Do the Twist ‘n’ Pull

And Other Life Lessons from
the Leitón Dynasty Matriarch


May 15, 2015.

Oh, she’s crazy,” says Lindsey, the Academic Programs Manager.

Jack and I have just received our homestay assignment — a woman named Alicia Mendez who lives by herself. Lindsey informs us that she lives near the pizzeria that her daughter operates. Zelmira Leitón will cook a pizza with a reservation, and frequently, UGA Costa Rica students will call mid-afternoon looking for a change of pace from the rice and beans served daily on the campus in San Luis. I soon plan to be one of these students.


Casa de Leitón.

September 15, 1941.

Tito Mendez y Ofelia Miranda.

On the banks of the San Luis River, Costa Rica celebrates its 120th year of independence and its newest tica is born to Ofelia Miranda and Tito Mendez. Alicia takes her mother’s name and her father’s name, respectively, and begins her life as Alicia Miranda Mendez. Alicia’s home in San Luis is roughly three kilometers away from her future home. Locals had constructed a church nearby where Alicia would seal her bond of matrimony in 1955, fourteen years later.


May 16, 2015.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Catherine and I embark on the uphill climb to Zelmira’s Pizzeria. In order to reach our cheese-laden haven, we must cross two rivers. For each, a precarious bridge lurks in the shrubbery to the left of each river hanging over the rushing water. With packs on our back, we carefully span the lengths of the overpasses holding onto the well-positioned bungee cords tied to trees on opposite ends of the bridges. Clearly, these were placed by the same innovative mind (and the same wet feet that were tired of wading through the waterways).

Zelmira’s Pizzeria?

Eventually, we reach the pizzeria — thankfully with dry feet (a rare experience in the soggy Costa Rican rainforest). As we dine on our greasy, New York-style masterpieces, Zelmira will occasionally dip out of the open-air dining area and shimmy up a concrete path ascending diagonally to a small, simple home. We assume this is her home.


August 1949.

Today is the first day of school for Alicia Mendez. She is eight-years old and now lives with a sister and four brothers. The family dwells in the same home they were all born at the base of the San Luis River.

Alicia and her sister.

At her school, there is one teacher. There are no grade levels, but rather years named in the chronological order in which you complete them. Therefore, today, Alicia begins her first day of her first year. In anticipation of this day, her father Tito cut down a fig tree so Alicia could cross the raging Rio San Luis. Cautiously, she ventures over the striated trunk that extends to the other side of the water. Crossing the river is only the first obstacle on her trek to school. The closest school sits in the valley faraway from their home near the gulf city of Puntarenas. By horseback, she gallops for a good hour as the sun rises over the Tilarán mountains. A year and a half later, she would learn how to read and write Spanish. After her third year in school, the teacher disappeared. The small school shut down, and her education came to a screeching halt.


May 24, 2015.

2:10 pm.

Our taxi arrives to transfer us from UGA’s campus to Alicia’s home — a distance just under a kilometer. We mosey up the concrete path positioned diagonally to her home, and she saunters out onto the linoleum-tiled porch to greet us. Her movements are slow — out of age, not apathy. The porch surrounds two and a half of the house’s four sides. Our bedroom connects to the porch just to the right of the main entrance into the living space of the home.

I slept on the left; Jack on the right, and our snacks in between.

Two beds with hand-sewn blankets and pillows embroidered with frogs and dogs await our luggage. In sneak two kittens — Mizinga and Botas (Boots). This duo has lived with Alicia for four years, but they hold a clear purpose in her life. The cats rid her home of pests, and they’re quiet enough to let her sleep; but their home is the porch, not indoors.

Sometimes…they sneak in.

~cock-a-doodle-doo~

The distinct vociferous crow of a rooster beats on our eardrums (as it would at the break of dawn for the subsequent four mornings). Having unloaded our suitcases onto our comfortably lumpy mattresses, Alicia walks us inside to the living room.

On TV, a ballet performance flickers. A TV antenna sits in her front lawn and receives only four channels. Her primary medium of entertainment, however, is her radio.

In the mornings, traditional operas and ballads fill the air as she prepares breakfast. Or she’ll tune into sermons. Other than the monthly homestays from college students, these are what keep her company. Her husband Miguel passed away nine years ago, and aside from the family that lives down the hill and neighbouring Finca La Bella, she lives alone.


1955.

“You may now kiss the bride.”

Alicia and Miguel renewing their vows.

Alicia Mendez and Miguel Leitón, having known each other for one year, pledge their sacred vow of matrimony. The ceremony takes place in a small Catholic church, and Miguel and Alicia prepare to begin their life in a modest cottage next door to Miguel’s parents. Alicia is fifteen years old. Nine months later, Miguel Angel, Jr. is born.


May 24, 2015.

4:30 pm.

Having seen every inch of the home and surrounding yard, Alicia invites us to the dinner table for coffee and bread. Of course, we oblige. On the wall next to the table is a family portrait collage showing Alicia and Miguel at the top with the faces of their eleven children ordered by age below.

