29 - Latina Authors
The Cothnejo-Fishy District is a satirical tale that exposes the superficialities, deception, and ridiculousness of the elites of the so-called Switzerland of Central America -during the first part of the 20th century. In the comments we talk about the work of the Costa Rican teacher and activist Carmen Lyra, whose work was ignored and silenced after her death.
#English, #LatinaAuthor, #Latina, #socialcritic #CarmenLyra, #CostaRica, #Literature, #SocialRealism, #UnitedFruitCompany, #Exile, #authorsinexile, #Communism, #Activism, #Socialism, #centralamerica, #centralamericahistory, #USintervention, #imperialism, #USforeignpolicy, #satiricalliterature, #centralamericandictarorship, #CostaRicahistory, #inequality #inequalityinlatinamerica, #systemicpoverty
(The complete bibliography is at the bottom of the document)
On May 14, 1949, María Isabel Carvajal, known in the public and pedagogical spheres of Costa Rica as Carmen Lyra, died of cancer. She had been exiled in Mexico, after being denied a humanitarian request to return to her homeland.
On the day of her exile, whose journey she shared with another expatriate, the plane transporting them was machine-gunned. Surprisingly, the passengers were unharmed. Each bullet was an attempt to silence the threat that the critical thinking of Carmen Lyra and her companion posed to the government of José Figueres Ferrer.
They say that, reluctantly, only Carmen Lyra's remains were allowed to return to Costa Rica. At the arrival of the coffin, José Figueres Ferrer himself had it opened to make sure that the body of that woman was inside the coffin and not a shipment of weapons. Thus, it was the word of this woman, a social threat that made many uncomfortable and exposed the inequality of the so-called Switzerland of Central America.
Greetings! Dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the podcast dedicated to the literary, historical, and traditional narratives of Latin America. I am Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and in today's episode of Latina Authors, we will explore some of the sharp and satirical thinking of the Costa Rican Carmen Lyra.
I confess that until no more than eight months ago, I knew nothing of this woman. When I ran into the name Carmen Lyra, I did not find much, almost all the searches took me to the same place, to her folkloric work The Tales of My Aunt Panchita.
And just as I was thinking of looking for a different author, I came across the book published in English The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra. No need to say anymore, I said to myself, I must read it. When the book reached my hands, I was fascinated.
The text you will hear next comes to us from the book The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra, edited and translated by Elizabeth Rosa Horan and published by The University Press of Florida. As in the previous episode, this time, we will have the collaboration of four female voices. I will tell you more about our contributors when we get to the comments.
From her youth Carmen Lyra walked into vortex of a whirlwind. She, who joined the anarchist and then communist ranks, dared to do what other women of her time would call social suicide. She threatened to give voice to the unofficial reality that social elites and the Costa Rican government struggled to hide under the carpet.
The Cothnejo-Fishy District
By Carmen Lyra
I - Impressions of the District (Read by Jasmin Cardenas)
I'm going to set down all the human weaknesses that leap out at me when passing by, weaknesses that this district clothes in importance and honor. This district will resemble the puppet show that Maese Pedro staged in Don Quixote.
This elegant city district was founded by an old man named José Manuel Conejo [José Manuel Rabbit], a moneylender who'd loan a hundred to get two hundred fifty returned to him at the end of the month. His eagerness to stuff his fists with money ruined, crippled, and killed many people. The funny thing is, the more he squeezed and mistreated his fellow man, the greater his prestige among the one who set up and brought down governments, and the greater the deference surrounding him in so-called good society.
When coffee prices fell around 1890, he wound up with the plantations of the people who owed him money. And these misdeeds added a great luster to his halo.
He liked to tell the story of how when he was young, he went around barefoot, driving oxen; he'd accumulated his fortune by his own efforts, by the sweat of his brow. Saying this last bit, he accompanied his words with the following gesture: he'd pass the curved index finger of his right hand along his bald forehead, then he'd snap it, sharply, in the air. His daughter, Miss Ana Benita Cothnejo Fishy, didn't like her father bringing these plebeian memories to the dinner table.
Through some extremely complicated and shady dealings, Don José Manuel Conejo had taken from his best friend the vast properties that he owned to the north of the city, where today the Cothnejo-Fishy District spreads out the vanity and pomp of new money.
Fishy was a guy who'd come to Costa Rica when he was very young.
English? Yankee? We've never known for sure which was his homeland.
Those who met him as a newcomer used to say that he came to the country poorer than a mouse and that he'd lived from hand to mouth.
How did he manage to get himself into the Conejo estates? God raised them, and the devil brought them together. What happened is that Fishy got his foot in the door, sweeping the office in the Conejo house, and he wound up marrying the only daughter of our moneybags, Ana Benita Conejo, a girl with a hen's profile, who was just as silly as a chicken.
Once married, Fishy said that he was from the nobility, some sort of marquis or baron. A family tree was made, and the spoke of his grandparents in a castle (we don't remember whether it was in Scotland or in Wales), and suddenly a family coat of arms appeared in picture frames, crockery, and writing paper. Those knowledgeable in heraldry describe it as follows: in azure field a goldfish swimming, with a Latin motto around the edge, which the malicious translated as follows: "I am as voracious as the shark."
Four children were born of the marriage: two boys and two girls who went abroad and saw the world, which somewhat covered up the dim-wittedness of these extremely wealthy creatures. Those boys and girls both married into the so-called high society.
