the downtown area, which became known as Paseo de las Damas. Although the name suggests a parade of strolling ladies in long silk skirts (one definition of damas is “ladies”), the damas were juniper berry trees (Citharexylum caudatum) that grew to great heights, produced beautiful fragrant flowers and housed bats that left stains on everything until public clamor resulted in the trees’ removal.Paseo de los Estudiantes. Calle 9, originally known as the Carretera a Desamparados (Highway to Desamparados). The little plaza in front of La Soledad Church was once the neighborhood market where farmers from Desamparados, south of San José, sold their products.Around 1900, this market moved to Avenida 14, Calles 9/11, where it remains today, though farmers now come in trucks rather than oxcarts.The plaza became a green area where students (in Spanish, estudiantes) from the Liceo de Costa Rica and the Colegio Superior de Señoritas met. During the Federico Tinoco dictatorship (1917-19), the area was the scene of student protests against the government. Today, afterschool hours find the sidewalks of Paseo de los Estudiantes filled with students in gray uniforms from the nearby Liceo de Costa Rica.Desamparados. The name means “the abandoned”; why should this lively canton so close to San José have such a forlorn name?Back in the early 1800s, the then-tiny village was called Dos Cercas (Two Fences), after the way it was described in the first deeds for the area. According to these documents, in 1817, Manuel Antonio Aguilar sold to José Ana Jiménez “a pasture in Two Fences along the road to Aserrí.” Some historians even point to this area as the location of the lost city of Garcimuñoz, founded by the Conquistadors in 1561.The village of Dos Cercas, like all Costa Rican villages, had a church and patron saint; the saint chosen by this town’s parish was La Virgen de Los Desamparados (the Virgin of the Abandoned).A statue of the virgin was brought from Guatemala in the early l800s, and is presently housed in the Joaquín García Monge museum in Desamparados.Paseo Colón. Like the country’s currency, this major boulevard was named for Christopher Columbus, the first European tourist to these shores (Colón is the Spanish form of Columbus). The thoroughfare was dedicated to the famous explorer in 1932, partly because someone erroneously measured the length of the street at 1,492 meters, and thought it was fitting. The street existed long before that time as a dirt road connecting San José to the western suburb of Escazú and the town of Santa Ana, southwest of the capital.In the 1700s, smoking had become a fad in the old country, and tobacco was a big crop in the Central Valley, generating a movement of people into the area. In 1793-94, Manuel de la Torre y Romero laid out the city of San José in squares, but only up to Calle 10. West of that was a common area for pastures and La Sabana Park. Around the 1850s, after the establishment of the hospitals, this part of Avenida Central became popular for commercial and government buildings, and the tranvía (electric trolley) ran along this avenue. In 1932, the name was changed to Paseo Colón.Hatillo or Los Hatillos. This name, according to legend – or gossip – comes from the word hato, which means “a head of 100 cattle.” Purportedly, one farmer kept his hato corralled in the area, followed by other farmers with their hatos, and the area became known as Hatillos.Cuesta de Moras. The famous “hill of blackberries” around Avenida Central and Calles 15/17 has nothing to do with the juicy fruit, as the name might imply, but rather to the Mora family. The distinguished Moras trace their Costa Rican ancestors to Juan de Mora Salado, who died here in 1621. Among his descendants are former Presidents Juan Mora Fernández, the country’s first head of state, and Juan Rafael Mora Porras, who organized Costa Rican forces against U.S. filibuster William Walker in the Campaign of 1856.In the early 1700s, thanks to the generosity of the Spanish crown, Juan and Basilio Mora owned large farms along the road from the former capital, Cartago, east of San José, to what was then the village of Boca del Monte (San José), where they kept cattle and grew wheat. As long ago as 1763, the name Cuesta de Moras was used in documents to identify the area.Paso de la Vaca. This refers not to the market known by this name but to Calle 8, near the Torres River, which was once the river crossing for the route to Heredia, north of San José. Back in early times, it was the custom for people to erect life-size Nativities for the Christmas season, which lasted until Candlemas Day, Feb. 2. It was also customary to have a real donkey and ox in the Nativity scene to keep the Christ child warm. Around 1840, the family occupying the land along this route had no donkey or ox, so they put their cows (vacas, in Spanish) in the Holy Family’s abode, and all those passing along this highly transited road began calling it Paso de la Vaca. The name still sticks.Old photos of some of the above can be seen at Information for this article is courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, the National Library, historian Guillermo Villegas and taxi driver Rodolfo.

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