Bernarda Vásquez Méndez no longer follows politics. After a year of highly publicized scandal in which photos of ex presidents in handcuffs provided persuasive evidence to Costa Rican voters of the corruption seeping into their national politics, many of her country men are equally apathetic. Yet what makes Doña Vásquez unique and her indifference more lamentable is that she occupies a celebrated place in the history of Costa Rica's democracy.
On july 30, 1950, when Vásquez was 27, she became the first woman to vote in a Costa Rican election.
Although we lacked precise directions, locating the house was easy. As we entered La Fortuna, billboards appeared along the highway proudly reminded passerby that the right to vote that was consecrated here. When we stopped to ask for directions, a diverse group outside a pulpería nodded in proud recognition as they pointed up hills and around corners, assuring us that we were not far.
Soon, we were pulling off the main road onto a narrow dirt side street, our tires kicking up clouds of dust as we came to a stop in front of the house.
Bernarda Vásquez Méndez
I knocked on the door. After a moments pause, a key turned, a bolt disengaged and the door creaked open just wide enough for a pair of grey eyes to regard us with surprise and a hint of annoyance. We were told politely that we had arrived in the middle of a rosario, a Catholic tradition of intense personal prayer. They would be finished in 10 minutes. We apologized for the interruption and retreated from the porch to an outcropping of rocks to wait. As we waited, I considered what I knew of Costa Ricas road to democracy. Having gained independence from Spain in 1821, the country was subject to a span of dictatorial and unrepresentative rule by various members of the coffe elite for over a century, interrupted only by military coups which imposed their own nepotistic regimes.
Real polical change did not come about until the late 1940s and, as in much of history, war was the catalyst. The contested results of the 1948 presidential election drew a discontented former leader and his Guatemalan- trained army into open conflict with government forces. The 40 – day civil wars claimed over 2000 lives and ended with José Figueres Ferrer, the aforementioned disgruntled former president, reassuming power. Among other progressive social reforms, it was Figueres who revised the constitution to outlaw the standing army (including his own), established presidential term limits and introduced full citizenship for blacks and suffrage for women.
In less time than it took for us to become uncomfortable on our awk stone seats, the door opened wide and a pair os smiling faces ushered us into the sparsely furnished living room. The air inside was heavy and warm, almost tangible. The room smelled like that of my own grandmothers home, a mixture and perfume. Two things drew my attention upon entering the house. The first was a shrine to the Virgin Mary, lovingly erected in a far corner of the room. The other was a wall lined with thee plaques, photos and presidential commendations commemorating that historic day in 1950. While the pictures and plaques had gathered dust and hung crooked on their nails, the Virgins table was adorned with white linen and Christmas themed wrapping paper, low burning candles and an assortment of fresh flowers.
Doña Vásquez is a small woman of 87 years with snow white hair and skin like leather, a coffee brown color creased with deep wrinkles that testify to her many years. Her default expression is one of abating contentment, her thin lips slightly upturned in a whisper of a smile. Black eyebrows arch high over her dark eyes, which are covered by thick cataracts rendering her nearly blind. Francisco, her brother, is polite but quiet, sitting against the wall with his fingers interlocked behind his head.
We spent the next hour talking with Doña Vásquez. Having never married and without children, she has lived with Francisco for over 50 years in the same house. She spoke of her childhood and of attending school up to the fourth grade before she was needed full time on the family farm. She learned how to read and write, through these days she does little of either due to her ailing vision.
She recalled the morning when she woke before dawn to vote in a municipal election that decided the small communities of La Tigra and La Fortuna would integrate with the canton of San Carlos, defecting from the canton of San Ramón. She told us that although she remembered a general feeling of excitement surrounding the election, she felt largely indifferent about the whole process. She was aware that she was participating in something that would be remembered: she just found it hard to be animated. “I was just a simple farm girl. Politics and elections were things that did not seem to affect me. To this day, politics is not something I pay attention to, although it is an embarrassment what has happened with these ex- presidents.” She relies on a monthly pension of 15.000 colones, or roughly 31, 75 dollars. This struck me as truly sad woman once halides by presidents now virtually abandoned by her government, living well below any reasonable barometer of poverty.
I ask her if there was anything she still wants to do, some long held desire not yet fulfilled. She pauses Her hands fidget with the rosary beads in her lap and her eyes drift toward the open door, left ajar to help cool the room “Morirme”, she says. To die. At this there is silence. Doña Vásquez wears her smile as I pretend to fiddle with my tape recorder; someone coughs. After a moment she stands up and offers us some of her homemade picadillo. Her hands outstretched, fingers gliding with familiarity along the rough surface of the walls, she leads first herself and then us to the kitchen a few paces away.
As we stand assembled around the room, our forks playing with the chunks of plátano, the awkwardness induced by a powerfully honest answer crumbles away and our conversation turns to nothing in particular. We talk of the weather, debate the prowess of national soccer teams, and poke fun at my accent. We praise her food and wash our own dishes as coiling lines of white smoke rise from her wood- burning stove. The sky finally goes black, the night already rioting with stars, when we finally take our leave, thanking her for her time. The election long since forgotten, the picadillo heavy in our stomachs, a woman in the twilight of her years waves goodbye from her front door.