Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar

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Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar

ETHNONYMS: For the Boruca ("village within the ashes"): Brunca, Brunka (name of the tribal group and the language, which also refers to ash); for the Bribri: Talamanca, Viceita, Se'ie ("like ourselves"), Bribriwak ("owners of mountainous territory"); for the Cabécar: Bianco, Talamanca, Kabekirwak ("owners of kbek," the quetzal bird).


Identification. The three groups are located in southeastern Costa Ricathe Boruca on the slopes of the Brunqueña Mountain range, along the valley of the Río Diquís; the Bribri and Cabécar on the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds of the Talamanca Mountain range.

Location. The Boruca live in the township (cantón ) of Buenos Aires (in the villages of Boruca, Curré, Maíz, Bijagual, Cañablancal, Cajón, Mano de Tigre, Lagarto, Chánguina, and Puerto Nuevo) and in the township of Osa. The Boruca-Térraba Reservation was established in 1945, later divided into Térraba (for the Teribe Indians) and Boruca and Curré (for the Boruca). The Bribri and Cabécar are in the townships Buenos Aires, Turrialba, Matina, and Talamanca. There are four Bribri reservations: Talamanca Bribri and Këköldi on the Atlantic watershed, Salitre and Cabagra on the Pacific watershed. There are six Cabécar reservations: on the Atlantic, Nairi-Awari, Chirripo, Tayni, Telire, and Talamanca-Cebécar; on the Pacific side, Ujarrás. Some Cabécar live among the Bribri, and some Bribri live among the Cabécar; a few Boruca males reside with the other two groups, because of migration and intermarriage. Non-Indians also live in the reservations of the three groups.

Demography. In 1990 the Boruca on reserved land numbered 2,660; the Bribri on reserved land had a population of 6,700; the Cabécar, 8,300. All three groups have some members living outside the reservations, in neighboring rural areas and towns. Allowing for population increase and the families outside reserved lands, the three groups may have accounted for a population of about 19,000 in 1994.

Linguistic Affiliation. The languages of the three groups belong to the same division of Chibchan languages. The most recent classification (Constenla 1992) places them in the Isthmic Subdivision of the Paya-Chibcha Stock (which also includes Paya, Votic, and Magdalenic). The Isthmic Subdivision includes Teribe, Viceitic (Bribri-Cabécar), Boruca, Guaimiic, Coracic, and Kuna. The Bribri and Cabécar are mostly bilingual, speaking their language and Spanish; very few are monolingual in their native language, and there is a trend toward becoming monolingual in Spanish. In the 1980s the Brunka language was spoken by eleven people and forty understood it.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest date for the acquaintance of these groups with the Spaniards is 1502, when Columbus landed in Limón on his fourth voyage. There were Spanish expeditions in 1519, 1522, 1523, 1526, 1539, 1540, and 1560, but more precise early information stems from the Spanish conquistador Juan Vásquez de Coronado. He met with officials of the three language groups in 1563-1564. At the time of Conquest, these and the other Costa Rican Indians were organized into chiefdoms. Those of the Boruca and their neighbors were destroyed in 1563; the Indians began to be reassigned into colonial social units, such as missions and ecomienda. The Talamanca on the other side of the mountain range managed to retain traits of the chiefdom type of social organization up to the first three decades of the twentieth century. The Boruca were considered pacified in 1608. A village was founded with that name in 1629. The site was a stop for the mule trains going from the Spanish capital Cartago toward Portobelo in Panama. During the seventeenth century, Boruca was the only village in the south Pacific region to become organized for colonial functions. By the end of the century, it consisted of a town hall (cabildo ), the community hall (casa comunal ), a shelter for travelers, and twelve huts. Up to the eighteenth century, the Indians that remained from neighboring disappearing groups were integrated into the village. In 1770 twenty-five huts and 155 Indians of both sexes were counted, and by 1801 there were 250 people in the village. When Costa Rica was granted independence, in 1821, the colonial impact included diminished population, change in settlement pattern (to this nucleated village and scattered homesteads), Catholicism, iron tools, pigs, chickens, and cattle. The first non-Indian settlers arrived in 1848, 1865, and 1875, from Chiriquí and from the Central Valley of Costa Rica. Between 1860 and 1940 the area remained sparsely populated and isolated, but the building of the Pan-American Highway opened up the region between 1945 and 1963 to massive immigration of non-Indians from the central part of the country. Ethnic conflict arose because of competition for land and other resources, which in some ways is observable even today. At the legal department of the National Commission of Indian Affairs (CONAI), there are cases of farms or lots claimed by both Indians and Whites. Other cases involve boundary disputes. Expressions of resentment over the presence of one or the other group can still be heard. The municipal council has never been pleased about the existence of Indian reserves in the cantón.

