San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Play, film empower La Carpio women

A cup of steaming hot coffee projects onto the screen. “Worldwide, 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year,” the screen reads. Creamy espresso drips from a machine into a cappuccino cup, and is then carried by a waitress to a restaurant table. The screen flashes from dried beans swirling into a funnel to ripe berries on the bush at a coffee plantation.

“Those that bring the golden bean to our tables are at high risk of getting breast cancer, cervical cancer and other forms of disease. Most live in dire poverty,” we read, as we see women coffee workers collecting shiny red beans in the hot sun. Finally, we learn that “a group of women decided to do something about it.” “The Coffee Dance” documentary then begins.

The film, produced and directed by Susan Lutz, follows a group of about 20 women from La Carpio, an impoverished neighborhood on the western outskirts of San José, as they partake in a theater project that changes their lives and communities for the better. Lutz, who had previously worked in film, radio and print media, said she wanted to give a voice to the women as they rose above the violence, discrimination, lack of education and financial immobility that keep so many of La Carpio’s women trapped in a vicious cycle of dependence.

“The main intention was to show that during our everyday lives … there are people out there creating stories, planting seeds of change and teaching people how to empower themselves,” Lutz said.

After having attended an event in La Carpio, Lutz approached Gail Nystrom, director of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (CRHF), a nonprofit that works in La Carpio, and Steve Hawkins, founder of Dramatic Problem Solving, a program that works with Costa Rican communities and groups to help them transform conflict through theater projects. She asked them to keep her in mind if an interesting story idea came up. A little while later, Hawkins told Lutz about the theater project he and Nystrom were initiating with CRHF women from La Carpio.

Lutz went to the women and asked if they would allow her to document their project. They openly accepted her proposal.

Many of the women who participated in the theater project had been coffee workers themselves, in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. The play, written by Hawkins, highlights the importance of health education and medical treatment for women coffee workers, who are at high risk of cancer because of pesticides.

“They’re very poor, so they don’t have medical follow-up,” Lutz said. “The play is about a young woman who starts in the coffee fields, has two kids and really has no choice and keeps choosing the coffee fields rather than the little voice in her head that says, ‘Go to the doctor.’”

The La Carpio neighborhood, founded by squatters in the mid-1990s, is in the western San José district of La Uruca, and is bordered by the Torres River to the south and the Virilla River to the north. Nicaraguan immigrants comprise roughly half of the community, with a small portion of immigrants from other Central American countries and Costa Ricans making up the other half. Population estimates are ambiguous – few residents have titles to their land – but La Carpio is generally thought to house between 30,000 and 40,000 people. Roughly half its inhabitants are unemployed and live below the poverty line.

All of the women in the documentary reside in La Carpio. Through their theater project and their work in the community, they hope to break the negative stereotype that La Carpio has gained over the years as a notorious, violence-ridden slum.

Lutz interviewed several of the women individually throughout the film. Estela Aguirrez, 24, was one of them.

Aguirrez, like the other women, said she felt her self-esteem increase as the project developed. The foundation also helped her improve living conditions for her and her five children. Standing in her kitchen in front of the camera, she said, “Feeling happy gives you the feeling like you’re breathing in more air.”

Theater director Hawkins explained in the documentary that, in La Carpio, self-esteem is low in general. Feeling good about yourself, he said, is the first seed to plant.

“You have to recognize that you have something good, that you are something good, that you have something positive,” he said. “[These women] can’t get to the next level unless [they] feel that they’re valuable. And that comes from just someone listening to their story.”

Nystrom, who has worked in community development in Costa Rica for more than 30 years, also emphasized the important element self-esteem plays in empowering disenfranchised communities.

“Now they’ve become, rather than victims or recipients of charity or aid, actually promoters of aid to other people,” Nystrom said in the film. “What a huge, evolutionary step.”

Lucía Aguilar, another woman featured in the film, said in the documentary that she liked working with Hawkins because he always said that what they were doing was OK. While the play and documentary educate the community about health rights and women’s rights, Aguilar talked also about the rights of children.

“People here don’t know children have rights,” she said. “Children have a right to good health. … They have the right to play and the right to be free and express themselves.”

Toward the end of the film, viewers learn that Aguirrez’s 2-year-old son had a severe nervous system disorder and regressed to the level of a 6-month-old. Doctors apparently could not find the cause.

Weaving in and out of the women’s personal lives, the documentary periodically steps back to offer a broader view of the issue at hand. Coffee workers, the film teaches, make an average of $2 a basket, or less than $15 a day, in Costa Rica. And, viewers are told, “Illegal immigrants continue to be the backbone of the $231 million coffee industry.”

Nystrom said in the film that, since Costa Rica grew out of an agricultural economy into a small business economy, and then a tourism economy, native Costa Ricans no longer want to pick coffee. She said it’s hard work that often gets overlooked.

“We in the States or other places have no idea of the labor intensity that goes into this product,” she said. “What we would pay for maybe one or two cups of coffee is a day’s work for a person.”

A year after the theater project was initiated, the CRHF women’s group traveled throughout the country to perform the play and provide health, lifestyle and educational services to more than 800 people. The documentary also was screened at the Costa Rica International Film Festival in Montezuma, on the Nicoya Peninsula, and at the Costa Rican Center for Film Production in San José.

The women who participated in “The Coffee Dance” sat down with The Tico Times recently at the CRHF’s day care center in La Carpio to reflect on their experiences.

“It was really beautiful because it was something new for everyone,” 26-year-old Francela Alfaro, acknowledged as the leader of the group, said. “It was something we hadn’t done before. … We had a lot of fun, we made a lot mistakes, we were scared, and so it was something beautiful because we created it together until it became what it was.”

Most of the women said learning the script and getting used to performing in front of so many people were the biggest challenges.

Aguirrez said she still feels as if she’s breathing more air, and that she gained more confidence by doing the play.

Nystrom said Aguirrez’s son, now 4, is on medication and is about two years developmentally delayed. “But,” she said, “[Aguirrez] has the medication under control, her house has improved a lot, and he comes to the day care center every day. So he gets therapy here, he gets interaction with other children here, and, when we have volunteers who are in special education, he gets help for his special needs.”

In the film, Nystrom said the play was a communal project that created a forum in which the women could work together. Now, they have taken this ability to work together not only into their homes, but out into the community as well.

“They’re having a huge impact on this community and on other communities,” Nystrom said. “First of all, they’re a model for how women can work together. Second of all, they are becoming economically more independent. And third of all, they’re providing a really healthy environment for all of these children, which has a ripple effect back into the families and back into the communities.”

For more on the documentary, visit For information about CRHF, see

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