Carmen Lyra

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Carmen Lyra
Lyra's depiction in the 20,000 colones banknote
María Isabel Carvajal Quesada

(1888-01-15)15 January 1888
Died14 May 1949(1949-05-14) (aged 61)
Mexico City, Mexico
NationalityCosta Rican
OccupationWriter, communist, Women's Rights Advocate
Years active1918–1948

Carmen Lyra (January 15, 1888 – May 14, 1949) was the pseudonym of the first prominent female Costa Rican writer, born Maria Isabel Carvajal Quesada. She was a teacher and founder of the country's first Montessori school. She was a co-founder of the Communist Party of Costa Rica, as well as one of the country's first female worker's unions. She was one of the earliest writers to criticize the dominance of the fruit companies. She won many prizes.


Carmen Isabel Carvajal Quesada was born on 15 January 1888 in San José, Costa Rica and attended the Superior School for Girls, graduating in 1904.[1] She began working at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in 1906 as a novice, but decided religious life was not her calling, and instead began working as a teacher and writer. She started sending articles to newspapers[2] such as Diario de Costa Rica, La Hora and La Tribuna;[3] and magazines like Ariel, Athenea and Pandemonium[2] and teaching throughout the country.

In 1918, she published her first novel En una silla de ruedas (In a Wheelchair), which portrays national customs and manners through the eyes of a paralyzed boy who grows up to become an artist, with a strong dose of sentimentalism and intimations of the bohemian life of San Jose.[4] In 1919, during a teacher's protest against the dictatorship of Federico Tinoco Granados, Lyra galvanized the crowd and in their anger, they burned the government news office. She managed to escape the police manhunt disguised as a news seller.[5] In 1920, she published her most well-known work Los Cuentos de Mi Tia Panchita (Tales of My Aunt Panchita), a collection of folk tales.[1]

When the dictatorship crumbled, she was given a scholarship to study abroad, at the Sorbonne, in Apex and also visited schools in Italy and England to evaluate pedagogical methods in use in Europe. She returned in 1921 to manage the Department of Children's Literature at the Normal School of Costa Rica. In 1926, Lyra founded and directed the first Montessori pre-kindergarten, teaching the poorest students of San José.[3] Lyra's home became a gathering place for intellectuals and writers[2] and her politics increasingly moved to the left. In 1931, she and Manuel Mora Valverde founded the Costa Rican Communist Party.[6] She was joined by fellow teachers María Alfaro de Mata, Odilia Castro Hidalgo, Adela Ferreto, Angela García, Luisa González, Stella Peralta, Emilia Prieto, Lilia Ramos, Esther Silva and Hortensia Zelaya, who had been radicalized at the Normal School (teacher's college), to challenge a society built on privilege and the roles of women being confined to home, marriage, and motherhood.[7] That same year, Lyra and Luisa González formed the Unique Union of Women Workers and suggested the creation of a union for Costa Rican Teachers,[2] which would not be created until 1939 by Odilia Castro.[8]

In 1931, she published Bananos y Hombres (Bananas and Men) anticipating the actual [2] 1934 banana workers' strike, organized by the communist party and in which she played a significant part.[9] As her politics and activities became more radical, Lyra was removed from her teaching posts[3] and in 1948, at the conclusion of the Costa Rican Civil War, when José Figueres Ferrer outlawed the communist party[10] she was sent into exile in Mexico. Despite repeated pleas to be allowed to return home due to illness, Lyra was denied and died in Mexico City on 14 May 1949.[11]

In 1962 the Board of Education of Cóbano, named a school in her honor and the Costa Rica Legislative Assembly awarded her the honor of Benemérita de la Cultura Nacional in 1976.[5]

Lyra was inducted into La Galería de las Mujeres de Costa Rica (The Costa Rican Gallery of Women) in 2005.[12] As of 2010 Carmen Lyra is depicted on the twenty thousand colon bill.


  • En una silla de ruedas (1918)
  • Fantasías de Juan Silvestre (1918)
  • Cuentos De Mi Tia Panchita (1920) - paperback edition (2000) Editorial Costa Rica, ISBN 9977-23-135-4
  • Bananos Y Hombres (1931)

Further reading[edit]

  • The Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra: Selected Works, tr. Elizabeth Rosa Horan, University Press of Florida (2000), ISBN 0-8130-1767-X - publisher's details [1]
  • Luisa González and Carlos Luis Sáenz, Carmen Lyra, San José: EUNED (1998) ISBN 9977-64-914-6 – in Spanish


External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jiménez, Diana (2009). Carmen Lyra: A Political Existence. Sara Lawrence College, Yonkers, New York: ProQuest. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-109-18824-0. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e "María Isabel Carvajal Quesada(Carmen Lyra) h3. 1888–1949". Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados (in Spanish). San José, Costa Rica: Asociación Nacional de Empleados Públicos y Privados. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  3. ^ a b c "Carmen Lyra". Editorial Costa Rica (in Spanish). San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Costa Rica. Archived from the original on 23 July 2015. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  4. ^ Quesada Villalobos, María Patricia (2009). "En una silla de ruedas o la doble conformación del héroe". Universidad de Costa Rica (in Spanish). San José, Costa Rica: Universidad de Costa Rica. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  5. ^ a b "María Isabel Carvajal Castro, Carmen Lyra" (in Spanish). San José, Costa Rica: Institute Nacional de las Mujeres. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  6. ^ "Jiménez (2009)", p 8
  7. ^ Lavrín, Asunción; Rodríguez Sáenz, Eugenia (2002). Un siglo de luchas, femeninas en América Latina (in Spanish) (1. ed.). San José, Costa Rica: Ed. de la Univ. de Costa Rica. ISBN 978-9977-67-707-1. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  8. ^ "María Odilia Castro Hidalgo" (in Spanish). San Jose, Costa Rica: Government of Costa Rica. INAMU. 2006. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  9. ^ "Jiménez (2009)", p 25
  10. ^ Oliver, Myrna (9 June 1990). "Jose Figueres, 82; Former Costa Rican President". The L.A. Times. Los Angeles, California. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  11. ^ "Jiménez (2009)", p 9
  12. ^ Arias, Tomás Federico (9 May 2016). "Exilio de una benemérita de la patria". La Nación (in Spanish). San José, Costa Rica. Archived from the original on 15 July 2016. Retrieved 15 July 2016.