image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 1, Aug 6, 2007



(audio recording no longer available for this short introduction)

OK. We are sitting here at Evelyne and David Lennette’s home in Angeles Norte, San Ramon, of Alajuela Province, Costa Rica. This is the 6th of August 2007. We are here beginning to record important information that is still in my mind and that should be recorded for future generations, in order for them to be able to understand what happened in the last 37 years of conservation work in Costa Rica.


My name is Alvaro Francisco Ugalde Viquez; Viquez being the last name of my mother, as we do in Costa Rica (CR) and in Latin America, I guess. I was the first child of my family. I was born on Feb. 16, 1946. I belong to the era of Aquarius. My father, who is now passed away a year and a half ago, was Don Claudio Ugalde Alfaro. My mother, who is still alive, is Socorro Viquez Barrantes. My father died at the age of 83, my mother is now 83 herself. I was born in the town of Mercedes Norte of Heredia, which is one of the seven provinces of CR. I remember still several things of my childhood, but I cannot really recollect the first memories of what, or how old I was when these things happened. I do remember though, in general terms, that Mercedes Norte which is located about 2 km north of Heredia, downtown Heredia. Excuse me if I say Heredia but it’s actually pronounced Eredia. In Spanish we don’t pronounce the “H”. Sixty years or so ago, now sixty one, Heredia was a very poor place in terms of wealth. With respect to the social conditions, I remember the few wealthy families, the rich people of Mercedes. It was a small town. I don’t know at this moment how many people lived there, but I would say probably about 500 families, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. The school of Mercedes, Barrio Mercedes as we called it, was named after President José Figueres Ferrer. That was where I attended my grammar school. Of course, you will see in this document, Don Pepe Figueres, as we called President Figueres, came back into my life, my real life, years in the future, when I was beginning to build the National Park (NP) system, actually a little before that when I met the family. So let’s keep this in mind for future references. I like to say about my family and a few other things. We live in a very poor house, a very humble house, across the street from my mother’s family. At least my mother’s family used to own that property. At that moment when I was a kid, it was already owned by a different person. That property ended up being a public school these days. It was donated to priests, years and years ago, to build a seminary there. Then it evolved into the public school today. My mother’s side of the family was the wealthy side of the Barrio Mercedes of Heredia. All her aunts/uncles lived in very nice, old homes, adobe walls, very large homes. We always looked at them as the rich people in the neighborhood of Barrio Mercedes. They are all very, very Catholic. Some of my mother’s cousins dedicated their lives, especially the ladies, to attend to the church and to the priests. When the seminary got the priests from Spain, of course they were just like in heaven, washing everything that they dirtied, etc. etc. So it was a very religious family in general, both the Ugalde and the Viquez side.

