San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Exhibit Salutes Female Trailblazers

To get to the “Abriendo Caminos” (Trailblazers) exhibit, visitors must first approach the well-preserved Dr. Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia Historical Museum in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Escalante. But the path then veers around the left side of the solid colonial building, along the side porch and past a handful of colorful – but locked – doors, until the modern white-and-glass CalderónGuardiaMuseum comes into view.

A fitting entrance to artist Gabriela Soto’s homage to nine women who charted alternative routes to forge successful careers in traditionally male industries.

The 23-year-old graphic arts student planned the exhibit inauguration to coincide with the week of International Women’s Day March 8. But when asked if she considers  her exhibit feminist, she draws back and cannot answer quickly enough.

“No! I don’t want to be branded a feminist. Feminism is the same as machismo – it’s for extremist women,” she says. “I grew up with the idea of equality.”

When it comes right down to it, even the idea of an International Women’s Day rubs her the wrong way.

“There’s no day for men,” she says without irony.

Labels aside, the exhibit is unarguably a well-crafted celebration of strong women who have struggled against gender prejudice and cultural attitudes.

The saturated colors of the 12-by-16-inch prints, taken on a Canon manual camera with Fuji film, are mounted on a white background, one for each portrait. Commitment, determination and competence come through each frame. Each features a definitive quote, while a page-long excerpt to the right fills in the personal details of each woman’s career path.

“I wanted the photos to be nice, but I didn’t set out to create an aesthetic, artistic work,” Soto qualifies, speaking rapidly in a quiet but confident voice. “It’s more a documentary.

Most of the comments have focused on the gender angle, not artistic merit.”

Issues of safety come up in the texts for several of the women, who include a referee, mechanic, firefighter, messenger, bus driver, taxi driver, paramedic and traffic official.

Perhaps nowhere does this issue loom larger than in the smiling eyes peering down the barrel of a gun, aimed just over the viewer’s right shoulder. The rest of the face – belonging to a young special police operative identified only as “Officer C.” – is enshrouded in a black balaclava.

Soto says that, despite the unsettling image, so far no one has yet singled out this photo, with its stark association with violence, for comment.

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) student, who began taking photography seriously in 2002, has participated in collective exhibits. This photo shoot began as an idea for a calendar of women in nontraditional careers, but Soto’s mother, who works at the National Women’s Institute (INAMU), suggested she tie it into International Women’s Day. The artist proposed the idea, won support from the institute, and went to work at getting the project finished in time for March 8.

“I sat at the kitchen table and made a list of careers that include few women,” Soto remembers.

Along with her mother, her father, who grew up in an overwhelmingly female family and whom she credits as influential in her views on equality, was also a big help. She ended up with a long list of 15, which, through various circumstances, was whittled down to nine. Private enterprise proved to be a dense jungle when it came to locating a female head of construction, and two pilots chose not to participate in the project.

“I made a conscious choice to include only working-class women,” she says. “I think women are better protected in more ‘elevated’ professions that require university. Like, there are quotas for female congresswomen – there’s nothing like that for messengers. And in the working classes, there are more chauvinists.”

She explains that her personal experience, especially at UCR, has been characterized by many opportunities, and says she hasn’t faced gender discrimination. She wanted the photos to uncover a different reality and highlight struggle, such as that of referee Ave María Alpízar, whose highlighted quote reads, “I was the first to reach the top division – I had to debunk a lot of myths.”

A woman scanning the profiles on International Women’s Day, which also marked the government’s unveiling of the country’s first comprehensive National Policy for Gender Equality, caught Soto’s attention. She praised the artist for including the written summaries, which are essential to rounding out the images and the sense of trailblazing.

The numbers particularly hit home.Out of 346 permanent firefighters in the country, only four are women.At Coopetaxi, 248 male drivers have only two female colleagues. Cindy Cerdas is the only female mechanic the Municipality of San José has ever hired.

Whether or not it’s a case of selective memory or editing, while each woman recounts challenges she has faced, the interview summaries are refreshingly free of tales of major harassment or of forcing the boys’ club to take down their dirty locker pictures.

“What I really wanted to get across was the fact that these women really enjoy their jobs,” Soto notes.

She says she would like to eventually take the exhibit around the country, and take three more photos to possibly finish that calendar after all. And, in the name of equality, perhaps mount an installation featuring men in traditionally female jobs.

The exhibit runs to March 31 at the CalderónGuardiaMuseum in Barrio Escalante, 100 meters east and 100 meters north of Santa Teresita Church. For more information, call 222-6392


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