The power of a teacher’s gaze

What is the most important part of a teacher? 

What about her gaze?

Bullying starts in silence. In subtleties. It’s glances, murmurs, a passed note, a brushing-by in the hallway that’s a little too rough. Sometimes this is invisible to teachers, but not to Niña Lidiabeth. She could see that the other kids didn’t like the new first-grader: already una nerdita, overly eager to please and excel, cursed by a Panamanian accent after four years spent abroad for her father’s work. La Niña Lidiabeth protected her over-achieving charge just as silently and subtly. An authoritative glance. A well-placed word of support. A little chineo, a tiny singling-out: not enough to increase the ridicule, just enough to warn off the vultures. Those jaws of bullying, poised and threatening, never closed down on the little girl.

So small and precise, impeccably dressed, with large, beautiful earrings framing her face, la Niña was full of sayings: The lazy and the mean must do everything twice. Do it slowly, because we are in a rush. These truisms, such throwaways on someone else’s lips, were transformed by the steady gaze of la Niña Lidiabeth into standards that would shape her students for life. 

One day, she pressed a set of papers into the little girl’s hands and issued an order: run for student body president. “But Niña, no one even likes me!” “You’ll do it, and you’ll win.” What did she see, deep inside the girl who somehow won that election, whose voice now seemed to matter? 

The nerdita had never held a proper camera or learned to take a photo, but with Niña Lidiabeth, she learned more than math or reading. She learned the power of the gaze. What we choose to view. What we leave out of the shot, ignore, obscure. What we do with what we’ve seen. Will we look and leave it be, or will we, like the greatest of teachers, find a way to act?

As published today in El Colectivo 506. Image courtesy of El Colectivo 506 and Mónica Quesada Cordero. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by photojournalist Mónica Quesada’s love for her teacher, Lidiabeth Leitón García. Is there a Costa Rican teacher who looms large in your mind? Tell me! Our weekly #MediaNaranja series this month is dedicated to teachers.

El Colectivo is the new, bilingual media organization I co-founded with two friends last year. Our Sunday #MediaNaranja series collects short love stories with a Costa Rican connection: romances, friendships, love of humans, animals, things, places, ideas. To share your own ideas for stories to be featured in this space, write to me at

In the shadows, a dazzling light

The birth of your child gives your life an arc. In fact: pregnancy. From the first strange soreness, sudden nausea, you begin to measure out your life anew. Nine months, developmental milestones, how much longer of these diapers, of this breastfeeding business? How much longer will she snuggle like this? Looming, that end tape: 18 years. 

We all see it there, a constant horizon. We look forward with dread or anticipation. After 18 years, some freedom will be restored, whether we want it or not.

Imagine, then, those mothers of mothers slain. The grandmothers who stand in the shadows of a femicide.

The murder of a young mother at the hands of her child’s father leaves many lives in ruins. But for that mother’s own mother—perhaps gearing up for a third act, perhaps easing into relaxation, graying and fraying as we do—it breaks the whole arc. In one instant of horror, a tent pole vanishes from the center of her existence. 

Her life refills with little socks and the nightly communion of teeth-brushing. To the uninitiated, this might sound comforting. Surely, at times, it is. But those little socks are not just socks. They are her entire life repeating, against her will. They are a return to the beginning just when the very beating of her heart seems to have ended.

As she grieves, she is called back into action. She must rewind to the start just when her years of work to raise her daughter have been cruelly tossed aside by hate. With one soulmate torn away, a wound never to heal, she reshapes herself around another.

In the shadows, a dazzling light. For what greater, sadder, stronger love than this?

As published today in El Colectivo 506. Image by Priscilla Mora Flores. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by pieces by Natalia Díaz and Priscilla Mora published by El Colectivo 506 this month

El Colectivo is the new, bilingual media organization I co-founded with two friends last year. Our Sunday #MediaNaranja series collects short love stories with a Costa Rican connection: romances, friendships, love of humans, animals, things, places, ideas. To share your own ideas for stories to be featured in this space, write to me at

The story of La Llorona, but not the one you know

It’s such a small stone for such a big name.