What matter the washed-out wits and sheer foolishness nestled in the frontal lobes of the brothers and sisters if valuable coffee plantations, millions in foreign banks and bonds and stocks, lay behind them? The money, foreign travel, connections, and the new relations with people of the upper crust made the children of Mr. George Fishy and Doña Ana Benita Conejo believe that they'd climbed up to the very top of the zoological ladder.
Here's where the idea was born of not calling themselves Fishy-Conejo [Fishy-Rabbit] anymore. This Conejo thing seemed extremely plebeian to them. Since it was impossible to suppress the name, they had the wit to give it an English air. They put a "th" after the first syllable, and they outfitted themselves with a pleasing Cothnejo in a procedure like their father's inventing his family tree and coat of arms with a goldfish swimming in an azure field.
Thanks to those two letters, cheekily stuffed into the plebeian word, the surname was left with an aristocratic, anglicized appearance: Cothnejo!
The land that old man Conejo had stolen from his good friend was divided into lots that sold very well to select families. The idea was to create a district for aristocrats, decent folk—that is to say, people who thought they had a blue blood running in their veins. The Fishy-Cothnejo family reserved the north-west sector for building mansions to rent to diplomats. In their foolishness, they thought that diplomats were always decent folk.
The district was called the Cothnejo-Fishy District. A pretty district where drivers always brought American tourists: houses surrounded by gardens, some with a colonial feeling, red-tile roofs, windows with cast-iron grillwork and some with little lanterns at the gate, others with pillars, benches, and fountains made of ceramic tile brought from Cuba or from Spain, garage, foyer, arches, and the whole passel of servile architectonic imitations of other lands that don't take either our countryside or environment into account in any way.
Like the entomologist armed with lenses, tweezers, tubes of cyanide and plaster or alcohol, etc. who goes out to hunt insects and to observe them, so do we go to the Cothnejo-Fishy District to examine the form and manners of the distinguished people of an aristocratic center located in Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America with a half million inhabitants. And we'll examine without passion, just as the entomologist would examine termites, flies, back-biting scorpions, butterflies, wasps, ants, cockroaches, spiders, etc., despite the blue blood that they think runs through their veins and the importance that money can give them.
II - The Castro-Cothnejo Wedding (Read by Rita Bautisda)
Innocent intrigues for arranging a wedding took place between two families of the aristocratic district.
The man, Lucho (Luciano) Castro, is the son of one of the most brilliant Costa Rican personalities of the time, for he has achieved great honors in the fields of legalized robbery and exploitation: in fires, which made thousands of dollars flow into his cash register (it's true that some people were burned, but what does that matter?). Also, he has worked selling smuggled goods, and as an exploiter of coffee, he has made millions, year after year, while paying a miserable daily wage to his workers. But, in exchange, Doña Guzmán Castro had built, in the 900-acre La Trinidad coffee plantation, a little chapel to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a wonderful Gothic piece. It's a little church full of golden things, with some pretty images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary, that you'd swear had just left the beauty parlor, and in no way call to mind the persecuted and impoverished Jesus and Mary of the Gospels.
What's more, on that same plantation, in the central patio of the coffee beneficio [the offices where the picked coffee is laid out to dry], the pious Missus ordered a Christ the King in marble, set in the attitude of blessing the whole spread with his right hand, that hand of a revolutionary, enemy of the Pharisees, except that in this hand the hole left by the nail that pierced it is not seen.
Behind the Christ, the King is the office where the coffee is brought for weighing. You should know that from time to time, those who come to hand over their coffee are tricked in the weighing, naturally in favor of the firm Saturnino Castro, which is beyond suspicion. What's more, the House lets the laborers have a house, some plantains, and wood, once a week. It pays them this way so that they have what they need to avoid death by hunger.
On Christmas Eve, the company distributes among the laborer's pieces of cheap printed cotton, a shipment of shirts and trousers, and little penny dolls for the children of the workers. All this why the laborers believe that Don Saturnino is a good boss and the whole family is certain that at the hour of death the entrance into God's glory will not appear like the eye of a needle, as in the Gospel, but as wide as La Sabana, the big city park.
The wife of Don Saturnino is a lady who gamble and rinks. The family chauffeur tells how Doña Lolita only likes cheap rum. An aberration in a distinguished person! Of course, everyone in the district pretends to overlook the vices of the honorable matron. Sometimes, very much under wraps, they comment on these weaknesses of Doña Lolita, with more or less malice, depending on the intelligence of the critics.
Don Saturnino and Doña Lolita are the parents of two children who are both considered magnificent catches, marriage-wise. Lucho, the boy, has three cars, the least valuable of them being a cute little Packard sports coupe. The business of owning three cars gives him a special aura for eligible girls from good families, and for girls who aspire to importance in high society. He spent various years in Europe studying to enjoy the thievery of his father, and he returned worn-out, cynical, twenty-four years old, and with the same alcoholic tendencies as his mother.
The girl, Cristinita Cothnejo, is also a magnificent catch. Her father, the banker Arnold Cothnejo Jiménez, once maneuvered with such intelligence that he ruined a bank that held a large quantity of the savings of small business persons, making millions for himself. He also helped close various deals, business ventures that left the country in very compromised circumstances, and had a hand in a hundred dark, bad-smelling schemes, all of which once brought him the candidacy for president of the republic.
When Lucho returned from Europe to study to become an honorable parasite in society, the Cothnejo-Jiménez and Castro Guzmán families pulled the necessary strings so that Lucho and Cristinita would be introduced and their wedding arranged.
Cristinita Cothnejo brought to mind her grandmother Doña Anita Cothnejo Fishy with regard to the hen" s profile and silliness. But her inheritance and the freshness of youth surrounded by luxury endowed her with a halo of elegance.
