When high-school art teacher Michael Sims gave her students an assignment to assemble decorative oxcart wheels, she was astonished at how little information she was able to find regarding the age-old Costa Rican tradition of painting bright-colored oxcarts.
Some people might have complained about this and gone on with their lives. Sims decided to publish a book.
“The Painted Oxcart/La carreta pintada” is a bilingual (English and Spanish) compilation of literature, art and information about Costa Rican oxcarts, created after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the tradition a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in November 2005 (TT, July 21).
After approximately four years of work, Sims, 52, a California native who went to high school in Hawaii and has lived in Costa Rica for approximately 30 years, officially released her book Aug. 29 in an event held at the Mexico Institute in the eastern San José neighborhood of Los Yoses.
Sims, who was married to a Tico and has Costa Rican citizenship, has two grown children and teaches at the EuropeanSchool in Heredia, north of San José. In a recent interview with The Tico Times, she revealed details about the purpose of her book, the process of creating it, and the rewards and challenges she faced while working on it.
TT: What was your purpose in creating this book?
MS: It’s meant to entertain and inform, but it’s an overview, not a thesis. It’s for anybody who doesn’t realize how much the oxcart and the whole culture around it have shaped Costa Rica.
Because Costa Rica is an agricultural society, all transport until maybe the 1950s was primarily the oxcart. It was a beloved member of the family. Some authors that have written about it compare it to a campesino’s girlfriend, that helps in the family and for whom he has a lot of cariño (affection).
What type of literature would you consider “The Painted Oxcart?”
A compilation of work. I wrote briefly, included a bit of history, reported facts as I found them. It’s interspersed with a few poems, has a few famous Costa Rican legends, stories by well-known Costa Rican authors that give a good feel of why the oxcart is everywhere. Especially the short stories by Carlos Salazar are so poignant, so beautiful.
What is the book’s target audience?
There are two audiences: the visitor, the tourist, and the other audience would be Costa Ricans who would like to give (the book) as a gift, as a part of Costa Rica, to friends and relatives who live in other countries.
Also, for educational purposes. I used it (recently) as a textbook and the kids liked it.
To create a book about oxcarts, you must be fascinated by them.Why?
I was when I started the book; now I’m not so fascinated. I love folk culture, and I love the decorative arts. I am fascinated by the colors and the design of oxcarts. I didn’t realize anymore than anybody else how deeply ingrained the tradition is in this culture. But it’s a tradition that is mutating. Kind of like in Hawaii, where you go to a show and see them hula dancing. The whole culture here is changing and has changed. Very few campesinos use oxcarts in a practical sense today.
Were there any frustrations along the way (creating the book)? What are your most memorable rewarding moments?
The most fun part was doing the interviews and taking the photos, discovering the information … and it’s available to everyone. The boyeros (ox herders) are so wonderful, so warm. They invited me into their homes. I got to take a ride in an oxcart with boyero friends in Escazú. I have a lot of favorite memories.
I really enjoyed interviewing a man who created a monument to oxcarts in Atenas (a coffee town northwest of San José). That was one of my first interviews; I got to spend the weekend in Atenas. I also enjoyed interviewing (former National Soccer Team player) Luis Gavelo Conejo; he helped raise money for another monument that’s in San Ramón (another coffee town northwest of San José). The practical part of putting it together was the most challenging part: the deadlines of printing, permissions to reproduce artwork, all that was and is the challenge.
Do you have any future projects planned?
This book sure isn’t Harry Potter, but I would like to do a coloring book based on designs of oxcarts. It’s an idea that came up while I was working on this one.
Did you ever feel shaky about writing a book about Costa Rican culture as a non-Tica?
I did my research. I just put it together; I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or put my own opinion across … My point is that this is a book for entertainment, a broad brushstroke about Costa Rica.
What do you like best and least about Costa Rican culture and living here?
What I like best is the folk culture, the agricultural society that still remains that gives us in Costa Rica this wonderful laidback sensation.When you think about it, we have so many holidays. Va a paso de carreta (Costa Rican saying meaning “at the pace of an oxcart”), and I really appreciate that. That’s the outcome of that slow society from maybe even colonial times.
“The Painted Oxcart” is available for about $37 throughout San José, at Lehmann and Universal bookstores, 7th Street Books downtown, Terruños crafts store at Multiplaza mall in the western suburb of Escazú, Hotel Bougainvillea in Heredia and the Café Britt store at Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela, northwest of San José.