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In Talamanca, a powerful ‘mother hen’



In 2020 I became a mother for the first time. I remember that one of the first people I wanted to call was doña Eugenia. It was something instinctive: she reminded me of my grandmother, who is no longer with me. She somehow recalled that important figure who guided me during my childhood and adolescence, warm, strong, brave, tenacious. Maybe that’s why I wanted to call her, to feel that breath of inspiration that would accompany me throughout my pregnancy and the rest of my new life as a mother.

Eugenia Juan walks with one of her grandchildren to the farm to sow and harvest, as she does every day. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

The story of Eugenia Juan Santiago transcends a title or an article. A whole book, at least, would be needed to convey the strength of this woman, but also new words in the dictionary to describe her—a woman of little conversation but of a lot of action.

Born in Bocas del Toro, Panama, she is an indigenous Ngöbe Buglé woman who has lived in Sixaola, Limón for more than 30 years. She is the matriarch of a household with 10 children, 43 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Accompanying the grandparents to the farm means playing for hours on the banana loading lines. The laughter of their grandchildren, accompanied by the sound of sharp machetes slicing through the grass, is the music that generally accompaniesEugenia and Saucedo while they work. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia Juan Santiago’s house is surrounded by banana trees, as she lives on a former banana farm in Sixaola, Limón. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Leader, guardian, matriarch: these are words that perfectly describe Eugenia. Her children fondly refer to her as “mama hen.” Wherever she goes, her chicks follow, be they birds or grandchildren. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia Juan Santiago’s machete is rusty from so much work. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

She has adopted four of her grandchildren, all minors, in order to raise them within her home. In addition to that, she shares the care of 27 of her other grandchildren when her daughters or sons need help. Her daily routine starts at 5:30 am with breakfast for her family and usually ends around 9:00 pm.

Eugenia says that she cannot imagine her life without her children and grandchildren, but that if she could have dedicated herself full time to something other than being a mother, it would be farming. It is something that fills her with happiness and calm. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

Eugenia was 14 when she had her first child. As a teenage mother, she had no idea what to do. Her mother was her role model and source of unconditional support, as well as her grandmother. She says those experiences marked her forever, shaping who she is today.

I remember the first time I met Eugenia when I was visiting the area doing photojournalism work. I walked through the door of her house: there she was, sitting in her rocking chair, rocking at a slow, almost sleepy rhythm, removing beans from a cacao fruit while a mob of children surrounded her, jumping and running around. From time to time, she could be heard admonishing her grandchildren in Ngabe when they ran too fast. I could immediately see in her a dedicated, loving grandmother; she was showing her affection for them, not through caresses, but through her dedication to caring for them. By watching them, cooking for them, and serving them.

I have known Eugenia for seven years and have seen during that time her devotion to her family and vice versa. She is a fundamental part for each family member. Without her, the life of this family would not be the same.

The rooms in Eugenia’s house are full of drawings on the walls made by her grandchildren. They are the works of art that decorate her home and those of her children. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

Two years ago I was able to witness the greatest pain that Eugenia has experienced in this phase of her life: the loss of one of her grandchildren at barely a few months of age. I saw her deep pain and how, at the same time, she was a strong mother and a great support to her daughter and family as they mourned. Eugenia has struggled for 16,060 days, non-stop, a motor for a machine as large and complex as only a family of 60 people can be—devoting her entire life to caring for her family, the land and her crops, something that fills her heart and soul.

Eugenia’s hens. For more than a decade, she has raised chickens. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

Despite her fatigue, a trick knee, and diabetes, she never stops working. Imagine a hot day, the ground moist and the air thick, with no breeze. We see Eugenia walking in her faded fuchsia-pink Crocs, her countless grandchildren behind her, along with her husband. She is the leader. She guides the family. They arrive at the field and, with her rusty machete, she is like the conductor of an orchestra. She sets the pace and everyone follows as they cut the grass, plow the land, harvest yuccas. In a coordinated and harmonious way, they reap what they have worked so hard to sow. That’s how, later, with all her love, she is able to feed the more than 20 mouths that visit her house daily.

Her care also moves her in the fields where she raises her chickens and her pig. When I saw her call her chickens, I immediately saw it as a metaphor for her grandchildren. While she calls, the chickens respond immediately and stand in order behind her, her presence is so imposing that even the animals can feel it.

