This is the crazy story of how Dominical—my home for the next year—got its name, as told to me by locals.
The backdrop – Costa Rica’s banana boom
Even in the midst of the American Civil War, North and South would have passionately defended the fact that bananas are f*ing delicious. This was true in the 1860’s, and it’s true today. 🍌
Not surprisingly, insatiable demand in the United States for bananas and later cocaine resulted in all sorts of fuckery in the jungles of Central America, where miles of jungle could be clear cut and converted into cold hard cash. This birthed a very ugly giant named United Fruit, a sprawling corporation with lobbyists and CIA operatives that would forever intertwine the economies of Costa Rica and the USA.
The CEO of United Fruit was a guy named Minor Keith—referred herein as El Gringo—who left Texas in the 1870’s with his uncle, 2 brothers, and 3 best friends to build railroads in Costa Rica. Sound fun, right? You tell me. First, all 5,000 of their local workers died while building the railroad, including both brothers. To replace them, he paid a New Orleans jail to send him 700 thieves and murders, all but 25 of whom were dead within a year. In desperation, he bribed a ship captain to redirect a boat of 2,000 Italian immigrants from the USA to Costa Rica (I can hear the ship captain saying “Surpriiiiiise!”). Within a year, the Italians revolted and scattered into the jungle, where at least sixty were found rotting in the understory. Great job, el Gringo! 👏 💀 🇺🇸
After finishing his stupid expensive railroad, El Gringo suddenly realized 2 things. First, nobody wanted to ride it, which meant he was missing debt payments and making Wall Street angry. Second—and this solved the first thing—he could rip out the seats from his passenger train cars, harvest a few bananas he’d planted along the path of the railroad to feed workers during the last 10 years, and export them back to the USA. Not only did this ploy save El Gringo out of financial ruin, but—thanks to a miscommunication that resulted in 10x bananas planted than El Gringo requested—a sustainable (and extremely lucrative) business model was born.
Costa Rica’s feudal age
During the reign of El Gringo, the executive function of Costa Rica originated from the capital, San Jose. From the President’s gleaming office—or, more likely, from a nearby gentleman’s club—would pour dozens of massive business deals per week that carved up the jungles of Costa Rica into fincas which could be legally commercialized.
These jungle settlements were brutal fiefdoms with no real winners, except for those on Wall Street, where power consolidated with the jefes on each farm. Here enters the original gangster El Chucuyo, who grabbed the deed to a worthless finca in the South Pacific zone. By all accounts, Chucuyo was powerful leader—soft-spoken, heavy-handed, and capable of subduing large teams of laborers—but also a skilled agriculturalist with exacting consistency and attention to detail. At the time, dozens of banana species were planted around Costa Rica with varying success. At some point—some say by luck, others say by fate—he discovered that a new-fangled banana variety called the dominica grew exceptionally well in the Southern Pacific zone. The rest is history.
And here we arrive at the punchline. A finca growing bananas is called a bananal. You can be even more specific and use the variety name. For example, for fincas growing plantains, guineas, or dominicas, you can just say cuadradal, guineal, or dominical.
In spite of the veil of mystery around El Chucuyo, what we know for sure was that by the year 1900 his name was legendary across the region. I like to imagine his name was uttered in a variety of contexts, such as: “Need work? Walk down the beach to Chucuyo’s dominical and ask.” or “Have you seen the mansion Chucuyo is building in his dominical?” or “Poor Esteban, he stole from El Chucuyo and they dragged his ass back to the dominical. No one has seen him since.” With this imagination, I call Chucuyo the first gangster of Dominical.
That’s the end of my story! You may close this tab now.
I hope you enjoyed my re-telling of this local history! It’s a synthesis of various re-tellings my local farmers I met while on trail runs, a local environmental advocate named Jack Ewing, and what I could find on Google.
In the spirit of accuracy, there are two caveats.
First, the indigenous name for Dominical is actually “Baru” or “Bocu Baru”, which means “the meeting of waters” in the native tongue of the Boruca tribe, which numbers 2,000 at present. The river running next to Dominical is still known as Rio Baru, so the mark of Los Baruca is still in plain sight.
Second, the above map of Costa Rica pre-dates El Chucuyo and includes the name Dominical (though it’s not in the same place as present-day Dominical). It’s totally possible that the dominica variety was growing here prior to the heyday of El Chucuyo. In this version of events, perhaps Chucuyo inherited the dominical instead of seeding it himself. Either way, it’s essentially true so I’m retelling it here.
2 thoughts on “The Gangster of Dominical”
Never underestimate the Gringo!
Bill Prior Billprior@gmail.com
Nice!! What a fun story!