One’s tribe’s struggle for cultural survival.
Written by: Veronica Felipe
Photos by: Yunuen Bonaparte & Austin Henry Wallace
Designed by: Nilayam Patel
LA FORTUNA, COSTA RICA – Merlin Alvarez Elizondo walks barefoot across the dirt floor. He opens the door and looks at the wood and palm leaf thatched ceiling of a traditional Maleku home. Behind him stand girls and boys dressed in clothing made from bark. They watch as strangers from the United States stroll into the home.
Handmade, wooden masks carved from balsa trees line the dark room. Each mask features a different animal that represents certain attributes. A mask featuring a jaguar, for example, is called a “Tafa,” and represents leadership, intelligence and love for nature. They are colorful, they are beautiful and they are for sale.
“Capi capi!” Elizondo says in his native language of Maleku Jaica. “Very, very welcome.”
As the tourists sit on wooden benches, Elizondo tells tales of Maleku culture and customs. They were a tribe of strong hunters who gave up hunting during the 21st century to create art and reforest their land.
“Most of us work in La Fortuna,” Elizondo, 31, says. “Sincerely, tourism is an economic fountain that helps us stay alive.”
The Maleku is the smallest indigenous tribe in Costa Rica. Once a tribe with approximately 265,000 people and territory that stretched out as far as the Nicaraguan border, their population has dwindled to a mere 625. Their land is now reduced to three small palenques, or villages, inside their reserve – Palenque Tonjibe, Palenque Margarita and Palenque El Sol.
Inside this small, earthly home in La Fortuna, the Maleku showcase their traditions and culture, yet it is simply just that – a show.
“This is a small representation. Why? Because today we dress like all of you,” Elizondo says, pointing to the tourists wearing shorts and T-shirts, taking photos of him.
While tourists witness a colorful, ceremonial performance, in reality, the ancient Maleku tribe is struggling to keep their culture alive. Government policies and pressures to modernize are affecting their land, customs and education.
“Our culture is going extinct,” Elizondo says. “I feel like no one is supporting us live our Maleku identity.”
Costa Rica is home to eight indigenous peoples (Bribri, Brunca, Cabecar, Chorotega, Guaymi-Ngobe, Huetar, Maleku-Guatuso and Teribe-Terraba) living in 24 territories. The Maleku is one of the only four indigenous tribes that continue to conserve its culture.
“I feel proud to be 100 percent part of my authentic Maleku culture,” Elizondo says.
In order to support their way of life, the Maleku have turned to hyper-local tourism. While mainstream tourism offers common activities such as zip lining and horseback riding, the Maleku sell access to their lives through tours of their homes, schools, medical gardens and dance ceremonies. These tours are not offered in La Fortuna, but at the Malekus’ reservation in Guatuso, which is located about 25 miles north of La Fortuna.
Two immense volcanoes – Arenal and Tenorio – shadow the reservation. This land is surrounded by forest, which is a central part of the Maleku culture.
Trees are the heart of their economy since selling masks, bowls and musical instruments carved from wood are their biggest source of income. However, the Maleku try to only cut down the balsa trees they grow.
“We do not want to destroy any more trees because by doing so, we are destroying ourselves,” Elizondo says.
Part of Maleku culture is to live among Mother Nature and avoid affecting natural habitats. Despite its conservation efforts, the need of farmers outside of the tribe to grow pastures and livestock increases. This has spurred deforestation around the reservation, destroying valuable plants, leaves and herbs from the surrounding forest that the Maleku use for medicine.
“(Farmers) have cut so many, so many trees, and it hurts because we are protectors of Mother Nature,” Elizondo says.
The Maleku have been battling to regain land for years.
The Maleku and other native tribes across Costa Rica have lost land to non-indigenous people who’ve encroached upon reserved land. “Approximately 6,000 non-indigenous persons are occupying at least 43 percent of the areas belonging exclusively to indigenous peoples,” according to a study conducted by the Forest Peoples Programme.
The loss of land and trees is more than just a loss of space and scenery for the Maleku; their culture and way of life stems from the ground beneath them and spreads to the nature that surrounds them.
“We used to eat with leaves and when we finished, we’d throw the leaves on the ground because they were organic,” Filander Alvarez says. “Then we were given glass plates and when we finished eating, we’d throw the plates away because no one told us we could reuse them.”