My mother had 12 brothers and sisters, 8 ladies and 4 gentlemen. My father also had 12 brothers and sisters, but one of my father’s brothers, Tio Mariano, Uncle Mariano, as we used to call him, had 19 children. So you can imagine that the sizes of these two families were very different. At least I am telling you now how... just to give you a clue of the exponential metric growth. This used to be 60, let’s say 50 years ago, some of my memories. Today, when we try to get the families together, let’s say the Ugalde side, we plan to... it’s almost like renting a huge property or a stadium, because we know if they all decide to come, the descendants of my grandparents, my grandfather Juan and my grandmother Juana Alfaro, they married in 1900 and then they have 12 children and then the children married, so on and so forth. If they all came to a meeting today, it would be around 2000 people. and so we always expect 500, 700 etc. It would be just like a fair, a community fair where each family would camp under a tree. You would recognize maybe some of them, but they are getting old. Especially the young and the kids, now who are you? which one? Take me to see where you are camping there. It’s an amazing day. That was the Ugalde side, the poor side of my childhood. The other family, if we get together today, it won’t be more than 500. I remember one of the meetings it was 200-300, but definitely four times or five times smaller than the other one. Eventhough the number of children are the same, the number of the children of these descendants was much smaller. I think CR was already beginning to change, in terms of the size of the family and population growth, which I must say my family contributed a lot. That’s maybe one the reasons why I don’t want to get married. I am just teasing. There were other real reasons why I don’t want to get married. It’s important to know that throughout my life I also like to joke and make people laugh. I think they like to listen to me better when they are laughing than when they are bored. I also inherited this from my father and other relatives. Life must be enjoyed, we try to do so all the time. When I go to read what my father wrote, he did write about a lot more than I have in my life, he has chapters on the first road to Barrio Mercedes, on the first day we had electricity, on the first car we had in the barrio, so on and so forth. So just before I was born, the community was in charge of its own needs and tried to supply their own necessities. That gives me a hint on how the country was in general at that moment, when the government was really much more symbolic than what it is today. Today, more than help, the government is a load to the people, but in those days, I think people were not counting on government. So they were doing their own things. They were more successful than we are today in keeping things up because it is the community that sealed the leaks and it’s the neighbors who fixed them. Today, you have to call the central government to fix the leak in your water, so there is a lot of wasted water. There are many reasons why the planet is in trouble, beginning with the creation of big government. I think it’s a mistake that we have made and especially relinquishing the responsibilities the communities ought not have relinquished. So I get a lot of that from my father’s writing, but I do remember in general terms the dusty roads, the gravel roads, no pavement. I remember the first day that somebody got a television. I remember when we were able to get a television set; my family and the kids from the neighborhood would come to the house. We would let them watch. Some of them came inside, some of them watched through the windows. Or when the pulperia, the little grocery store, had their TV, we all went there, especially during socker games, when they were televised. I remember when the first telephone came. Of course the first telephones weren’t like the modern telephones. There was a tannery in the center of town. It didn’t smell too good; there were a lot of vultures there, I remember that. It belonged to the family, not to the direct family, but some uncle of my mother owned that thing. The town was a mixture of water carried, not in pipes, but in canals. We called them acequias. The water came in acequias, meaning in dug-out canals that people made, from the source of the water. We lived in the midst of coffee plantations. That’s how it was. I had to walk to downtown Heredia to go to the market or something, I used to just walk. Two kilometers one way and two kms back in the dust, I remember that, and the gravel. There was an old church there. Now they have a so called modern one but the old one was pretty, but pretty things have been torn down in my country, unfortunately. The most beautiful things that were done by the previous generation have been changed to the so called modern structures, which are really not that pretty. But they are called modern. The new church was built two or three decades ago. I remember my father, in his late years, complaining a lot about this, about that, like we all old people complain about the past being better than the present. That church was built by my family too. That’s why they adopted it so much. The park of Barrio Mercedes was done by my father himself; the church by my uncle Mariano and my grandfather Juan etc. etc. . I understand why they got homesick or sad when things were torn down to build new stuffs. Progress had come, that it (laughter) had arrived to Barrio Mercedes. I remember that my grandpa Juan had what we call a telar in Spanish. It means he had machines, a hand-moved machine that made fabrics. I remember where it was, I remember a big earthquake when I was inside the telar. I just ran out to the street. The church tower was inclined a little bit. My aunt Etelvina was going nuts, screaming in the street. I remember those very interesting things related with earthquakes, and the turmoil that they caused. Of course if you are a kid, I think they affect you more, because you don’t know what was going on. You see people screaming, then everybody laughing afterwards. I remember a tornado once. I just jumped like a nut, looking for my little sister. I don’t know, weird things, weird recollections. Even though we went to school, by late November, we got out of school and went to pick coffee. That’s what we all did. We were poor. I remember me, myself, screaming up to my mother and father saying I needed another pair of pants. I was getting a little fat, I guess. When I was a kid in school, I had only one pair of pants. They were getting too short for my size. My mother said, “Sorry, we don’t have money to get you another pair of pants”, that kind of economic situation. We owned the house. We owned about an acre of coffee plantation behind the house. We called it a cafetal, with a huge bamboo in one of the corners. It was, of course back then, very, very friendly coffee plantations, friendly to the environment, I mean, and friendly to the family. Why? Because besides coffee, there were bananas, platanos and guineos, meaning you had fruits and you had ingredients for olla de carne which we had everyday. We also had guavas, which are delicious fruits. I remember we had citrus trees, several other fruits. We had a pig, we had chickens, and I remember we had a cow. I had to cut banana trees to feed the cow everyday and milk the cow, of course. So I remember all this diversity, in the back yard of my house. Not like coffee today, which is nothing but coffee, an absolute desert of coffee. On top of those things that I mentioned, lots of birds coming to eat bananas, to eat whatever. I think the environment suffered a lot with the new breeds of coffee, in the name of wealth and more money, actually replacing ecosystems to become coffee deserts. That’s what I remember in the back of my house. We had to pick our own coffee, whatever little we had and take it to the mill, to the beneficio de café, as we called it. I don’t know why they are called beneficio, but it is the coffee mill. I also went to pick coffee at my aunt Antonia, Uncle Jose bigger coffee plantation. They belong to the wealthy people, so they have very large plantations on one side of town, and other side of town and each plantation had its name, and so we moved around town picking coffee and had lots of fun. I remember picking coffee with very happy thought. I don’t remember suffering. It was a big party, all the cousins were there, and of course sometimes we were stung by larvae. It was very common. We just grabbed a ripe grain of coffee and rubbed it against the burn and pretty soon it was relieved. And then, lunch time. Oh my god, lunch time. You always wonder what mom had put in there, the little thing that you were carrying, but you knew for sure there was tortilla and torta de huevo, an egg omelet, and probably rice and beans and agua dulce, something like that. It was very, very simple, but it was absolutely delicious. And the best thing was, you grabbed the tortilla with dirty fingers, you see the dirt on the tortilla but you still stick it up your mouth because it was de-e-e- licious. Teasing people, and of course getting called the attention for playing around by the owner of the plantation. Whatever, but we had lots of fun. The process of coffee picking, coffee measuring, then separating green coffee from red coffee. And then the last few days, because this went on for months, you get the red ones this week then you go back probably next week. You go over the plantations two or three times but the last time you go over, there were so few greens left, the tendency was...well, the way you do it was to grab every grain from the plant, to pick it all, until next year. Then you separate on the ground. You sit down and put the coffee out of the saco on the floor, then you separate the greens from reds and then you give it to the owner of the coffee plantation, separated. He will measured it separately also. So those days were happy days. My childhood was a happy childhood.

