The old woman and the sea
Cano Ciego Island, Costa Rica
By Juan Carlos Ulate
One of the most gratifying moments that photojournalism offers is to meet people who will make an impression on us, regardless of their social or intellectual status, through an example of courage and boldness.
People like Cecilia Villegas, a 77-year old woman who lives on the island of Cano Viejo, some 45 minutes by boat from the Costa Rican city of Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Cecilia, known to all as “Grandma Chila”, goes out every morning with her weak knees and slanted walk looking for mollusks in the mangrove swamp where she lives.
She then ventures out to sea in her small boat and goes fishing. If she is successful she goes to the market in the port of Puntarenas to sell her catch. Then she wanders the streets for 12 hours or until the tide rises when she can go back home to her Cano Viejo ranch and her animals.
“I make a living out of this. The government doesn’t help me and I never married, so I have to see how to survive.”
Grandma Chila invited me to get to know her a bit and to record her daily life in photographs. I was really struck by her unwavering courage and how she faces all her physical and economical difficulties, without complaints. As she said herself: “ I’ve worked the land and the sea all my life, and as long as I’m strong enough, I will continue to do so.”
The first day I went with her, she didn’t catch anything. Nothing! I thought I’d brought her bad luck but she never complained. Instead she lit the first of many cigarettes to come and started to sing a bolero from the sixties. She was tremendous!
Later she said “Look, this is not the first and it certainly won’t be the last time that I don’t catch anything, but God has always provided for me. On many occasions I’ve been to Puntarenas empty-handed but I’ve always come home with a little something. People give me a little bit of rice, or a thousand colonos (roughly 2 U.S. Dollars). God always puts people in my way who appreciate me and are willing to help.”
Later, when we arrived in Puntarenas, she said “I’m not embarrassed in telling you that I’ve been smoking for 70 years. 29 years ago I stopped drinking alcohol, doctors took part of my colon in an operation, I got a hernia in my colon which doesn’t let me walk upright. I have a broken meniscus in my right knee. I suffer from rheumatism and here I am, not quite sure why I’m still alive.”
While she was saying this, it was obvious to me that she was in great pain but her attitude to facing her daily hardship and physical pain, was exemplary and encouraging.
The next time I went fishing with her, she caught two fish. I asked myself again if it’s actually me who is bringing her bad luck, or is it just a constant uphill struggle for her? Despite the small success of the morning, she returned to singing with her characteristic optimism.
Grandma Chile has taught me that despite the dark clouds that sometimes hover over us, we should always look to the future with courage and never lose hope.