Finally, one day, the newspapers in the capital announced the Castro-Cothnejo engagement, and they took photographs of the future couple.
Cristinita's girlfriends organized a tea with trinkets. The one who helped organize it was one of the poorest of the unmarried girls in the district. She was the official organizer of all the teas, whether they were teas of linen, roses, or trinkets, that were devoted to the maidens who had just gotten engaged. Apparently, she took the money left from what everyone contributed, and with this petty thievery she got herself a little toilette, a little had, or a pair of gloves.
The trinkets tea was great success, and a lady somewhat advanced in years, who had literary airs, offered to give the bride's party. On seeing the heap of knickknacks, one wondered what the aristocratic young lady would do with so much by way of little doggies, seals, birds, flower vases, and little dolls of china and crystal.
The poor servant who'd have to dust off that junk every day!
Cristinita's closets friends were named bridesmaids. They were all chosen from those young ladies who were the "first first." (In human societies, as in luxury ocean liners, it sometimes happens that there's not only "first," but often "first first.") These young ladies from the "first first" were, for the most part, daughters of real outlaws who, if they didn't go to jail or the military stockade, it was because they'd stolen 10,000 pesos and more. The ones chosen to be Cristinita's bridesmaids held a meeting to decide what dresses they'd wear for the ceremony: cloth, color, fashion. It was a transcendental meeting for those creatures.
And the sponsors, the godparents? Luckily, Cristinitas's family didn't have to resort to deviousness like her cousin María de los Angeles Fishy, who had neither an inheritance or beauty. For these reasons, she had slept twenty-eight years without a husband. By the time that she'd lost hope of marrying, there appeared close by a young man of humble origins who, by slinking along and employing those scams that the advocates of individualism call "smart deals," and aided by his love for obtaining enormous profits, had managed to reach an enviable position.
The father of María de los Angeles said in a tone of great praise, referring to the career of his son-in-law, who began so humbly to make money and who, thanks to his lack of scruples and ease in sweeping aside his conscience, was on the road to greatness: He's a self-made man!
The thing is, María de los Angeles decided that no relative would be a god-parent. Then she could avoid displaying to the elegant world that would have to attend the wedding the parents, brothers, and sisters of the one who would become her husband. She decided that there'd be a single pair of godparents: the bride's best friend and the groom's boss, one Don Estanislao Fonseca.
Fonseca was one of the most unscrupulous thieves who'd ever assaulted the national treasury in complicity with the Housing Ministry. But who would notice that, since his money helped Mr. So-and-So and Mr. What' s-His-Nose ascend to the presidency, and Mr. What' s-His-Nose held him in high esteem? So, did the wedding party free themselves from drawing attention to the groom's sisters, obscure girls who hadn't learned to perform the monkeyshines that people in high society do to eat, procreate, shelter themselves, and sleep.
Cristinita and Lucho named an interminable line of godparents. Some attended the ceremony in person, while others were to represent some important personage traveling in Europe or the United States.
Cristinita ordered the wedding dress by airmail from New York so that the bride could shine on her wedding night in one of the latest models created by one of the elegant world's most renowned fashion designers.
III - How the Continuation of the Species is Arranged in an Aristocratic District
(Read by Brenda Hérnandez Jaimes)
Following the custom among people of good society, the friends of Lucho, the groom, pooled their funds to throw a bachelor party for him. It was a huge meal that almost all the young men of the district helped pay for, some of them with their own money, others by swindling the next guy.
The banquet took place in a fashionable city hotel. It was a big event in the upper crust, and the newspapers were very concerned about it, publishing even the menu and the wine list. Everyone was drunk well before they were all seated at the table, so drunk that they probably didn't notice the courses of dishes with French names served at their meal.
The crystal and the silver sparkled under the profusion of lights, while the orchestra played fashionable tunes, and guffaws and uncorked bottles exploded in the air.
While they were drinking and eating, obscene jokes were launched, and spicy stories told about the old folks in the district, about the young ladies and mothers whose very sons, brothers, and husbands joked about their respective relatives. There was a squandering of elegant cynicism, full of good taste.
Just as the groom was getting drunk, surrounded by his gentleman friends, the bride was in her house, in her virginal bower, surrounded by her lady friends, all of them lost amid the silks, tulle, and laces of the trousseau ordered from Paris, which had cost fifteen thousand colones.
Pieces in the latest fashions, loungewear, bedclothes, bed ding, tablecloths, curtains, were heaped over every piece of furniture. In its armchair, the wedding dress, white as the dawn; in its box, immaculate, the nightgown that she would have to wear on her wedding night recalled a little cloud ornamented with a branch of symbolic orange blossoms. The aristocratic maidens told malicious jokes and recounted off-color stories that the mothers and fathers of the respective creatures wouldn't have believed sprung from the budding lips of their daughters.
As luck would have it, Lucho was one of the drunkest. Each of his friends pressed his signature into one of the menu cards. Two poets wrote some lines alluding to the hopes of Lucho and of Cristinita and the blue skies that would shelter their love, and they sent the bride the big bouquet of flowers that decorated the table. Cristinita received the flowers with much feeling. To her, the flowers seemed fresh and pretty. Who could tell that they came from an atmosphere of drunkenness and that guffaws and filthy jokes had drizzled them with saliva?
At midnight, some of those distinguished young people had rolled under the table, passed out from alcohol; the others went off in an automobile to end the night in an inn on the outskirts of the city.
