Costa Rica's Cabecar Indigenous
by Ginnee Hancock
The Cabecar indigenous group are Costa Rica's most primitive Native Americans. They have been pushed so far up the Chirripo mountains in remote Southern Costa Rica that their continued existence and quality of life is in trouble.
My friend Rebeca arrived for a visit and we road to my farm on my quad, the Rhino. It was another beautiful day in very rural Southern Costa Rica. You feel so alive waking up to the sounds of the rivers, birds and with a view of Volcan Turrialba in the distance to our North. We blasted down the road to the bottom of the mountain, through sugar cane fields in the valley and coffee on the slopes that lead up to Esperanza and our farm.
We then climbed high up on the winding road that follows the meandering, volatile, whitewater Rio Atirro. As we drove towards Esperanza, I spotted a local Tico named Juan walking on the trail and knew him from a far distance by his very fast deliberate walk. I offered him a ride to the pueblo and he jumped in the back.
"You and I could not live their life as they live it, in survival mode." Help us to help them ...
We dropped him off at his house as it was on our way, continuing on slowly, exploring our way into and through Finca Quijote. We came across our first Cabecar Indigenous family of the day, with their children, walking down the mountain from their reservation village on the path that comes through my farm.
We slowed, said Hola, gave a nod, a wave and moved on. We continued on our journey, spotting beautiful birds, our cows and horses, enjoying all that nature has to offer. We crossed the Rio Oro on the quad and came upon our second group of Cabecar, a young mother, a 10 year old girl and a little baby who were traversing our farm. They, like all of the Indigenous, stepped aside, off the road, well out of our way.
We reached the end of my property, turned around and started back. When we reached the Rio Oro, the indigenous woman and her daughter had already crossed over and were putting their rubber boots back on. The baby was in a scarf tied to her mother and they were carrying a small pink satchel. Rebeca took a photo that captured the moment, and then we crossed over picking our way around the rocks, avoiding the deepest holes so that we did not drown our Rhino's engine.
Rebeca asked them in Spanish if they wanted a ride and they said yes. Rebeca got into the back of the Rhino with the young girl while the Mother and baby sat in the front with me. The baby had a bad cold; her little nose was crusty with dried mucus, her mother worked delicately to clear her nose. For a one year old child, she was very undernourished, tiny; she could not yet walk, and did not have the bodily control that she should have had for her age. The baby looked to be 4-6 months of age, not one year old. Rebeca continued to engage them in conversation. They spoke some Spanish, not good Spanish, but she was able to communicate.
The Cabecar speak their own native language as do most Costa Rican indigenous groups. They were from Pacuare and had been walking for 7 hours. They would have crossed many rivers during this trip, some very deep. The baby never took its eyes off of me. Her mom cuddled her to keep her warm as the breeze was cool on our mountain. I drove slowly so as not to alarm them and also because I was unclear about where they were going. Esperanza the Mother had said, but I could not imagine that would be her destination, and it was not.
Farther down the mountain she said, abajo, indicating where she wanted to go with hand signals, and we continued down the mountain as it was the path towards our home anyway. I had been planning to spend more time at the farm, but as this opportunity to engage our passengers was more than I could have hoped for, we seized the moment. Had there been a man with the woman and children, she would never have talked to us, not one word.
Rebeca, a Cuban - American who is a tropical biologist and a neuropsychological researcher, had previously lived in Costa Rica for about 10 years. She worked here for the Christian Children's Fund and has a wide range of knowledge regarding the rural poor and indigenous, their problems and needs. She was observing the 10 year old girl in the back with her, as I carefully drove so as not to launch us off the narrow mountain trail.
They were not wearing seat belts, I did not suggest it because I didn't want the Mother to feel trapped and the position of the baby would have been in the way. Most Indigenous have never ridden in a car, and the Rhino is an open air quad that is much like a dune buggy, but looks like a big green alien bug.
The young girl was neatly dressed although her legs and clothing were now very dirty from the 7 hour walk through the jungle and forest following the goat like animal trails that you or I may not even recognize as a trial or path. We could see head lice and nits in her well groomed, neat, shiny straight black hair. She wore several handmade necklaces with beads and small seashells. We asked permission to take another photo and the girl said no.
Another beautiful Indigenous child, she was probably the oldest child of this 24 year old very slender mother. If we do the math, the mother would have given birth at age 14, and been pregnant at age 13, so I am assuming this was her oldest child. We would also be safe to assume that there were other children, I know of Indigenous mothers with 6 or 7 children by the time they are 24 or 25 years of age. The oldest child was probably brought along to help care for the baby and to carry what they would take back to the reservation. I will guess that may include rice, beans, and I hoped medicine for the baby.
As I glanced at the baby, whose eyes were riveted to me (they may have never seen a blond haired white woman before), I noticed her mother's now dirty skirt. She had hemmed part of it by hand using a running stitch; the thread was a different color, not consistent with the other hem thread in any way. It reminded me that we should put together sewing kits for Christmas gifts to give to Indigenous women.
If we were able to get spools of colored thread, needles, small scissors, small embroidery hoops, some brightly colored embroidery thread donated, and secured them in a zip-lock bag to keep them dry, it would make a beautiful, useful gift. This gift would be a cherished, prized possession of these beautiful, proud, and extremely poor women. They would never ask you for a handout, money or a crumb for their hungry children, lifetimes of discrimination and repression have taught them what their place is expected to be.
