Costa Rican oxcarts are one of the country’s most distinctive symbols, as its decorative patterns have become a staple in a wide variety of Costa Rica souvenirs: from scarves and earrings to miniature-sized carts. The oxcart itself has a lengthy history, one that goes beyond becoming a very recognisable symbol for Costa Ricans.
Every Costa Rican has a very different, and very profound, relationship with each of the national symbols. Some people kiss the flag during soccer matches. Others love keeping guaria moradas, the national flower of Costa Rica, in their home or office. People can easily identify the yiguirro’s song in the morning.
Oxcarts, in my case, have the profound meaning I am writing about. Because I grew up with them. Before going more in depth, though, we have to understand why is the oxcart such an important symbol.
Making and painting a single oxcart can take up to 80 hours.
A Brief History of Costa Rica Souvenirs
The traditional oxcart was used to transport sugarcane and coffee beans from the Central Valley to different parts of Costa Rica, particularly Puntarenas. “Originally”, says Carlos Chaverri - one of the former co-owners of the Chaverri Oxcart Factory -, “oxcarts were very plain and used only a couple of coolers.”
The earliest oxcart designs were a hybrid between the Aztec disk and the Spanish wheel, as they used wheels without radii. However, as the country opened its doors to international markets, the need to transport coffee from San José to Puntarenas increased. Thus, oxcarts started becoming increasingly common.
Oxcarts became a status symbol and a way to differentiate one region of the country from another. Simple designs paved the way for more elaborate pieces of art, often using flower motifs and geometrical patterns to decorate them.
The role of the “boyero”, the person in charge of the oxcart and its oxen, cannot be overlooked. Many Costa Rican history books emphasize this figure, as it is often considered a symbol for progress.
The 15-day trips were often filled with obstacles: rain, mud, dense forests and hundreds of unknown creatures. Yet hundreds of these boyeros made constant trips forth and back, thus helping Costa Rica open its doors to the world.
The “Desfile de Boyeros” in San Isidro de Heredia is an initiative to keep the boyero tradition alive.
From a Factory to a Symbol
At the beginning of the XXth century, the technological advancements made on the oxcart made it easier to produce in larger quantities. Two of the oldest and largest oxcart factories are still up and running: the Fabrica de Carretas Joaquín Chaverri (founded in 1903) and the Fábrica de Carretas Eloy Alfaro (founded in 1902). Both factories are in Sarchí, Alajuela.
The building where Eloy Alfaro’s factory is located was declared an architectural landmark in 2014. There are several milestones that led to this: first, declaring Sarchí as the birthplace of Costa Rican craftsmanship in 1983; then, declaring the oxcart as the “national symbol for work” in 1989; and Unesco’s document declaring both the oxcart and the boyeo as part of the humankind’s oral and immaterial patrimony.
Joaquín Chaverri’s factory also played an important role in this. Carlos Chaverri and his brothers are the fourth generation oxcart-makers, and have dedicated their entire lives to constructing and decorating them.
Luis Madrigal, the owner of Sarchisueños, paints each of the hats by hand.
How to Paint an Oxcart
I met Carlos Chaverri and his brothers many years ago, when I was still a little girl. My father, a retired tour guide, often took his family to different parts of the country on weekends and holidays. The trips to Sarchí were a family favorite, as the factory became a playground of sorts.
Don Carlos allowed me to spend entire afternoons in their workshop, watching the painters work. There were three or four painters, at most, and most of them had begun painting from an early age. Because it’s a craft that takes years to develop appropriately and the newer generations have shown little interest in this, there are very few oxcart painters nowadays.
I was eventually allowed to hold a brush and learn the basics of painting an oxcart. After the base color is applied, you draw geometrical figures with a pencil. More experienced painters can do this freehand, but if you’re starting, these guides will come in handy. Such figures are painted all around the circumference of the tie rod or along the oxcart itself.
Once the figures are ready, you lay down the gradients or shadows on the figures. Adding plant or flower motifs to the cart is the following step, making the oxcart more recognisable. Animals could be added, but to me they’re highly unusual and I’ve never seen one myself. Ask this to any Costa Rican, I think they’ll answer the same.
The final layer, and the most time-consuming one, involves adding the famous handheld lined pattern, often painted in white. Details such as these take a steady hand, as well as hours to complete successfully. The final touches are left to the most seasoned painters. I used to scribble these patterns in my notebooks, in hopes one day I could actually paint one.
It’s hard to do it smoothly, in the way the master painters do it - using a single stroke of the brush.
Vanessa’s love for design and folclore is her motivation behind El Canto.
Where Can You Find It?
Over the years, the railway and, eventually, cars and other means of transportation substituted the oxcart. However, by the time this began to happen, the oxcart was already very important for Costa Rican farmers. The colorful designs began to be used in other objects: like clothing, jewelry, plates. It’s a reminder of Costa Rica’s roots, and a very beautiful one.
A wide range of Makers offer products based on the oxcart design. Luis Madrigal, the owner of Sarchisueños, has been painting oxcarts for more than thirty years. Originally from Sarchí, the capital for oxcart crafts, this maker also sells hand-painted straw hats and other products that feature this traditional design.
There’s also El Canto, a clothing line created by Vanessa Chacón, that features a unique take on this folkloric design. Her designs have been featured in the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and in red carpet galas such as the Premios Goya.
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