|Margarita Marchena is known for giving advice and speaking to customers in a motherly manner.|
|Margarita Marchena's brown, creased face displays no fear when a local drunkard enters the restaurant and begins harassing her all-female staff. In fact, she pours him a glass of coffee, then calmly walks outside to call the police.
This restaurant, the CoopeTortilla, is situated in Santa Cruz, a cattle town in northwest Costa Rica. The Tortillera, as the locals call it, serves regional food prepared as it has been for hundreds of years.
The "borracho" continues to swagger and stumble throughout the kitchen, hurling threats and groping the women. They try to continue cooking, but his unwanted presence slowly forces them into a corner, where they shield themselves behind the wood-burning stove and one another.
But Margarita -- the oldest, smallest, and frailest-looking person in the room-continues washing dishes and doing her duties, ignoring the nuisance. The half-dozen other women comment on her bravery.
Margarita's Pura Vida
At 75, Margarita Marchena stands about four and a half feet tall, and she could not weigh more than 85 pounds. She founded this women's cooperative restaurant in 1975 to help indigent mothers care for their hungry children. "God gave me good health and strength to work and to be able to help others," she says.
In this town inundated with American and Chinese influences, everyone agrees the Tortillera best reveals this culture through serving up authentic cuisine. Guests may choose their fare not by menus, but by pointing toward bubbling pots as they stroll through the kitchen. Sunbeams burst through holes in the corrugated tin walls, lighting up the waitresses' pink dresses and glowing faces.
"She is keeping the Santa Cruz tradition alive," says Sandra Maria Guevara Cabalcet, 42, who works at a nearby arts and crafts women's co-op.
Overcoming Adversity, Helping Others
Personal hardships fueled Margarita's eagerness to help children and their mothers. Margarita grew up poor and lost her mother as a child. "It's hard to be left alone without a mother when you are young, to have no one to help you or look after you," she says.
Despite her age, Margarita works six days a week at the Tortillera. She says her role there now is to supervise, and she does, but she never stops working. Margarita breaks only occasionally, when things slow, for a glass of tamarindo juice or rice milk, but she soon returns to the constant, and at times overwhelming, heat of the kitchen. Smoke billows into the women's faces as they stir the entrees and feed the fire. At the dishwashing sink, water pours continuously from the spigots as Margarita and the women try to keep pace with heaps of dirty dishes.
Nurture the Children
Unable to bear children, Margarita adopted eight, each from different families. She feels no bitterness or resentment about her barren womb. She says, "It wasn't in God's plan for my life."
Her 29-year-old son Jose lit up with joy while speaking about Margarita. "She adopted me when I was only 2 months old," he says, "and although she is not my biological mother, she is my mom. She is a mother to many here in Santa Cruz."
Margarita agrees. "God did not give me children, but instead a community to care for."
Loved by Santa Cruz
Most everyone in this small town knows one another, but unquestionably everyone knows Margarita. A local Peace Corps worker from the United States, Michaeline Schuman, says, "She is a legend here and is famous in all of Costa Rica."
Even while relaxing on her front porch, Margarita greets passersby who stop to chat. Three metal-framed rocking chairs strung with bright plastic adorn her porch. After giving her guests the two big ones, Margarita sits down in her tiny green and white rocker -- sized for a child.
Margarita rests comfortably in her little chair, barefoot with thin legs outstretched, and says she supposes she is a legend because "I am strong and still working at this age. The community, I think, appreciates me."
Back to the Borracho
Two police officers finally arrive to rid the restaurant of the dirty, alcohol-reeking nuisance. Margarita greets them with a smile, gives them each a glass of fruit juice, and explains the problem. The officers finally banish the bottle-toting borracho from the premises after two tries. Margarita and the women resume cooking, cleaning and chatting, and the tranquil, happy vibe of Tortillera returns.
"Thanks be to God that I have been given a long life, and have been able to serve," Margarita says.