On a rainy morning in May, I went to visit my Grandma’s cousin in my hometown. She is a short lady with light brown hair, always in a bun. I used to see her around my Grandma’s house; often with a friend or two, all of them equipped with a rosary and a bible.
That day, she had prepared Arepas and coffee for us. A few days before, I had asked if I could come over to interview her, because I found her story heartwarming and worth sharing. Ana Leitón graduated 6th grade in 1971 and she is now determined to finish the 7th grade in 2018.
47 years after.
Anita, as most people call her, grew up in San Luis. This small town was firstly populated by traveling people from the Costa Rican metropolitan area of the central valley. During the 1920’s, these families were in search of new land for agricultural production. San Luis’s real development started in the 1960’s, when coffee production began. During this same period two schools were founded, one of which Anita attended. To this day, however, no high school has been constructed. Its neighboring town, Monteverde, although established about 30 years after, became larger both in terms of population and economic growth. Monteverde, the town I come from, is located about 40 minutes away by car and it does have a high school. In order for the inhabitants of San Luis to go to it, though, they have to take a bus that lasts an hour and a half each way. This results in many of the resident families deciding to pull their kids out of the education system past 6th grade, when primary school ends in Costa Rica. Only 7.4% of the current population of San Luis has finished secondary school and 25% of the population aged over 12 did not finish primary school.
Anita moved to Monteverde when she was 29 years old. During many years, and partially now, her way of generating income for her family was through the sale of snacks and small meals around town. At the time she moved to Monteverde, one of the biggest employers of the town was the Cheese Factory. She told me how she would visit it with a bag full of Costa Rican styled tamales one day; prestiños* another; and even slushies from time to time. She raised 6 kids this way, along with her husband who she mentioned had had alcoholism problems and wasn’t as present in the kids’ lives as she was. One of them is on his way to get his master’s degree in geographic sciences. On certain days, even currently, Anita wakes up as the sun rises, ready to prepare tasty foods and goes off to sell them- predominantly at the farmer’s market. Another of her main activities is to be part of a folkloric dance group that has gained popularity around communities in Costa Rica. They were even invited to Nicoya, which is a city 3-4 hours away by car, to perform at a civic event. Her group doesn’t charge to perform, but accepts donations, and it clearly is something she adores. Realizing that these activities, on top of her active participation in many of the catholic church’s events, must be greatly time consuming, I asked her why she had decided to add studying to her to-do list. I was not disappointed with her answer.
*Typical Costa Rican snack made of a thin, fried flour tortilla, often eaten with sugar cane syrup.
Ana told me she loved reading and writing. It may seem like an empty statement to many but, given the way this woman lived most of her adult life, these activities were not a daily necessity, as they are for many of us. As we spoke, I glanced at the various notebooks she had next to us, on the table; she had very neat handwriting. She always knew these were important skills, as well as much of what you learn in school. While her children grew up, she tried helping them as much as she could, knowing how education would change their lives. A couple of months ago, she hosted a someone in her house, as she has done many times. It was a teacher from the West Coast of the country, working temporarily in Monteverde. After a couple of days, the lady told her she was a smart woman who should go back to school, especially considering that the local high school offered a program for adults. Anita considered this for a few weeks, at first thinking it would not fit in with her busy schedule with church, dance activities, the farmer’s market and her long-loved hobby of quilting and sewing. Her children were very supportive of the idea and at one point she thought of one of her sons, Greivin, the one that had died 20 years before. One that was very close to finishing high school but couldn’t because of cancer. She decided to do it.
Her class is made up of 28 adults ranging from 20 to 59-year-olds, Anita being the oldest. The program is aimed at people wishing to get their high school degree past their teenage years; it is a three-year course composing the 6 main high school subjects, namely Spanish, math, science, English, social studies and civics. In order to accommodate for the students’ jobs, classes go from 5:30pm until 10pm Mondays through Fridays. As she is the oldest, she told me, people look up to her, and she said they have told her having her there is a good inspiration. Every now and then, Anita brings tortillas or some snack for the class, which makes them really happy. Between the class, she says, there is a feeling of familiarity that motivates everyone. The first time she missed a lesson because she was sick, the group called her to make sure she was ok.
In 3 years, this woman will finally have her high school diploma. Ana is evidently determined to, not only finish her studies to feel accomplished with herself, but also to use this certificate and her new-found knowledge to get a job she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?” I asked her. She answered that in a touristic town like Monteverde, English is the new ‘official’ language. I agreed, any job you look for will ask you how well you speak the language, and finally Ana will be able to say ‘decently’. When I asked her what one of the most interesting things she had learned was, she answered the fact that Egyptians were buried with belongings because they believed these would be useful in their afterlife. Then I asked her what the hardest thing she was learning was. She smiled and said, “Math back in the day was a lot simpler then now.” I chuckled.
Ana told me she was pleased to finally experiencing this part of life that she had helped her children go through, seeing both the effort one has to put in and the value of what she was studying. Her excitement over her studies reminded me of the privilege that schooling is, and I left her humble house that drizzling day feeling happier about my student status than I had for a long time. My only hope is that this text made you feel a similar way.
Before leaving, she showed me a quote she had written on the cover of her folder. Her daughter had found it for her. Later I realized it was a quote by Mark Twain:
“La edad es un tema de la mente sobre la materia. Si no te importa, no importa.”
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”