The inn was a house with an inoffensive appearance but a sordid interior with dark corridors. Through a half-opened door one could see a room with a dirty, unmade bed in which a child of some months was sleeping, both fists closed tight under its neck, and a table in which a little oil lamp was burning before a print of the Holy Trinity in a very good frame of gold. In the dining room, tables covered with stained tablecloths and wilted bouquets in pickle bottles. The low, flat ceiling was decorated with garlands of faded, dirty, colored paper. Wandering around, there were women burnt out by vice, badly dressed in shiny outfits, their faces layered with makeup. A jazz piece pirouetted reluctantly through those dark corridors and set libidos into grotesque movement among some of the couples. Halting at that place was a gang of young men, the very cream of our society…
There, they kept on drinking and prostituting themselves in body and in soul. There, Lucho contracted syphilis which thirty years later produced the general paralysis that brought him, turned into an idiot, to the tomb, despite his good manners, which were never out of place in a drawing room or at a dinning table, where a person is established as variously distinguished or vulgar according to how they conduct themselves at dinnertime, in eating asparagus, for example.
So was that rich little daddy's boy from a ranking family prepared to celebrate his wedding. The syphilis that he contracted that night was the cause of Cristinita's miscarriages, of the baby that was luckily born dead, with eyes, hands, and feet half developed although it was full term. It was syphilis still evident in the great-grandchildren of Lucho and Cristinita, manifest in eyes that were like fountains of pus, in deafness, in foul-smelling noses, cleft palates and harelips, rickets, obesity, outsized limbs, sick hearts, still births and all those monstrosities, madness, and deformations that chill the mind, meditating on them.
Lucho and his friends were in the inn until the morning. The chauffeurs pulled them out in their arms, turned into brutes, belching alcohol and lasciviousness. P.U.! With nausea, the chauffeurs, who are not saints, threw them into the cars and took off to deposit them in their respective mansions, the greater part of which were located in the aristocratic Cothnejo-Fishy District.
On the wedding day, the Cothnejo-Bonilla residence seemed like something from A Thousand and One Nights, according to the fashion papers: the gardens brought fairy tales to mind. Everything was showered in light, and among the pots of flowering plants were little tables full of confections. The drawing rooms overflowed with flowers, lights, ladies, and gentlemen of our elegant world. Almost all of those who believed that they had blue blood in their veins were gathered there.
At a certain signal, the orchestra broke into the [Lohengrin] "Wedding March" and the parade began: some little girls, dressed according to the fashion of we-don't remember-what empire, appeared when the doors of the immense drawing room were opened. Each girl came with her attendant, who carried the coins and the rings. His holiness the archbishop followed, full of sacred pomp, and then some little girls with little wings on their shoulders, scattering flowers over the path of those who were to be wed; behind them, the maids of honor, gauzy and fitted out from head to foot with enchanting tricks for husband hunting.
Immediately after came the bride, who made one think of a lily, with her dress brought by airplane and her face haloed by the veil and the orange blossoms; on her father's arm, the very honorable Don Pedro María Cothnejo surrounded by the aureole of prestige endowed by riches accumulated through tricking and exploiting one's neighbor. Then following, the parade of godparents, among whom there wasn't a single person who wasn't perched at the very top step of the zoological ladder.
With his voice of a person who is headed for infallibility, the bishop read the Epistle of Saint Paul. The smile of the bride was a pearly flower that opened in a snowy field (that's what the fashion writer said in the page that she wrote about the party). The groom also smiled, carefree and gallant; everyone was smiling…and within the veins of the aristocratic groom, lying in wait like a phantom, was the pallid Schaundinn-Hoffmann treponema—that is, the bacillus that produces syphilis.
And in front of the newlyweds opened the road that awaits all couples cut to the verification of those in the Cothnejo-Fishy District: to live in a house where the servants maintain absolute cleanliness; the ceramic tiles shining, if there are ceramic tiles; and the trinkets dust-free; feminine conversations about clothes, about the other women's honor and their husbands' infidelities; masculine conversations about bourgeois politics and business; commentaries about the latest sick person who went off for an operation in Panama or at the Mayo brothers' clinic in Rochester; in the mornings, to swim in the fashionable swimming pools, to play tennis, teas, the car, artists from Hollywood; at night to play bridge, dances with childish fantasy, and other stylish entertainments.
The newspapers devoted several columns to the party, with the list of godparents, bridesmaids, gifts, etc. What they didn't say was that among the distinguished guests were people who carried off, like common thieves, the boxes of sweets and valuable objects, and young men of very good family who stormed the bar, go drunk, and made off with bottles of whiskey and champagne.
IV - How Time is Killed in an Aristocratic District in Central America
(Read by Joy Jiménez)
The Cothnejo-Fishy District is a happy and confident neighborhood. None of its inhabitants seems to take into account the life that goes on beyond the imaginary border that separates it from the rest of the country. These people have more interest in the trifles that take place in the aristocratic districts in other climes than in the tragedies and drama that occur a few steps away from them.
If there weren't such pretentiousness and snobbery, that district would have been compared to the villa in which the tales of the Decameron are told, while two miles away the plague ran through the city of Florence, respecting neither children nor old people, the wise nor the ignorant. The pigs feasted on the cadavers that they found in the streets, and on pulling their snouts from the macabre meal, they fell dead in turn. But we believe that it would have been impossible to find, in those realms, an ingenious Pampinea or spiritual gentleman like the three in the prologue to Boccaccio's tales.
