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Costa Rica’s Ngobe Bugle people, a story of migration, cultural preservation

By Douglas Marin

Coto Brus, Costa Rica, Mar 24 (efe-epa).- While Maria Bejarano prepares the natural fibers and pigments needed to make traditional outfits and purses, her daughter gets the white rice ready for lunch.

The family lives in a humble home in the Ngobe Bugle people’s territory in Coto Brus, in southern Costa Rica, a tribe with a history of migration and struggle to preserve their culture.

The Ngobe Bugle people spread out from the Panamanian province of Chiriqui to the Costa Rican provinces of Puntarenas and Limon, and they have a long history of moving among these territories since before the current borders were established.

Currently, migration of the tribal members between the two countries occurs mainly so that they can work in Costa Rica’s agricultural harvests.

Preserving their language is one of the goals these people have set for themselves and to do this they have relied on the support of the Public Education Ministry, which has appointed instructors who can teach the community’s two languages – Ngobe and Bugle – in educational centers in the region.

“I feel very proud because we’re maintaining the language, which is the main thing, and we’re maintaining what is our traditional dress, and other things that identify us,” said Gisele Bejarano, a community leader and vice president of the Association for Comprehensive Development in the community of La Casona.

Bejarano said that the children and young people are learning the customs and traditions from their grandparents, as well as tribal handicrafts and the language, which she says is one of the people’s main treasures.

“The (Education Ministry) has also named indigenous teachers to transmit the culture and the way of living to the children. We’ve gotten a part of the teachers to be indigenous,” she said.

Other traditions that the people are keeping include the colorful traditional dress worn by females from the time they are little girls, as well as the customs surrounding eating based on organic products like rice, vegetables and fruits.

Maria Bejarano is trying to keep the culture alive by making clothing, hats, purses, dolls and all sorts of handicrafts, and she has the help of a group of women who work to ensure that the new generations follow in their footsteps.

Celestino Palacios, the son of the late Chief Pedro Bejarano, lives in a small house in La Casona.

He said that his father came barefoot from Panama and was one of the founders of the territory decades ago, and that in addition he fought to preserve the Ngobe Bugle lands and customs.

Palacios is one of the few tribal members who can sing in the native language and he said that the community has lots of problems with poverty and laws that often don’t correspond to the idiosyncrasies of the community.

The historic migration of the Ngobe Bugle between Costa Rica and Panama and the lack of birth certificates for years has created a problem of citizenship and access to basic services that the authorities are trying to resolve to facilitate the full integration of the community into society.

In 2019, the Costa Rican Congress approved the Law to Protect the Right to Nationality of Indigenous People and Guarantee the Integration of the Trans-border Indigenous People.

Among those who stand to benefit from the law are the Ngobe Bugle who regularly cross the international border, as it will facilitate administrative procedures for obtaining Costa Rican citizenship or residence, on a case by case basis.

The law recognizes the right of the trans-border tribal members to hold Costa Rican citizenship to be able to effectively access public services like health care and education.

According to official figures, living in Costa Rica are some 104,000 indigenous people from eight tribes – the Bribis, Cabecares, Malekus, Chorotegas, Huetares, Teribes, Bruncas and Ngobe – all of which experience high levels of poverty.


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