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Lost Children of The Chorotegas
Is one of the eight indigenous groups of Costa Rica, the Chorotegas, vanishing?

By pinar istek

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An old, green and yellow painted school bus departs from Nicoya Bus Terminal at 11:00 a.m., only one of two daily buses for this destination. There is no public transportation on Sundays.

Shortly after leaving the terminal, the bus takes the first left onto a dirt road that runs between Nicoya and Nosara. Once it reaches the small town of Matambú, in the highlands, its residents start to get off one by one.

At first glance Matambú looks like any other Costa Rican small town with its town square, a soccer field, a school, a church and a pulpería. People walking around aren't different from anyone else that you would see anywhere in the country. What makes this town worth paying attention to is that it is the Matambú Indigenous Reservation, one of the 22 Indian Reservations of Costa Rica.

Matambú, with its 1710 hectare land, was created on June 26th, 1976, with the founding of the Matambú Development Association. It is the home to the Chorotegas, who are the indigenous group of the Guanacaste region. But beyond the decorative ceramics and sculptures they make that beautify today's houses, restaurants and gardens in Guanacaste, who are the Chorotegas and what brought them to Guanacaste?

The Chorotegas was one of the ethnic groups in Mexico, that decided to migrate from the south of Mexico down to the Nicoya Peninsula more than 1,000 years ago. According to Juan Vicente Guerrero, an archeologist from the history and anthropology department of the National Museum, despite a number of theories the reason they decided to migrate is still a mystery. They settled in the peninsula sometime between 800 and 1000 AD. After surviving several centuries in the region, they had to encounter the inevitable end: colonialism.

Ezequiel Aguirre owns several metates, which he inherited from his family. The Chorotegas used metates, to mill the grains. Aguirre is not willing to donate these metates to the National Museum. He finds it ridiculous that his own children would have to go to San Jose and pay a fee in order to see their family heritage.
Elders of Matambú play dominos every afternoon. They start around 4 p.m. and play until sunset.
Alison Estefan Aguirre, 15, plays a violin for his family, while her sisters surf on the internet and her father watches TV. She has been playing violin for two years. She is also a member of Nicoya 25th of July Symphonic Orchestra.

Arrival of Spanish conquerors changed the balance of this ethnic group. According to one theory, the Spanish took most of the Chorotega men down to Peru to use them as workers, leaving very few women and children behind. The motivation behind this act also remains a question. This was when the assimilation started that lead to the loss of their language and culture. According to Guerrero, as the families were separated it was harder for the remaining women and children to stay together and resist the assimilation.

Additionally, 58-year-old Ezequiel Aguirre, a resident of Matambú, who claims to be pure Chorotega, says that when the Spanish arrived, "We were easily trapped and we couldn't escape," because of the natural formation of the peninsula where they settled. Therefore, the Spanish forced them to obey the assimilation techniques that included banning their native language, and killing them when they refused to convert to Christinanity.

Present Day Chorotegas
In Matambú on a Saturday afternoon, six men play dominos and chat in Spanish at a table located next to the pulpería. It's a vivid gauzy scene with the saturated colors of the after-rain reminiscent of a Cuban movie. When the domino stones stop clanking, the group starts to head home one by one as the sun sets. They are only six of almost 1200 Matambú villagers and no one on the reservation speaks the Chorotega language. Zobeida Ramírez Elizondo, a 44-year-old resident of the reservation said that "We can't say that the Chorotega language perished, as there are still some words in use. But for different reasons, we can't actually speak the language. You know, the Chorotega zone was one of the first places the colonists arrived and for a long time the Matambuceños were punished for speaking their mother tongue, their native language. They had to learn other languages to be able to communicate."

Language is not the only cultural identity that they lost. The Chorotegas don't live in ranchos anymore or wear the traditional clothes of their ancestors. Lifestyles have changed. They go to school and get jobs in bigger cities. Descendants are not restricted to the peninsula like their ancestors. However many of of them still try to preserve traditional cooking styles and recipes. And probably the most enduring facet of the Chorotegas culture is their ceramics, which are commonly produced and sold in towns like San Vicente and Guaitil.

In the end, the Chorotegas have been buffeted by external forces that have reshaped their culture leaving few remnants of their presence in Costa Rica. The influence of modern conveniences have played a role in this.

Ezequiel Aguirre, who owns one of the very few ranchos on the reservation, says "We have internet. We have electricity. We have cell phones. We are indigenous people with technology." He adds, "I built the rancho for my children so they can see and learn how our ancestors lived." Today everybody lives in concrete houses. Most of the residents relate this transformation in housing to the changing life styles, and the addition of technology in daily life.

