Meet Alicia Avilés, the perseverant immigrant leader of La Carpio’s cultural growth

March 3, 2017

Part Two in a four-part series. Read Part One here.

Is it possible for a single organization to transform one of Costa Rica’s toughest neighborhoods? La Carpio, the shantytown located in La Uruca, San José, is synonymous in the minds of many Costa Ricans with poverty and violent crime. In 2011, however, Alicia Avilés and Maris Stella Fernández launched a quest to change this when they founded the Integrated System of Art Education for Social Inclusion (SIFAIS), an NGO seeking to promote cultural growth in the neighborhood. In this four-part series, The Tico Times sets out to show how this non-traditional cultural education model is trying to beat the odds and help this vulnerable community strive for a better future.

On the website for the Integrated System of Art Education for Social Inclusion (SIFAIS), Alicia Avilés is listed as the community director, but also as the “inspiradora” – the inspiration. She who inspires.

The woman whose improbable dream of a symphony orchestra from the La Carpio shantytown grew into a renowned non-governmental organization was born in Managua, Nicaragua, where she studied at the religious school Lumen Christi and Loyola High School. She went on to work as an elementary school teacher in both rural and urban areas of Nicaragua for 12 years.

Twenty years ago, struggling to make ends meet on her teacher’s salary, she came to Costa Rica in search of a better life for her family and herself. She went on to become a community leader in La Carpio; thanks to an unexpected partnership with the woman who is now the president of SIFAIS, Maris Stella Fernández, Avilés is now helping to lead a team of staff members and volunteers who are changing the neighborhood in a big way through cultural education.

On a beautiful, sunny morning at the Cueva de Luz – the SIFAIS headquarters – in La Carpio, The Tico Times sat down and spoke with Avilés, 51, about her extraordinary attitude toward improving resilient community of La Carpio. Excerpts follow.

How did you end up in Costa Rica?

Frankly, the decisions were based on the fact that we had to feed our family in order to survive. A teacher’s wage in Nicaragua is very low and I had to sustain my five children. Besides that, I had to buy teaching materials for my work and the bus passes. Receiving a monthly wage of $100 as a teacher made it difficult to be able to sustain my family. While I worked, my-mother-in-law was the one who took care of my children. I came to Costa Rica in order to provide my kids with food and clothing, and I was searching for a better perspective of life for myself.

I never thought I would stay for 20 years. I just thought of coming here, trying this new lifestyle and then returning to Nicaragua. Here I’ve only worked as a maid because I never intended to teach again. As a maid I didn’t have to work 12 continuous hours and take the work back home with me. [Being a teacher is like] working 24 straight hours.

Which has been your role in La Carpio and with SIFAIS?

I was named the Security President in the community of La Carpio. It’s a role I’ve had for three years now. We’ve been working away like ants, but we’ve made progress. Maybe it can’t be seen right now, but as time passes by it’ll become evident. It’s about teaching lessons to the families of the community. The Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), and a few gringos who came here to help, covered families’ basic needs. [A lot of] drugs used to be sold here and we’ve been trying to eliminate those things that damage the community.

Four years ago, I also became president of this sector of the community in which we’re speaking right now. The government hasn’t solved these problems that have existed for quite a long time, because the community hasn’t been organized.

When [SIFAIS President] Maris Stella Fernández first came to La Carpio, I cried. I was dealing with several difficulties with the community…. I had been named president of social pastoral outreach, and began solving other people’s legal problems by speaking to the community about how to come to an agreement through dialogue. Oftentimes people stabbed each other with knives. Ambulances were called constantly and they did not come into the area because of the danger. Now, the ambulance comes here very rarely because there are no injured or dead people. That’s how I began my work as a community leader. I also work with various ministries and private enterprises that are willing to help us.

Citizens have to take responsibility for their actions. The fact that they live in an illegal slum doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they like. You’ve got to respect the norms and laws that our country has and give our best as the citizens that we are. I’ve been imparting those [messages in educational] talks with people who want to improve the country, and that’s how we’ve been advancing.

How has the implementation of SIFAIS workshops and classes improved the community?

You notice the improvement in people’s attitudes… Eradicating violence might be seen on a long-term basis, but the change is beginning to be noticed. It’s a seed that grows through the hard work we have done as a team.

People have been repairing their houses by painting them and keeping them neat. The entire family must help with this, not just the mother. The way in which people dress has changed. Now you don’t see people walking half-naked on the streets. Women are dressing differently, and due to this they have regained their dignity.

SIFAIS has reassured everyone about their capabilities and this has been done through teachers. The teachers are those impulsive and strong machines that help us; they’re our pillars.

What role does kindness play in the project?

People have stopped asking for [material] things. In 2015 I went to Costa de Pájaros, Puntarenas to deliver 95 toys to the children there. I went with various people from my community who usually beg for these things for themselves. By November and December [of the next year], normally they’d be asking for toys themselves, but instead they came asking when we were going again to deliver more toys [to kids in Costa de Pájaros]. It’s part of the kindness that has been growing.

SIFAIS… is helping our vulnerable community emerge from the anonymity in which the government had kept us. It has also demonstrated that we should all contribute something to our community. For La Carpio’s people, SIFAIS is a dream come true. People have been given the opportunity to get an education for free.

How do you think that the core values of SIFAIS (trust, constancy, madness and tenderness) are important elements of the project?

As you see, there are no rules here telling you to come at a certain hour. The children come here to do creative things in their own way. You give them that freedom [to express themselves]. It’s part of that craziness or madness: not limiting their eagerness and excitement. Of course, they’re quite mischievous, but it’s part of their growth process.

Afterwards I listen to what they’ve got to say in order to know what they want or desire. This helps them to express themselves and speak at home with their families. Part of the education here is to allow them to direct themselves wherever they want, whether they’re evangelical, Catholic or from some other religion.

In our next story in this series, meet the volunteers of SIFAIS and find out how this “two-way street” is changing lives both in and out of La Carpio.

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