Standing in the doorway of her ancient house with its corrugated metal roof, Dona Esmeralda watches the celebration. She doesn’t like what the fiesta has become. It was once a celebration of her people’s indomitable spirit. They had never given in to the Spanish conquistadores. Her forefathers and mothers had lurked in the Borucan jungle, like los diablitos, waiting for the opportune moment. They had painted their faces with the geometry of warfare.
Nowadays the fiesta has become a drunken affair, an excuse to roam from house to house, demanding chichas. The sacrificial bull, representative of the Spanish and their bullish ways, is all but forgotten. An old woman now and one of the few who speak the language of her ancestors, she knows that even the masks have changed; the little devils are painted sometimes to represent the anti-Christ, not the bringers of chaos that used to inhabit these Telemancas.
Esmeralda watches in disgust as the men don their costumes in November so they can perform the rituals of Los Diablitos out of season. A tourist bus has arrived, having traversed the Highway of Doom, from San Jose. The gringos have come to Costa Rica to see a fiesta, and a fiesta is what they will see. When, she wonders, will the real diablitos return? She stares down at the stains of purple dye on her hands, on her shirt, and her torn blue jeans. Perhaps the women will have to show the way.
It is spring now. She likes the gringo the first time he appears in the village. There is something affable and generous about the man, standing there in his khakis and his broad-brimmed hat. He’s arrived in a beaten-up Land Rover, covered with dust. He stands at Esmeralda’s door and says hola. That is the full extent of his Spanish; he relies on his driver for an introduction.
“This is Señor Jerry Hyman,” the driver says, in Spanish. “He is the owner of the Puntarenas Eco-Village Resort. He would very much like to make your acquaintance.”
Esmeralda holds out her hand, and the gringo shakes it. All gringos are tall, but this man is even taller than most. He towers over Esmeralda like a mountain. “Nice to meet you,” he says, in English. Esmeralda nods her head and smiles.
Apparently Dona Esmeralda needs no introduction. The driver does not even bother to say her name, and the gringo seems to know who she is. She wonders what he thinks of her, an old lady now, with glasses purchased from a travelling optometrist, her hair tied back severely. Does he think she will be a push-over?
They walk up the road to the Craft Pavilion together, the gringo talking incessantly about the mountains and the river. “Isn’t it bad,” he says through his translator, “that the government is damming the Terrabas? Will it affect the water supply to the village?”
Inside the pavilion, the masks are laid out on white sheets that cover the hand-hewn rough wooden tables. Some of the masks have been painted, others have not. They range in price from fifteen thousand to forty-five thousand colones. Imagine, Esmeralda thinks, the temerity of old Carlos to demand forty-five thousand colones for his work. No one will ever buy at such an exorbitant price.
There are also woven tapestries hanging from the walls, at Esmeralda’s insistence. Why should the men be paid for their work and not the women? Carving masks is painstaking work, but is it not also painstaking to collect the dyes for the tapestry? Is it not painstaking work to sit and weave for days on end? Still, the tapestries are not worth as much as the masks; they sell for ten thousand colones each.
Esmeralda explains about the masks and the tapestries. “The masks are made of balsa that grows here. The painted masks are for the tourists. The unpainted ones will be used in the fiesta and then burned.”
“They are very beautiful,” she hears the gringo say.
“The colours in the tapestries all have meaning,” she continues. “The purple is our royal colour. The dye is milked from snails that live on the coastline, near your resort.”
The driver and the gringo exchange words in English, and then the driver turns to Esmeralda. “He will take them all.”
Esmeralda is taken aback. “All? The masks or the tapestries?”
“Everything,” the driver says.
Esmeralda looks at the gringo. “Does he want a special price?” she asks.
“He wants to be a friend of your people,” the driver replies. “He will pay full price and sell your wares at his boutique.”
A little piqued at not having had the opportunity to barter, Dona Esmeralda responds with a taut “very well.” She turns the masks over, one by one, and begins to calculate the total price. Then she adds the cost of the tapestries. Her heart is pounding as she hands the gringo a piece of paper on which the sum is written. Three hundred and seventy thousand colones. The biggest sale she’s ever seen. Esmeralda feels a little like a devil lurking in the jungle as the conquistadores pass by. She wonders if the man knows how badly he has negotiated for the masks.
The gringo opens his wallet and pays her the full amount.
Young Rodrigo Morales drives the old truck, the radio blaring his beloved rock and roll. Dona Esmeralda rides in the cab with her granddaughter Sanchita. Other women of the village are jostled mercilessly in the box of the truck as they trammel westward along the bumpy roads. It is time to go in search of the color purple.
