image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 3, Aug 6, 2007



I want to say a little bit about my schooling life. I would describe very briefly what I went through and then I’ll come back to particular time and pieces of it. As I said before, I went to grammar school at Barrio Mercedes de Heredia, one to five years, that was the grammar school period at that time. It was totally independent from high school. We left that school and then went on to high school. But given my... I then took a decision which was probably influenced by society in Mercedes which was to go to high school in a catholic seminary. I left my family and that was a big departure, because I had to spend my life at the seminary. This is closer to Cartago than it is closer to Heredia, let me see it’s 10, 15, 25 km away from my hometown past San Jose on the way to Cartago and up the mountains. That’s where I spent my first year of high school and almost to the end of the second year, at which point I had to return to hometown. It was a mutual decision to leave the seminary, mutual meaning decision by the priest at the seminary and myself. I went back to my home. This was in September, end of the year. My father was furious, because he said, “Why didn’t you wait two more months? Now you are going to lose the year, the school year.” He was mad. He didn’t want to help me. But I had an aunt who was very fond of me; she would do anything that I needed. She went and pleaded with the director of the high school at Heredia. They let me in, with only two months left of the year. He made a good guess because I knew a lot more than any of the other kids. I had been an intern at a very strict religious school, taking Latin and taking Greek, praying and praying, and studying and studying. That’s all that we did there. Coming in at the end of the year with a new group was no problem to me. I was one of the best in the class even though I was not one of the pals for the rest of the year. So I didn’t lose a year. Went through the public school in downtown Heredia, called Liceo of Heredia, very nice old building in downtown Heredia. It’s still there. I finished the second year of high school, third year and fourth year. At the beginning of the third year, in 1963, my family moved to San Jose. My father bought a little lot near the beltway of San Jose years back, and finally built a house there with a loan. We had to move. Actually, my last year of school I had to travel by bus to San Jose to my new high school. I remember how mad I was of having to leave my pals in the school in Heredia during the last year which is the famous year when you get graduation. Anyway, I ended better off because in the other school in San Jose, which was the Liceo... I will remember in a little while... We were the first group to be graduated from that high school so we were in history papers, the first bachilleres of that particular high school. The name of the school is Liceo Luis Dobles Segreda, named after a famous scholar in Costa Rica. So, primero bachilleres, the first bachilleres of Liceo Luis Dobles Segreda. Forty years later, in 2003, we celebrated 40 years of graduation, the class of 1963. I have gone already to three schools, the seminary, Liceo de Heredia and Luis Dobles Segreda. Those changes occurred in my life, dramatic changes. The interesting thing is I think I lost fear of changes. I was very mad at the beginning for moving from Barrio Mercedes to Heredia, but maybe the move was not that bad because I don’t have very bad recollections about it. We actually kind of longed to move to downtown of a city, from humble Barrio Mercedes. I think I have that sort of feeling. I remember visiting some of my friends who lived downtown Heredia and see how well off they were, comparing to my cooking with firewood in Barrio Mercedes, with chicken and pigs in the back. But moving from there to San Jose, it was a different story. Why leave Heredia, beautiful, nice and I had all my friends there blah blah blah, a totally different planet for me. But pretty soon I learned it was no problem, same humans, same stories. You can do well, you can progress regardless. Those changes were good for me. I think they are good for every human, for every kid, force them to make changes and train them for life, so to speak. After I finished high school... I think all in all, three schools and high school were good results for me. Regardless of what some people might say “Well, you should do it in one school so that... blah, blah, blah... ”, no, no way. I get it all very diverse. Very interesting, learned words in Latin and roots in Greek, learned how religion works and decided that I was not good for it, public school, Catholic school, etc.