In the end we do what we can, and so do our neighbors, killing time in their fashion, just as the seven ladies and three Florentine gentlemen killed time in theirs. If, after a night's sleep, the meals, and a siesta, no picaresque stories are told here, upon a tapestry of grass and flowers, on the other hand, teas are served according to all the rules of good tone, along with parties, soirees, up-to-date dances, fantasy dances, bridge parties, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, sewing circles, and, what's more, the mass heard in church on Sundays, to which the car roars off. It's true that illness and misery could well finish off one's neighbor, beyond the district's boundaries, but it's also true that, one, we're all going to die, and, two, it's God who lets some people be rich while others are poor. How could anyone oppose the designs of Providence, especially when Providence has placed one in the first category and not in the second?
Every week on the same day, that is, on Tuesday, when the saintly Doña Lolita bestows a little candle, a loaf of bread, and sometimes a nickel on each of the beggars who call at the door for her charity, the lady of the dinosaur family offers a friendly tea.
Since the codes of good taste insist that nothing is more revealing of a housewife's good taste and distinction than a well-served tea, this lady always takes pains to appear to be a distinguished dame in the eyes of her guests. On the other hand, she couldn't care less about the opinion that her servants have of her, and the truth is that they don't regard her as a distinguished dame. The funny thing is, that when she believes that she has really made a good impression on her assembled guests, there are ladies among these who are right up to the minute with whatever innovation is introduced in the distractions of Yankee millionaires or the Hollywood starlets, who leave murmuring because she put lace table settings when now embroidered ones are used, or vice versa.
And that lady, who doesn't worry about whether or not the cook and the upstairs maid and the errand boy have their salary two months behind, who lowers their paltry wages when they break some piece of crockery, who treats them as if she were an eagle and they were miserable little worms, is the same one who follows to the letter the advice that she has read in the magazines about what must be taken into account with regard to every item involving a person of good taste serving tea. She also tries to imitate little Miss So-and-So and little Miss Such-and-Such, who have been in Paris taking tea with that countess and this marquise. So, the linen tablecloth is embroidered and most skillfully worked by hand.
The authentic china is from Japan—that is, she bought it herself in a Japanese shop in Panama. The tableware is silver, the little plates and little baskets for sweets are cut glass, and the flower vases and flower stands are real jewels of crystal and silver. She knows that the tea pot must be set to the right of the person who serves the tea, and the teacups and plates set to the left, and that the hands must be turned toward the person who is serving, etc., etc. If only her mother, God rest her soul, could see her, how happy she would be! These were the very things that the dead woman had wanted for her daughter.
Now the lady has determined that the tea will be taken in the vast hall, and when the little cart with the tea service makes its entrance into the great room full of guests, one could make a very good impression on her, telling her that it recalls the triumphant entries of the emperors into Rome. In that moment, this woman, in her distinguished servility, would like a thousand hands to come out so that she would look really good to each of her distinguished guests.
The tea service nestles in the upper part of the little cart, while the trays with the cakes are settled below. On the place mat, pansies or rose petals are scattered with artistic abandon. And every which way, sandwiches, sugared fruit, roses in flower stands are set in a manner that the lady and her daughters have judged artful, with stalks of asparagus, little cakes, and words and gestures overflowing with syrupy courtesy. The radio lets them hear the latest waltzes or fashionable fox-trots from whatever radio station. Amid the music, the murmur of animated conversation.
Groups often form among the guests. Today, there is the group of the ones who've traveled to Europe and the ones who haven't traveled to Europe. Next time will be the ones who have traveled to Europe and to the United States. This Tuesday will be the ones who've had surgery and the ones who've been operated on in Rochester by the Mayo Brothers and those who have been operated in Panama by Dr. Herrick. Who would say that in the controversies that arise, those who have scarcely been operated on in one of our humble clinics don't dare open their mouths and feel humiliated?
Those conversations about surgery are very odd. For example, the Martínez-Fernández couple divide their life into two eras: before and after having gone to Rochester (as one says, before Christ and after Christ); and one or the other always finds some way of bringing the trip to Rochester into the meal. The ladies take special delight in talking about the size of the incision and how long the operation lasted.
One woman describes her incisions as being as big as the distance between a thumb and a forefinger, and her operation lasting two and a half hours. Dr. Herrick had an awful fright because he thought that she'd been carried away to the other life. The women operated on in Rochester always talk about incisions the sizes of an ordinary button through which the Mayo brothers work like wizards. They have taken out a liver, spleen, kidneys, and intestines, scraped off all the things clinging to them, put the entrails back through the same little hole, and then an invisible scar, some tiny little stitches. It's not like those clumsy guys here who you'd think were stitching burlap.
A matron, very ignorant but most respectable, and who, furthermore, has been to Rochester, refers to how the Mayo brothers took out her son Felipe's brain—that is, they emptied it into a glass as one empties out an egg; then they washed it with some acids and returned it comfortably back, and here's Felipe, back to business.
When the topic is travel, Dr. González Cothnejo and his wife, Soledad, are king and queen of the conversation. No one has done what they did: travel around the world and visit India and Japan. What they don't tell is where they got the money to take this trip. Well, it doesn't involve anything dishonest, no theft: Dr. González Cothnejo sold the coffee brought into his beneficios, making a 100 percent profit while paying starvation wages to his workers. And husband and wife had the best possible time: they made the crossing in a magnificent cruise liner, traveling "first first" class. When Soledad, who is a real talker, sets into this topic, she just doesn't let go. She always mentions the same things: her husband hunted tigers in India with a rajah, and the geishas like this, and the pagodas like that.
