image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 2, Aug 6, 2007



My mother Doña Socorro is an incredible lady. Sometimes, joking and maybe not joking, I really mean it. I think she should be a…she is like a holy lady, a saint. I remember her as a very caring person. My father was away most of the time. By the time I was growing up, he was working building the new Pan-American Highway to Costa Rica. To Panamá, in the southern part of the country, up Cerro de la Muerte at 3000m, the highest point of the highway from Guatamala to Panama. There is a lot history, anecdotes and processes written in my father biography about building that part of the road. So he was away most of the time. Later when the road was finished, he continued to work for the Ministry of Transportation, designing other roads in the country. My mother was the presence that influenced my life tremendously. So did my father but in different ways. My mother is a kind person. I remember her curing opened wounds of people that came to our house, to get taken care by her. I mean nasty wounds. They were not really wounds, but were wounds that never go away I don’t know what they could have been, cancer or things like that just never healed. I remember they smelled terrible. I remember her kneeling and taking care of these people. That has been my mother all the time, until today. Now she is 83, but not openly part of the community like she was back then, very active. Now she is more secluded to the house. I remember my father believed in homeopathy, homeopatia in Spanish. He had been a scholar at the seminary. He was a very prolific reader ad later writer. He started writing in his older years. He had big books on homeopatia, Homeopathy. He would treat the neighborhood for free or for token money. My mother would take care of people, without being a nurse, inject people. People just came to my house, like a little clinic type of thing. That’s where I watched kindness being performed, everyday. That’s my mother. She represents kindness, sweetness and love, a person who in spite of my father’s character, was always very humble, very understanding, just the right person to soften his character.

My parents had many, many children, besides my brother and two sisters, the four of us which I had mentioned before, because many people consider my father and my mother as their parents and grand parents. I can mention Susana, I can mention Ticos and Fanny, Juanita, I can mention Jose, etc. etc. People say, “Oh my goodness, they are like my father and mother”. Obviously my mother is a very very sweet person. They were married for 62 years. When my father passed away, they had 62 years of love because I never saw anything other than love between them. I don’t know if whether they were paying their stealing a priest to the catholic church by making the sacrifice to stand each other for 62 years (laughter). No, they really loved each other. I remember the few hours before he passed away, taking his ring off his finger and giving it back to my mother. It was a real closure. Of course, she didn’t take it back. “No, no, put it on, you are not dead yet (laughter).” He was gone a few hours later, and then we took it off. So they really started and closed their relationship properly, an amazing relationship because my father was not easy. I can testify for that, but he was not mean, he was not cruel, he was not ill-intentioned, but he just had a terrible character, like I do. Maybe because I inherited this problem, I try to soften it now as a good thing. It is also a good thing to teach that you must do diligence, you must be honest, you must work hard, etc, etc. a lot of the virtues that some people tell me that I might have. I am not sure whether I have them all, but they come from my father and come from my mother. The one thing is kindness that really comes up my mind. Rightful thinking, the rule of law in the country, working hard for the community, loving neighbors and other people, all those very important principles that were given to us by both my father and mother, especially my mother. Before my father and mother married, they used to watch each other from the windows of their homes. This is because I read it of course in my father’s biography. I was only a thought in their minds because I hadn’t been made yet myself (laughter), but reading his book. They could see from each house. They had a window in which my mother could sit next to this window, when my father was in town. This was before they were married. They could tell that they were watching each other. This was before my father went to the seminary. You can tell why he did not become a priest. He spent several years in the seminary. My mother never finished school, now that I recall that. At that moment, women were not priority for education in the families. They were supposed to work hard. There were terrible things. One that is really horrifying to me that I only learned about it recently from her: when she had her first tooth rotting, she had to be taken to the dentist. The dentist took them all off. So she got out of the dentist’s office without a single tooth. They were all replaced later by artificial teeth. This was on the order from her parents, because they knew that they were going to rot, they decided to take care of the problem. I can imagine what a tragedy for my mother being in love with my father, with no teeth anymore, fifteen years of age. Can you imagine? Oh, that was a tough, tough life back then in terms of medicine and lack of what we have today. That was pretty much like of a normal thing. They had money, so they can afford to take all the teeth off and put artificial everlasting teeth. That was what my mother went through.

