Bernarda Vásquez: Costa Rica’s First Woman Voter Lives Quiet Life in La Fortuna
BERNARDA Vásquez no longer followspolitics. After a year of highly publicizedscandals in which photos of ex-Presidents in handcuffs provided persuasiveevidence to Costa Rican voters of thecorruption leaching into their national politics,many of her countrymen are equallyapathetic. Yet what makes Vásquez uniqueand her indifference more lamentable isthat she occupies a celebrated place in thehistory of Costa Rica’s democracy.On July 30, 1950, when Vásquez was32, she became the first woman to vote ina Costa Rican election.ALTHOUGH we lacked precise directions,locating her house was easy. As weentered the town of La Fortuna, near north centralCosta Rica’s Arenal Volcano, billboardsappeared along the highway proudlyreminding passersby of the right to votethat is consecrated here.When we stopped to ask for directions,a group of teenagers outside a pulperíanodded in proud recognition as they pointedup hills and around corners, assuring usthat we weren’t far. Soon, we were pullingoff the main road onto a narrow dirt sidestreet, our tires kicking up clouds of dust aswe came to a stop in front of the house.I knocked on the door. After amoment’s pause, a key turned, a bolt disengagedand the door creaked open justwide enough for a pair of gray eyes toregard us with surprise and a hint of annoyance.We were politely told that we hadarrived in the middle of a rosario, aCatholic tradition of intense personalprayer. They would be finished in 10 minutes.We apologized for the interruptionand retreated from the porch to an outcroppingof rocks to wait.AS we waited, I considered what Iknew of Costa Rica’s road to democracy.After gaining independence from Spain in1821, the country was subject to a span ofdictatorial and unrepresentative rule byvarious members of the coffee elite formore than a century, interrupted only bymilitary coups that imposed their own corruptand nepotistic regimes.Real political change did not comeabout until the late 1940s, and, as in muchof history, war was the catalyst. The contestedresults of the 1948 presidential electionprompted José “Pepe” Figueres Ferrer,a discontented member of the country’selite, to call upon an army of exiles andmercenaries committed to overthrowingthe dictators in the region that he hadhelped form while in exile in Mexico yearsbefore. After training his troops on hisfarm outside San Isidro de El General, inthe Southern Zone, Figueres launched aseries of attacks against governmentforces. The five-week civil war that followedclaimed more than 2,000 lives andended with Figueres coming to power.Among other progressive social reforms,Figueres revised the constitution tooutlaw the standing army (including hisown), established presidential term limitsand introduced full citizenship for blacksand suffrage for women.IN less time than it took for us tobecome uncomfortable on our awkwardstone seats, the door opened wide and apair of smiling faces ushered us into thesparsely furnished living room. Despite thetime of day, the air inside was heavy andwarm, almost tangible. The room smelledlike my grandmother’s home, a mixture ofold furniture and perfume. An unpluggedtelevision sat unused on the floor.Two things drew my attention uponentering the house. The first was a shrine tothe Virgin Mary, lovingly erected in a farcorner of the room. The other was a walllined with plaques, photos and presidentialcommendations commemorating that historicday in 1950. While the pictures andplaques had gathered dust and hung crooked on their nails, the Virgin’s table was adorned with clean white linen and Christmas-themedwrapping paper, a low burning candleand an assortment of fresh flowers.Vásquez, now 87, is a small womanwith snow-white hair and skin like leather,coffee-brown in color and creased withdeep wrinkles attesting to her many years.Her default expression is one of abidingcontentment, thin lips slightly upturned ina whisper of a smile. Her black eyebrowscontrast sharply with her white mane ofhair and draw attention to her dark, quieteyes, rendered nearly blind by cataracts.THAT day, she wore a simple, brown,flower-print dress with a clean but stainedblue-and-white apron fastened snuglyabout her narrow waist. Her bony fingerstoyed with a string of rosary beads, lacingthem through one hand and threading themthrough the other until finding the bone-whitecrucifix dangling at the center.Scuffed sandals covered her feet.Francisco, her polite but shy brother,sat against the wall with his fingers interlockedbehind his head. His clothes weretoo big for him; his pants were old, the fabricworn thin, and a black leather beltbunched layers of cloth one over another ina desperate attempt to keep his slacks fromslipping away from his slender frame. Heseemed accustomed to playing second fiddleto his famous sister.WE spent the next hour talking withDoña Vásquez. Childless and never married,she has lived with Francisco for morethan 50 years in the same house. She spokeof her childhood and of attending schoolup to the fourth grade before she was neededfull time on the family farm. Shelearned how to read and write, thoughthese days she does little of either becauseof her failing vision.She recalled the morning she awokebefore dawn to vote in the municipal electionthat decided the small communities ofLa Tigra and La Fortuna would integratewith the canton of San Carlos, defectingfrom the canton of San Ramón. She told usthat although she remembered a generalfeeling of excitement surrounding the election,she had felt largely indifferent aboutthe whole process. She had been aware thatshe was participating in something thatwould be remembered; she had just foundit hard to be animated.“I was just a simple farm girl. Politicsand elections were things that didn’t seemto affect me,” she admitted. “To this day,politics is not something I pay attention to,although it’s an embarrassment what hashappened with these ex-Presidents.”VÁSQUEZ relies on a monthly pensionof ¢15,000, about $31. This struck meas truly sad: a woman once hailed by presidents,now virtually abandoned by hergovernment, living well below any reasonablebarometer of poverty.I asked her if there was anything shestill wanted to do, some long-held desirenot yet fulfilled. She paused. Her handscontinued to fidget with the beads in herlap and her eyes drifted toward the opendoor, left ajar to help cool the room.“Morirme,” she said. Die.At this, there was silence. Vásquezwore her subtle smile as I pretended to fiddlewith my tape recorder. Someonecoughed. After a moment, she stood up andoffered us some of her homemade picadillo.Hands outstretched, fingers glidingalong the familiar rough surface of thewalls, she led first herself and then us tothe kitchen a few paces away.As we stood assembled around theroom, our forks playing with chunks ofplantain, the awkwardness induced by apowerfully honest answer crumbled awayand our conversation turned to nothing inparticular. We talked of the weather, debatedthe prowess of national soccer teamsand poked fun at my accent. We praisedher food and washed our own dishes, ascoiling lines of white smoke rose from herwood-burning stove.As night fell, we took our leave, thankingDoña Vásquez for her time. The electionlong since forgotten, the picadilloheavy in our stomachs, we drove away as awoman in the twilight of her years wavedgoodbye to us from her front door.
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