June 10th, 2011

Everyone’s Favorite Aunt

About thirty or forty years ago, all Costa Rican children read the same books in public elementary schools. They learned to read with Paco y Lola, and progressed to Costa Rican authors like Carlos Luis Fallas. And for storytime, they turned to the classic tales of Tía Panchita, the aunt of Carmen Lyra, one of Costa Rica’s most prolific authors.

Carmen Lyra describes her aunt as a short, small woman with two long braids and eyes that seemed to smile. When Carmen Lyra was small, her relatives told her educational stories with ponderous morals about good behavior and hard work. But her Tía Panchita told her stories about elves, witches, ghosts and other marvels. Carmen Lyra says that these were the stories that most influenced her literary career.

Born María Isabel Carvajal in 1888, Carmen Lyra is an important figure in Costa Rican literary circles. She wrote political essays, scholarly articles, a novel, and several other academic works, but she is best known for Cuentos de Mi Tía Panchita, the redacted stories that she once heard from her aunt.

Although Carmen Lyra first heard these fantastic stories as a child, many of them had been a part of Costa Rican oral history long before Tía Panchita’s time. Some say that the stories came from Europe and were disseminated in Costa Rica by the Spaniards who settled here. Carmen Lyra tells the stories in the popular slang of her time, providing an interesting linguistic study.

Some of Tía Panchita’s most popular stories feature the wily Tío Conejo, a rabbit whose constant victim is the foolish Tío Coyote. Other stories feature the well-known simpleton who somehow manages to marry a princess, terrible mothers-in-law and magical creatures. All are colorful and entertaining, and all provide a glimpse into the common lives of the Costa Ricans who told these stories to one another.

The first edition was published in 1920, and the book continues in publication today. For interested readers, Cuentos de Mi Tía Panchita is available on Amazon.

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February 15th, 2010

Paco y Lola

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.

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September 29th, 2008

Literary Lessons

Carlos Luis Fallas is one of Costa Rica’s best regarded authors. His life and his books touch upon some of the most important periods in Costa Rican history. His most famous books, Mamita Yunai and Marcos Ramírez, deal with the plight of Costa Rican agricultural workers and the lives of everyday Costa Ricans, respectively.

Born in the early part of the 1900s, Carlos Luis Fallas had little formal education. He spent much of his early life working in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company near Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He became involved in the labor struggles of the plantation workers and soon was an active member of the Communist party in Costa Rica. He later served as a Diputado, or Congressman, in Costa Rica’s national congress and took part in Costa Rica’s civil war of 1948.

Mamita Yunai describes the unfair labor treatment and grim conditions Carlos Luis Fallas witnessed firsthand on the plantations of the United Fruit Company. (“Yunai” is a latinized shortening of “United.”) This book was an early criticism of American involvement in Costa Rica’s economy and workforce.

In Marcos Ramírez, the eponymous hero is a young boy in 1920’s Costa Rica. More lighthearted and far less political than Mamita Yunai, Marcos Ramírez still makes an important literary and historical statement. The details of life and customs it describes are those of a pre-industrialized and pre-globalized Costa Rica that has now all but disappeared.

Before Fallas’ death in 1966, Marcos Ramírez won an award from the William Faulkner Foundation for the best Latin American novel, and Fallas won Costa Rica’s highly regarded Magón cultural award.

Costa Rica’s congress posthumously awarded Carlos Luis Fallas the country’s highest national honor, Benemérito de la Patria.

Click here for more information about Carlos Luis Fallas.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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