El mes de la patria (Independence Month)
The kind of pride that shows when all people get to participate in the national story seems like something to celebrate.
My first introduction to collective cultural expression in Costa Rica was the Independence Day celebrations of September, 2008. I was new to the community where I volunteering, but the families quickly enlisted my help in getting their children ready for their various school parades. I got to braid hair and carry drums and walk kids over to their elementary school when the time came for the parades.
Costa Rica celebrates its independence from Spain on September 15 (1821), but Costa Rica itself did not fight a war for independence. Rather, when Mexico broke with Spain, the rest of Central America went with it. It’s a fascinating history that you can look up (would the region stick together, or become separate countries? The question still lingers in different ways). The story goes that Costa Rica was notified of its newfound status by torchbearers who made their way on foot from the Central American capital of Antigua, Guatemala.
Today, a torch is still run by young athletes from all of Central America from Guatemala to Costa Rica, where it arrives on September 14th. That evening, all of the Costa Rican school children do a parade in their neighborhoods with homemade lanterns in the shape of all kinds of traditional symbols of Costa Rica – hummingbirds or the national bird (the clay colored robin), the purple orchid (guaria morada) that is the national flower, the colorful oxcart, and more.
During the day on the 15th, the same school children wear their school uniforms or parade costumes and do another, daylight, parade, this time with drum and bell lines. Growing up in South Dakota, I was in marching band (go Lincoln Band!), and the band and our drum line always made me well up with pride for what we could accomplish together.
Marching bands in the United States grew out of the military tradition, with the color guard being the flag-bearers of the band or regiment. Costa Rica has had a military in its history, but in 1949 the military was abolished by the winner of the last Costa Rican civil war, the national hero José Figueres Ferrer. This is a national story that deserves its own critical analysis, but I will leave that for another post.
So Costa Rica doesn’t celebrate its independence day with a show of military might, with a flyover by the Blue Angels or B-52 bombers. Its parades are carried out by school children and the country comes together at 6 PM (all of Costa Rica is in the same time zone) on September 14th to sing the national anthem.
Interestingly, there is another moment when all of Costa Rica comes together to sing the national anthem, and it is when the Supreme Election Tribunal is about the announce the results of an election. After a long day at the polls, the country gathers around their televisions to watch as the Tribunal takes the stage in downtown San José, the capital. The anthem is sung, and then the President of the Tribunal gives a solemn and patriotic speech about the importance of democracy, the sacred nature of the ballot box, and the integrity of the election currently under process. Only then does the Tribunal begin to share the results of the election, in full view of everyone, no news anchor interpreting the facts in real time.
This year, in 2020, I wonder what patriotism looks like. In Costa Rica, and also in the United States. So much has come along this year to challenge what we thought we knew. Or perhaps it has shed light on things that we have long suspected, but do not know how to resolve. I wonder what patriotism looks like in a global super power, versus a small country with no army at the belly-button of the American continent. I wonder what patriotism looks like in an election year, or in a global pandemic. I wonder what patriotism looks like for those whose ancestors were born slaves, or for those who today may feel threatened by the power that our national governments employ to reach economic or geo-political goals.
In Costa Rica, the national story that Costa Rica is a democratic and economic superior to its Central American neighbors is often used as a cover for white supremacy, or as an excuse to not make necessary improvements in its own society. In the United States, the way we learn about our national history in school leaves out so many people, movements, and struggles, phenomenon that I have been exploring more by listening to the podcast Scene on Radio.
I admit that I don’t always feel a lot of national pride the way that I used to, and I often question the symbols and stories that are told to promote the social cohesion known as patriotism (in any country). I think there is usually more to the stories we tell, and it doesn’t hurt to bring a little complexity into our feelings about home, no matter where that may be for us. Our love for our countries can deepen and grow through this complexity.
However, the kind of pride that shows when people (especially kids) come together to make art, play the drums or the bells, dance traditional dances, run long distances and across national borders, and celebrate a society where children have the opportunity to go to school and all people get to participate in the national story, that does seem like something to celebrate.
Young people run with the Central American Independence torch after it crossed over the border from Nicaragua, in 2013. From the newspaper La Voz de Guanacaste