Talking With the Ancestors

Traditional Boruca Masks

Traditional Boruca Masks

I’m a traveler, explorer and a “New Ager” for lack of a better term, so when a Costa Rican friend of mine, Carlos, started talking about the Boruca indios of Costa Rica and some of their traditions, religious rituals and ceremonies, I was already interested.

When I first landed in Costa Rica I looked into the “indios” tribes. Some estimates of tribal population in Costa Rica range only as high as 35,000 out of a total population of over 4,000,000.The Maleku, Bribri, and the Boruca tribes to name a few, each have their own unique cultures, language, and art. Some have blends of Catholic and indigenous believes, and others have tried to maintain their original cultural belief systems and practices.

I had found that most Tico’s seem know very little about their own heritage with indigenous peoples in Costa Rica.

On one of my visits to an indigenous community, I met Carlos, a gentleman from the Reserva Indígena in Boruca, who after some time was eventually able to help me with what I was looking for.

The most known of Boruca traditions is the famous “Juego de los Diablos”, which means Game (or Fiesta) of the Devils. The festival tells the story of the struggles of their ancestors and the Spanish conquistadors, through a ritualistic play were the characters in the struggle are acted out by locals in elaborate costumes and traditional masks.

But I was not looking for a ‘public” ceremony and after a couple of failed attempts to get me into a ceremony, Carlos was able to finally come through, and I joined a small group of 14 tribal members to celebrate and communicate with the ancestral spirits for one of the families that were attending. So this was a ritual of a personal nature and one that the community participated in hopes of helping a fellow member.

Carlos explained that they, like many indigenous groups, were reluctant to share their knowledge and heritage with outsiders but they agreed to let me participate as long as I did not share personal details.

Their ancestors believed in the power of animals like the jaguar, the same type of “totem “concepts as most of the indigenous people of the Americas. Carlos translated most everything for me as I had a very difficult time understanding the mix of local dialect and Spanish.

Some Central America tribal rituals and ceremonies focus on singing and or chanting, others have a focus around a central figure, the shaman, or actors acting some historical story or folklore tale. For this ceremony, the group performed song like chants to the rhythm of percussive music from natural instruments, they called on animal totems, some were family totems and others were personal totems, to deliver and bring back messages and prayers for and from ancestors. There were also Catholic elements which seemed incongruent, oddly inserted into the ceremony.

Bowls of “Vino de Palma” or palm wine made from fermented palm sap, with some herbs mixed in for “flavor” was passed around at different intervals. It didn’t taste bad but didn’t sit well with me. It had a woody, earth like after taste. Fortunately I had a driver for the ride home.

After a while the signing stopped and the groups talked and laughed, just enjoying each other company, then with one final short song, the members quietly gathered up their belongings and walked away, Carlos said we had to leave as well.

That night I dreamt of big cats wearing masks and dark shadows flittering around at the edges of the firelight. Carlos later told me it was the ancestors speaking to me… I think it might have been the herbal “flavor” fermented palm sap.

Terrence Johnson

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