In the small town of La Palma, Costa Rica, the Leon-Stellers welcomed me as a member of the family. Rural Costa-Rican life is slow and simple. Family is the core of life, and people are most content when surrounded by loved ones. While the culture is much different from my own, I found many more commonalities than differences. I took photos in and out of context; sometimes pulling the subject out of their normal activities and documenting them alone, and other times simply observing their life without interference.
Gravin, who always has a wide smile on his face, is a bus driver who leaves his family for long periods of time to take international students around the country.
Valentina, 6, goes to her kindergarten class occasionally but enjoys spending her time at home dressing up or inventing games to play with her older sister.
Much like her mother, Valentina is fascinated with beauty and accessorizing.
Surema, 17, diverges from the cultural expectations for women. She rarely spends much time in the mirror; she is smart, humble, hard-working, and determined to see more of the world before returning to her hometown to take care of her family. At first, I felt intimidated by her strength, but as she warmed up to me we began to create an unbreakable bond – reflected by the openness she expressed while allowing me to take this photograph.
Yessessina, the oldest of her siblings, has the task of caring for her sick mother. She wakes up at 4:45 am each day to prepare breakfast for her husband who leaves soon after. She spends the majority of her day cooking, cleaning, listening to her youngest daughter ramble and spending time with her severely diabetic mother. She is still troubled by the fatal shooting of her father and is an overly-cautious mom because of it. She attributes Valentina’s crying to her own grieving of her father while pregnant.
Winfred poses in front of his most prized possession, his school bus. He works long days and often has to take weeks away from his family, but when he is home, he is a supportive husband and a loving, dedicated father. He encourages Valentina’s frivolous interests and spends time learning English and helping teach it to Surema, hoping that it will help her achieve her career goals.
Sneidher and Darien, 11 and 10, are cousins who get to visit their family in La Palma for one week a year. Both watched their parents separate and move far away from each other. Sneidher lives with his father a few hours from his sister and mother. Darien lives with his mother on the coast and is no longer in contact with his father. Sneidher has an impeccable sense of humor, is out-going and loving. Darien is quiet, sensitive and selfless. Both dream of visiting the United States to meet family members who have immigrated.
Every week, Surema cleans her dad’s bus. She is thorough in the job and is aware of the pride that it brings her family.
Surrounded by loved ones, Valentina celebrates her sixth birthday by wearing the dress of Elena, the first Latina Disney princess, and attacking a piñata until she gets to satisfy her enormous sweet tooth.
In San Jose, Costa Rica, a mother and her children wait for the bus. Life in the city is much different from the rural areas of the country.