LEAF International | Costa Rica

Bribri, Ngäbe-Buglé & Cabecar First Nations | Founded 2013 | 100 youth served ages 6-22

Why Costa Rica? LEAF Supporter Greg Lucas of The Dan Lucas Foundation attended the 1st gathering of all of the First Nations in Costa Rica in 2012. He approached LEAF with the concept and support to start working with at least two First Nations and their culture keepers, and this extraordinary journey began.

Ngäbe-Buglé First Nation

Founded in August 2013 | Located in La Casona, Costa Rica | 40 youth

                                                              Kwin-Kwin (Thank You)


See a Cultural Exchange in Action
Meet the Culture Keeper


Alexis Rodriguez learned music and Ngäbe traditions from his mother who lived near the frontier. While he speaks Spanish, he thinks in Ngäbe-Buglé. For more than 20 years, Alexis has served as a culture keeper teaching thousands of youth traditional Ngäbe-Buglé music, rhythms, chants, and the language itself. Alexis has authored 3 books that are used in schools in southern Costa Rica  & Northern Panama to teach youth the Ngabe language & history. He is a band member of Proyecto Jirondai which uses ancient traditions and the voices of the elders with contemporary music to bring awareness to indigenous culture and the voices of marginalized people. Proyecto Jirondai also uses visuals to explain the songs for those who don’t speak their indigenous languages.

In the words of Alexis:

“We started our school underneath roped poles covered with garbage bags. But the students still came, and with the help of allies and hard work we were able to build the beautiful school you see now. Yet this is just the beginning…As every day the Ngäbe people are losing their language and traditions. It is my life work to continue these traditions and find new ways to expand this work. As our unique culture and way of life is the most important thing we can ever hope to offer the world.”

Program Overview: Ngabe First Nation

In La Casona,The people of the Ngäbe First Nation live on a comarca, roughly translated to “reservation,” where indigenous groups have LICR-Alexisandkidexclusive land rights and some autonomy.The Ngäbe people have lost much of their culture due to colonization and globalization. This is particularly true for the Ngäbe that currently live in Costa Rica; originally, the Ngäbe are from Panama, and those that now live in Costa Rica have been separated to some extent from their cultural roots. Due to this loss of culture, certain indigenous knowledge surrounding the making of traditional instruments, the remembrance of songs, and the lineage of some dialects are all disappearing. Here, LEAF International Costa Rica is supporting the Centro de Cultura Ngäbe, founded by community member and musician, Alexis Rodriguez. 

The partnership with Alexis provides much needed support to a man who has already working to preserve and link kids to local culture for years. Alexis is translating three languages: the ancient language of Bukle, the more traditional language of Ngäbe (or Ngäbere), and Spanish. Alexis teaches ancient stories, painting exceptional illustrations to go with the stories for the kids. As well, he teaches these children the different traditional dances and songs of the Ngäbe people. Through supporting his endogenous efforts, we are connecting him to a larger network of support to bolster his impact to the Ngabe communities he is a part of, and that he serves.


The Impact

Through the program students gain 

  • Traditional music classes
  • Lessons in ancient stories and culture of elders in the community 
  • Indigenous language skills
  • Performance opportunities in the community, and throughout Costa Rica
  • Awareness and preservation of cultural traditions 
  • Regaining control over life that has been lost decades

“Teaching music has become a new way of speaking to people. It has opened new channels of telling the people we are here and we have a culture.”

Alexis Rodriguez

LEAF International Culture Keeper, Ngäbe First Nation

Cabecar First Nation

Founded October 2015 | Chirripo, Costa Rica | 55 youth
Wëktë (Thank You)

Meet Culture Keeper Luis Salazaar

Cabécar culture keeper, Luis Salazar is a teacher, healer, medicine-man, agriculturist, musician, & community leader. Luis teaches kids in his community, high on the Chirripó Mountain, and he travels across the country to teach oral traditions & medicine, and ancient chants to the Cabécar kids of Ujarras in the South Pacific. 

