Breaking Machismo

By Emily O’Connor

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Women in Costa Rica are rising out of the ashes and learning how to spread their own wings.

For a long time, and some would argue still today, women in Costa Rica were considered second-class citizens, mostly due to machismo, or masculine culture, where men believe they hold dominant roles over women.

Even today, the female population is six times more likely to suffer abuse than men in Costa Rica, according to an Oct. 30 article in La Nación.

Mari Brenes, 75, who grew up in a small community of San Luis, shared her story of domestic violence from both her father and husband.

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The pink colored home of Mari Brenes and her husband welcomed in the students of University of Missouri. Photo by McGuire McManus

“The saying used to be, ‘Move out of the way because here I come!’” said Brenes, smacking her fist against her palm. “Women just got walked all over.”

When she was 10 to 13 years old, Brenes experienced severe abuse from her father, which she described as “violent and extreme.”

“One time he hit me so hard that I fell down and was cut open with a stick. He hit me so hard it broke the skin,” Brenes said, as she traced a line down her chest. “I didn’t even know what happened. I woke up in bed and saw I was all bloody.”

She continued sharing stories of abuse that followed throughout her childhood. Brenes said this was what made her act out and hide an affair from her father.

When she was 12 years old, Brenes had a daughter outside of wedlock and was arrested when she was two months pregnant. She later moved back in with her father and suffered more abuse.

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Brenes reminisces upon her past, her successes and her family with a warm smile.           Photo by McGuire McManus

Guillermo Vargas, a local farmer and educator in Monteverde, said he recalled parents thinking school was a risk for girls.

“I remember some parents saying, ‘I won’t let my daughter go to high school because it’s a risk for her being pregnant,’” Vargas said.

In part of her written story, Brenes shared how sex education or information about menstruation were taboo topics. When she first received her period, Brenes said she thought she was dying.

Paradoxically, the lack of anatomical education rather than attending high school caused Brenes to conceive her first child.

“That’s probably in part how I ended up pregnant. So from all of that, I had a daughter,” Brenes said. “In the years after my daughter was born, my father hit me more, and the father of my daughter lived there as well. But my father also abused him with work. I told him to leave so he wouldn’t have to suffer, and I never saw him again.”

When her daughter was 6 , Brenes remarried to her current husband. Unfortunately, this new marriage led to another wave of abuse.

“It was a difficult marriage because he drank a lot and had a lot of alcohol problems,” Brenes said. “He would go out and get very drunk and then want to hit me.”

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Warm smiles turn somber when Brenes speaks of her violent past and struggles with inequality as a woman growing up in Costa Rica. Photo by McGuire McManus

Gail Nystrom, founder of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, said alcohol is a huge problem in domestic violence cases. Abusive men are used to getting what they want and don’t take no for an answer.

“When someone says no to them, they don’t understand,” Nystrom said. “They’re actually quite cowardly, in my opinion.”

Teletica, a Costa Rican television company, the National Women’s Institute in Costa Rica and an ad by J. Walter Thompson brought awareness to the increase in domestic violence during soccer games. Police attributed the increase to alcohol consumption and frustration from the game, according to a Nov. 11 article in the Tico Times.

The scoreboard for Costa Rica’s World Cup qualifying game against Haiti on Nov. 13 showed a third score called the “Tercer Marcador,” or the third scoreboard, to tally the number of domestic violence calls police received throughout the game, according to the article.

At the final whistle, the scoreboard showed 30 calls. The article reported that police receive an average of 150 more domestic violence calls on game days than usual.

During Costa Rica’s match against Greece, the score reached 486 calls, according to the article.

Although women’s rights have progressed in Costa Rica, machismo definitely still exists, said Nery Gómez Mendoza, general manager of the Artisans Cooperative of Santa Elena and Monteverde, commonly known as CASEM.

“You can’t say that the machismo has died,” Gómez said.

The decrease of the machismo culture can partially be attributed to the expanse of women’s movements, foundations and cooperatives, like CASEM.

In 1982, eight women started a women’s cooperative to sell locally handcrafted items and make money independently from their husbands.

Gómez said the machismo culture led women to believe that they weren’t capable of doing anything but housework. They didn’t know what it was like to have money or make decisions with it.

CASEM created a community for women to come together and share their stories and skills and seek support from one another.

“This opened a lot of doors for us because if one just lives in a little world of home, then sometimes you can’t discover yourself, your own capabilities, your own skills,” Gómez said.

Through conversing, the women learned that abuse can take many other forms beside physical aggression.

“When we made a formal organization, then the men started to get suspicious and think that one was going to be counseling the other and giving her advice to not be so submissive,” Gómez said.

Today, 80 women and five men continue to work together at CASEM to support one another and uphold the business, which has thrived for 30 years.

The women at CASEM only meet once a month now, which Gómez said is due to other programs available for women to find support and learn about equality.

The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation is another example of a program to support women in Costa Rica. It opened family well-being centers as a way to aid single mothers who have experienced relationship problems.

Nystrom also reaches out to men in the community to teach them more about building relationships with women. The foundation offers sex education classes and distributes condoms.

“Whenever we see a man with a child, we make a big fuss and tell them they will be a great dad,” Nystrom said as a way to positively reinforce fathers who might otherwise see caring for children as a woman’s job.

Nystrom always says “trust equals consistency over time.”

“I am here almost every day, they know me, they see me in my car and walking around,” Nystrom said. “Domestic violence is talked about a lot, but the thing that’s tricky is that it’s subtle; it’s hidden. It looks like they’re equal, but they’re not.”

Vargas recognized that this machismo culture creates negative effects on the whole society.

