San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How Costa Rica Broke From Spain

We like to think that independence came peacefully to Central America on Sept. 15, 1821. It’s true there were no bloody conflicts as there were in North and South America, but Spain’s King Ferdinand VII didn’t just let the remaining colonies slip away, either.

There was rebellion in the six Central American provinces that made up the Capitanía General de Guatemala (Captaincy General of Guatemala), even in Costa Rica, far from that epicenter of discontent and intrigue, Guatemala City.

The region was described as having an intellectual current passing through it, and two new newspapers, El Editor Constitutional and El Amigo de la Patria were pro-independence.

Everyone knew about Simon Bolívar liberating Venezuela and Colombia through bitter and bloody fighting, while to the north, Mexico had gained its independence in 1810 and was busy forming an empire that reached from California to the Yucatán under ruler Agustín de Iturbide.

The Central American colonists had reasons to rebel. Spain still controlled commerce, tax collection and all important government posts. The Catholic Church, strongly tied to the monarchy, had lost a lot of favor in the New World. The Inquisition, which punished those deemed heretics by burning them at the stake or banishing them to the primitive interiors of the colonies, was still feared and was not abolished until 1834.

Then, too, the diezmo, an obligatory 10 percent tithe, went to support the church.

By that time, Napoleon had invaded Spain; French language and customs were the new order, and French officials overrode colonial officialdom.

Agitation for independence grew throughout 1821 with public speakers, graffiti on walls, flyers nailed to walls and doors, and shouts of “¡Viva!” in the streets. When the province of Chiapas seceded from the Capitanía to join the Mexican empire with no reprisals, the rest of the colonies, emboldened, demanded independence from a failing and ailing Spain.

On Sept. 15, 1821, Gavino Gainza, governor of the Capitanía, held a meeting of 56 leaders from the military, the church and  society to decide what to do, while an unruly crowd pressured from every window and doorway with shouts and slogans.

Then the unexpected happened. Some of the outside agitators set off firecrackers, and the delegates, thinking an insurrection was upon them, wrote up a Declaration of Independence that did not take into account what to do once they were independent, and other fine points.

The finished document did not reach Costa Rica until Oct. 13, and became official here on Oct. 29, 1821, with the five remaining colonies forming a confederation. In November 1838, under President Braulio Carrillo, Costa Rica left the confederation and became a sovereign nation.

Some interesting facts about life in 1821: –England was a major sea power and dominated the Caribbean, though it held only a couple of outposts on the mainland. British influence was strong in Central America.

–Ladies smoked cigars and cigarettes, which shocked European visitors. Central America was a big tobacco producer, and a tobacco factory founded in 1784 was one of the first buildings in San José.

–Gentlemen wore swords and used them.

–Houses at the time were whitewashed adobe with dirt floors and glassless windows with shutters. They lacked patios and were built right up to the street. Humble homes had one great room, and people gathered around the hearth for cooking. The houses were dark and poorly ventilated, and water was collected from street runoff and not very clean. The homes of “important families,” merchants or descendants of the conquistadors, were larger, with parlors for entertaining and inside patios.

–Cartago, east of the modern capital of San José, was the center of government, commerce and society. Ladies of the upper echelon wore dresses and shawls imported from Europe, which were so valuable that they were willed to daughters and nieces.

–Freedom from Spain meant freedom to trade with the rest of the world, which gave rise to the coffee boom that followed.

Independence a lo Tico

Independence Day celebrations officially start Sunday at 6 p.m., when Ticos will join together and sing the national anthem, followed by a countrywide re-creation of the spreading of the news of independence, in which Costa Ricans will take to the streets carrying candle lanterns. That evening in Cartago, President Oscar Arias will accept a torch carried all the way from Guatemala to signify the spread of independence through Central America. On Monday morning, every major city in the country will host a parade presented by students. Government offices, the U.S. Embassy and most businesses will be closed for the holiday.



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