The early Spanish recognized the other two linguistic groups, Bribri and Cabécar, but treated them as a single nation because of their very close similarities in language and institutions. Both groups managed to retain a high degree of independence and isolation from European influence well into the twentieth century. A major revolt against Spanish colonial rule occurred in 1610. Following another such uprising in 1709, missions and non-Indian settlements were prohibited until 1882. Since 1882, there has been a gradual penetration, which became especially intensive after 1940, with the establishment of primary schools and the expansion of the Costa Rican non-Indian farming population into the Talamanca area. The traditional clan hierarchy of the Talamancans was observed until about 1920. Today it is delineated in stories and held in memory. Political, ritual, and other specialties were hereditary along clan lines. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, in matters concerning community threats (such as war, hostility on the part of foreigners, epidemics, natural catastrophes, famine, and crop failures), the Bribri and Cabécar clans were commanded by the useköl or kpa, the highest-ranking chief, who resided in Upper Coen (San José Cabécar), to observe periods of fasting and abstinence. Regarded as sacred, the kpa could not be touched, looked at directly, or spoken to directly. The next rank was held by the blu', called rey ("king") in Spanish, an executive chief who conducted war and foreign relations. The last king died in 1910. In the early 1990s the aboriginal culture is rapidly disappearing, but one can still find individuals, families, or hamlets that have maintained tradition rather extensively.


The main village of the Boruca is a town by the same name. It is located 240 kilometers east and south from San José. The Diquís, or Grande de Térraba River, borders the village 10 kilometers to the southeast. All the Borucan hamlets are bordered by this river or lie close to it. The Pan-American Highway passes through some of the villages and hamlets and near the others. The roads that branch off from the highway are unpaved, rough, and difficult to traverse during the rainy season. Houses have been built over the hills, separated by grassy or cultivated areas. Some of them are in the traditional style: huts with steeply peaked roofs thatched with savanna grasses, their dark brown walls made of broad, horizontally placed wood boards. Frame houses with metal roofs, in the style of rural Costa Rica, are more frequent today, however. All other buildings (stores, churches, schools, medical facilities, jails, storage places, dance halls, and community centers) have metal roofs and are constructed of painted, sawed boards or of cement. The houses are usually built near creeks or small rivers flowing into the main river. Those located near the nucleus of church, community center, stores, and school have running water, showers, and sinks inside; electricity is available, and there are telephone booths in the villages or hamlets. The Bribri and the Cabécar traditionally preferred a more dispersed pattern of homesteads than did the Boruca. Until the 1970s, they did not really have a "village" because they distanced their homes from schools, chapels, and other public buildings. Traditionally, they built rectangular and oval thatched-roof huts. The conical hut of the nineteenth century has been revived as a gesture of cultural revitalization, but given that it is a major undertaking to build such a hut, only three of them have been erected, as community centers. It was this type of house, however, that better reflected the cosmological views of the Talamanca; fortunately, this symbolism is now known. The thatched-roof houses, large and raised on stilts on the Talamanca plain, are also being replaced by the painted frame houses of rural Costa Rica. Today, with the increase in population and the shortage of land for cultivation, as well as the reduction of the forests, the patterns of Bribri and Cabécar settlements more and more resemble those of the Spanish towns. There is a central plaza surrounded by public buildings; nearby are homes with access to running water and electricity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. All three groups were agriculturists, depending primarily on maize, beans, manioc, sweet potatoes and other root crops, pumpkins, peach palms, and cocoa. From colonial times onward, they completely incorporated several kinds of plantains and bananas, rice, and, later, coffee. Native and old-world fruit trees have been common on the farms. Since World War II Indian farmers have joined governmental and nongovernmental programs to improve seeds and introduce new crops. Since the late 1940s, the cultivation of garden vegetables has been taught at the grade schools. On the Atlantic side, the Bribri and the Cabécar have depended more on cocoa and plantains as a cash crop; on the Pacific side, these two groups and the Boruca have depended more on the sale of maize and beans. Income from agriculture, however, has always been very limited. The Indians have a marginal economy. As communications improve, they are also able to sell oranges, peach-palm fruits (pejibayes ), hearts of palm, and other crops. Hunting and river fishing have always supplemented agriculture. Today these activities are either restricted or absent, because of the reduction in forests and the increase in population. Wild plants still provide foods, medicines, and materials for building and for crafts. Indians have always worked for non-Indians as manual laborers and continue to do so. In the villages, Indians also have government jobs as teachers, health assistants, policemen, and guards. Those who have learned other professions (agronomists, and electricians, for instance) have left the villages but usually help their families. Domestic animals are kept in the farms and village households and also sold to non-Indian traders who come regularly to buy pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Cattle raising is important for a few families only, and most Indians do not own horses. Those who do may get some income from renting them.

