Local activists urge bicentennial celebration for Costa Rican capital through Facebook

San José turns 200 years old on Oct. 18, and after some scrambling, local nonprofit groups are punctuating the birthday with a special Facebook page for downloading photos of the city.

In order to appreciate “Chepe 200,” the idea is to capture images of the Costa Rican capital by as many amateur photographers as possible. 

But you may wonder: What does this “bicentenario” actually mean? Surely the city is much older than two centuries. So what makes the day significant? And why doesn’t anybody seem to know? 

“The most difficult thing is explaining it,” said Roberto Guzmán, founder of ChepeCletas, a bicycle and urban renewal advocacy group, in his office last week. “People think it is 200 years since San José was established.” 

“But it is not the founding of the city,” added ChepeCletas officer José Pablo Avila. “1813 is the year that San José received the title of a city.” 

In order to understand what the bicentennial is, you have to know about the colonial history of San José. Back in the 18th century, the Central Valley consisted of tiny villages and estates spread out across the rolling hills. None of these communities would qualify as a “city,” even at the time. In order to centralize the population, settlers built La Boca del Monte, a church that served as a cultural anchor. Part of the problem is that even this church no longer exists. Instead, the site is home to the Scaglietti department store on First Avenue and Second Street.

Meanwhile, 1813 is a much more legalistic date: That was the year that the Spanish Crown officially declared San José a city. Even then, the title was retracted until seven years later, but 1813 is still the date that historians reckon by. 

Chepe 200

A vendor at San José’s Central Market wishes his beloved city a happy 200th birthday. While municipal officials seem to be asleep at the wheel, a crowd-sourcing campaign on Facebook is helping to promote the Costa Rican capital’s bicentennial.

Confusing, yes, but the two bicycle activists feel that San José’s bicentennial is an important event and worthy of celebration. ChepeCletas has joined forces with four other organizations – PhilanTropics, GAM Cultural, Soluciones Urbanas and Ericka Mora Fotografía – to encourage the municipality to formally commemorate Oct. 18.

To research San José’s past, Guzmán and his cohort consulted a variety of books, including “En el barrio Amón,” by Florencia Quesada Avendaño, and “Los muros cuentan” (“The walls tell stories”), by Andrés Fernández, which illustrate the history of the region. 

Unlike the Día de la Independencia, Juan Santamaría Day, or any major Catholic holiday, the bicentennial has flown under government radars, and it is only through the urging of the ChepeCletas and their allies that the anniversary seems recognized at all. 

“Most of the people don’t know about it,” Guzmán asserted. “We cannot understand how [no one] tried to prepare something.” 

The idea to create a Facebook page to crowd-source digital photographs was simple and inexpensive, but the five partners are hoping for a widespread response. Everyday residents and visitors are encouraged to take photographs of themselves at a “punto de facilitación” (essentially, “in a celebratory moment”). It may not be parades and fireworks, but at least the occasion is being noticed on a grand scale. 

“I want to see people celebrate San José the way they would celebrate a friend’s birthday,” Avila said. “We want to see people smiling on its birthday. I want people to think, ‘Our city got its title 200 years ago, and that’s my city.”