View of the house of one of Eugenia’s daughters, who lives across the street from her mother. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

When I ask her husband, Saucedo Baker, how much Eugenia means to him, his eyes immediately fill with tears. His voice breaks.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he says. Eugenia has been her husband’s right hand not only in the care of the family, but also as a breadwinner. Saucedo speaks fondly of the lunches that Eugenia makes for him to take with him when he goes to work at the banana plantation; he is grateful for the hot cacao with which she receives him in the afternoons, and says it makes him happy just to think about the delicious michelada (an indigenous drink) that she prepares for him daily. ”I couldn’t without this woman. What she does for us is beyond words.”

Eugenia Juan and her husband Saucedo Baker are the grandparents of 43 grandchildren and seven grandchildren—a gift from their 10 children. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

Eugenia considers herself a cautious woman. She likes to be one step ahead and uses a notebook to make notes, accounts and numbers, keeping the finances of the house and her family in order.

She is an entrepreneur and investor. She buys kitchen, cleaning and personal hygiene products in the grocery store to resell them within her own family. When I ask her why she doesn’t sell to her neighbors, she tells me that she isn’t interested, that she’s more concerned about safeguarding her children’s money for the good of her grandchildren. Money circulates within the family. With what they buy from her, she can set aside in an emergency fund for whatever needs arise.

In addition to this, she often manages to sell the products she grows within the community: “I feel powerful, independent,” she tells me. “It makes me happy to be able to buy the gas cylinder so that my family can eat.”

In her rare free time, Eugenia visits her sister to talk and reminisce about childhood stories. They think of their mother together, drawing inspiration from how she cared for them during her life.

Dionisia Juan Santiago, in red on the left, is Eugenia’s sister. Here, they make homemade bread together. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Dionisia Juan Santiago, Eugenia’s sister, moved near Eugenia a couple of years ago so she wouldn’t feel so alone. She says that her sister’s company makes her feel happy, and Eugenia says the same: when they are both tired or want to distract themselves, they visit each other and spend the whole afternoon together. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

After 10 children, 42 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, I ask Eugenia what she feels every time she sees one of her children become a parent. She tells me that it’s the same thing she felt with her first grandchild: a lot of happiness and the desire to be close by to give them love and care.

Just before my visit, Eugenia receives the news that she will soon welcome her 43rd grandchild. When I ask her how she feels, she just looks at me with a big smile.

Her entire family considers her the protective guardian of the home, with her rusty machete, her fluorescent orange neon nails, her flowery petticoats and blouses, and her hair touched with silver. She is a woman of few words, but you don’t have to speak to feel her energy, strength and resilience.

One of her children calls her the guardian of the home, with her rusty machete, her fluorescent orange neon nails, her petticoats and flowered blouses and her hair touched with silver. She is a woman of few words, but you need no words to feel her energy, strength and resilience. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia on her way to her sister’s house for a visit. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
After working on the farm, you can’t miss visiting the Sixaola River, one of the family’s favorite activities. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia is Saucedo’s right hand when it comes to taking care of the farm. Together, they harvest the cassava. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia and two of her grandchildren posing with the tools they use on the farm. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia Juan and Saucedo Baker play a fundamental role in caring for their grandchildren. Currently, she cares for three of her grandchildren and a great-grandchild, the son of a granddaughter who is a minor. Eugenia decided to take care of him so that her granddaughter can continue with her high school education. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
Eugenia changes the diaper of one of her great-grandchildren, whom she helps raise together with her granddaughter. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506
While Eugenia is calm, rocking in silence, everything else around her is accelerated. Her grandchildren run and jump around the house. Glorianna Ximendaz / El Colectivo 506

Our October 2022 edition, “Las Titas,” explores the realities of caregiving for older adults in Costa Rica: how they do their jobs, what challenges they face, and who is working to support them. With the support of the Yamuni Tabush Foundation, we have also hired five photojournalists, all Costa Rican women and mothers, who have spread out across the country to capture a day in the life of older women and men who are caregivers. Gloria Calderón Bejarano is one of the five photojournalists. Explore the edition here.

Glorianna Ximendaz
Glorianna Ximendaz
Glorianna Ximendaz es una narradora visual y activista con base en Costa Rica, que utiliza la fotografía como su principal medio de trabajo. La exploración de la vida cotidiana con un enfoque humanista es el vínculo que conecta todos sus proyectos. Ejerce como fotoperiodista independiente para diversos medios de comunicación internacionales. // Glorianna Ximendaz is a visual storyteller and activist based in Costa Rica who uses photography as her primary medium. The exploration of everyday life with a humanistic approach is the link that connects all her projects. She works as a freelance photojournalist for various international media.


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