My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa, Limon & Street Kids
We moved to a house in a neighborhood close to Playa Bonita outside Limon where thousands of sizable land crabs riddled yards with giant holes. It was an ideal place with three bedrooms and a yard ample enough to hold the menagerie of animals we’d brought from Puerto Viejo; chickens, a goat, rabbits, dogs, and a Spider monkey named Sarah.
Because of no wildlife protection laws, Javier had been given Sarah in Puerto Viejo. When he had shown upholding this primate the size of a small child, I sensed trouble. He built her an enclosure and adored her until he accidentally dropped her banana. Suddenly, she furiously lunged at him, wrapping her arms, legs, and prehensile tail around him in a viselike grip. Then she took a sizable bite out of his arm. I’d volunteered at a zoo in my teens and was now in charge of Sarah, yet, Javier still refused to give her away.
A hotel near us had a small zoo that included a lion whose deafening roars drowned out the roosters at dawn. They had too many animals and gave Javier another monkey! He thought Sarah would be happier with the company; however, I was not happier.
We became involved in Limon’s growing tourist industry, joined the board of the Association of Tourism, and were the principal organizers of Limon’s first Tourist Conference. Javier was getting recognized as an artist and had an exhibition coming up. He was the first of his generation of Costarrican naturalist painters, and his inflating ego caused more discord in our relationship. I considered divorce but decided instead to find a new direction of my own.
Nearby was a neighborhood that had initially been a squatter invasion, and it was considered a ghetto with crime, drugs, and prostitution. The majority of their children worked on the streets, selling newspapers, lottery, or panhandling. They’d pass my house every day on the way to the bus and played soccer on the field in front.
I paid a visit to the child welfare office in San Jose to find an organization working with street children. With a syrupy tone, the director told me, "Senora, there are no street children in Costa Rica." Infuriated by her callus lie, I decided to start one.
I got permission to use JAPDEVA's (Limon’s port authority) swimming pool, which closed on Saturdays. I found volunteers, including a swimming instructor; many of these kids didn’t know how to swim. We began with fifteen kids, including my own two children, which eventually grew each weekend.
Pool regulations mandated no swimming with open wounds and showering before, and I suggested using the cheap blue lye soap their mother’s washed clothes with to disinfect their cuts. The pool was such an incentive everyone returned with cuts completely healed and hygiene greatly improved.
We had obligatory warm-up exercises before swimming lessons. Although they objected to both, they complied or didn’t get the hour of free pool afterward. During the latter, all hell usually broke loose.
So, I developed the three-out system to control behavior. Breaking a rule resulted in a first out of five minutes, ten minutes the second, and three out for the day. The following week they’d be welcomed back as long as they behaved. At first, the majority of the group ended up with three outs, but this gradually changed. Although most landed two outs, few made three. Conversations on the out bench were, “How many outs you got?" "I got two, next one; I’m a goner.”
Kids often congregated on my porch during soccer games, and Javier didn't like it. During a lice infestation, a local pharmacy donated medicine, and he came home to a line of kids with towels wrapped around their heads stretching from the street to the backyard sink, where I washed out the dead lice.
Javier seldom drank, but that evening he came stumbling into the house and with slurred words saying, "Choose! It's those kids or me!" then passed out. The following day, he awoke to find his belongings on the porch.
He requested more time to get his affairs in order, and I agreed to a month. However, when I discovered those affairs included my children’s Belgian teacher, the month was cut short.
I kept the jeep I’d acquired before we met, the furniture and the business. He moved in with the teacher and left me with the accursed monkeys. Thankfully a tiny zoo in Guapiles took them.
Javier had never been very emotionally involved with my children, and after the breakup, he never spoke to either again. I was dealing with the renewed challenges of single motherhood and was oblivious to how this devastated the boys, especially Mauricio. Myra was a Godsend who moved in to help, and like Maritza, she became family.
The street kid activities became a project we named Kukula, a Limonense word for sloth. The kids had brought me an orphaned baby sloth and every day checked on her progress. However, she didn't survive, and Kukula was in her memory.
We began offering more community-sponsored activities like the three-day camping trips with 30 kids to Cahuita National Park. People volunteered, the Rotary Club supplied food, Red Cross lent the tents, and Japdeva supplied the transport. During the carnival, the municipality donated a booth to sell baked goods and T-shirts to help with funding. When we organized beach clean-ups, the news media began featuring our activities.
We started a non-profit Foundation and decided to open a safe house, but the organization had no money. I could only afford one rent, so my sons and I moved into the new place in Limon center.
It was 1991, and for a year, I struggled to work my business and find support for Kukula House. We had 15 residents, provided a daily lunch program for 40, and continued with organized activities run by volunteers. While in San Jose on business, I was at the bus station buying a ticket home when the 7.4 earthquake hit. The epicenter was in Limon, communication was down, and the buses stopped running.
My eldest son Damon, now twenty-one, had moved back and rented out rooms to surfers at his house in Playa Bonita. His brothers stayed with him while I was away and visions of my children dead under rubble spurred me to action. I boarded a bus to Siquirres about 60 km from Limon. Here transportation ended as every bridge was down, and deep fissures made the road impassable.
So, I started walking.
Vehicles relayed people where they could, and at the destroyed bridges, I’d cross the river, with water up to my chest, my bag above my head. I was the only woman among the hordes of men also trying to get back to their families.
At the last bridge, a ride took me directly to my son’s house, where I encountered all three, and several surfers happily camped out in the front yard cooking on a fire. Damon laughed, saying to his buddies, “What did I tell you? I said my mother would get here even if she has to jump out of a plane.” Actually, my plan B had been to hitch a ride on one of the emergency supplies planes.
Limon surprisingly suffered minor structural damage but lost the road, electricity, and potable water. Tons of supplies came by plane and were distributed free from trucks throughout the neighborhoods, and we never ate so well. It took months to open the road, and the daily aftershocks kept people in a constant state of sleepless anxiety.
The overhead on Kukula house couldn’t be met, so, overworked and unpaid for three years, and I technically suffered a nervous breakdown. At the next board meeting, I angrily resigned, accusing them of not helping, which was true. Kukula had become my life, and now without it, I was a lost soul.
Attempting to regain my sanity, Damon took in his brothers while I moved two blocks away to a friend’s empty beach house. There I obsessively created collage art all day and late into the night. I’d sold my jeep, and my only tether to reality was occasionally cooking for the kids and cleaning their house.
While stacking art on the porch, a passing tourist offered $300 to buy two pieces. I’d been making art since in my 20’s but hadn’t ever tried to sell anything. Suddenly a miracle occurred as light flooded my darkness, and the depression instantly disappeared! The mental fog lifted, and everything became crystal clear; move back to San Jose and become a "professional artist."
Of course, I’d have to figure out how to do this, but without any doubts in my mind, I trusted this miracle was the sign I needed to follow. After all, what did I have to lose at this point?