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Legends of the Borucas


Traduced by: Robert Evans


        In August of 1986 a book came to my hands titled “Legends and Traditions of the Borucas” published by the University of Costa Rica and written by Dr. Adolfo Constenla Umaña and his Indian collaborator Espíritu Santo Maroto Rojas.  

Several times, in the revealing pages, I came across the statement by the Boruca “Our ancestors worked stone like today we work clay”. 

Chroniclers of this aboriginal group have asserted that a group of shamans hid, upon the Spaniard’s arrival, in the magic city of Chánguena, not before protecting their treasures in the mountains by covering them with “a coat of stone”. 

I have thought that the ambitious interpretation given by criollos and mestizos to this beautiful legend comes the unfortunate idea that there are treasures hidden in the Diquis Petro-spheres, with the consequence of the savage destruction of many of these spherical monoliths. 

But when I read this a marvelous book, I didn’t think of petro-spheres. We know from archaeological and geological evidence that these were sculpted from solid granidorite using chipping and abrasion techniques. All you have to do is place a piece of cloth or paper on the surface of a petro-sphere and scratch it with a charcoal or pencil to see the evidence of the methodical ancestral chipping. 

Nevertheless the “proto-cement” theory remains popular. This idea emphasizes that Borucan ancestors used a magic mix to make their spherical sculptures. It is thought they used a core of granite and rounded out the work with this proto-cement. 

As proof of this they note the layer separation, flaking or exfoliation which plagues abandoned petro-spheres. 

Sadly I have seen many petro-spheres broken in half by dynamite and ignorance. In none of them have I been able to observe any layer of the speculative proto cement. From the nucleus to the outside they are made of solid stone! 

I will say, in reference to the exfoliation, that this is a property of this type of stone when it is subjected to severe changes of temperature. 

I dont discard the idea of proto-cement, but I dont consider it viable in regards to the ancient manufacture of petro-spheres

The Borucan concept of “our ancestors worked stone like today we work clay” comes to mind when I look at the intricate stone metates exhibited in my country’s museums. And I wonder how to apply this extraordinary idea to my specialty: masks.   

I am a stone artisan and I can tell you without shame that these pieces, the metates, exceed my production possibilities despite me having specialized modern tools. 

But getting back to the Borucasthirteen months after reading the book, and thanks to a great adventure companion and passionate mountaineer don Jorge Venegas, I met, during a torrential September rainfall, Rafael Fernández an Indian of the Brunca Nation. Destiny and the need for survival took Rafael Fernández through many types of jobs: tractor driver, farmer, mountain guide, “huaquero” (grave robber), and lastly an expert in the manufacture of indigenous balsawood masks, which is a tradition of his birthplace the town of Curré. 

During one of my visits to his village I asked him. 

“Rafael, how did the ancient Borrucas work stone like it was clay?” 

My grandmother Isolina, used to tell many stories about our ancestors,” Rafael answered, lying in his hammock with his arms crossed behind his head. “When she told us those stories she referred to our ancestors as ‘the Indians’. ‘The Indians did this, the Indians built their houses this way, the Indians danced like this’. One day I asked her, ‘Mamá, why do you refer to the grandfather’s of our grandfathers as ‘Indians’. Is it not that all of us here are Indians.’ 

‘Not any more my son, not anymore. Since the missionaries came and baptized as we stopped being Indians. Since we forgot our language we stopped being Indians. Since we abandoned our traditions we stopped being Indians.’ 

‘So mamá, what are we?’ 

‘We are people in poverty, just only poor people’. My old woman answered, drying with her hand her big tears. 

I was a boy and I didn’t understand why my grandmother Isolina cried. Anyway, it was better to be poor than to be an Indian. 

But in the school with white teachers we were always poor Indians and for our own good they obliged us to forget the old people’s folktales. They taught us that our ancestors were pagans; bad people with no fear of god who were happy with human sacrifices and pointless worshiping. Thats why they prohibited us from speaking our own language or showing any of our customs.


I tell you this so you dont misjudge what Im going to tell you later. Please have patience because I have not forgotten your question about stone and clay.” He said, having noted a look of impatience on my face. 