Industrial Arts. The tradition of making cotton thread has been maintained and is practiced by a few families in all three groups. Additionally, in the village of Boruca, in the 1960s, one family knew how to weave bags, belts, and material for skirts on the traditional hand loom. This ability was encouraged by the schools and promoted for sale to tourists, which has allowed the craft to prosper. The Boruca have retained the knowledge of natural dyes, but today they also use commercial ones. Some Boruca sell masks made of Ochroma wood. In all three groups, a few artisans sell baskets, cord bags, hammocks, decorated gourds, drums, and bows and arrows made of pejibaye (Bactris gassipaes ) wood. Government and private projects have encouraged artisans to fashion traditional objects for sale. Most men know how to make canoes and build huts and modern dwellings. Some women are seamstresses; they own sewing machines and buy material in the larger towns.

Trade. Trade has always been important. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the Bribri and Cabécar came to the village of Boruca to exchange items such as bows and arrows, cord bags, baskets made from vines, and some forest products. The foreign party remained on the outskirts of the village. The Boruca brought out dyed woven material and salt, among other things. Afterward, the outside traders would be asked to come into the village. It was a rule for first visitors (usually youngsters) not to ask any questions about what they saw or heard; they could ask and comment after they were back home. Trade patterns among all Costa Rican Indians have been traced back to colonial and pre-Conquest times. Today they sell their products to non-Indians either at their homes or on the roads that lead to their settlements. They then buy foods and manufactured goods in local stores, which are usually owned by non-Indians, or travel to the larger urban towns to do their shopping.

Division of Labor. Men clear the land and raise livestock. Women participate with men in planting, harvesting, and transporting crops. Women may still be seen carrying loads while men walk ahead carrying a machete. When nontraditional occupations are available, they may be held by either sex. In Talamanca, some women still plant their own maize fields in the traditional manner, although their husbands may help, and wives may help in their husbands' fields. Animals (pigs, chickens) raised by women are theirs, and men have to raise their own.

Land Tenure. Land formerly was owned by families, but individual ownership, fostered by government administration of the reservations and Costa Rican laws, has become the norm. On the Pacific side, from colonial times to about the 1950s, there were communally owned pastures and maize fields for the church and the school. Reservation land is legally held in trust by the Indian development associations, but individual property rights of Indians and non-Indians are recognized. Keeping land in Indian hands has been a very complex and conflictive issue.