Row 1: Alicia and Miguel Row 2 (left to right): Miguel Angel, Ana Isabel, Geratena, Melvin, Manuel Row 3: Xinia, Lorena, William, Marielos, Zelmira, Geovanni

Along with her eleven children, Alicia calculates the extended branches of her family tree complete with 48 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Considering how conscious Alicia is on what her body intakes, she would not be surprised to shake hands with a great-great-grandchild one day. Alicia’s life has revolved around protecting and providing for her family: her one true love. She could not understand how anyone could live a life without people to share it with, particularly a crew of one’s own offspring. They are her greatest joy.

“Pero una pareja que no quiera bota la cargo, como dicen, bota compromiso y dejalo los niños. Yo no lo vea.”
Zelmira Leitón

1971.

Lil’ Gordita is born. Lil’ Chubby. Lil’ Gordita would one day go on to own and operate a pizzeria. She’d find herself gracing the top of a door facing in her mother’s home.

Alicia with Zelmira

At the age of 30, Alicia gives birth to her second-to-last child, Zelmira. While Miguel worked around the town, Alicia cared for her now 10 children assisted by Miguel, Jr., her oldest at 15 years old. Having moved into their new home just six years prior, the growing family continued to adjust to their ever-changing environment in the complicated ecosystem of Monteverde. The family owned a flock of twenty chickens and roosters. As she aged, Alicia would just use the chickens for eggs. Her children, though, craved meat and protein.


May 26, 2015.

3:30 am.

~cock-a-doodle-doo~

My dreaded enemy had awoken me. Of Alicia’s flock, one very large, very arrogant rooster gave no bothers as to the hour of day. He sounded his call whenever he wanted. This was his farm.

7:30 pm.

~cock-a-doodle-doo~

Chugging my post-dinner sugar water, my foe sounded his alarm. This morning was not enough to satisfy his cravings to caw into the dark sky. He had to do it at night too. I ask Alicia what she uses her chickens and roosters for. The eggs. This has not always been the case, however. Once upon a time, when her children craved meat and protein, she killed these chickens herself. The ole’ twist ‘n’ pull, as she puts it (loosely translated). To illustrate this for my English-speaking eyes, she grabs the corner of the dining room table cloth and twists and twists and twists until yanking her hand.

Pobresita,” she giggles. Poor chickens. But they tasted good!


2005.

Miguel’s health is waning. Alicia, a sprite 64-years old, watches as the ever-persistent Miguel, Sr. climbs up to the roof of their home to lay shingles alongside two of their sons: Miguel, Jr. and Melvin. She snaps a photograph on a camera far past its prime.

Though Alicia, Miguel, and their children have been living on this hill for the last forty years, the third home on this property is under construction. Miguel takes advantage of one of the final moments he is able to use his legs because just months afterwards he would lose mobility below the waist. Recently, Miguel has kept contact with a former homestay student named Thomas. The two developed an inseparable bond during Thomas’ time studying in San Luis. Through the ancient art of letter writing, they frequently updated one another on their daily lives.


May 27, 2015.

7:15 am.

Jack and I finish a hearty breakfast consisting of mostly bread. Not mostly. Entirely, actually. I ate eleven pieces alone. Some had butter. Others had jam. The rest had cheese. But all…were bread. As has become customary, Jack and I did the dishes. The phone rings from Alicia’s room, and she runs to answer it. The home only has one phone. The home has nine lightbulbs. Alicia only pays for these items. Running water is actually free in Costa Rica, and Alicia has an abundance of it.

Though her costs are low, her income rests solely on the colones she receives for housing college students. The Costa Rican government provides her with no pension for her farm because she consumes some of what she produces rather than selling it all. However, she needs to consume this in order to live. A painful, double-edged sword.

She works tirelessly to provide for herself, and even then, this remains insufficient. Her local family will assist her when she falls ill with medication, but living alone takes its toll on her.


2006.

Miguel Leitón, Sr. passes away.

Miguel ground his own coffee beans. Miguel built his own homes. Miguel, Sr. was the patriarch of a dynasty that has now fallen into the lap of Alicia. Alicia is independent, strong, but for the first day in 51 years, Miguel no longer stands by her side. The family grieves. The community grieves. Thomas grieves. Having communicated with Miguel for years now, he received a letter from Alicia notifying him of Miguel’s passing. He arrived in San Luis several days before the funeral. However, the people of San Luis, the people of Costa Rica, the people of Latin America, even, process the concept of death far differently than Western society. Death is inevitable. It is a part of life. We cannot stay on this Earth. We must move on, and this became an occasion to celebrate for the joy Miguel is now experiencing. The pain silenced forever.


May 27, 2015.

5:45 pm.

Jack and I make our final hike across the single-planked bridges and the hill up to Alicia’s home.

On the stove out on the porch attached to the kitchen, Alicia has been cooking up a substantial last supper. On the stove, water boils, preparing to cook up the chicken (although this meat has not been twist ‘n’ pull’d). Along with the chicken, she of course, cooks up a warm pot of rice and beans — frijoles y arroz — a traditional (if not overused) dish in Costa Rica. On the cutting board next to her sink, she carefully slices onions. She laughs and tells us in Spanish that after all these years, she no longer cries while chopping the notorious vegetable.