La Llorona: she who cries. A massive, creepy presence in our legends, in the minds of children up and down Latin America. The woman who drowned her own children, who walks the riverbanks ceaselessly, crying and crying. A powerful myth. A strong, loud wail.

But that Llorona has nothing to do with this shiny stone, selected long ago from the Santa Cruz mountains. The stone belongs to Melesia Villafuerte, and belonged to her mother before her. Like the indigenous people of Guanacaste for generations, Melesia and her mother have used a favorite stone to polish the rough sides of clay pots and vases and dishes into a high sheen: the famous pottery of Chorotega.

One day in Melesia’s youth, a boy in the neighborhood stole the stone. Melesia cried so hard and so long on the porch of her family’s Guanacaste home that, ashamed, the boy eventually returned it. She cried so hard and so long that, from that day on, the stone has been known as La Llorona.

Today, Melesia is 57, and La Llorona flies and gleams in her hand as she sits polishing pottery at Coopeguaytil, where women come together to make art. It shines from years of polishing and being polished in return, a give and take between clay and stone. It shines with the memory of Melesia’s tears the day it was taken from her, only to return. It shines almost like a river stone, plucked from the waters before it was too late.

As published today in El Colectivo 506. Image by Mayela López. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by a story by Mayela López about the artisans of Guaitil, Guanacaste, published by El Colectivo 506. Our Sunday #MediaNaranja series collects short love stories with a Costa Rican connection: romances, friendships, love of humans, animals, things, places, ideas. To share your own ideas for stories to be featured in this space, write to us at

Join me for a new series

Happy Day of Love and Friendship, as they call it in CR! I’m celebrating by launching a new Sunday series at our new media organization, El Colectivo 506, called Media Naranja. In this series, I’ll be writing very short love stories with a Costa Rican connection. Just for fun, I’ll be challenging myself to make them fit into the character limit set by Instagram. I’ll draw them from the stories we publish at El Colectivo, from members of our community (collaborators, donors and readers), and, probably, from random sources of inspiration.

In honor of my 16th Valentine’s Day alongside Adrián, I decided to kick off the series with a story of my own, below. Do you have a story you’d like me to tell in Media Naranja? Let me know! And if you haven’t yet signed up for El Colectivo 506 (it’s free!) please do so here! We’re a brand-new media startup (journalist-owned, community-based and woman-powered), and new signups give us such a boost. 📷 Pamela Fuster


If only we’d come prepared, I thought when we came across the soccer field on the potato farm, seemingly by accident. ⁠

But I was the only one who hadn’t. As it turned out, the Costa Rican men I’d hiked with that day in the Prusia sector of Volcán Irazú National Park had been well aware our path would lie this way. They pulled out a jersey here, a football there, cleats from everywhere, and picked sides almost wordlessly. It was a ritual they’d undertaken hundreds of times since childhood. ⁠

I hesitated by the fence, but the one who’d invited me along that day made a quick gesture with his hand: in you go.⁠

“Is she playing?” one guy asked my friend, quietly. “Claro, mae,” he replied, of course. I realize now that he truly wasn’t trying to score points: his automatic response came from a deeply pragmatic sense of fairness I would come to know quite well. ⁠

Amidst the exclamation points of my 20s, I felt the ground shifting that day. Amidst the had-I-only-knowns of my 40s, I can see that on that day, at least, I did know. That’s why I paid such close attention to the way he included me, throwing a foreign non-athlete among his oldest friends without a second thought. ⁠

Of course, there were limits. Had I known that 1.5 decades later, there would come a year like one long day, one endless disinfecting; that pickup soccer, lazy day trips, even friends would all be gone; that there would only be the slog of building a job out of sheer will while my student husband cleaned and parented and let me attempt it… had I known all of that, I might have understood it better. Understood why, in all the excitement and newness, all that really mattered were those words: “Claro, mae.” Of course she plays. Of course she tries.⁠

I wasn’t much good, but I ran so hard that day, grinning through those thick Cartago mists. We played our hearts out, he and I. Still do. ⁠