The Women Who Make the Bread We Break

A Look at the Hands that Feed Us and the Language We Share

Rice, an essential ingredient for any Costa Rican meal, is prepared with love three times a day for UGA students.
“Food is a language of care, the thing we do when traditional language fails us, when we don’t know what to say, when there are no words to say.” — Shauna Niequist

As I ascend the hill to the comedor driven by the promise of breakfast, I can’t help but think that the cloud forest is alive and well. The air is misty and chilly at the bright hour of 7:45AM. The grass glistens with dew and rainfall, twins that seem to arrive together daily. Fortunately, the lobby porch is warm and the dining room even more so, already an orchestra of silverware and morning conversation as I arrive. I join the breakfast line only moments after 8:00AM, when doors are scheduled to open.

The door to the comedor, or dining room, opens when tables and food buffets are ready.

The line to the buffet is blissfully short. Like a token of divine goodwill, it is only moments before I arrive at the pitcher of warm chocolate and array of scrambled eggs, rice, and beans. I add a slice of thick brown bread to my plate, where my mug balances precariously, and head towards my newly minted spot at the tables.

While I navigate around bodies and backpacks, a woman artfully delivers plates through the many patrons of the room. I say “¡hola!” as she walks past me, hoping my enthusiasm masks that I cannot remember whether the expression is buenos días or buena mañana. She laughs somewhat knowingly, and we exchange pleasantries in Spanish. As she leaves with her tower of plates, I realize that while I’ve greeted her to the point of familiarity the past few days, I don’t know her name.

When one meal ends, preparation for the next meal begins, like the slicing of tomatoes.

The irony of my hesitation in saying buenos días strikes me some time later. It’s one of only four Spanish phrases my father says correctly, including the classics hola and adios. Butchered phrases include “fami’a” and “buenos nachos”, despite years of his best efforts and a wife whose name, Linda, translates to beautiful. This limitation, at first entertaining as his children surpassed him in language learning, proved problematic when he became the clergyman of a Hispanic congregation.

My oldest sister Gina, the designated Spanish speaker of the family, winced as my father misread the talk she had translated for him. Amazingly, the congregation didn’t care. The community of immigrants, who spoke a single language with dozens of dialects, accepted his words as just another accent. They welcomed my father with open arms and full plates, as comida became the fourth word in his arsenal.

Amy Upchurch and Belkis Paguay, sisters from Honduras, beside my mother and me at a church Christmas party.

Gina married right after high school and moved to the other side of the country, leaving my father without a translator. As my other sister spoke French and my brother remained silent the way teenage boys can, I was his only option. While I already had a basic understanding of French, I was considered young enough to switch linguistic sides. The only obstacle would be my overwhelming shyness. The solution was obvious to my father, who shared with me the vice of gluttony: after my sister left, he mentioned offhandedly that food was served every Sunday after the service.

Driven by appetite and curiosity, I went with my father to the following weekend’s sermon. I understood almost nothing beyond what a girl named Amy tried to translate during moments of silence. Still, I sang, prayed, and after a couple faltering comments from my father to close, I ate with the community.

People from around the world squeezed my hands in theirs as others scooped food onto my plate. They complimented my singing, remarkable only because of its poor timing and pronunciation. A woman named Marie Bueno handed me a scrap of paper with her number, making me promise to call and practice my vocabulary and grammar. I had begun learning Spanish; in the coming years I would grow comfortable translating over plates of rice and beans every Sunday.

The names of the staff, including the kitchen staff, are made available for visitors.

I want to use getting seconds as a guise for starting a conversation with the woman and getting her name, but she has already vanished. The women working between the dining hall and kitchen remind me of fairies in a fairy tale that way. One moment they’re there, and the next, they’re gone, almost by magic.

