About thirty or forty years ago, all Costa Rican children read the same books in public elementary schools. They learned to read with Paco y Lola, and progressed to Costa Rican authors like Carlos Luis Fallas. And for storytime, they turned to the classic tales of Tía Panchita, the aunt of Carmen Lyra, one of Costa Rica’s most prolific authors.
Carmen Lyra describes her aunt as a short, small woman with two long braids and eyes that seemed to smile. When Carmen Lyra was small, her relatives told her educational stories with ponderous morals about good behavior and hard work. But her Tía Panchita told her stories about elves, witches, ghosts and other marvels. Carmen Lyra says that these were the stories that most influenced her literary career.
Born María Isabel Carvajal in 1888, Carmen Lyra is an important figure in Costa Rican literary circles. She wrote political essays, scholarly articles, a novel, and several other academic works, but she is best known for Cuentos de Mi Tía Panchita, the redacted stories that she once heard from her aunt.
Although Carmen Lyra first heard these fantastic stories as a child, many of them had been a part of Costa Rican oral history long before Tía Panchita’s time. Some say that the stories came from Europe and were disseminated in Costa Rica by the Spaniards who settled here. Carmen Lyra tells the stories in the popular slang of her time, providing an interesting linguistic study.
Some of Tía Panchita’s most popular stories feature the wily Tío Conejo, a rabbit whose constant victim is the foolish Tío Coyote. Other stories feature the well-known simpleton who somehow manages to marry a princess, terrible mothers-in-law and magical creatures. All are colorful and entertaining, and all provide a glimpse into the common lives of the Costa Ricans who told these stories to one another.
The first edition was published in 1920, and the book continues in publication today. For interested readers, Cuentos de Mi Tía Panchita is available on Amazon.