Program Overview: Cabecar First Nation

With partner Proyecto Jirondai, a third LEAF International program was created with the Cabecar First Nation. Located on Alto Chirripo a 22 mile hike from the nearest vehicle accessible road, Luis  Salazar teaches approx 55 students traditional song & dance, and healing medicine.

The Impact

Through the program students gain:
•    Increased Self Esteem
•    Increased Ability & Skills
•    Increased Awareness & Knowledge
•    Friendship and Camaraderie – Team Work
•    Respect for Culture and History
•    Pride in their Culture
•    Leadership Skills
•    Cultural Preservation


Bribri First Nation

 Founded August 2013 | Located in Talamanca, Costa Rica | 15 youth
Miá-miá (or “wëstëla” is more polite word for Thank you)

See The Program in Action!
Program Overview: Bribri First Nation

In 2013, LEAF International teamed up with Proyecto Jirondai to support the preservation and revitalization of ancient Bribri music, art and language traditions in the mountainous region of Talamanca in southern Costa Rica.

The culture and language of the First Nations in Costa Rica has been marginalized: 2+ generations haven’t been learning their native traditions and ways of being. Currently, 90% of all linguistics diversity in the Americas have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing. UNESCO predicts that all native languages will disappear in this century.

LEAF International Costa Rica supports and empowers the Bribri First Nation to revitalize their cultural traditions. The Bribri connect to their gods, their elders and each other through singing, dancing, and drumming. By singing, they express a variety of stories and actions.

Meeting 3 times a week, youth in the Bribri First Nation learn ancient Bribri traditions of drum making, drumming and singing. The community also has a very progressive radio station and recording studio that has been in existence for many years. With use of the radio, the Bribri share their music and recordings of ancient songs with the rest of the country. This ability is empowering to them.

Before LEAF International teamed up with Proyecto Jirondai to initiate this project, there were only 3 individuals in the entire Talamanca Bribri community that still held knowledge of this unique drumming tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, century after century. Of these 3 individuals, only 1 of them was not yet an elder, approaching old age. His name is Jairo. With the help of Jairo, over sixteen youth are now cultural keepers of the Bribri drumming tradition, revitalizing a cultural art that was at risk of being lost. With each year, these numbers are growing. 

Together, we are contributing to powerful efforts of cultural preservation. 


Meet the Culture Keeper

LICostaBriJairoSmile Jairo Sanchez  is president of the Bribri village. He learned to make drums from his grandfather, and is married to Dgna, the daughter of a shaman. The shaman is a very important member in Bribri society representing both law and medicine. Jairo and his wife have one son, Manual, who is 13 yrs. He is the only instrument maker in the area, and both makes the traditional instruments for the program and also teaches the Bribri drumming techniques to students. It is believed by the Bribri that the spirit of the Woodpecker was the original maker of the drum. Jairo depicts this sacred maker of the drum, the woodpecker, on his drums. 

In the words of Jairo:

“Before this program, I was teaching once in a while. Now, we are thinking on even having a place based on traditional structure to teach! I feel like I am making a positive difference in my community through this program because it is like building a bridge between the young and the elders. Teaching cultural traditions is important to the community, because it is part of identity and reinforces our self-esteem.”

The Impact

Through the project students gain:

  • Musical skills in learning songs from their elders 
  • Mentoring from teachers in the community 
  • Drum-making skills
  • Performance opportunities in the community 
  • Increased self-esteem and pride knowing their traditions 
  • Awareness of cultural traditions
  • The passing of indigenous knowledge systems through the lens of creative expression

“LEAF gives us eyes and a voice to a greater world…A world that doesn’t know the song and story of my people. Our hope is for people to recognize the gifts we have to offer, so we receive more opportunities to expand and share our music and culture.”

Jairo Sanchez

LEAF International Culture Keeper, Bribri First Nation

LI WEB icon - Costa Rica
Project Highlights


Successful cultural expedition fully immersed participants in dynamic spaces of ceremonial practices, traditional medicinal customs & language recovery.