I remember my father being a very stern, serious person, with a very strong character. Now I understand. I watch myself. Very difficult person, because the character was very strong, and tend to get mad easily, but a very respectful citizen, that was my father. He got involved with community, he was an outstanding employee, he almost became a priest, which gave him a lot of aura around him, in spite of my mother (laughter). He had fallen in love. They had fallen in love before he went to the seminary so I don’t know why he went. I think social pressure, that’s my impression. The community was very small, very catholic. Maybe he was suggested when he was an altar boy or while his father was building the church or when he was the Sacristán. I don’t know how you call that in English. In Spanish, the little room next to the altar is called it the Sacristía, the person that takes care of it, the sacristán, so that was my grandpa. I guess his son or one of 12 children meant to be a priest, so that’s why my father tried. Hm, hm, didn’t work. He spent several years in the seminary. We have picture of him wearing a robe. He was a very handsome man, very handsome man, but I think he wasn’t meant to be a priest for many reasons. I will later mention that the same virus also got to me, that I also pretended to become a priest, that was my first year in high school was in a seminary, not a public high school. Why? For the same reasons, I felt the pressure. I was an altar boy. The priests were across the street from my house, these tough Spaniards, to whom my father later hated (laughter). Actually he later fought these guys. I think it was a very clear clash of cultures right there, in the name of religion the Spanish culture facing the Ticos right there, in doing what they thought they were able to do, as priests, as an authority given by God, as Spaniard coming to teach these... how do you say that, these humble campesinos in Mercedes Norte de Heredia of Costa Rica. There were clashes, I remember that. Actually my father decided to leave town because he couldn’t communicate with these priests anymore, characters clash and also different ways of doing things. The priests were disrespectful of the community. At least that was my father’s side of the story, not the priest’s side. My father was always participating in the municipality. He represented Barrio Mercedes to the municipality downtown Heredia. In those days, these people were busy, because the needs in the community were tremendous. Today it is very easy, to be seen to contribute in various community meetings trying to solve the problems that haven’t been solved. Back then, everything was a problem in terms of having to get water, having to get school going, etc. He knew the rules, and the priest began violating those rules by building things against the law. There was, obviously, a natural clash of personalities. I remember that... I remember working very hard, three days in a row, day and night, helping the priests build a seminary. We did that. The community helped them. I helped them. I spent nights, days and nights, hauling cement. It is an interesting thought in my mind of those long nights, building and pouring concrete, and just working all night without many lights on, and the community bringing food. That was very, very interesting. It’s a bunch of thoughts that are only beginning to open up as I am thinking right now. For the moment I will just leave it there. That was the general situation in Barrio Mercedes. I would say a happy town, there was a lot of kids, a few very wealthy people, but very generous, very catholic, and with leaders like my grandpa and my father and my uncles and many other people that I saw. It was a community with good leaders, good leadership which was pushing it forward. That was my childhood in general term in Barrio Mercedes. That was just a little piece of it. I could speak probably a lot about my childhood in Barrio Mercedes.