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Starting from Scratch

Female-owned businesses in Santa Elena utilize crafts and cooking to move forward.

Mary Clay Kline
Sam MacDonald

A doorbell rings, contributing to the buzz of radio music and conversation. Breakfast scents of fried plantains and gallo pinto, rice and beans, drift in from the attached restaurant. Cloth banners appliqued with the resplendent quetzal, a somewhat legendary Costa Rican bird, line the walls, and handmade wooden spoons and jewelry fill store shelves. This is CASEM, the female-owned Cooperative of Artisans Santa Elena Monteverde.

 

Until the late twentieth century, many women in Monteverde felt oppressed. Most of them grew up learning practical crafts, such as wood carving or weaving. They weren’t allowed to market these trades, however, and were often confined to cooking, cleaning and taking care of children, while their husbands, fathers and sons made money.

 

In 1982, CASEM formed as an empowerment movement when several female artisans decided to monetize the handiwork they had hidden for decades.

Nery Gomez Mendoza was one of CASEM’s founding members and is the only one still involved with the cooperative. Mendoza is a painter and quilter, among other trades, and she works at the front desk, greeting customers and explaining the history of the store. Luis Jimenez Monge, a frequent shopper at CASEM, translated for Mendoza.

 

“[Mendoza] saw this explosion of thoughts coming from ladies and women, not as a rebellious force, but as a self-esteem type of thing that will make them shine in a different way together because ladies didn’t know how to write. They didn’t know other languages,” Monge said. “They didn’t know much. So to just work together and to do these things and to try to sell to make extra money was just such a release for them.”

Left: Each of CASEM’s products is labeled with the maker’s name. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
Center: Mendoza joined CASEM four months after its founding and has been involved for more than 35 years. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
Right: Proceeds from products sold at CASEM go to the women who created them and toward workshops empowering women.Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald

Women in Monteverde learned craft-making skills while growing up, but they never found a place for those skills until CASEM.

 

“All of a sudden, she realized she had all of these skills that she never used, and she then started making things,” Monge said of Mendoza.
 

Mendoza said that over time, CASEM has transformed the way that women work together and for themselves in the community. She sees it in her own daughter, whose husband makes breakfast for her each morning. This would never have happened when Mendoza was young.

According to Monteverde Travel Guide, artisans receive 65 percent of the profits from their items’ sales, while 35 percent of the profits fund CASEM’s facility maintenance and educational programming.

 

CASEM caters mostly to tourists shopping for souvenirs. Shoppers can flip through a giant binder to find information about each of CASEM’s artisans, which Mendoza hopes leaves a lasting impression.

Ten years after CASEM began, Stella’s Bakery, another female-owned business in Monteverde, opened its doors. Stella’s is a coffee shop that serves breakfast, lunch and noteworthy passion fruit cheesecake. In addition to taking part in the bakery’s edible offerings, people visit to see monkeys, colorful birds and other creatures that snack on bananas on the back patio.

Stella Wallace Makency started the bakery after going through a divorce. Makency suddenly found herself with two daughters and a farm. She didn’t know what to do, so she baked. Eventually, her craft developed into a beloved institution.

 

After years of running Stella’s herself, Makency sold the bakery in 2004 to her son and her then-daughter-in-law, Glenda Méndez.

 

“She couldn’t cook, she was tired and all she wanted was [to] paint,” Méndez said.

 

After Méndez’s own divorce, she bought her husband’s shares and now runs the bakery herself. Méndez’s mission has been to carry on Makency’s legacy because of the role model she was.

 

“I wanted to keep going with what she was dreaming to have, so I kept all of her recipes, and that’s why I still have her paintings over here, and I tried to focus our menu in the line she wanted,” Méndez said.

 

Makency’s vibrant paintings also continue to hang inside Stella’s Bakery, greeting customers each morning. They are a constant reminder of the bakery’s roots.

 

Female-operated spaces such as Stella’s and CASEM have created room for women entrepreneurs in Monteverde to share their crafts, and they hope to continue to equip women to spearhead their own endeavors.

Top: Monge lives near Santa Elena and frequents CASEM. There he bought his hat, which is made of recycled material from an umbrella. Bottom: Items available at CASEM range from paintings to hand-carved figurines. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald

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