Culture keepers and students participate in a 5-day residency at Candler Elementary, more than 4 cultural exchanges across the county & joined LEAF for the 49th LEAF festival. The Costa Rica crew taught more than 275 youth.


Alexis Rodriguez published his second book, Ji Tara Kri Deka. This book is infused with traditional Ngabe stories and poems to help the youth connect to their tradional Indian roots. Ji Tara Kri Deka is in 35 schools & 5 Indian Territories throughout Southern Costa Rica and Northern Panama.  t
October 2017

Culture Keepers Luis Salazar & Jairo Sanchez are building two separate schools in different regions of Costa Rica so youth can have stability in their study quarters.


September 2017
Put on your boots, pack your backpack, and imagine walking 3 DAYS across the Chirripo Mountains to the nearest town then hitching rides and buses to get to the capital city. The traffic, paved roads, sounds, cars, lights, shops, and so many people were all such a surprise to Ceclia Last month was Cecilia’s 1st time away from home- she is 10yrs old. She performed alongside her dynamic mentor, LEAF International Culture Keepers Luis, and with other international youth at San Jose’s Museum of Jade. This was a big life journey.

“Being in the city, Cecilia understood the beauty & importance of her sacred homeland in the beautiful mountain lands of Costa Rica. She was able to share her in-depth perceptions on preservation with more than 100 people- her voice by song and speaking was honored. She now knows the difference and we want people to know that she can help us tell that story of cultural and land preservation.” – Luis Porras Mora

July 2016

Alexis Rodriguez, Jairo Sanchez, & Luis Porras Mora join the 2nd annual LEAF Arts & Park Camp for a 2 week cultural exchange with Asheville area youth.


February 2016

Twelve LEAFers journey to Costa Rica alongside tour partner, Discovery Expeditions to visit the LEAF International program in Bri Bri First Nation. The nine day quest is a transformational and enlightening experience for all aboard.  Cultural lessons are gifted to the group about indigenous arts and music for the Ngabe, Cabecar and Bri Bri; cacao medicinal properties and ancient uses; Bri Bri language; conical house architecture; Sbák drumming with Teaching Artist, Jairo Sanchez (alongside his teacher and grandfather, Don Emilio); and traditional chants, songs and dances among the First Nations.  Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” serendipitously and appropriately becomes the group song. The future for these programs are bright.


October 2015
With Proyecto Jirondai, a third LEAF International program is launched with the Cabecar First Nation: empowering medicine man and culture keeper, Luis Salazar, with the support he needs to teach youth in his community in the Chirripos mountains about plant medicine, ancient songs, creation stories and sacred ceremonies and lullabies. Additionally, Luis Salazar travels to Ujarras once a month to teach another group of students this ancient wisdom as well. 
May 2015
18 Members of Proyecto Jirondai and the First Nation communities travel to the US to share with the LEAF community their cultural arts traditions, while participating in cultural exchanges with various communities in the Asheville area. Cultures were connected and unforgettable friendships formed. This exchange led to increased visibility and recognition of these communities and the pressing challenges they face.  
March 2015
LEAF International helps to facilitate a cultural exchange, and cultural remembrance trip. Members of the Ngabe community in Costa Rica traveled to their homelands in Panama for the first time in their lives, allowing children to see the mountains that they’ve only heard about in their mythology and creation myths. These individuals reunited with the Ngabe communities still living in Panama, and participated in a cultural gathering that celebrated their heritage. This experience was one of the most profound moments LEAF International has been blessed with the opportunity to be a part of–all involved were brought to tears of joy, remembrance, and gratitude. This connection continues, and LEAF International is planning to help start a sister program with this Ngabe community in Panama in the future. These exchanges will continue as we work to bolster and strengthen Ngabe cultural identity.
February 2015
LEAF International hosts its first ever Cultural Exchange Trip in the Bribri and Ngabe First Nation communities, allowing LEAFers and these communities to build relationships with one another, connecting cultures and cultivating global citizenship.
November 2014
With the help of Proyecto Jirondai, Ngabe Teaching Artist, Alexis Rodriguez, won a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture to further his cultural teachings throughout the country of Costa Rica. 
October 2014
With a formal invitation from the vice-president, children from both the Ngabe and Bribri programs perform at the presidential house of Costa Rica, bringing these programs national recognition, and giving voice and visibility to indigenous cultural rights more visibility. 
September 2014
Kids from Alto Laguna, Ngabe, won 1st place on their area at the National Students Arts Festival, an annual festival organized by the Minister of Education. Good job!
June 2014
5 LEAFers, including a videographer, travel to Costa Rica to visit the programs in both La Casona and Talamanca. They connect, share and learn, while also collecting footage for LEAF International documentation efforts.