The native kinship system is either followed or remembered. The degree to which the kinship rules are enforced is conditioned by the degree of transculturation of the group. The Boruca had the Hawaiian type of sibling-cousin terminology, but today they mostly follow Spanish rules and terminology. The Bribri and Cabécar largely maintain their matrilineal clan system. Bribri kinship terminology is bifurcate merging for the first ascending generation; sibling-cousin terminology is of the Iroquoian type; second ascending generation and second descending generation use reciprocal terms that distinguish Ego's mother's side from Ego's father side, and sex. Siblings address each other by the same term when the sex is the same (sister to sister or brother to brother) but vary the term when addressing siblings of the opposite sex. The Cabécar use the same terms as the Bribri, with only slightly different pronunciation, in Ego's generation. They differ with the Bribri in that terms applying to the male's first ascending generation are bifurcate collateral among the Cabécar. Their terminology is cognate with the Bribri one, except for the terms for father, father's brother and father's sister. The Talamanca have preferred to practice bilateral cross-cousin marriage; about half of them follow the custom. Formerly, the practice of sororal polygyny was widespreadand more acceptable than the occasional occurrences of it today.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Among the Boruca, marriages take place in the Catholic church, but common-law unions are very frequent. Monogamy is the rule, but separations are also frequent. Legal divorce is rare, not shameful, but not expected. A young man who wants to get married speaks to hisand the girl'sparents. The two sets of parents decide whether the couple should be married by the Church or live in a common-law union. Neolocal residence is preferred.

The Bribri-Cabécar tend to follow native custom, but some marry in the Catholic or Protestant churches to which they belong. In native custom, although the couple may have agreed to the marriage on their own, outwardly the two sets of parents decide, the male taking the matter to them. Mothers or grandmothers of the girl may have a great deal of influence on the decision. The son-in-law comes to live with the bride's parents for some time; neolocality may follow the initial matrilocal or uxorilocal residence. Sororal polygyny may still be observed. Separations are easy. In all three groups, either parent, or a relative of either parent, may take care of the children in case of a separation. If there is a custody conflict or child-support claim, the matter may be referred to the Costa Rican courts.

Domestic Unit. In the Boruca language, the word for family corresponds to the household. Nuclear families are common; other arrangements are the extended, one-parent, and brother-sister households. Many families include unmarried grown daughters with offspring. Among the Bribri-Cabécar, extended households, with people related through the female line are common, but other arrangements, especially nuclear ones, are also observed. In all three groups, older people are generally invited into the households if they are not able to support themselves.

Inheritance. Women's possessions are usually passed on to daughters or uterine nieces and men's possessions to sons (among the Boruca) or to sons and uterine nephews (among the Bribri-Cabécar). Borucan women do not usually inherit land; it is transferred to the husband when the woman marries. In the 1970s, in the main village of Boruca, in six out of seventy-nine households, women had inherited land from their mothers. Female inheritance of land was expected to become more common. Among the Bribri-Cabécar, in the traditional system, women and men inherited from mothers and mother's bothers. It is becoming more common for males to leave property to their children and not to their sisters' children. Disputes taken to courts are solved according to Costa Rican inheritance laws.

Socialization. The Boruca often prefer male children to girls. By age 4, girls may begin to take care of younger sisters when their mothers or grandmothers are not present. Girls will be reprimanded if they leave their sisters alone. When a girl reaches the age of 11 to 14, and she wants to be with boys and not with her little sister, a family problem arises, but parents are not harsh; they expect the girl to become more mature as time goes by. The older son always takes care of his younger brother. Brothers are usually cordial to each other. Children are instructed in sex from the age of 6, when they are told not to let anyone touch them in the genital area. When children are alone, they sometimes experiment with each other, in a playful manner. The majority of newborn children are baptized when the priest arrives at the villages. When people are older, they are usually called by nicknames. At age 6 or 7, the child is considered responsible enough to go to the store on errands. Children learn songs from age 3 onward and play different games. Guidance is given in regard to toilet training, manners, dressing, and responsibility to the family.

