For my father, who loved Costa Rica

June 17, 2018

One of my favorite things about my five-year-old daughter is that before she runs anywhere, she winds up like a cartoon character. She leans back on her right foot, her whole body at an exaggerated tilt, her left elbow cocked in front of her like a shield, lips pursed in smiling determination. Then she takes off. I always half-expect to see billows of white smoke and star-shaped sparks escaping from beneath her pounding heels.

When it comes to talking about my father, who died four months ago tomorrow, I feel I am still winding up. I am still leaning back, waiting to move. In my world, this means waiting to find solace in words again. About the things that count, I feel incoherent.

But on this Father’s Day, I thought I would at least attempt to pay homage in his name to what this column has always been about: language, Costa Rica, and love.

Growing up, my attitude toward Spanish was more or less the same as my regard for the Guatemalan furniture and art sprinkled around our house – the words I heard were intriguing ornaments, mysterious but also mundane because of their constant presence. “Vaca suelta,” my dad would shout whenever he spied a cow from the car window, often startling his hapless passengers. “Zopilote,” he’d say, pointing out a buzzard. He’d occasionally break into a tuneless and incomplete song, often “Cielito lindo” – though he often got no further than a heartfelt “Ayiyiyi.

Other than that, the language he’d grown up speaking in Guatemala was mostly absent. I think it never occurred to him that he might speak it with his kids from our infancy. When I finally did start studying Spanish in high school, I knew just enough words to surprise my teacher, who had studied in Spain: I said chompipe instead of pavo for turkey, zacate instead of césped for grass.

And, of course, I knew how to swear.

One of the tasks he thought up to help me practice at home was to read aloud to him. The first book I picked off the shelf was “Como agua para chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel. I had no idea what the words meant, so he would summarize periodically. To make matters worse, the protagonist’s name is Pedro, and I couldn’t yet pronounce the “r” sound properly, so it came out sounding like pedo – the word for fart. That’s right: I farted my way through one of literature’s steamiest books. (Not until I reread it years later did I realized how many strategic omissions my father had made. I’m surprised he could keep a straight face.)

I finally rolled an r for the first time much later. I remember the word I was saying: pierdo. I lose. It’s not even a word that calls for a rolled r, but there it was: pierrrrrdo. All of a sudden, I could trill as long and as loud as I wanted. For someone who loved Spanish as much as I did by then, it was like learning to fly.

One of the last full sentences my dad ever said to me, sitting on the edge of his bed, was “It’s a good thing you speak Spanish.” His mind was miles away by then, so I couldn’t be sure exactly what train of thought had brought about this utterance, but I agreed wholeheartedly. I should have thanked him for it, too. Those words scattered through my childhood eventually opened a door that has led to just about everything that matters in my adult life. It also led back to my dad. He took such pleasure from my life in Costa Rica and his friendship with my husband. The two of them could talk for hours about who knows what, sharing not only a language but also, in some ways, a childhood, despite vast differences in circumstances.

My dad peppered him with questions about costarriqueñismos, and the slang of Costa Rica and neighboring nations became a source of infinite delight. He loved me extraña, literally “I find that strange,” but often used to respond to a request for help: the sentiment is, “Of course, I’d love to help you. I can’t believe you even thought you had to ask.” He loved café con lengua, coffee with tongue, which describes the cardinal sin of being served coffee without so much as a Galleta María to go alongside. My dad always mixed it up and called it café sin lengua, but having the error pointed out only made him smile that much more.

He would talk up Costa Rica to anyone; he should have gotten a stipend from the Institute of Tourism. While my devotion has flagged from time to time as I wrestle the ups and downs of life in San José, his was endless. I sometimes wondered why he felt so strongly when he had never lived in Costa Rica. As a mother, I now understand that, of course, he did live here. He’s lived here for 14 years. My parents entrusted this country with a piece of their hearts, just as a piece of mine will one day follow my daughter wherever she goes. A part of them wakes up in this country every morning. Whether Costa Rica shook with 4.5 million cheers after a World Cup goal, or with the tremors of an earthquake, my father felt it. He, too, held his breath when Michael Umaña ran towards that ball in Brazil. He would have been watching the game this morning, wearing his jersey.

Every country deserves to have fans like that. So does every child. Those of us who find this in our own fathers are born into the lap of luxury. Others find it in a grandfather, an uncle, a brother. Some lose it, like my husband at a young age, and then find it again in an unexpected father-in-law. Some piece it together from various sources. Some find it when they watch their spouses become fathers, or experience fatherhood themselves.

Today is for all of those men, all those masters of the awkward, heartfelt pat on the back. Today is for the men who embrace our Costa Ricas, whatever those might be. The countries we choose to live in. The partners we choose to love. The identities we try on and eventually claim. We celebrate the men who, despite all their flaws, are perfect in at least one way: when we need help, their only answer is “Me extraña.” A man like that is our papá de los tomates. Our mero mero. Our viejo, mi querido viejo.

Pierdo. “I lose, present tense, ongoing, endless. This word now thumps like a heartbeat through every Father’s Day, for me and for so many others. If we’re lucky, we learn to say it loud, to roll that r like a dorky and enthusiastic high school student, to sing it proud like the song. Yo sé perder.

I’m not there yet. To be honest, all these words still leave me numb. But somewhere in the distance I can see this truth waiting for me, the grace that we’re reminded of in parting: if you can lose this big, it means you have it all.

Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter,” a book of essays about motherhood, Costa Rica’s unique street slang, bicultural parenting, and the ups and downs of living abroad. She lives in San José. 

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