Carmen Naranjo, at the age of 82, can claim a career as a writer, teacher, playwright, painter, poet, culture minister and ambassador. The grande dame of Tico culture was recently honored at the National Theater for her contributions to Costa Rican literature. It was the latest in the long string of honors, awards and prizes achieved by this gifted and versatile woman over the course of her lifetime.
In her rustic home – shared with three dogs – in a rural part of Alajuela, northwest of San José, doña Carmen receives her many friends, including writers seeking her advice, and continues to write the way she always has: in a notebook with a ballpoint pen.
“No computer. I’m a dinosaur in that respect,” she says without regret. At present she is working on two books based on life experiences of people she knows.
How was a girl born in 1928, when women didn’t have a vote or voice, and who had to overcome machismo, discrimination and a bout of polio, able to achieve so much?
With three older brothers, an adoring father and an independent, spunky grandmother who came from Spain to raise her, Naranjo naturally grew up with the will to forge ahead.
“My grandmother shocked people because she traveled by herself and was not afraid of anything,” Naranjo recalls.
But it was her mother’s family that inspired her to write. “They were writers and intellects, but many of them died in the earthquake in Cartago in 1910,” she says.
Doña Carmen always loved to write, she says. More than 40 books, plays and short stories have flowed from her ballpoint pen since she wrote her first book, “Canción de la ternura” (“Song of Tenderness”), a poetic tribute to her brothers, in her teens. Some of her books have reached international markets and have been translated into English, Hebrew, Greek and other languages.
In addition to writing, the years have included a teaching post in language studies at the University of Costa Rica, administrative positions in government institutions, campaigning for “real” equality for women – meaning the rights to a pension, protection from domestic violence and equal positions in the government – and an appointment as culture minister in 1974. In 1976, she won Costa Rica’s top cultural honor, the Magón Prize.
Prior to her stint as culture minister, Naranjo served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel from 1972 to 1974.
“I fell in love with Israel,” she says, though she adds that there was always a sense of tension in the still young country.
She recalls the day when the Yom Kippur War began in 1973, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called Naranjo and asked her to come to her home right away. It meant driving through danger zones, but doña Carmen didn’t want to leave her frightened little dog home alone, so she cradled the dog and took it along. At the prime minister’s home, Meir asked Naranjo to call then-Costa Rican President José “Pepe” Figueres and urge him to use his influence as a peacekeeper to ask the Russians to stay neutral in the Middle East. It was 1 a.m. in Costa Rica, and the president answered the phone half asleep.
“Don Pepe said, ‘Who is this? Oh, Carmen, how are you?’” Naranjo recalls. She then passed on Meir’s message while her dog “jumped all over the furniture and the prime minister, who enjoyed the distraction in that time of crisis.”
Following two tense years in Israel, Naranjo took advantage of contacts in Europe to spend time on the Continent. Once she was a guest on Aristotle Onassis’ luxury yacht, where she witnessed his early romance with Jacqueline Kennedy.
Doña Carmen has never retired, or even thought about it. Writing, reading, painting, giving workshops for aspiring writers and taking an interest in the whole world are a big part of her life. She cherishes her independence and plans to continue writing and being involved in the cultural life of Costa Rica. For her, 82 is not an advanced age.