There is no mistaking this, Costa Rica has many beautiful men and women, but when we think of the Costa Rican population most of us, including most Ticos/as, don’t normally consider the high cheek-boned, burnished skin beauty of the various indigenous people of this land.

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Unfortunately, Costa Rica, as many other countries with autochthonous populations, has made their native people become the ‘out of sight out of mind people’ even when walking among the non-indigenous Tico population. Numerous tourists have come and gone and never had the opportunity to meet or realize that 1.7% of the population or 63,876 men, women and children have self-reported themselves as indigenous as of the last national census taken in 2000.

I spent a year in 1982 and met many people in rural and urban settings and although I certainly recognized different facial features in some areas of Costa Rica, I was not aware of the coverage or the identity of these groups. Even today, most Ticos/as aren’t aware of the extent of this part of their heritage. Ask any Tico/a how many indigenous groups are within his or her country and you will get a varied response as to numbers, how they refer to them and I’m sure that most will not be able to name the eight groups or where they happen to be located throughout the country.

The invisibilization of the indigenous in Costa Rica has been pervasive and with it, so has been the blindness to their needs and the loss of their culture. However, most Ticos/as are usually a generous people and it’s been my experience that when given some indigenous information, they are the first to recognize that these groups should be helped and many times gather donations in churches and other organizations to do so. However, it would still seem that most of the donations of goods and services for these people come from abroad.

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Unfortunately, many of these efforts tend to be sporadic, short lived and come with an additional price of more loss of the indigenous cultural-religious heritage.

Many feel that the numbers of indigenous people could actually be higher since some indigenous, inside and outside of the reservations, may have chosen not to identify themselves as such. These groups have been experiencing a growing loss of their identity as they leave their communities in order to find work and better their living conditions. They easily recognize that along with being called an “indito” (which is a diminutive of Indian and a condescending name given to indigenous people throughout Latin America) comes a stigma that is far reaching and at best promotes non-indigenous pity and at worst produces an invisibilizing disdain because the native people are mirrors that many nationals prefer not to look into and face their own living kinship and heritage.

Costa Ricans are aware of their native groups’ physical differences as they walk among them, but they rarely acknowledge them as they would another Tico/a. They physically ‘see’ them, as the indigenous may actually stand out among the rest of the population which is more prevalent in some areas more than others, but they don’t see the person, the essence of who someone may be, because all they see is the brownish-copper skin and high cheekbones that identify these groups.

In a way, their clearly apparent and defining physical features become a cue that others translate into blindness towards the native Costa Rican. Invisibilization of people is not only related to race or ethnicity, but it’s always very painful for those experiencing it. For the indigenous of Costa Rica, this has been the most prominent expression of the underlying prejudice against them after their original decimation in the colonization process.

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Imagine having to walk through incredibly difficult jungle terrain for hours, sometimes even weeks, on foot, hungry, wet and cold to arrive where you know you will be barely visible, if at all, to others. To make this incredible physical effort feeling that it’s better for you to actually be invisible than to be treated as if you were somehow less than human so that you actually welcome and promote your own disappearance among others? You step aside; you bow your head and whenever possible try not to make eye contact or engage in conversation.

Even when accepting a ride from a non-indigenous Good Samaritan which will save them an additional hour of walking, they only engage in conversation when spoken to. Yet they are forced to leave the acceptance of their own communities to find work, supplies and medical attention under these circumstances.

Not all indigenous populations have the same degree of difficulties regarding: adequate food supply, having decent shelter, traveling conditions and available transportation, accessible education and health care, and even acceptance by neighboring non-indigenous people, but there is no mistaking that the indigenous populations of Costa Rica have much less access to decent living conditions than their non-indigenous counterparts. It has also been documented that among all of the autochthonous people of this small Central American country, the Cabécar seem to have the worst situation and greatest vulnerability when it comes to trying to meet their basic physiological human needs.

It’s estimated that on average, 99.94% of this population has at least one out of their four basic human needs not met (shelter, health/nutrition, education and access to medical/other services) and in some of their communities, more than 90% are lacking in 3 to 4 of these basic needs! In addition, these percentages do not take into consideration the mental health toll of centuries of invisibilization. According to Rocio the librarian, at the Hospital Nacional Psiquiátrico in Pavas, there are currently no studies on record there regarding the mental health situation within the indigenous people of Costa Rica. Although they obviously suffer from mental illnesses and are treated at the hospitals (when they actually can make the trip there), they are invisible once again.