Aguirre is married to a blanca (a Caucasian woman) as are his brother and his cousin. This is to avoid inbreeding as the number of Chorotegas continue to shrink. Aguirre's cousin, Ronald Alemán García, 43, says that "One day my parents told me that I couldn't marry a Matambuceña because everyone is family here." As a result, all their children are mixed. The purity of the indigenous blood has been lost.

Some defining physical traits of Chorotegas are their medium body height, wide flat noses, and dark, thick hair, which usually stands straight up.

The mother of Evelyn Aguirre Mora, 23, is blanca, which is easily seen in her features. Evelyn has an ear-tragus piercing and it completes her trendy look with her white shorts and tank top. The young woman says wistfully "Although I wish I could, I can't identify myself [with the Chorotegas] My mother taught me corn dishes. I watch her and I am learning, but not everyone does this." She adds, "In reality, I don't know much about them [the Chorotegas]. I am aware of their culture." She says "there is a lack of interest among the youth probably because there is not much left for them to identify with their own culture."

Similarly, 13-year-old Ever Siviani Perez Alemán said "I don't know anything [about the Chorotegas], … only traditional dances, nothing else." He correlates his lack of knowledge of the culture to his young age and inexperience.

On the other hand, Alison Estefan Aguirre, 15, said "For me, to be Chorotega is essential to my life. Since I was born, they have been raising me with the Chorotega traditions. For me, being Chorotega is not a problem unlike some other young people who are ashamed of it."

There is a grade school in Matambú but when it is time for high school students have to go to either the city of Nicoya or Hojancha. It's a similar story when it comes to college education. Students who want to continue studying have to make trips to cities. A part from the school, the EBAIS health clinic, the surrounding fincas and the one single pulpería, there aren't any major business or job opportunities specifically located on the reservation. So, in addition to students, Matambuceños who seek better job opportunities also leave the reservation.

Evelyn Aguirre Mora is getting ready to go back to San José to work as a nurse and continue her studies. She is well aware that the opportunities are in the bigger cities. Although she wants to spend the next five to ten years working in the city, she eventually wants to return to Matambú to live and work there.

Jose Bivian Aguirre is the president of the Matambú Development Association and the director of the Matambú School. He is also a Chorotega and carries all the physical traits of his origin. His presence is filled with feelings of pride, love and longing to be Chorotega. He says that "according to research done in 2003, the introduction of the Catholic religion and education before 1886 was responsible for the loss of our culture and the language. In 1886, he says, the Matambú School was founded as one of the first 15 schools in Guanacaste. And the teachers came and imposed a new language, which was Spanish." Also, 50-year-old Evelio Alemán, who graduated from the Matambú school in 1972, says "teachers would never talk about the Chorotegas (in the classes)."

Whether it is the ignorance of new generations or strategic assimilation on different levels, loss or transformation of the Chorotega culture has been inevitable. However, the president of the association offers a reminder, "We [the Chorotegas] are not different. We do not dress differently, or eat different things from the rest of the Costa Rican society. We are equal citizens. Yet," he adds "the Chorotegas will exist in the future. I think so because now [along with some programs of the Ministry of Education] we are introducing our culture to our children."

Evangelio Alemán Perez
Ezequiel Aguirre
Francisca Garcia Garcia, 82, used to live in ranchos.
Today she lives in a concrete building with her husband
and her son's family.
Hayleen Aguirre Mora, 29, currently works at Banco
De Costa Rica located next to the gas station between
Nosara town and Guiones Beach. Before starting to work
here, she used to work in Nicoya for the same bank.
Isabel Aleman Aleman

What Gods Told to the Chorotegas

According to a book titled Guanacaste: Rutas de Viaje (Travel Routes) by Luciano Capelli and Yazmin Ross, when the Chorotegas conferred with their gods about where to go, the response was "you will live near a freshwater sea that has an island with two high peaks." In search of this enigmatic place, the Chorotegas arrived at Ometepe Island and the Nicoya Peninsula. In archeology, Ometepe, which is located on Lake Nicaragua, is considered to be a part of Greater Nicoya, a Pre-Columbian cultural area that consists of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica and part of the Pacific region of Nicaragua.


Meaning Behind the Chorotega

Some sources use the word Choluteca instead of Chorotega. According to Terrence Kaufman, an American linguist, Chorotegas were the inhabitants of the city of Cholula, which is located near today's city of Puebla in Mexico. Therefore the word Chorotega, which is interchangeably used with Choluteca, means the inhabitants of Cholula.

On the other hand, according to Guanacaste: Rutas de Viaje (Travel Routes) the term Chorotega means "people who flee." This theory is based on the fact that the Chorotegas chose to travel all the way from Mexico to north of Costa Rica.


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