August 2013

LEAF Staff travel to Costa Rica to launch programs in Talamanca and La Casona. The trip is a big success! All involved are inspired to preserve indigenous culture and traditions of the two First Nations.


January 2013

Greg Lucas dreams of this project. Greg and LEAF vision a viable way to launch a LEAF International program in Costa Rica.

Our Partner

Proyecto Jirondai works to preserve Central American indigenous chants through research, education, and dissemniation. Using art and technology to preserve the intangible human heritage through the knowledge and respect of human diversity, the orgnanization records indigenous song and oral traditions in the field, helps to produce CDs and provides concerts to let these voices be heard by local and global audiences–promoting knowledge and respect of ancient cultures. 

Through their work, Proyecto Jirondai is preserving languages that are at the risk of extinction.  An advocate for the preservation of indigenous culture, and the founder of Proyecto Jirondai, Luis Porras, serves as LEAF International’s Program Coordinator in Costa Rica. Together, we are providing support systems for these indigenous communities to continue to thrive.



Our low-cost, high-impact programs need your support. Donate today, and provide a community with the resources they need to sustain their cultural arts education program.

Our Partners

The vision from Greg Lucas of this project and the generous grant funding from the Dan Lucas Memorial Fund made it possible for LEAF international to launch LI Costa Rica and expand LEAF’s depth of programming in Latin America. The generous grant provided $10,000 to begin the collaboration with Proyecto Jirondai budgeted to purchase instruments, provide administrative support for LEAF International, travel expenses, teaching artists and documentation. The grant is scheduled to provide support for the program for 3 years.
Funds from the Ben Gradison Memorial Fund were designed for audio equipment to support a One-Mic studio project. Proyecto Jirondai has created a One-Mic type program called Houses of Memory, or Casa de la Memoria. LEAF supports these efforts with funding from the Ben Gradison Foundation gifts. These efforts reflect the work for which Ben held so much passion.

The Culture of the First Nations in Costa Rica
The Bribri: Talamanca is very difficult to get to; it is an isolated area. There is no way to get there except to attempt to forge the powerful river or catch a dug out canoe across. Then traverse, in a Banana Truck, the nicely kept gravel road for 20 minutes to the main town. The few vehicles in Amubri, even the buses and banana trucks, were brought over carefully using many dugout canoes. In Talamanca there are 1,000 families, and in Amubri there are 100 families. Their self respect and pride is reflected in the cleanliness of their land and homes. The homes are simple, yet very nice. Agriculture is the main activity of the Bribri and because of their intense isolation; they have developed an extensive bartering system. The Bribri are matriarchal. They consider themselves “seeds”, and the Keepers of Seed – one of these being the Cacao Seed. Cacao is the sacred plant. They eat and drink chocolate. Corn is also sacred. The Bribri have so many sacred places, including one mountain where they consider creation started.
The Ngäbe: La Casona suffers from a loss of culture.The Ngäbe experience much adversity including poverty and malnutrition due to crop shortage, low levels of secondary education, alcoholism, loss of culture, loss of sacred lands and burial groundsThere are no work sources in La Casona. For work people must go to San Vito or harvesting operations. In their belief system, the sloth is sacred, and the Sloth was holding the structure of the universe. Here, Ngäbe is the current language and is spelled many different ways-  but Bukle is the ancient language.