This map gives a general location for the groups, but more than half of the indigenous population resides outside of the reservations (within peripheries and remainder of country). Only 42.3% actually live within the indigenous territories and out of the 33,128 people living within these territories (both self-identified indigenous and non-indigenous), most of them are either Bribri or Cabécar. Both of these groups share some locations differing mostly in altitude, enjoy some cultural and origins with others groups in the area, but have different socio-cultural customs, traditions and languages.

These autochthonous groups actually have 22 territories/reservations that were only legally recognized by the government in 1977. According to the latest census and a University of Costa Rica study they are separated by Group (Population) and Territory:

  • Bribri (9,645) Salitre, Cabagra, Talamanca Bribri and Kekoldi Cocles
  • Brunca or Boruca (2,017) Boruca and Rey Curré
  • Cabécar (9,861) Alto Chirripó, Tayni, Talamanca Cabécar, Telire, Bajo Chirripó, Nairi Awri y Ujarrás
  • Chorotega (868) Matambú
  • Guaymí or Ngöbe (2,563) Abrojo Montezuma, Coto Brus, Conte Burica and Osa
  • Huetar (1,006) Quitirrisí and Zapatón
  • Maléku (460) Guatuso
  • Teribe o Térrabas (621) Térraba

All of these groups have had their own distinct languages. The Boruca, Bribri, Cabécar, Guaymí, Huetar, Maléku and Térrabas all formulated distinct languages derived from a Chibchan language base which are still alive today except for the Huetar which has fallen into disuse. The Chorotegas created a language from the Manguean branch of the Oto-Manguean linguistic family, which is now extinct.

These indigenous languages and cultural customs are verbal legacies passed down from one generation to another and it wasn’t until fairly recently that some of this information has been recorded on paper in an attempt to capture and try to prevent the further extinction of their languages, knowledge and traditions. However, it is important to know that a good percentage of some of the indigenous people in Costa Rica only speak their own language and sometimes don’t speak Spanish at all or have very basic use of this language.

In general, the Costa Rican population has excellent health, life expectancies and education, but the invisibilization of the indigenous people of Costa Rica produces a much different picture for the original inhabitants of this country that has been characterized by its generous social policies. For example, the average number of school years for the non-indigenous population is 7.6 years yet for an indigenous the average is 3.4 years. Of course, the more remote the area they live in, the less probability they will receive any education at all and the lack of teachers for these areas is commonplace.

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Life expectancy is much different for them also, there are only 3.4% of indigenous that are older than 65 vs. 5.6% for the remaining Tico population. However, the picture becomes even bleaker when talking about the children, the difference between the percentage of children that die in a non-indigenous family is 16% yet for the indigenous people living within the reservations it climbs to 28% and is even higher for those indigenous living in the outskirts of the reservations where it’s an unbelievably despondent 49%!

The malnutrition they suffer from womb to tomb, the precarious living conditions, the restricted medical access due to the distance to the nearest medical centers and unfortunate animal encounters in the wild take their toll on their children.

The living conditions of these beautiful yet apparently invisible people of Costa Rica are unnecessarily deplorable. Their way of life, customs, art, language and even their very existence is threatened each and every day, but all is not lost. There are a few groups that are helping the indigenous of Costa Rica and I’m always happy to meet new people that help others regain their dignity and have better lives. Individually we can’t fix much, but together there is so much that can be accomplished.

Recently I met Daniel Montoya and Hector Soto of Voz Que Clama Mission 506-2531-3251 [] which is located in Tuis, Turrialba. These are two awesome young men that have felt in their hearts to help the neediest of the indigenous groups, the Cabécar. They not only see them, but are working diligently to help others see them too since August of 2002. They currently assist four Cabécar communities (Sinolí, Manjarín Quicha, Cerro de Oro and most recently also Palmero).

These communities are many hours treacherous trek from Tuis and they must walk with all the supplies they bring in to the communities on their backs and are grateful when volunteers join their mostly ‘on foot caravan.’ Depending on the purpose of the trip, they bring food, building supplies, clothing donations, school and medical supplies. They have also created a group home for the Cabécar and Bribri in Tuis so that those that suffer from physical and mental disabilities can be treated with dignity. There I was able to meet Mario, Isidro, Wainer, Priscilla, Cela, Filimón and of course, my personal Cabécar language coach, Victorino.

