Making local crafts is one of the few profitable economic activities Costa Rican indigenous tribes pursue. This ancestral heritage is more than just a manner to provide income. It’s a tradition that is passed on from generation to generation, teaching about symbolism and encouraging the tribes themselves as well as other interested people how to preserve indigenous culture.
The Boruca, also known as Brunkas, are an indigenous people of Costa Rica with a long history and a rich craft heritage. Originating from the Chibcha tribe of Colombia, the ancestors of modern Boruca composed a group of chiefdoms that ruled most of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast from Quepos to the Panamanian border. Today they are one of the few indigenous communities remaining in Costa Rica. The Boruca community of about 3,000 people resides in a village nestled in a small valley on a reservation about 20km south of Buenos Aires.
Traditionally subsistence farmers producing small-scale crops of rice, beans, and corn, since the mid 1990s the Borucan economy has dramatically shifted to favor the sale of indigenous crafts.
For the village women, weaving is a ritual part of everyday life and is done in-between chores.For several hundreds of years, they have been weaving on back strap looms to provide their clothing and blankets for their beds (hammocks). The textiles created on this type of loom cannot be made very long or wide because the loom is tied around the waist of the weaver, while the other end is secured to a post or tree. This primitive equipment produces a narrow 18 to 22 inch fabric about the width of their bodies. Therefore, it may take two or three months to create a bedspread or blanket that must be first woven in pieces and then sewn together. They spin yarn with handmade drop spindles from natural white and brown cotton grown on the reservation, and dye with natural dyes from a variety of local plants such as sacatinta, turmeric rhizomes, teak, and achiote.
The Boruca are also one of the few remaining communities in the world who dye with the murex mollusk. Valued throughout history for its rare color which only deepens with age and exposure, murex purple – called Tyrian purple in Mediterranean antiquity – comes from various members of a family of sea snails (Muricidae) which secrete a mucus containing a purple-colored bromine compound.
Murex purple has historically been a mark of privilege and social rank due to its enormous expense and rarity. The sheer number of snails required to dye a length of fabric in addition to the enormous effort required to gather them results in an extremely expensive dyestuff. In addition, the modern family of murex mollusks across the world has drastically declined in population due to collateral damage from commercial fishing, destruction of habitat in part due to chemical and oil spills, and the rise of sea temperatures.
Although many historical practices destroyed the murex mollusks upon harvest, the Costa Rican murex mollusk has its dye gland close to the shell opening, enabling Borucan dyers to “milk” their snails to harvest the dye before returning them to the rocks where they make their homes.
There are not many sewing machines in the village, so just a few of the women sew the woven goods into the purses, backpacks and tote bags. Weaving literally binds women to their land, as well as their culture. The weaver is an integral part of the loom, connected to her environment and at one with nature.
The art of creating masks in the town of Rey Curré, as Edixon Mora—an indigenous artist—describes, begins when a tree is born in the forest. This tree whispers to the craftsman the inspiration on how to create the mask. The process continues by cutting down the tree, a step that must be carefully planned according to the lunar calendar and tides, so that the wood will be fully dry. Then, the craftsman will cut a piece and measure the height, length and profile of this particular work.
With special instruments, the artist gives life to the wood and creates two mask types: traditional and ecological. The first one is used by indigenous men in ‘el Juego de los Diablitos’ and features a colorful hand-painted surface with designs that include horns, tusks and other animal parts. The ecological mask shows the animals that are significant in lives of indigenous tribes: different bird species, farm animals, wild cats, and many more. They are compiled to demonstrate the environment in which indigenous men and animals coexist in harmony.
Finally, in Rey Curré you can see vessel-shaped crafts called ‘jícaras’, made from hardened fruits that are later carved by the artisans to depict the daily activities of the village and local animals. ‘Jícaras’were commonly used for art expression by Mesoamerican indigenous tribes and they can be found all over the region. In Costa Rica ‘jicarás’ are currently used by indigenous people as kitchen utensils and of course as cups to drink ‘chicha’, the well-known indigenous drink made from corn.
The traditional Costa Rican costume for women is quite beautiful. Women wear long vividly colored skirts (golas), white flounced or ruffled blouses with trimming in different color combinations, and leather sandals. The finishing touch is typically braided hair adorned with a flower. Some women wear an apron that matches their blouse trimming too.
The traditional dress for men is simple, classic and masculine. Men wear a white brimmed hat, a neckerchief with the knot tied in front, a white or light colored shirt, a bright red belt, long pants, and leather sandals (caite). Some men even carry a machete.
Costa Rica is made up of seven different provinces: San Jose, Cartago, Alajuela, Heredia, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limon. Each province has its own unique variation of the traditional costumes for men and women.
For example, in Alejuela, the women often wear a black ribbon around their neck with a gold cross or other type of medallion hanging from it. They also either go barefoot or wear patent leather boots. Men typically wear a red handkerchief with a knot in the front tied around their necks. They also wear blue jeans instead of light colored pants.
Whereas in Limon, the traditional dress for women is a white cotton blouse with colorful trim and a patterned skirt. They also wear African turbans. During celebrations, the women tend to wear carnival-style dresses.