Margarita Marchena began working in the kitchen at the age of seven, surrounded by the hot plains and isolated pastures of Santa Cruz in the 1930s. She followed in the footsteps of her mother, Mercedes, who worked making food for the farm laborers around town. Margarita only went to school for one month in her entire life, but she said that she knew enough to understand how the world worked. Her experience and her wounds guided her.
At 13, when her mother died, Margarita already had six years of work experience and, according to her, she could finish raising herself. On her own, she learned to read, write, add, subtract and run businesses. She was the founder of one of the most iconic restaurants in her canton: Coopetortillas.
At that age, she also began her story as the woman who raised eight children that weren’t hers and provided jobs for poor, single mothers. She did all of this on her own, but she was driven by her mother’s teachings and the memory of that younger Margarita who ran through the plowed fields of Santa Cruz with her little feet.
Behind her skinny frame, her soft voice and her small stature, no more than 5 feet tall, there was a fierce and stern woman who didn’t allow carelessness and who kept everyone around her in line. Her first student was herself.
Resilience out of Need
Margarita was brave, not because she decided to be, but because she had to be. She was born in Chontales, a cattle town in southern Nicaragua, to a Guanacastecan mother and a Nicaraguan father. Three years later, she migrated to Guanacaste with her mother and her two brothers. She adopted Marchena, her mother’s last name, as a tribute to the influence of the women in her life.
After her mother’s death, she worked on farm after farm in Santa Cruz as a cook or a cleaner.
Years later, she migrated to the banana growing area in the south of the country, where she learned new cooking techniques and met her first husband. “I lived with the man for three years, but he was useless. I thought, ‘If it doesn’t work, don’t let it get in the way’”, she said in 2006.
She only spoke when necessary, but when she did, she was convincing. She valued being alone; she saw it as a strength. That added to her mysteriousness and the respect that people felt for her.
She didn’t talk much, but oh, she did get angry! Not even God,” Maria Obando, one of the women who has worked with Margarita since she was five, recalled with nostalgic laughter.
Back to Where She Started
In the mid-60s, she returned to the town she loved, Santa Cruz, and came up with an idea for a restaurant with traditional food cooked over a wood fire, where she would employ single mothers in poverty. She didn’t have a cent in her pocket, but she knew she had to find a way to do it.
Along with two other women, including Maria Obando’s mother, she opened a restaurant in 1973 called “Las Tortilleras”, which later became Coopetortillas. They started off in a small, broken-down shack in downtown Santa Cruz.
Margarita’s food attracted nostalgic people who couldn’t get that flavor of pure Guanacaste food cooked over a wood fire elsewhere: corn rice, tripe soup and all the flavors that make people from Guanacaste’s plains miss their mother’s home.
Her passion for her cooking also came from the respect she had for her ancestors. Margarita paid attention to the use of each spice, each vegetable and flavor that went into her dishes. That was her trench.
In 2004, she won the National Prize for Traditional Popular Culture for revolutionizing traditional food from Santa Cruz and Guanacaste and contributing to community organization.
An Oak to the End
The business was particular. They divided the profits among everyone and encouraged other women to come learn, recalled Maria Obando. She and other tortilla makers, like Maria Elena Jimenez, came since they were just little kids and learned to cook with Margarita before they learned to read. “She wanted women to defend themselves with something, not to be left without working,” she recalled.
Margarita also raised about eight children in Santa Cruz, many orphaned or with absent parents, as well as her nieces and nephews. She educated them as best she could. Years later, she said that only one visited her but that didn’t bother her. She understood it. “What I think is that at least I did my duty. I helped those who needed me,” she recounted in 2006.
Margarita’s efforts made Coopetortillas into a mandatory stop in Santa Cruz.
Months before her death, in January of 2018, Margarita still went regularly to the business. The smoke from the wood had affected her body, but she wanted to make sure that the tradition and quality remained intact.
With the profits from her restaurant, several women managed to send their children to university. That was the purpose.
Ours is the work of poor mothers. Young ones need to be helped. They remain and you die,” she said.
Four years later, Maria Obando and Maria Elena Jimenez keep the legacy left by those women that Margarita recruited afloat. Several have died, others have retired. Both of them are already over 60 years old, but they fight to preserve the tradition. Margarita would be proud that they continue to fight like she taught them.
This profile of Margarita Marchena was put together based on stories from Maria Elena Jimenez and Maria Obando, current administrators of Coopetortillas, who were Margarita’s pupils since they were born. The book Veinte grandes personajes de Guanacaste (Twenty Geat Figures from Guanacaste), by Camilo Rodriguez Chaverri, and the Catalogs of Guanacaste Culture from he Ministry of Culture were also used as references.