What I thought at first was fickleness I realized later was by necessity: the staff works straight through the majority of the day. As explained to me later by chef Mabis Trejos Garro, the cooks usually arrive at 6:00AM, serve breakfast at 7:30AM, and then are cooking lunch by 10:00AM after cleaning and organizing. This cycle repeats for dinner after a short break, but a difficult dinner will bring the staff back early to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Swallowing my shyness, I enter the doorway of the kitchen, where the women are scrubbing and sanitizing dishes with an efficiency that rivals machines. In Spanish that is warming up like the day, I mention my photodocumentary class in passing as I ask if they would be willing to be my pictures’ subjects. To my surprise, they are more than willing: they are eager. They offer to take both natural and posed shots, and laugh at me as I dart around the kitchen trying to stay out of the way. I learn their names as we talk, and they have me scribble mine onto paper so they can find the photos later on Facebook.

From left to right: Sofia Ramirez Pecado, Karen Fuentes Cruz, Marina Samora, Elvia Leiton, and Isabel Bargas Leiton.

Hours later, I return with more questions and a nicer camera. I mention that I might communicate a little more clearly in my native tongue, and Mabis tells me in Spanish that while she wouldn’t mind, she doesn’t speak any English. Realizing no one has minded my mistakes so far, I nod and we continue in her beautiful language. She is the one to answer most of my questions, taking breaks from shaping dough into cookies with impressive precision, but the others chime in as well. When I ask how long Marina has been working in the campus kitchen, everyone immediately answers “siempre” with a laugh. As another employee teases the women on his way through the kitchen, Mabis jokes that she likes everything about the job except for him.

I learn about how the amount of food is calculated for every meal by cooking an average amount per person and then adding more to make sure no one ever goes without. I hear about how the women truly love what they do and the people who pass through, and how every day is something different. In a way that is familiar, I get to know these women in Spanish, surrounded by delicious food.

Elvia smiles while talking to the others in the kitchen.

Like these women embody the warmth of their food, the meals they create reflect their culture’s respect for sustainability. The ingredients that pass through their hands with such care often come from the 30% of UGA campus property serving as farming land or pasture. These institutions, which provide as much education as nutrition through demonstrations and tours, account for between 15 to 25% of what’s used in the kitchen. I realize, as Elvia and Isabel share the burden of tens of pounds of rice on its way to the counter, that our small paradise not only houses but also sustains us.

What isn’t produced on-site is mainly bought from or exchanged with the local community, like from Mabis’s own poultry farm. Resources lacking in the kitchen after these arrangements are purchased within 120 kilometers of campus, still meeting US definitions of “local”. The resulting medley of ingredients line shelves, counters, and fridges, swapping from hand to hand throughout each meal’s preparation. As mealtimes come to an end, leftovers are scraped into a large silver bowl to later feed the pigs, completing a cycle of sustainability that feels natural to the Costa Rican lifestyle.

As a force united by kinship and laughter, the women manage to keep this wheel of sustainability turning behind the scenes of the comedor. As they allow me to witness the work of their quick hands and contented smiles, I think that these women are teaching me even without words. They are the link between San Luis itself and my plate, growing my love for this pueblo every time I fill my stomach. In ways that our conversations in Spanish cannot, they teach me what Costa Rica holds most dear: nature, each other, and the food we share together.

San Luis and Monteverde seem actual flavors in every meal.

I realize at dinner that early starts in the dining hall are more common than not, as we all file in a few minutes early. The food looks incredible, and the room’s colors are bright and warm in contrast to the rainy dusk outside. As I walk through the line, I greet the women by name and ask them a quick question on vocabulary. Soon, I am sitting among my peers talking, laughing, and most importantly, eating.

As I shovel food into my mouth and debate using better manners, I think about how lucky I am. I’m grateful to be in Costa Rica among amazing people refining a language that I love. I’m grateful for the hands that feed us, and the women who pour their time and love into the task. I’m grateful that I am able to talk with them and share their stories and jokes. I’m grateful for language, and that when my abilities fail me, the language of food is universal.

Rice with meat is served fresh enough to be steaming.
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