I am sometimes asked if the Indigenous are lazy. People often equate poor with lazy. No, they are not lazy. You and I could not live their life as they live it, in survival mode. We are not prepared to suffer survival as they do every day of their life from birth to death. They are very malnourished, have parasites and intestinal worms. Their diet often consists of nothing other than tubers, a root of some sort such as yucca. Starch, just starch, and for that morning, if they ate at all it may have been a piece of leftover tuber from the day before, shared between them. It is all they have.
They have been walking for 7 hours, under the most difficult conditions, rugged terrain, and they started out hungry. I looked at my watch as we drove along, it was going on 1PM which meant they left their village about the time the sun was coming up. They had no water bottle as it would have been more weight to carry. When thirsty they drank from the steams along the way, a source of parasites and bacteria.
As we continued our descent from the farm, Rebeca spotted a beautiful falcon on a branch hanging over the road. I stopped and as we watched him, his hooded head turned and he watched us. The Indigenous woman threw her head back and laughed aloud at our pleasure of seeing this magnificent bird. We looked at him in wonderment; she has seen them all of her life, we were her wonderment today.
The end of our journey with them was at the bottom of the mountain where they would go in a different direction heading towards Oriente, but for destinations unknown to us. We probably saved them more than an hour of walking on the both dusty and muddy unpaved mountain trail.
At that moment I wished I had food to ease their hunger, or a small amount of money to give them so that they could buy food when they came to a town, but we had none. Mil colones, a bit more than $2.00 would satisfy the three of them at a local soda (restaurant). It would have only purchased one nutritious meal, but that would have been more than they had eaten in days.
The Cabecar Indigenous of rural Costa Rica have a hard life to just survive in the cold Chirripo Mountains on their reservation. They have been pushed high up into the mountains that originally had no value to the Spanish or white man. Access is limited, the terrain vertical, with no realized riches to exploit, the Indigenous somehow marginally survive there.
It is only in recent years that they were issued a Cedula (like a social security card). Prior to this, the real natives of Costa Rica were considered foreigners, although they have lived on this land for generations more than any Hispanic. They had no rights; no vote, no education, no medical benefits.
These precious people need your help to get them to a point of sustainability on their reservation land, which is owned by the Costa Rican government, not the indigenous groups.
Our best opportunity to provide training and a helping hand is by working with the Voz Que Clama Mission. Climbing to the reservation since August 2002, risking their lives, carrying building supplies and food on their backs, Hector Soto and Montoya Salas, directors of the Mission have earned the trust of the Chiefs and people of the village. They have also learned some of the very difficult Cabecar language. Your tax deductible monetary gift to the Mission will go 100% towards helping the Cabecar.
The Mission works with the tribal Chiefs and the people in the villages directly, assessing the need today and planning for a better tomorrow. We can not meet their needs today; we do what we can, looking for sustainable solutions that will help them to meet their nutritional and life skills needs. Today these beautiful brown, high cheek boned children need food, protein, powder milk, rubber boots, warm clothing, blankets, school supplies, usable education and hope for their future. They need you; you're the best foreign aid that will ever come into their lives.
The Voz Que Clama Mission, a 501c3 US tax deductible charity, does not make a profit. Daniel and Hector, both Costa Ricans and Directors of the Mission, have never taken a salary. They are volunteers, committed to helping the Cabecar.
They also operate a wonderful Spanish language school CISA Costa Rica. If you have a chance, come and learn some Spanish in very rural Tuis de Turrialba. Classes are small, no more than 1-3 students per teacher, which allows for intensive training. Students have the opportunity to interact with both the Indigenous and the local people of Tuis. Homestays in the pueblo of Tuis help to provide income for the local people as well as a multicultural experience for the students. You may even have a chance to hike to the reservation if you are tough enough.
This has been a very bad year for the Cabecar, they are hungry and cold. If you are visiting Costa Rica, please help us to help them, bring a suitcase of donations for the Cabecar and the rural poor Costa Rican children. We thank you for your help and support. For more information or to donate please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Following Items Are On The Mission's Everyday Wish List:
Used lap top computers in good working order, chalk, pencils, colored pencils, scissors, pens, crayons, art paper, art supplies, craft paper, book bags, finger paints, powder craft paint, face paint. Sweat shirts from the thrift store on 1/2 price day, sizes small and medium and children sizes These are small frame people and it is cold in the mountains.
Good practical clothing, jeans, t-shirts, (small and medium sizes and children's sizes), rain gear, umbrellas, rain coats, rain jackets, Baby clothes, Cloth diapers for babies, gathered skirts for girls and woman (they like skirts), sneakers, children's sneakers, all sizes for children, good quality thick new socks, drum sticks ($2.00 a pair on the internet) drumming teaches counting and develops the brain, anything educational, flash cards, simple Spanish / English dictionaries, blow up beach ball globes of the world (many have never seen the world round, only flat), adult cloth diapers and plastic mattress covers.
Much Needed Cash Donations Can Be Sent To:
Voz Que Clama Mission
990 Sunset Drive
Healdsburg, California 95448
Written by Ginnee Hancock who lives with her husband Phil on their sustainable rainforest farm in Esperanza de Turrialba. They are thankful for how the Mission located in the neighboring town of Tuis, continues to transform the lives of the people of Tuis and the Cabecar through education, understanding, love, opportunity and always with dignity.