José León Sánchez on prison, the media and writing
“I want to show the furtive and miserable personalities of human beings locked up on an island like beasts. The purpose of this work is not to plant bitterness over a past memory. It is an invitation to think about the future. This story needed to be told so that we, the sons of Costa Rica, would never be able to forget it.”
These thoughts, from the prologue of “La Isla de los Hombres Solos” (“The Lonely Men’s Island”), express author José León Sánchez’s purpose in documenting his experience as an inmate at San Lucas Penitentiary, a prison that operated on Isla San Lucas from 1873-1989 (TT, July 22).
Sánchez, 76, spent 30 years on the island, off the shores of the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, in the Gulf of Nicoya, serving time for a religious crime he always maintained he did not commit and of which the Supreme Court of Justice absolved him in October 1998. The self-educated author was illiterate at age 19, when he entered San Lucas. He learned to read and write in prison, where he completed “The Lonely Men’s Island,” his first novel, in 1963.
Translated into 25 languages, with 150 editions in Spanish, “The Lonely Men’s Island” was made into a film in Mexico and remains Sánchez’s best-known work. Over the course of his writing career, he has produced scores of short stories and novels, including the celebrated “Tenochtitlán” and “Campanas para Llamar al Viento” (“Bells to Call the Wind”). After living in Mexico and the United States, Sánchez moved back to Costa Rica, where he currently resides and teaches pre-Columbian history at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
In an exclusive interview with The Tico Times, Sánchez revealed details about his life. Excerpts follow.
What is your family background?
I never had family. I was born in a town called Cucaracho de Río Cuarto in Grecia (in the province of Alajuela) to a prostitute named Esther Sánchez. She never knew who my dad was and neither did I… My mother had 13 kids, and each time she had one, she would sell it. She couldn’t sell me because I was born sick, so she gave me away to a salt salesman who left me in an Alajuela hospital, from where I was later transferred to an orphanage.
Now I have a wife, whom I met at the University of Costa Rica, and two kids.
How did you end up at San Lucas?
Around the year 1950, one of the most horrifying crimes ever committed in this country took place. A group of people broke into the Basílica de Los Ángeles [the cathedral in Cartago, east of San José], killed the guard, crushed the virgin statue and stole the church jewels. At the time, Costa Rica was an extremely religious country, so this wasn’t just a crime in a church – it was a crime against the faith of a people.
Twenty-two days after this happened, [my girlfriend] Julieta’s father asked me to take some tin cans to a specific place in Hatillo [a suburb south of San José] and leave them on a windowsill. I did – he gave me two tin cans. I never knew the cans contained the stolen jewels of the basilica.
Days after I made the delivery, Julieta’s father was caught as he was melting the jewels; when he was captured, he said I had brought him the jewels. Of course, I denied it. But they allowed him to talk to me. Alone in the jail cell, he begged me to say I had given him the jewels. I said I couldn’t; I hadn’t known what was in the cans. But I was very, very much in love with his daughter.
When I talked to the detectives, I told them don Roberto was right. I had given him the jewels. I thought this would solve everything.They wanted to know where the rest of the jewels went, and that was my great dilemma. I hadn’t committed the crime, so I didn’t know. They tortured me. I had a bad tooth and they poked at it with needles and stuck toothpicks in my ears. Screaming, I told them I was guilty and don Roberto innocent. Before the judge, I retracted everything, but it was too late. That was how they sent me off to the Devil’s Island.
Would you describe your experience there?
San Lucas was the Devil’s Island, a place of horror, where human beings had absolutely no value. Any animal in the countryside had more rights than we did on that island of lonely men. I was the youngest man ever sent there, when I arrived at 19. It was the place where they sent the country’s most despised criminals and, at the time, not a single lawyer in Costa Rica would defend me. They gave me 45 years for a crime I did not commit.
The first four years and eight months I spent locked up in a cell with 15 minutes of sunlight a day. When it rained, they didn’t take me out. I lived there naked, like a dog, less than a dog. I have suffered like you cannot imagine.
When I was locked up, I lost everything I had. I never saw that girlfriend again. She also believed her father spoke the truth, thatI had committed a terrible crime and gotten him involved. He was imprisoned with me for several years, and I always begged him to reveal the truth but he never did. In the end, he was declared innocent.
Did you ever try to run away?
I tried to run away several times. Once, in 1955, I received a gunshot wound next to my heart [unbuttoning his shirt to show the scar]; it left me in a very delicate state.When inmates escaped from the penitentiary, they would reach the shore and swim when the current pulled out, not in. They would swim some two kilometers and then grab on to a piece of wood and use it as a steering wheel.
One time, in 1950, I managed to reach Caldera [a port town near Puntarenas] after swimming 36 hours. When I arrived there, I ate some snails, drank water and fell asleep. That’s when they got me. The next time, in 1952, they caught me out at sea.
When you look back, do you feel rage at the government and media for convicting you?
The problem nowadays is that judges are not the ones who convict people – it’s journalists. If you suffer the misfortune of having the front page of The Tico Times say you are a criminal, for example, then it doesn’t matter what judges say later. You are a criminal, and will remain stained and disfigured forever, because of what a journalist said. Journalists baptized me the “basilica monster.” One day [years later], these shameless people gave me an award called Áncora, for a novel of mine entitled “Bells to Call the Wind.” They give this award every two years to the best book published here. And I became the first person in Costa Rica to turn it down.
I told them a writer is not a dog you kick today and throw a bone at tomorrow and expect it to wag its tail. It hurts a lot. If I had been born elsewhere, people would take my case as an example. Costa Rica committed the most awful crime you can commit against an innocent boy.
The first journalist who ever treated me like a human being was [late Tico Times publisher] Richard Dyer. He was the first person to interview me and publish some pages about José León Sánchez. Every time I wrote a book, Richard Dyer interviewed me at The Tico Times. I carry him very close to my heart.
What inspired you to start writing in prison?
There was a prisoner who wrote letters for the other inmates. He taught me to read and write. When he got out, he left me his writing pads and pencils, and I continued writing letters for the inmates. I was writing so much, and then I heard about a literary contest organized by the University of Costa Rica. I entered, and won first prize. But when they realized first prize had gone to a prisoner, they decided a “murderer” could never write such a beautiful story, and they put it aside.
But then the second-place winner, Constantino Láscaris, a genius of inconceivable behavior, said, “If they don’t give first place to this man, I will not accept my award.” So I won the award.
What tips would you give aspiring writers?
The business of literature is a cheap swindle. What I would recommend to young people is that they seek something more useful to do with their time, like making shoes or singing. Singing is very nice. If I had dedicated my life to doing other things, I might have a good carpenter’s workshop right now. I might be an excellent tailor. But I made the mistake of dedicating my life to this.
If you visit my home, you will see I have the biggest library of any Costa Rican writer. For an author to write his first novel, he must have studied a thousand different books first, and know the history of literature throughout the course of humanity. Just to write the first book.
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