Jack and I offer to help, but she insists on preparing our final meal solo. Her treat. We watch the sun set over Monteverde — the green mountains. Our final view from this vantage point.

6:30 pm.

Dinner is served.

Alicia has prepared a scrumptious combination of chicken, potatoes, rice, black beans, and various vegetables peppered in (literally, there were red peppers). She performs the customary Sign of The Cross, blessing her meal. Sitting around this dinner table for the final time struck us all with a feeling of introspection and gratitude. For life. For this moment. Following dinner, Alicia picks up her chair and calls Jack into her bedroom. She gestures for him to stand atop the chair and grab a file folder from above her cabinet. They return to the table and she un-hooks the top. Inside is a wealth of memories from the life of a legendary septuagenarian tica.

Photograph after photograph. Album after album. Each protected in thin plastic sheeting. Saved from years of the moisture in the Costa Rican air. None of the images bring her sadness — all joy. She reminisces. She is thankful for the times but accepts that they have transformed from experience to memories.

The image of Alicia’s daughter, Tina, at her Christening, led me to ask her about her faith. Alicia is your basic, Latin American, Roman Catholic. Her culture centers upon her beliefs. She tells us that Jesus formed one church, and she follows in His footsteps. Western Christianity and Protestantism focuses on God as the Son, Jesus Christ. In Costa Rica, she emphasizes that the Holy Spirit lives here. Vividly. Behind her dining table is a corner display.

The love of God must be felt. This feeling cannot be taught. One cannot learn it. One must immerse him or herself in it and practice it. Always. She tells us that the words she speaks are not lies. Everyone in this world is equal. We all have problems. However, Jesus tells us to love everyone. No matter what. This is the eternal truth.

This woman lived the fullest of lives and continues to treasure each day as if it were her last. This glance into the past opened Alicia’s bank of knowledge. She hops up and moves to her bedroom. She returns with a composition book. Some pages are written on — lots of writing, others with few words. She opens to a blank page and asks for my pen. Alicia signs her name: “Doña Alicia Miranda Mendez”. She hands the pen to Jack who does the same. He writes that he is nineteen years old from UGA, studies business, and speaks Spanish. He returns my pen to me. I write that I, too, am nineteen years old from UGA, study communications, and “no habla español.” She chuckles. She explains to us that this is a journal of notes from her recent years. As her memory fades, she keeps items such as photographs and the written word to remind her of magical moments in her life.

Everyone needs to be loved, she tells us. She’s glad that we are here asking these questions. We never know what will happen in life. We could be gone tomorrow. Fostering friendship is key. It’s beautiful, she says. Our hands are different. We speak differently, we look differently, we walk differently, we eat differently. No one is the same. However, we are equal. All of us. She speaks with such passion and wisdom. I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Living alone has allowed Alicia to sit and ponder life and its meaning. Sharing in this moment with her is iconic to my life.


May 28, 2015.

6:00 am.

I crawled out of my bed in Alicia’s home for the last time. As usual, she’s preparing breakfast while Jack and I take our showers. We sit at the dining table. Alicia performs the Sign of The Cross. Everything is as its been for the last three mornings, this being our fourth and final one with her. Following our meal, I walk out onto the porch. Up on the right, I notice something hanging.

The conversation from the evening prior lingers in my brain. However, Alicia’s words shout in my heart. The realization that my stay here swept over my body. I had not tapped into the wisdom of Alicia until my final night here, and her stories were just the tip of the iceberg. I turn back to the living room and in the lock sits a keychain.

Go Dawgs. Homestays are Alicia’s life nowadays. Her next one is on June 16–18; it’s marked on her calendar. Alicia tells us that she will forever live thankfully for the University of Georgia. The school has helped protect the people and the community of San Luis de Monteverde. They provide work to the unemployed. They assist with the school across the street from the local pulperia just down the road from campus. The University of Georgia brings volume to a land filled to the brim with life, just waiting to spill over.

Alicia has welcomed college students into her home for over forty years. A young man from the University of California-Los Angeles was her first. Thomas was Miguel, Sr.’s favorite. Jack Bentley and I are her most recent. Soon, other students will take our place. But for now, we fill the largest space in her memory vault. A vault that is forever unlocked. As I drag my suitcase down the concrete steps of her front lawn, she tells me I’m always welcome in her home. There will always be a meal on that table when I need it.


September 15, 1941.

On the banks of the San Luis River, Costa Rica celebrates its 120th year of independence and its newest tica is born to Ofelia Miranda and Tito Mendez. Alicia takes her mother’s name and her father’s name, respectively, and begins her life as Alicia Miranda Mendez.

Today, Alicia begins a life full of wonder. That wonder never ceases. However, one day it will be accompanied with wisdom. Wisdom that will overwhelm any young mind that attempts to tap in to it. Alicia Miranda Mendez will house children from across the world. She will live forever as a mother.