The road through the mountains is a treacherous one, but Rodrigo goes slow. They meet truckloads of Panamanian workers on the way, migrants looking to help with the pineapple harvest in the north. Occasionally, there is a police car on the side of the road, and Dona Esmeralda grows tense. The police have not proven friendly to the Borucan people. Best to leave them alone.
When they arrive at the coastal highway, Esmeralda rejoices in the pocked asphalt on the road; her old bones will survive the remainder of the journey. Along the highway are many resorts owned by Americans. Each of them is fronted by a stern metal gate, sometimes with signs on them that say “Keep Out.” Dona Esmeralda understands what “Keep Out” means. Men patrol the gates. These are the traditional hunting grounds of Dona Esmeralda’s people, and yet they have been forbidden access to the coastline as each new resort is built.
The gringo from Puntarenas, Señor Jerry Hyman, the one who bought the masks, is their hope now. Dona Esmeralda had seen fairness in the man’s eyes when he came to the village. Some of the other women were skeptical, never having met the man, but Esmeralda assured them that he was not like the other gringos.
She is surprised, though, by the closed metal gate that stands at the entrance to the Eco Village. A guard, who has been sitting in the gatehouse, comes out to meet them. He eyes the brightly dressed women in the truck box derisively, then proceeds to the driver’s side window. “What is your business here?” he asks in Spanish.
“We are here for the snails,” young Rodrigo replies.
“Snails,” says the guard with an abrupt laugh. “There are no snails here.”
“There have always been snails here,” Dona Esmeralda interjects. “This is where our people have come for many generations to milk the snails.”
The guard looks at her, his mouth set. “There is nothing here for you now.”
Before he can walk away, Dona Esmeralda says, “We would like to speak with Señor Hyman.”
The guard’s eyes are full of rage at this bit of name-dropping. “Señor Hyman?” he says curtly. “Do you know Señor Hyman?”
“He visited our village two weeks ago,” Esmeralda says. “He bought our masks.”
“Señor Hyman is a very busy man,” the guard says.
“You should call him nevertheless,” says Esmeralda. “He would be disappointed if he found out we were here and could not see him.”
The guard stares at Esmeralda, appraising her resolve. At last he says, “Very well. I will call.” He goes into the gatehouse and stays there for a long time.
When he returns, he is particularly jocund. “Señor Hyman cannot see you,” he says, smiling broadly at Esmeralda. “He is out of the country, on business.”
“When will he return?” Esmeralda asks.
“Who knows?” the guard replies. “Maybe a week. Maybe a month.”
Several of the women are in the craft pavilion, spinning brown cotton into thread. Because she is the eldest, Dona Esmeralda supervises the making of the dyes. The greens and blues are easy, made from boiling leaves in large vats. Black is messy and has to be saved for late in the process, when bark from the carbonero tree is boiled down. Purple is the saddest colour now. It is made from a small cask of manufactured dye, found in a shop in Buenos Aires.
Some card wool, others sit at the spinning wheel. Dona Esmeralda’s arms are discoloured to the elbow with greens and blacks and purples. There is still joy in the process, however, with the women gathered together as they have always gathered. They work and they laugh and they tell stories about each other and about the men who have been part of their lives. “Did you hear what Carlos did with his ill-gotten gains?” one woman asks. “He went into town and bought some floor polish.”
“He can spend his money as he pleases,” says another woman.
“Yes,” continues the first woman, “but Carlos lives in a shack with a dirt floor!”
The women are still laughing when the rusty Land Rover comes chugging down the dirt road to the village. The vehicle creaks to a stop near the craft pavilion, and the driver and the gringo get out. The two men confer for a moment, and then they approach the women.
“Hola,” says the driver.
“Hola,” says Dona Esmeralda, hardly looking up from her vat of dye.
“Señor Jerry Hyman would like to buy your wares,” the driver says.
“Our wares are not for sale to Señor Jerry Hyman,” Esmeralda responds.
The other women stop working for a moment, look from Esmeralda to the driver to the gringo standing behind him. They have heard about the lucrative sale of the masks a month earlier, and they do not want to miss out on such a sale again. “But Dona Esmeralda—“ one of them begins to say.
“Our wares are not for sale,” Esmeralda repeats firmly.
The driver speaks to the gringo in English, and the gringo speaks back.
“He says to tell you that he is a friend of your people,” the driver announces to the assembled women. “He wants only what is best for you. He has sold all of your masks to the tourists. Now he would like to buy your weaving at the price you ask.”
The women exchange glances. One of them, the second eldest in the group, frowns at Esmeralda, but Esmeralda silences her with a stern look.