The next step for me was to try to move to the United States. That was a dramatic change for me (laugh). I think I must have liked the changes. My decision was to try to get a visa and join the US Army. Believe it or not, I was that nuts at that age. I remember that I went with my father to see a friend of his, who happened to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Oduber Quiros, who came for the very first time into my life very briefly at that moment, by giving me a letter of recommendation to the Embassy. When I walked into the Embassy with the letter,I don’t know if I had a cedula or not, my ID card. That must have been about the time that I could have one at eighteen. I don’t know, maybe at that time we got adulthood at twenty one. I don’t know. I walked out of the embassy with a green card in my hands. No problem, here you go. It was an easy move for me. My father said, “I don’t have the money, but I can give you the plane ticket.” I said “Fine, I’ll go look for a job.” I landed in Miami, in one of those DC3 airplanes, then took a bus from Miami to Albany, GA. (Chuckle) I remember very well, the trip from Miami to Georgia, it was a very long drive. It must have been at least a day and a night, may be at least 15 hours. I remember the evening part of it. There was this lady and her kid next to me. I didn’t speak a thing in English, but nonetheless, we had a very lively conversation going on. I remember this grumpy, sleepy neighbors on this bus, nasty, shutting us up. “Shut up, let us sleep, this and that.” I couldn’t understand the fight I was causing them with my eagerness to speak, and they were also guilty for talking me. I remember that. I remember getting off the bus in Georgia. I remember trying to dial my cousin to tell him I was at the bus station. I remember very clearly, even the phone booth. I remember when I went to this number one, through a couple of numbers, then I saw this dash... I said “How do you dial the dash?” I called somebody to ask “How do you dial this dash?” “You don’t have to.” (Laughter). Imagine how naïve I was to come to the United States at that age. He came and picked me up and took me to the boarding house and then he left. I saw him very little. He left me, very smartly in an elderly people boarding house. Very old, but with this beautiful, young, teenager girl. He knew her. He left me in the right place for me to make quick progress. I don’t know if that same night we teased or not, but I remember that she had the likings for me, to say it that way. The next day, the very next day, I was at the employment office, with her, visiting a friend of hers that was offering me jobs to pick. Of course, I couldn’t understand what the hell he was offering me. Finally all I could say was “anything, anything, washing dishes.” I think those were about the four words I knew, “Yes, yes, anything.” Those words were the extent of my English. He gave me this job but I still didn’t understand. All I knew was that I had a job to go to the next day, at six thirty in the morning. I had something. It was strange... although I didn’t know what I was getting into. Kitchen, maybe something to do with chicken. I didn’t know. I walked several blocks, about 30 min, from my boarding house to this private home, where I found Mr. Gordon Hitchock and his wife. It was a family enterprise, just Gordon and his machines. Sometimes it was Gordon and his son, and Alvaro, that was the team, usually Gordon and Alvaro, doing floor finishing in homes. I remember why I said chicken now. All throughout the trip, about two hours drive, I thought it had to do with chicken, but it was kitchen, not chicken. We were to sand off the old paint from the kitchen. Those old mansions in Georgia, the thick paint that we had to get off with a sander or router. God, talk about inhaling bad stuff, when you do all the sanding. I did the floor finishing for a year. I was good at it, it was terrible learning how to do it. My fingers were hit by my hammer every time I tried to nail down nails at the beginning. It was a very, very awful job. We didn’t wear masks, dust and finer dust and finest dust, gasoline, shellac, smells, hard work and dust. I think I ruin the membranes in my nose. Later the doctor told me that. I had breathed too much fine dust for a full year. Gordon Hitchcock never went to school, from way up in the hills in Tennessee; he was my English teacher. Can you imagine? He even had that nose-way of speaking (pinching his nose), I don’t know why they speak like that, if it’s a physical problem, inside the nose. That’s the way he spoke. “Hey, Alvero”, Alvero that’s what he called me, “can I call you Al?” “Yes, you can call me Al” “Where are we going?” “We’re going down there.” I don’t know why I didn’t pick up his southern accent. Of course I did pick up some of his bad English. I learned that a year later, when I went to school at night. I would come back to work next day and say “Hey Gordon, I learned something last night from my teacher.” “Yeah, what is it?” “You don’t say I ain’t.” “What do you mean?” “I ain’t is wrong. It’s I am not.” “Don’t you come and teach me English now today!! You didn’t speak English a year ago, so how you are giving me lessons today?” “Well, whether you like it or not, that is wrong and that’s the way you say it.” So I was teaching my teacher a year after. Taking those classes at night, working 7-8 hours, no, 10-12 hours a day in the dust, paint, shellac and varnish etc. and go to school at night was tough. So my teacher got very fond of me too. This was English 101, University of Georgia, Albany campus at night. It was a university course for people in the evenings. I guess I took a typing course, and an office-machines course before that. She helped me get a new job at Bob’s candy company. It was a candy manufacturer and packaging of candy, of Christmas candy, colorful candy, red, white, beautiful candy packed in boxes, big boxes, small boxes, delicious candy. I am going through pieces of my education, a lot to do with my learning English, in the midst of dust and gasoline, refining it a year later at night at the University of Georgia, Albany campus. Then I moved over to Bob’s candy company... McCormack’s Candy Company, this just came to my mind, McCormack’s Candy Company in downtown Albany, Georgia. I didn’t have to do any traveling at all, just hiking, walking two or three blocks to the factory. That was the improvement, maybe a little bit on the salary side as well but especially not traveling out two or three hours drive to do a house with Hitchcock. I forgot to mention that as soon as I arrived in the United States, I went to see the Army people and said “Hello, I want to become part of the army.” I remember saying it like that obviously. They said, “Take this test.” I went through all the physicals. They touched every part of my body. They gave me an oral examination, then a written examination. Of course I passed the first but not the other two. So I was rejected by the Army. Talk about saving my life, because a year later, Vietnam war was at the hottest period. This was the end of 1963, no, end of 1964, 1965. A year later it was the army the one who called and asked “Would you like to take some tests again?” Of course I had to go to Atlanta, go again through everything and I got out of the army (office) with an 1-A draft card, 1-A , my goodness! 1-A is the next ones to go to bit the dust in Vietnam. So I let my father know. I don’t remember which way, maybe a call. I got an immediate reaction, which was a telegram saying, “Get back to Costa Rica immediately.” (laughter) So I left Georgia.

