by Michael Miller
The National Monument of Costa Rica
There is a pretty little park in Downtown San José that is called “National Park” (in Spanish, “Parque Nacional”). This is sometimes confusing to visitors, since Costa Rica also has several large national parks around the country; the most famous being Manuel Antonio National Park.
The park in Downtown San José, the one just called “National Park,” is only two square blocks. It is a very pretty garden-like area with flowers, mature trees, statues of long forgotten dignitaries, and inviting winding walkways. In the center of the park is a huge imposing statue that is known as the National Monument of Costa Rica.
Now, here is the thing that shocks many visitors from the United States: The National Monument commemorates Costa Rica’s victory over the United States . . . . Yes, you read that right.
I have to admit, the first time I heard about this, I scratched my head. I am a really good student of U. S. history, and I don’t remember the U. S. and Costa Rica ever going to war. I don’t remember them ever fighting about anything.
To understand the significance of the The National Monument of Costa Rica, we need to step back and take a look at U. S. history before the U. S. Civil War. And we need to learn about a man named William Walker.
William Walker, born in 1824, was a doctor, a lawyer and a journalist from Tennessee. Like many southerners at that time, he wanted to continue the “Southern way of life,” which meant that he wanted to continue the institution of slavery. He thought he could do that by taking over nearby territories, and then adding those territories as new states to the United States; and of course, he intended those new states to be slave states.
In 1853, William Walker made his first attempt to take over a territory, by taking control of Baja California. With only 45 men he took control of the city of La Paz, Baja’s capital, and declared himself the President of Baja. But within a year, he was driven out by the Mexican army, and he was sent packing back to the United States.
A year later, William Walker tried again. This time, he thought he would have better luck against the fledgling little countries of Central America. His first target was Nicaragua, then in the middle of a civil war. He arrived with 60 heavily armed men, and was quickly reinforced by 100 more, most of them Southerners. His group was known as “The Filibusters.”
In 1855 he took the city of Granada, Nicaragua, and again he declared himself president of the country. Then he decreed that English would be the official language of Nicaragua and he re-instituted slavery. The Central American nations had banned slavery in the 1820’s.
As you can imagine, this activity got a lot of attention from the neighboring countries, particularly in next door Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s President, Juan Rafael Mora, raised an army of his countrymen, and he organized support from the other Central American countries. President Mora led this multi-national army into Nicaragua and fought several battles, including three at the Nicaraguan town of Rivas. Many of the North American Filibusters were killed, and by 1857 William Walker and his remaining supporters were driven out of the region.
This victory did a great deal to establish the national identities, and the national pride, of the five little Central American countries. In the 1890’s Costa Rica finally commissioned a statue to commemorate these events. A bronze statue was sculpted in Paris. It was shipped to Costa Rica, mounted on a large cement pedestal in National Park, and in 1895 it was unveiled to the public on Costa Rica’s Independence Day, September 15.
This statue is The National Monument of Costa Rica. It is visited by groups of school children and by tourists virtually every day. The statue depicts five ferocious looking women, ready to do battle. Each of the women represents one of the five Central American nations. There are also two men in the scene, representing the Filibusters; one of the men is prostrate and is about to get whacked, and the second man is shown to be running away. Most Costa Ricans will tell you that the fleeing man represents William Walker.
(By the way, the five Central American nations that took part in this conflict were Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Today there are two more countries in the region. The area that today is the country of Belize, was then an English colony called British Honduras. And Panama was then a part of Colombia.)
There are other places around Downtown San José that also commemorate Costa Rica’s victory over the North American Filibusters. There is a statue of President Juan Rafael Mora in the plaza in front of the main Post Office in Downtown.
There is also a fascinating restaurant, less than a block from the Post Office, that honors and celebrates these events. It is called the Don Juanito Historical Cafe. Here you can get a typical Costa Rican breakfast or lunch, along with coffee served in the traditional Tico way where you brew your individual cup of coffee at your table.
The Don Juanito Historical Cafe is as much a museum as it is a restaurant. Along the walls of the restaurant, you will find pictures, maps and short written discussions about what took place during this important period of Costa Rica’s history. On the second floor, there are larger-than-life size mannequins of soldiers in full dress uniform. There are descriptions of each of the battles and skirmishes that took place.
On one wall there is a list of the names of all 4,000 Costa Rican soldiers who took part in this campaign. Next to this “Wall of 4,000 Heroes” there is a write-up about the significance of these names. Addressing Costa Rican citizens of today, it says, “These are not just names, these are 4,000 heroes who may be your unknown ancestors. Many of them thinking about your future – our present – gave their lives for you.”
Obviously, it is not accurate to say that Costa Rica defeated the United States of America. The U. S. government was not involved in these actions, and in fact, most people in the USA were greatly embarrassed by the renegade William Walker and his band of Filibusters. But there is no question that the invasion of the Filibusters was a threat to the freedom, and even the existence, of the struggling new Central American nations.
There is also no question that the ability of Costa Rica and the other countries of the region to come together and to drive out “Los Filibusteros,” marks a great turning point in their history. Their victory is taught with great pride in Costa Rica’s schools, and it is an important part of what makes Ticos who they are today.
A final word about William Walker. As much as the invasion of Walker and his filibusters is taught in Costa Rica’s history classes, he is pretty much ignored in U. S. history books. By today’s standards, he would hardly be considered a model American citizen. And shortly after his humiliating defeat, the attention of the U. S. public was consumed with the election of Abraham Lincoln and the beginning of our Civil War.
For some unknown reason, William Walker made one more trip to Central America in 1860. He and a couple of friends landed in British Honduras and they were soon picked up by the British Navy. The local commodore of His Majesty’s Navy, wanted nothing to do with Walker, so he sailed to Honduras with Walker on board. The Commodore turned William Walker over to Honduran authorities, and they promptly put him up against a wall and executed him.
If you would like to visit the sites in Downtown San José mentioned in this article, here are the addresses:
1. The National Monument of Costa Rica is in National Park, located between Avenidas 1 and 3, and between Calles 15 and 19. It is one block west of the Atlantic Train Station.
2. The statue of President Juan Rafael Mora is in the Plaza in front of the Main Post Office, on Calle 2, between Avenidas 1 and 3. It is one and a half blocks north of Avenida Central.
3. The Don Juanito Historical Cafe is on Avenida 1, near the corner of Calle Central. This is just one block north of Avenida Central.
Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, Costa Rica, titled The Real San José. An electronic version of The Real San José is available at Amazon/Kindle. To access it, click here.
You can see additional stories that Michael has written about Downtown San José at his website: TheRealSanJose.com