Juan Santamaría is much more than just an international airport. He was a man and a legend who sacrificed his life for his country 160 years ago. Today — April 11th — marks the day that this drummer boy died heroically in battle in 1856.

In order to tell the story of Juan Santamaría (reputedly nicknamed “Nacho Gonzalez” and “the porcupine” because of his spikey hair) we must first tell the story of a self-righteous dirtbag named William Walker.

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Walker was a delusional American entrepreneur who wanted to conquer Central America in order to set up American colonies here; colonies that would run on slave power. In an appalling attempt to gain support from wealthy US southerners, Walker promised to re-institute black slavery in this part of the world (it had been abolished in Nicaragua since 1824).

Keep in mind, this was all taking place 5 years before the start of the US Civil War and tensions were high. In the minds of many US southerners, Central America could become a haven for wealthy white men who believed in the institution of slavery.

The tactic worked. Walker gained financial backing, conquered Nicaragua and in 1856 had set his sights on Costa Rica.

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In March of 1856, Walker invaded Costa Rica at its northwest border. Costa Rican troops defeated Walker in what is known as the Battle of Santa Rosa. But Walker wasn’t ready to give up, and was busy planning further attacks. To preclude Walker from crossing on to Costa Rican soil again, scarcely a month later Costa Rica invaded Nicaragua and fought the Second Battle of Rivas.

This is where Juan Santamaria shined.

A large quantity of Walker’s troops were holed up in a particular hostel in Rivas. The only way to set it ablaze was for someone to run straight into enemy gunfire.

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Santamaria, a lowly drummer boy, courageously volunteered. He sacrificed himself in order to burn the hostel to the ground. As a direct result of this act of heroism, Walker was unable to continue the fight against Costa Rica. He was forced to retreat inland, and that was the end of that.

Sadly, Santamaria died from wounds incurred during his brave act. His one wish was that his mother would be taken care of after he was gone, and records indicate that she indeed received a state pension on his behalf.

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Walker continued to terrorize Nicaragua off and on until he was finally executed in 1960, at age 36, by the Honduran government — but he was never able to mess with Costa Rica again. Juan Santamaria’s memory lives on as one of Costa Rica’s most important patriotic figures.

Photo by: Emily Lee

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History Lesson: Juan Santa María

Article/Property ID Number 5791

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