I soon learned that Victorino was much more jovial than this picture might let on…

They all have amazing stories of survival and their disability burden has been lessened knowing that they are loved, living in decent and sanitary conditions, are now learning in a special school in Turrialba, knowing they won’t be hungry and even having room for laughs which they share with the other indigenous residents, the lucky visitors and locals of the community. As if this was not enough, their efforts have also provided jobs for the locals within Tuis and allowed them to interact with the Cabécar on a human to human basis which is slowly but surely dissolving the veil of invisibility created by racial and disability prejudices which were very prevalent before.

Consequently, they are truly fulfilling their major goals:

  1. Helping the Cabécar who are living in extreme poverty live in better conditions and reach sustainability within their communities
  2. Promoting acceptance of indigenous people by their fellow Costa Ricans.
  3. Showing the locals and the indigenous people not to be afraid or cruel to the disabled among them.

Although Hector and Daniel are Christians, they respect the Cabécar’s spirituality and choose to practice their Christian faith through their brave and kind actions. Someone’s religious belief is not in any way a determining factor for whether they will receive assistance or for the volunteers that cross through their doors. Their hearts transcend the merely religious into the type of spirituality that allows us all to experience our connection with every living being on this planet and that which connects us all.

I knew that this trip would be a profound experience for me, but it actually has been a beautiful life affirming journey for which I will forever be grateful. I have always believed in Emerson´s definition of success or some would say these words were first expressed by Bessie Stanley, but either way, it’s the underlying philosophy that I recalled during my Costa Rican stay:

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“To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

Hector and Daniel can’t fulfill such deserving goals by themselves; there are volunteers and energetic supporters such as Ginnee Hancock who writes wonderful articles about the Cabécar and the Mission. Both her and her husband Phil provide contacts and support for this team of dedicated people. Together we can be successful in making one of the most invisible people of Costa Rica truly visible and help them live with dignity and become self sustaining which is a primary goal of Voz Que Clama and every volunteer that works with them. You can see their video on YouTube here:

I, now more commonly known as Tita by Daniel, invited Hector, Daniel, Ginnee & Phil for dinner at Casa Turire, a lovely hotel near the Mission and we all enjoyed a fun and wonderful evening talking about our various Costa Rican experiences. The food was magnificently presented and we had fun sharing deserts and tons of hopes and dreams that I know can become reality…

Scott Oliver, from, joined my efforts and donated money for part of the school supplies along with the donations of clothing and other supplies that I gathered from my friends and family for the Cabécar children and residents of the Mission. Won’t you help us let the Cabécar know that they matter either by donating your time, services, supplies or money to Voz Que Clama Mission []. Please specify that your tax deductible donation (Mission is registered in the US as a 501(c) 3 charitable organization, US office located at 990 Sunset Drive, Healdsburg, CA 95448) is for the Costa Rican Mission in Turrialba.

Through the Hancock’s, I was also able to contact Nancy and Barry Stevens who started El Puente — The Bridge and drop off some additional school supplies for the Bribri children of Talamanca. They have been working to help the Bribri communities in the area thru education programs, food assistance and micro-loan projects. Barry and Nancy also have many hopes and dreams that they love to share with the visitors and volunteers that cross through their doors.

Let the indigenous of Costa Rica know that there are people in this world that define success, even if partly, the way Emerson described it? As the Cabécar would say, jismepa (good bye) and chìchi kala ‘tska or much the much easier to pronounce weste weste (thank you in Bribri) for taking the time to read about and choosing to truly see ALL of the beautiful people of Costa Rica.

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Written by Rebeca Aragón who has worked with disenfranchised communities throughout Central America including the indigenous people of Costa Rica on sustainability and gender projects. Although temporarily living abroad, she continues to work with indigenous communities whenever possible and hopes to research the mental health situation of the Cabécar in hopes of making their plight and needs visible; therefore, promoting a need within Costa Rica to address them.

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There is one comment:

  • Andres Brique at 6:34 pm

    Cuando “PINOCCHIO” yo estaba en Costa Rica hace varios anos…….pues…….pues viajaba al Cartegena de la Buitre….y en esa iglesia yo provechaba para averiguar si la agua de ella….pues…..era tan “santa” como se decian la gente de esa area……

    Luego, pues, yo visitaba a algunos indigenas que pensaba yo, pues, que pertenecian a la tribu de las Bor-PINOCCHIO-ruca…….

    La comida que me sirvian me dio ganas de gritar en voz alto: “Santisima Jose Smit!”

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