Afterward, when everyone has gone home, they all eat each other up. The guests censure certain infringements of the rules for serving tea as it should be served to people of the daintiest manners. The family that held the tea talks about the voracity of certain ladies who believed that all the sandwiches, little cakes, little pancakes, sugared fruit, etc. were for them alone.
In the meantime, the servants of this family, a dinosaur family, not the newly rich, work long and hard so that everything will be left clean and in its place. What they get, generally, are the leftovers in the trays, from the little plates and from the little cut-glass baskets. And God help the one who breaks a piece!
And very early tomorrow morning the laundress has to wash the embroidered linen tablecloth, skillfully worked. If the lady doesn't pay punctually for the job, the woman will wait. These ladies of the aristocratic district have so many important things to worry about, that it's impossible to also attend to the needs of those who serve them. Likewise, tomorrow in this House—whose tea the city's newspapers will mention in its section "Society World" or "Notes from the Greater World"—the garbageman will enter by the back door, which is the door used by the cook, the washerwoman, the housemaid, and all the people the dinosaur family think are not "decent." The man will carry away in his car the garbage and filth left over in an aristocratic house after a party that only distinguished persons attended.
Very well, dear listeners, it is time to talk about the life and work of Carmen Lyra. However, before we begin to delve into the turbulent times in which she lived, I am pleased to introduce you to the contributors of this episode in order of appearance.
(From left to right: Jasmin Cardenas, Rita Bautista, Brenda Hérnandez Jaimes and Joy Jiménez)
Jasmin Cardenas is a Colombian-American award winning bilingual storyteller, actress, educator and social activist. Jasmin enjoys exploring the uncomfortable truths found when you grow up between cultures. https://www.jasmincardenas.com/
Rita Bautista, is the founder and CEO of the Latina Podcasters Network. Bautista connects aspiring and established Mujeres Latinas and the Latinx community. She has been called a bold innovative thinker and cultural connector by her peers. She is responsible for hosting the first Latina Podcasters meetup at any podcast convention. www.latinapodcasters.com
Brenda Hernández Jaimes is a first-generation Mexican American. She is a professional Podcast Producer and Podcaster. Brenda is the founder and host of the bi-weekly career podcast, Ellas. A podcast that shares the journey of talented, inspiring, and empowering Latinas who are living their professional dreams and making a path for the next generation.
Joy Jiménez is a multi-disciplinary artist, educator, and mother of one son. A San Antonio native, Joy spent nearly a decade abroad, where she helped diverse minority groups tell their stories. Since her return in 2009 she has presented her poetry, theatre, and visual art pieces in venues around San Antonio. Joy has facilitated the production of over 50 original plays created by and for San Antonio youth. She currently teaches for Gemini Ink and Magik Theatre and is the co-founder of “Raise The Whisper,” a writing and art collective for those affected by sexual assault.
You can find more information about our female voices on our website: www.trescuentos.com
Let us start by talking about the life of Costa Rican María Isabel Carvajal, known as Carmen Lyra. The teacher, writer, journalist, and community leader was born in 1888 and died in 1949, away from her homeland. Why? Because she fought for teachers’ rights, she criticized elites, the government, and the United Fruit Company, and for her participation in the 1948 civil war.
We are told by Flora Ovares and Seidy Araya in the article "Essay and Story in Carmen Lyra," that, thanks to her, the country had its first preschool education program and the first children's literature magazine. Also, together with Luisa González, Lyra founded the Montessori Maternal School, which was the first preschool in Costa Rica.
The authors continue to explain that Carmen Lyra, as an intellectual, joined the "nationalist and anti-imperialist militancy that manifested itself in both cultural and educational activities, as well as in the desire to approach popular groups and participate in their struggles." As a result, these groups began to propose alternatives to the crisis of liberal democracy, and in 1921 the labor and artisanal sectors founded the Reform party.
Two significant anecdotes of Carmen Lyra's activism relate that, in 1919, when she was around 31 years old, she led together with other schoolteachers a march. The protest culminated in the burning down of the building where the official newspaper of the Tinoco brothers' dictatorship operated. Carmen evaded capture, but the act led to a revolt that, ultimately, brought down the dictatorship.
The second anecdote tells us that, in 1925, two years after publishing the story we heard, Lyra and other Latin American intellectuals denounced the imperialist growth of the United States, whose marines occupied the neighboring country of Nicaragua, first in 1912 and then in 1927. On the second opportunity, the marines were hunting down the popular leader César Augusto Sandino.
It is under this line that Lyra makes a critical reflection on conformist art. Ovares and Araya tell us that Carmen Lyra, "adopts this literary aesthetic of socialist realism, and in describing dependence and misery of the continent, opposes the postulate of 'art for art.' And instead advocating for a literature 'that reveals vigilance and shows opposition and rebellion against the established and official disorder brought by capitalism." In other words, for the Costa Rican author, literature should serve to expose reality, and in such liberating the working class, rather than serve as a distractor to the idle bourgeoisie.
Ovares and Araya continue to explain that, in dealing with the urban issue, Carmen Lyra uncovered the vices of the bourgeoisie and the marginal conditions, demystifying Costa Rica's stereotype as a paradise. We saw this in the text we heard, which reminds me that almost four years ago, before the United States elected the current president, I heard more than one friend of mine saying, "If Trump wins, I'm leaving for Costa Rica."
At that time, I had no idea of the image that has been woven around that Central American country. All I had heard is that it had excellent living standards, that there lived a lot of foreigners and that it was nice. However, after researching, traveling, and having honest conversations with other people who have visited, I concluded that, while some aspects are true, others are the product of highly effective marketing.
