Costa Rica: Carmen Naranjo, Writer and Politician, Dies

Carmen Naranjo (born Cartago, 1928) passed away last January 4. She was a writer and a woman engaged in politics in the 60s and 70s, something then uncommon in Latin America. She became Culture and Youth Minister of Costa Rica in 1974, and was the first woman appointed as a member of the Costa Rican Academy of the Spanish Language. Already a towering figure in Costa Rican culture, she became the Director of the Museum of Costa Rican Art and Chief Editor at Costa Rica University Press EDUCA.

Among the awards she received were the Order of Alfonso X El Sabio (Spain, 1977) and the Order to Academic Merit Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1996). At least three of Naranjo's novels are regarded as key to Costa Rican Literature: Los Perros no ladraron (“The dogs didn't bark”) (1966), Diario de una Multitud (“Diary of a multitude”) (1974) and Ondina (1983).

Carmen Naranjo

Carmen Naranjo in 2008, photo by Julia Ardón, used with permission

Carmen Naranjo did not only represent the capacity of women to achieve positions of relevance in a traditional society, she was also a pioneer in her views about culture, literature and writing, and media and communications. She was an early proponent of gender equality in Costa Rica, which today has become law. Today Costa Rica has its first female president: Laura Chinchilla.

When asked in a 2008 interview with Ailyn Morera [es] what her contribution to culture was she responded:

He encontrado que lo fundamental es trabajar en términos universales dentro del país para que la cultura aunque sea un milímetro crezca en todo el territorio. Por eso encuentro que es indispensable que la cultura tenga medios modernos de comunicación. Considero la radio fundamental y también la televisión, las fuentes que fluyen del Internet y todas esas cosas que le permiten a la gente comunicarse y tener fácil acceso a la cultura, y al conocimiento universal. Todo lo que fortalezca el conocimiento debe ser implementado por eso es tan importante que las universidades se proyecten para valorar lo que las comunidades tienen y desarrollarlo. No se necesita sacar a la gente de sus sitios sino llegar a ellos y lograr encender la espiral del desarrollo.

I have found that what is fundamental is to work in universal terms in this country, so that culture will grow even a millimeter within the territory. That is why I think that it is essential that culture has modern communication tools. I think radio is fundamental and also television, and the sources that flow from the Internet and the tools that enable people to communicate and have easy access to culture and universal knowledge. Anything that strengthens knowledge must be implemented, that is why it is so important that universities spread out and value what the communities have and help develop it. It is not necessary to press people out of where they are, but instead reach them there and so be able to ignite the wreath of development.

As a writer Carmen Naranjo was a key figure during the change that Costa Rican society suffered in the decades starting in the 50s, after the collapse of the government of Calderón Guardia, and up until the early 80s. In Carmen's time, the country was defined by a conservative society and a rigid class system. The main literary trope was the honorable and sincere man of the countryside. It was a figure of simple wit and common sense, reflecting the idea that the upper class had of their origins and destiny.

Carmen Naranjo wrote from the attitudes of the new urban middle class, challenging the imaginary cherished by a society that was changing forever. The young urban people experienced the pressure of coming to terms with a new and diverse society, with politics that began to be pervaded by new ideas and upwardly moving young and ambitious politicians. Hers was a literature of rupture, protest and renovation.

Alfonso Chase, a fellow writer and friend, is quoted by Michelle Soto in La Nación [es]:

La aparición de Carmen Naranjo como poeta en los años 60 fue una revelación, pero también un rompimiento con la tradición literaria costarricense. Ya el campesino no era tan Magón ni tan Aquileo. Carmen era totalmente urbana y era una hija de la Segunda República. […]Era una mujer para ahora. Hubiera sido muy interesante en estos momentos porque este es el tiempo de los indignados.

The emergence of Carmen Naranjo as a poet in the Sixties was a revelation, but also a rupture with the literary tradition of Costa Rica. The peasant was not anymore so Magón [Manuel González Zeledón] or Aquileo [Aquileo J. Echeverría. Magón and Aquileo are the two authors that created the bucolic literary image of the Costa Rican peasant]. Carmen was totally urban and a daughter of the Second Republic […] She was a woman for today. She would be very appealing now in the time of the outraged. (See Notes below)

Benedicto Víquez writes about Carmen Naranjo in the blog El arte literario y su teoría [es]:

Sus personajes son innominados, se convierten en voces llenas de angustia, luchando por encontrarle sentido a la vida y la muerte, rescatando los instantes de felicidad en su larga lucha por sobrevivir en una sociedad llena de prejuicios, superficialidad, vacuidad y alienante […]

Her characters are unnamed and turned into voices filled with anguish, fighting to make sense of life and death, recovering the moments of joy from a long battle to survive in an alienating society full of prejudices, superficiality and emptiness.

Finally, Víquez writes in El arte literario y su teoría [es] about Naranjo's novel Los perros no ladraron:

Los personajes viven directamente la burocracia de la ciudad, se enfrentan crudamente a ella, en vivo, sufren la impotencia para resolver las más insignificantes diligencias, tales como buscar trabajo, ser atendidos por un empleado ante una solicitud, tan simple como pagar un recibo, sacar una cita, subir en un ascensor, caminar por la ciudad, aspirar a un ascenso, etc.

The characters experience the bureaucracy of the city directly, they face it crudely in the flesh, they suffer the impotency to resolve the most insignificant matters, like finding a job, receive attention from a clerk to a petition, simple issues like paying a bill, make an appointment, take an elevator, walk in the city, aim for a raise, etc.

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