We want them alive: Costa Rica’s reckoning

August 13, 2018

I can’t stop thinking about them. María and Arancha.

Arancha and María.

They were murdered in a country I love. They were women, doing things I’ve done dozens of times. They were foreigners, as I am, marveling at this tiny country’s lush green variety that unfurls before you, fold after fold. Mountain, valley, river.

They were brutally attacked on the beaches of Costa Rica – beaches that, as I’ve realized this week, I view as hallowed ground. Those miles and miles of sand and surf seem somehow safe, a place I’ve walked and run alone without a second thought, free in a way I would never feel on a city street or even a country road. Lost in my thoughts, good or bad.

I’ve thought this week about one of my first nights ever traveling alone in Costa Rica. I walked home from dinner along Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste and heard a shout from the naturalist in the room above mine, out on the balcony at our hotel. He said I should go back down to the water’s edge and watch my footsteps light up the bioluminescence beneath. I’ll never forget the glowing path I traced with such delight, no one else’s footprints but my own.

I’ve thought about the night I stood with my toes in the surf at Esterillos, mourning my dad, looking for some sign of him in the dim meeting of sky and sea. 

I’ve thought about the pre-dawn solitary run that ended in my first glimpse of the Whale’s Tale of Uvita. The sky lightened overhead, no human to be seen anywhere. I wonder if Arancha had time to feel that same exhilaration as she set out for her morning run all the way across the country in Tortuguero.

I’ve thought about the night my friends and I drank and danced at a bar in Santa Teresa and, somewhere long before dawn, ran down into the water, laughing and shouting, coming back to the dance floor covered in salt. We were probably just feet from where María met her death.

How long does sand stay on a beach? Did María touch any of the grains my heels tossed up before she was murdered?

Nights like that one are memories now, but they’re still in my daughter’s future. María loved mermaids, we learned this week, just like my five-year-old.

Of all the mysteries of my adopted country, the status of women is the most obscure to me. Costa Rica is a factory of powerful, brilliant women, producing a leader at the helm of the fight against climate change, a disproportionate number of pioneers in scientific research, record-breaking athletes, vibrant artists, creative entrepreneurs.

Women have run the congress, the Cabinet, the country. Most every organization I’ve worked with here and almost every family I’ve gotten to know well has been a matriarchy, at least on some level. Mothers, in particular, are revered in ways that foreigners can’t even wrap our brains around; if you’re new to the country and have not witnessed this, you will on Wednesday, Mother’s Day.

And then women are beaten with such regularity that one campaign against domestic violence placed a domestic abuse 911 call ticker next to the score for a televised National Team game against Haiti; it climbed far faster than the anemic score of the game itself, ending at 30. During the World Cup, the number of calls during a soccer game soar to the hundreds.

Women in Costa Rica are murdered with startling frequency; a spike in femicides earlier this year became an issue in the presidential campaign. They are whistled at and touched and grabbed on the street. We become so numb that the case of Gerardo Cruz, the young man who filmed and shamed a groper on the street, filled many of us with a burst of hope; his murder, days later, brought us crashing back down to earth.

Both women and men in Costa Rica cry out again and again: Las queremos vivas. We want them alive. Women want to walk at night without fearing rape; we want to walk down the street without fearing disgusting comments and glances; we want to run on the beach without risking our lives.

We don’t just want this for ourselves. We also want all of this for every member of the LGBTQ community.

We want to stop hearing stories of sexual harassment or assault that end when the victim says, “And you know as well as I that there is nothing I can do.” The silence that follows that statement: it’s poison, to all of us. You’ve heard that silence. You know what I mean.

Arancha and María. María and Arancha. Two more faces among so many. Two more faces I can’t get out of my head because the things they were doing were so simple, so universal to anyone who has stepped of a bus in a Costa Rican beach town wearing a backpack, sandals, and a feeling that we could conquer the world.

The other night I used a phrase I’ve seen so often in recent months: a wave of violence against women in Costa Rica. My husband begged to differ. It’s waves, he said. Waves, plural, going back a long way, going back to a time when we didn’t find out about these things so quickly, or didn’t quantify them as carefully. A time when they were seen as the way things go, or even what women deserved.

I could picture those waves, lapping one after another onto an indifferent shore.

But that’s just a metaphor. I refuse to let go of the real beach and the real waves of Costa Rica. The real sand, the real seas, belong to us. So do our streets, our homes, our space. They’re ours, whether by birthright or because we claim them by our presence. They’re ours simply because we’re in them. They’re ours, and we won’t give them up, not for any man, not for anyone.

Even as I write those words, I doubt. I picture myself, afraid to walk by the water alone. I think of María and Arancha and wonder about this idea: that these spaces belong to us.

Is this a statement, or is it a prayer?

Maybe it’s a promise – a promise fueled by the energy of all those women who have walked by the sea, set free on the sand in a new place, feeling safe and unfettered and strong. A promise we don’t know how to fulfill, but make nonetheless.

Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter” (2016). To submit an op-ed to our #MeToo / #YoTambien series, contact Katherine at kstanley@ticotimes.net. 

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