Elizabeth Rosa Horan, in the book The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra, says that the clichés that Carmen Lyra attacks still exists. The much-loved image that Costa Rica's transnational tourism industry presents is of a European middle-class paradise of peace and love.
But let us go back to what Ovares and Araya discuss about Carmen Lyra's prose. The authors say that her stories state that immorality, misery, and ignorance are systematically maintained by the ruling classes and economic interests, both foreign and national, which lead to the exploitation of workers. This reminds me of what we are living in the country these days, the protests of African Americans against injustice and systemic racism.
Regarding the struggle of classes, the exploitation and the paradisaical image that the world had and has of Costa Rica, in 1935, Carmen Lyra published in the magazine Trabajo an article called "The city of San José seen through a conscience."
She stated, "Don Luis Quer and Bouie ex-minister of Spain in Costa Rica, ... wrote a book as a token of gratitude to those who stayed here throwing incense to his memory – 'Costa Rica, the Switzerland of Central America.' It should be noted that the former minister Quer and Bouie spent most of his time feasting, orderings busts of Vasquez d'Coronado, partying at official and private receptions and in other chores of the same taste … . No wonder some believe that around here the property is very well distributed, that we do not know misery, and that this is the best of the worlds."
Again, this comment from the author reminds me of the statement many love to repeat, that the United States is the land of freedom. But as we have discovered this past month: freedom for whom?
The truth is that the magazine Trabajo, where Lyra published the article, was sponsored by the Communist Party, and because it was low-cost, brought access to a poor but literate population. This initiative also attracted the attention of the U.S. embassy in San Jose which, until then, had seen the country as a safe zone for American imperialism.
Elizabeth Rosa Horan tells us that in 1933 a series of reports made by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Carmen Lyra stated that "Her prestige as a teacher and intellectual, and her position in the educational system make her particularly dangerous as a public speaker in mass demonstrations. She, and the other women schoolteachers, are evidently the principal organizers of night classes for workers…This woman will be a factor to be taken into account in the future in any radical movement in Costa Rica."
Moving on. After criticizing the litany that the Salvadoran poet Salarrué made of Costa Rica by calling it "Beautiful island, sweet island, harmonious island," Carmen Lyra continues to say in the same article, "If we leave San Jose's downtown and take any course, we find that decent houses and luxurious residences are left behind to give rise to the domains of the people … . The dirty, ugly shacks start to run out with a humiliating gesture reminiscent of one of the mangy dogs who flee with their tails between their legs … . I think of the idea that Costa Ricans have in their minds who are pleased to repeat the idea that 'San José is a little Paris'. Do they believe that in Paris everything becomes beautiful streets, magnificent palaces, Versailles gardens, and very elegant ladies and gentlemen? They are unaware that in Paris on the side of Ménilmontant the streets and houses sweat filth and that the Buttes Chaumont resemble the Carit or Pitaya neighborhoods."
When Carmen Lyra wrote this article, the satirical tale "The Cothnejo-Fishy District" had already been published twelve years earlier, in 1923. This means that Lyra had long made sharp observations and dissected the theatricalities of her society.
I will share with you the last excerpt from the article written by Carmen Lyra, which you can read in Spanish following the link that is in the bibliography. Lyra continues to say: "Beautiful island, sweet island, harmonious island. There is a hash house that belongs to the Mortgage Credit. When you see it from the back, you think of a half-rotten corpse in which the ribs and guts can be seen; And how it stinks this state-owned property! A fetid ditch runs through the center of the plot, and near the entrance, there is a toilet through which the neighbors must pass with their nose covered. While children play sloppy on the side of the ditch and very delicate yellow flowers open. At the time of epidemics, this hash house becomes the center of operations for microbes. They say that when the plague of cough and measles happened, death had a magnificent harvest here. The bad news is that the bacilli does not respect, and sometimes it goes into the air and causes disasters in aristocratic neighborhoods as well."
This last paragraph reminds me of the Brazilian favelas and many other neighborhoods and districts in Latin America and here in the United States that are located right around the corner of the elite neighborhoods. It also makes me think that with this Covid-19, there are so many people who seem not to care about the lives of others, especially the lives of the most unprotected and of minorities, who, without having a choice, must go out to work, rain or shine. Statistics are showing that the most affected are not only the elderly and those with certain pre-conditions but also many African Americans and Latinos.
Despite the intense criticism you have heard today about Costa Rica, this does not mean that things have not changed, or that every time a foreigner arrives, Costa Ricans hide what embarrass them. As a rule, here and everywhere else, tourists are always taken to the presentable parts of the city. It is only in the sincere desire to know the twist and turns of each place, that a stranger can access that which is of real knowledge of its inhabitants.
In favor of the Central American country, Jeana Paul-Ureña tells us in the article "Voices rebels: Costa Rican writers reveal history and glimpse the future of their country," that "Although [Costa Rica] has had rebellions and unstable times, the country has never experienced the tragedies of war to the extent of its neighbors. Even in 1948, after the civil war, Costa Rica made the decision to abolish the army and relocate the military budget to education, the arts, culture, and health." All this, of course, happened after Carmen Lyra's death. I think her insistence on the educational, literary, and labor fronts paid off.
But the socialist type of changes executed by that nation did not come without having the eye of the American eagle approving them. Paul-Ureña tells us that "One of the conditions to prevent an American invasion was the outlawing of the Communist Party and the exile of its leaders, including Carmen Lyra." And that was the reach of Uncle Sam's hand.
Whether the Costa Rican government was trying to please the northern titan or not, for a couple of decades after Lyra's death, the country chose to remember only part of the author's work. Consequently, what the official culture approved of her was her teaching side and thus her contribution to children's literature in the book of "Tales of My Aunt Panchita."
