Streets of Golfito focuses on two individuals who meet in Golfito, Costa Rica in 1974. Jim (Diego) is a 22-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer from upstate New York, and he has been assigned to introduce sports other than soccer to the young people.
By contrast, Lilli is a shy, beautiful, 17-year-old Costa Rican girl who wants to learn English and escape her small town, a banana port on the Pacific side near the Panamanian border.
In alternating chapters, the first third of the book shows these two characters growing up in their respective countries. Then, after they meet, Lilli experiences a tragedy that will drastically change her life, and Jim does all he can to help her survive and thrive in her new circumstances.
On the same day that JFK visited Amsterdam, a young Costa Rican girl celebrated her fourth birthday with her mom and her mom’s parents in their small home in the Saint Michael’s Church neighborhood of Golfito. Lillianna, often referred to as Lilli, was without a father due to some unfortunate circumstances.
Her father, Jose, and her mother, Rosa, had worked together as young, single people in the Company store. Jose unloaded the supply trains and stocked the shelves, and Rosa worked in the bakery preparing the breads and desserts. Jose, who was 17 and three years older than Rosa, had been working at the store for two years when Rosa applied for a job at the age of 14. Somewhat reserved, Jose watched Rosa work for over two months before he finally found the courage to speak to her. Once they began speaking, though, their relationship blossomed quickly. He began to spend more time stocking the bakery’s supplies, and he also began to walk her home at the end of each workday.
At first, Jose walked Rosa straight home, a walk that took no more than five minutes, and he was extremely polite and respectful to Rosa’s parents. Thus, Rosa’s parents didn’t really notice that gradually, the couple’s trip home was taking more than five minutes; they were walking more slowly, holding hands, taking detours through the small neighborhood, and finding isolated spots along the way where they could really be alone. Three months later, Rosa became pregnant, and when her parents and Jose’s parents found out, they all met with Padre Roberto and arranged a quick wedding. Rosa and Jose spent the first month of their marriage living with her parents until the Company found a small home for the newlyweds, just beyond the Gatehouse and less than two blocks away from the school where Lilli would eventually start kindergarten.
For the first six months of their marriage, as they walked to and from work each day, Jose and Rosa appeared to be so totally in love that some of the American residents began to refer to the couple as “Ken and Barbie.” During the first year of Lilli’s life, unfortunately, this idyllic relationship began to deteriorate. Due to medical issues related to Lilli’s birth, Rosa was unable to return to work and unable to have sex for a while. Frustrated by their decrease in income and even more frustrated by Rosa’s physical limitations, Jose began to spend more and more time in that lonely section of town between the port and the sawmill. At first, he went by himself to the movie theater once a week. Then, he began to frequent the bar next door, and, eventually, he found his way to the ladies on the second floor. One weekend, he failed to come home at all, and when his father-in-law found out what was going on, he moved Rosa and Lillianna back into the family home where Rosa had grown up, and he refused to allow Jose to visit.
Not surprisingly, Jose’s drinking became even worse; he began to miss work frequently and soon was fired. Forced to move out of his own little house and unwilling to move back in with his own parents, Jose left Golfito altogether. After his firing, he knew he’d never be able to work for the Company again, and he was unwilling to try life at the other end of town. Yes, he probably could have secured a similar job with Enrique Vargas in the public mercado, but Jose felt both scared and scarred. Having grown up under the protection of the Company, he wasn’t sure he’d be welcome in the public section of town, and even if he were to find his way there, he feared that he would always be viewed as an exile or an outcast.
So, he used his last bit of money to buy a bus ticket to San Jose where he assumed he could find work and an opportunity to start his life over again. When Rosa found out through a friend what Jose was planning, she rushed to the bus stop with baby Lillianna in her arms and pleaded with Jose to stay — if not for their marriage then for their daughter’s sake. And though Jose appeared to relent when he saw his child again, the bus driver’s call to board — “Dos minutos. Dos minutos.” — startled Jose back to his own reality.
“Lo siento, Rosa. Lo siento, Lillianna,” Jose said over and over as he apologized to his wife and his baby girl. In his mind, he thought he might return for them one day, but two minutes later, Rosa’s husband and Lillianna’s father departed for San Jose — like many Golfiteños before him — never to be seen again.