Although the few months of education at McCormack’s, Bob McCormack’s Candy Company, was a tremendous education for me. The reason being that while at Georgia, maybe during the first several months, there were signs in my restaurant, my laundry, my everything I visited, a sign on the front doors saying “No Negroes”. That was the Georgia to which I arrived. Nasty, nasty. More poverty in the black community than in Mercedes Norte of Heredia. I saw blacks trying to heat themselves in the winter with fire in the middle of their living room, make fire, the only way to keep from cold. Of course they couldn’t come into the places I could come. The Unites States Congress passed the civil rights legislation while I was there. I think it was then President Johnson. Ya, it was President Johnson, Kennedy was killed when I was studying for my high school exams in November 1963. That was a very tragic night for everybody. Bob’s candy company was forced to start mixing. They were totally divided. In the shipping department down below where the trains came in to load candy, it was all... everything was done by blacks, ruled by whites who worked in the second floor, where the offices and the cafeteria, etc. were. So the black people were in the shipping department. They gave me a job because it was a good opportunity for them to start mixing, a white-looking person with kind of a black background, Costa Rican, Latin (laughter). I imagine that’s what the white people thought, and the black people thought “Who is this son of a bitch white coming down into our shipping department?” That happened to me. I remember having my arms purple, hit by candy boxes thrown at me by the blacks. Now they weren’t throwing at me to kill me, although maybe that was in the back of their minds. We had to load trains. In the company there were two types of transportation belts. One was electric, the other was human. When there was no electric belt, you make a chain of men, passed the boxes to each other, and start stacking into the train cars. You talk about hundreds of boxes, you talk about heavy boxes, and light boxes, you talk about the strength I received them, the force with which these heavy muscled blacks threw them to me. It was like bullets coming, in the form of a carton box. I had to get ready for it, they never hit my face, only my chest and my arms, (unintelligible) violently heroically as I could withstand those clashes, those hits, and passed the boxes softly to the next big, black guy. I let them do with me what they wanted, not hurting too much, but yes giving me bruises. They did. But I decided that being humble, that humility, was the way to win that fight. And just be myself. I didn’t have anything against them. On the contrary, I liked them. Pretty soon, I was offering them coffee, anything I brought. They pretty soon decided that I was a good guy, probably truly more black than white in a sense, at least it’s a brother. We became very good pals. The blacks and I were pals. My next step was taking them up with me to the cafeteria, in the second floor. They were afraid, but one of them did. The white people looked at me and probably said “Who in the hell do you think you are, bringing these black people up to our cafeteria?” “That’s what the law allows now, so I am sorry.” And they had to get used to it. So, I bridged the two cultures. By the time I left the company, when my father ordered me to come back, both the blacks, the whites and I myself were crying. We were an united company. That was a good contribution to the company in spite of my bruises.

After that, I came to Costa Rica to see what was going to happen to my life. I didn’t go into the army, so that year was lost, although it was probably the best university for me. I got my English. I got English at an early age, so I can speak fluently to you today. I got the culture, culture of the south, in general the American culture, and a lot of experiences in life. That wasn’t a lost year. My father helped me get a temporary job with the Ministry of Transportes, transport department assisting topographers and making drawings and maps, plotting the numbers the topographers had gathered in the field. I had to plot them on paper, marked the road profile, then going to the field, cleaning, checking and maintaining culverts along the Pan-American Highway, going into those wet, bats infested culverts, all the way from Cartago to the border with Panama, months doing that, but it was nice because it was always in the Talamanca mountains. Then I started going to school at the University of Costa Rica. That was year 1965. There was one year without school. ’65 must have been the year without schooling, except for the courses at the university of Georgia, a couple of courses, two or three. By the way, I was the best student in the class called Meaning of Words. I knew better the meaning of words that the regular American. I spoke Spanish, I had taken Latin, and a little bit of Greek. If I didn’t know the meaning of the word in English, it was similar to Spanish, Latin or Greek. I was the best student in the class, but that was not the American’s fault. It was my advantage for being a foreigner who had studied those things.