In this regard, Ronald Rivera Rivera tells us, in his article "Carmen Lyra: a taboo," that the work of this single kindergarten teacher was subjected to a kind of purification. In his words "she was subjected to an ideological purge ... and was redeemed by national culture once her political-social thinking had been exorcised, for which it was necessary to leave only the innocuous image of the Chavela girl." It is as if Lyra's activist side was attacking the pure image of the preschool teacher. It was like she could not be both.
Towards the 1970s, with the change of government and the strengthening of the weakened Communist Party, Carmen Lyra’s writings became more widely read. However, the recognition the author received were still linked to her profession as a teacher and her relationship with children.
Rivera says that "The work of this author as an intellectual of deep social commitment, communist, anti-oligarch, anti-clerical, anarchist and feminist, as well as the texts depicting this part of her thinking, such as the short story series of 'The Cothnejo-Fishy District' (1923), 'Bananas and Men' (1930) or her political essay 'The Grain of Gold and the Pawn' (1933), are entirely unknown and silenced. They simply don't fit into the image of the writer that is officially being built by the dominant culture in the early 1970s."
Now do not think that this kind of rejection only happened after her death. Ronald Rivera quotes Carmen Lyra saying, "While I was sewing pious social patches at school and writing romantic prose with harmless metaphors for the injustice around me, I had a reputation for being an excellent person with a good heart and a 'fine' writer. But when I realized that we had to do more than trivial fixes, that we had to fight directly against the capitalist regime, cause of the economic and social situation within which I lived; that we had to write against vested interests … then people changed their minds about me. Now they say that I am crazy, that I am envious of the good of others, that I no longer write as before, that I have declined in the art of literature."
I think that what the author experienced has happened to so many others who have opened their eyes and spoke honestly about social imbalances. Perhaps people do not like to hear or see the other faces of reality, nothing better than to live in a fairy tale.
On the other hand, thanks must be given to the writer and intellectual Alfonso Chase, who advocated for decades to rescue and explain the works of Carmen Lyra. Thanks to him and others who followed his example, today we can gladly hear the frank voice of this powerful woman. However, Rivera says that Lyra remains a thorny topic of conversation for many.
Before completing today's program, I would like to briefly mention that, if you have the opportunity to acquire the book The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra, you should read the text called "Bananas and Men." Because it exposes the conditions of banana workers, where the fruit is more important than human beings, it was that text that earned Carmen Lyra the enmity of the United Fruit Company. But the rapacity and abuses of that company, including the massacre committed in Colombia in 1928, are stories for another episode.
Like Carmen Lyra, who, through her prose, treated the inequalities that frustrated her in her work as a teacher, the Argentine Alfonsina Storni, devoted her poetry, essay, and journalism to complaining and mocking the superficiality and hypocrisy of both sexes. And we will hear and laugh about it in our last episode of Latinas Authors. I will be back in two weeks. Until the next cuento or story, adios, adios.
Narrativa de Carmen Lyra. Carmen Lyra Relatos escogidos (Spanish Edition). Editorial Costa Rica. 2012. Kindle Edition.
The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra. Selected Works. Edited and Translated by Elizabeth Rosa Horan. Published by University Press of Florida. 2000.
“Carmen Lyra: un tabú.” Ronald Rivera Rivera. Publicación Pensamiento Actual. Universidad de Costa Rica. Volumen 10 – No. 14-15, 2010. P.161-170. URL: https://revistas.ucr.ac.cr/index.php/pensamiento-actual/article/download/3754/3630/
“Carmen Lyra: Escenarios Políticos, Culturales y Subjetivos en la Era Antifascista.” Revista de Ciencias Sociales (CR), Vol. II, Núm. 120, 2008, pp. 65-79. Universidad de Costa Rica. Costa Rica. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44137914_Carmen_Lyra_escenarios_politicos_culturales_y_subjetivos_en_la_era_antifascista
“Escribiendo ‘La Santa Maestría’: Carmen Lyra y Gabriela Mistral,” por Elizabeth Rosa Horan. Publicación Filología y Lingüística XXIII (2): 23-38, 1997. URL: https://revistas.ucr.ac.cr/index.php/filyling/article/view/20402
“Los caminos de Carmen Lyra,” por Isabel Ducca. Publicación Istmica Dossier, Núm. 13 -2010. Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica. URL: https://www.revistas.una.ac.cr/index.php/istmica/article/download/2327/2223/
“Ensayo y Relato en Carmen Lyra,” por Flora Ovares y Siedy Araya. Publicación Letras 18-19 (1998) Universidad Nacional (Heredia, Costa Rica). URL: https://www.revistas.una.ac.cr/index.php/letras/article/view/3925
“La Ciudad de San José Vista a través de una Consciencia,” por Carmen Lyra. Publicación Trabajo. Diciembre 22, 1935. URL: http://www.sinabi.go.cr/ver/biblioteca%20digital/articulos/lyra%20carmen/La%20ciudad%20de%20San%20Jose%20vista%20a%20traves%20de%20una%20conciencia.pdf#.XvNdXcDm-Uk
“Voces sublevadas: Escritoras costarricenses develan la Historia y vislumbran el futuro de su país,” por Jeana Paul-Ureña. Publicación Hispania 90.3 (2007) 423-430. Stephen F. Austin State University. URL: http://www.scriptorium.una.ac.cr/index.php/otros-estudios-sobre-yolanda-oreamuno?download=71:voces-paul
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