With the February 2010 election of Laura Chinchilla as Costa Rica’s first woman president, Costa Ricans have naturally
begun to consider the changing role of women in Costa Rican politics and in Costa Rican society. Just as women’s roles have changed and expanded all over the world, the role of the Costa Rican woman has shifted with the times. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the well-known primer, Paco y Lola, which almost every Costa Rican child used to learn to read.

Just like Dick and Jane, Paco y Lola, first written and edited in 1958 by Emma Gamboa and Ondina Peraza, focuses on the daily activities of a nuclear family, teaching children how to read the names of objects and activities they might encounter on an ordinary day. Paco y Lola reflects the social attitudes of its time. In one section of the book, the father reads (”Papá lee.”), while the mother toils away in the kitchen, kneading a mound of “masa” to make tortillas (”Mamá amasa la masa.”). Paco and Lola each take part in fairly typical gender-prescribed activities, and the book reflects the typical values–and 1950s furnishings–of the mid-century Costa Rican family and home.

Despite what many have described as sexism–or outright “machismo”–in the first edition of Paco y Lola, the book functions very well as a Spanish reading primer. Its authors have a clear appreciation for the joys of pronunciation and language and a great sense of alliteration and word play. The authors make reading both entertaining and fairly effortless for their young readers.

Spanish vowel pronunciation has less variation than vowel pronunciation in English, and the authors make the most of repetition in teaching readers how to recognize and pronounce vowels. (In “Mamá amasa la masa,” for example, readers get a good sense of the short Spanish “a” and the opportunity to pronounce it in accented and unaccented syllables.) Once young readers have mastered the vowel sounds, they can take on any number of longer and more complex word and sentence constructions. The book rewards the persistent with a great deal of vocabulary and interesting lessons about Costa Rican activities and animals. Paco y Lola also provides painless lessons in the use of the accent mark, or “tilde,” whose rules students will later memorize in school.

Post-1958 editions of Paco y Lola have strived to eliminate the gender inequalities of the first edition, and readers of the newer version can now see a truer reflection of Costa Rica’s increasing gender equality. In either its original or its updated form, however, Paco y Lola is an entertaining and effective Spanish language-learning tool.

Order a copy of Paco y Lola.

Learn more about verbs in Spanish.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.