Freshman’s courses, called “generals” in Costa Rica, were OK for the Ministry of Transport while I was taking the freshman classes. I don’t know how you call that in English. Then I decided to enter biology, then they say “No. Sorry, you can’t work here, and have permission to go to school.” I resigned the Ministry of Transportes and went to the School of Biology, asking if they give me a job because I didn’t have any money for my school. Now, State supported, yes, heavily state-supported by Constitution. Education in Costa Rica gets a big chunk of the budget, including the four state universities, but you still have to pay fees and tuition, the cost to go there and eat, etc. So they hired me as a lab assistant in biology. Why? who knows, but I didn’t have to pay tuition. I was a university staff person, even though it was just a few hours a week. That’s how I financed my studies in the School of Biology of the University of Costa Rica.

I want to take a step back here to talk about my last year in high school at Luis Dobles Segreda and tell you about the teacher that most influenced me in that year, and influenced my career, and therefore the future of my country, was my biology teacher. Her name was Nidia Abarca. I have a little short story that I am going to include in this document called A phone call made 43 years later, because I called Nidia 43 years later, after she was my biology teacher, to tell her how much I appreciated her giving me her vision into biology and ecology, orienting my future. I called her a month before she passed away, but at least she got the message through her husband to tell her that I was still alive, that I appreciated her life.

So, I decided not to pursue engineering, or topography, but go into biology. Some of my workmates thought I was crazy. I said “No, that’s what I want to study.” In 1966... 1968... 1967 I ran into a character who was to play a very, very strong role in my life and in the country. That’s Dr. Pedro Léon, now the President’s (Oscar Arias) advisor in environmental policies and my best friend since 1967, and of course a person to follow in terms of his intelligence and visions. Every time I want to know something more about space, I ask Pedro. If I want to know more about evolution, I ask Pedro, something about genetics, etc, I ask Pedro. He always has the answer for you. Mind you, the right answer, or the best answer at that moment. That’s Pedro. I met him there. I remember we had a student fair, sort of asking and inviting people to come and see what we were doing as students and what the school was about. We had microscopes with microorganisms in water, etc. Pedro happened to go through the fair exhibits. He had just returned from the States to pursue studies at the University of Costa Rica in Biology. We were friends and study pals for many years until today. Before I graduated, the history of parks begins, it will be probably described on other occasions of this document. I left school before graduating. I had to take one more semester, 2-3 courses, to be able to graduate when I moved to Santa Rosa National Park. In a way, I had to abandon graduating in order to save Santa Rosa. At least I thought so, I still think so. It was not until a year later, no, a few months later, I have to think better about the timing of it. I worked for several months trying to help in the relocation of squatters in Santa Rosa to a different property the government provided for them to leave the park, etc. Then I went to finish my biology for one semester and finished my bachelor’s degree at the end of 1970, when I could have finished a year before. I went back immediately to Santa Rosa National Park where I was superintendent, had been since June 1970. After four years, three years in Santa Rosa and one year in Poas Volcano National Park. By the way, a lightning hit some tourist yesterday at Poas. The decision to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan came. I was presented with an interesting opportunity to go for one year at the University of Michigan in Ann Harbor to study natural resources management, a very general type of description. It was a joint program by the Organization of American States, OAS, and the University of Michigan. If I got the scholarship it was to Ann Arbor. Not being able to choose among others. I ended up in Ann Arbor in 1973, spent a horrible winter there, horrible because of the ice obviously, and the cold, but it was an interesting period of learning with professors, learning things that I had even never dealt with, like economics. By the way, I am not so good with number in economics, even until today. I remember the classes in natural resource economics with all these formulas trying to calculate the volume of forest, etc, etc. I was more in love with nature than the volume of wood. Anyway I went through it, I went through interesting courses, like Museum Methods, we had to do casting of shells, it’s very difficult, you have to be clever to do a casting of round nature things. I was crazy enough to make a casting of my nose, with my mustache, then bleeding to death trying to get that thing off my mustache. Big mistake in that class (laughter). I got a master degree from the University of Michigan. It’s only 12 months, I finished 12 months. No practicum, no dissertation in that particular program. Then I came back home to work and at that point I became the director of the Park System. This was 1974, probably returning home in the summer, August or so, taking responsibility for the Park Service in September 1974.