When I was big and with my own children, it came to me to cry the same tears as my grandmother.” Continued Rafael, “and today I regret not having respected the memory of the Indians.” 

The rainfall gave way to the humid heat of the afternoon around 3 o-clock. The great clouds separated and the sun recovered its position in the sky. The beams of Rafael’s small rancho creaked as Rafael got out of his hammock. He went to urinate behind a balsawood tree, he returned with a bucket of fresh water and some gourds which he placed on the ground close to us. Then he picked up a partly finished mask and his only tool, a piece of sharpened hacksaw blade. He returned to his hammock and as he continued his story he began to expose the face of a terrible Boruca devil that slept in white soft wood. 

“I was born in the jungle,” he continued as he blew out the grooves of his work, “since I was a boy I went out to hunt the food for my family that is how I grew to know the jungle and in her the places where the pagan Indians had buried their dead. 

Then I went to study at the school in Palmar Sur. It was decided once and for all, that I would stop being Indian and poor. Paradoxically my contact with books and white people may be more Indian and even poorer. 

More Indian because I discovered the olmecas, mayas, aztecas, incas and other pre-Columbian cultures. Also I discovered aspects of my own people, and the cultural imperialism to which we were subjected that I had never learned from the mouths of my own people. 

And poorer because I no longer desired to become part of the culture of the conquistadores.” 

Rafeal shook the mask vigorously and showed us proudly how his work progressed. Eyes, nose and a monstrous mouth were emerging from the wood. I asked myself “how, lying in his hammock, is he able to work with such dexterity with that improvised chisel?” After a long pause he continued his story. 

“I remember when I was a student many gringos from the city came to our village. They were looking for Indian treasure

Everyone at my school of Palmar Norte, except myself, knew that Rafael Fernández was a Boruca. The only Indian who studied there. In this manner when visitors were looking for clues to find the treasures they intended to be theirs, everyone told them. ‘Ask the Indian’. 

The truth is they paid very well. So well that I dropped out of my last year of high school

I took them to places in the jungle which I knew from hunting with my father, and I help them un-earth petro-spheres and ancient graves. I didn’t mind doing it. Although I tell you it was not easy to contain the qualms of my conscience and those of my late grandmother Isolina. But with what they paid me for a days work my family could eat for a month. My father was very sick; he used to work as a fumigator for the banana company. I was the oldest of nine, and when the old man died there was no going back. Pretty soon my reputation earned me the nickname of “El huaquero de Curré”. 

I remember on one of those many, many times that I took white people, treasure hunters, to the lower Térraba. We began to dig in a place my grandfather called “The Cuasrán Domain”. I recognized the area would be good for digging because there were several mounds there. Experience had taught me that to profit the most out of these excursions I had to serve not only as a guide but also as a witch-doctor. So I pretended to also be a shaman. 

This obliged me to invent an exotic dance, with feathers, maracas, whistles and other things including of course my Boruca mask and the sacred staff that belonged to my grandfather. 

At the end of this improvised dance, in my supposed mystical ecstasy, with great ceremony I threw the staff in the air. Where the pejibaye point of my ritual staff landed would indicate the location to be excavated. The x marks the spot! 

What I didn’t understand clearly in those days, as a simulated shaman and destroyer of sacred tombs, is that of ten throws eight of them accurately landed in the exact perfect place to start digging! I began to believe that I really had inherited a special power from my grandfather who Isolina had told us was a real shaman. But later I had to admit the following; in those days wherever you dug in the Diquís, you would find treasure. 

That afternoon the treasure hunters dug with great enthusiasm while I laughed to myself at their shallow ambition. My internal laugh was cut off when one of the diggers found, at less than a meter deep the stone top of a grave. It was enormous. Almost 2m tall by about 68cm wide. The sides were decorated with figures of birds, alligators, human heads and jaguars. 

My agreement as shaman and mountain guide was as follows

  1. They paid me in advance;
  2. I took them to the site;
  3. I showed them where to dig;
  4. Afterwards I took them back to a hotel.
  5. I didn’t share in any of the treasures they found. (Usually there were ceramics, a few stone carvings and one or two gold pieces.) But if they were good in gold I received a good tip.