I remember her, when I was a young adult, trying to finish school, but decided not to. My father, the same thing. I don’t know whether he started high school before he went to the seminary, or he just went straight to seminary, but didn’t become a priest and didn’t get a high school diploma when he got out of the seminary and married my mother. He went to work without a high school degree, without any degrees in church either. He started working in topography, as I said, helping building the Pan-American Highway, assisting topographers, assistant topographer. He was assisting in the teams, quadrillas, they called the teams of topographers that were ahead of the tractors in the highway. He worked his way up to become a topographer himself, not only in the practice inside the ministry, inside the government , being a topographer de facto, no title, but he knew better than anybody what had to be done. Then, he went to school at night to finish high school, one year ahead of me. So I remember he was in his last year of high school when I was in the one before last. I had no choice but to do good because I would find him at midnight asleep on the table when he was studying. After work all day, going to school and then come to do homework and go to bed a little while, then go back, a tough life. He did well in high school. Then he went straight into the university to get a degree in topography. Of course, it was the easiest thing for him, having been a topographer with experience already, many years of experience. So the university asked him to become a professor. What better could they wished. A brand new alumnus with many years of experience became their professor in topography and rural construction courses. He had many, many students. He retired from the Ministry of Transport and then from the university. He was two institutions retiree when he finally decided to retire. A good professor, I understand. I think the students also helped him soften up a bit in his character. There were kids like his. I witnessed the students soften his character during and after he became professor. A very good thing for him. He was obviously a very nature-oriented person. I am learning a lot of these things now that I am reading his biography, actually trying to edit it. He wrote and left it raw. We are trying to put it together. What is together? I don’t know what I am saying. We want to make sure the typing part is OK, because he did it all by hand. He wrote books, anything, handwritten. We have to try to put it in the computer and that’s when mistakes can come up. I am learning how much he suffered; first how much he enjoyed the birds and the trees as he was making a line through the mountains, through the Talamancas, where the road would come through; then how much he suffered when he saw the tractors tearing it down. This is new to me. I didn’t know he had those feelings of sadness when he was young when he saw progress destroying nature. But he did and wrote it down. He used to take me, from time to time, along with him to Golfito, or to a new road he was designing. I don’t remember much of those field trips, but I only have a hint they helped my liking nature. Maybe he spoke to me back then about it. I don’t know. But I didn’t go all the time etc, because I was a kid first, then school. etc, only a few occasions that I went with him to the field. I remember when I took him to Corcovado National Park, to Sirena ranger station. We flew in; we were hiking the trail and we were watching the monkeys. As we started hiking again he turned to me and said “You know, I used to look at the forest as contour lines. I never looked at the ecosystem functioning,” which wasn’t true, because when I read his biography he has delightful descriptions of nature in the Talamancas. But that’s what he said. He said, “My responsibility when I came to the forest was to detect good contour lines for roads. Now it’s very nice to be here not looking for the contour lines, but monkeys.” So that was quite a turn around for him. Those were my father and mother.

I want say that, depending on the time you look at my family, you can see the progress coming quickly. I mean the fact that when you go to read my father biography you can read times when he was driving a bus. He and his brother had purchased a bus, a regular bus that went between Heredia and Alajuela. Of course his main recollections about it was when he had the accident. There were people in the bus. I am trying to remember the jobs he had different from the one he eternally after, which was topography with the government, and then private measuring of properties, etc. etc, but life as a topographer. I only remember these things of him working in a bus, him working in the, how you say, the manufacturing cloth for clothing in Barrio Mercedes de Heredia, in his father’s textile machine, tela, as they call it. But right after that, the only thing I remember I ever saw was topography. First with the building of the Pan-American Highway when WWII prompted US to finish the Pan-American Highway to the Canal. The Canal was the strategic obviously objective of the highway, to be able to have the road access, to control access from the US to the Canal, at least through a friendly country which was Costa Rica. So my father worked for the American companies and somewhat under contract by the US government, or at least the companies were. So most of the descriptions of his job were up in the Talamancas where it was cold and beautiful cloud forests, with huge oaks, etc. That’s where he picked up his English. He didn’t have perfect command of English. But after, but he had a lot of English from the days working on the Pan-American Highway, working with Mr. so and so, and Mr. so and so. After he spent his years with this company building the southern Pan-American Highway, then he remained in the Ministerio de Transportes, as we used to call it. It was at that time, 1944, let’s see, I was born in 1946. When I was two year of age, in 1948, we lived in Perez Zeledon, San Isidro de General, 100 km south of San Jose, across the Talamancas. He was still working for the company. And he had taken mother and myself there. I was two years old. At that period, the revolution erupted, Pepe Figueres’ revolution. Here comes Don Pepe back into my life. The first time he came was in the name of my grammar school. He revolted along with many Costa Ricans, including my father, against a government which was not very respectful of democracy, so we had a few weeks of revolution in 48.

He and others learned that the government was going to bomb San Isidro, to drop bombs. So he took my mother and myself to hide in a village way up the mountain to get away from the city. They came back after the bombing. The planes flew over Perez Zeledon with I don’t know what type of bombs they were. They would explode on the ground, maybe not very sophisticated bombs, but they were bombs nonetheless. We went to seek refuge in a little village they went called Petrogroso and then they had to hide in the mountain of Petrogroso. Those were very interesting days when I was two years of age. Believe or not, I wrote a little document of that time of history although I was only two. You might say how come you wrote something if you don’t remember it? My father did. There was a concurso (a contest), I don’t know how you say that in English. The University of Costa Rica put out this announcement in the paper saying that they were going to do a book called The Children of the Revolution. The people who were born between 1942, 43 and 1950 something could submit documents to be published if accepted. Well I figured out that if somebody was born 1944 and 1956, meaning anyone who was born within those years, had a chance to write whether you remember or not. That’s what my father decided, so he wrote a chapter for me. I got the draft. I added whatever I decided to add, submitted it; it was accepted and published. In that article, I also say that one of the reasons that I am afraid of flying might be that very early childhood with planes bombing my life. We had to hide in the mountains. Those anecdotes about what they, we, went through. I know because my father spoke and wrote a lot, not because I remember them at all. I don’t remember hiding, I don’t remember anything of that period when I was in Perez Zeledon but I know it all. I got pneumonia in the mountains; I almost passed away. That’s what my mother tells me.