image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 4, Aug 30, 2007


Motivation Behind First Trip to the US and Career Influences

I want to speak more about the reasons that brought me to the USA when I finished my high school studies. It is not an easy answer, but I believe that in general terms, the lack of resources of my immediate family—my father and mother, made it very intriguing to seek fortune in the US, the closest developed country to us, the cheapest to go to, an empire that was beginning to dominate us, for sure, in Latin America. That was one reason. That lack of financial resources also made it not so clear to me as to how I was going to get an education. Therefore, I saw my cousin, Victor Julio Ugalde, son of my uncle Modesto, had joined the US Air Force. When he came to Costa Rica in his shiny blue uniform, he was the envy of all of us. In my mind, I thought that if I went to the US and join the military, then I could probably be like my cousin, get an education and come back with some kind of uniform, whatever that meant for a youngster like me back then. I remember also my desire to learn English, this very genuine desire. I thought that I could get it as an extra benefit of moving to the US. As I explained before, I thought I found an answer on the side of my father who said, “OK, you go”, of course, with sadness but it was an approval. More than that, it carried an airplane ticket. The rest was up to me. Also, it was the easy way to get the green card at the embassy. It was almost like a conspiratorial process of events that made my thought or dream come true, come true in the sense that I finally took a plane and went to the States. How I could not join the army was explained before. Of course, the surprises there when I arrived in the US were many. I have already spoken a few, about some of them. But in general terms, it was not the dream I thought, but I did learn English. I did learn to make a living, and clean an apartment, and wash dishes, everything I had to do because I was away from my family. I also learned how to suffer and lie about it. All my letters to my mother and father was how happy I was, when I was actually crying when writing the letters. It was very tough, especially at the beginning. I think we call it in English home-sickness, mommy sickness (laughter). I think those were the main reasons: social improvement, the desire to improve socially, seeing my cousin how he had improved in the US, the English and being able to buy a car. I did buy a car, 1954 Ford. I think I paid $300 for it, and I think I sold it for $500 when I left the States. It was a neat little car.

Another issue that is important to elaborate a little more is why did I go into biology, which led me into conservation biology, not so clear either, in my mind. As I have said, my father was in the field most of the time. Didn’t take me many times, but did take me to some trips with him which exposed me to the field, to the forest, to rivers. I remember clearly watching the explosions of volcanoes while being with him on designing the roads, things like that. Very frankly, as a child, I don’t recollect strong forces leading me into biology. I just don’t, other than that. Oh, well, maybe the fact that on every vacation I took off from Mercedes, up to the slopes of Poas Volcano, where my grandfather on my mother’s side had a dairy farm. Several children were there, taking care of the property. I remember the farm. I remember very clearly how beautiful it was. I remember very clearly the river, especially the river, how beautiful forested it was. I also remember one of my uncles took me hunting with him and made me kill a bird. I remember that it didn’t look like a bird after that. It looked like ground beef. I was horrified of what I did. I just couldn’t believe that I had done that. By the way, the same happened to me with Mr. Hitchcock in Georgia. He took me hunting, and I killed a rabbit, almost killed Mr. Hitchcock, and the rabbit was ground beef again. Those two hunting experiences were horrifying to me, which means a tenderness toward wildlife. Also remember that my mother was a tender, kind lady to others, which means animals as well.

I don’t know. I just think the fact that I encountered other friends that were into nature-oriented activities. I think I mentioned before the Mountaineering Club. That was during the early years of the university, the freshmen years. What we did was go climb the mountains, climb down caves, be in the field. I was never a scout. Scouts were not something near me during my childhood, but the Mountaineering Club led me to Chirripó, which later became a national park. I had been there. It led to me to the caves of Palo... one of the national parks that has caves in Guanacaste. I am sorry, I just forgot the name at this moment. I remember going into the caves with rappelling and swinging ladders. That place became a national park later as well. That must have helped a bit. The strongest feeling for biology I had, and this is a repetition, came from my teacher of biology the last year of high school. Before I went to study biology, I also said this also, I crossed the Talamancas in the maintenance of culverts along the highway. It was a beautiful scenic route, all the way from San Jose to Panama. All that probably reinforced my liking of landscape and nature. Very early, when I joined the university, I met people who definitely influenced the rest. Those were teachers, teachers of ecology, like don Luis Fournier (sp?) now passed away. Most of them have passed away. Douglas Robinson a herpetologist, who was a very smart person, very into evolution processes. All my professors, with very few exceptions, were good teachers in comparative anatomy: how does the anatomy of animals compare to each other as evolution proceeds. It was very important because it gave me a feeling, not a full understanding, but a feeling that evolution is something that takes millions of years. Then you start comparing how the ecology is going to pieces, and then one plus one is two. If it takes millions of years to evolve into new species or evolve into an ecosystem, and it only takes us a few hours to knock it down. Then we have to do something about it. So those early professors were very important as well as meeting a person like Pedro Leon, whom I have already mentioned, who was already very studied in the US about evolution and biology and was already trying to get his masters while I was trying to get my bachelors at the University of Costa Rica. So Pedro obviously becoming my best friend since we met and is still my best friend, has played a major role in my career. I think that is what I can say for the moment.