Costa Rica experienced her first heartbreak of the new year with the sad passing of Carmen Naranjo, one of the country’s most important literary figures and a highly respected citizen whose work to advance the interest and welfare of the citizenry will never be forgotten. Ms. Naranjo passed away from complications related to cancer. A national vigil has been scheduled for Wednesday evening at the Teatro Nacional.
Carmen Naranjo was born to a Costa Rican mother with a Sephardic Jewish bloodline. Her father was a gentleman from Spain who was instrumental in fostering his daughter’s deep interest in literature. Carmen’s gift at her quinceañera was a copy of El Siglo de Oro Español. That gift essentially sealed young Carmen’s destiny as a woman of literature.
Ms. Naranjo studied at Universidad de Costa Rica, and later performed postgraduate work in Mexico and Iowa. She represented her country in Israel as ambassador, before the United Nations, and the Organization of American States as well. She was a champion of universal health care and the rights of the common citizen. She truly loved her native land.
The Cartago native was a laureate of some of the highest honors in Costa Rican literature, including the prestigious Premio Nacional de Cultura Magón. Poetry was Ms. Naranjo’s forte, although she is also well known for her novels, essays and short stories. As with many of her contemporary Latin American writers, Ms. Naranjo chose writing as a vehicle for social awareness and change. While her fellow female authors followed the soft and feminine approach to writing which was the legacy of Gabriela Mistral, Ms. Naranjo pulled no punches when it came to writing. She used caustic satire to reprobate the sins and ineptitude of bureaucrats in government, and she was prone to peppering her writing with profanity.
Of her works translated to English, the short story “And We Sold The Rain”, written in the mid 1980s, is a sobering reminder of what can happen when high-level corruption and clumsiness go unchallenged. It is set in a future Costa Rican dystopia where the mishandling of the national economy has lead to dismal public conditions. Ever the visionary, Ms. Naranjo wrote about how slapdash taxation is often the refuge of the desperate, something that is very apropos of the times we live in.
“Doesn’t anyone in this whole goddamned country have an idea that could get us out of this?” asked the President, who shortly before the elections, surrounded by a toothily smiling, impeccably tailored meritocracy, had boasted that by virtue of his university-trained mind (Ph.D. in developmental economics) he was the best candidate. Someone proposed to him that he pray to La Negrita; he did and nothing happened. Someone else suggested that he reinstate the Virgin of Ujarrás. But after so many years of neglect, the pretty little virgin had gone deaf and ignored the pleas for help, at the top of their lungs, to light the way to a better future and a happier tomorrow.
The hunger and poverty could no longer be concealed: the homeless, pockets empty, were squatting in the Parque Central, the Parque Nacional, and the Plaza de la Cultura. They were camping along Central and Second Avenues in a shantytown springing up on the plains outside the city. Gangs were threatening to invade the National Theater, the Banco Central, and all nationalized banking headquarters. The Public Welfare Agency was rationing rice and beans as if they were medicine. In the Mercado Central, robberies increased to one per second, and homes were burgled at the rate of one per half hour. Business and government were sinking in sleaze; drug lords operated uncontrolled, and gambling was institutionalized in order to launder dollars and attract tourists. Strangely enough, the prices of a few items went down: whiskey, caviar and other articles of conspicuous consumption. The sea of poverty that was engulfing cities and villages contrasted with the growing numbers of Mercedes Benz, BMW and a whole alphabet of brand new cars.
A minister announced to the press that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The airlines were no longer issuing tickets because so much money was owed to them, and travel became impossible; even official junkets were eliminated. There was untold suffering of civil servants suddenly unable to travel even once a month to the great cities of the world! A special budget might be the solution, but tax revenues were nowhere to be found, unless a compliant public were to go along with the president’s idea of levying a tax on air – a minimal tax, to be sure, but, after all, the air was part of the national patrimony. Ten colones per breath would be a small price to pay.