“Our product is flawed this year,” Esmeralda continues. “We have had to use store-bought dye.”
“That will make no difference to the tourists,” the driver answers quickly. “They cannot tell the store-bought dye from the rest.”
“Yes, but we can tell,” Esmeralda says, “and that makes our product substandard.”
Again the driver and the gringo confer.
“He will pay five hundred thousand colones for all your tapestry,” the driver says to the women.
Some of the women gasp at the mention of such a grand sum. Dona Esmeralda looks at the driver coolly. “Why did your man turn us away when we came to collect our dye?”
The driver is impatient now. Esmeralda can hear it in his voice, even as he speaks again to the gringo. The gringo takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his forehead. He speaks to the driver in anxious tones, all the while looking at Esmeralda. “Señor Jerry Hyman says that he would be happy to receive Dona Esmeralda at his resort,” the driver says to Esmeralda, “but he is concerned that the tourists get very worried when there are many people that they do not know in the resort.”
“These are our traditional hunting lands,” says Esmeralda.
“There is also a question of security,” continues the driver. “What if one of your people steals the wallet of one of our guests? What then?”
“My people are not thieves,” Esmeralda says plainly. “My people are good people.”
“That is a chance Señor Jerry Hyman cannot take.”
Esmeralda scowls at the driver. “Then we have nothing more to say.”
“Are you sure?” the driver asks. His voice is rising. “Are you sure that you want to put an end to our arrangement?”
The other women stare at Esmeralda for a long time.
“I am sure,” she says quietly.
The Borucan women return to Señor Hyman’s resort the next spring. They set off in young Rodrigo Morales’ truck in the early evening, before the sun has begun to disappear behind the Telemancas. The women sing songs of their past as they bounce along the narrow roads, but they stop singing when they turn on to the coastal highway. Rodrigo even turns off his beloved radio. It is a ghost truck he drives, purring down the highway as the sun disappears and the fingernail of the first quarter moon hangs like an ancient boat over the ocean. Quietly, Dona Esmeralda explains the tides to her granddaughter. “The tides are lowest,” she says, “at the first quarter and last quarter of the moon. The snails are exposed, but there will not be much light by which to see.”
Rodrigo slows down as they near the sign for the Eco Village. The gate is shrouded in darkness, and there is no evidence that a guard is attending it. Perhaps he is in the gatehouse, sleeping.
They proceed past the gate and down the road until they find another approach in which to park, this one gated like the others but with no sign. When Rodrigo kills the engine, the women disembark. “We must be very quiet,” Esmeralda warns them. “One word might betray us.”
“Do you know the way from here?” one of the women asks Esmeralda.
“I think I do,” she says. “It will take us over uneven ground.”
Young Rodrigo stays with the truck to keep lookout. The women, young and old, follow Dona Esmeralda into the jungle. They walk in single-file through rocky terrain. In the dark, low hanging branches claw at their clothing. Tall grass whips at their legs. The mosquitos are bad, but the monkeys and the toucans have gone to sleep. Esmeralda’s guides are the moon, when she can see it, and the ceaseless lapping of sea water on the shore.
Half an hour later, they come to a clearing above the shoreline. Esmeralda can hear voices from the Eco Village off to the north, maybe three hundred metres away. There is the sound of music, as well, Mexican marimbas or something like that. She puts her finger to her lips to quiet the women behind her, and then she gets down on her hands and knees and crawls through the tall grass to the edge of the rocky escarpment. The rest of the women follow in like fashion.
Once they are below the escarpment, they are out of sight of the tourists, and they can once again stand up. They walk in silence to the rocky beach. The women who are in jeans, like Esmeralda, roll up their pant legs, kick off their shoes and wade into the water among the rocks. In the faint light of the first quarter of the moon, they can see the grey shells of the precious snails clinging to the boulders.
Gently, Esmeralda coaxes the shell of the snail from the rock and shows it to her granddaughter. The snail wriggles in her hand. Softly, she casts her breath over the mucous gland of the snail. It secretes a milky liquid into a glass jar that Sanchita holds. In the jar, as if by magic, the liquid turns yellow and then green and then blue and then the royal tyrian purple. Even in the moonlight, Sanchita can see the colours change.
“You can milk the snail twice,” Esmeralda says to her granddaughter, “or even three times. But no more than that. After the third time, the snail is exhausted and it needs to rest. Or it will die.”
Other women clamor over the rocks, finding snails and taking their precious milk. Esmeralda looks up at the moon and smiles. Los diablitos have returned, she thinks. They have taken back their ancient lands. They are with us now.