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Story Publication logo August 2, 2018

Ngäbe-Buglé Navigate a Culture in Flux


A young boy peeks from the window of a bache located in a coffee plantation near the Rio Sereno border crossing. Image by Samira Tella. Costa Rica, 2018.

As demand for high-quality coffee increases, but crop prices decrease, desire for low-wage labor...


Children huddle by Doña Maria to hear what she will say, some still playing behind and around her long embroidered dress. She puts down the pieces of string she is using to make a "chácara," a traditional woven bag made of plant fibers. 

Doña Maria, who lives in La Casona, an indigenous territory in southern Costa Rica, is a key liaison between indigenous community members and the non-indigenous living outside the territory. As a "partera" or traditional midwife, she assists Ngäbe-Buglé women in La Casona to give birth in their homes in accordance with traditional customs.  "I have [birthed] many, she says, "Maybe 30, but they are all big." She points to her home and continues, "The little boy here… I cut his umbilical cord, but now he's big and has his own babies."

Doña Maria explains why some indigenous women prefer home births: "We all have some shame, and in the hospital the doctor puts his hands all over you, and he looks at you. I don't like all that, so I decided to have all my births at home. Young girls, they think that it is safer to give birth in the hospital, but that's not true," she says. "Before, there were lots of people. They would call me from all over. Now more women go to the hospital. I think young women are scared to give birth in the house, because they don't know—they think the hospital is better." 

The transition from traditional births to hospital births is one of many changes that have occurred in La Casona. As young women have access to larger cities, different cultures, and experiences, they shape new norms in the community. 

"The culture Ngäbe-Buglé is gone," says Doña Maria, "What can I do about it?"

Candida, a caretaker in a Casa de Alegria, a day center for Ngäbe-Buglé children, says, "I don't feel connected to Ngäbe-Buglé culture. I have never felt connected to it." Referring to the clothing women wear, she says, "I don't like those outfits. I would wear it maybe it if it was shorter." 

Candida came to Costa Rica from Panama with her family as a child and worked in the coffee harvests before her job as a seasonal caretaker for children. "I don't remember what it was like there [in Panama]," she says. "Here, I feel that I have the right to make decisions. I see other women, and their husbands make them decide what to do, or they go to school to just find a husband, but I am going to school because I can." 

Anthropologist Carolina Quesada, who worked with the Ngäbe-Buglé in southern Costa Rica, says there are immense changes in the life of Ngäbe-Buglé women. "They now have more agency in terms of life choices, like partnership arrangements and motherhood, and in terms of social and political participation."

However, for vulnerable populations, such as the Ngäbe-Buglé, the search for opportunity can be stifling. Individuals may choose to lose components of their culture in order to fit into greater society. 

Dr. Pablo Ortiz Rosés, former director of the health area of Coto Brus, says that acculturation may lead to adoption of new cultural norms in a desire to fit in. He says, "To speak the language that my grandparents spoke, it is to remember the social exclusion, and I don't want to be excluded from the majority. I want to be part of the benefits that greater society gets." 

While Doña Maria is concerned about the loss of certain traditions, she also acknowledges a positive aspect—a growing respect for the Ngäbe-Buglé. "We are working, so that people respect us indigenous, and we respect them, says Doña Maria. "I see that it is changing. Before I couldn't talk about traditional medicine, but now my husband [a traditional doctor] is working there [in the health center]. What he can't cure the doctor cures, and what the doctor can't cure, he cures. We are worth the same." 

* Quotes have been translated from Spanish to English 
** Last names have been removed from all Ngäbe-Buglé peoples in order to protect their privacy


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