Over the weekend, Costa Rica will celebrate its 1821 independence from Spain with parades, a torch ceremony, traditional music and dancing. Ticos in major cities around the world also join in the festivities, hosting their own events to connect to the homeland.
Sept. 15, 1821, is a date Costa Rica shares with four other Central American countries. On that date, representatives from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, signed “La Acta de Independencia,” which asserted they were free of the Spanish Empire. The signing came in the wake of a series of battles in places like Mexico and South America for independence.
Unlike other independence declarations, the Central American states faced no ensuing war for their liberation. Spain was unable to respond, exhausted by other Latin American wars and by a previous war to reclaim itself from Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest in 1813. Spain actually was supportive of Central American independence, as the region had become more of a burden for the empire than a treasure.
News of independence would not reach Costa Rican soil until almost a month later, when a messenger arrived in the old capital of Cartago, on Oct. 13. At the time, not all Ticos welcomed the news.
Costa Rica did not become an independent state until 1838, when it separated from the Central American republic.
This weekend’s celebration
The Freedom Torch’s journey through Central America is the most high-profile event of the weekend. Students and relay runners carry the torch across the isthmus, including Costa Rica, and hand it off to each other at each border and other points along the way.
The torch entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua at 10 a.m. on Friday at the northwestern border town of Peñas Blancas. Education Minister Leonardo Garnier received it for Costa Rica. The torch then journeyed to the old capital of Cartago, in the country’s interior. President Laura Chinchilla will receive it in Cartago at 8 p.m. Some 20,000 students from across the country will attend as part of planned festivities.
In the modern capital of San José, students from 16 schools and colleges in the metropolitan area will participate in a parade in Parque de la Merced in downtown San José, during the day on Sunday. Parades will include traditional music and dance performances from Costa Rican students.
For students, the patriotic parades are both exciting and festive, and they help foster lifelong nationalistic values of pride and community.
Starting Saturday, children begin displaying colorful paper lanterns to mark an Independence Day tradition that began in the 1800s. For the Desfiles de Faroles, or nighttime lantern parades, many kids make their own lanterns in the shape of little houses and other objects. In many towns, residents gather in the street to sing the National Anthem at 6 p.m. on Saturday, usually about the time the torch arrives in San José on its way to Cartago.
The National Archives has the copy of the “Acta de Independencia” that traveled from Guatemala to Costa Rica in 1821, and on Friday it hosted an event that included all the patriotic trappings such as music, colored lanterns and an exhibition of Independence-era documents.
As part of celebrations for the Mes de la Patria, buildings, businesses and even cars are adorned with Costa Rican flags throughout the month.
The history of independence
Unlike other famous independence dates of the New World, such as in the U.S., Mexico, or Haiti, Central American states did not meet resistance from the colonizing country. Many states continued to live as part of a larger union throughout the region. As Costa Rican constitutional lawyer Julio Jurado wrote in a 2012 Tico Times column on independence, the date marks a beginning.
“For Costa Ricans, the importance of this date is that it represents the beginning of the process through which we started to define ourselves as a nation,” Jurado wrote.
University of Costa Rica history professor David Díaz explained that Central American independence had its roots in the continent-wide resistance to French domination in the years before 1821. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, its one-time ally, sparking a war that engulfed Spain’s New World colonies until 1814.
This prompted resistance in the colonies, leading to independence in Mexico, for example. Spain’s King Ferdinand VII returned to power in 1814, but Spain’s rule over the colonies was diminished.
“The colonies had enjoyed liberty for four to five years,” Díaz said in a phone interview. “So the colonists [in Mexico] started fighting against Ferdinand.”
Mexico achieved its independence in 1821, while no strong movement existed in the Central American provinces at the time, according to Díaz. Mexico sent an ultimatum to the Central American authorities, who resided in Guatemala.
“Mexico said, well, we have decided to become independent, and you can do the same or we will decide for you,” Díaz said.
Thus representatives from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica signed the agreement on Sept. 15. When news made its way down the continent, reaching the old Costa Rican capital of Cartago, not every Costa Rican wanted to secede.
At first, the agreement to become independent was reached, with its official date falling on Oct. 29. However, royalist supporters based in Cartago wanted to remain part of the Spanish Empire, while liberals in San José were adamantly opposed. In 1823, in the Battle of Ochomogo, San José and its allies scored a victory. While it was more of a political battle than a deadly one, bullets were indeed fired, and in the end, a narrow consensus was reached.
The end of the first civil war ushered in the period of the Federal Republic of Central America, joining the five states, and a sixth state, Los Altos, which later became the Mexican state of Chiapas.
“In the south you had La Gran Colombia intending to grow, wanting Central America for the center of a large empire,” Díaz said. “Mexico wanted to expand to the south.”
Díaz said the republic sank under the weight of internal fighting, with El Salvador and Guatemala battling for supremacy. Costa Rica, a poor, lightly populated, and backwater region outside of the conflict zone avoided damage from these civil wars.
“Basically it was a disaster, and at the same time the economy was not able to grow up because of the civil war,” Díaz said of the northern countries in the region.
Unpaid loans from English banks and indigenous revolts in Guatemala further exacerbated the Republic’s issues, with the host countries all achieving true independence in 1840.