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  • Writer's picturePura Vida Connections

My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa; The Terrraba Indigenous

During a four-month farm-sitting job on the Chirripo mountain, I would go to the San Isidro weekly farmer’s market to buy organic food and catch up with friends. One such day at the feria, I spotted a barefoot Indigenous man selling gourd handcrafts. Wanting to support his efforts, I bought several. The gourds had beautifully engraved wildlife, yet some of them had natural deterioration and discoloration, which spoiled the beauty of the pieces, and I wondered if painting the engravings would help. Later I sanded the figures, leaving the background natural, and painted them with acrylic colors. The results were quite astounding and really upscaled the work. I thought if the Indigenous learned this, they could fix the natural deterioration and charge higher prices.

The following week, I again encountered the Indigenous fellow whose name was Porfirio and asked if I could visit the artisan in the village. A couple weeks went by until I ran into him again. He said Ruth Carrera said she'd be happy to meet me at her home in Terraba. Terraba is an Indigenous territory a couple hours south of San Isidro, off the Pan American Highway.

After getting the ok to visit, Ruth I drove into the town, which consisted of a gigantic soccer field, a school, a church, and one small grocery store. Most inhabitants lived in prefab government-issued housing, but Ruth still lived in a thatched roof home. She greeted me with a huge smile, warm hug, and coffee heated over a fire in her open kitchen. Later, Ruth showed me the process of cleaning the gourds and carving her beautiful creations. I showed her the painted gourds and asked if she'd be interested in learning how to do this.

One thing led to another, and I created a workshop where other women from the village also learned the painting technique. Manuel Villanueva is a member of the Council of elders and part of Ruth’s family; actually, most of Terraba was in some way related to Ruth. He agreed to organize a meeting with the Council of Elders to get permission to hold the workshops at the old high school; it was unused as a new school had been built.

Both Ruth and Manuel promised to find students, and the day of the workshops, I returned to find twenty women sitting in the open rancho at the school. There was still considerable commission money left from Carol's land sale, so I funded the workshop and materials.

Susana Tschudy was known as Susana Norte because there were a lot of Susana's in the area where she lived. She was from a small town in Michigan where she was the proprietor of a rustic furniture shop. She had an off-grid farm across the river from the old farmhouse I used to live in. To say her place was rustic was an understatement. She had no electricity, cooked on a fire, and used a compost toilet. I loved staying with her in between pet sitting jobs; I could just tune out from the world and refuel before heading out again. We became like sisters and often discussed our mutual interest in Indigenous. So, I invited her to accompany me on my weekly trips to Terraba.

The workshop ran for six months, and generally, we’d returned to San Isidro the same day. However, we’d occasionally, we'd spend several days, so I bought a spacious six-person tent and camped out in Ruth's yard. During our time in Terraba, we learned a great deal about the culture and customs, especially from Manuel. He was like the town's historian.

The Térraba are warriors who trace their roots back to the pre-Colombian Chiriquí civilization that dominated Costa Rica. In these times, they continue to fight for their rights, which the government has largely ignored. The Diquís Hydroelectric Project, trouble in the education system, and recently the recovery of lands occupied by the non-indigenous represent the ongoing struggles of the Térraba for rights guaranteed by law. The latter is an arduous undertaking because almost 80% of their land has been occupied by non-Indigenous whose cattle industry resulted in the destruction of large expanses of forest. Another challenge is the intermarriages and subsequent racial mixes, which blur the lines between those considered indigenous. Recently in 2021, there's been violence between Ticos and Indigenous in the Buenas Aires area over land rights, and several people have been injured or died.

I started selling their gourd handcraft in ex-pat communities where I was pet sitting and at local farmer’s markets. I had a regular stand at the San Isidro market for a while. Ruth would take a bus from Terraba and accompany me learning how to market the handicrafts, which usually sold quite well. At the weekly workshop, I'd distribute the money to the artisans. However, hard feelings occasionally arose when someone’s handcrafts didn’t sell or when another sold more. As a result, I stopped marketing their art. Later I switched to creating collaborative art with both Ruth and her daughter. I would purchase the unpainted pieces then embellish them with color and beading. These were and still are very popular, and I sell them on Facebook. The funds provided funds to pay for the trip expenses and supplies to Terraba.

The workshop eventually came to a close, but both Susana and I continued to visit with Ruth's extended families. Over the next eight years, I'd be in and out of Costa Rica and would visit Terraba whenever I could. Susana continued visiting regularly, usually coordinating with her border runs to renew her visa every three months. She taught several Indigenous how to build rustic furniture and then made compost toilets for two families, paying for the materials herself.

Over the years, the lives of the five families we were involved with changed or grew. Marriages ended, and others began, babies were born, and some people died. Frequently the men had to find work in other parts of the country. Students left to attend University, commonly continuing to live away from Terraba after graduating.

Julia and her daughter, Karen, had been one of my students in my workshops. Despite Julia’s challenges with advancing dementia, she really enjoyed attending, and I’d give her simple art tasks. Her condition ultimately progressed to later stages, and she eventually became bedridden for months before she died.

In the modern world, the care of people with dementia is undoubtedly full of challenges. Still, nothing compares to the challenges of caring for someone with dementia in abject poverty. The love and care Julia received from her daughter and family was a testament to the resilience of these Indigenous people.

One day Ruth's house burned to the ground, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back. She stayed with a daughter until the government finally provided the funds to build a simple prefab. Many people in the village helped construct it. She added an open kitchen extension and continued cooking on a “fugon de Lena," a traditional raised clay fire stove.

Pet sitting gave me pet therapy without having to own a pet. I stayed in picturesque places and beautiful houses and got to know parts of the country I'd never been to. However, I was having trouble with my vision, and it was getting worse.

For several years I’d been struggling with gradual loss of vision due to cataracts and glaucoma. The glaucoma medications weren't working, and the Cataracts had progressed to where I couldn't distinguish people's faces if they were standing in front of a light. Driving was becoming increasingly risky, and I stopped driving at night.

The national healthcare didn't consider this an emergency. Getting an appointment usually meant waiting years; I'd be blind before then. Nothing could terrify an artist more than imagining going blind, and I was getting scared.

Both operations I needed were beyond my current financial capabilities, so the only option was to go back to the US to get Medicare. This time I certainly did not want to leave, but I had no choice in these circumstances. My advantage was knowing how to maneuver the medical system in the states, especially in Sarasota, where senior citizens attended clinics without medical insurance. They'd provide all the examinations and testing I needed while I waited for my Medicare approval.

Because Medicare had only specific times you could enroll, I knew it could take months. So, I got rid of the few belongings I had and sold the jeep. It broke my heart to sell my Suzuki GEO, seeing as I'd replaced anything that even made a sound, and it was running like a new car. An organization working with young girls in Parrita bought it. They had three vehicles, and several years later, the only one that continued working without problems was my GEO.

However, what I thought would take only months out of Costa Rica took longer.


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