“Men and women are both intelligent,” Vargas said. “But life and success is not only about what you turn into ideas. It’s also about intuition. In most cases, for many reasons, women are more ‘intuitivas,’ and many times, wiser.”

Today, Costa Rica needs to analyze the question of how machismo affects the current culture, he said.

“Maybe we men have been kind of intelligent to mask our machismo, and we ourselves don’t notice,” Vargas said.

The general consensus is that women in Costa Rica today will rise up out of the ashes of machismo to create their own beauty. This cycle begins with women like Brenes.

“Maybe there was something like machismo inside of me,” she said, “that I just wasn’t going to take it.”

Butterfly Association helps women spread their own wings

By Emily O’Connor

 COSTA DE PÁJAROS, Costa Rica — The Association of Butterflies on the Pacific coast combines the environmentalist culture with the growing independence of women.

Esther Ledezma Chalapría is the current president of the association that began in 1999 with the purpose of helping women in the community. It now hosts a butterfly farm, lodging, cafeteria, sells crafts from recycled material and gives tours of the gulf.

The association began with the help of National University in Costa Rica and May Brenes Marín, a retired anthropologist at the university.

“Thanks to May Brenes, we learned how valuable we are,” Ledezma said.

The women received training for tourism at their butterfly farm, self-esteem and violence against women.

The training taught women’s economic rights, their right to go out and do more than stay in the house, to make decisions and to have their own opinions. Similar initiatives like the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation are working to end the machismo, or masculine, culture in Costa Rica.

Men in the community were not supportive of the association in the beginning, Ledezma said. They struggled with the machismo culture and men not valuing women.

“My own children were saying, ‘What are you doing, meeting with all those lazy women?’” Ledezma said.

Over time the entire community gathered support for the initiative and learned that women are a part of the progress in the community. Today, Ledezma’s husband is the boat captain for the gulf tours.

Ledezma said she hopes the association can be a model for other women.

“My dream is for the women in the group to progress as an example for all the other women and to reach out to them so more women can get jobs.”

The Construct of Costa Rican Conservation

By Thomas Friestad

Citizen Conservation Efforts

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Streams and trees and soil…oh my! These are just a few of the many environmental items Debra Hamilton must oversee as executive director of the Monteverde Institute. Through her daily work and that of other institute workers, MVI has played a crucial role in Costa Rica’s citizen conservation efforts.

“We’re doing well up here, as evidenced by the number of top predators like pumas and jaguars you can see,” said Hamilton, who also oversees the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation. “That’s great from a biological standpoint, because it means that the rest of the system is okay. Considering conservation was started by just kind of being thrown in with two different cultures, that’s amazing.”

In recent interviews, Hamilton and other experts described a broad array of Costa Rican citizen scenes, the act of locals taking the country’s conservation into their own hands. This can occur via smaller, individual efforts or larger, coordinated conservation programs.

One citizen conservation program in the area is “Adopt a Stream,” which ties into local science education in schools such as the Monteverde Friends School. Through the program, students travel to local streams to conduct various measurements they have learned in class, such as pH, current speed and water pollutants.

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Hacienda La Pacífica maximizes tilapia production

By Emily Rackers


CANAS, Costa Rica ­— Hacienda La Pacífica exports 4,000 tons of tilapia to Canada and the United States each year, Davis Marshall Elones, operation manager of La Pacífica said. With such a high demand for the fish, La Pacífica must work to maximize efficiency to ensure timely production.

In the initial stages of production, the tilapia are put in small tanks to fatten them up and prevent birds from carrying them away.

“They only need to eat and shit,” Elones said, laughing.

The tank must be small to prevent stressing the fish, which can kill them.

Once they’ve been properly fattened, the tilapia are moved to lake-like tanks, each with exactly 27,000 fish. The fish are counted using a special wheel that circulates water and adds oxygen to the tank.

During this time, the tilapia are fed a mixture of shrimp, fish, vitamins and protein to encourage growth. Workers must monitor the oxygen levels and pH balance of the tank every week or risk the death of the entire tank.

“If we lose one of these [tanks], it’ll be pretty serious because we won’t have the daily production,” Elones said.

Elones and the workers have made an unusual ally that helps keep the tilapia tanks clean: clams.

Elones said that one clam has the power to transform 20 gallons worth of dirty water into crystal clear in half an hour.

But the tilapia aren’t the only members of La Pacífica that need special care. Workers must take extra precautions to remain healthy as well. Most shifts are worked during the night to reduce the risk of skin cancer, which Elones said is a significant problem that farm workers face.

While the sun isn’t always good for the workers, La Pacífica harnesses the power of the sun to improve underperforming tanks.

When production at a tank is slow, and after the fish have been removed, workers drain the tank and let the sun heat the soil. They then wait for the ground to crack and start to absorb oxygen. After about a month, grass starts to grow. When this happens, workers know the tank has been revived and is ready for another batch of tilapia.

The last step in the process is transferring the tilapia to the packaging plant, where they will remain alive for three days. Fillets are packaged and sent to the United States and Canada. The bones and skin are sold to Japan.

A confrontation in 360 degrees

IMG_0696.PNGAn official with SENERA, a government agency, listens to protesters near Guacimal, Costa Rica, on Thursday morning. Local residents had blocked the road, refusing to move until receiving a call from nation’s Office of the Presidency determining whether the project to draw water from the Veracruz River would be suspended. Photo by Sean Roberts.(Editor’s note: this is a still image taken by a 360-degree camera. The 360 interactive version will be posted in a few days. The distorted fingers in the middle of the photo are those of the photographer, as processed in making the photo.)