The 29-year-old Maleku leader said that the Costa Rican government, in an effort to modernize the reservation, slowly stripped away parts of Maleku culture.
“The worst enemy of the Maleku is the government,” Alvarez says. “We can no longer construct typical Maleku homes because the government has forbidden the use of palm. In reality, they don’t want us to continue with our culture.”
Unlike their ancestors who lived in palm and wooden homes, today, the Maleku live in concrete houses, constructed and funded by the Oscar Arias administration in 1986.
“They didn’t consult with us on how to live in these homes. My people were used to our traditional homes with dirt floors and fire pits, which symbolize the flame of life, in the middle of the home,” Alvarez says. “So when they made us these concrete homes, my people thought that they could still have a fire pit on top of the concrete floors. But, the heat from the fire broke the ground; the smoke made the ceilings black and 28 years later, the houses are severely deteriorated.”
The Maleku no longer use wood for their homes. The only wooden homes they have are used for ceremonial purposes and for visitors to see.
“We are from the bosque, forest, and want to be from the bosque,” Elizondo says.
Despite these outside pressures, the Maleku fight to keep nature and land a part of their culture through various cultivation efforts.
“We are trying to grow more trees so that animals return and we can coexist with Mother Nature,” Elizondo says.
While some Maleku spend their work days planting balsa trees and recultivating their land, most are devoted to making souvenirs to sell. Yet only about 30 members of the tribe actually work on the reservation, Elizondo says. Everyone else must travel to outside towns for work, which creates its own issues.
“We need to forget parts of our culture in order to find work,” Elizondo says. He describes how dependent on tourism Costa Rica is, and how those who work outside of the reservation need to know Spanish and some English to succeed. “Our language, nuestra lengua, we have to practically forget.”
As a way to assimilate, the Maleku began teaching their children Spanish within their schools. Schooling is provided to all Maleku children until sixth grade. After that, they have to finance the rest of their education. Very little, if any, government aid is provided to help continue the Malekus’ education, Alvarez says.
“It’s a shame to see kids give up on going to school because they don’t have the economic means para seguir, to keep, paying for the bus, para seguir buying books, or para seguir in school,” Alvarez says.
Alvarez believes that if the Maleku received more support to attain higher education, then “more Einsteins would come from (his) town.”
Indigenous children make up 2.5 percent of all Costa Rican children and adolescents. Within that indigenous population, school attendance is 60 percent, which is below the national average of 68.54 percent. Yet, despite not having urban resources, “the illiteracy rate is 7.7 percent, a full 5 percentage points higher than the national average,” according to UNICEF’s 2013 annual report on Costa Rica.
“The majority of the approximately 14 Malekus who work in La Fortuna are trilingual. It wasn’t because we studied them, but because we listened to them and practiced them. That’s our intelligence,” Alvarez says.
Without further education, most Maleku Indians are inclined to work as tourism guides. Yet, some like Alvarez are able to attend college through personal perseverance.
Back in La Fortuna, inside the Maleku home, recreated to entertain tourists, Alvarez dances around a fire pit placed in the center of the room. He wears nothing but a skirt made out of long, brown palm leaves and bark. His shaggy, black hair points out in different directions under the strain of a leather headband decorated with sunflowers. After the dance, he stands, maybe 6 feet tall, and holds a long, wooden rainstick. Alvarez doesn’t look like a college graduate, let alone an ex-politician.
As a child, Alvarez always knew he wanted to pursue education. Every job he’s ever had was in pursuit of that desire. Then, at the age of 12, he began attending political town meetings.
“I came to the conclusion that the only way someone was going to do something for the indigenous territories was if an indigenous is in the government; an indigenous that is always thinking of the tribe and not of their pocket,” Alvarez says.
Alvarez used up all his savings to earn a degree from INCAE Business School. Then he went on to forge a political campaign in hopes of becoming a deputy candidate for Alajuela. That campaign, and the rest of his political career, was lost after he was accused of stealing information from other candidates, Alvarez says.
Alvarez had hoped to receive assistance from the government in order to help his community. With very few Malekus, government assistance with land retention, living conditions or schooling could help preserve their unique life and culture.
The small traditional Maleku home and tourist attraction is also home to the hope of cultural survival. Every item represents a Maleku family. Written on each mask is a few numbers representing which of the 15 families made that mask.
“Este lugar es una gran bendicion para mi cultura Maleku. This place is a great blessing for my Maleku culture,” Elizondo says.