Every year on April 11th, Costa Rica celebrates the anniversary of the Battle of Rivas. This battle was made famous by the actions of Juan Santamaría, known as the ‘Little Drummer Boy.’
A Brief History
Juan Santamaría is a national hero for his bravery during the Battle of Rivas- caused by a conflict between the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican armies. In the early 1850s, American William Walker amassed an army to conquer land in Central America with the goal of establishing English-speaking colonies to be under his personal control. This sounds crazy now, but back in the day this was called filibustering, and Walker wanted to take these lands as a Federation of Southern States that was to be included in the territory of the United States. To start this takeover, Walker conducted an illegal election that set himself up as president of Nicaragua. This caused him to take over valuable trade routes, which included control over trade between New York City and San Francisco via Lake Nicaragua.
Costa Ricans became concerned that Walker’s power and influence would continue to grow, so President Juan Rafael Mora declared war on Walker and his filibuster. His now-famous speech declaring the war began, “Countrymen, take your weapons. The time that I’ve been warning you about has arrived.”
The Battle of Rivas
Walker was trying his best to defend his territory and was very concerned that the Costa Rican army would attack from the North, and thus withdrew all his men from the key Nicaraguan city of Rivas. However, just over a month into the war on March 20th 1856, the Costa Rican army easily captured the city with 3,000 men. Walker quickly realized his mistake, and tried to take the city back.
The two armies fought each other nonstop for nine hours in a bloody battle that only ended with the heroism of a Costa Rican drummer boy Juan Santamaría. His only condition was that someone would look after his mother if he didn’t survive.
Juan then took up a torch and threw it onto the thatched roof of Walker and his army’s stronghold, which caused it to catch fire. Walker’s troops fled, but unfortunately Juan was killed by sniper fire before he could make it back to safety.
In 2023, Juan Santamaría is a household name in Costa Rica and has had many commemorations in the hundred-and-fifty years since his death. This has included numerous statues, paintings, and literature detailing him. The country’s main airport is even named after him, the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaría.
Celebrations of Juan’s Legacy
National Heroes Day is a national holiday, causing schools and most businesses to be closed on April 11th, however celebrations last for the entire week leading up to the date. This is especially true in Juan’s hometown of Alajuela, in which parades, concerts, and dances are held in his honor.