Bribri-Cabécar children are welcome, and children of relatives are easily adopted, but, as with the Boruca, the traditional preference may have been for small families. The three groups have knowledge of methods to provoke miscarriage or to prevent pregnancy for defined periods. In the Bribri-Cabécar culture, children were not formally named. The mother assigned nicknames for family use; outsiders referred to people by clan names and kinship terms. Brother-sister avoidance rules are still enforced. From about the 1940s to the 1970s, the people learned to follow Spanish rules for first and last names and to register the newborn according to Costa Rican law. Children's birthdays are celebrated. They are given duties at early ages. Most of their games are imitations of adult roles. Children of the three groups can attend grade schools from age 7 until six grades have been completed, but some drop out. There are scholarship programs that benefit some of the youngsters who go on to high schools or to the universities; others are supported by their own families for these later studies. Adults often attend short training courses in agriculture, crafts, health, community development, and so forth.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Boruca lack traditional governing structures; they organize locally as non-Indian rural communities. The elderly, however, continue to be highly respected. It is also common for individual community leaders to exercise a great deal of influence through local communities and projects. Nationally and internationally, the Boruca have held prominent positions in Indian movements. Constant change, deliberate adoption ofand adaptation ofoutside influences is a norm; however, the identity of an indigenous group is retained, and people feel they share a common Indian ancestry. The Bribri and Cabécar respect shamans and, generally, the elders of both sexes. Informally, or more formally at meetings, the shamans and elders make known what younger leaders they support for community projects or representation. Churches, schools, and local committees usually take the initiative for community activities.

Political Organization. Governing structures are those of Costa Rican national administration. Each village has a Rural Police office with one or two officers. Policemen may be from the specific area or assigned to it. There are district committees and elected individuals linked to the township municipality, whose concerns are road maintenance, welfare, and coordination with the national government. Until the 1930s, the villages of Boruca had the structure of a colonial corporate community, featuring an elders' council and mayordomos. The Bribri and Cabécar partially kept the hierarchical clan structure into the twentieth century. All reservations have a development association which, in accordance with the national Indian Law, must resolve land issues and undertake socioeconomic improvements. They appoint representatives to the National Commission of Indian Affairs. Every village has several voluntary committees that work to improve health and education and organize sporting and cultural events. About three national Indian associations exert some influence, depending on the issues. A national group, organized between 1993 and 1994, is made up of women. The national political parties have committees in the Indian villages.

Social Control. The Rural Police is one means of maintaining order and conformity. Other control mechanisms are religious teachings and family norms. Prohibited are such things as bodily harm to another person, not helping seniors, theft, murder, embezzlement, and impoliteness. The most elderly insist on the prohibition of incest. All three groups tell traditional myths in which punishments for incest are elaborated. Gossip and avoidance of interaction with people who violate prohibitions are informal sanctions. There is some fear of witchcraft. People may be accused by neighbors or the local police before outside agencies of the Costa Rican judicial system.

Conflict. Factionalism is ever present. It manifests itself in clan or family rivalries; among adherents of opposing national political parties; and over any issue in which a traditional custom or attitude is confronted by another labeled "modern" or "progressive," the acceptance or nonacceptance of non-Indians, and religious affiliationgiven that there are Catholics, different Protestant groups, Baha'i, and those who prefer the traditional Indian beliefs (the latter among the Bribri-Cabécar). Internally, families may be greatly divided by problems relating to land distribution, alcoholism, or marital disputes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Boruca are nominally Catholic. Nearly every house has at least one religious picture. A catechism class is conducted for the younger children; mass is said when a priest is available, and people attend services such as the rosary. Legends and myths are told but are considered things of the past.

The Bribri-Cabécar belong to the Catholic church, to different Protestant denominations, and to the Baha'i faith. A few have revitalized the traditional system of belief, which includes a single creator with whom people relate through the shamans but not through individual supplication. All social norms are said to have come from him. Spiritual beings related to nature are important in this cosmology.

Religious Practitioners. Among the Boruca, the mayordomos, or delegados de la palabra, who assist the Catholic priests, have been instrumental in tending religious buildings, teaching the faith, and leading prayers. In the Protestant denominations, there are Boruca, Bribri, and Cabécar pastors. Among the Indian cultures that remained in Costa Rica after the eighteenth century, the Bribri-Cabécar culture has the most elaborate patterns for dealing with disease, birth, and death. On both sides of the Talamanca range, native shamans and trained buriers officiate on these occasions. Not all the Talamanca utilize these traditional services or believe in their efficacy, but all respect them.

