This month marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Cuentos de mi Tía Panchita,” by Carmen Lyra. Even if you’ve never cracked this little volume’s slender spine, you’ve heard about it if you’ve spent time in Costa Rica. Salir con un domingo siete is a fairly common phrase whenever someone truly steps in it, and it can only be understood by reading Tía Panchita’s telling of the adventures of two men who stumble upon a witches’ sing-along; the Cucarachita Mandinga, Tío Conejo and other characters become part of the vague background of your life, even if you’re poorly versed in their adventures.
Carmen Lyra was born in San José in 1888 and went on to co-found the country’s first Montessori school, as well as the Costa Rican Communist Party. She was an intellectual touchstone, highly influential union leader, and critic of the banana companies’ incursions into Costa Rica. After Costa Rica’s Civil War in 1948, the Communist Party was outlawed and Lyra was exiled to Mexico for the rest of her life. However, her mark on Costa Rican history and culture is indelible to this day.
If you’ve got this book in your house, use these weeks as an excuse to pull it out. If you don’t, it’s a good excuse to dive in (although if you don’t read Spanish, the only English translation I’ve seen online is a pricey scholarly edition) or check out a video version of some of the stories, like this one.
The introduction alone is enough to fill you with Costa Rica nostalgia. When she describes the eponymous auntie’s skill at making sweet treats to sell at her home near Parque Morazán, she boasts that her biscuits and tamal asado would attract buyers from “far-off neighborhoods” such as Paso de la Vaca and la Soledad – a notion that seems quaint these days, when greater San José covers the entire Central Valley.
Happy birthday to “the beloved little old lady… who had the gift of making children laugh and dream!”
I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! If you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.