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Life in three square meters




Dina Quintanilla Zamora has a friendly face and dark, almond-shaped eyes that cast slightly downward; giving a touch of tenderness to her welcoming smile. She speaks with such polite, animated gestures that visitors forget the small, rickety structure behind her that she calls home.

The shack where Dina lives has been pieced together with bits of wood and rusted tin. The space inside is less than three square meters – 10 square feet. In this tiny space live Dina and her four daughters: Iveth, Francis and the twins, Karol and Carolina.

The bed, where Dina sleeps together with Iveth and Francis, has no mattress. To help them pass the nights, Dina lays a worn quilt over the wooden slabs. Karol and Carolina curl up on a piece of foam in the hallway of their grandmother’s shack next door.

Within these three square meters of her home, the family accommodates their few possessions. Standing in the center of the house, everything is visible. To the left, there is a small, wood-burning stove and a few aluminum pots for cooking. It must be a sparse daily menu, however, as there are only a few jars with a bit of rice, beans and sugar, and a half-full bottle of cooking oil. Drinking water is brought by the bucketful from a nearby river.

To the right is the naked bed, lacking the mattress that is indispensable for ensuring that its small occupants rest well before school.



The pieces of corrugated tin that make up this house are riddled with leaks, letting in either water or sunlight, depending on the season, so the house constantly feels either too cold or too warm. The roof is in such poor condition that a heavy log rests on top, so that it doesn’t blow off in the next strong wind.

With a year-round sunset of between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. and only one non-working light bulb, the children are unable to study, which in turn affects their performance in school.

Dina’s husband is a construction assistant and lives in Liberia, the capital of Gunacaste where there are more options for work. Each month, he brings home between US$25 and $50 to support the family.

When it comes time to leave, Dina’s face once again fills with softness and the large, genuine smile that makes us feel as though we have been chatting with an old friend. And, as with old friends, we leave with the trust that we will see one another again—but in this case, with the keys to Dina’s new home in hand. These keys will open a new world; one much larger and filled with opportunities that the space within three square meters has not yet known.


By Andrey Araya