“We shut off the main electrical switch that connected the rancho from the [community] hall but nothing could be done. There were too many flames. Since it’s a rancho, it didn’t even take five minutes to burn down.” This is how Margarita Ramirez, a member of the Committee for Culture and Recovery of Matambu’s Traditions, remembers the night of Saturday, February 26, when the village’s rancho-style pavilion was reduced to ashes.
The structure had been built by people from the community and represented an aspect of the identity of the only indigenous group in the Chorotega Region.
From the center of Nicoya, the only indigenous territory of Guanacaste, Matambú, is about 5 kilometers away. “There are no huts or indigenous people with loincloths as people believe,” says community leader Ezequiel Aguirre. The COVID-19 also came to this community and paralyzed it.
Nicoya and Nandayure’s fire stations dispatched units to handle the fire in the 40- to 50-meter (130- to 165-foot) structure located next to the community’s sports field.
The firefighter in Nicoya on duty that night, George Acuña, recalled that when he and his fellow firefighters arrived, the rancho had already been consumed by fire. That’s why he decided to inform the Nandayure unit to go back, because more equipment or personnel weren’t necessary.
“Basically what we did was control the small sources of fire that were in the wood and on the ground, which could be the straw that was all burned,” explained Acuña.
The origin of the fire is still under investigation. Ramirez filed the report with the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ for the Spanish acronym) the day after the fire.
OIJ’s press office reported that they are looking into the cause. “At the moment, because it is in the investigation stage, no further details can be provided,” they told The Voice.
Ramirez, from the culture committee, suspects that the fire could have been provoked. Intentional or not, the fire reduced to ashes the product of a long process of research on one of Matambu’s most emblematic traditions: building ranchos.
A Tradition Turned to Ashes
The tradition of building ranchos has been passed down from generation to generation in the Matambu community and is found in the collective memory of its inhabitants. According to the person in charge of Guanacaste’s Cultural Management Office, Vera Vargas, building a rancho in Matambu involves a whole ritual and a process of community work. Beyond being a trade, it’s a life experience.
“As an indigenous territory, this practice adds to the identity, often in the midst of the scarcity of other things,” such as the loss of their language or style of dress, explained Vargas.
Two years ago, on February 29, 2020, the community residents finished building the structure, with funds from the Ministry of Culture and Youth’s Culture Points project.
Their plan was to sell things and hold cultural and tourism activities for the benefit of the indigenous community.
“Our dream was that this rancho would serve as a meeting point for us and the visitors. Apart from cultural presentations, such as telling stories of Matambu’s history, we also planned to hold fairs, exhibitions of community products, be they food or handicrafts,” said the secretary of the Matambu Integral Development Association (ADI for the Spanish acronym), Alex Zambrana.
However, the community wasn’t able to take advantage of it as much as they had wanted to. The government decreed a state of emergency throughout the country due to the pandemic, which prevented all kinds of large group activities like the ones that would have taken place in the rancho, just two weeks after it was finished.
With the money from the Ministry of Culture, the community also produced a “Didactic Guide of the Construction Process of Matambu’s indigenous cultural rancho.” It’s a 72-page book that documents the step-by-step construction of this Chorotega structure. They compiled the information through interviews with older people who are bearers of the tradition.
“The materials are cut on a certain moon. The palm takes a different process. In other words, it has both material and immaterial value,” emphasized Zambrana, from Matambu’s ADI.
The guide divides each stage into 19 steps. Each process has its own name, such as aplomo de horcones (making sure support beams are plumb), amarre de estribos (tying braces), puesta de sobrehombreras (placing roof ridge covers), etc. The last one is the empajo (thatching), when the construction is covered with dry palms. Once people finish thatching it, a big celebration begins with food, drinks and marimba music.
It doesn’t matter if the rancho they build is on private land or at the community school, the town gets involved from the moment that they go to the mountain to look for materials, cutting the royal palm and the wood for the posts.
A resident of Matambu named Pedro Aguirre built his own rancho a few days before the fire that consumed the community’s rancho.
Aguirre has a culturally-focused tourism project called Nangu Chorotega. His project is aimed at attracting visitors who want to taste local corn-based drinks and foods such as chicheme (a thick drink), rosquillas (baked doughnut-shaped cookies) and chicha (a kind of beer), all under the roof of a traditional Chorotega rancho.
On the day that his rancho was thatched, his family prepared pozol (a type of soup), chicheme, chicha and tiste (a chocolatey drink) for the neighbors who came to work and enjoy.
“They’re given a little drink so that they’re happy thatching and we start playing the marimba starting at nine in the morning. When they finish, they have lunch. And if they want to dance, they dance. That is the tradition,” Aguirre related.
The cultural manager believes that this tradition gives it meaning as a community, something to fight about. That’s why the rancho burning down is so significant for the community.
“We want to think it was an accident”
“The fire didn’t start where the electrical current was. I arrived when it started to spark, but the fire started completely on the other side,” said Ramirez, from Matambu’s culture committee. She believes the fire was provoked.
If her suspicion is confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first time that a structure related to indigenous culture has been vandalized. Previously, a Chorotega-themed mural on the steps of the plaza was graffitied very soon after it was made.
“These things happen in the community that discourage you, but I understand that it’s a minority that causes damage and that the majority of people are always grateful and recognize the work,” Ramirez also pointed out.
Zambrana explained that despite not having the budget to start building a new rancho, they hope to make alliances with people or companies that want to contribute.
“We want to think it was an accident. It seems that it was provoked, but it’s not something we can be sure of. If at some time, we start rebuilding, we are fully assured of the support that we are going to have from the community,” concluded Zambrana.