That was the basic routine for an Indian huaquero. But this time I was particularly interested when I saw the size and the beauty of that stone tomb covering. So I began to do what I had never done before: help them dig and take earth out of the whole

The gringo who paid for the expedition, (I later found out that he was a German, but here any white foreigner is called Gringo) got very excited with the find and told his friends who were foreigners form somewhere, I don’t know where, but they spoke Spanish. The thing is, they were saying: 

Due to the size of the cover, and because of the carving, that we had found the human remains of a King, that the treasures would be intact because gold does not deteriorate. During a well deserved break, everyone drank some of the whiskey the gringo had brought. They were fantasizing about what they would do with the fortune they were about to find, I was only thinking if how big my tip would be. 

But the hole was very deep, and in a while the tobacco, whisky, patience and light of day were finished. This had my customers nervous and irritable. We had to start a fire and light the lamps and continue working. Although by that time the only one who was working was the poor Indian while the others slept off of their drunkenness. I continued shoveling the heavy and sticky red soil. Suddenly my shovel hit on another stone grave covering, a bit smaller and without ornaments definitely much thinner because while I was hearing for an echo knocking up on it with my left hand it broke into two and I fell inside the dark hole. 

My desperate cries finally woke up the partiers who came down quickly with the lamps in their hand

The impatient beams of light crossed the stone alcove from side to side but nobody saw anything interesting. Then the gringo shouted, ‘! Stop moving your lamps! Point them here!’ Then he pointed his light to the darkest corner of the tomb. After a hush, our eyes grew accustomed to the dim light. Outside a full moon helped us to see. Under my feet I was stepping on a skeleton just above its waist, perhaps one of my own long ago grandfather’s who was the great King. The gringo violently pushed me aside and everybody directed their lights into the grave. 

But there was no gold not on the side not above or below. We only found a thin bracelet of copper stuck to the left ankle of the departed. At his feet there was a petro-sphere about this big.” (40cm by his gesture.) “And over there a small three legged beautifully carved metate. Just above his shoulder lay a solitary ceramic vase. 

The fortune hunters searched through the whole vault for nothing. They fought over any shard that the light reflected on the rounded river stones which contained the tomb’s rectangle. 

Suddenly the gringo exploaded in anger. He began to kick and spit upon the skeleton, and swear in his arid language. Then he grabbed the vase in his pallid hands and tried to untie the snakeskin seal which stopped him from seeing inside. Impatiently he shook the base from side to side next to his ear and then he threw it against one of the pieces of the stone grave cover that had broken beneath my feet. The thousand year old ceramics of the vase broke in two eight pieces and from it splattered a transparent liquid as viscous as motor oil. 

The gringo continued yelling, then suddenly we all were quiet, stunned.” 

Rafael inopportunely stopped his story, he got out of his hammock and again went to empty his bladder. He took the time to feed the chickens and chop some green plantains for the pig’s dinner. I looked impatiently at my friend Jorge Venegas who with a calming gesture said to me, ”Take it easy Alberto, Indians are like that.” 

It seemed like an eternity until the Boruca lay back down in his hammock, instead of finishing his story he concentrated on finishing his mask.  

I couldn’t contain myself any longer, I said with some resentment, “And what happened!” 

“What happened with what?” he answered with insufferable innocence. 

Well with the grave, the gringo, the vase with the oil”. I responded

Oh that, well yes, it was surprising. Where the liquid from the vase had splashed the stone cover, the stone was melting. 

We hurried to save some of this magic oil, but all of it had gone. I touched the stone where that beast of a gringo had thrown the vase. It was soft, warm, like clay. It smelled like rotting leaves, no, no, more like the excrement from a jungle bird.” 

Raphael finished his story and concentrated on his carving. But I needed an epilogue or some desert or digestive to assimilate such a fantastic story. In the most friendly tone that I could give to my voice I asked him. 

Raphael what happened next?” 

“Nothing happened next. In a plastic bag, they put the pieces of the vase, the stone covering in a gunny sack, and they made me carry it all the way home. They said they were going to analyze it. I left them in Palmar Norte, and they went along the inter American highway to San Jose with their treasure, and without giving me a tip! Luckily I never heard from them again.”


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