Ceremonies and Arts. The three groups celebrate Costa Rica's national holidays with activities organized by the schools. Public Catholic ceremonies such as those commemorating patron saints, Christmas, and Holy Week are also major events. The Boruca have retained two colonial celebrations. Día de los Negritos, celebrated 6 through 8 December, commemorates the coming of the Spaniards and their repulse by the Boruca. Seven to ten players make forays against a carved horse head carried by the master of ceremony. The horse head symbolizes the Spanish; it is lassoed and symbolically burned. During this dance-game, players must slur their words, replace phonemes in them, and change sentence order. Drum and flute are played. Jokes are told and a spirit of merrymaking prevails. Día de los Diablitos is celebrated from 31 December to 2 January. The master of ceremony is the principal devil. Players wear carved masks of light wood and a gunnysacklike dress. Voice and language are disguised, and the native language may be used. A skin drum and a reed flute are sounded. A player, representing the Spanish conquistador, carries a carved bull face and cloth frame. The bull chases the little devils (representing the Borucan) round the village. The latter steal little things from the houses and do other mis-chief to neighbors. Stolen things are distributed to players on the last day. The bull kills the principal devil and the second devil first, then the remaining diablitos. Women, represented by men, are killed last. The bull hides, but the dead diablitos revive and look for him. When the bull is located, it is dragged to the center of the village and symbolically burned. Thus the Spaniards are destroyed. The three groups practice the chichada, an occasion for drinking a beer made of maize. This celebration often brings together dispersed relatives and neighbors for recreation and as repayment for farm or communal labor. During this event, the more traditional Bribri and Cabécar perform an aboriginal dance (symbolic of relationships with forest animals) derived from their stories of origin.

Medicine. The three groups normally rely on Western medicine. Health posts are located in the villages or nearby. Traditional medical practices are conducted in homes or on the advice of native specialists. The Boruca have female herb healers. In times of need, they resort to herbal drugs for specific purposes: to bring about love, hatred, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, amnesia; to prevent pregnancy, labor pains, frustration; to cure snake bite and other ills. A few believe that a drug could change a human to an animal. Traditionally, Bribri-Cabécar shamans and non-Indian witchcraft practitioners in Buenos Aires and the Central Valley of Costa Rica were consulted. For the Bribri and Cabécar, the native medical system and Western medicine are complementary. Bribri-Cabécar shamans treat illness by means of fasts, herbal and other kinds of medicines, and esoteric chants. They consult spirit beings by means of crystals.

Death and Afterlife. Among the Boruca, if there is no priest in the village when a death occurs, a mayordomo goes to the church and rings the bells. The corpse lies in state at the home of the deceased or that of a relative or friend. There must be adequate space for people to sit and view the body, which is covered with a white sheet. Candles are placed at the head and feet and religious pictures or sculptures complete the scene. Meat (pork, chicken), tamales, and beverages are served. The mayordomoor someone elserecites prayers at intervals during the wake. People may bring money to help pay for the funeral expenses, candles, coffee, rice, and other foods. If the priest is available, a Mass will be held before burial, which is usually attended by most villagers. If not, the mayordomo leads prayers. Prayer sessions or Masses are attended for the next nine days. At the ninth, or Last Rosary, food is served at the house where all have come to pray.

Among the Bribri and the Cabécar, for those who are Catholic, the proceedings are about the same, except that religious pictures or sculptures are uncommon. Regardless of religious affiliation, these people prefer to bring in the buriers to handle the body. Visitors must not talk to the parents of the deceased for a specified period. Theyand anybody who had contact with the burial proceedingsmust be ritually cleansed by the main burier or a shaman. The native death ceremony requires ritual cooking and ritual distribution of food. Death procedures address a proper return of the soul to the underworld so that the reproduction of the deceased's clan is assured on earth.


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